About Me

My photo
Spofford, New Hampshire, United States
Jeff Newcomer has been a physician practicing in New Hampshire and Vermont for over 30 years. Over that time, as a member of the Conservation Commission in his home of Chesterfield New Hampshire, he has used his photography to promote the protection and appreciation of the town's wild lands. In recent years he has been transitioning his focus from medicine to photography, writing and teaching. Jeff enjoys photographing throughout New England, but has concentrated on the Monadnock Region and southern Vermont and has had a long term artistic relationship with Mount Monadnock. He is a featured artist in a number of local galleries and his work is often seen in regional print, web publications and in business installations throughout the country. For years Jeff has published a calendar celebrating the beauty of The New England country-side in all seasons. All of the proceeds from his New England Reflections Calendar have gone to support the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the Cheshire Medical Center. Jeff has a strong commitment to sharing his excitement about the special beauty of our region and publishes a weekly blog about photography in New England.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Flash Photography I, Cute Little Owen!

This is intended to be the first in a series of articles about flash photography, but, first things first.

Owen Loves Yogurt : Perfect!
I have the cutest, most good-natured 8-month-old grandson.  This statement may seem a bit over-zealous, but I am only reporting an inarguable fact, which is unrelated to how long we have been waiting for our first grandchild.  Owen is always happy, he never cries, and only poops sweet-smelling sunshine. 

Ok, I may be getting carried away, but he is a great little Kid.  Since he was born, Sue and I have been excited to spend as much time as possible with Owen, but over the last LONG months we have been frustrated by our pandemic-induced isolation.  We have been forced to make do with frequent Facetime visits and Zoom family meetings.  We are grateful for the new technology, but it cannot replace the warmth of real physical contact.  All we wanted to do was blow kisses into his neck, inducing the inevitable chortling giggles.  

Happily, after 2 weeks of strict isolation in their home outside of Boston, the family came to join us for an extended stay in New Hampshire. 

For nearly 3 weeks, we gladly cared for the little guy while Abigail and Grayson caught up on their work, setting up their remote offices on our dining room table.  As you might expect, I have been shooting tons of pictures of our delightful grandson.  I would love to fill this article with the undisputable photographic proof of Owen’s perfection, but his parents are reluctant to splash his face across the internet.  I understand their concern.  It would be cruel to spread dissatisfaction among all the other new parents of the world. 
Flat Mat Rickey

Because of the scarcity of willing models during the pandemic, I have been forced to use more compliant subjects.  Meet "Rickey the Head".  Rickey was originally designed to demonstrate various CPAP masks for patients with Obstructive Sleep Apnea, but with a coat of mat paint to blunt his plastic sheen, he is a reasonable subject for my flash experiments. Owen would have been MUCH better!

Flash (Some Basics)
I don’t think I can get more obnoxious, so I guess I better move on.  One of the side benefits of spending so much time photographing Owen is that I have become more comfortable with the use of my flash.

 Given my concentration on landscape photography, I have seldom needed to use artificial lighting.  For portraits, I have depended on natural illumination, even when that meant that I was forced to either use high ISO or suffer from soft blurry images.  I have never been thrilled with the results from my flash photography.  It is not because of a lack of gear.  I have always felt that I possess more speed lighting equipment than the knowledge to use it effectively.  

Over the years, I have regretted this deficiency.  I have felt uncomfortable that my Introduction to Digital Photography Course contained no discussion of the use of flash.  My next offering of the course is scheduled for next autumn and will be on-line.  I had already planned to expand the course to five sessions and include a preliminary discussion of flash photography.  I have always found that the best way to learn something is to be forced to teach it, but Owen’s 3-week residency provided an even better opportunity to expand my understanding of flash and prepare for my class discussion.

I will venture into a discussion of the types and usage of flash, but, this week, I will touch on a somewhat disconnected collection of information will include:

  • How electronic flashes work
  • How the burst of light synchronizes with a camera's shutter
  • What effects the exposure of flash images
  • How the quality of the light can be modified  

More details will be coming, although much of my time is still filled with Owen duty - both the activity and the brown residue.

Types of Flash

Sadly, I am old enough to remember when “flash” meant using flash bulbs for a quick crude blast of light. Over recent decades, single-use bulbs have been replaced by electronic strobes.  

