Backed in a corner

Even when you have a plan, especially when the client has a plan, I always assume  that if something doesn’t go to plan I need a backup and maybe a backup of my backup. As was the case when the Wall Street Journal sent me to photograph the new CFO of Ch2MHill for a story about how he is trying to expand the company’s ability to put mobile technology at the ready which will not only save them money but give them an advantage over their competition.

Now I was given, as is often the case with jobs like this, they had a shot list for me and one of the things that they wanted was that along with a few portraits I was to shoot him at work and interacting with the people at the company if possible. Ok, cool. My kind of thing. So being me I brought along a lot of gear as backup. Even if I could have pulled off the job with one body, and a fixed lens with a small softbox for fill I packed the car with options. Just in case.

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Grab the pitchforks …

… the President is coming to town! Well it really wasn’t that bad at all. Last week President Obama made the first presidential visit to Boulder Colorado in something like 60 years. That made it an even bigger deal ya know? I was given an assignment to help cover the hub-bub and happily I got to photograph the protests. Ok I would have loved to be pointing my lens at Obama but all that stuff is so clean and staged that it’s more like shooting a stage producton or some kind of celebrity thing. Yeah there are some good moments that happen but it’s rarely my thing. I prefer photographing regular people being their unconstrained selves. Thus my afternoon with the protesters was far more interesting.

I gotta say again that Colorado people are almost too nice. I am not really complaining as I love where I live. But there was a distinct lack of, well, venom that would have made for much more dynamic photos that day. Screaming and carrying on as uncivil as it is simply makes for more energetic images. Alas who should turn out to express their displeasure at their leader? Nice people. Gad! The photos were better than I would have thought and the best part was that all these pleasant protesters, is that an oxymoron?, made my job easier as none of them gave me any guff about being part of the, what do they call us, “the lame street media”?

Obama rally 2012

Goodbye my old friend, it’s nice to see you again

I was on assignment the other day to do photos for a story about an exercise trend/fad that is based on classical ballet barre work. Yadda yadda. Anyhoo the client wanted some video for their web edition. Hey, no problem. Well actually it a real pain to do stills and video but hey if that's what the client wants then that is certainly what they are going to get. While I was doing my thang when I had a quick realization that the soon to be much ballyhooed Nikon D4 was going to be announced and with it will be, for me at least, a paradigm shift. Notice the quick mirror self shot that I did upon reflection, HA! I kill me!

  Mirror

There I am with my trusty and to a large extent beloved Canon HV20 camcorder dangling from my neck along with two Nikon D700 bodies to do stills. Often when I have to do stills and video for news pieces I have a lot more gear on me: usually each body has a pro zoom, 28-70 f/2.8 and 70-200 f/2.8 to make things nice and heavy, and the camcorder has an external mic attached, which makes for a very cumbersome working method. In those situations am quite like the guy with too few arms. Not fun but I get the job done. Oh and to make matters worse I will often wear a backpack where my extra microphones, wireless rig and a tripod with fluid head is stashed for all the video problem solving that often comes up. Again, not a simple rig to use. But soon this will be simplified with the new bodies that are coming out.

What? Why aren't you shooting with DSLR bodies that do video? Well I'm glad that you asked. First off, I don't do that much video that needs to be done at the same time as still photography which is my main occupation. Then there is the fact that except for the D3s all the Nikon bodies that do video are the consumer bodies with the crop chip and brother let me tell ya that once I got my full frame back I promised muh-self that I'd never buy a crop chip body again. You can't tell but that there self shot was done with my "secret weapon" Nikon AF-D 28mm f/1.4 that is essentially an insanely overpriced normal lens on a crop body but with full frame it's is a glorious and crazy sharp wide angle. There is no comparable lens for the smaller frame cameras so there you go.

I was not going to purchase a D3s just for video, no way. I prefer my D700's as they are smaller, lighter and less than half the price. If you are an independent such as I am you need to justify spending any money on equipment against how it will not just pay for itself but actually make you money upon that purchase within 18 months. Otherwise it costs you to own it and it is simply a waste of money. Not good business practice there. Yes I know about all the dudes shooting the Canon 5DII and all that but again there is no reason for me to purchase an entire Canon rig just to shoot some video from time to time so forget that noise bucko! Besides the 5DII has a much slower frame rate, horrible AF and is built like a toy. Yuck.

I got my HV20 before the VDSLR rage hit and within a month of me getting it it made me money and has continued to do so ever since. Also almost every client has cared not a whit about what video camera I've used. What they want is quality video that goes on the web. How I get there doesn't matter.

In the getting there even simple pro-am camcorders like the old HV20 do a better job of shooting video than DSLR's because they are set up from the get-go to do video. They autofocus and autoexpose properly and easily. They are physically set up to allow you to use external microphones and monitor the audio without adapters. They have the controls right where they need to be. Not to mention that they are cheaper to purchase than a new DSLR body. Can't go wrong. Except for the need to have another thing dangling from you while you make pictures. Oh yeah, that.

As I suspected, much of that has now changed with the Nikon D4 for three reasons: it is supposedly going to properly autofocus in video mode, it will allow you to make exposure adjustments while recording video and most importantly and fit's into the "why did it take so long?" department – you have a headphone jack so that you don't need an adapter to monitor your audio. Huzzah! Finally a DSLR that will harken the end of me lugging the HV20 about.

Does this mean that I've put in for a D4 for pre-sale? Nope. No chance. First off I never buy version 1.0 of any product much less one as expensive and complicated as a pro DSLR body. Second I'm waiting for the D800 or whatever it will be called that will be the little brother of the D4 for the same reasons as listed about my D700's. Lastly, I don't need one yet. The HV20 still works great, makes me the monies and doesn't need to be replaced. Yet. I do think that in about a year I'll put the old girl on the shelf with the other cameras from which I've moved past. The D700's will be with me for some time as they are simply superb cameras in every way. If I could get a D700 with the new video capacity then I'd honestly be set but alas it is not to be.

