Monday, May 26, 2008

Joe McNally at Google

This is a great video! Joe is now one of my favorite photography authors thanks to The Moment it Clicks. He recently presented a talk at Google describing some of his work and some of the ideas discussed in the book. Definitely worth watching.

Sunday Rembrandt and the Strobist

Megan at McCombs Man, what a blistering day in Austin! The day was absolutely gorgeous despite it being so hot. Like most other Sundays, I met up with some of the folks from Strobist: Austin at Opal Divine's on South Congress. Because it was Memorial Day weekend, the meet up was fairly low key: only 8 of us I believe. We BS'd for awhile, ate, and came up with a few ideas for the group going forward.

One of the things that came up was discussion about lighting in cinematography and how film makers use light to carve out depth and intensity to a scene. Christopher and I agreed that picking a few movies and watching them as a group might lead to an interesting discussion on how we can use similar lighting techniques in our photography. Near the end of the meetup, Ron piped up and asked if we wanted to shoot his daughter Megan. Being the eager Strobists that we are, we all hesitated about half a microsecond before saying yes!

After lunch, most of us ended up up at UT to do a bit of shooting. The campus was virtually empty. Hot, but empty. Megan at McCombs SetupWe scouted around some of the buildings around Littlefield fountain, looking for some interesting textures to shoot against with Megan. The sun and heat conspired against us, driving us inside to the comfort of sweet, sweet air conditioning in the McCombs School of Business.

Tangent: One thing about UT that I really like is the sheer number of interesting textures and alcoves to shoot within. We found a bit of trellis work that would have been great to shoot under had the sun been lower in the sky. It was just too harsh and hot to work with. Definitely something to keep in mind for when it's darker and cooler, much like some of the other areas we found and passed by.

So, back to the climate-controlled haven. We all stashed our stuff while waiting for Megan to arrive. Peter and I walked around the 2nd and 3rd floors looking for backgrounds worth shooting against. In the depths of the building is an atrium that houses a small cafeteria. Surrounded by brick at every level, it is topped off by a large set of frosted skylights. It was just enough to let in some of the sun and provide a nice tweak to the ambient. The second spot we found that had lots of potential was a big open entry-way on the east side of the building. There were large concrete columns and some great ambient flooding in from the wall of windows leading to Speedway.

Peter and I wandered back and found Megan with the rest of the folks from the meetup (Bob, Ron, Christopher, and Mike). Picking up our things, we led them back and quickly set up. During this first set of photos, Peter kept talking about Rembrandt lighting. I'd heard the phrase before but wasn't sure what it was. Christopher took a moment to explain it to me. In Rembrandt lighting, you arrange the light across the face of your model such that a small diamond or triangle appears under the eye farthest away from the light. Megan at McCombsYou start out by setting up your main light so it's 30 degrees off of center from the nose and then 30 degrees above. Learn something new everyday! This style of lighting is based on the lighting found in Rembrandt's paintings.

I didn't take many photos in this first area at the atrium. I'm finding that I'm still having problems visualizing just what I want in my photos, so I'm going to have to make it a point to review my lighting folder for ideas before I go off and shoot something. Plus, I'm realizing that I really want to get some better (and faster!) glass. Christopher let me use his 90mm Tamron. I got frustrated because, like most lenses, it's manual-only on my d40. It's a nice lens, don't get me wrong. Just hard to deal with when you're trying to get something tack sharp on a camera that has no way of controlling that itself.

After everyone had shot some, we meandered down to the floor below to the other big atrium-like area. Christopher found a chair, Megan changed into a black, strapless dress, and we parked near the windows for the rest of the afternoon. By this point, I had started to relax and get into a better mindset about photographing her. It's strange, the first half-hour to an hour, I tend to psych myself out. I'm realizing that I've done this every time I shot with a group of people. Megan at McCombsJust something to work on I guess. Once I got into the right headspace, I was finding it much easier to work with Megan. Directing her certainly became less of forefront task and more of a thing that I just did while framing my photographs.

