Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I suck at food photography

There, I said it. Which is a shame, because my wife is into making really awesome cakes. She makes a lot of other great things too, but making ridiculous cakes seem to be her favorite pastime as of lately. Well, I guess it’s not just lately: She really started about five years ago with a “first birthday” cake for our niece. That cake was just a giant sheet cake with some cool icing work, which seems so simple when compared to the cakes she makes now. And as she gets better at working with icing and fondant and gum paste and piping bags and food dye, I have made pretty much no progress in the art of food photography.

cake
[Above, some small gift-box cakes she made for a friend’s engagement this week. Since it was night time, I used a big softbox and a reflector. The cakes were great, but the pictures were not.]

I don’t really understand how to light food. I have trouble finding a good camera angle. I can’t make a realistic looking background or table scene to save myself. All the colors look weird. Sure, I can document food with my camera, something like “Look, this food was there and I saw it and now have proof with this picture.” Kind of the equivalent of those disposable camera snapshots at a wedding. But I lack the skill to make food look artistic or interesting, let alone appetizing. I think this is the main goal of good food photography: to make the food look irresistible and to make the viewer hungry. Good food photography says “I don’t care if you’re watching your calories, you wouldn’t be able to resist eating me!”

cake
[What kind of lighting setup did I use for the above picture? Not one that you should copy, unless you want mediocre results!]

So what am I going to do about this? Well, this is a team approach I guess. My job in the upcoming months is to read about food photography with as much interest as I read about people photography. I want to gain a basic understanding of the use of lighting and staging and what apertures and angles look best for certain shots. Since I believe that the best way to become better at something is through practice, my wife’s job is to keep making awesome stuff for me to photograph. Seems like a win-win situation for us both (well maybe for me a little more, since I will be the one eating all the “extra” food!) Furthermore, this is a great time to learn food photography since it’s going to be cold outside for the next three months or so. In the dead of winter, there is no better place I can think of than inside my warm apartment with my lovely wife, some good food, and my camera!


[Maybe I will learn from this guy!]

Anyway, I will be posting my results along with some how-to information (as soon as I get better at the “how-to” part!) I think I’ll try to do this in some type of organized fashion, maybe I will try to learn one technique per week or so and go from there…

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Some simple lighting techniques for better headshots

Headshots, portraits, whatever you want to call them, are everywhere. Every actor, model, singer, executive, realtor, and even the guy that cuts what little hair I have left seems to have a headshot. There is even a new market for professional-looking headshots for use on social networking sites like facebook (btw: GWC has a new facebook page, so join up here! OK, now that my shameless self-promotion is out of the way, let's look at some really simple techniques for producing better headshots with lighting.

Headshot 2

This was taken in direct harsh ugly mid-day sunlight, the kind of lighting that photographers avoid when at all possible. The sun is overhead behind me, and there is not a cloud in the sky. This is the recipe for harsh contrasty light that highlights skin flaws, produces dark shadows in the eyes, as well as causes the subject to squint. But if we can't avoid it, how can we improve the direct overhead sunlight? By holding a translucent panel (found inside most 5-in-1 reflectors), or even a big white thin sheet of fabric up in between the sun and your subject, you immediately soften the light. This gets rid of the harsh shadows, and reduces the intensity of the sunlight, allowing the subject to be more comfortable and squint less.

Headshot 1

This shot was taken in the exact same place, all I did was tell Valerie to turn around, so now the sun is overhead and behind her. This immediately reduces the contrast and harshness of the light since the direct rays of the sunlight are not shining on her face at all. In fact, all of the highlights on her hair over her left shoulder are from that direct sunlight. So now her face is being lit by the softer light that comes from the open sky, and the sum of all the light reflected off the sidewalk and whatever else is in the environment. Left alone, her face would be lit alright, but would look flat and uninteresting, and her eyes wouldn't have any pop, since there are no catchlights reflected from a close light source. So I used a large white reflector held under the right side of her face to reflect some of the direct sunlight that is behind her (no reflector? you could just as well use a white board or any white material). This adds some light and contrast to the right side of her face, fills in shadows that were made by the light from the overhead sky, and adds catchlights to bring the eyes alive. The unwanted side effect is a bit of squinting from the bright reflector, but the overall look is worth it!

Headshot 3

Now what if there is no direct sun because you're on the shadow side of the street and the sun is blocked by buildings? Well, by bouncing a single flash into a reflector (or a wall), we can add some nice soft light and contrast to the image. Simple as that!

Check out a behind-the-scenes video of this shoot here on YouTube!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Card 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! This year we decided to make our own Christmas cards instead of just buying a box at the store. About two months before Christmas, the crazy ideas were running rampant. We started out thinking of shooting outside in NYC, then thought about classic Christmas movies and recreating scenes from them. One idea was more ridiculous than the next, and by December first we had rented several reindeer and an animal handler, had put a deposit on an ice-sculpture and snow machine, and we booked an obese alcoholic circus clown that I found on Model Mayhem who agreed to dress up as Santa for the shoot (TFP of course). Well, it turns out that our apartment building has some silly rule about not allowing livestock in the elevators, and to top it off, Santa-clown puked all over the doorman’s shoes while he was signing into the building. So we had to settle for something a bit more low key instead (hey, there is always next year!) We went with the theme of Santa getting caught delivering presents on Christmas Eve, with the surprised little girl being played by the talented and beautiful Mrs. GWC. I played Santa; this required buying a Santa suit (which comes complete with a beard that was so long that I looked more like Moses than Santa, so I took the scissors to it!)

We went out for a late night search for a tree, scrounged up some old school big bulb lights and an old candle holder from the in-laws stash, and started moving furniture and setting up. Mrs. GWC wrapped all the presents that we already had for people and put them under the tree while I worked on the lighting.

ambient light

As you can see from above, with all the lamps in my apartment off the ambient lighting provided from just the tree is pretty low (this is ½ second, f/5.6, everything at ISO 100 to get the best image quality on my camera). Camera is on a tripod and the first thing to do is figure out where we would stand. Since at f/5.6 we still have a pretty narrow depth of field, we would both have to be standing about the same distance from the camera lens so we would both be in the plane of focus. So out comes the measuring tape and some scotch tape markings on the floor for each of us to stand on. That was easy.

