Thursday, December 31, 2009

Favorite Photos of 2009


Hiding behind her shoes

We spent an evening at the ER in January. My daughter had some sort of infection in her cheeks that caused them to balloon. She looked like a chipmunk. She was scared so I pulled out the camera and started taking pictures of her to keep her occupied. It worked. And I got some great photos of her.



Stephanie came up to the studio one evening in February. James had wanted to do a white-face shoot with her and invited me a long. I wanted to do something very directional light-wise. This is one of my favorite photos. I have it hanging up in my office at work.


Austin Music Awards 2009-1189.jpg

The Austin Music Awards. I don't remember the name of the band, but the keyboardist was spiff. The glasses just made the photo. If you look close, you can see the keyboard in the reflection.



A short photowalk around the University of Texas. I like fire hydrants for some reason. No idea why. For this, I wanted to throw the sharpest point of focus just before the water plug. This has a nice cinematic feel to it. I was inspired by some photos on flickr from (I think it was) mingthien.


Unwrapped.  It's like Christmas all over!

I wanted her cocooned. So we wrapped her in plastic and killed all the lights. I loved this old wood floor at the studio. It had a life to it. Red and creased, dirty but swept. She had this lovely tattoo that I couldn't stop staring at, so off the plastic came. Ripped to shreds so it would reveal the painted flesh beneath.


Magnanimous and Beneficent

Lacey wanted to do something different. So we met at the Cathedral of Junk in South Austin. It was one of the hottest !@#$% days of the year. Or, at least it felt like it. By 11am, I was dripping with sweat and we were done. Magnanimous and beneficent. She had this queenly appeal going on sitting on that throne.


2009 4th July-6351

The 4th of July. Sitting amongst the tens of thousands of people on Auditorium Shores. The lesson of the day? Pay attention to wear the fireworks pots are set up ... and make sure that a street lamp isn't between you and them. Had to zoom in for anything worthwhile. Next time, though ...


Lion dances in the meadow

Another photowalk. I came across this group of dancers on the South Mall at UT one afternoon. He had just gotten out from under the lion's head. You could see him panting and working to catch his breath.


Dark and White Chocolate Wild Berry Tart

Ah. The Buenos Aires Cafe in East Austin. I took my wife there one evening in September. Our first night out in awhile. No kids. It was a mini vacation. I had my camera along for the ride. Got some odd, but curious looks from the waitstaff there when I pulled it out every time they brought a new dish to our table. My wife kept laughing at me. No matter. The tart was excellent.


The Trail

On a hike through Bastrop State Park with my boys and a good friend. It had been raining all week leading up to this. The weather had cleared just enough, but the park was still inundated with the remains of the storms.


Do I have your attention?

She wanted to be Aeon Flux. We only had a short time to pull this one off. She moved away two weeks later. She had the outfit down. Hair, makeup, guns, pose. We threw our own touch onto the idea and suspended her with rope.


Bubbles VI

And finally, everyone should play with bubbles. You create little translucent worlds that last only moments, each one different, each one a character unto it's own. And then it pops.

I don't know that I'll take anymore photos this year. I still have a full card to go through. But ... there's still a New Year's Eve party ahead of us, so ... who knows. Maybe I'll get one more in before the clock ticks over and resets the new year.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Santa has left the building! ... or a Strobist post-Christmas

Christmas Morning

Ok. This was originally intended as a post-Christmas review of the orgy of greed at our house. But ... then it turned into something else. With apologies to David Hobby and others mentioned in this take on "'Twas the Night Before Christmas". I couldn't help myself. It just took on a life of it's own after the first four lines.

'Twas a night after Christmas, when all through the home,

All the creatures were snoring, all wheezing an "ooooohm";

The stockings still hung by the chimney o'er there,

all emptied out with vague pomp and no care;

The children passed out all quiet in bed

while visions of chocolate and pokemon danced in their heads;

And mamma with her WOW client, and I in my chair,

Had just settle down for a deserved breathe of air.

When out on the lawn there arose such a "WHEE!",

I sprang from my seat to see what it could be.

Away to the front door I grudgingly trudged

Tore open the lock and wickedly judged.

The moon was at peace on my dead front grass,

Giving nothing but darkness to the objects amassed,

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a beat up old Pinto aflame at the rear

With a flash totin' driver, so wizened and nobby

I knew in a moment it must be David Hobby.

More rapid than beagles his speedlights they triggered,

and he whistled, and chimped, while his assistants jiggered;

"Now, McNally! now, Wizwow, now Kelby, and Jarvis!

On, Oglethorpe! On, Bounceman, On Honl and Zack Arias!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now flash away, flash away! flash away all!"

As Rosco samples that in the wind blow,

When they meet with an obstacle, gaffer tape will flow.

So up to the house-top the photogs they flew,

with a box full of superclamps and St. Strobist too.

And then, with a ringing, I heard on the roof

The struggling and screaming of each popped flash on it's hoof.

