A little something from almost nothing

It amuses me whenever someone walks over while I’m working and asks what camera and lens I’m using. I always oblige because I love what I do and enjoy talking about my life and craft. The person asking the question will often say something like “Oh, wow. I’d love to have one of those” meaning my gear. Well, why don’t you? It’s just money, I tell them. They always look shocked when I say that: it’s just money. If you need it, then get one. If you don’t then don’t bother as it’s not necessary.

Really it isn’t.

Take a look at this video that I ran into the other day. Seriously watch at least a minute of this. It’s amazing. This kid wants to be a badazz prog-metal drummer. He didn’t let the fact that he’s poor and unable to afford a proper drum kit stop him. Thus, he made his own kit of of, eh, stuff. Then he put in a whole lot of work to gain the skill necessary to pull off complex drumming like this:

He didn’t let something as trivial as not having a $3000 drum kit let his dreams vanish. He made it happen. That’s what a dedicated artist does: find a way to make your passion for creation become reality regardless of the difficulties. BTW I found the video because it was re-posted by the band who he is covering and they thought that he nailed the song. Huzzah!

Back to the whole “gee, I wish I had your camera” conversation. Amateurs tend to have a gear fetish because they haven’t figured out that the real magic tool is in your head. I’ve had so many people talk to me about my gear and I can’t remember anybody asking me why I chose a particular lighting scheme or how I came up with a composition.

Buying the gear is easy: it just takes money. However the process of learning to think like an artist is hard as heck and sorry folks you can’t just buy that. It takes lots of time and frustrating hard work. Just ask the drummer kid. He knows.

Last month my wife and I attended a funky event called The Barbarian Dinner whereby all the attendees are expected to dress as their favorite sort of barbarian and bring a knife. No napkins or utensils are provided. You eat with your hands like a good barbarian does. Oh and all the beer that you can drink is a bonus as well. We went last year, had a blast and I figured that I’d shoot some video so that they could promote it for next year. I decided to shoot the whole thing with just my phone and gimbal. That’s it. I could have used any and all of my other gear but I decided that it was only going to get in the way. Besides, we weren’t there as a film crew, we were there as participants.

This is what I ended up with.

Moral of the story: a good idea well executed will always beat no real idea but lots of toys to play around with.

Boldly immodest

This was a shoot that I really don’t normally do. Almost all of the people that I photograph I would qualify as normal-ish but in some way exceptional. My subjects tend to live their lives based on what they know/skills or their talents rather than their image. Scientists, artists, maybe the occasional athlete, business people. They are not necessarily uncomfortable hanging out with me and being in front of my lens it’s just that they don’t do that sort of thing very often. Their experience could be a bit off if not handled well on my end. It’s important for me to make them comfortable with me and my goal is to make an image that speaks truly about them as a person while being interesting enough for the average person to want to learn more. “Who is this fellow? … Huh, particle physicist,  … facinating” That sort of thing.

I know from years of experience that asking my subjects to do funny things or to take any sort of direction the way that you would expect to do with say a professional model just isn’t going to work. They don’t know how to interpret my even simple directions such as “turn you shoulder more to me and lift up your chin a bit” will be wildly exaggerated and require me to walk over and physically pose them like a human Gumby Doll. Again making them feel awkward. So, yeah I don’t do that sort of thing very often.

Then I got this assignment and I knew that it would happily be the opposite of my usual procedure. Shinesty makes outrageous clothes for outrageous people. Therefor I knew that their president and founder Chris White would be up for whatever I came up with.  When a subject asks me “what do you want me to wear” and I think that they have a good sense of humor I will reply “Do you have a chicken suit? Ha-ha-ha! Right, just wear what you want” But with Chris I said, go get stupid. He knew what to do.

I got to work: there was a huge American Flag in the waiting room and a crappy couch. I moved some things around and boom! There was my frat house scene, perfect for Chris and his ensemble. The lighting had to be as unsubtle as Chris and Shinesty are so my main light was my 5 foot soft silver parabolic umbrella placed directly behind the camera.

That’s it Chris, more sleeze … more sleeze, make your grandma embarrassed.  Perfect!

The mystery of a moment

Somebody told me once that the real trick to photographing the real world is patience. That if you stand in once place long enough something interesting will happen right at your feet. This is pretty much the basis of all documentary and reportage photography. Only you attempt to figure out where and when that interesting thing is likely to happen then you go there and wait. Street photogs know this too. Same deal. Find a target rich environment and get ready to pounce.

