DIY Light Box

Sarah here. After fighting with speedlights in my last attempted portrait shoot (and eventually giving up in favor of window light), I’ve been spending a lot of time over at the Strobist. If you haven’t already heard of him, David Hobby is a genius with flash and a great teacher. I read through Lighting 101 and am now making my way through Lighting 102, exercises and all. I’m a bit stuck on an assignment right now, but more about that later, perhaps.

In the meantime, I poked through the Strobist page on DIY projects, and came across these instructions for a cheapo light box. It’s super easy to do (materials: one box, white tissue paper, tape), and makes lovely soft wrapping light for small objects. If you wanted more even light, you could put a second light on the other side (maybe the top and front, too, if you really wanted to go nuts?).  If I’d closed the barn doors (i.e. box flaps) a bit, I might have gotten some bounce on the front… especially if I lined them with white paper, too.



I’ve told Andrew that I’m claiming any reasonably sized cardboard boxes that come into the house, because I have my eye on a cheapo softbox next…

Always Stop for Gelato

Andrew here. I still intend to revisit a few things from my recent trip to Iceland and I’ve got a couple of gear reviews in the works too, but last month I spent a few days in another “I” country — Italy — and decided the story and this shot were worth sharing.

I was in Florence for work and I knew I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to do most of the main tourist things, so I made a point of going walking around in the early mornings and evenings. Turns out this was a good plan.

One evening, I was walking back toward the hotel via my favorite Gelato shop (somehow *every* walk back to the hotel took me past there even though it was a mile or so from the hotel …how odd), when I noticed the sun starting to set over the Arno river. It wasn’t an epic sunset yet, but the height of the clouds and the stillness of the water told me that the scene was just going to get better.

To make a long story short, I spent over an hour (and a melon gelato) there watching the sunset progress and go through a variety of stages. This is the peak of the saturation and color, but I came away with a series of nice shots.

Over the week there, I’d gotten used to the locals being thoroughly uninterested in everything I found intriguing. After all, life in Florence was just everyday life for them. In this case, however, the bridge was lined with both tourists and locals, cell phone cameras in hand like electronic butterfly nets trying to capture the amazing colors. At one point, a police officer stopped his car in the middle of the road, came over next to me (I had the prime spot in the middle of the bridge) and took a few shots with his cell phone too. I asked if he minded if I take a photo of him taking the photo (always a good idea to ask law enforcement – especially in foreign countries – before photographing them), he cheerfully obliged, then asked me what camera I had. Turns out he’s a photographer when not working as a police officer and was wishing he had his trusty D700 with him instead of his iPhone.

The moral of the story — always stop for gelato.

Sign of Life

Sarah here… I promise, we’re not dead! We’ve just been swamped. I stole a little time this weekend for an impromptu photoshoot and Photoshopping, though, which was very soothing.

I fought with speedlights for a while but just wasn’t getting the look I wanted, so I eventually scrapped the flash and used window light instead. Filtered through the blinds, it was very soft and smooth light, just like I’d been hoping for. I still want to master the tricks of artificial light, but sometimes you just have to admit that nature does it better.

Choosing Lenses

(Not shown: Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8)
(Not shown: Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8)

Andrew here. I originally wrote this as an email to a friend who just got his first full frame DSLR and was looking for advice on lenses. In his case, he got a Nikon so this is tailored to Nikon lenses, but the same principles apply across brands. If you use a Canon or Sony or something else, there is almost certainly an equivalent in each of these categories. A little research will help you choose the right one.

Choosing a lens is a very personal decision. It can be driven by preferred subject, budget, or priorities (are you a sharpness fanatic? a featherweight fan? a versatility virtuoso?), so one person’s plan may make no sense for the next guy to follow. If you are a studio portrait shooter through and through, there’s no reason to go through all the steps below. But if you’re a generalist, or still learning, experimenting, and finding your way, then this is a very good way to go.

This is my approach and it has served me well, but I encourage you to add your voice in the comments since your experience is going to be different than mine. What have you learned from buying the lenses you have owned? What would you tell someone just starting out?

So… you just got your first serious DSLR and you want to make the most of it. How do you decide what lenses to get?

First, a philosophy: Your lens is more important than the body. A great lens on a decent body is usually better than a mediocre lens on a high end body. Also, lens technology changes more slowly than body technology, so they retain their value a lot longer. That means that your major investment should be in lenses (or “glass,” if you prefer).

What you should get, and in what order, depends on what you’re doing. If you’re like me, this is what your lens stable will probably look like before long. Personally, I’d work in this order, especially if you aren’t starting out with a firm preference for subject/style:

1) Get one superzoom for flexibility. This won’t be the best lens for anything, but sometimes you just want something that is good enough at a lot, especially if you’re in a place where changing lenses often isn’t practical. Early on, it also gives you a sense for your shooting style and lets you experiment with a wide variety of subjects. For FX, you want the 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6. It’s fine. It’s not amazing, fast, or weather sealed, but it serves its purpose — versatility — and it does it well enough.

2) Get one high quality specialized lens for whatever it is you like most. If it’s macro, get the 105mm f/2.8 macro (that was me). If it’s astrophotography, go for something really wide and really wide aperture like the 14-24mm f/2.8 or 20mm f/1.8. If it’s ducks, the 200-400mm f/4 with 2x Teleconverter. If it’s portraits, 70-200mm f/2.8 or 85mm f/1.2 depending on your style. If you’re a generalist, it’s now time to get the 24-70mm f/2.8. You’ll use this one a lot for stuff you’re really excited about, so this is a place to buy the best-in-class for whatever you’re most motivated to shoot.