Then I brought out some lighting: a softbox with 2 strobes in it to camera right, pointing at “Santa” and angled towards the tree a little (look at the shadows.) Another strobe with an umbrella aimed at where Mrs. GWC would be. And yet another strobe, this one with a double CTO gel on it and a grid, aimed right at Mrs. GWC’s face to look like orange candle light. And you all said I didn’t need to own all of this lighting gear!

A few things here: since I wanted to get a lot of that warm colorful ambient light from the Christmas tree lights into the image, I chose to shoot at a slow shutter speed (½ second). And since I want to make the scene look like all the light is from natural sources, the color temperature is important to maintaining that illusion. If I let the flashes just run as they are, they would put out light that looks cold and blue since they’re balanced for daylight use. I want everything to have an incandescent color balance. Enter gels: the tiny translucent pieces of colored plastic that go over the flash and change the color of the light that comes out. All the flashes were gelled full-CTO (this stands for “color temperature orange” and is supposed to balance the flash with incandescent light.) Since I wanted the candle to look like it was lighting her portion of the scene, I used a double-CTO in that flash. The grid acts to direct the light in a spotlight pattern with surgical precision, otherwise it just goes all over the room. Took a test shot:

testing lights

Next up is lighting ratios. I already defined the exposure of the scene above (½ second and f/5.6). So whatever I light to that level will be properly exposed. If I add less light the area will be dark, more light and it will be bright. Lighting myself was easy, just cranked up the power on the big softbox until it metered f/5.6, and done! Mrs. GWC was a bit more complicated. Since I wanted her to look like she was coming into the scene from the darkness, I lit her with the umbrella to f/4 (which is one stop darker relative to the exposure of the scene of f/5.6). Then I aimed the spotlight that was gelled to be double orange at her face and metered it to read exactly f/5.6 when fired with the fill light of the umbrella. So the final effect is that her body is underexposed by one stop, but her face (which is closest to the candle) is exposed properly and has the candle-light color to it. Popped a final test shot to check the lighting, focus, etc before strapping on the full glory of the pillow-stuffed Santa suit, beard, and hat!

testing focus and drinking a beer

OK, finally all that technical stuff is over, now to the fun part: trying out a whole bunch of ridiculous poses! The best is that we actually couldn’t see each other while taking the picture since the tree was in the exact same plane as we are. So I’d call out “ready?” and she’d say “OK” and it was “GO!” In at least half of the pics we’re just laughing hysterically! Took a bunch of shots and that was it…now we had to move back all the furniture in the apartment!

Edited it all in lightroom (I still don’t own a copy of photoshop, what the hell is wrong with me?) Played with the vibrance and saturation and did some split-toning to give it a bit of an older feel. But that’s it. There are no selective adjustments here. Mrs. GWC laughed at me since we shot this on Saturday, ordered the cards from MPIX on Sunday, got them Tuesday, and they were mailed out on Wednesday morning. She said that’s the fastest she’s ever seen me do anything. This is probably true!

Merry Christmas!

GWC and Mrs. GWC wish everyone a happy holiday season and a hope you all have a great New Year!!! Stay tuned here in 2010 for even more awesomeness!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Duplication

Painting

My cousin James is a painter. An artist is probably a more accurate term, since he doesn’t just paint! He needed some pictures of his most recent paintings to use for his website, among other things. I think the proper term for this type of photography is “copy work” or “reproduction work.” There is no artistic vision of the photographer here: the goal is to make an exact duplicate of the painting!

So I gave it a crack, after warning him that I had never tried this before. He told me that the going rate to hire someone to do this would cost him $75 per painting, and that he had like twelve paintings to shoot, so go ahead and try!

Painting

This was probably the most scientific shoot I had ever done. I used a tripod, two flashes, a measuring tape, a white balance card, and a flash meter…and felt more like a carpenter than a photographer. I am sure that people who do this type of work routinely have it down to a simple system that takes like five minutes to set up, but hey—it was my first time!

The basic technique that I used was as follows: Camera on tripod and lens lined up with center of painting that was hanging on wall. Two flashes, each at about 30-45 degrees to the painting on either side. Used the highest shutter speed that will sync with the flashes to get rid of all the ambient incandescent light (1/200 sec) so the light will all be of the same color temperature (flash). Metered the light from the center of the painting, then from the corners if it was a large painting to make sure the edges got even light. Adjusted the flashes to give about f/8-f/11 for good depth of field. Snap a picture with a white balance card first for color calibration, look for glare, etc. Then take the final shot. Once this was all done once, we just switched out the paintings on the wall and finished all twelve in like ten minutes! Since the flash is all metered using incident metering, the lighting is the same regardless of the color of the painting.

Painting

There were some limitations of this setup. Glare was a problem with the larger paintings since I couldn’t move the lights out at a more acute angle to the paintings because of walls in the apartment. The solution would be to use a longer lens, but of course I left my longest lens at home thinking I wouldn’t need it! There is also a way of using polarizers on the lens and lights to remove glare. If I did this professionally I would probably also have a better tripod with a leveling system that was worth a damn, and would have leveled the painting on the wall both horizontally and by making sure it was truly flush with the wall. This way the sensor of the camera and the face of the painting would be on parallel planes and there would be no converging or diverging of the edges in the picture.

Painting

For my first attempt at this, I was happy with the results. The colors and exposures in the picture look to me exactly like the paintings themselves. All I did in Lightroom was to white balance and increase the blacks by 2 points, and then crop the edges. Again, if I was a pro I would have a color calibrated monitor, but I think these came out pretty good without one.

Painting

The artist is James Vanderberg, and he lives in Brooklyn, NY. More of his work can be found here on his website.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lighting: not just for people anymore!



