People in Denver are too nice, or: don’t you hate when …

Don't you hate it when you go to a riot and a friendly rally breaks out? What a bummer! I was alerted to the fact that there was going to be an Occupy The Courts protest event here in Denver on Friday and thought "Well, yeah!". I don't cover hard news much any more and that's cool with me. I've been a feature story/essay kinda guy since I realized that not only is there no real carrier in it the chance of getting hurt, arrested by mistake or maybe even accidentally shot, just really wasn't my idea of a good time. I spent some time in my formative years working with the Detroit police covering their night operations and while it was both exciting and was a great learning experience I quickly saw how it just a matter of time until something unpleasant would happen to me.

Since then I've covered protests and a few riots and while I am equipped with a proper military gas mask and all the padding and gear necessary to protect me from possible harm in those situations they tend to not happen in my neck-o the woods for one big reason: people here are nice. Gah! Nice people don't often make dramatic photos very easy to make. Here is an exercise for ya: imagine take a general news picture. Ok? Not that interesting but if done well isn't that bad to look at. Now add to the scene four police officers wrestling a dude to the ground while he's kicking and screaming. Hmm, that's a more interesting image now isn't it? If said officers decide to reenact the famous "Rodney King" tape, now we are talking not only an image that you can't help look at, albeit maybe in horror, but some kind of award is likely to come of your image making efforts. That is the kind of thing that is worth getting out of bed early for. Right?

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Something old something new

My wife and I don’t quite belong in this era. She loves
vintage fashion and often gets lost in the costumes of period movies. While we
are watching a film like Gosford Park,
that takes place in 1932, I can hear her thinking “Oooo! I want that dress and
that one and wow I love that hat!”. As for me I love to tell people that “I’m
totally 80’s … like 1480’s!” meaning that I love to explore and if I were
living in those times I’d be on a ship or land expedition trying to find out
what’s “over there”.


Meanwhile back at the ranch … the editor wanted to do a
piece on the resurgence of vintage clothing. Lots of places are selling
expensive remakes of classic looks but her idea was that we would do actual
pieces from a great local vintage shop. Their store is broken up by decade: 30’s
over here, 50’s over there … of course my wife fell in love with the joint. I
decided that it would be cool to shoot the outfits in a manner that was similar
to how they did fashion in each era that the clothes were from. This is tough
as there were dozens of great photographers from each era along with some whose
work, like say Penn or Avedon, spanned many decades. Still there were common
visual themes to each. I spent quite a bit of time sitting on the couch with
the wife researching this and of course she kept saying “Ooo … now THAT’S a
skirt!” Consequently I now know more about historic fashion photography than I
ever thought that I would. It was interesting to see how the technology of the
day changed both what the photographers could do and how they worked with their
new toys. Complicated lighting of outdoor subjects just wasn’t possible before
modern powerful strobes so the location fashion shoots before the 50’s was
natural light. Even into the 60’s they didn’t light the heck out of things –
that came in the 70’s and especially the 80’s. The color palette was also
different as film stocks changed.


So my idea was to make each shot a kind of homage to how
things were photographed then and that meant a bit of post processing as well. We
were doing 40s-80s and all of that was done of film and the early years were
done on large format. So I ended up putting each image into a film frame and
processing the image to match the era.  This was pretty fun project. 

40's. Totally ambient light not even a reflector. We got lucky with the lighting here even though I had lots of strobes and reflectors and such just in case.

50's Two lights here. I put my 60" shoot through umbrella way up at the ceiling of the studio to act as a base light for our model and the gray seamless while a small softbox is high and pointed down at camera right. I'm on a ladder above her while my assistant is holding a subtractive card just out of the frame at camera left.



60's. We went with "mod" not hippy 60's as per my request. I wanted that bright look that they used then. Again two lights. A strobe with a 40 degree grid very high at the background to produce the gradation and a medium softbox at camera right.

70's. I wanted the whole over warm with sun streak "Foster Grant" thing here. Getting the sun to splash over her was tough since I didn't want to make it too pronounced. Ambient with a reflector. There were guys playing frisbee just out of the view of the camera here and they certainly gave us the "Wha-tha?"