As I drew back my camera and was turning about,

Down the chimney St. Strobist dropped right out.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his toe,

thanks to the great '09 blizzard that covered with snow.

A bundle of goodies he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a UPS guy just opening his pack.

His eyes -- how they sparkled! His nose was so blue!

His cheeks were so frozen, his mouth still craving a Dew!

And up on his forehead camped an orange and blue cap,

The Gators, of course, don't you know that you sap?

The stump of a pocket wizard held tight in his hand,

And the signal it triggered on some 4 channel band.

The glasses that shined and a broad grin

that bubbled up and spread from here to therein.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly 'tog,

And I giggled when I saw him, no fear, just agog.

A wink of his eye and a nod of his chin,

Just let me see that this was all sorts of win.

He spoke not a word, but he chimped and he triggered

And filled all the CF cards; then turned and he staggered

And laying his finger aside of his cap

And giving a nod, up the chimney he did flap;

He sprang to his Pinto, to his team gave a "whee!"

And away they all puttered like an alien with bee.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

"Have fun with your lighting, and with that, good night!"

The photo above is of my daughter on Christmas Day. I'd set up two SB-800's on opposite corners of the room after re-reading the post on Christmas Game Plans: Results from way back in 2007. Didn't get very consistent results because I was using TTL. I think, next year, I'll just slap the pocket wizards in place, dial in a consistent exposure and flash power, and see how much better that works. This photo was one of the best. I like it. TTL worked in this particular case. But ... next time.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Photo I Didn't Take: Strix Varia

Barred Owl

Photo of the Strix Varia, aka the "Barred Owl", courtesy of Wikipedia

We all hear it echo in the back of our heads, "The best camera is the one you have with you." You can't take a photo if you don't have that camera within easy reach (or even within reach at all). And we've all done it. Gotten in a hurry, I mean. Gotten so frazzled that we were late or that we thought we wouldn't need it, so it stayed in the camera bag sitting on the kitchen table. Back at the house. 20 miles away.

That's where my camera was on Saturday night. Sitting there, all pristine and warm and cozy with the 50mm f1.8 slapped on it on this chilled Central Texas winter's night. I looked at it right before I walked out of the house thinking I wouldn't need it. You see, I was going to a Christmas party and didn't want to burden myself with having to play the camera guy for the evening. I've been roped into doing that before. It's fun when I want it to be. But this night, I wanted to relax and enjoy myself, not worry about recording the evening for one and all to cherish.

... and out the door I went.

My friend's place is out in the boonies. Far enough out of town that you can begin to see the stars again, but not so far out that the light pollution is gone and you can see the Milky Way. Close, yet so far. Their place is a bit set back from the road. And by a bit, I mean, you turn onto their drive way and travel for another five minutes as it winds back through the narrow strip of land that leads back to the rest of the ranch. Half-way there, you come to a small one-lane concrete bridge that they built over a wet weather creek.

So, like I normally do whenever I'm out there at night, I'm driving slow, driving careful, high beams on so I don't hit anything that looks like a skunk, and making sure I don't bottom the car out on the drive way. This night was no different. But then, it was.

As I said, I don't like speeding on their property. It's rude. Plus, with the recent rain, the driveway was a bit torn up coming up to the bridge. I took it slow and was creeping up onto it, avoiding the mud and the bottomless puddles.

I almost missed it.

The owl, I mean.

It was fully illuminated in my headlights, not more than five feet from the hood of my car. It just sat there, looking at me intently, perched all by it's lonesome on the bridge guard rail. It stared and stared, as if it was willing me to turn off those blinding deer illuminators bolted to the front of my car.

The first instinct was to gently hit the brake. Check.

The second instinct was to reach over and grab the camera with my nice, wide open 50mm and get a photo or three before the owl flew off.

I reached. And felt. And scrambled. And where the camera wasn't, a glass plate of brownies was. CRAP! My camera, my trusty sidekick ... was AWOL. And then I remembered.

It was at home. 20 miles away. In the warmth of the house.

I knew it was back there, silently mocking me. If Nikon had an Easter egg in it's bodies, that Easter egg would be a voice chip and speaker that would laugh hilariously at you whenever you needed the camera most, but failed to keep it at hand.

So, I just sat there, watching the owl watch me back. It was a face off for no more than a dozen seconds. And with that, he leapt from his post guarding the bridge to fly off into the pitch black darkness that wasn't pierced by my headlights.

And this, my dear reader, is why it's important to always have your camera. Because when you're faced with an owl in the dead of night, you want to have something to remember it by. Otherwise, it becomes the photo you didn't take.

And before you ask, it might not have been Strix Varia. I'm pretty sure it was based on the coloring, the markings, and photos of the common owls in Central Texas. But hey. I could be wrong. It was still pretty !@#$% cool to see an owl in the dead of night.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fewer Shots? Why yes, I think I will.

Wesley and the Fire Demon

Today, I was catching up on tweets from the photo world and this blog post from Scott Bourne happened to come up.