I try to travel light when I shoot outside. I guess the absolute bare minimum is my camera and a lens…but I pretty much always bring along a small light stand and at least a flash. All this stuff fits in one bag and is pretty light, which helps when you’re walking all over the place looking for cool locations. Well, to be completely truthful, I didn’t have to look for the location for the shot above because it was suggested by the model! It’s somewhere that she passes by when she runs in Central Park, and she always thought it would make a good place to shoot. Which is a good habit to get into…always keeping your eyes peeled for places that would look cool through the lens.

Anyway, we shot this under one of those stone overpasses in Central Park in the Upper West Side. There was sunlight coming in through one of the open sides of the overpass, and this is what is lighting Justine. The light has a nice soft but directional quality to it because it’s all being corralled and shaped by the tunnel walls. Without adding any light to the picture she would look exactly the same because she is lit entirely by the natural sunlight, but the background would just be a big black void because there is no light falling that deep into the back wall of the tunnel. So I added a single flash on a light stand and aimed it at the cool stone wall behind her to expose it and make it a part of the image. None of this extra light is falling on Justine because the flash is behind her and out of the frame to the right. I think that extra lighting on the stone wall is what makes the image go from a random portrait to something unusual and interesting, which was the whole point!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Dragging the shutter in the dark



So, the video has been up for one week now and I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback on it! If you haven’t seen it yet, here is the link to youtube.

So let’s talk technique…specifically how to shoot in almost pure darkness with some off-camera lighting and get some cool effects. Sure, you can just use the flash on your camera and that would get you some pretty decent results if you knew how to set the camera in manual, but that would be too easy and no fun at all! Plus, the lighting would only come from one direction (the axis of your lens) and this would lead to unflattering shadows, red-eye, and a predictable lighting in all of your photos. Sounds pretty lame to me!

First of all, how do you focus in almost pure darkness? The camera needs some light to find the subject and focus, and it seems like my camera needs quite a bit of light depending on what lens I use (by far, the better quality, wider-aperture lenses focus faster and better in low light.) So there are a few methods that can help you focus in darkness. You can just use the pop-up flash on your camera to find focus, then switch the lens to manual focus for all the rest of the shots (can be a pain because you have to take your trigger off the camera to put the pop-up flash up). You could also use a speedlight with a focus-assist beam on top of the camera and do the same thing (maybe a bigger pain in the ass, since you would have to remove the speedlight and hook up your trigger). You could even shoot all TTL if you have the money. An obvious solution would be to use a flashlight (or a torch as the Brits call it) to shine on your subject, get your focus, change the lens to manual focus (so the focus won’t change shot-to-shot) and shoot. Except what if you don’t have a flashlight in your bag since you didn’t think you’d be out shooting at night? That’s what happened to us when we were filming this video…we wanted to use this cool location we found with the late-dusk sky in the background, but where the model was going to be was almost completely dark. Like I can’t see the stuff in my camera bag dark. So what did we do?

focusing with an iPhone

The camera autofocus will focus on bright, high contrast objects. So if Valerie holds the iPhone close to her eye, I can focus on the brightly-lit screen of the phone, lock it in by setting the lens to manual focus, and voila! For as well as this worked out for us, there were definitely a bunch of out-of-focus pics too, since as soon as either me or the model moves an inch the focus is lost! So for the future, I think I will be investing in that flashlight after all!

Ok, so now we’re all focused, my lights are set up and metered (a subject for another post) and I take a test picture. The background looks dark, the sky is black, and the car lights behind her are all frozen in time at 1/60th second. It’s boring at best, but how do I change it? We need more light! Well specifically, we need more ambient light…the flashes I’m using are all perfect because I metered them that way. There are only three ways to get more light in your image (not counting adding more lights!) Opening the aperture would give us more light, but then we’d lose the creative decision to use a certain aperture for depth-of-field and it would screw up all the flashes I’d just metered. We could increase the ISO and that would increase the light for the whole image, but would give us some unwanted digital noise in our image. Neither one of these solutions would give the cool streaks of the car lights in the background either. What’s left?

“Dragging the shutter” is the term given to using a slow shutter speed to allow more of the ambient light in to make your exposure. Think of your exposure like a pitcher of water that you want to fill to the top (a proper exposure). You could open the faucet more and fill it faster (opening the aperture), or you could hold it under the faucet at the same flow rate for a longer time (dragging the shutter). Either one will fill the pitcher up, and there are pros and cons to either method. Back to photography now, dragging the shutter will give you more ambient light at the expense of allowing camera shake to creep into the image. Camera shake comes from unsteady hands, or using too slow a shutter speed for your lens. The rule of thumb (and who knows where this comes from!) is that most people can hand-hold a steady shot at 1/60th second or faster, but this depends on the lens used. The second rule of thumb (rule of the pointer finger?) is that you shouldn’t shoot with a shutter speed slower than 1/the focal length of the lens. So since I was shooting with about a 50 mm focal length lens, I shouldn’t be able to hand-hold a clear shot at less that 1/50th second (more like 1/60th second due to rule of thumb #1).

Well, the shot above was taken hand-held at a shutter speed of 1/3rd second. Am I just so awesome that I can hold my hands rock steady at a microscopic level on command? Not likely! Valerie’s image is clear and free of camera shake because she is exposed entirely by flash! Increasing the shutter speed from 1/60th second to 1/3rd second allowed about 4 stops more light into the image, but since she was almost entirely in the dark, a four-fold increase in “no light” still equals “no light!” Since you need light to see the camera shake, we’re all good!

Flashes fire quickly, anywhere from 1/1,000 to 1/10,000 of a second, then they’re gone! So even if we hand-hold the camera for 1 minute, as long as there is no ambient light falling on the subject, the flash duration will freeze the subject in place without shake, since the exposure was made only in that brief period of time noted above. It’s kind of like being able to use different shutter speeds for the subject and the background and get one proper exposure. Pretty cool huh?

So the end result is the image above. The background is exposed at 1/3rd second, allowing all that cool NYC light to soak into the sensor, and allowing the car lights to get all streaky in the background. She is exposed at 1/3rd second too, but frozen in time by the flashes. Dragging the shutter in the dark!