One thing I'm figuring out is that I like dark, moody photographs. I keep wanting to kill out most, if not all, the ambient in a photo. The d40 makes it "easy" because of the electronic shutter. I still need to pay attention to the exposure histograms; just because it looks good on the little LCD doesn't mean it's going to look good when I get it back on the Mac and in Lightroom. More practice with being consistent in my lighting will help with this, but that means I need to work more one-on-one with models. This would be easier with fewer people around. Or, I just need to learn to jump in and take some time with the model instead of being "nice" and letting others take as much time as they want.

Around 4:45, one of UT's fine police officers walked up on us. I suspect someone reported us being in the building. He asked what our project was and who we were. I explained to him about Strobist and what our group was about. He seemed satisfied and left us to our own devices after a few minutes. Nice guy. Hopefully all my future encounters with police and security will go that way (ha! doubtful!).

I wrapped up around 5:30 or so. Home again, home again.

Obligatory Christopher ShotThe model above is Megan, Ron's daughter. She's graduating and going off to college soon. She's also an artist and a photographer. Right now, she focuses on macro photography and doing selective colorizing in Photoshop. She was definitely great to work with. The first photo is one of my attempts at Rembrandt lighting. You can see the small triangle of light piercing the shadow under her right eye.

If you'd like to view more of this shoot, check out my Megan at McCombs set on Flickr.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Take the damn photo!

Growing at the LiftSome months back, a some of the Austin Flickrites were talking about old and abandoned places to go shooting at. It was an interesting discussion, bringing to light some of the seedier and forgotten places within Austin and surrounding areas. One of the places that was brought up was an old City of Austin sewage lift pump station. These stations are placed around the city to help move waste towards East Austin where the big sewage treatment plants are located at. Smelly, dirty work, mind you.

Why was this so interesting, though? Long abandoned, the building had been gutted and all the moving parts removed and abatement done to clean it up. But, over time, the building was overtaken by the lives of random taggers and graffiti artists. A huge, empty, white canvas of brick and concrete, out in the middle of nowhere. Lift Pump It was secluded and "easy" to access. Sitting on the old, abandoned Grove Drive in East Austin, no one paid much attention to it. It was surrounded by park land and overgrown with weeds, trees, and mustang grape vines.

There are two ways to access the area. The first one goes through Roy Guerrero Colorado River Park. Grove Drive runs right through it; if you look closely you can see the main path is a narrow pavement road, cracked and potholed. Ragweed runs high along both sides of the dead roadway. A half mile trek from the parking area will lead you to a deep creek bed, covered with a one lane bridge. A short hop, skip, and a jump over the bridge (watch out for the troll!) and you would come upon the lift pump station.

Well, when this originally came up, I took a short hike out there to figure out where exactly this thing was. It was late summer and there were signs of cleanup in the park and impending construction. The first time I came out, it was nearing sun down and having never been out there before, I opted to leave my camera equipment back at the car. I wasn't sure how far I would have to walk, who I'd run into, or how long I'd be out there thanks to the setting sun. I vowed to come back "soon".

When I got home that night, I started searching for info on the lift pump station. My Google-fu didn't fail me; I discovered that it was the Montopolis Lift Station and it was scheduled for demolition sometime in the 2007/2008 time frame. With it being an interesting place to photograph, I knew I wanted to go back to it and do it before it was torn down. Sadly, I never made it back in time.

The Long RoadTonight, feeling a bit out of sorts with my latest photography, I made the realization that I hadn't really taken any photos just for me. I remember reading a recent blog posting about this very thing and felt that I really needed to re-center and just go out by myself and shoot for the fun of it. I remembered this old lift station and thought, "Bingo!" I'll go back and poke around that. I have all my lighting gear, it's getting later in the evening so I'll have more control over the light. Off I went.

Arriving, again, about 30 minutes before sunset I hoofed it over to the bridge only to see my one lusted-for subject gone. In it's place was fence, landscape mats, and fresh growing grass. I wanted to kick myself for being so incredibly lazy. Procrastinating baaaaaad!

Being the intrepid explorer (feeling bummed and stupid is more like it), I started trudging back along Grove and photographing the path as I went. Once you round the curve near the bridge, Grove is a fairly straight run, right into the orange glow of the setting sun. You can see how overgrown the area is. Piles of dead trees and scrub brush from a big cleanup still litter the roadside. The mounds are 8-10 feet high and go on for 40-50 yards at a time. They've been there awhile, at least since my first visit to the pump last year.