Become a Better Photographer by Taking Fewer Shots « Photofocus:

"‘Okay, I’m done.’

‘That’s it? You’ve only been shooting for ten minutes!’

‘Yep, got about 50 shots, I should have 4-6 proofs for you from that bunch.’

‘So we’re done?’

‘Pretty much…I mean I can keep shooting, but there’s really no point, it’ll just be duplicates of the same stuff.’"

Every Thursday night at a local coffee joint called Spiderhouse, burners from around the area filter out into the night to meet up, catch up, burn up, and live up the evening. Some nights you'll only find one or two people there. And still other nights, the crowd will be thick and awed by these people knowingly dancing with spark and flame, mixed in a combustible hydrocarbon cocktail. Spinners, young and old, greenhorns and gurus alike come out to play.

I was out this Thursday.

Man, Thursday night was cold. Not bitter cold like we've seen in the last few weeks, but cold enough that I should have remembered my recently acquired +5 gloves of comfort. Not a good thing when you're trying to photograph someone outdoors, at night, with a bit of wind at your back. Exposed fingers become icicles in mere moments. The last thing you want is to have a finger freeze to your camera trigger and break off at the decisive moment. Nothing good would come of that.

So, like I was saying. I was out this Thursday and happened to be at Spiderhouse. Out back amongst the cobblestones and picnic benches, in fact. Lisa, one of the regulars, and a new guy, Wesley, were out by the stage prepping for a burn, so I walked over and watched. No. It's not so much that I watched. I was drawn in. Captivated and hypnotized by this new guy's fluidity with the poi. He was very good, to put it mildly.

LisaAnd herein, I decided I need to grab the camera and take some photos. Lisa and Wesley were gracious enough to allow me some time to play. I wanted to try something new, so out came the Ezybox. Now, I've done a fair bit of photography in the local burner community, so I'm always interested in trying out new ideas here. In fact, the cover of Joe McNally's Hot Shoe Diaries is very inspiring for me; I want to do a shoot like that with one of the local burners.

This night would be a step in that direction.

But, before I go on, what does this all have to do with the quote from Scott's blog? Having spent quite a bit of time photographing fire spinners, the one thing I've found is: there's only so many moves you can do with each type of fire spinning prop. Poi, staff, meteors, swords: they all have limits to their showmanship, so there's only so many ways you can experiment with photographing them. After you take a few hundred shots of someone spinning something in a circle, all you have is a few hundred shots of flaming ring photographs. It looks all the same.

And knowing this, I've been trying to cut down the number of photographs I take of people playing with fire.

When I first undertook to photograph fire spinners, I always saw it as a race against time. Get as many photos of the flames before the wicks flamed out or grew too lacking of fuel to get the rich oranges and yellows of blaze. When I started seeing the blackness of the wick itself, I knew it was coming to a close. The camera sounded like a slow-motion machine gun as the shutter clicked open, waited a second or two, and then clicked closed. And then again. Again. And again. And ... again. Until I filled up a card and was forced to swap to the next.

One of the things that fire has begun to show me is that this can be so. unberably. repetitive. Boring almost. Of the few thousand photos I have now, I can point at maybe a hundred that have become artistically interesting for one reason another. And many of those have been caused by something different that happened during the burn. Maybe it was someone I'd never seen before. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe it was me trying something I'd not played with before. But, whatever happened in the photo, it was different. Unusual. Something to be remembered.

And knowing that, I've begun looking at what I'm doing in my other photographic interests and trying to apply the same aesthetic. I don't want it to be repetitive and I believe that this often causes the mental blocks I've so frequently been encountering with my camera. Because, if you're shooting the same thing over and over, where is the art? Where is the fun? Where is the blade of unusuality that takes ahold your interest and leads you into the photo?

Gone. It's just gone.

So I'm forcing myself to look anew at what I'm doing and try to evaluate what should be different. What should be played with. Like Thursday: I don't normally add flash to my fire photos. I've always found it difficult to balance and clumsy to work with when you're playing with longer shutter speeds in order to capture the arc of fire.

But here's what I learned: it's still no different than other flash photography. You can easily over power it. You've got the control there you need. Now, rightly control it. In many of my photos from that evening, I let the flash over power the scene. Why? Because the chimper in me kept seeing the scene as too dark on the back of that god forsaken camera LCD. And second? What I want to do is fire within a portrait. I want to go for that McNally photo and make it my own. And doing so is going to make me think differently about what I'm trying to achieve with the local fire spinners, moving from a passive documenter, to an active photographer and engaging them in the photo, so they can engage you in the photo.

I ended the night with about 50 photos. Three came out good. I think that's a fair haul for 20 minutes of shooting filled with experimentation, don't you?

The photos above are of Wesley and Lisa. Both were photographed using a 15" Lastolite Ezybox Hotshoe with an SB-900 at 1/2 power and a full CTO to balance the color of the flash to that of the flames.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Early Christmas! I heart Lastolite Ezybox ... a review

Lastolite Ezybox Demo-9851For months, I've been searching for a portable softbox that would work well with my speedlights. I looked at the Creative Light setup. I looked at Lastolite. I looked at crap Ebay stuff. I went back to working with my umbrellas just to make sure that they were truly annoying me. They were. And I kept searching.