Here is the lighting setup we used for this shot and many others. Click on the picture to see lots more from this shoot, with some nitty-gritty lighting info and links to other set-up shots!



So why didn’t increasing the shutter speed screw up the light from the flashes too? Maybe the topic of another post, but your answers are always welcome in the comments section below!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Made my first video!



Here it is, my first video! We went out downtown last weekend to do a shoot…only this time I brought along a friend to make a video. I love behind the scenes videos. They’re not only entertaining, but you learn so much from seeing real photoshoots in action.

The theme here is “bouncing light.” Every shot in this video was done with some kind of bounced lighting technique, from bounced sunlight, to bouncing light off a garbage truck, to the "crotch bounce!” I have entered it into the LIME bounce competition so click on the video and turn up the speakers and watch! The winner is chosen based on number of views on youtube, and by a panel of judges. This is a late submission, so I need all the views I can get!

This was the biggest project I have done so far, and I think it was a success! We had a lot of fun shooting and making the video, I got to try out a whole bunch of new techniques, and we got some great pictures in the end.

More to come later on the techniques used in the video…but for now just watch the thing!!!

Due to some movie editing software problems, the credits on the video are in tiny print and I couldn't fix it...so here they are again!

Director: Carmine Caracciola
Model: Valerie Bauer
Assistant: Dave Gervase

Big thanks guys!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

guy with links

Been busy these past two weeks working on a new project. Did lots of planning, shot it this past weekend, finishing the editing now, and then...well you'll see soon! It was the most involved project that I've worked on to date, but with the help of some friends I think we pulled it off and I can't wait to see the results myself!

So in the meantime, here is some stuff that's been going on in the photography world. Thoughts, tech stuff, cool videos, whatever!

Some more inspirational words from McNally here in a letter to a lost soul wandering around in the world of photography and trying to make a living. Think about how many people you know are "into" photography (whatever that means) and how many people you know have semi-pro cameras nowadays as compared to 10 years ago. There are tons of people out there (like me) that shoot for fun, art, pleasure, a hobby, whatever as long as it's not profit. Many say that we "devalue" photography as a whole...

I was very excited to read on Strobist the first in a series of posts about "big lights" aka studio strobes. The timing is great, since I was just starting to research these myself...thinking about how cool it would be to have a strobe with some power...to be able to overpower daylight or use a big softbox from 15 feet away and shoot at something over f/2.8! I can't wait for the rest of this series, and I am never surprised at how even when I don't really need any more equipment, there is always something else that I just plain want.

At Lighting Essentials there is a great post on lightmeters that is worth checking out if you like this kind of thing...and really, who doesn't? (Don't answer that question!)

And finally, Chase Jarvis shows how the pros get it done with some high speed action sports shooting! (Warning: gear-porn).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Scouting



NYC is full of cool locations to shoot. I went for a walk yesterday through the lower west side, starting in Tribeca and working my way up to Chelsea to scout some places for an upcoming project that I'm planning.



Got some cool shots on the way. I don't do this often enough...walking around with free time and my camera and absolutely no idea of what I'd like to shoot. Just looking around for interesting stuff!



Does anyone recognize exactly where these photos were taken? Let me know in the comments section below...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Dance with the dead!



My shovel will set you free
Your corpse should provide a good source
for the sacrifice before me
I'm the cool grave robbing, raiding tombs looking for food
In places that you never even thought to
The dead, and they don't put up any fight
Besides once you ain't got no life
The rest is useless
You say it's ruthless but they don't mind, they're dead
And after they're consumed they got my life



With the gray smoke covering me
I float down with the intentions
of grabbing another body from the ground
Is it a sickness, nobody understands
I'm all alone except for all the dead bodies
I'm keeping up in my home
They always listen to me
Never interrupt or pass judgment
I can really be myself around them
And I love it, it's my own world
Hand picked from the tombs of past on's
Now give me your grave stone to dance on



Happy Halloween!

-lyrics by Dark Lotus

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I ate my new camera

Camera cake

While I was at the expo last week, my wife made this amazing camera cake. She told me later that she had made secret blueprints after borrowing my camera and planned all this out weeks ago! Inside are 4 layers of moist chocolate cake with vanilla butter-cream icing and it's wrapped in fondant that she dyed black. The lens and hotshoe are made from rice crispy treats wrapped in fondant. Everything is homemade. It fed the whole family and then some...It was so good!

Camera cake

I don't know what I did to deserve her, but I feel like the luckiest guy alive!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

PhotoPlus Expo!

Had a chance to go the the PDN PhotoPlus Expo this past Saturday. Well, more accurately, my wife (who I can’t say doesn’t support my hobby) got me a ticket to some seminars there as a birthday present this year, so I ended up going a few hours early to check out all the cool stuff. I’ve never been to one of these before, but this definitely won’t be my last! Some highlights:

The expo floor itself was great—I was the kid and it was the giant expensive-assed candy store. Just for fun, I had to spend a few minutes playing with gear that I could never afford, and it seemed like half the people at the expo were there to do the same thing. I realized that I take for granted the fact that I live in NYC and can just go to B+H Photo anytime I want and see all the same stuff! But if you’re a photographer from somewhere in the Midwest and don’t have access to a photo-mecca like B+H, you have to buy all your stuff online or at the local shop and probably can’t play with all the fancy gear. For me, the best parts of the expo floor were the demos. They had pretty good quality live lighting demonstrations from Lastolite, Wescott, and others. These demos were very informal and driven by audience participation. Since I couldn’t leave there without buying something (but probably shouldn’t be buying anything expensive) I picked up a new camera strap from Op/Tech. Yup, not exactly a sexy piece of gear, but it’s something that I needed!

