I thought it might be fun to show a behind-the-scenes look at doing a still life shoot, particularly showing my lighting scheme. Studio lighting is something that mystifies many people, but it doesn’t need to be complex or intimidating. Here is the finished image, at least the iPhone version thereof. How do you think it was lit?
Answer: one light. Yes, it’s a somewhat specialized light, a 10” focusable Fresnel, but that’s it. No fill, no reflector, no background light, just the main. After all, there is only one sun.
I’m using a single LED continuous light source (a GVM 80s LED lamp). Continuous lights are great because they let you see exactly what you’re getting, and they allow you the luxury of playing with time as a component of the exposure.
Pay attention when photographing in the studio to how close or far away things are to the background, and how close or far your light is to that background. You can shoot a subject on a white background but have it appear dark just by withholding light from that background, or if needed, you can do the opposite and take a black background white by pumping enough light at it.
Here’s a prime example – same setup, same light, same camera, same backdrop (light gray seamless paper). The only difference is that I blocked light from the backdrop with the barn doors on the Fresnel. Amazing, isn’t it?
A moment of serendipity as I was photographing the red granite pharaoh’s head in the British Museum caught the face of a passer-by in the lower right corner breaking through a beam of light, an equally enigmatic expression on their face as on the Pharaoh’s. In the far background, a second Pharaoh looks on.
Given the polarizing nature of the current president’s personality and demeanor, it should be no surprise that he attracts a LOT of protestors. There are always protestors outside the White House – for as long as I can remember, there was a 24/7 anti-nuclear weapons vigil in Lafayette Square, going back to at least the Reagan administration. The woman who spearheaded that protest has since died, so now the round-the-clock vigil encampment is immigration themed, if I recall correctly.
I don’t usually attend protest rallies or photograph them, given that they can be very sensitive events and I don’t want to be associated with anything that might go wrong when two opposing groups confront each other. Fortunately this is a rare thing in DC, but it does happen.
I was out playing tourist/tourguide with some out-of-town friends over the Martin Luther King Birthday holiday. We walked from the Air and Space Museum up Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House, then on to the Washington and Lincoln Memorials before finishing at the MLK Memorial. Outside the Renwick Gallery there was this character:
Inside his white box, he was playing the harmonica through a portable amplifier. There was no discernible connection between his song choices and the overall theme of his demonstration, so I don’t know to what extent he was consciously protesting, making social commentary, or just serendipitously expressing the zeitgeist because his meds were wearing off.
Outside the White House was a different matter, and a much more pointed display of discontent. This was right after the president had made his “shithole countries” comment, so much of the signage centered around that.
I chose this image because of the profoundly ironic juxtaposition of the happy tourists posing for a family photo in front of the White House with the protesting woman in front. This is something you will experience here in Washington that I don’t think you see many other places – the cognitive dissonance of “oh look, we’re jazzed to be here!” immediately adjacent to “I’m righteously indignant and I’m not going to take it any more!” expressed over the exact same subject.
One good thing about photographing protestors is that if you want to get better at “street” photography, they’re a great subject to practice on, because they absolutely want their pictures taken to get their message out to the larger world.
The last time I wanted to photograph the Palace of Fine Arts, the weather was not so accommodating and the skies were hazy and smoggy every day. This trip, the weather cooperated and you can see the glory that is the Palacio. The domes of the Palacio are so iconic a symbol of Mexico City, they’re even on the Starbucks mug! Next time I’m back, I’ll have to go in the Sears across the street and see if I can get a good shot out one of the third or fourth floor windows.
The interior is every bit as spectacular – The entrance lobby is a glory of Deco Mexicano – very much Art Deco, but with a distinct Mexican cultural twist – you can feel the stirrings of pride in indigenous Mexican heritage that were finding expression in stylized Aztec and Mayan motifs and the murals of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siquieros and Jose Orozco that adorn the walls of the lobby.
I feel lucky to have pulled off this shot, as I had to point the camera straight up, and hold it still for 1/15th of a second (I think it was a 1/15h, might have been 1/8th). No small feat when your camera is as big and heavy a brick as my Mamiya RZ67. I must say it has an extremely well-damped mirror that doesn’t cause camera shake – while it isn’t quite as smooth as my Rolleiflex, which has no mirror movement at all, I can hand-hold it down to 1/15th or 1/8th regularly (the Rollei I feel pretty confident to 1/4 second, and have been known to pull off 1 second exposures hand held).
Ok- now I’ve had a chance to put some film through the camera and give it a solid go. Here are some preliminary images from the camera.
This first one worked out amazingly well. I did something like this before with my 4×5 Travelwide pinhole.