After a month of hemming and hawing, I narrowed it down to two systems: Lastolite Ezybox Hotshoe and Creative Light's system. Both looked really good on paper and both came with good marks from people on the Internet that I follow and trust (David Hobby and Joe McNally). Joe is a fan of the Lastolite equipment. It's prominent in many of his videos and photographic grip lineups. David recently expo'd the Creative Light stuff on his blog.

The big differentiator between the two is that the Ezybox Hotshoe appears to only have two sizes: a 15" and a 24" square box. The Creative Light system is a speedring that has a cold shoe on it and fits any of their strip boxes, softboxes, and other setups. Plus they have a wider range of sizes and shapes. With a speedring, that also meant I could still use the Creative Light softboxes if/when I purchased some Alienbees (or something beefier) just by purchasing the appropriate ring attachment.

Not so much with the Ezybox Hotshoe. It's designed to work with their specific speedlight speedring (which is made of plastic, by the way).

So what did I end up with? The Lastolite Ezybox Hotshoe. I looked long and hard at the Creative Light system and the most significant down-side was that you just can't get the speedlight speedring right now. No one has it. Everything appears back ordered with no timeline for getting it back in stock.

It arrived at our doorstep today and when I got home, I immediately tore into the B&H box. Lots of happy little packing pillows cradled my lovely little light modifier of happiness.

The Ezybox Bag

What's in the bag?

For some reason I expected the bag to be smaller and more portable, something I could hook onto my camera bag and just carry everywhere. Not so much. It's manageable but will be awkward, so I'll keep it in the photo box and pack it with me when I know I'll need it. Looking in the bag, I found that I had received not one, but two of the 2414 flash brackets. I don't know if this is normal or not. If not, merry christmas to me!

The Ezybox Hotshoe flash holder

The bracket assemblies pretty easily. It's plastic, but feels solid enough. I had no problem putting an SB-800 on it with a stofen. The SB-900, being larger, was a tighter fit and more awkward to get in place, but I think that will become easier as I get used to working with it.

Hotshoe flash holder built.

Close up of the shoe mount
The softbox itself is a foldable setup. It looks like four Lastolite Tri-grips sewn together. The internal structure seems pretty solid. I'm not sure if it's metal or steel, but it's certainly thick. The box is stiff and doesn't really lay flat by itself when folded up. When it pops open, a quick squeeze of the opposite corners gets it nice and squared up. The inside of the box is layered with a silver lining to help increase the efficiency of the light.

The ezybox folded up

Opened more ...

Unfolded ..
Pop goes the weasel ...

The opening in the back side of the softbox is just large enough to accommodate the SB-900 with a bit of maneuvering room to spare.

Opened Ezybox

The diffusion panel is held on by velcro on all four sides. Mine seems just slightly larger than the opening at the front of the softbox, so it's fairly easy to get on and off.

Ezybox with the Diffuser

Next, we attach a flash to the flash bracket. It's sturdy. I would avoid overtightening the two screws. The one that holds the ring to the shoe needs to be snug but not so much that it starts flexing the bracket. Mine already has a slight indentation on the groove of the ring part where I over tightened. Also, the pin holder where you'd attach the bracket to a light stand is all plastic. I was careful not to overtighten this part for fear of splitting the collar.

Shoe with a flash on it

The ring doesn't really attach to the softbox as much as it slips inside the lip of the rear of it. The softbox boning is fairly sturdy back here, but gives you enough slippage to spin the softbox around the circumference of the ring with ease. I could adjust it one handed with no problem.

Flash mount attached

And here's a test shot with the softbox in view.

Tada!  Finished product

I was working with iTTL CLS while playing with this (which is still a new thing for me being used to working in manual mode with Pocket Wizards). I was finding that I had to push the flash exposure up by 0.7 to 1.0 EV to get something that wasn't under exposed. I'm not sure if that was just me not yet fully understanding CLS or the conditions under which I was playing.

Here's a second photo. Softbox to the left and behind the wine bottle with an SB-800 in it. To camera right was a large sheet of floppy paper with an SB-900 bouncing into it to provide a bit of fill from the right. Uber light control. I like it.

Ezybox Demo with wine bottle

Overall, I love this thing. The 15" softbox was a good investment and a great addition to my lighting gear. I'll be putting it through further paces to see what problems I might encounter with it.

For those looking to purchase, I just got the basic Lastolite LL LS2438M2 Ezybox M2 Hotshoe (15-Inch x 15-Inch) from B&H Photo. Adorama and B&H have the same price on it right now ($140).

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ready if I want it now, Danger Boy...

Do I have your attention?