Now on to the seminars…

The first one of the afternoon was by Zack Arias, an Atlanta-based music photographer. It was based on his popular and very well-done blog tutorial about shooting on white seamless. In a two-hour live demo/Q+A session, he showed us how to set up a roll of white seamless paper and three lights, and do some really creative stuff. I learned how to make the same white background go from pure white, to grey, to black with just lighting. Truthfully, I knew the theory of how to do most of this stuff already (from reading it on his blog last year). The seminar was still valuable for a few reasons though. Seeing someone actually do it is much better than just reading about it, and really served to solidify what I already knew. It’s also great to see a real working photographer like Zack and his small crew set up their gear and work out all the kinks in real time. It shows you that the pros do stuff just like we amateurs do…”bring that up a bit, now down, ok”…(test shot)…moves a light around…(test shot)…”ah crap this thing doesn’t reach, ok move it over there” etc, until it looks good. Then he showed us how he takes the images and puts them into photoshop and does all the clean-up. He wasn’t trying to hide anything and the honesty and transparency of his whole operation was refreshing to see. He was just a cool and down-to-earth guy, and I really enjoyed his course. I’m sure these skills will come in handy in the upcoming winter months when it is too cold to shoot outside…now I can just whip out the white seamless and go to town!

Next was more of a discussion-based seminar by Joe McNally who is a big-time famous pro who shoots for a bunch of high-profile clients and publications. Joe is the man. First off, he is well known among the strobist-style shooters because he recently published two wildly successful books on shooting with small flashes, my favorite being ”The Hot Shoe Diaries”. He is also just a great public speaker and a pretty hilarious guy in general. He told a story (a joke really) about all the people he meets that say they want to be professional photographers but that aren’t really looking to learn about all the technical details of how their cameras work or all the technical aspects of photography. He said something like, “What if you were in the hospital and the doctor looked at all the equipment that you were hooked up to and whispered to you ‘I don’t really know how any of this stuff works!’ You’d get the hell out of that hospital, and fast!” The point being that there is lots of technical stuff to know in photography, and you really do need to learn the technical details to be a good photographer. He made so many good points that I won’t even try to summarize them all here—only a few.

He would show us all these amazing shots and then give a bit of back story that always contained some wisdom. He showed us a picture that he took for National Geographic of some giant telescope that shoots a laser beam 60 miles into the sky, and then tells us that it took him something like two days of shooting, a crew of four guys, hundreds of thousands of dollars in rented lighting equipment, treacherous shooting conditions at night in a desert, and dealing with a “bitchy” telescope operator that wouldn’t shut the thing down for a few hours of shooting so that he had to do the whole shoot with the scope moving. Then you see the final picture and say “WOW!” I guess I never realized just how much goes into some of these shots. You see a picture in a magazine that some pro shot and think that since he’s a pro photographer, he just shows up with an awesome camera and plays with the knobs a bit and then clicks the shutter. Made me really think about how much time and effort should go into creating something amazing. How after shooting for a few hours I should be happy to get a handful of shots that I really like, and how it can take many long days of shooting to get “The Shot,” even for the pros. Uber-experienced guys like Joe still start out a shoot with one idea, change something around, try it out and maybe fail miserably, then go back home and refine the new concept a bit, plan some more, and finally go out and create something totally original and beautiful. They don’t simply show up and shoot masterpieces every time!

McNally delved into some technical detail about most of his stuff which was great to hear, but my favorite parts were when he talked about his personal philosophy and experiences. His advice was to get some interesting people in front of your lens and just shoot. How you should never say no when given the chance to shoot something interesting. You never know what will happen or where the shoot will take you. He talked about the importance of persistence in making a shoot happen, working to refine a concept, and getting access to restricted locations. He talked about the little “bomb-proof locked box” in his head where his photographic soul lives, and how no critic or editor could ever get into it and destroy the integrity of his work, no matter how hard they tried.

All in all it was a great experience. Saw a lot of cool stuff. Learned some new skills. Got lots of wisdom from two photographers that I admire. Left there with new ideas and tons of motivation to get shooting! Thanks, Mrs. GWC, for a sweet birthday gift!

[She also made me an amazing cake for my birthday, more about that later in the week…I am so lucky!]

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Cake!

The cake!

My wife started baking some serious cakes about five years ago. It started with our niece’s first birthday cake which was a pretty simple (and giant) sheet cake with icing and decorations, all homemade. Soon she progressed to making multi-tiered elaborate-themed cakes. This year she discovered fondant, that moldable sugary shell that is used to wrap cakes for a professional looking finish. Needless to say, we watch a lot of “Ace of Cakes” on TV!

Of course I try to get some nice pictures of these cakes. This is the way it usually goes down…every surface of our small kitchen is being used for cake making, the dining room table is holding cake parts and such, and sometimes even the ironing board is out and being used as an additional surface to let cake components dry, etc. By the time the cake is fully assembled and ready to go, we are already 10 minutes late, the house looks like hell (but smells awesome), and we have to run out the door and rush to whatever party the cake is to be eaten at.

This time it was no different. My lovely wife made this Tiffany cake for my sister’s 18th birthday. She was putting the finishing touches on it while I was getting everything ready for us to leave. The party started in 20 minutes and we live an hour away…typical! The cake is done and I can’t find an uncluttered place to put it for a picture. So I drag a chair near a sunny window and stick the cake on there. There is no time for fancy stuff here--no meters, umbrellas, softboxes, or strobes.

I put the camera on aperture-priority at f/4 to have some depth-of-field and got a shutter speed back from the camera of 1/20 sec or so, which is too slow to hand-hold for a clear shot. What to do? Bumped up the ISO from 100 to 400 and got a shutter speed of 1/80 sec, safely in the hand-held range. Took the picture on the left. I wasn’t happy with the shadow side of the cake and wanted to get some light in there somehow…

We’re still late for the party and now my wife’s wearing her coat. Ah ha, the cake box! A makeshift white reflector…held it in my left hand, camera in my right hand and set to manual so that my exposure doesn’t change (the reflective meter in the camera will see the extra light from the reflector and increase the shutter speed to compensate and end up underexposing the image a little…I wanted those whites to be white). With the cake box I was able to reflect a bit of the sun light into the shadow side of the cake, and that is the picture on the right. Three layers of homemade vanilla cake goodness with butter-cream icing in between, wrapped in hand-dyed fondant to match that Tiffany aqua-green color, and a white fondant bow on top!