 

As they say "Time … marches on!" and for this here cowboy that's a good thing.

Lani and The Stachettes

Since I work almost exclusively on location I am in some ways a bit jealous of the dudes who have the time and budgets to create entire sets for their subjects to be photographed in. So one of the things that I try to do when it suits subject and when it is f rankly even possible is to find a way to take a location and make it look better/different than it does with just a bit of tinkering. Sometimes that means moving object or furnature around, sometimes it means doing things with light and other times it means coming back at a different time or day so that it works for your intent.

I was doing some promo photos on location that went into the late evening that was going to include a number of set ups for a variety of looks that the client wanted. During the scouting I noticed this interesting lawn with a tree and stone path that led to some steps. I thought that it wouldn't work when the light was soft but after dark lit up it could be amazing with a bit of work. The energy was great that day and I mentioned that if we had the time and inclination after all the other shots to try something different and lo everyone was up for it.

Thus it was almost dark when I dragged all our gear down the road and had my assistant get us a bunch of candles from the home that the majority of the other photos were done at and had him set them up along the path. This brought color, warmth and a sense of depth to the image. At camera right I had a head with a 40 degree grid spot and CTB gel placed up the hill aimed at the tree for a moonlit backlight feel to give in addition separation between the girls and the dark moody background. On camera left I put another head into my 43" Octabank and put it up about ten feet pointing down about 45 deg aimed at the groups delightfully animated front girl Lani. After a number of shots we brought out more candles and put one in each of the other girls hands to light their faces for additional texture and mood.

Now, if this was done in a studio it would be a pretty big set to build and that would be the hardest part. The lighting would be easily controllable as it would be done in the dark with only the candles burning in during the exposure and everything else being lit by strobes but in this case my fill light was the moon! Being locked down on my tripod kept the camera steady but the girls had to remain motionless during exposures of up to 8 seconds including Lani who was doing all the wacked out poses for me. Yet when I said "Hold it!" they did and slap me silly, the frames are sharp.

So here is my favorite from that series: a photo that I had no idea would happen and certainly not like this when I drove past on my way to the shoot.

  Lani and the Stachettes

 

Technicals: Nikon D700, Nikon AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8 set to 45mm. 4 seconds @ f/5.6, ISO 1600, Daylight WB. Camera on Gitzo 1320 tripod. Lights triggered via Pocket Wizard.

Stick it out and turn it around

I will unabashedly admit that I like for my images to in some way feel like you/I are “right there”. Personal. Intimate. Up close. A sort of sit on my lap and let me tell you a secret kind of thing when ever possible. It’s not always an option and in many ways for good reason. I’d love to see football shot from the perspective of the players: to mount remote controlled cameras into the lineman/wide receiver’s helmets would be amazing but they would never let you do that. But a boy can dream right? And dream I do. I love remote cameras for getting a perspective that you just can’t get when the camera has to be attached to your face. Then again not everything lends itself to that either because the logistics of camera placement would be either insane or would just be a lot of work to get possibly one frame that is interesting. Or worse after all that work of getting there early and setting up the remote you get nothing usable or interesting at all. But between having my camera attached to my head and triggered by radio when it’s “way over there” there is a middle ground: the camera on a stick.

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Get out of the way

The last few weeks have been pretty brutal but good. Lots of shooting, new clients!, but also a bit of fun to keep me from going totally insane. What always happens, it seems, is that the wave hits whereby I’m popular and busy as heck and all the normal life stuff gets thrown into a basket to wait upon my triumphant return. Now that the wave has subsided I can get to all the stuff in that there basket and play catch up for a few days until the next wave of work comes in of completely indeterminate size and duration.

Thus I was having a lovely cuppa joe this morning, playing catch-up on things and started reading the post that John Stanmeyer did whereby he talks about the inside story of the making of his photos for the National Geographic article about how Brazil has had a dramatic shift in their population growth largely due to the popularity of soap operas and how that altered the cultures view of women and the size of families. No, really. True story. But I digress …

As I was reading his account I was looking at the photos he posted and doing my EXIF reading thang and about halfway through I had two complimentary thoughts:

1)      She-zam Andy! (That’s a joke you old folks will get, the rest of you just chuckle a bit to play long)  … it seems that John not only basically used one lens and one bodies to shoot this project, a Canon 5DII with a Canon 16-35 f/2.8 and a 24-70mm f/2.8, but it seems that he used the same body as well. The serial number seems to be the same for all his posted shots. He may have used other glass but in the shots he posted in his blog it was just these two. Now this is not going to be another “How EXIF data got me inside his head” post, because the led me to the next thought,

2)      He basically only walks around with one camera and one lens, got it? If you go to his website he lists his gear with is two 5D Mark II bodies, the 16-35, the 24-70 and then three fixed fast lenses, the 24mm f1.4, 35mm f/1.4 and the 50mm f1.2. That’s it baby! He doesn’t work with glass longer than 70mm.

The conclusion of these repetitious points is that Stanmeyer, like many other magazine editorial photographers don’t use as much gear to get their photos and some would think. Studio photogs have loads of lighting gear, sports photogs have loads of long lenses and setups for remotes and all that but the guys who shoot for publications like National Geographic on stories that deal with people load up with more research and luck than gear.

Photographers are intensely gear centric; far more than just about any other artistic profession other than musicians. We tend to ogle shiny new toys far more than we go out and use the toys that we have. Guys like Stanmeyer, David Allan Harvey and Alex Webb know exactly what they want to shoot and how they need to shoot it: people in an intimate setting. No fuss, no muss. To do that they use one body and often a single focal length, something in the “normal” range of 35-70mm. In comparison your news photographer basically doesn’t have a clue as to what he will need for the day because it all changes constantly. Thus when I am to cover a news assignment I carry one body with my 28-70 f/2.8, another body with my 70-200 f/2.8, my 17-35mm f/2.8 in a pouch along with a 1.4 converter for the long zoom, a flash and more gear in the car just in case.