A while ago I was out late and was behind the bar at this cool place talking to their master mixologist about how he comes up with new tastes. That’s “bartender” for you beer-and-a-shot folks. Anyhoo there were a few people seated near me and where apparently good friends from the energy coming off of them. I grabbed this frame:

I almost remember what they were talking about but to me there is so much going on here that I don’t want to.  I want to imagine and let my mind go wild. No knowing in this instance makes the image even more interesting. The gestures, expressions and the oddness of the moment really get me.  This is one of the things that I most love about still images: they hang there forever. We never get to see how this resolves. Come back later on and there is still those two claw like hands, the side-eye and touch of arrogance.


Anyone who spends time with my wife and I know that we have a real, weird, thing for chickens. We totally love the funky little buggers. We think that they are cute, hilarious – especially their odd vocalizations, noble and super tasty when stewed with dumplings.  We can be mid sentence in a very serious conversation but if we find one of those feathered guys in our vision somewhere we will promptly proclaim: “Chicken!” with a huge grin on our stupid faces. Yeah, I warned you about us.

So when I got two assignments lately to photograph chickens I was thrilled. The first was a story about the people at a small farm in Berthoud, not that far from where I live, that teaches people in the burgeoning urban homestead movement how to process their poultry. It’s usually chickens but lots of people are keeping ducks and turkeys too. This day it was just chickens. It was great to see that there was a whole family who was learning how to embrace the circle of life.

It’s been very important to me to know where my food comes from and to respect the sacrifices made for my dinner table. Seeing how the Rameys honor the birds was great to see as was the way that the people taking their class did as well.

Later on in the summer I did work on an article about a family who owns Cottonwood Creek, a pasture chicken farm out on the eastern plains of Colorado. Pasture raised is when the birds have full time access to open land to scratch, peck and eat anything that their little hearts desire. That means lots of bugs, worms and plants: a properly balanced chicken diet the way that nature designed. If you get your eggs at the store and it says “free range” that really is just a marketing term that says that the chickens live in doors but have access to a space outside the huge building for them to walk around in. It doesn’t say how big or wild the space is or much else. “Free range” is essentially the same as “never having seen the sun” chickens only you pay more for the label.


Matt Kautz and his family own about 60 acres where their hens roam in rotation so that now mobile roost stays on one plot for more than a week or so and many plots stay fallow to allow the vegetation and bug life to recuperate and be ready for the next roost to roll in.

The children regularly help out taking care of their 5000 hens along with collecting the eggs every day. The kids think that they have 5000 pets to cuddle with.

The hens quickly learn that they roost is where they sleep at night which keeps them safe from predators.

The best part was being able to watch all the hens just being, well, chickens in their natural environment. If you have never seen this you are missing out. Chickens are essentially forest ground dwelling birds and to run around in the grass and brush hunting for bugs is what they are meant to do.

Getting down to chicken level to photograph the hunting hens was amazing. Since they are the descendants of dinosaurs it wasn’t hard to lose sense of scale and see them as tiny dinos making their way through primordial forests. I refer to the above image as “Jurassic Chicken”.

People are flowers in the breeze, or … It’s all about timing

I don’t know what it is but I seem to work in the dim a lot. Rarely do my assignments take me to where the light is bright, the sun is full and I have to deal with almost too much illumination.  Rather I’m so often working in less than ideal light from a technical standpoint. This has always been the case it seems.

Back in my early years shooting landscapes and nature everything was shot on slow chrome film there ISO 64 was standard and the high quality ISO 100 films were just coming out. Yeah the stone age huh? With that sort of thing you were shooting at f/11 on ISO 25, Kodachrome baby!, on a tripod and during the golden “hour”, more like golden 20 minutes, your exposures were in the 1/4 to 1/2 second range. Well the tripod kept the camera steady, no problem there, but you were constantly cursing any breeze that might cause that flower in the all important foreground to move just a tiny bit and render it unsharp.