3) Get one small fast prime. This is small, light, inexpensive, and very wide aperture. You use it when you want minimal size/weight/bulk. You might use it when shooting inside or in low light. The 50mm f/1.8 is the budget option, but choose something that makes sense for your subjects. If there were a 24mm f/1.8 that was small and affordable, I’d have one. This isn’t a big investment, lens-wise. If you’re like me, you rarely use it, but it’s handy sometimes.

4) Time to get into pro glass if you haven’t already in #2 (you should have). Nikon has the “holy trinity” of lenses that cover the focal lengths from 14mm-200mm in three sections – 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm. They are all professional quality optics (best in class), constant f/2.8 aperture, weather sealed, and solidly made. They’re also very expensive. If you don’t have the 24-70mm by now, that’s where I’d start. Whether you go wide or long from there depends on what you already have and what your interests are.

5) If you make it this far, you’re probably getting into specialized things. That might be tilt-shift lenses for landscape or architecture, fisheye for different points of view, bazooka lenses for wildlife. By the time you get here, you’re not looking for my input anymore. You’re fully invested and you know what you want.

There are many factors in choosing a good lens, but hopefully this will narrow down a wide field and give you some structure. Don’t limit yourself to what I have here. I came to this by a ton of research and experimentation, but there are many options out there. If something intrigues you, do your homework on it and see for yourself if it’s the right tool for you.

First impressions: Lowepro Photo Hatchback 22L AW Camera Backpack

Sarah here.

After years of awkwardly stuffing my camera into random bags, I decided it was finally time to get a proper bag. A 20% off REI coupon gave me extra incentive to pull the trigger last weekend and pick up the Lowepro Hatchback 22L in slate gray. I’ve only had it a week, but I filled it up with my basic gear and marched around the neighborhood this morning to take pictures of the pretty pink flowering trees. Here are my first impressions (and a quick attempt at product photography).


I almost got the smaller 16L version, but the 22L isn’t *that* much bigger and seems to hold a lot more stuff. I’m glad I went with the larger one.

There are two slim pockets at the front of the bag, which might hold a tablet or maybe a very slim laptop (don’t hold me to that, though). So far, I’m using one of them for a Rogue FlashBender.

I couldn’t get a good picture of the top hatch area, but it’s got a good amount of open space, plus a zippered pocket toward the back and two small elastic pockets in the front, which are the perfect size for two speedlights. I use the zippered pocket for all my normal small flash accoutrements, such as a pack of colored gels, a grid, remotes, etc. The hatch area isn’t padded and is more exposed to potential theft, but therein lies the compromise of a smallish, convenient pack.

The black lump on the side is a little Eagle Creek pack that I attached to the pack strap to serve as an SD card/battery/cleaning kit holder. I love the Hatchback so far, but it doesn’t have many little pockets for organizing, and I wanted a way to get to the small essentials quickly and without taking the pack off.


The camera compartment is nicely padded and opens on the inside of the pack, so a thief isn’t going to shimmy open the zipper and walk off with your gear while you’re wearing it.


The padded part is removable, and the section dividers are velcro’d and can be moved around to whatever configuration works for you. It’s a nice size for me and my gear… mostly. My D7100 with normal walking-around lens (Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8) fits comfortably, and I can arrange another 3-4 smallish lenses around it. However, if I want to bring the Tamron 70-200mm F/2.8 with me, it would have to go in the less-protected top hatch. It *might* fit in the camera compartment with some creative rearranging, but not much else is going to fit in there with it.

If you use a very large DSLR, battery grip, or a lot of large lenses, this is probably not the bag for you.


The flap even has a little SD card pocket.


There’s a raincover in the bottom of the pack which fits nice and snugly over the pack… unlike some of our other hiking packs, where the raincover is forever sliding off or catching the wind and trying to be a kite. I think this one will actually keep everything nice and dry, and it’s easy to get to.

–Looks like a normal backpack, not like a camera bag (other than the Lowepro logo)
–Camera compartment opens on the inside of the bag, making it much harder for a thief to get to
–Nice size for moderate walking-around equipment
–Comfortable for smaller-framed people
–Lightweight (before stuffing with gear, anyway)

–Not so good for very large DSLRs and lenses
–No intentional tripod attachment (some people said they put smaller tripods in the top hatch or in one of the waterbottle pockets, and I usually just stick a leg through the backpack strap and let it hang)
–Top handle seems potentially flimsy
–Few organizing pockets

Overall, I’m very happy with the bag so far, and I’m looking forward to taking it along on some adventures.

He and She

Sarah here.

As you may have gathered from my last post, I’ve spent a lot of time in Lightroom lately. This weekend, I realized I was getting rusty on the shooting and Photoshop side of things, so I did a quick & dirty macro shoot just to shake the cobwebs off.

Two lessons:

1. Light intentionally: This was window light, which was fine, but it was fiddly as the sun peeked in and out of the clouds.  Also, the catchlights don’t match (though maybe it’s cool that they’re sort of symmetrical).  Next time I’ll set up a speedlight to get more consistency.

2. Get a headrest: My models were standing, and it’s impossible to stand without some sway. Macro lenses have such an incredibly narrow depth of field, and the frame was so tight on the eye, that even a teeeeeeeeny bit of movement meant that the point of focus was in front of or behind the eye, and/or the eye wasn’t fully in the frame.  I probably can’t eliminate that movement, but there should be ways to minimize it.

I didn’t have a concept in mind for the final image, but this eventually came together while doodling, and I like the colors (sampled from each eye). I think it could be a cool idea for an engagement photoshoot… next time I have a couple together, I want to give this another go.

Washington, D.C.-based photography and digital art, natural and unnatural.