BUT!, and you know that there is always a but, I prefer to shoot with one body and if possible a fixed lens, 35mm f/2, 50m f/1.4 or my beloved 28mm f/1.4. Nothing more. I have come to feel that as lovely as gear is, and believe me I have plenty of it, it often slows you down physically and mentally. I believe that the all-in-one zooms that many amateurs gravitate to are anything but a benefit to someone learning to make quality images: if you have an 18-200mm lens what kind of subject matter are you going to shoot, everything? Come on, pick a subject, gear up for that and focus on it.

There is something very creatively freeing about only having one focal length or a relatively small range of focal lengths to work with. This is why I’ve gotten such a kick out of making photos with my phone over the years: no options other than trying to make something interesting happen within the frame. Simplify, simplify. In this manner you spend more time looking for and creating images than fiddling with your many options and the gear that brings the same.

If you have less to work with in terms of tools, you can focus on what you can do with the tool that you have. Sometimes less is more and sometimes almost nothing is a whole lot. Whenever I can I try to strip the gear down to as little as I can.

When I was given an assignment to cover a big fashion show I made an effort to go early so that I could cover the back stage activity which is always more interesting than the event as seen from the other side of the curtain. Although I had with me a lot of gear including long lenses to get the runway shots that I had to have, boring!, when I slipped behind the scenes where it was very crowed I only took a body with my 35mm f/2.0 and worked that for a while:

Stage 1

Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage 4

I really don’t think that having more lens or body options would have enabled me to get “better” images here. If anything they would have slowed me down and distracted my vision.

 

Spot on

The other day I had what I’m now thinking of as an “Old Man Moment”. I was setting up a shot and I was walking around with my old beloved Minolta AutoMeter IVF getting readings. The subject of my photos was a bit of a photographer himself and while I was working he and I were talking about photo stuff. So he says to me “What’s that thing you are using?”, meaning my hand held light meter which I was using to dial in my strobes. I explained what it was and what it did. He seemed confused. “Doesn’t your camera figure that out for you?”

That baffled me for a sec. I explained that the camera can’t control the output or placement of my studio strobes and thus I have to set everything manually. He replied that it’s silly that with all the technology we have the camera can’t automatically set the lights. Well with lovely things like the Nikon CLS system it can but with a fair amount of limitations and since I was using 5 lights for the shoot the camera can’t handle all the calculations. Yet.

Then that reminded me of a shoot a few months ago where I was shooting an event and was next to another professional shooter whereby I was close enough to hear: Click! “Mmm, dark.” Click! “Still dark.” Click! “Still too dark.” I mentioned something like “Why don’t you just get a meter reading?” The response knocked me to my knees, “Naah! I’ll just change my exposures till it looks good on the screen.” Turns out the photog only shoots in Aperture Priority and will fiddle with the exposure compensation for a while until the exposure gets right. Holy wasted time Batman!

So it seems that because I own and actually use a hand held light/flash meter I am a bit of an oddity. And because I learned how to use a spot meter, that wonderful tool that is in just about every camera priced above $500, I am also a master of the arcane arts. Ok I understand that yes I learned to shoot on film and before the era of the intelligent multi segment meters which we take for granted. And yes I learned how to judge the reflective values of objects so that a spot meter can be used to determine not only exposure but also to figure out the range of brightness within the scene to be able to figure out how to process the image to make the best looking print/file because I learned the Zone System that Ansel Adams developed.

I guess that I’ve also taken something for granted: me. I am used to my working method and because of it I am an automated photographer and don’t use automated systems except for TTL flash in some situations and AF in poor light. The rest is up to me. I really only use my LCD screen to check my moments/compositions rather than exposure. In this way I can spend more time looking through my lens than at the back of my camera.

Case in point: I was shooting at a night club a while ago and the interplay of people, light and color was pretty interesting. I saw this couple and they were playing with his cell phone. I liked the way their faces were lit by the screen so I got a quick meter reading off his face with my spot meter and shot away. No lost time or lost frames because I botched the exposure a few times to dial it in. Huzzah!

Club 2

Techicals: Nikon D700, Nikon AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8 @ 35mm. Daylight WB. Handheld 1/3sec, ISO 4000.

How not to hunt

There is an adage which goes something like “don’t go looking for something because that’s all you will find”. Unless I get an assignment whereby the client tells me exactly what the client wants with a shot list the best way that I can assure that I will come back with interesting photographs is to not go looking for any particular image. Instead I try to go into the situation as untainted by prior expectations. I want to take every experience as new and fresh: hopeful for the unexpected.

The worst case is when I have to shoot something that I’ve shot before. When this happens I hear myself saying, “Nope. Shot that two years ago. Hmmm nice but similar to a shot from five years ago. Oh! I could … huh-uh. I did that and it turned out nice enough for my folio. What else is there?” It can be daunting and for me that’s the fun: to always find something new no matter how familiar you are with the subject matter.

Some people say that if you are in a visual rut you should take a trip to someplace far away that you have never been to before. The new environment provides loads of stimulation due to the foreign and exotic nature of your surroundings. It’s both the appeal of much of the imagery we love about National Geographic and a good deal of the phrase “Wow! If I was in Africa/Japan/Russia/wherever I’m sure that I could make great photos!” … the places and people don’t look like what you are used to and instantly take on an interesting quality.

But what if you could do that, see things as exotic, while in totally familiar territory? Besides all the savings in travel you would constantly be seeing new and amazing things. That’s what I try to do. It’s not easy but for me it’s the way to be.

So I got assigned to cover another triathlon this year. I know ‘em and I love/hate ‘em. This one was blesses with some lovely light so that helped but as much as I love to play with shadows I made a point to not do that at all. I forced myself to find a way to make photos of a subject where I have limited physical access to different from what I’ve done before.

So one thing that I did was put my camera on a monopod and trigger it with my remote cord. That way I could shoot straight down on the swimmers as they swam past me on the floating dock. There were loads of images that were, EH!, but this one made me happy. I think that it’s the feet which I didn’t expect.