It's 1:30am on Thanksgiving Day. I'm wide awake, Johnny Cash is fitfully playing from some show on the Biography HD channel, and there's a frozen turkey sitting in a blue plastic tub in the kitchen. And yet, instead of dozing off or preparing for a wonderment of victuals delicately prepared and teased, I sit here thinking about my lighting style.

I am frustrated by it.

Let's back up a bit. I've been re-reading the Hotshoe Diaries again (and watching some recent McNally videos on the Nikon site) and realizing what difficulty I continue to have with my lighting style. I think I've been so abused of this notion that light must be grand and soft, that I find it a terribly grim notion to try something else.

Lately, I've been limited to using umbrellas. I know, there's nothing quite wrong with them, really. You can shoot through them. You can bounce into them. But controlling that light is a pain. It just goes everywhere. And generally, some of it is reflecting back some place I don't want it to go. Aeon Flux I I suppose I could get smart and flag out some of the light more, but in the heat of the moment I forget that I can do that. Or that I can collapse the umbrella. Or feather it. Or just take it off.

And herein lies the rub. I get wrapped up in what I'm doing that I can't defiantly remove myself from the scene and observe what's going on within it. Or even know what the scene should really be about. For the longest time, I've taken the mindset of letting things occur and reacting to it. No real foresight or planning occurs. I mean, what right-minded pirate would think of being so rigid as to stick to some photographic code! They're guidelines, people!

But, really, they're not even that. And I'm beginning to observe that not having some sort of reasonably gelled idea, not having some set of guidelines for what I really want out of the photo, not having some set of rules and checks that I want to purposefully constrain myself within is affecting my not very well-formed vision of the shoot from coming to fruition. A plan you must have. You can have a plan and choose not to follow it. You can't choose to not follow a plan that doesn't exist. Just doesn't work very well.

Take this latest shoot, for example. The idea was simple: Aeon Flux. That's it. I would show up with the camera, take a few photos, and be gone. I asked about what they specifically wanted but didn't get very good direction beyond, "We're going to suspend her and try to recreate one or two shots from the original TV show." Ok. Didn't know that until I got there so I had no idea what those shots would have or should have resembled.

I'm fond of the phrase, "a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine." Only, in this case, it was my lack of planning that made it a struggle. We tried a few positions, took some shots. Aeon Flux IIMostly, it was an evening of aimless fucking about until something kind-of, sort-of began to gel together if you tilted your head to the left, squinted your right eye, and covered your left with the back of an aching, sweaty palm.

And yeah, I was fighting the light the entire time. I wanted something mood-filled. Dark. Reminiscent of what I recalled the cartoon to be. Tried using two lights. One in a large umbrella, one bare to get some separation from the background. In most cases, it just did not work out the way I kept envisioning it. I'm still mulling over why. Could have been the space we were shooting, the lack of a real shooting plan, the phase of the moon. I'm not sure. Frustrating, it was.

So like any good non-plan following jack, I did what I thought best: killed the second light, pulled the first in closer, and dropped to a smaller umbrella. And this helped. I was dealing with too much light. Well, not so much that there was too much light, but that there was too much being illuminated. The walls, the ceiling, the carpet, the midget in the corner. I wanted to layer light in a pleasing manner, but I could not do it. Just wasn't working and I was tired of bashing my head against the wall.

Lately, I've been playing with the idea of using smaller light sources. more controllable, more directional. And the umbrella makes it difficult for me to achieve this (or maybe it's just that I don't know how to do it effectively yet). So, I'm getting a small 15" softbox for my speedlights. Aeon Flux III I think that'll be a good first step to get what I want. Blast all the light forward, don't have to worry as much about light coming from places I don't want it (like reflecting off the beige wall behind me). And this is what I really needed for this Aeon shoot. More control.

Once I got to a smaller umbrella, things started to work better. I felt less and less like my clutch was slipping and more like I was making positive forward momentum (even if I was squealing tires and redlining the engine). And looking back at what I was doing before, I begin to realize that what Joe McNally is doing is second nature to him. He understands just what light mod needs to be in place to achieve a particular effect (plus a bit of magic and luck) and I'm still figuring that out.

Only, in my case it feels like "shoot, shoot some more, shoot again, and then ask questions." Not a great way to do it.

So, some things I walk away with from this shoot:

  • Get a good idea of what the shoot is about. Include a list of photos you want to get.

  • Plan your shots, even if it's only a tiny bit of ordering. This will help you know when you've got it ... or when you should just move on.

  • Don't forget that you have control of the light. If something is broken, change it. Feather it, flag it, move it, change it, turn it into a duck. Whatever. Just try something different, but make sure it's a positive and directed different.

  • Breathe.

  • Think about what you're lighting before you get there.

  • Think about what you're NOT lighting before you get there.

  • Make sure the place you're shooting is appropriate for the subject you're shooting. Had I fully realized what the shoot was intended to be, I would have pulled them to a much better location.

  • Someone spinning around in the air really needs a tagline to hold them steady, otherwise you just cuss and frustrate yourself while attempting to get focus lock.