Tubes for Canon 580EX II Flash
Electronic flashes produce short blasts of light created when a charged capacitor releases high voltage through a Xenon gas filled tube. Electronic flashes produce intense light over a short duration usually measured in thousands of a second. The amount of light delivered by the flash is governed by the duration of the burst of light and not by its brightness.  The short flashes produce less light. They demand less power from the batteries and require shorter recycling times. The shorter bursts also work better at freezing action.  When flash duration is at its maximal duration, some blurring may be seen in very rapid motion, but, for most speedlights, and depending on how it is measured, the flash duration ranges from about 1/400th second at max power to 1/20,000 at lowest output. 

By comparison, Apple iPhones and most other smart phones use a short blast of LED light for their flash.  The light is less intense and therefore must be of longer duration and less able to freeze action.

Cameras generally have a maximum shutter speed for synchronization with the flash burst.  The great majority of DSLRs use a focal plane shutter.  In these, a first leaf moves across to expose the sensor and then the second follows to end the exposure.
Example of Flash Duration at Full and 1/2 Power
At half power flash cuts of at 50% brightness
 At slow shutter speeds, usually less than or equal to 1/200 - 1/250 the shutter is fully open for a short period of time before the second leaf closes, and a properly timed flash can expose the entire sensor evenly.  At faster shutter speeds, the second leaf must begin its trip across the sensor before the first leaf is fully open. 
Fast Shutter Dark Curtain (Wikipedia)
 The result of this moving slit is that there is no moment when the flash can expose the entire sensor.  My Canon 5D Mark IV has a maximum Synch speed of 1/200.  Above this I will see a dark curtain across a portion of the image where the flash failed to expose the sensor.  

Happily, when the flash is engaged, my camera routinely does not allow shutter speeds faster than the max synch.  My 580EX II, and many other flashes, have a setting for “High Speed Synch” which allows faster shutter speeds by using a series of fast bursts to prolong the flash duration.  

Flash Exposure
The important thing to remember is that the electronic flash is generally much faster than the synchronization speeds, and therefore, the exposure is independent of the shutter speed and is governed by:
  • Flash “power” (actually, the duration),
  • Aperture size 
  • ISO

The shutter speed only affects the  amount of ambient light seen in the image. So:

Basic Rules of Flash Exposure:
  • Exposure of the flash subject can be modified by changing the flash power, the aperture (f-stop), or the ISO
  • Changes in the shutter speed only affects the brightness of the ambient light. 
  • Changes in the f-stop affects the flash brightness more than the ambient background light, but if you adjust f-stop to alter flash exposure, you still may need to compensate for the change in ambient light with an adjustment in the shutter speed.
  • Changes in the ISO affects the brightness of both the flash and ambient light.

    Simple, more on this later

Flash Quality
All electronic flashes work in a similar way to illuminate a subject, but the quality of the light can vary greatly.  The quality of light depends on multiple factors including: 

  • The size of the tube.  The larger the size of the flash, the softer the light.

580EX II Flash vs Pop-up flash on the  Canon SX50 HS
  • The ability to control the light intensity, most notably with manual controls or feedback systems such as TTL (Through  the Lens) metering.

TTL Mode on Canon 580EX II

  • The ability to modify the light with diffusers, umbrellas, soft boxes.  All to increase the apparent size of the flash, which softens the light and allows it to bend around the subject.
Globe Diffuser
Handy when on the fly
 chasing a rug rat
Owen Chews, Globe Diffuser

  • The flash location (on or off the camera) Please, if possible, get your flash off the camera.

26 Inch Octa Soft Box, Off Camera with Radio Trigger

  • The ability to combine lighting with other flashes as a master or slave, using cables, or optical, infrared or radio triggers.
Godox Radio Trigger

  • The ability to modify the color temperature of the flash with gels
Honl Full CTO (Color Temperature Orange) Gell:
Adjusts flash to match incandescent light or warm evening light

Read the Books!
This is only the briefest introduction of a few important topics. There is much to talk about, the complexity can be daunting.  It is more than I can hope to cover in a few short blogs.   There are many articles and books which cover electronic flash in much greater detail.  A couple which I have found particularly helpful include:

A great choice for those shooting with Canon equipment. I have the first edition, which although missing information about Canon’s latest top-level flash (e.g. the 600EX-RT), still Covers my 580EX II and does a wonderful job making flash comprehensible.  The 2nd Edition is quite pricey, but I may go for the new book if I get the 600EX.  Of course, by then there will probably be a 700EX.