Photo by: Jonathan Castner

Next time I’m going to get a housing and get in the water with them. I wonder if I can shoot UP?

The all seeing eye DO’C

I really like spending time with other photographers who don’t do what I do because I always learn something. This is partly because I want to know everything. Yes, everything. So I always learn something, from a technical stand point, from hanging over the shoulder of another visual professional. But more importantly, and fun!, is looking at the way that they think and work. The getting into the head is to me the most interesting and difficult aspect of learning from and about an artist.

This goes along with what I’ve said for along time: you can’t teach someone to be an artist/creative. You can teach the history of the medium, techniques and important works of the masters of the art. You can even give people ways to better tap into their creativity. However you can’t teach someone to be creative about a method of expression that doesn’t resonate with them. If you are a dancer by nature it might be pretty hard for me to help you become an excellent conceptual abstract painter. Ya know?

But put two professional photographers of different disciplines together and the chance is that they both are going to come out of the situation enhanced. So I have sort of a policy that if any of my photo friends need an assistant, I’d love to work for them for a day or so. I mean why wouldn’t you? If you could spend a day or so working under the eye of a fellow professional that you look up to, you should jump at the chance. Really. I can easily think of two dozen photographers who I’d love to assist for a week. The amount of subtle things that I could learn would be amazing.

So when I got the chance to lend a hand to my friend Daniel O’Connor for a few days that I had free I jumped at the chance. Daniel is a seriously good local architectural photog. Although I have done a bit of that sort of thing over the years and it reminds me of a combination of landscape and still life studio photography I am a but serious amateur in that field. Dan is a whole different level. That’s the appeal.

DoC1

Daniel was shooting a sweet house in Denver that was designed in 1960’s Streamline Moderne which is that neato Art Deco kinda thing that was just finished being built. He was shooting it for the architect for their folio. Anyhoo, it was amazing to move all the furnature around for him. I did a lot of that. I got to find out that yes I like to have a sense of detail and all that “things that only I see” stuff but wow! Dan sees e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g! His attention to detail was enough to make my head spin. He also has an eye for composition that is very finely tuned to a sense of flow that is kind of an almost visual Feng Shui. So I spent a lot of time on a ladder doing minute adjustments to the orientation of bottles two rooms away from his lens. After figuring our his camera placement we for one shot, no joke, spent two and a half hours trying various arrangements of furniture to get the right look. It sounds like I’m making this up or being snarky but the deal is that for all the work and fiddling it really made a difference in the final image. I would have given up long ago but he kept at it until it really really worked.

So Daniel is all about patience within the composition and finding what for him is the visual way that not just the eye but and feel for how a person physically would move about the space in the photo. This I found interesting because I often like to use objects to act as borders or frame an object within the composition. To Daniel that is a bad thing as it cuts off movement. He works at f/13 a lot with his lenses hyperfocal focused and I spend a ton of time @ f/2.8 or wider focused dead on the subject. Different worlds. However he, like me, tries to work with the natural light whenever possible and prefers to shoot tethered to a laptop for critical jobs. Great minds and all that.

DoC2

So it was a fab time. Learned a bit, thought a lot too. Daniel now wants to assist me sometime and I’d love it. I just hope he doesn’t blink or he’ll miss it all.

The start of something new

As I’ve said before I simply love to photograph things in motion and the emotion that comes from it. That has led me to as I like to say “shoot any sport but not really with anything longer than an 85mm lens” mostly because I want to take a personal approach to my subjects whenever possible. You just can’t be personal when using a 400mm lens. You get out of a persons comfortable “conversational distance” when you get beyond about 4 feet away. Try this: while having a serious conversation with someone notice that you are most likely within 4 or so feet away from the person. Now while continuing to chat slowly start stepping backwards and notice how it feels to be speaking from 5, 6, 8 or then 10 feet away. It feels like there is this emotional gap between you and the other person that is similar in size to the distance you physically are from each other. Funky huh? So when trying to show any kind of intimacy with the subject you have to often be in that conversational space. Thus the 85mm lens comment. Got it?

As in my work such as the documentaries on the wrestling team and the culture of the roller derby team I want the images to make the viewer feel like they are right next to the subject of my stories and that is because I am physically right there when I take the photos. But there are some special aspects of physical activities that aren’t about motion but the ripple effect it produces on the body and the emotions. It’s in the eyes and written on the face and body.

When I went to cover the Tough Mudder event that was happening in the mountains surrounding Beaver Creek, Colorado I had an idea. Ya see the Tough Mudder is kinda brutal. It’s a 9 mile course that is based on a British special forces training exercise whereby each participant simply needs to finish. In it you run from obstacle to gnarly obstacle and basically get beat to a pulp. Greased monkey bars anyone? Well I knew that it was going to be visually interesting but besides the photos of tired runners climbing walls and running through mud fields to hop over hay bales while being blasted with fire hoses, I knew that the most telling images would to me be at the end. Not them struggling to cross the finish line but what they looked like at the end of it all: exhausted, elated and filthy.

Therefore I set up the most basic of studios: white seamless paper on a north facing wall near the finish line and went to find interesting faces. To keep everything simple I shot all the portraits with my AF-D 50mm f/1.4 set to f/2.8. That was it. I got everything out of the way to quickly get a few frames of the dirty and often still gasping Mudders. Did I mention that the event took place at an elevation of over 8,000 feet?

  Kerry

Nathan

Katrin

Mychael

Tyler

Rob

This is going to be the beginning of a series that I plan on doing where I shoot portraits of the finishers of endurance races and other physically punishing events. I’ve done some research and hope to get long distance runners, cyclists and the like. No professionals, just (ab?)normal people who enjoy getting kicked in the shorts.