Different days, different cameras, different feels. I haven’t decided yet which I like better. The 4×5 is a sharper image, but the panoramic has a definite late-afternoon fall rush hour feel to it the other one doesn’t.
This was a happy accident – a double-exposure of two scenes in Georgetown, the historic and very scenic neighborhood in Washington DC home to the eponymous university and the Potomac River waterfront. The fountain that dominates the above exposure is a new water feature in the riverfront park built in the last few years to reclaim that space and make it appealing to people. The skyline you can see is the iconic intersection of Wisconsin and M Streets, with the famous bank building in the center.
I took this shot to test out how much linear distortion I would get from the pinhole’s curved film plane. As you can see, very little. The nearest pumpkins in the foreground were maybe a foot from the camera, and the ones in the background over a dozen feet away. Yet the shelf they’re sitting on which goes into the background remains sharp and rectilinear.
Here’s the comparison I suspect you’ve all been waiting for. The trial run iPhone panorama shot at top (which I’ve showed before), and the actual exposure from the Vermeer below. The Vermeer has a different aspect ratio ( 6×18 ) and as a result, the vertical field of view is compressed over that of the iPhone. The Vermeer is also using an effective f/300 aperture, so the exposure time for this shot was 25 MINUTES, whereas the iPhone shot was at most three to four seconds.
The iPhone, due to its swinging-lens equivalency, has obvious curvilinear distortion, whereas the Vermeer does not. I was actually honestly surprised at how little distortion it has. I was expecting verticals to remain true, but not the horizontals, because of the curved film plane.
My plan is to re-shoot the night shot with a different tripod. I had a lightweight tripod with me this outing, and it not only did not go high enough to include the entire dome of the Farmer’s Bank building, but it jiggled during the 25 minute exposure such that the non-moving subjects went soft.
As to the camera itself, I have a short list of criticism, both positive and negative.
The camera is very nicely finished, with an obvious degree of high craftsmanship.
I very much like the shutter control on the camera, much better than the rubber lens cap-thing on my Travelwide that can easily get lost.
All the controls are easy to grip and operate, even if wearing gloves.
The film advance mechanism makes it easy to fully tension the film after advancing, especially if you over-advance a little and need to roll back.
It comes with a very nicely made cheat-sheet of instructions on how to load and advance the film, and how to calculate exposure. I used the chart exclusively and my exposures came out spot-on.
The camera comes with a 52mm filter adapter ring built in to the front, should you want or need to use contrast-boosting filters for black-and-white, Infrared filters, or neutral density if you enjoy sitting up all night making a single exposure.
The closure mechanism (two thumb-screws to lock down the lid), while very secure when closed, is susceptible to loss- it would be very easy to drop one of the screws while changing film in the wild, and have it disappear in tall grass or down a storm drain. The camera would not be light-tight at that point.
There are no levels on the camera (a minor quibble, as they are inexpensive to obtain and install). When dealing with a panoramic camera, getting the horizon level is critical.
There are no markings on the camera to indicate the horizontal or vertical fields of view. I can understand how you might not have a horizontal field of view indicator, as the camera design is compact for the format due to the curved film plane, but a vertical field of view indicator would be extremely helpful when guessing compositions and deciding how high to set your tripod, or whether to tilt the camera up.
I’ve got some bubble levels on their way to me from Amazon, and I’ll be attaching them to the top deck when they arrive. That will solve one of my biggest immediate gripes about the camera. Now if I could only find a 6×17 viewfinder that has a similar equivalent focal length…
Today was my session of the “Meet & Shoot” class I co-teach with several other instructors at Photoworks. The class is a five or six session workshop on street photography where each instructor takes a group of students out for a guided photography excursion to a location of their choosing. Students can sign up for all sessions, or pick and choose which ones they want as their schedule and/or instructor preference dictates.
This time, I had three new students and three repeat students from the last time I taught this class. Due to some last-minute scheduling snafus, three of the students were unable to make it, so it was a very intimate walkabout, and I was able to teach as much as I was playing shepherd.
We met at the Columbia Heights Metro station, and once the crew was collected, we took a walk up to the little plaza in front of the Tivoli Theater where a saturday farmers market was in full swing. My three students, seen below (L to R: Matthew, Suzan and Bobbi) wandered around and took full advantage of my guidance for the session to use color as a foundational theme. The farmers market was a perfect opportunity, with all the fruit and vegetables on display.
Columbia Heights is an ethnically diverse neighborhood, with a strong Latin-American presence. This is very obvious in the colors and styles of signage on shops and restaurants, and makes for a great subject for a color-based exercise.