Colorado at 183As I was walking back, I saw this semi-clear path shoot off towards the river. Comparing to Google's aerial photos, that path led to a trail running along the river. The aerial photo was taken a few years back. The land has shifted since then, taking 15 or 20 feet of path with it. It just ends in empty space. No guard, no rail. Just ... walking along and then all of a sudden, you're discovering gravity and hitting the river bed below.

Colorado at 183Thankfully, it was still light enough out to see it. I gingerly tested the ground to make sure it wasn't going to collapse out from under me as I neared the edge. It was a good 15-20 feet down and I wasn't looking forward to climbing out with a broken leg. This was quite a view. To the east was the old bridge that crosses the Colorado River just north of the Highway 183 and Montopolis interchange. This would be an amazing photo for sunrise. Sadly, I don't know that I could get out here early enough to take it. Especially if I had to access this path via the park. It's a fun thought. I could certainly try the hike from the 183 side (assuming I thought my car would be remotely safe parked on the road).

Colorado RiverTo the west is a bend in the river. The glowing orange of sunset reflected off the water. The water was moving at a pretty good clip. It was oddly peaceful out there. Just the sound of birds, crickets, and the water. With the occasional airplane moving across their approach vector which happens to travel along 183. As I was taking photos of the western bend, I noticed some movement off in the water. I couldn't tell what it was so I switched lenses and, in the fading light, discovered a man playing with his two dogs down on the river bed. The two dogs were running back and forth, frolicking in the cool flow of water.

River DogsI sat down on the edge of the path, not quite hanging over it, looking for a way down to the river bed. There was an animal trail leading off towards the west, but it was overgrown enough that I didn't trust going down there in just shorts. Plus, it was pretty close to the edge. Not so intrepid now, huh? As I was following the trail I caught sight of a pile of rocks down next to the water, some 100 feet away. They had been arranged much like you would see two tombstones, a husband and wife, lying next to each other in the rocky earth. It was creepy. With the light slipping further and further away, I wasn't able to get a photograph of it. I want to go back and get a closer look at them to see what they really are.

After awhile, I decided to pack my gear up and run out the rest of the main trail through the park. It was an extension of Grove. If you look at aerial photos of the area, you can see that the trail extends fully to the park at Pleasant Valley Road where the dam is. Walking along it, well into dusk now, I noticed movement out in the brush to my right. Two shapes frozen and alert. It was the dogs from earlier. They watched me and soon I wandered out of range. I kept walking for another ten minutes, wanting to see what was just around the next bend. I hadn't looked at the aerial photos for quite awhile so I couldn't remember where this all went. Taking it slow and just listening and watching, theMoon Grove wooded areas began filling with lightning bugs. If I had the tripod, I would have attempted a long shutter shot in the darkness just to see if I could capture them. When I came upon a downed tree that covered most of the path, I decided it was time to turn around and head back to the car. As the sun finished setting, the moon began it's rise in the east, cresting the tree tops and launching itself fully over the old, abandoned Grove.

As I was sitting on the ground, taking this photo, I was thinking back about not taking photos when I had the chance. It kind of irks me that I let my procrastination get the better of me at times. It takes a good, swift kick in the ass like this to make me realize that there are no second chances. If you can do it now, do it. Don't wait. Sure, you might be lucky and find your subject there when you get back to it, but really, it won't be the same. The light will be different or your mood will be changed. Maybe you'll have the wrong lens or there'll be a swarm of blood thirsty gnats charging forth to suck you dry, causing you to tremble just as the shutter clicks (ooh, instant blur!). You won't be able to recreate it exactly as before, so do yourself a favor and take the damn photo. You'll thank me when you've gone back to discover that the image you want can never be created because your subject has been demolished and destroyed.

So yeah, take the damn photo.

Map of Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park
A bigger view of the park. The red path is what I ended up walking tonight, just exploring until I got tired. The circle on the far right is where the lift station used to be. The blue circle is where my car was.

Friday, May 16, 2008

One in Three

StephanieLast Sunday, May 11th, was our big Dunvegan Keep Strobist meetup. It was the makeup day for being rained out on April 27th. Hindsight being 20/20, we probably shouldn't have held it on Mother's Day. The day just felt weird for me. Half of our team was unable to make it for one reason or another (really, it was Mother's Day ... that's what I attribute it to).