80's I wanted to allude to the self absorbed aspect of that decade as well as the self destructiveness. When I was getting the mirrors for the shoot the lady at the craft store asked me if I wanted them in bubble wrap to keep them safe. "Oh no," I said "I'm going to smash them in a few minutes anyway". Ha! One light here a medium softbox at camera left and a reflector at camera right.


Behind a scene

Did a little spring fashion-y shoot the other day and thought that ya might want to take a gander. I did it a little backwards as is my usual method. First I didn't want, if possible, to to use typical 19 year old gal who is a size 2 or 4 as the piece was aimed at women in their 30's. We got lucky and found two ladies who are gorgeous but exotic looking in their own right so I wanted to use both of them for the contrasting looks.  The studio that we used is rather small so I made the best of it.

First off I wanted to use softboxes as edge/separation lights but because of the size of the studio I ended up using two small Chimera softboxes instead of the mediums that I initially wanted to use. Frankly I couldn't fit two mediums in and not be crowing the area that I had to work with. The softboxes give a bigger and glow-ier light on women than a hard light like a grid spot and I wanted the ladies to not look etched by the light. I also wanted a big soft light on them but wanted the light mainly high for the jawline shaping that a high light produces. Since I was going to have them move about I used my 60 inch shoot though umbrella because it throws light in a curve rather than a flat plane as softbox does. It also gives a round catchlight which is more natural looking than that of a rectangular softbox. I used another head with a 20 degree grid to be placed just above my head to act as an on axis fill to keep the eyes and shadows open. The camera, a Nikon D700 and AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8 was tethered to my laptop.

The diagram looks like this:
Fashion lighting

For your amusement I put my old Nikon D200 with my AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8 on a tripod set as an interval timer, cranking a shot every 15 seconds so that we could see how things transpired. And it looks like this:

Hang around

I'm not sure who first said it but it's totally true. "If you hang around one spot long enough, something interesting will happen". I was at the local home and garden show a while back and knew that something a bit odd was going to happen at the flower sale area. Oh yeah don't 'cha know it – it's just the most bizarre thing in the world (not). So I was just sitting there surrounded by all these potted flowers in bags when this lady walked up and started sticking her head into the flower bags to smell them. I didn't see any others doing this so the frame was easy to make. I think it's funny but then everyone says that "He ain't right in the head".

Home and Garden

Technicals: Nikon D700, ISO 200, 1/8th sec. Nikon AF-D 24mm @ f/8.

Snow is my blanket – death the lulabye

One of the reasons that I quickly decided not to pursue becoming a conflict zone photographer was the same reason that  I couldn't let myself become a psychotherapist: I feel too much. I can't be fully objective, clinical or detached. I'm pretty good at putting on my professional mindset and being fair to a subject that on my own time I wouldn't want to be around. I've had to photograph people who I don't at all care for but I can reserve my opinions and treat them professionally and decently. Once I get home I'll make whatever quiet commentary I want about the scumbag but never when I'm working.

The difference to me is not people who are mean but people who are suffering. Animals in pain and neglect bring me to tears. Pain is something that I never ever want to either get used to witnessing or worse learn to ignore. Humans do so many horrible things to each other and the world in general that it's hard to not notice. That's why I try to focus my work on the positive things that people can do. We need to know that there is good in us even if there is a distinct cruel and destructive streak in our species.

That said my wife and I live with 3 predators – the cats. I love them dearly but every so often when I see them beating the stuffing literally out of one of their toys I think about the power and ferocity of those soft, fuzzy, purring death machines. I wonder about the abject terror that a sparrow or mouse feels when faced with a pouncing tabby. It must be like what a small child would feel if a tiger decides to "play" with them. House cats are about the only animal besides humans who kill for pleasure. Despite that I still love our kitties.