It’s not what it seems …

I’m not a sports photographer. I’m just a photographer who likes to shoot sports. Wha? Yeah it has to do with that thing called “the score”. I don’t care who wins and many times the game winning hit, kick, basket, goal or what have you doesn’t happen in a very dramatic way. If it’s soccer, which I love, that game winning goal might happen early in the first half when neither of the teams thinks that much of it as there would be loads of time to catch up and flip the score. So even if you get an image of that quick shot which had little visually going for it, well, it’s not that much to look at. Many times the best and most interesting images that come from a sporting event have little to do with the final score. Instead they are found moments of motion or emotion. Those are the ones that I most dig.

I forget who said it but I was covering a golf tournament and was moving along with a few other press photogs and someone said, “It can be a lovely day, great weather, gorgeous backgrounds, nice light, good angles, perfect access and regardless of what moments we capture all we are going to bring back are photos of guys playing golf”. That really hit me. Except for a few publications who are dedicated to being visually important and are willing to explore the sporting world beyond “the game winning” image most publications who visually cover sports are doing so often want literal imagery. They want a photo of “Steve Bigun of The Flaming Bongos who clinched their win over The Blue Nothings” regardless of how boring it is. ArrrGH!

So like many photogs I make sure that I get the necessary action/winner shots but I try really hard to make the rest of my coverage more interesting than just “that”. But I’ll tell ya, if the sport doesn’t have a ball it is often very tough to make it interesting. For instance even worse than golf are foot races. I’ve covered the famous Bolder Boulder 10K race quite a few times and man-alive you bring back lots and lots of pictures of, uh, guys running. The trick is to have tricks and to dig deep to attempt to see something that isn’t that obvious.

So when I was assigned to cover the 5430 Triathlon I knew the pitfalls: running and cycling. Not bashing cycling at all, I was the captain of my cycling team, but guys on bikes are just as boring, if not more so, than running. I do think that swimming is fun to photograph because the water makes things interesting due to it’s non-linear and thus slightly chaotic nature. Thus, having shot this kind of thing before, I knew that the best opportunities for interesting images are during the start and transition from swim to land.

The light was less than amazing due to clouds on the horizon. I’ve shot this before with a glorious sunrise but not this time. But with the blue sky, everyone on black wetsuits and red caps it made for some interesting color. Shot this while the first wave contestants were getting final instructions. To me it’s largely a study in rhythm.

5430 Triathlon

As they headed to the water I went onto the dock where they pass on the way to the open water and with the camera held with the grip up so as to get it as close to the water as possible I shot the next wave as they passed by. I had no way to see through the viewfinder but once you get to know your lenses and how focal lengths see, it’s not that hard to “blind” shoot and get pretty close to what you intend to capture.

5430 Triathlon

Earlier I set up a camera as a remote at the waters edge to get a low angle on the competitors as they left the water and got on land. To me this can be some of the more interesting images because they are on this course backlit and are dripping. The back lighting is a problem but just using regular fill flash doesn’t do the trick for two reasons: 1, your flash sync speed isn’t fast enough to prevent ghosting of the motion and 2) light on the camera isn’t interesting at all.

My solution was to mount the camera on a ground plate with a wide-ish lens and trigger the camera via my Pocket Wizard radio remote. I then hooked two of my Nikon SC-17 TTL sync cords together so that I could attach my SB-800 in high speed sync mode and not have that little delay that happens when you use the wireless TTL so that I could predict my moments more accurately. Using high speed sync eats up flash power so I used a Nikon SD-8a battery pack to reduce the recycle time down to about 1.5 seconds. This all enabled me to get 8-9 feet from the lens axis and produce a more dynamic and sculpted light on the wet motion.

5430 Triathlon

So even though I shoot sports to me it’s really just an excuse to try and photograph things in motion and if possible the emotive/evocative moments that surround the game.

 

A video confession

I’ve been watching a lot of tutorials on video color grading lately. For those of you not working with video in a professional context that means that I’ve been learning how to adjust and tone the video that I shoot much like you work with still images. But not at all.

 

Ya see when I become Emperor things will be made consistent. We won’t have 32 different terms for the same thing so that when you learn a new discipline that really isn’t that far away from your main body of knowledge you don’t have to pick up a thousand new words for things that you basically already know how to do. Thus I’ve been learning how to “color grade” video using basically the same kind of tools that I’d use to process a still photo. And friends I gotta tell ya I just can’t believe how picky these guys get about the subtleties of the color in their video, I mean wow.

 

So why the heck am I torturing myself with this rot? Well I’ve been editing a large-ish video project that I’ve been shooting for a local client of mine and it’s made me want to have a better and larger set of processing tools. I have an excellent video editing suite but in the past nearly all my video work has been news/editorial and just like when being a still image news photog you aren’t supposed to play with the image in post. But for commercial work it needs to be cleaner, more interesting and maybe even slick. Depending.

 

This is a lot like how I had to learn how to actually use Photoshop for more than cropping. Now when I’m shooting portraits and the client wants, for instance, some skin smoothing I can do that easily. But back “then” I had no idea how it was done.

 

Now I’m not interested in doing feature films at all as that is way too much like work for me but I do really enjoy shooting and editing video. Much like the audio based multimedia that I’ve been working with for years video is just another way of telling stories. Unfortunately in the past when I’d have my video camera rig on me I would also have two still cameras as well making for a very clumbsy me. It’s very hard to shoot stills and video of the same time and not make a mess of it. But I had clients who wanted both and since they were paying for it and knew that it means that you have at best adequate stills and passable video, I did the best with what I had to work with.

Oh and for those of you who haven’t seen the mess that video editing looks like here is a screen shot of all the cuts, bits and tweeks I had to do just to get that two minute and a smidge piece to look that way. Ugh!

I got my first video only assignment last year and it was a very freeing experience. I was to shoot the annual fireworks held at the University of Colorado’s football stadium, (boring!) but we got a torrential downpour (Yah, bad weather!) so I spent two hours with my lens not pointing up at a bunch of meaningless flashing lights. The weather became the story so I shot it that way. Considering that I put it together on daily deadline and did it all muh-self I’m pretty happy with it all things considered. It’s raw and such but for my first “real” news video I can live with it. (It’s much better than the stuff I did when I also had to shoot stills!)