A short book which clearly sets out Scott’s simple approach to flash in Scott's folksy style. It is not as encyclopedic as Syl Arena’s guide, burt unlike Syl’s, it is not directed toward a specific system.  Also it is a whole lot cheaper.  Although Scott’s basic approach to manual control of flash is mercifully straight forward, he suggests a long list of additional, wonderful, but expensive equipment. That cheap book has already cost me a lot more money!

Read the Damn Manual:
Your camera and flash manuals are full of great information which is specific to you gear.  They are free and, unless, like me, you can’t find the manual for you’re 580XE II,  you already have them,   Never fear, copies of all the manuals are available on-line.  The manuals are a great start, but they necessarily tend to be focused on the specific gear.  Books such as the ones above excel in discussing how flash can be modified and crafted to fulfill your artistic vision.

You have your camera and flash, now you need to get out and shoot.  Read the manual, try different settings, and learn from your mistakes with the instant feedback which digital photography provides.  

Modern flashes are wonders of smart technology, but I recommend starting with manual.  As you become more comfortable with how electronic flash works, you will be able to identify the situations in which manual or smart setting, such as TTL, are best used and be able to tell why things go wrong.   
Globe providing fill flash to balance with the background ambient light

My grandson Owen is back for another stay, prolonged I hope, and I anticipate getting more experience in the use of artificial light. The learning never stops.

Jeff Newcomer

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Spring Green

Spofford Village Spring

As the spring foliage in the Monadnock region has grown and matured to its settled summer green, it seems a good time for me to finish my “Spring Photography, Get Out of Isolation” series with a look at the richly varied hues of our early foliage.  Spring is a short but remarkable time for photography.  Much like autumn, which marks a brief transition from the extremes of summer warmth and the cold dormant months of winter, spring is the seasonal inflection point back to growth.  Both autumn and spring are brief times of change, but for all the momentary beauty of the fall colors, I believe that spring is more varied and interesting and has its own special attractions.

Westmoreland NH
Over the last couple of months, I have tried to show how photography can help provide an escape from the claustrophobia of our difficult, but important, period of self-imposed quarantine. With sensible precautions, nature and landscape photography can be safely pursued and while we are all carefully distancing from each other, we can still closely approach the glories of spring, especially with macro photography.

Spring Isolation Series
Partridge Brook Spofford NH

Park Hill, Westmoreland NH

In my early articles, I focused on the fantastic explosion of early buds, as our trees and shrubs rushed to begin their short season of photosynthesis.  I concentrated on macro photography, both outdoors and in the controlled environs of my studio.  This week I will celebrate the wide range of colors, mostly greens, that are on display for just a few days, from when the foliage first appears, until the chlorophylls settle into their, rich, maximally photosynthetic, greens.  This is a period about as short as that of the peak fall colors, and I find that it is just as spectacular.

As the leaves first arrive, they appear as a subtle dusting of color against the stark network of branches and often show a wide range of colors from deep red to orange and warm yellows. The variety of colors are usually best on the hillsides in diffuse overcast light, but as is true in the autumn, the spring colors are often most dramatic when seen in bright trans-illumination. 
Connecticut River Westmoreland NH

My restricted foliage view while stranded on our deck
One of favorite times of spring is when the leaves have expanded to cover much of the underlying branches, but before their colors have settled.  It is during this time that, on a hillside, a wide range of greens can be appreciated.  Sadly, this year it was precisely during this magic few days that I was frustratingly stuck at home by and infection in my knee which left me moving about on crutches or a walker.  My mobility, returned in several days, but by the time I was able to resume exploring, summer was largely established.

Gulf Road Curve Chesterfield NH

Roads End Farm Chesterfield NH
What I show here is a few early images from before my infirmity and several from the late spring color.  I can’t complain about what I missed, well clearly, I can, and have complained, but I am grateful for what I was able to experience this season.  I have many images from past springs and look forward future seasons of exploding green.