Now with our amazing digital cameras it’s much less of a problem as you just crank the ISO up to 400 or 800 and off ya go! No more problems with softly swaying flowers. Ta-DA! But things are different when you are dealing with not just lowish light and slowly moving things like flowers where you can kinda predict their action and trigger the shutter at the right time. Put a person in place of that flower for a low light portrait and you see what I mean. I do this all the time where the ambient light is ISO400 1/60th @ f/2.8 or lower. Now that’s fine in a reportage state of mind. You just crank the ISO to 1600 and you get nice sharp photos with a 1/250th shutter. Oh wait! I need to light this and make the subject look good because we are indoors and all the light is coming from the ceiling creating that lovely “mask of death” look that’s so popular in Milan this season. UGH! Now what? Yep you gotta bring in the strobes and light your subject in an interesting and largely flattering way. Therein lies the rub.

Now we are going to be in the f8 region if we want the portrait to be environmental, again what I do all the time, or wider if it is much more about the subject than the space around. Both provide technical issues. If we are shooting at say f/5.6 then to blend our ambient light in given the above situation then our shutter speed is going to be a 1/15th. That is well below our threshold for hand holding so out comes our trusty tripod to keep the camera steady but it does nothing for keeping our subject sharp especially if we are trying to get expressions that are fleeting as they tend to be. Now I can just again crank the ISO to get a faster shutter speed but the problem is that my lights have a minimum output and raising the ISO makes the lights essentially even more powerful. Speedlights are often the cure because they have much less output than my monolights but it’s hard to get even illumination from them when in a four foot octabank.

Here is such a situation. I got an assignment to photograph at the Hazel Dell mushroom farm in Fort Collins Colorado. They are one of the few mushroom farms in the region so all the top restaurants in the area use them. The main grow room is very dim, mushrooms like it that way, and very humid. I shot Jim the owner at f/4.0 and 1/15th ISO 400 with one color balanced octa at camera left. Jim is a great guy but at a 1/15th keeping his laughter and expressions sharp was tough. As William Albert Allard said, “There is no such thing as a snapshot with a half second exposure.”

Hazel Dell

2 in 1, or: my visual Gemini life

My work for the last few years has developed this neat-o split personality. I do portraits and I do reportage. Sometimes I get to do that for the same assignment which is to me very cool.

I do a lot of business profiles and to me it’s important to not only make the head dude/dude-ette look cool but also, if at all possible to show the people who work there who don’t wear the fancy suits. When you realize that the big guy that you are photographing has maybe ten minutes to spend with you, ya need organization and the ability to make a lot happen in no time with no fuss. That’s when I drag in all the cases of lights and stands and impressive looking stuff. I make a plan which usually consists of  2-3 different looks in one general area so that I can be as efficient as possible. I usually figure that I really only have five minutes to get “John Bigbooty, President of Megacorp, with their new SuperWidget XL2”. Once that is done I pack up all the gee-whiz stuff and go light and mobile: one body and usually just my 24-70 which which to head back to the engineering lab where they are hard at work developing the SuperWidget XL2 PLUS.

I love these assignments as they very clearly represent my two selves: the lighting it just right meticulous me and the freewheeling “screw the technicals – this is neat-o!” me.

Case in point: I did photos at a Denver company called MMLocal who is making waves with their small batch and rather artisan pickles. It’s run by two friends who are super dudes and they were a lot of fun to shoot for the five or so minutes that I could pry them away from running their quickly growing company. BTW I really lucked out here. They look a bit a like, dressed alike that day so I make the shot sorta monochromatic by shooting them against the side of their big galvanized cooler where they ferment their sauerkraut. Made their brightly colored product stand out.


Then I headed to the production facility and got this shot of one of their guys putting in a batch of pickles into the steamer for canning. Moody!


Case #2. It’s a small world and I was sent to shoot my buddies at Renegade Brewing once again. Brian O’Connor their founder and head brewmeister is a heck of-a guy but with a big expansion under way is the “one armed paper hanger”.

Renegade 1

Then it was back to shoot the pirates in the brewhouse making the end result of Brian’s master plans.

Renegade 2

I love these gigs. It works all of my brain and forces me to be as creative as possible in the shortest amount of time. My head often hurts at the end of the day but I like it that way.

Bounce House

I’m gonna tell ya, someone needs to make bounce houses large and tough enough so that us big kids can go nuts inside. Bounce houses are the perfect padded room to let your inner nut case out of his cage and let that freak go wild. I’m so jealous of those little fellas who get to play in them.