Here Bobbi, Suzan and Matthew are examining some signage on a Dominican restaurant on Park Road.
We continued along Park Road over to Mount Pleasant, another neighborhood in Washington DC that also has a significant Latino presence. I took the opportunity to discuss including graffiti and public sculpture in your work as a “street” photographer. If you’re going to include other peoples’ art in your photography, make sure that you have a solid reason for doing so- it’s fair game as documentary, or if your capture and interpretation is transformative (abstract/close-up, for example), but if you’re planning to exhibit and market photos of other peoples’ art, even if it is displayed in public, you’re at best in an ethical gray area, and potentially in a copyright violation scenario.
Street photography is very much about found images – you’re not setting out to intentionally create compositions, but rather responding and reacting to things you encounter, like this poster that fell into the street and got run over until the rough pavement surface pierced through turning the whole thing into an abstract composition.
We had a great morning of shooting, and wrapped up for a chat at a cafe on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan (another neighborhood bordering on Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights). I’m very pleased with my students, and I’m looking forward to seeing their images from today at our recap class in three weeks.
For the Memorial Day holiday weekend, I took a short vacation down to Mexico City. I wanted to do an art-themed vacation, taking in museums and popular art and crafts, to get some inspiration for my own work. And of course, to take images of my own. For this trip I decided to take my new Fuji X-T1 and a couple lenses because it was much more compact and less conspicuous than the Rolleiflex. It proved a baptism by fire for me with the camera, as I was shooting with it 10 hours a day every day for five days. This generally is a good thing, and I’ll write up my impressions in a separate post.
One of the first things I noticed about Mexico City is that it is a very young city – you can tell the population skews much more toward 20 than toward 60. There are young people everywhere, wandering the streets of the Centro Historico, visiting the museums, riding the subway. I spotted these two young lovers on the plaza in front of the Palacio de Bellas Artes. You saw many young couples like these two holding hands and being publicly expressive. This was a bit of a surprise to me as my last impression of Mexico City was 30+ years ago when it was a much more conservative, much more Catholic place, and this kind of public display between unmarried youth would have been frowned upon.
Further signs of change in Mexico City – young gay couples holding hands in public. These two were touring the Casa Studio Diego Rivera with me, and I caught them in an unguarded moment on the roof of the studio. I should have taken their portraits too, but I did photograph them together with their cellphone as they were trying to do selfies with not much success. They were very cute and sweet.
I also saw several other young gay couples out on the street holding hands in the Centro Historico, which surprised me a little as I was not expecting it there.
On another early Sunday morning, I took a walk through the Alameda park, which was just up the block from my hotel. This boy and his dad were out to go roller skating in the park. I loved his punked-out helmet with the spiky mohawk.
In a passageway between Calle Madero and Calle Tacuba, just behind the Banco de Mexico, there’s this big bronze bird bench (try saying that five times fast!). I spotted this lady taking a rest, smoking and playing on her phone. As is typical everywhere now, people of all ages are glued to their phones.
A handsome young man on his phone, outside Chapultepec Park. Hot travel tip for anyone planning to visit Mexico City – the entire city seems to roll up the sidewalks and shut down on Mondays, at least as far as attractions go – there’s maybe one museum open. They even lock up the gates to Chapultepec park and only allow bicyclists who are transiting through to enter!
I went out for an early morning walk my first full day in Mexico City, to see what the rhythms of life are like. This man presented a dramatic composition in the morning sunlight as he leaned up against the wall.
This is a view I’ve seen a number of times but wasn’t ever sure how to capture it until yesterday. I’ve always had the wrong camera with me, either from the focal length, the aspect ratio, or both, perspective. This is an outtake in the sense that I was doing a model shoot with a friend of mine on the pier of the old C&O Canal bridge that used to cross the Potomac River in Georgetown, so taking this photo was not the purpose of the shoot. This is the view looking straight down at the dock for the boathouse.
I was particularly drawn to the geometry and angles formed by the decking on the boat dock, with the red decking running perpendicular to the unpainted deck, and all the triangles formed by the perspective you have to take to see the scene in the first place. Even the boat, which has a totally different shape and texture to the decking, creates more triangles with its prow, and provides visual tension running the opposite direction so you move your eye around the image.
In this set I’m including some black-and-white shots along with the color ones to show what the Fuji can do. I used the b/w+R setting (the equivalent of using a red filter when shooting black and white film). I don’t know that this is as extreme as actually shooting black-and-white film with a red filter in terms of the contrast and look, but I like it.