We got into the car and were met with a ridiculous amount of traffic, and ended up being pretty late anyway. But everyone loved the cake, including my sister…and yes, she got a real Tiffany box later!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Your camera doesn't matter

When photography comes up in casual conversation, I can usually count the number of seconds until someone asks me the following question: "So what kind of camera do you have?" My standard answer is something along the lines of "Nothing special, just an old Canon digital SLR." About half of the time, the next thing the person says is "Oh, well I have a Nikon/Canon (insert higher end model number here) with a (insert impressive lens specifications here)." If they don't have one already, they will usually say "I've been looking to get a nice camera, which one should I get?"

I never know how to reply to these questions. What are your goals? Do you want to shoot snapshots with your friends or landscapes or fashion or what? What is your budget? The list of questions can go on and on. My first camera was an old Minolta SR-T 101, full manual film camera with a 50 mm f/1.something lens that was my father’s camera when he was younger. I had so much fun with that camera! I have been looking at DSLRs since the late 1990s, when they were thousands of dollars and only for the real professionals. A few years ago, I just made the decision that I was going to buy one since the prices had finally dropped into the reasonable zone for me. Before I eventually chose my camera, the Canon Rebel XTi, I researched it online for months. I read about the good and the bad, looked at pics taken by the camera with all different lenses, and went to the store to check it out first. It is a pretty basic, entry-level DSLR.

The bottom line is that your camera doesn't matter. It doesn't go out and create images by itself. I am typing this blog on a Dell computer, but I bet you can't tell. I could have been using a HP, or a Sony, or even a Mac. It's just a tool. A DSLR camera, no matter how big or expensive or complicated is just a box with a shutter and a digital sensor and a lens mount. That's it. All the other stuff is just bells and whistles.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have a top-of-the-line camera, a Canon 1Ds or Nikon D3 or whatever, but it wouldn’t make my photography much better. Speed, cool features, high ISO, and tons of other features may allow me to shoot faster or easier, but at the end of the day it’s still a box with a sensor and a shutter. The only variables that make the exposure yourself are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, and you can control those 3 variables with almost any camera and all SLRs. The rest is the photographer.

Don’t believe me? Every few years a technically better consumer camera comes out that has roughly the same specs as the professional model of 5 years prior. Yet, why are we not seeing more amazing images than, say, 10 years ago? A great shot on a film camera from 1970 can still stand up to something taken yesterday on a Nikon D3! Cameras are getting exponentially better over time but the quality of the best images are still sitting on a straight line. How much better can you get than virtually perfect? The technology to get an amazing image with the right lighting and exposure has been around for a while!

To be fair, there is some difference in the digital sensors inside the different camera bodies, and the higher-end cameras usually have a better quality sensor that translates to a better quality image. But we are at a point with the technology where almost all of the cameras on the market today have decent sensors and can make a great image. Your sensor is not holding you back from creating something beautiful! And more megapixels (MP) has nothing to do with the quality of your image (unless you plan to make poster-size enlargements). Think about it…if the physical size of the sensor is the same and the camera manufacturer crams more megapixels onto it, what happens to the individual pixels? They must get smaller to fit, which is sometimes accompanied by a loss in quality! I’ve seen amazingly clear and crisp pictures taken with the older version of my camera which was “only” 8 MP (mine is 10 MP). Then Canon made a 12 MP model and now the newest incarnation is 15 MP. So what? You can’t say that any of them are “better” because of the megapixel count…it simply doesn’t matter!

What we need to do is shoot more and care about having the best gear less. I rarely see a photographer that pushes his gear to the limit (myself included obviously). There is the potential in any of the modern DSLRs to do pretty much anything that the photographer can imagine. So go experiment with what you have and create something unique!

So what’s my next camera going to be? Probably a Canon 5D Mark II, which I will get when the price drops in about 2 years, or if I hit the lotto! [But you just said that a camera is just a box…why would you need such an expensive box, albeit an awesome one?] Well, the shutter on my current camera will wear out eventually. And I would love to have the high ISO performance of the 5D, and the full-frame sensor. And at the end of the day, I like having new toys too! Maybe I don’t need it in the traditional sense, but all photographers have some amount of techno-lust…even me!

[On a side note, the lenses that you use really do matter! When investing in a camera you are really buying into a system. The lenses that you get should last you for 50 years (unless you drop them)! The bodies are replaced every five or so years after they crap out, or once something better comes along and you feel like spending some money! An entry level camera with an awesome lens will produce far better images than the pro camera with the crappy kit lens every time! More about this in the future...]

Monday, October 12, 2009

It just takes two hours…or, how to build a portfolio

There is no better way to improve as a photographer than by actually shooting pictures! Sure, you have to know how to turn your camera on, and what all the knobs and buttons do, and have some elementary understanding of exposure—but that’s really it! If you are like me and want to be a better people photographer, the fastest way to learn is by photographing people! [No way, really?]


[Bridget grabbed this chain attached to a steel door and we had a cool shot! After finding a good angle, I set my camera to 1/100 and f/3.2 which underexposed the shot by about 1 stop according to the camera’s meter. By underexposing the background the contrasty shadows and saturation increase, as does the drama of the final image. Now since she would also be underexposed at these settings (which would not be desirable here), I set up a bare strobe on a stand about 10 feet from her to camera right (look at the shadow from the chain to get an idea of where the light was coming from). To expose her properly I employed the “chimping” technique, aka shooting without a light meter. Take a test shot, look at the LCD on the camera, adjust the power of the strobe or the distance to the model, and repeat as necessary until it looks good…]

There are about 100,000 people in NYC looking to have their picture taken. People who want to get started in modeling, bands, actors, business people in need of headshots, people who just like making creative images, and so on. This is usually done on a trade basis, called TFP (time for prints) or TFCD (time for images on a CD). Find someone and get to it!




[For the above two shots we’re working in regular old sunlight. It was just one of those great days with bright sunlight but clouds everywhere. No direct sunlight to be found. Direct sun equals harsh shadows everywhere and blown highlights. When the sun is behind clouds the sky turns into one giant softbox! These are the absolute best days to shoot with natural light. Point the camera, set your exposure, and click!]