Was at a place with one the other day and got this shot of Ruth, what a perfect grandma name, waiting for her grandson to get properly worn out while safely inside the inflatable color riot. I mean the insane colors, graphics and those two different moments going on: the quiet one that Ruth is having and the behind her that little dude clearly intent on mayhem. Love it.

This was a classic case of: find the rough composition where you know that something is going to happen and then wait for the pieces to fall into place.


The end of summer

Wha? It’s the end of fall you dolt! True enough but let’s be nostalgic for a bit. I mean that’s all the rage innit? Here’s a frame that I got at the local end of summer fair. Not much to say here: I just like the framing and moment. The tool of choice here is my Fuji X100s. The perfect camera for invisible in plain sight work.


It’s all about having a perspective

It’s not because I’m used to it, though I am after all these years, but the world is just so boring when seen from where my eyes are normally at. It’s painful really. As a result I constantly strive to find a different way of seeing things. Getting my camera away from my usual eye level is pretty much a given with me. Is it more interesting from the perspective of a five year old? A dog, a bug? Maybe if I took the shot from a Shaquille O’Neal level would that be neat-o? Would it be even cooler if I took the shot while standing on Shaq’s shoulders? Ah, now we are getting somewhere!

I wear out all my shoes and jeans at a stupefying rate because I’m always kneeling, crawling and climbing to get a new angle. If there is a chair, ladder or overlook position available, I’ll be up there at some time to get a high angle. If there is anything on the ground, it will most likely end up in my hair or on my shirt because I’ll be down doing “the worm” to get a super swell look at things from the eye level of a cocker spaniel.

One of the reasons that it took some people a while to find the exact angle that Ansel Adams got for some of his famous images was that he didn’t shoot them from remotely eye level but from a platform on his car:

When we got the whole “live view” option on our cameras back in 2009 it made for much more precision when shooting overhead shots. It was no longer a “hail Mary” shot but a “Well looky there!” shot. If I can shoot tethered I can use live view when my camera in a position that couldn’t possibly include my head to get, say, perspective of being inside something. Perspective! I try to do my best to see things from 360 degrees around my subject to the best of my ability because somewhere in there is a perspective that is, well, interesting. Inclusion, exclusion … options and opportunities.

A while ago I was commissioned to do photos of Renegade Brewing here in Denver. If you have ever been in a working microbrewery you know that they are kinda cramped and getting perspectives can be tricky. I was up on the deck with Brian O’Connell the owner and head brewer while he was making a batch and after working a bunch of things I went really wide and high to get this:


It was my fave frame of the day because it’s just different. And different, hopefully in a thought provoking way, is what I live for.

More with a little light

My last post where I brought out my handy flashlight to illuminate my subjects face during a long exposure made me remember this shot that I did a while ago. It was for a commercial client of mine Wild Goose Canning who makes canning lines for craft breweries. They needed something cool for advertising but the problem is that the machines are designed for function and not at all for appearance. The problem was: how to make a bunch of stainless steel bars and boxes look interesting especially when they are always seen in locations that are mostly stainless steel. Answer? Light paint that sucker!

So off I went to San Diego in December to shoot the install of a new system showing the set up of the system in both stills and video. The plan was that once the system was installed to do some photos for future advertising. We did a bunch of stuff that worked fine but my big idea was to light paint the system because it would give a look that 1) would be neat-o and 2) would show their canning line in a way that was half sci-fi and half “playboy centerfold”.

The method is simple. Set up the camera on the tripd and line up your shot. Turn out the lights and leave the shutter open while you run around like squirrel on crack with a flashlight adding in the light with brush strokes of your flashlight or in my case three different ones for different effects. It’s a trial and “ooo, THAT didn’t work” process but once you get the hang of it it goes pretty easily. I’ve often said that photography is very much a performance art as you are constantly “in the now” and learning as you go: improvising like any good jazz musician does. Well let me tell ya folks light painting a big bunch of steel is very much like dancing while doing arithmetic at the same time.


Yeah. Because you are trying to make interesting sweeps of light with your light “brush” but you are counting constantly in your head. “Slowly up the right side, one-two-three, now arch around to the display panel, one-two, open up the underside for a count of seven … ” like that. If you are really good you are keeping a total count for your total exposure that you’ve programmed into your camera. Most cameras only allow you to dial in 30 seconds of exposure and after that you need and external release or even better one that is programmable so that you can set it for whatever time that you need. In this case I was shooting tethered to my laptop using Nikon Camera Control Pro 2 so that my client rep could see on the bigger screen what we were getting. But that still doesn’t give me more than 30 seconds so I used my ancient Nikon MC-20 remote which allows me to program in a long exposure time. We found that about 1 minute 45 seconds gave me enough time to paint things in while not overly burning in the lights on the machine.

