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!]
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