  • Spend some time after the shoot to review what you did and what worked (or didn't work). Just writing all this down has helped me figure out a few things to keep in my mental checklist of shooting.

My Aeon is a local friend who's moving out of town. This was a Halloween outfit she created a year or two back and she wanted some good photos of it before she departed. She'll be away for quite awhile and likely will only rarely return for visits. My only regret was never being able to photograph her in her Mystique costume. Damn was that thing sexy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Test post.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. :-)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cartier-Bresson never played with fire.

Red Stripes

Like I told my last wife, I says, "Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it's all in the reflexes."

Jack Burton, Big Trouble in Little China

Yes. I'm watching Big Trouble in Little China tonight. I love this movie. It's an 80's classic. I bring it up because of a scene in the movie where Jack and Wang Chi have bet each other that Wang Chi can't split a bottle in two with a large knife. Wang Chi hits the bottle. It, of course, does not split in twain, instead rocketing towards Jack's head. The hand being quicker than the eye, shoots up and snags the bottle before clocking him in the face.

Why do I bring this up?

I've been thinking about Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment and trying to better understand sensing or predicting the moment where the photo is "right". I tell you, I've shot more losers than winners trying to figure this out. Losing photos that is, not loser people. Anyway, this idea of capturing the decisive moment is difficult to grasp. It's difficult to know what exactly this idea really means. There's a group on Flickr to cover some of this. I spent some time reading through the discussions, as well as going back through some of Cartier-Bresson's books to glean some useful information.

Heh. "Useful information". There is none. All the talk I've found doesn't make up for the act of doing. I'm beginning to think it's like pornography ... you'll know it when you see it. And not one second before. Ironic, isn't it ... understanding what the decisive moment should be requires knowing when the decisive moment occurs.

Cartier-Bresson is quoted in a 1957 Washington Post article, saying, "Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."

You see. Intuition. You need that. And that only comes over time as you take crap photo after crap photo. At least, that's what it appears to my finely untrained eye. It's like trying to drive down the road, blindfolded, while steering a northerly course by the sensation of the road turtles under your tires. Bumpbumpbumpbumpbump. Get good enough at it, and you'll be able to judge not only distance and speed, but direction just from the sheer force of the ripple in your shocks.

But, back to Cartier-Bresson. He had years to develop this idea. I imagine he took his fair share of crap photos while slowly charting his course towards the decisive moment.

When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."

Jack Burton Big Trouble in Little China

Yes. I'm sure Henri paid his dues and that's why he understood what it meant to feel his way towards a better photograph. Intuition. A gut check. Using the force. Whatever you want to call the alignment of the planetary photogenesis (hey, I don't know what that means, it sounded good ... go with it). It ends up manifesting in a tiny, imperceptible muscle twitch that impregnates the image upon our photographic medium of choice right before the moment divests itself from our very sight.

And what do you know. Sometimes it's even a great photo.

The woman above is a local fire spinner in Austin. This was the first time I saw her spin. Very hypnotic. I've gotten to the point where I want to photograph something different with fire. Something I haven't seen or tried to see before. Here, she's up on a stage, replete with a large white background. You'd never know it from the photo, but 'tis true. She's kneeling on the stage, arching back towards the screen, twirling the fire ever closer to her face in between her stripped arms. If the music hadn't been loud, you would have heard the crackling get louder and softer, each time the poi flipped around closer to you. Woosh. Woosh. Woosh. Lovely fire. Lovely photo. Lovely woman. And this is me dancing with that decisive moment.

I think it worked.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bullet time.

This has been making the rounds. Makes you want your own highspeed camera, doesn't it?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Lost in a forest

The TrailThere's a scene in the movie Jarhead, towards the end where the marines are walking through the desert. You can see the waves of heat simmering up from the sand. Swofford is narrating, "A story. A man fires a rifle for many years. and he goes to war. And afterwards he comes home, and he sees that whatever else he may do with his life - build a house, love a woman, change his son's diaper - he will always remain a jarhead. And all the jarheads killing and dying, they will always be me. We are still in the desert. "

The Trail II
That last line always gets me.

Somewhere, someone is doing the only thing they know and they're ... lost. One of the hardest things we, as artists, have to do is recognize when we're in a rut. It's difficult. Damned difficult. Sometimes you have to force yourself to do something different.

Last weekend I decided it was time to find myself lost in a forest with a camera. It has been wet and cool. We trekked out on a grey and somber day, happy to not be walking in the rain.

There's a distinct crunch to dirt when it's wet. It's not so much that it crushes, but that it grinds and slips beneath your feet molding into the crevasses of your shoes. Then there's the slow sucking lurch as your foot melds in with the red clay mud. It was a hard pudding and we were sloshing through it with wild abandon.

I like walking in the forest. It's quiet. Not like the city where you can't get away from the buzzing sound of engines, squealing tires, yelling, rumbling chopper blades, and the sounds of activity. The forest, it is a death knell, quiet and eerie.