The end result is just what I had hoped for and the great thing is that this is straight out of the camera even though it looks “shopped” to heck.

A little light work

One of the main reasons that I became a photographer of people and their personal worlds was to go places and learn things. I accepted a long time ago that although I’m a pretty smart dude I didn’t and can’t know everything but that I was gonna try to learn something every day that expands my world in some manner. Thus it’s quite often that I get an assignment and I get excited not just at the opportunity to possibly make photos that I’m proud of but to learn something truly interesting.

As some may know a big new trend/fad/fashion in eating is the gluten free diet. I’ll skip all armchair quarterbacking on this topic thank you but I will say that I like my pasta with extra gluten! Yummy. Anyhoo the deal is that the gluten free movement has opened a lot of new horizons for people both the eaters as well as those who produce what we eat.

I got an assignment to photograph a small company north of Fort Collins Colorado who is making gluten free malt for making beer and they are doing well with this. Most gluten free beer is made from a sorghum syrup but that makes for a pretty tasteless product. The people at Grouse Malting are using millet and have found a way to malt and roast the grain to enable brewers to make a gluten free beer with real flavor. Huzzah! For me the great thing is that they malt their grain in house with a classic process called floor malting. They built a big room that is temperature and humidity controlled to allow the grain to begin the process of sprouting which converts the starches inside into more simple sugars that the brewers yeast can convert to alcohol. It’s an art/science blend as they have to manually turn the grain with shovels and inspect it to know when that batch is ready. This is a pretty cool thing that they are doing as there are very few floor malting facilities in the US and to their knowledge Grouse is the only one who has figured out how to do this with millet.

Thus, I had to photograph the malting room! However I quickly saw a number of things that I’d have to overcome to get an interesting photo in there. Problem number one: it’s like a sauna in there with all the humidity. Steamy! Problem number two: it’s lit by a single wall mounted light. Problem number three: it’s dark as heck and I needed a malter dude at work. How to pull this all off?

Easy! Almost. First step was to find my composition and that meant my Nikon AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8 on my trusty Gitzo G1320 tripod way down low to show the malt on the floor. Just shy of 24mm did the trick and f/11 would hold the foreground/background sharp enough. I mean let’s face it, I was shooting in a steam room so infinite background sharpness just wasn’t gonna happen folks. ISO 400 gave me an exposure of one second which was enough to accomplish two things: enable my malt dude to pour some malt from his shovel to show motion while he himself stood still and the other was to light paint him and the malt in the shovel with a flash light.

What? Yep a flash light. I used my hand around the lens of the Inova X2 to produce a thin beam that I could use to light his face and the malt in particular to make them pop out of the steamy darkness. I always have a flashlight with me for a number of uses and this is a great reason to always have an additional and flexible light source. That said I put my beloved problem solver the Nikon SB-800 pointed towards the far right corner and triggered it wirelessly from the built in controller flash of my Nikon D700. This gave some separation and kept the gloom at bay.

Less than a dozen frames and we got this:
Grouse 6

BTW I love to learn from other photographers and am quite curious as to how they solve their particular problems. I picked up the Inova x2 by recommendation from the amazing photographer Robert Seale. You can’t have too many options when it comes to lighting things.

Amber waves

It was the kind of phone call that only a few of us get excited about. It went something like this:

“We’d like to send you to Nebraska in the middle of winter to to photograph a farmer way the heck after harvest for a story about the harvest. We have no idea if anything his happening but we need the photos in three days and if possible enough coverage to put up a photo gallery on the web. Are you up for it?” A sane person would tell the person on the other end of the conversation to see their doctor about getting a stronger prescription for their anti-psychotic drugs. But a lunatic like myself said “Diggity! I’m on the way.”

Off I went to shoot a package for the Wall Street Journal about the historic event of China buying huge amounts of sorghum from US farmers, like Mike Baker the guy with the farm in Nebraska. This started in 2013 but got big in 2014 and the demand is increasing. So much so that farmers like Mike are now selling sorghum for more money than corn on the open market. That’s a big deal. Especially in Nebraska home of the “Corn Huskers”.