 

So anyway I’m doing more commercial video now and it’s freaking great. I’m be able to get good sound, put the subject in good lighting, and do two dozen takes with varying angles to then edit it together and with some post production have it, well, look good. She-ZAM!

And it’s funny because I was at a very cool seminar a few weeks ago all about better reaching advertising clients and one of the topics was “do you need to shoot video as well” and the consensus was that if you can that’s cool but to do it right takes more than just handing you, the qualified still photographer, a camera that shoots video. There is the audio, the lighting, the direction of the subject and all the editing/grading that makes it work. But I was chuckling to myself because I am not nor will I ever be a junior Spielberg but I do think that I can fake it all well enough to have people write me a check for the work that I do.

Oh and I’m just about 3 chapters away from finishing “On Directing Film” by David Mamet and I think that his insights may have effected my still photography brain even more than my moving pictures brain. How did that happen?

Crossing the line

One of my greatest inspirations in developing my photographic self was the work of Frans Lanting. He was just about the first wildlife photographer to find a way to not have to use long lenses to photograph animals. He wanted to photograph them in ways that were more personal as you would with people or subjects that you can physically get close to. Besides using lots of patience to enable the use of wide angle, or at least normal focal length lenses, he also tried to break down the need for critical sharpness. He pioneered the use of selective sharpness and abstracting blur to show motion and the energy of the animals.

This was pretty important to a guy who had spent more than a few years with his camera locked down on a tripod and was trying to get away from all that I did and find what I wanted to be. What really got to me with his work was how dynamic and present it was. He let things be clear when they needed to be and let them be amorphous when it tells the story better. The visual, and thus, emotional boldness of it all really hit home to me.

If you know my work you know that I often let things go blurry and abstract. That’s all from Frans influence. He explained in a seminar I attended that he was teaching that for each subject there is an amount of motion induced abstraction that is either too much or not enough and you have to find the sweet spot for it. This was the film era so when he was in Borneo he couldn’t get the instant feedback that we now do so he had to experiment a lot to get to know what works.

But then sometimes you don’t have the time or ability to fiddle about and see what shutter speed will give you the look that suits the situation, you need to get it right the first time. This is where all your practice comes in handy. You have to know for: 1) what speed the subject is moving, 2) what focal length you are using, 3) how close the subject is and 4) what speed you can effectively hold steady in a panning motion will all come together to make that one time shot useful and not just an “almost”.

Too sharp and it looks like a mistake. Too blurry and it looks like a mistake.

So the other night I was on assignment for a story about the popularity in tribute bands. You know the ones “They look like ‘em, they sound like ‘em”. The Beatles, Van Halen, The Grateful Dead … there are hundreds of bands out there on tour packing the place giving people the experience of the real thing at a fraction of the cost of the real McCoy and usually in more intimate settings. Anyhoo I was shooting a U2 tribute band and they started out their set with the singer walking out into the crowd with an Irish flag waving behind him. I was in the pit shooting and as he walked past me I slowed down my shutter and pulled this shot off:

Band

To me it’s very painterly and it feels right.

Using the “not so remote” camera

It’s not common for a photographer to be the subject of an others imagery and I am certainly not used to being photographed while I work. Yet when my friend and assistant Lindsay sent me this shot the other day I thought that it was actually pretty cool.

Me

Ya see what I was doing was not adjusting my camera controls but composing through the LCD with the camera, my beloved Nikon D700, in Live View mode. But rather than holding the camera in a position, like over my head, and then composing through the LCD I had to hold the camera low and compose. Well then, why not just kneel down and shoot “normally” and focus/compose through the regular viewfinder? That wouldn’t have given me what I wanted. My head needed to be above the camera to get the effect that I wanted and the only way to get the camera in position was to go through this gyration.

You see the subject was partly a person who was out of focus in the “background” but I wanted her eyes looking up. Rather than the normal shooting method of lowering myself to get the angle I wanted and potentially distract her and change her gaze I needed my eyes to be somewhere for her to naturally look at above the camera. Thus the reason that the camera is below my head. I was able to engage her in conversation and in that manner subtly direct her without the bothersome “Can you lift your head and look over there, no, there” kinda mess. A regular person doesn’t take very good posing direction and when I’m in documentary mode I never to that because it spoils the mood and energy that I am witnessing.

  Glass

Technicals: Nikon D700, Nikon AF-D 50mm, ISO 800, f/1.4 @ 1/30th, Daylight WB.

So I totally forgot about this shot until Lindsay sent me this delightfully unflattering image of me at work. It reminded me of how often I use the Live View mode to help get the camera into places quickly that I can’t get my whole self into in order to make an interesting-er image by using it as a semi-remote camera. If you have a camera with such capacity I recommend that you give it a try.

 

More words from a Master

When I’m in the office I constantly have something playing on my second monitor that I can learn from and be inspired by. I’ve been listening to a lot of episodes of Inside The Actors Studio, that amazing series on Bravo where they interview great actors and directors about their lives and the personal aspects of their craft. I was just finishing the end of the episode with Al Pacino and he said, to paraphrase: “You want to keep trying to see things fresh and not know what you are going to do. It’s like I’m doing this for the first time. When that stops happening, I’ll stop acting. Because then what’s the point? Then it’s a job.”

This totally encapsulates how I feel about my work. I hate, hate, hate repeating myself. I loath to have to be one of those guys who finds a signature image/look and keeps doing variations on that one photo for years because it makes them famous and thus brings them work. If that happened to me I’d hang up my cameras and get a meaningless job because all the joy would have been sucked out of my photography. I don’t do this for the money. I do this because it thrills me. Every day is different. Every shoot is unique. Every subject new. I don’t ever want that to change.

So part of the challenge is to make subjects that I’ve shot before seem totally new. Push-push-push. And man is that sometimes tough but to me there is no emotionally and artistically acceptable alternative. To not push is asking for a kind of soulless death. (Yeah kinda dramatic I know but hey! … that’s how I feel.)