We have a large bird feeder that attracts lots of sparrows and finches and they delight the cats. We call it the "Feline Entertainment Center". A while ago my wife noticed a little field mouse eating some of the seed the birds knocked out.  She thought that the little guy had made a nest at the base of the bush. I had pet mice as a kid and have a soft place in my heart for little furry whiskered things.

I went out this afternoon to refill the feeder happy because of the beauty of
the fresh falling snow. But then I noticed two dead mice on our porch. When I saw them my heart felt like lead. If finding a dead mouse makes me want to cry it's a good idea that I didn't try to cover a famine.

I didn't
know what to do so I took some photos of them as they lie. They are so
small and fragile – the snow flakes alarmingly large. It made me think
of how sudden yet inevitable the end is for any of us – person, whale,
mouse. All I could think of was to make a photo of the tiny guys in
memory of animals I've never met before who were just trying to survive the Colorado winter.

Snow My Blanket 1

Party pix

I was sent to cover the hub-bub at the Colorado State Republican Victory Party on the 4th. Anyone who has done this knows that it's usually boring as all get-out. A bunch of candidates, their families and policy wonks milling about drinking heavily – you hope! – and watching tv. Oh yeah!  THAT'S going to make for good photos. Even if yer candidate looses he's not going to openly weep into his scotch so that you can get an good emotive photo. Nope. But then trying to make something visually interesting out of the painfully boring is usually our/my job.

I was initially to follow 3 candidates in hotly contested races but, to my delight, two didn't attend the event. That left me following only Nick Kliebenstein. That's a great thing as these guys don't hang around in a tight group and making my way around the Marriott in the dozen or so small party rooms and the big ballroom filled with about 400 people would be awful. As I said: sometimes a boy gets lucky.

Nick was not as prompt in getting there as I was so I wandered about and just shot stuff to keep me from getting bored. Yes I said that out loud. Once he got there I was just in "hang out" mode. Nick's a great guy and his wife, and aide Matt were delightful to spend time with. Makes my job even easier!

I brought a fair amount of gear because I didn't know what I would need. I quickly found that with just my D700 and beloved AF-D 28mm f/1.4  I had the ticket for this kind of chaos: wide enough to give me some air around my subjects but that fab f/1.4 gives me an amazing separation between the subject and the stuff around him. It's like how you use a longer lens to separate the subject from the background but with a wide angle view. Man-alive I'm glad that I kept this lens during the DX chip era.

So here are some snaps from that night. All of these except for the last one was shot with my D700, ISO400, Tungsten WB, AF-D 28mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4 around a 1/90 sec.

Ah the glamorous side of being an on air tv personality!


Watching the results trickle in, I was echoing her sentiment.


Oh come on! If you saw this kinda light tell me that you wouldn't shoot it too.


Here's Nick telling some supporters that he had essentially chewed off all his fingernails in anticipation of the results.


Aide Matt, Nick and Nick's wife Krista kept checking Nick's Blackberry for more up to date results than was coming over the 8 bajillion tv feeds that were going on. It never looked good.


"Hey why don't you go make interesting photos of people waiting around and watching tv?" Gad! Well that's what it was all about. I must say that this is the shot that makes me love that 28mm f/1.4: the catchlight in Nick's eye is perfectly sharp but look at the lovely out of focus background that is a cluttered mess if sharp but isn't so it doesn't.


Now this one was done with my AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8. In these situations when there is a scrum you tend to do a "hail Mary" overhead shot. After a while of doing these you get to know kinda where you need to point you lens to get a usable framing realizing that you need to shoot wide to allow for the necessary crop to level out the nearly always tilted horizon you get when not looking through the lens. Well I have one of my control buttons on the D700 set to activate the Live View mode and since I do a lot of "No-looky" shots this function is just the bomb. I was able to shoot Senate candidate Bob Schaffer talking to the press after his concession speach and see exactly what I was aiming at. This is a full frame shot – no crop. Man I love our tools these days!


Well as we all know the Republicans didn't do very well so the Republican Victory Party was neither Victory nor Party but I actually had a good time. I didn't get anyone crying into their Martini's but we will go through the whole excercise again in a few year so who knows?