Well they were right: not much farming going on in January or as Mike calls is “the down season” where he usually spends quality time with the family and was about to go with them to Mexico for a week of scuba diving. Much nicer than the 5 degree weather we had that day on his wind swept farm out on the plains. But Mike is a great guy and I just hung out with him for the day as he was going to take a truck load of is sorghum to market in neighboring Kansas where he could get a few extra pennies a bushel.

This was a lot of fun. I’ve been going loads of portraits lately and not that much reportage so this was so refreshing. My new-ish setup is still two bodies but now with my trusty 24-70 on one body and my 50mm f/1.4 always set to wide open on the other. That’s really the way that I’m seeing things now: back to basics just me and the subject whenever possible. However when Mike headed into the silo I grabbed my well worn 17-35 for the shot of him peering out of the hatch and the shot of him inside the silo. The light in there reminded me of Edward Westons peppers series. The way that it subtly bounced around was pretty cool. The sorgum in my shoes, down my neck and all the irritating dust from that stuff was just horrible. My eyes and throat were raw for about two days afterwards. Oh well. You sacrifice for your art. Right?

WSJ-Sorghum 2

WSJ-Sorghum 23

WSJ-Sorghum 20

WSJ-Sorghum 21

WSJ-Sorghum 17

WSJ-Sorghum 16

WSJ-Sorghum 14

WSJ-Sorghum 12

At the edges; an afternoon moment


I was someplace waiting for something to happen. Typical story so far. The other typical aspect was that the time that I was told to be there was wrong by about 45 minutes. I was so early that there was seriously nothing going on. So I did what I always do: go looking for photos – ones that I see and want and the client most likely has absolutely no use for.

After wandering about for a while I looked down and there this was this dappling of light through the trees that made a kiss of light on this girls arms and the tie at the back of her top. Dunno about you but it feels like a summer evening to me. Two frames and done.

It is often a good idea to as we say “Arrive early and leave late” because so many things happen at the edges of both events and also light. This one happened at both edges simultaneously.

I wish I was paid more often to make photos like this one: it’s so much more interesting and satisfying than just about anything else that I do.

Allison, or the moments between

While on assignment to do portraits of a business student at the University of Northern Colorado who was part of a program focusing on the ethics of business practices I had an interesting situation: an subject that expressed two very different attitudes seamlessly. Wha? Ok here’s what I mean. Allison is a very nice young lady who is quite smart and has an almost effervescent energy. She laughs easily, is very comfortable with herself and when she is talking her face lights up into the kind of smile that makes you think that she is having the most wonderful time. An easily likeable and engaging person. And yet when she wasn’t talking she had this gentle and slightly fragile demeanor. It was as if a switch would flip: laughing bubbly chatty and the (click!) quiet and reserved but with an intensity in her eyes. It’s was very interesting how this worked. I shot her in her “normal” happy energy mode but occasionally she’d flip that switch turn into that smart but shy girl. True to my nature I shot both of the ladies as/when they presented themselves. I feel that if something interesting is in front of your lens it’s your responsibility to capture that moment. I mean, that’s my job right?

Side note: as always I bring a bunch of lighting equipment for any portrait assignment but in this case I didn’t use any of it. We had amazingly soft and warm light bouncing about the buildings on the CSU campus which was more interesting and flattering than just about anything that I would have come up with. I ended up using the graphics that the buildings offered as a backdrop for the portraits and really liked how when paired with my Nikon AF-G 50mm f/1.4 wide open her shirt and the dappling of the wall behind her blended nicely.

So here is my fave frame from our time together:


Canned spontaneity

Basically when you get an assignment you are given one of two situations. Either are given a sort of carte blanche, go make interesting photos, or you are given a specific layout that you need to work within. Sometimes you get both with the exciting but dreaded words, “cover story”.

Most of the time I am in what I call “wind me up and let me go” mode whereby I am left to my artistic methods to visually discover my subject.  I love these because I can just be a curious kid in total wonder of the things that I discover and show how that experience effected me.