And this lets you relax and unfocus. There's an old saying about being unable to see the forest from the trees. It's right. As an artist, I tend to focus deeply on getting right the very thing that's in front of me. So focused that I completely pass over the detail that comes with everything surrounding.

“A woodland in full color is awesome as a forest fire, in magnitude at least, but a single tree is like a dancing tongue of flame to warm the heart.”

Moss IIThe combination of the grey, overcast day with the break in rain left the flora and fauna in quite a brilliant light. Everywhere we looked the greens were rich and lifelike, the browns were warm and inviting, the sheen left upon the world invited you to stop, crouch down, and navel gaze upon the mushrooms (and boy, were there LOTS of mushrooms). The decay out there was amazing.

And here I sit, one week later, staring at these photographs wondering why I'm still in this rut photographically. And all I can think is ...

I'm a photographer and I am still in the forest. Lost.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Taryn Simon on Crimes and Forbidden places

Another interesting video from TED. Who knew the CIA had such interesting abstract art hanging on the walls of their secret bunkers?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Bite me, Flickr.

I just had my entire flickr stream moderated as unsafe and marked as restricted. All 2500 photos. Assholes. And before you start harping on me and saying "Well, you should have moderated things!" ... I was already marking the racy stuff.

What the fuck.


Now I've gone back and re-moderated specific photos to be specifically restricted as opposed to "moderate". I'm awaiting a review of my account.

Do they tell me what photos triggered it? Nope. Do their guidelines make it crystal fucking clear what the various classes of restriction are? Not one bit.

I'll be moving quite a bit off in the near future, I think. At the very least, I won't be posting any of the more interesting stuff on flickr.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Are you a God?

Gozer: [after Ray orders her to re-locate] Are you a God?

[Ray looks at Peter, who nods]

Dr Ray Stantz: No.

Gozer: Then... DIE!

[Lightning flies from her fingers, driving the Ghostbusters to the edge of the roof and almost off; people below scream]

Winston Zeddemore: Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say "YES"!


Flame outInspiration strikes at the strangest times. No, I wasn't watching Ghostbusters at the time, but I was staring at my big, beautiful 54" DLP TV (that now has one lovely pixel that's stuck in the on position). It's a nice TV. Has a great picture, especially when the high def channels are running on it.

I was watching something on one of the Discovery channels when inspiration hit. I had been thinking about backgrounds because of the cookie setup I used for some recent portraits (written about in Boot to the head!). One of the things I look for now is an interesting background. Ok, maybe not interesting ... different. Something I haven't seen or done before.

So, this particular TV show has some very colorful moments in it when I realize that, if unfocused, would make some unique and easy backgrounds. I wouldn't have to do much to make it work. But, what about a subject?

We have this statue in our living room. It's a glorified candle holder. My wife says it's some sort of Buddha-ish thing. It has quite a bit of detail in it. Bumps and curves and folds. Faith
Plus the candle, must not forget the pale green honeydew candle sitting upon it's lap. In other words, something curious and attractive photographically.

Background. Check.

Subject. Check.

What's next? The lighting! I've been playing with collapsing my umbrella to help control the light a bit more. I wanted something more directional than shooting through a white umbrella (which has WAY to much light, I'm finding). But, without access to a softbox right now, I make do with what I have on hand. So, collapsed umbrella with the flash bouncing into it, as opposed to through it. The light was certainly a bit crisper in the shadowline.

Toss in a flickering flame and you have something where the light is sculpted just enough to bring out the detail in the statue.

So, Background, check.

Subject, check.

Lighting, check.

Setup for the StatueThree simple things needed to make a good photo. In this particular case, I tossed the light to camera right and feathered it away from the subject. Pushing it so it was directly on and above put too much light and killed too much of the shadow for me. You can see it a bit better in the setup shot. The hanging edge of the collapsed umbrella is lined up so it would be just on the edge of the face.

One of the things I'm finding is that it's worthwhile just trying something. Using the TV as a background was a stroke of chance (and man, timing the shot so the background was something useful was quite a pain in the ass). The two shots I have above were taken shortly apart from each other and you can see the big difference in style. I love the separation of the head and background made by the green sliver combined with the smoke trails vaporing off into nothing. I also love the fiery red background of the second combined with the single flick of orange flame. It works.

Oh, and the TV show? I think it was some documentary about the solar system, how it was formed, and how it would all come spiraling in to a despotic end, crushing our tiny little Earth. Makes for a cheery day, doesn't it?

So remember: try it. It might work. It might not. And if it doesn't, you've still learned something: how not to use a light, a background, or an idea in a particular way.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Boot to the head!

Master: Ed Gooberman, you fail to grasp Tae-Kwon Leep. Approach me so that you may see.

Ed: Alright, finally some action.

Master: Observe closely class. Boot to the Head [boom].

Ed: Ow, you booted me in the head!

Master: You are lucky Ed Gooberman. Few novices experiece so much of Tae-Kwon Leep so soon.