Overall, the mood of the day was okay. The weather was outstanding, sunny and comfortable for most of the day. A little overcast would have helped. My team didn't really shot much until around 2pm when our model showed up (I'm still processing pictures of Melissa, our scheduled model; more in a later post). But before that, we tried to set up a few shots and shoot a few of ourselves. I found that moderately frustrating. Not because we were shooting ourselves but because there were just so few of us in our group. We had a plan for about 7 people working together and providing certain equipment, but when push came to shove, we were down to mostly my gear. And really, with such a beautiful day, we didn't really need to be shooting Strobist-style.

The art of flying without flying.When 2pm came around, Melissa showed up and we were able to spend about 90 minutes with her before she had to leave. We got four different setups done. I can't say I was really happy with all of them. Looking back, I think the shots we did outside were being hampered by the blazing sun. Shooting at 2pm just makes it difficult to try and come up with something decent. The ambient light is all flat and shadows are harsh so you have to try and find some way to block out the sun. Or you have to find some way to overpower it.

What I figured out though, is that even though you have strobes, you don't necessarily need to use them to come away with a great photo. During the last half hour of the day, some of the other models were asked to jump into the pool at the Keep. Water shots are fun. There's so much you can do with them. There's the action shot of jumping in. There's the slow and sensual shot you can get of the model slipping out of the pool, hair all slicked back and wet. There's the calm intensity you can find when the model is just wicking away the water from her face as she's surfaced. Honestly, just lots of ideas floating around there.

By around 3:30, the light was getting to a point where you could position yourself and get a decent, but hard, shadow out of it. Something that worked well in this case. Looking at the dozen or so photos around the pool, I wanted to treat them in different ways, come up with a different look and feel for each one. These three were my favorite. A mix of dark and unsaturated, super-saturated, and blown out. Three looks for the same person. I think they all worked well.

StephanieThree of the things I walked away with this day was that it really is difficult to work with the sun during the harshest points in the day. I just couldn't find a way to make my shots with Melissa work "well" when having to deal with the sun. I need to practice with that. Second, no matter how much equipment you have or how hard you try to incorporate it, it's ok to put it away and just find a shaded corner (or even an unshaded pool) and have fun with the photos. Remember, it's a learning experience, it doesn't have to always be a fruitful one for your portfolio. Third, I really need to get some reflectors. I found those to be some of the most useful things to have this day, mostly because of how much light from the sun there was. The strobes just couldn't easily overpower it. Ok, make this four things. A big white sheet makes a great portable cloud. I'm glad I picked one up for this, it came in handle not only for me but for a few other groups who were trying to deal with some harsh mottled sun and shade.

The model pictured within this post is Stephanie. She lives here in the Central Texas area and has worked with us before. She's fun to work with, has a great attitude, and seems to be willing to do anything reasonable if you ask.

If you ever get a chance to check out Dunvegan Keep, do go. It's an interesting place and there's certainly quite a few areas, aside from the pool, that would be great to photograph people in. I'm just said I couldn't figure out a way to make the half-finished turret work in a photo. Next time, though, maybe next time.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Link Love for May 10, 2008

Link love!

That's it for this round!

The end and beginning of an era.

Shiree Friday was the last day of work for my friend Shiree. We've known each other for about ten years. In fact, she was the person who helped get me into the position that started me out at my current employer. I'll definitely miss her quirky and eclectic shenanigans at the office.

When I found out that she was retiring, I immediately went over and congratulated her. This was one of the best things to happen to her. She'll now have the free time to explore her art and metal craft (she welds!), as well as give her the freedome to find new and explosive things to do with fire, methanol, and tankards of propane. Hey, I did say she was eclectic!

Over the last year or so, I've shared my photography with Shiree whenever I could. Being an artist, she really appreciated the different things I came up with. She's an inspiration, honestly. She has a unique way of viewing the world, finding new and original ways to piece together everyday objects.