But sometimes you are trying to find that which not only is visually interesting but fits into the design that an editor or art director decided upon most likely without having met the subject or seen where the photos are to be made. These can be tough on a number of levels. First is to try and find something that even remotely looks like the page layout demand. This is often crushingly difficult. The next, and maybe in some ways is tougher, is to find a way to make something interesting happen within that limited layout. Especially when photographing a regular person who is not used to being photographed and as a result is feeling very out of their element and not used to getting direction from a photographer. Making organic moments in these situations is tough.

A little while ago I got an assignment from the Alumni magazine at Colorado State University to photograph a set of their noted past students. All-righty, good enough. Oh then there’s the kicker: they all have to be not only vertical, ok …. , and have plenty of negative space on either side of the subject so that we can lay the text of their story over that. Ugh! Wha? On location no less? Man, you guys must really trust me or somethin’.

This is the kind of situation where the easiest and maybe best way to do this is to get a room and turn it into a studio with a nice seamless/muslin backdrop. Clean and direct. But seeing that I was going to be shooting four of these for the same issue I couldn’t shoot them all on the same kind of background. I had to mix It up. So I did what any insane photographer would do: try to shoot something environmental and if that fails bring out the seamless as a fall back position.

So I head to my subjects office to find that it’s, well an office.  Not too badly designed but not much more than a cube farm. Her office is tiny too which is a shame for upper management with 20 years experience. BUT! The entry way is cool.

I’m often telling people that there is usually something interesting in their normal space that they walk by every day and never realize it’s neat-o factor. That’s my job: find the neat-o. So I set up my lights all based on three factors: 1) I’m using the edge of the wide entryway to frame the left side of her and need to have the panel on the far wall on the right do the same. She is placed in the middle of those two elements. 2) The glass wall of the conference room that is behind her is frosted so I placed a strobe with a blue gel on it will match the blue outfit she’s wearing. 3) I had little depth to work with because she is standing in a hallway. Therefor I had to light her in a way that didn’t spill over onto the glass or elements that are framing her. That meant grids. I put my new favorite light modifier a 30” octabank with a 40 degree grid on it at camera right to act as a main light and put a 7” reflector with a 20 degree grid on it down the hall a bit at camera left to give her some subtle edge definition. Technicals worked out, the rest was all about making her look interesting.

Since the composition is critical I locked my camera down on the tripod and using a cable release triggered the shutter. This enabled me to easily engage her in conversation without worrying about any wonkiness in the design. As much as I like to be able to move and react to my subject and the changing environment this was a situation where it was all about connecting with her within the visual context of the multitude of frames that I had set up.

When I do portraits I try to use our conversation to subtly guide my subject through a range of mental and emotional states so that I can get a set of different expressions and feelings from them in a short amount of time.  You have to hope for and prepare for the unexpected for when that happens you gotta get it. In this case I asked her how having such an impact on her clients world feels and she spontaneously did this which is my favorite frame of our session.


Why? … Science!

The other day I heard that an artist’s style is what you do all the time as well as what you don’t do often. These are usually the product of how you learned your craft; often due to the slavish following of a teacher/schools method or ones singular devotion to and the intentional imitation of an artistic idol. Some develop style intentionally and others stumble upon it. In my case it’s a product of some influences that you might guess and others not.

For instance I realized that my largest influence upon what I choose to photograph and how isn’t related to any artist in existence. It is not because of a teacher since I didn’t have one. It’s because of the fact that I never planned on becoming a photographer or any other sort of professional artist. Nope. I was going to be a scientist. First going into physics, then bio chemistry then eventually going to have a psychology major and a philosophy minor before realizing that I was going to make my living doing something that didn’t require a college degree to give me the gateway to my career.

Ya see, an artist is largely interested in their personal experience. How something makes them feel or think. It motivates them to communicate things through their media that are highly personal in a very public way. Each work that an artist does is saying “This is important to me. Pay attention!”

A scientist is largely interested in the word that is outside themselves and often in a world that is beyond what they could personally define as experience-able. The extremely small word within cells, the vastness of space, the hidden workings of the universe, that sort of stuff. Scientists want to know why and how. They devote their lives to making sense of things that didn’t make sense before. They say “This is real and I can prove it”.

They are both after truth: one is their subjective truth and the other an objective truth. So as a result I often am asking myself “why is it that way?” before I ask “how is it that way for someone?”. Not that I’m a an overly logical dude.