Lois (Board)Headshots. No, no, I'm not going to perform the moves of Tae-Kwon-Leep on you. Humorous as it may be, that's not the subject of today's post. Today we're talking about photographic headshots. Or rather, as close to them as I've gotten in the last month. Maybe a bit of background is in order.

I'm a member of a non-profit organization. August was the first month of the new term for the organization's Board of Directors. The organization is relatively new and still getting on it's feet. Slowly, but surely, it's getting there. I happened to be in the area when the meeting was occurring and offered to take photos of both the BOD and the organization's staff. Nothing fancy was needed, just something simple and presentable.

One of the things I've learned from the entire Strobist movement is that simple is good. Jesse (Board)Remember, "slow is smooth and smooth is fast." I didn't have much time to get the shoot together. All I knew walking into it was that I wanted a two light setup: a key light through a big white umbrella and a background light gelled blue to provide just swash of color. Why blue? Blue is a dominant color in the organization's marketing scheme.

I was hoping to find some textured background to give some interest to the photos, but when I arrived at the meeting place, I discovered it was in a plain-Jane office building. So, no dice. Sad photographer, no biscuit. But, the galaxy had one final hope!

A plant.

I found it tucked away in our meeting room behind a door. It was some sort of leafy bamboo-ish thing. Long thin leaves. Just enough to make a great cookie. Or cookaloris. What's a cookaloris? It's a basic light modifier used to filter light through to create a pattern against your background. Dan (Board)I'd never used one before (because it's always an after through when I'm shooting). This time, I jumped at it because I wanted something to make the background not so dull. Aside: I think the affect was great. I want to try doing more of these and make my own cookies with paper and shapes cut out of it. But, moving on.

Using a cookie is simple. Place it between your light and the background. The closer the cookie is to the light, the sharper and more defined the projected shadow is. So, with the plant acting as my cookie, all I had to do to spice up the background was to make sure my blue gel was firmly planted on the flash, zoom it in a bit and pop it for good measure. Mostly, I wanted to see if it was appearing on the blank wall correctly. It did. I was happy.

Next was getting my key light set up. I noticed recently that I tend to shoot A LOT with the key coming from the left. Unfortunately, I seem to be stuck doing this and is counter to my need to try and keep it working from both sides. David (Board)Plus, there's the whole issue of making sure I'm lighting the correct side of the model's face, but that's a wholly separate issue and post.

So, key to the left and ... needed some fill to the right. I only had one light stand and one umbrella with me and that was already in use for the key, so I couldn't use another flash (a third, which I did happen to have). What else do I spy in the room that I can press gang into use? Why, I have a useful human c-stand and a big, poster-sized white Post-It note. PROFIT! A bit of arrangement and I had my three light sources for the portraits.

And the magic of all of this? Ten minutes of setup to achieve an impromptu portrait studio suitable for photographing nine people in rapid succession.

Sorry, no setup shots for this. I'm sure you can figure it out from the lighting in the photos. If not, let me know and I can draw a picture that'll help diagram it out.

You can see the rest of the board and staff photos on my flickr stream.

The folks above are Lois, Jesse, Dan, and David. Good folks. I think Lois' portrait is my favorite from this entire setup.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A month! Where have you been!?

Drummer calling the lionSo there I was, stuck in the jungles of Borneo fending off the attacks of never before seen lovers of longpork and the delightfully disgusting dance of durian when ...

Wait, that's not it.

So there I was, sitting in first class on my way to grand Paris when the co-pilot rushed out of the smocking cockpit proclaiming the need for a professional geek. I, being a professional geek, raised my hand and ...

The sleeping lionWait, that's not it either.

So there I was, wondering how I was going to explain to my wife that I'd been arrested for trespassing in some rancher's field while trying to get my nude, feather wearing model to mount a cathartic bull when ...

Nope, nope. Not it either.

Ok. I admit it. I've just been busy. The month of August, while blazingly hot, has been nothing but work, work, more work, hey, look it's work! and ... lastly, more work. Mixed with a bit of fun, mind you.

Lion dances in the meadowI did manage to get out and do a brief photowalk early August. I ran across a troupe on the south mall up on campus. What drew me to them was the taiko drum thundering through the six-pack as I walked near the tower.

They were practicing a routine with one of the traditional Chinese lions. Bright, golden yellow was the color of their costumes. The dancers were engaged in what was going on and paid no attention to me, lurking some yards back. One thing struck me as I watched: the troupe was well-polished and practiced. You could see it in each leap and weave, each bow of the lion's head, each rhythmic strut following the beat of the drum.

Taming the Lion IAs the taiko thumper pushed the pace faster and slower, the troupe had dancers diving in and out from under the lion. The troupe lead was shouting them on, encouraging them to keep it tight and smooth.

The drummer went slower.

The lion paced.

When the last thump of the drum was heard, all the dancers emerged, lined up, and gave the lead a bow. All in time, as if they were saluting a lieutenant.

I packed my camera and walked off. I thought about giving them my card, but when I went back a few minutes later, they had gone.