So, we ended up shooting for a little less than two hours and went through a bunch of different looks, locations, and lighting scenarios. I got to practice natural light shooting and got to experiment with mixing in flash here and there. Do this enough and you will start to know your equipment like the back of your hand, and will be able to “get it right the first time” more often and with less guesswork. All you need is an idea or two, someone cool to pose for you, and the desire to become a better photographer.


[With all the beautiful diffuse sunlight everywhere, making the main exposure on this shot was easy. I say main because there are actually two light sources in this picture. Sun is the main light, and is lighting the entire front of her body, the street, basically everything in the shot. There is some type of ledge above us that is blocking the light coming from behind Bridget and we need some separation there. So I put a strobe behind her by about 20 degrees and camera right (so behind her left side) and set it on a low power to give some “rim light,” which is the light you see on the left side of her hair and on her left elbow and the back of her right forearm. Subtle yes, but it’s the little things that make an image like this pop!]

[So where do I find someone who needs a photographer?] Use that thing called google: there are sites all over for this type of thing! Or ask a friend, a family member, or coworker—you’ll be surprised by who will say yes!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Making time

One of my biggest challenges in photography so far is simply finding the time to actually do it! Unless you are a full-time professional photographer, most of us have regular jobs and do this in our free time. And after you factor in work, family, and everything else in life, there is really not a lot of free time left in the day! We live in a society with so many “have tos” (have to stay late at work, have to go to that meeting, have to go to some birthday party for a 3rd cousin on the last nice Saturday of the year, you get the idea) that there is no time left for the “want tos.” And aren’t the “want tos” what are really important in life?

What defines you? Is it your job, your car, your khakis? Are you the music you listen to? Oh, you’re a Yankees fan…I get it, now that is a really deep insight into your individual being! The great American poet Henry Rollins once said “I believe that one defines oneself by reinvention. To not be like your parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself. To cut yourself out of stone.”

I think that what we make time for is what truly defines us. Don’t say there is not enough time to work out, see friends or family, or learn something new, when you somehow always seem to find the time to plop in front of the TV every Wednesday night for a new episode of Family Guy. [Well that may not be the best example, you should make time for Family Guy!]

We all have 24 hours in a day. Granted, there are so many real “have tos” that take up the vast majority of that time—there are always ways to better manage your time to have some left for what you want to do. We truly have to “make time” to pursue what we love because life will never stop and just “give” us time for ourselves.

So how the hell does this pertain to photography? It doesn’t have to, I guess! But about two years ago I came to the above conclusion about my own life. I would always complain that there was never any time to do what I wanted. I let a lot of fun opportunities in life just pass on by because of all the things I thought I had to do. One day I just realized that I control how I spend my time, and if photography was something that I seriously wanted to do then I’d have to make the time and just do it!

[Hey, I thought this was a photoblog…what is all this self-help, motivational speaker stuff? Where are all the photos? Next post will be solidly rooted in photography, I promise!]

Saturday, October 3, 2009

What's the point?



I believe that photography needs to have a point. When you pick up your camera and point it at something, do you stop and ask yourself “what am I trying to say with this image?”

The best images start in the photographers mind. You may “see” the finished image outright, or you may just have a general idea of the theme of what you want to create: either way is fine. Then all of the realities come into play…where can I shoot this, with whom, what stuff will I need, when can I do it? All of this planning happens way before you actually click the shutter. Then comes all the technical planning: lighting, lens choice, exposure, etc. What time of day will the sun be where I want it? (Usually in the early morning or late afternoon-the two most inconvenient times to shoot for most working peeps!) Should I expose the shot differently based on how I want to post process it?



Then there is the shoot itself. By that time the technical stuff needs to be second nature—your camera should be an extension of you. This is the time for you to interact with your subject. You set the tone of the shoot. If you are unsure or frustrated or fumbling around with your camera, it will show in the final images (and not in a good way!)

Now don’t get me wrong, working with a great model is key! Some subjects simply don’t get it and they just stare at the camera with that “deer in headlights” look. Others are just nervous or uptight. But the good ones are fun to work with, self-reliant, and independently creative artists. They not only “get” what you’re looking for, but even better, they take it one step further and try out other looks that you didn’t even think of. Working with a great model is a creative collaboration for sure. You can both be free to try out new ideas with the same goal…making that awesome image!

So, what are you trying to say with your camera?



[Justine, above, is a great model. Click on the pics for the technical details of the shots and to see more from the series!]

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I'm Batman!



When I have the opportunity to take pictures of a novelty character (and I don't just mean comic book characters), I can rarely resist. So even though it was pretty much dark out when I saw Batman here in Times Square, I cranked the ISO up to the max (1600 on my camera) and fired away...grainy exposure be damned! Much to my surprise, for a secretive guy who lives deep in the underground of Gotham, Batman sure likes to have his picture taken...



But who is the real Batman???

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I learned about photography in reverse

The normal progression in photography is to learn how to take pictures in natural light first. Once the sunlight has been mastered, some would choose to add an element of flash photography to the mix. Well, I learned about this all backwards!

Even before I got my digital SLR, I was following a blog called Strobist. The philosophy there was to take the small battery-operated flashes (strobes), the ones normally sitting on top of the camera, and use them off-camera. They would have to be fired wirelessly or by a wire running from the camera all the way to the flash. After getting the required few pieces of gear, the techniques themselves were quite simple. The resulting images on the blog and from the readers were phenomenal…professional results with a flash that cost about 200 bucks!

Rika

[In the above shot of Rika, the harsh sunlight is at her back giving her that great rim light wrapping around her left side (you can see where the sun was by looking at the shadows coming from her legs). The main light on her is a strobe off camera left (to the left of the camera, or to her right), triggered wirelessly and set to about ½ power to just about balance her with the ambient light. This is all done without a light meter (since I didn’t have one then!) and balanced by looking at the back of the camera and using the histogram. This is called “cross lighting,” using the sun and a strobe to produce 2 apparent light sources.]