My wife once told me that I am the blend of the Star Trek characters Worf, the passionate Klingon, and Data, the inquisitive android. That really thrilled me. As Lyle Lovett’s song says “Nobody knows me … like my baby …”

Back on point: I tend to start projects with my logical self and then tell that human calculator to go take a hike and I then let my inner six year old run loose. I often tell people that when I’m making photos that I try not to think that the brain gets in the way. And it does. When I don’t need it. But when I do need that brain he’s there to figure it all out and then go away so that my kid can continue to wander around giddy at how neat-o the world is.

When I was on assignment to do images for a story about a company that does super rigorous testing of electronics and was shown their room that is a total RF-proof cage to test radio antennas. My scientist brain was fascinated by the idea of it. But what to do? It was just a big white room with all these radio wave absorbing tiles. Then it hit me: radio waves are ripples of energy and that means that they are a form of pattern wherein the subtle changes in the pattern produces the signal that we can use to transmit information. “Hey kid … patterns!”

And thus:


The birth of an idea

I don’t try to think too much about my work. By that I don’t mean that I don’t care, far from it. Rather I try to not spend too much time in my head. I want a gut feeling. An organic, spontaneous, “where did THAT come from!?”  I used to think too much and that would stifle my ability to be creative. Learning to not think is hard but it helped me be receptive to the quiet inner voice of almost crazy from where interesting things come.

I do find though that once an idea presents itself I need some kind of framework to put it in for it to finally have it make sense so that I can flesh it out. A working title often is my method to do this. Even if this notion has little to do with the way that people will relate to the final image or project that’s ok because I get the depth of understanding that I need.

Case in point: my story about the wresting team. It started out as a simple profile that I wanted to do about a wrestling coach and how he relates to his team in such a different way than just about any other kind of sport. I did the interview with the coach before the photos and that ended up being critical. During the interview the coach mentioned that he was the new coach but he wanted “to create a dynasty” with the team. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t a team in a sports sense but a team in the warrior sense. So I knew that I was going to have to shoot the project in B&W and to show them as a finely honed elite military squad who relied on each other for survival. It turned out that I was right about that in more ways than I would have expected when I started the project. A simple profile turned into a 12 week and 5 part multimedia project.

I’ve been doing a portrait series of chefs that I respect and that project came from the idea that I was going to shoot them on my YashicaMat twin lens medium format camera with one light. Nunno why but it just came to me. I wanted to be limited by the fixed lens, the slowishness of film and all that was a great creative push from being able to use loads of lights at levels of sensitivity from the digital capture world that is just not possible with film. Oh and I’d only give myself a single roll of 12 frames to get what I need. Just to make it harder on me. Why not?

Then a bit ago I realized that I want to do a series that shows my respect for and love of craft brewers. But I didn’t have any notion of how I was going to show them. As a homebrewer and occasional competition beer judge I am intimately familiar with the craft.  One of the reasons I so respect what the masters of the brew craft can do is that making sublime beer is very very hard to do. That knowledge was a help but only to a degree. That is all “thought” stuff. I didn’t have a feel. A way to emotionally support what my brain will eventually have to turn into imagery.

Thus I did what I often do when there is neither client nor deadline: nothing. Just let something come to me. If I have nobody to satisfy but myself I can afford to take my time. But lo and behold over the last month I got a number of assignments to photograph a number of breweries and brewers. Lucky me I got to photograph Adam Glazer the head brewer of Fort Collins Brewing. I happen to personally know Adam from his days not very long ago when he was just a guy who was winning a lot of awards for his homebrew. Now he’s pro and doing quite well thank you.

Where was I? Right what to do with the brewer portraits! So I was making photos of Adam for a story about water quality, since beer is mostly water it’s quality is critical. While we were up on the scaffolding where he was overseeing a brew in action in the kettle I decided to get a shot from where I wasn’t. I just stuck my camera out at arms length and fired a few frames while he was looking at the young beer boiling away.

Here is the full frame, no cropping.


I realized when I got back to process my images that that one was the winner. Not for the client but for me. And it had to be B&W as the subtle colors in the scene didn’t bring anything to the shot. The mood is there, all the steel and light and steam. It hit me: while I’m trying to show the chefs as artists of edible performance the brewers are alchemists working with big machines to transform 4 simple ingredients into a myriad of liquid experience.

So now I know how to proceed with this project thanks to Adam, a properly framed instinctive shot and the environment that he was in to make me see past myself and what I know so that I can visualize a feeling.