I QUIT!When she asked me to photograph her going away party, I jumped at it. I have lots of fun doing this stuff, especially when I know it's for someone who will cherish the photographs. I wanted a few portraits of her before she left so we could slap 8x10's up all over the building. A bit of a Shiree memorial, if you will. She was happy to oblige me and take a few minutes out of her party so I could set up the brollies around her. I took half a dozen photos and each one turned out really good. A year ago, I wouldn't have been so confident about dragging my stands, flashes, brollies, and camera into a crowd of people who've never seen me work. Today was different, though. I didn't care. I got a few odd looks, but I just smiled and waved.

Working with the Strobist ideas over the last year have made me realize just how much I enjoy photography. Working with people and learning how to photograph them has always been a challenge for me, but I can see where it's definitely becoming easier and easier each time I set up the gear. Shiree's encouragement helps me realize that I should continue working on it to get better and better, because someday, I will be able to retire from my regular career and move into something I find extremely enjoyable.

Shiree and GregTomorrow the Austin Strobist group is meeting up at Dunvegan Keep for our monthly meetup. I'm really looking forward to it. If it wasn't for the group of people in this group, I don't think I'd be able to create photos like these. Certainly not after a year. The amount of unhindered learning and willingness to teach (for the sheer sake of teaching!) is simply astounding.

The first two photos are of Shiree. The second is of Shiree and Greg. This was a simple light setup. One 32" white shoot through umbrella up high at camera left, SB-800 at 1/64 for the first two photos, 1/32 for the third. One 24" white shoot through umbrella low at camera right, SB-800 at 1/128 for the first two photos, 1/64 for the third.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Shooting Scarlett

Scarlett 2 Last week, I ended up on Mt. Bonnell in Austin while looking for pancakes. Don't ask me why I was up on the highest point of Austin jonesing for Mrs. Butterworth and hotcakes. Suffice it to say, I was there, the pancakes weren't, and I had my camera.

So, there I was, roaming around the park and thinking, "This would be a great place to shoot." I wandered up the stairs to the top, walked down the path to the bottom, ran across a photog shooting a Marilyn Monroe remake, and eventually wandered back to my car. One of the things I noticed was how windy it was up there. If I were to shoot here, I'd definitely need to find a way to anchor my brollies so they wouldn't flip over the edge, taking my flashes on a long dive to their flashy end.

Scarlett and I have been talking about doing a shoot for some time now. She has this awesome leather corset that just looks great on her. The problem? I didn't quite know how or where I wanted to shoot her in it, so tonight, we met at Mt. Bonnell to do a test shoot (sans corset, of course). I knew I wanted to try something like overpowering the sun but the weather didn't quite cooperate with me, leaving the sky mostly cloudy, save for a twenty minute stretch that kept filling my lens with flare (and not the TGIFriday kind of flare, either ... thank god).

After doing four different setups, I struck my equipment and we ended up sitting up there for another half hour while the sun finally set over the horizon, talking about the various things I want to try out and some of the scenes I have tumbling around in my head. She mentioned she knew someone who had a decomissioned bazooka. She's going to see if she can get her hands on it so I can shoot a scene with it (which I think would be absolutely awesome). We talked about using other props in a photo (swords, mainly) and just batted around a few ideas.

The image above is of Scarlett. We've only known each other for about a year or so and she's quickly become a good friend. She's fun to work with. I can't wait to figure out the corset shoot with her.

Monday, May 5, 2008

CBS 42 contest update!

Just an update on a post I made a few weeks back. Sousa Williams, the web manager over at CBS 42, contacted me today to inform me that the rules for the contest had been updated. Apparently, the management didn't realize the rules were written in such a way that strips a photographer's rights to the submitted photos. The rules now read:

You represent that you own all copyrights in the photograph. As a condition of submitting your photo, you grant to Four Points Media a non-exclusive license to use the photograph for twelve months from the date of submission as follows:.

Four Points Media may, at its sole discretion, publish or otherwise use any photograph submitted by you. Such publication or other use may occur on television, in books, in newspapers and magazines, on the Internet, and/or in or on any other medium of communication now or hereafter devised, and may be for advertising, promotion, the use of trade, and/or other commercial purposes. By submitting a photograph, you (and any other individual depicted in a photograph) consent to such publication or any other use. As a condition of submitting your photograph, you (and any other individual depicted in a photograph) unconditionally and irrevocably waive all claims to compensation for use of the photograph by Four Points, and/or any rights with respect to such use you may have under copyright law, the right to publicity, the right to privacy, the law of defamation, and any other common law or statutory claims under the laws of any jurisdiction.