I was sent to shoot one of the many vigils and outpourings of support for the numerous students who have committed suicide lately because of the pressure, intimidation and bullying regarding their homosexuality. I’ve shot these kind of things before and they tend to be mostly the same. I do find that they tend to be a group of people with a common emotional experience but they rarely seem to personally connect with anyone but who they came to the event with. So after the moments of silence and a few hushed and teary words of support for the cause they started to put out their candles and shuffle home. I did all the basics: wide shots high and low, groups leaning on each other with the candles warming their faces against the cool blue of the night sky, tight shots of the few tears that appeared. All that. Job done but nothing different. The client be happy but I wasn’t. I wanted something different. I saw a group that had kept their candles alive and had formed a circle. I said hello and then laid on the ground at their feet pointing my lens up. That worked. Something different. Job better done and a shot from old territory that is fresh to me.

Vigil

Technicals: Nikon D700 @ ISO3200, Tungsten WB, 1/30th sec. Nikon AF-D 28mm f/1.4 @ f/2.8.

I’ll cover your flank or not a back seat driver

I met Lindsay Lack about 3 years ago, I think, when I put
together a gathering of local news and documentary photographers for a night of
drinking and pictures. She and her hubby had just recently moved to Denver
from Iowa where she had finished a
few internships after graduating from the Missouri
journalism school. Great gal, good shooter. I kept in touch with her and she quickly
became my assistant and friend.

Continue Reading →

Peter Turnley’s head, hands and feet

First off – a confession. I'm a gear head. I absolutely love
equipment but I don't have a fetish for it. I'm not a collector or one of those
people who names their tools like they are pets. Nah, but I do believe that the choices which an
artist makes in regards to their tools says something about who they are and
certainly how they work. Sometimes this even says something about how they think. Given that I almost
became a psychotherapist I do have a penchant for wondering how a person thinks. So as much as I love deconstructing an image I like to
try and deconstruct what the photographer was doing/thinking/feeling before the
exposure was made. It’s a little game of mine. One of the things that I do
often is use an EXIF reader pluging for Firefox which is my web browser of
choice.

 

EXIF is a bunch of data that is nearly universally encoded
into the files made by digital camera. It tells you what camera model, and even
the serial number, all the various settings, lens type, zoom setting and sometimes
even the focusing distance. The data can be striped out but it’s often there
when you post an image to the web. So if you are a nosy guy like me you can
take a deeper look into what is going on in the image.

 

I regularly read The Online Photographer and they have been
posting a bunch of stuff by Peter Turnley. If you don’t know about Peter and
his identical brother David Turnley they are a couple of the best
news/documentary photographers of the last 20 years. They have worked for more
big names and won more awards that I can keep track of. But I digress. TOP has
a big three part post of images that Peter took in Seville
during a holy week festival that he was teaching a workshop around. Excellent
stuff as can be expected from a guy like him. Take a gander: Peter Turnley's Faces of Semana Santa

 

So I was doing my thing looking at the images and got to
reading the EXIF data as I went. By half way through the first installment I
developed the following insight into his working method for that shoot: One camera, one lens,
one exposure setting and a lot of walking around. Specifically he was using a
Nikon D3 with a Nikon AF-S 24-70mm set to shutter priority and cloudy white
balance. Alright time to get geeky so I’m putting on my tweed jacket for this.

 

Frankly as I was going along I was waiting to see him post an image that used a
long lens to isolate the subject but no. In fact of all the images in the three
posts I don’t believe that he ever got longer than 32mm. So what he was doing
was essentially carrying a 24- 32mm zoom lens. This I’m sure freaks some out
but to me it makes sense. He will be wading through the crowd and processions
so a truly long lens will be nearly useless. Also anything wider than 24mm is
going to bring a lot of edge and foreground distortion. 28mm works wonders and
the zoom gives him a bit of flexibility. Given that one body makes things
easier to carry. I found it neat that he didn’t change his white balance. It
stayed on Cloudy the whole time. If the light got cool or warm so did the photo.

 

What I found most interesting was the use of shutter priority
exposure. This is coming from a guy who has done fully manual exposure since
the Regan administration. He kept his shutter speed to be 1/250th in
nearly every bright light shot. This seems to be a smart move by a seasoned
pro. Our light meters are surprisingly good these days and if he’s shooting
people watching and reacting to an emotional situation a 1/250th will
do a good job of keeping their movements sharp while letting the photographer
not worry about camera blur as he quickly moves about. He set his ISO to a place that let the camera select apertures between the lens maximum of f/2.8 to
around f/5.6. He was using the ISO as the key exposure setting to keep the lens pretty much open for good
subject to background separation. This is a nice trick that I think I will play
with in the future.

 

But the best lesson here is how he obviously moves about.
Considering he was using essentially a fixed, call it 26mm, lens he is tight,
wide and everywhere in between. He moves and moves and moves. His feet are his
most used photographic tool. In this era of “auto everything” and even more of “fix
it in post” this proves that getting to where the photo is and putting yourself
where things line up and the moment happens can’t be automated or processed.
Bravo maestro!

Picture a window

I'm not sure where there idea hit me but I've been glad that I went with it. Since I love to photograph things in a layered manner it often bothers me that I have to deal with things that are very 2 dimensional looking. I often think that it would be cool to be able to peer through something to get to the subject. But in studio-esque situations which are actually on location that often is either in abundance or non existent. Even if you have things to shoot through it may not give any context to the photo. Rather it may be cool but what else? Well how about maybe giving some context or a particular feel to the image?

