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).