You represent that you have been given the authority by each individual depicted in a photograph to bind such individual to these release terms.

You must be 18 years of age or older to submit a photo.
It's that first paragraph that really strikes me as being photographer friendly. I don't yet know if it's a panacea of photography goodness, but it's certainly better than the absolute rights grab they were doing before. I've contacted the guys at Pro Imaging to get their input on this change because of their previous work in getting contests to change their rules for the betterment of photogs everywhere.

So far, the Austin Flickr community has received the notice with mixed reviews. Some still feel the new rules continue to abuse the photographer by not setting terms on what that license constitutes. Others, like me, think it's certainly a step in the right direction.

More to come as I hear it.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait

When I first came across this book, I was struck by the intensity of Michael's work. I paged through it and was awed by image after image (really, I bought the book for the articles, honest). Before I get too deep into the slathering of praise, let me introduce the author.

Michael Grecco is a commercial photographer specializing in editorial and celebrity portraiture. His first introduction to photography came at the age of twelve when he became enthralled at the magic behind "tart smelling liquids" transforming paper into photographs. He soon became the proud owner of his first camera to practice his "art". Six years later, he entered Boston University and discovered how different the world of editorial photography was compared to his experiences growing up. After graduation, he went to work for the Boston Herald where his photojournalistic experiences blossomed. His artistic roots kept poking at him though. After several years of being on staff at the Herald and several photojournalism awards, he began to realize he needed to get back to what he started with ... so he loaded up his truck and moved to Be-ver-ly ... Hills that is. Swimmin' pools, movie stars. Ok, ok. He actually moved to Santa Monica where he began working on his lighting and artistic style, learning from cinematographers the art of giving a scene depth and life. From there, his portraiture began to take shape and evolve into what we now see today. True to the book's title, Michael has an innate ability to envelope the subject in a dramatic shawl, like a photographic Doctor Frankenstein, bringing the moment to life with a flash of bright, wicked light.

As Michael states, this book is a combination monograph and a course on his lighting and portrait style. While there are some technical bits (it's definitely not a how-to or step-by-step description), the book leans more towards the philosophy of his style, creating a fair mix of both to give the reader a good understanding of just what he does and why.

The book is broken up into the following sections.
  1. Introduction
    • A short history of his life and how he got to where he is today.
  2. Cameras
    • A discussion of the various camera formats from 35mm to digital and some techniques to use with them such as selective focusing and motion blur.
  3. Illumination
    • Introducing Michael's 3 laws of light: the color of light, contrast, and softness. He pairs the discussion of light with 20 or so examples including diagrams of the lighting setups in some of his photos.
  4. The Medium
    • A short chapter on the various mediums used for recording photographs.
  5. Creativity & Conceptualization
    • From team collaboration to props and set locations, Michael goes over the various areas that contribute to the development of a dramatic portrait.
  6. The Connection
    • Michael covers a few topics about establishing a connection with your subject.
  7. Case Studies
    • Michael deconstructs some of his more interesting and "famous" photos.
  8. Glossary
  9. Griptionary
One of my favorite photos in the book is of Colin Machrie wielding a princess wand and wearing a horrendously cute pink tutu. The thing that catches my eye with each of Michael's photos is the character of each person, recording in such a way that brings the person alive.
The other photo that slapped me awake is on page 163: State Pen Nude. It's a woman, nude, reclining in the arms of the gas chamber chair at the New Mexico State Penitentiary. "Sinister." That's how Michael describes the photograph as he jumped at the chance to take it, juxtaposing the harsh reality of death with the soft and delicate beauty of life.

I think for most photogs, the chapters on Illumination and the Case Studies will provide the most benefit to understanding his style. I don't know that you'd be able to duplicate it exactly, but you might get close over time. Ultimately, this is another book that I recommend for every photographer if only because it has many inspirational ideas within it, both technical and artistic. This, combined with the diagrams and the photographic breakdowns, definitely makes the book worth picking up and adding to your library.