So soon after I had a camera, I started the “strobist-style” shooting. I joined some informal groups that met up occasionally and practiced the techniques (I will definitely write about some of these earlier shoots in the future). I used flash in every picture I took, and at some point must have thought that “strobist-style” was the only style! Having a few flashes that you can put anywhere you want is a powerful tool in photography, and one that is easily overused. I would look at a scene and think “how can I light that,” not “should I light that?” Some people were so into this technique that they called themselves “Strobists!”

You are not alone

[In this last shot, the sun is behind Rika all the way to the right of the frame (look at the highlights on the trees and the shadows on the ground) and is lighting the entire front side of her body that is facing away from me as well as giving her strong highlights on the left side of her face. To balance this out and give a little light to the right side of her face and back (otherwise it would all be in shadow) I used a strobe off camera left, set to just match the ambient light. This is another example of cross lighting with the sun. To change the mood a little, I added a bit of blue-gray to the highlights in post production and that’s it!]

At some point in the last year I came to the realization that while the “strobist-style” is an important technique to master, there are many other ways to get a great picture. I am a photographer, not a Strobist! I am now making a special effort to focus on learning more natural light techniques when I can. You know, getting back to the basics!

Monday, September 21, 2009

The end of summer

The end of summer

After staring at them online for about 6 months, I finally bought myself a used incident light meter on craigslist a few weeks ago. An incident meter tells you how much light is falling on the subject, as opposed to the meter inside of your camera which tells you how much light is reflecting from the subject back into the lens (AKA reflective metering). I’ve been experimenting with the meter for the last few weeks and I absolutely love it. I can see in f-stops and shutter speeds now, and I feel like anything is possible!

There is also this old thing called the "Sunny 16 Rule" which states that on a sunny day, at f/16, the shutter speed is equal to 1/ISO. So for a good exposure at ISO 100, your settings on a sunny day would be f/16, 1/100 sec. I guess that this is how the real old timers would do it…way before the dawn of DSLRs and one-third stops and indoor plumbing...

So I took a meter reading at ISO 100 and f/8 and got a shutter speed of 1/500 sec. And that is the picture in front of you, straight from the camera. (Just to see if the meter was worth it, I set my camera to aperture priority at f/8 and used the internal reflective meter and it gave me a shutter speed of 1/200 sec...which would have been more than 1 stop overexposed!) Later, it dawned on me that I could have done this much more simply. Let’s see…f/8 to f/11 to f/16 gives me 2 stops less light…and 1/500 to 1/250 to 1/125 sec gives me 2 stops more light…so if I shot this at f/16 and 1/125 sec that would also be a perfect exposure. And that is pretty darn close to the sunny 16 rule!

Now don’t get me wrong, my meter is cool and all, but I could have done the exact same thing with just the old standby techniques. However, lighting on location with off-camera flash is a different story entirely, and will be the topic of my next post…

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Come with me if you want to live

I had the opportunity to shoot with my friend Carmine this week at a gym on Long Island.



We met back in high school through a mutual friend and found that we had a lot of common interests, namely mischief, music, and all things Arnold Schwarzenegger. While I was content with watching Arnold kick all kinds of ass on the big screen while saying things like “if it bleeds, we can kill it,” Carmine was actually working to become The Oak himself. The guy had a plan. Even in high school, he worked out with a religious-like fervor, and in his free time, studied all things muscle. He eventually competed and placed well in several amateur bodybuilding shows, and went on to start a successful personal training business . He was the best man in my wedding.



Last year Carmine was diagnosed with lymphoma. Although the cancer was caught at an early stage and was potentially curable, he would need some hardcore chemotherapy pumped into a port implanted into his chest every two weeks for six months. The chemo could damage his heart or worse, and he would definitely need to take a break from the intense training regimen he was accustomed to.



He could have become angry and cynical at being diagnosed with cancer at a young age, especially after having lived such a clean and healthy lifestyle. Not Carmine. Never losing focus, he managed to maintain a regular, albeit modified, gym schedule throughout his treatments. He finished chemotherapy several months ago, and dragged a skinnier, balder body back to the gym to train in overtime, making up for all the time and gains he’d lost.



Today he is doing great, and although he will need regular checkups with his doctor, it looks like he’s out of the woods for now! His hair grew back in no time, and as for his body…well, you can see that for yourself!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Can I take your picture?

Can I take your picture?

Spent some time walking around NYC with a friend yesterday, we brought with us a single speedlight on a light stand with the goal of some street portraiture. I was looking for a quick project that was as much about approaching strangers and asking them to pose for a picture, as it was about the actual photograph.

After checking out several locations that had good light and moderate foot traffic, we finally settled on one and metered the ambient and strobe, set our exposure, and then waited for someone interesting to come by. I introduced myself as a photographer who is working on a street portrait project...can I take your picture? If they said yes I gave them my email address and told them to email me for a copy of the picture. Some said yes, most said no...

Can I take your picture?

We would take a few different people's portraits, and then move on somewhere else.

I learned a few important lessons about approaching strangers with the goal of getting a portrait:

1) Most people in NYC talk on their cell phones constantly!

2) People who don't take their eyes off the ground when walking say no 100% of the time.

3) The people just hanging around or waiting somewhere say yes far more often.

I liked working on this project. Half the fun of it is talking to all different people and finding out what works and what doesn't. Forces you to think on your feet and stop worrying so much and just shoot! I think I will continue to add to this as an ongoing project in the future.

Can I take your picture?

Also, check out this from Zack Arias, who was doing the exact same thing (with far better results!) just this week. He blogged about it this morning!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hungry?



There are benefits to taking your camera with you wherever you go. I don't always do this, of course...but when I do I always get at least one picture that I really like.

This was taken on a perfect summer night in NYC, sitting at a great outdoor restaurant, and watching the line form on the sidewalk. I think it made the food taste better...

Shot with a 35 mm f/2 lens wide open. There are all different colors of ambient light in this picture, so I white balanced for the warm light coming from the restaurant illuminating the people, keeping the skin tones looking natural and letting the background buildings go all different colors.
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