Fire Pond Reflection Spofford NH

For me, a wonderful new distraction has arrived.  After a careful period of self-isolation, Abigail, Grayson and, most importantly, our delightful 8-month-old grandson Owen, have arrived for an extended stay.  Needless to say, for a while, the primary subject of my photography will not be trees and shrubs.

Spring may be coming to an end but, sadly, despite all the political wishful thinking, the pandemic continues.  I hope you all stay safe and continue to find relief and joy from using photography to discover the unaffected natural beauty all around us.

Jeffrey Newcomer

Monday, May 25, 2020

Last Buds

I hope everyone is doing well and using your photographic explorations to help manage your way through the maddening pandemic isolation.  Our exuberant New England spring has displayed a widely varied supply of color and new growth.  The inspiration seems endless, from bursting new buds to spreading young leaves, in a riotous array of shades of green.  For me, all I have to do is grab my camera and head, socially distant, out of the door, and that has been my sad problem.

Over this last, gloriously perfect, week of the spring, I have been completely crippled by a severe pre-patellar bursitis and cellulitis. The result has been that, while the spring colors have evolved, I have been hobbled with a walker and limited from bed to chair.  I thought my Covid isolation was a problem enough, but at least I could get out for nice long walks and drives, but now I have been limited to gazing longingly out my window or up into the trees from my porch. 

Westmoreland New Hampshire on my last drive before the lay-up

I was able to limp to my Orchard across the street
The good news is that, with a combination of surgical drainage, strong antibiotics and a knee restricting brace, I am feeling better, and I have reason to hope for improved mobility in the next several days. Susan will readily tell you that, whenever I am sick, I am prone to pitiful whining.  Ok that is true, but I promise that complaining only comes from a sincere desire to encourage all of you who are not “mobility challenged” to get outside and capture all the spring beauty that you can, before it is too late. There is only a week or so left before the dull drab summer colors descends.

Seven  Layer Focus Stack
Fortunately, before I was laid-up, I was able to capture much of the spring buds and a taste of the emergence of the early May leaves. This week I share a few of my later buds and early blossom photography, captured both outside and in the studio.  My next article will be dedicated to the varied shades of green that make the New England spring our “second Autumn”.  Again, it will be all about encouraging you shut-ins to get outside and enjoy what has been a wonderful spring.  And I’ll try not to be more than a just little jealous.

Lessons Learned
I have largely finished my in-studio macro photography and as I have been packing away my improvised gear,  I wanted to share a couple of tips that I have learned through my usual technique of “painful trial and error”.

Holding Tight
First, I have experimented with various ways to securely attach my subjects in the studio.  For the sturdy, woody branches, one of my old surgical clamps worked well, but these devices proved too sharp and tight for the delicate ferns.  They cut right through, and the greens quickly flopped.  On one occasion, I was struggling to maintain focus and then realized that the plant was slowly bending under the pressure.   I found that the solution was to tape the stems to a piece of mat board which could then be securely attached to the clamp. 

Manual Exposure
Even on Manual a few flares come through
In all of my early, focus stacked, shots, I set my camera on aperture priority, but even with the lighting and composition fixed, I saw some slight differences in exposure between layers which led, to areas of flaring around the subject in the blended composite.  I finally realized the problem was that, as the focus point moved towards the back of the subject, its size within the frame became subtly larger, with the dark background contributing proportionately less to the exposure and resulting in a darker overall image.  I could have narrowed the field of exposure to be restricted to the brighter subject, but the simplest solution was to switch to manual exposure. With the exposure fixed, the flaring disappeared, and without the clouding, my edges were much sharper.

Just a little rim light
Balancing the Light
Finally, as my subjects became more mature, and thicker, trans illumination became less effective.  Increasingly I relied on my large studio box to light the subject from the front, adjusting the angle to provide nice contrast.  I still used back-lighting, but in these cases, I adjusted the intensity to provide a nice bit of rim lighting to highlight the edges.

Spring is rainy season and I love droplet lenses

Ok, this is the last time I will say this.  Get out and enjoy the spring colors. I have seen some nice work on Facebook from many of my friends, but if you are still hiding in your house, you are missing out AND it is NOT my fault!