About 4 years ago the idea hit me to go to the hardware store an buy a sheet of plexiglass for this shoot I was going to do about a guy who runs a company that does new ideas in marketing. After talking to him on the phone it was apparent that his office is a boring set of cubes and that turning it into something interesting would be a challenge. The surrounding area, like taking him to the park et al, didn't make much sense and certainly wouldn't explain anything about him or the story which was about the idea of narrow casting your marketing message. I show to his office and it was, well, a plain office space with a lot of bicycles in it. So I whip out my sheet of plexi and have him diagram out a most basic idea of what the whole thing is about while I start setting up my stuff. I mount the plexi on two stands with clamps and have him get behind it with his pen to go "John Madden" as if he's drawing out the thing in real time. It finally looked like this:

Narrow 

One soft box to camera left and one at right dialed back as fill with a third bearing a blue gel to turn the boring white wall something more interesting. The trick was that plexi is very reflective and it showed everything behind me. I had to do a lot of gyrations of angling the plexi, the camera and blocking highlights to make it look clean. But for my first time doing this it worked out pretty well and I learned how to do it better for the next time. The diagram was like this.

Narrow light
I've kept that sheet of plexi and have only pulled it out a few times because there just isn't that great a need for it. But when I can I do. I was commissioned to shoot a portrait of a woman, ok it was actually my wife no joke, who wrote an article about a particularly difficult time in her life and how she got through it. I wanted something moody but wasn't depressing looking. I wanted her to be strong while obviously in a difficult situation. Or something like that. I know that her wearing a silly hat was out of the question.

Since I don't have a studio I put this together in my office.

Angela

I made a 1/2 mix of water and glycerin in a spray bottle to make rain drops that would stay put. It a rainy evening ya know! I used a black muslin for the background and draped that over two saw horses with a half sheet of plywood to make a table where I put the lit candles on. There is an extra small softbox acting as a hair light that is gelled full CTO to make it match with the light from the candles behind her. I used one of my 11" sports reflectors with a 1/4CTO gel just out of frame because I wanted it to be very close to her and have no spill onto the shiny plexi. At camera right is a medium softbox with a 1/2 CTB to act as cool  evening light. That but to control reflections I had a black card keeping most of the blue off of her as well as keeping a few reflections under control. The other trick was to keep the camera out of the shot as the plexi easily made a distinct reflection of it so I draped it in black muslin and triggered the camera remotely. Diagram is like this:

Angela Setup
Then shortly after doing that I had to shoot a local famed chocolatier. The making of chocolates is messy but most of the work is done in stainless steel machines. The hand work is well hand work and isn't very interesting looking plus you have the issue of scale where a person and a one inch truffle doesn't show well. So out came the plexi. The fun/hard/insane part was adhering her sweets to the front of the plexi to have them suspended in air so to speak. They didn't hold for very long but we got the shot.

Chocolate

For this I side lit the chocolates to get the most texture and shine from them. I knew that soft lighting them would make them look flat and uninteresting. But side lighting her would be unflattering so I put grid spots on the side lights to keep them from spilling. Then I put a small softbox on a boom to be right over the plexi to give her soft light. Then a touch of hair/separation light over the black portable backdrop. Again the camera was draped in black and I used the Live View on my Nikon D700 triggered via my laptop to direct her and make the final exposure. Diagram below:

Chocolate lights
Well after that my $20 sheet of plexi is pretty beaten up but it's served me well.

Previsualizing filter

 There was a day when some hardcore B&W landscape
photographers would carry a filter in a frame that sucked all the color out to
render the view through it to be essentially black and white. This was to help
you visually edit out the color content of what you are looking at to get a
better idea of how the colors would be rendered as B&W tones. It wasn’t
perfect but it helped. You still had to learn how the film that you were using
actually rendered things but it was close.

 

When shooting color film you had to learn that and had no help
previsualizing your shot. Photogs would often find a film that they liked and
basically only use that one. Otherwise you might not realize how this scene or
skin tone would be either made lifeless or garish by the way that your film saw
things.

 

Digital has changed that as you can to a large degree when
shooting RAW render the scene anyway you want it. For quite a while I wanted to
see my flat and boring looking RAW files to look like themselves when I was
doing an image review on my cameras LCD screen. But then I realized that once I
found a look in Photoshop that made me happy 95% of the time I could simulate
that by changing the color curve and saturation of the jpg processing my
cameras do. The deal is that even if you are shooting RAW the camera makes an
imbedded jpg into the RAW file for the preview. Thus the file isn’t processed
but the preview is so I can get the feel of how the image will most likely look
like when it comes out of Photoshop.

 

But when I started the Avery Brewing project I had in my
head the idea of doing it in B&W for three reasons. 1) it makes things more
timeless looking, 2) most of the brewing process takes place in white-ish rooms
with big stainless steel containers and tubes so there isn’t much color content
to begin with and 3) it puts the emphasis on form and lighting which I really
dig.

 

So I decided to use a warm tone B&W mode for the shoots
so that when I’m checking on my shots the tones “feel” right. I still will do
the toning in P-Shop but after taking a few shots with my normal straight color
preview preset and the warm tone, the B&W made me more inspired by a mile.
And isn’t that what we want – to be inspired to make photos?

 

Here’s another from the Avery barrel room. They use a
stainless steel nail as a simple plug for taking samples without introducing
air into the barrel. For some reason the silhouetted pliers reminds me of that
famously manipulated image by Gene Smith of Albert Schweitzer where he used
like 5 negatives with the handles of tools in the foreground. Hmmm?

Avery 2

 

Technicals: Nikon D700 and Nikon AF-D 35mm f/2.0. ISO 400, f/2.0 @ 1/30th.

Multimedia and lighting classes

I've been doing teaching/lecturing on photography for a while now but primarily in the Denver area where I'm based. It's exceptionally cool that I've been added to the faculty of The Compelling Image. TCI is a comprehensive online school that does a variety of classes on various topics from developing your compositional sense, macro photography to video editing. The classes take 2-6 weeks with new lessons each week followed by assignments and critique from the instructor.

I will be teaching classes on shooting and producing multimedia slide shows and lighting portraits on location. For those of you who are looking into adding sound to your photos to make your stories even more powerful or want to be able to turn your speedlights into creative and expressive tools for portraiture take a look at the TCI classes starting Sep14th. Since you can do them from home it's a lot easier than taking 2 days to go to a workshop. Heck you can do all the assignments in your pajamas if ya like!

C-ya there.