Check out my growing
Spring 2020 Gallery

Jeffrey Newcomer


Friday, May 1, 2020

Bringing Spring Indoors

Rhododendron Bloom
In my last two articles I encouraged you to get outside to photograph the constantly changing signs of the exploding New England spring.  It is a great excuse to escape our claustrophobic pandemic isolation.  The buds are swelling, breaking open and showing signs of early spring color.   It is all out there for you to explore, but now I would like to suggest that you bring some of that beauty back indoors. 

Challenges of Outdoor Macro Photography
Last time I discussed some of the problems of outdoor macro photography.   Most importantly, it is often difficult to find a satisfactory balance between a small aperture to provide good depth of field and a short shutter speed to freeze motion.  This can be especially challenging in low light situations, but bright light can cause its own problems with stark shadows and blown-out highlights.  Photography is all about finding the best compromises, and with care and patience great images of nature’s fine detail can be obtained outdoors.  But since we have been told to isolate, I thought it would be helpful to discuss the advantages of bringing macro photography indoors.

My Spring Floral Cheat
It is usually about this time every “normal” year that I head out for my springflower photography “cheat”.  I go to my favorite local greenhouse (Walker’s Farm in Dummerston Vermont) and, while Susan buys plants for the garden, I shoot an amazing variety of healthy flora, all indoors with soft diffuse light and no problems with the wind.  

The only major difficulty is keeping people from tripping on my tripod. I always get great shots and the plants are all labeled for easy identification.  It is simple, and I am never the least bit ashamed of my lazy deceit. Sadly, this year the damn Covid 19 has prevented me from visiting  the greenhouse, and I have been forced to create my own special environment.

Trans-Illuminating Autumn
My Sunroom "Studio"
A few years ago, I decided to bring a selection of autumn leaves indoors to use trans-illumination to highlight their brilliant colors.  My setup was simple, a  bright light, a piece of black mat board and my macro lens.  In that situation, I was shooting with the light shining through thin leaves and the effects were stunning.  To avoid difficulty with depth of field, I pressed the leaves flat before shooting, and with the camera on a tripod, I could shoot with a small aperture.  My only real challenge was to get Susan to allow me to clutter half of our sunroom for the project.

Illuminating Spring

Over the last week I have worked to reproduce my indoor lighting to shoot the developing spring flora, and Susan is happy that I can set things up in my barn studio.  I do not have the focused tensor lamp that worked so well for my autumn leaves, but I found that the intense trans-illumination was not as important. 

 Unlike the flattened autumn leaves, spring buds and flowers have greater dimension and are more opaque.   To achieve balance illumination, I found that I needed to add a variable amount of front lighting, with one of my LED studio lights.  I kept the large light source close, allowing the light to wrap around the subjects.  

Maple Buds

In the controlled Indoor setting, focus was much easier to manage.  I could enlarge the depth of field with small apertures, routinely shooting at f32.  The diffraction associated with such small apertures can cause softening of image detail, but much of this can be corrected with sharpening in post-processing.

Single Image f 5.6
Even with small apertures, macro photography is associated with shallow depth of field, but a restricted DOF can be used to direct attention to a small area of the image.  Quite often this means leading the eye to the stamen.   A single exposure, with a small aperture, can be a pleasant solution, but when you want the entire subject to be sharp, focus stacking is a great solution.

Six Image Focus Stack

Focus Stacking
Six Image Focus Stack with Blended and Touch-up Layers
Focus stacking involves blending multiple images taken at different plains of focus.  I have discussed the details of this procedure in previous articles.  The technique is not complicated but does require the use of image editing software. If you are using Adobe software, Lightroom will not allow the required manipulation of layers, but  Photoshop simplifies the process of aligning, blending and touching up the images. 

Although variably focused images can be obtained in the field, it is much easier and more precise when in the controlled studio environment.  When both the subject and the camera are held stationary, a sufficient number of pictures can be obtained to result in sharply focused macro images.  Indoors, I routinely obtained six or more images each with subtle differences in focus and with greater numbers of layers the post-blending touch-up process was much less difficult.

Whether indoors or out, there are great photographic opportunities as our New England spring progresses.  Images captured in natural settings can be great, but consider experimenting with the control that comes with bringing those flowers and buds inside.  With a few simple tools, you will discover an exciting new world of detail and beauty.

Dogwood Bloom

Check out these links :

Jeffrey Newcomer NEPG