Mustafa showed up to the shoot in a tux, which is hard to work around if that’s not what you’re aiming for. It’s a good look, and a very elegant one, but not necessarily fitting a pool hall. I tried to shake things up a bit with the kaleidoscope glasses, the steampunk welder’s goggles and my own vintage leather jacket. Tip to models – unless you are told wardrobe will be provided, always bring at least two different looks to a test shoot with you so you don’t get stuck looking out-of-place on the shoot.
Mustafa has a great face – he looks good from lots of angles. When posing a model or a portrait subject, you want to make sure that you’re not doing anything un-flattering. If you’re turning the head away from front-on, you want the nose to either obviously stand back from or break the contour of the cheek so you don’t inadvertently flatten it by having it by having the tip of the nose meet the outline of the cheek. At the same time, pay attention to the eyes – you want to see whites on both sides of the iris. If you turn someone’s head in part profile and then have them look back at the camera with their eyes, the irises in the corner of the eye make them look like a psycho-killer. In these shots it works because he’s looking the same direction with his eyes as his face is pointing.
Yesterday I had a model shoot with three aspiring models who needed to build their portfolios. We went to a billiards parlor for the afternoon and I put them and the Fuji through its paces. It was also the first test in the field for my new 400 w/s bare-bulb strobes. The new strobes are battery-powered via external rechargeable batteries. They can be configured to sit on-camera and be triggered via hot shoe, take a wireless remote trigger like a PocketWizard, be triggered via sync cord, or be triggered by a proprietary wireless trigger system that also allows you to remotely adjust the power level from the camera position. The first one I bought was a Calumet-labeled version. When Calumet was still in business in the US, these were quite expensive – a single head unit plus the required but not included battery pack would have set you back a cool $1000. Nowadays, they’re on clearance on Amazon for $300 or so. They are also now being sold with the NEEWER, Flashpoint and Godox labels, at a much more reasonable price – I got a NEEWER version with the external rechargeable battery pack for $400 as a second unit for doing fill flash or background lighting.
These first two shots were taken with Alex shooting pool. In the first shot, I set him up taking the break shot. Don’t let the fact that he’s a model fool you- he’s also a pool shark – right after this shot, his break dropped three balls. I wouldn’t bet against him. This was taken with the Fuji 56 f1.2. My main light was the Calumet Genesis in an umbrella softbox, and the fill was the NEEWER with a gridded reflector and a red gel in it. Having the ability to both color gel and grid the fill is really handy, as the color adds a touch of drama to the scene, and the grid keeps it from spraying all over the place and coloring things you don’t want it to, like the table felt.
For this shot, I kept the lights the same but switched to the 23mm f1.4 so I could get in close and still get the extension of his shoulder, arm, cue, and the ball on the table, as this table was in the middle of the room with other tables behind me, and I only had about four or five feet to work in. The red gel adds a touch of drama and energy to the shot without overwhelming, and is a good way to deal with the very mixed light in a pool hall where you can have fluorescent (the over-the-table lights), halogen/tungsten (lights in the bar area and on the walls) and LED (accent lights like rope lights around partition walls and the like, or under the bar) all in the same area.
I also did some head shots with Alex (who is an easy, professional model to work with). I backed this indie film called Hallucinaut on Kickstarter last year and as my reward, I got these kaleidoscope-lensed glasses that appear in the film as a prop. I chose them specifically as my reward as something that would make a really cool prop for photo shoots. This was their first appearance in one of my shoots. They really pick up and reflect colors well, and make for a dramatic statement.
A variation on the theme, I broke out my welder’s goggles and matched them up with a vintage leather jacket for a steampunk look. Alex’s short-cropped hair adds to the look by letting the goggles really stand out against the shape of his head.
In the last look for Alex, I did two versions of this really clean, minimal portrait. When I showed it to him on screen he commented “I have a really long neck!” as if that was a bad thing. I reminded him of what you’ll hear on every season of the now-ended America’s Next Top Model – it’s a really good thing to have a long neck. Tyra Banks and her photographers were always reminding the contestants to elongate their bodies and gestures, to create drama and elegance. If you have a short neck, stretch it out, otherwise the camera can make it look like you’re neckless and just have a head glued directly to your torso.
These were both shot outdoors under the eave of a parking garage, and combining the flash in a beauty dish as a fill with the backlight of the street behind made it easy to completely blow out the background into a nice even white. Handy trick when you’re going studio-less and need an even background.
I shot all these images in RAW, then converted afterward to JPEG. I like working this way because it feels more like traditional darkroom photography, where I’m working from the in-camera negative. Working from in-camera JPEGs, while still very good, to me is not as good because it’s like making a copy of a print – changes have been made and nuances have been degraded.
Not that there should be any doubt, but the Fuji 56mm is a knockout lens (Fuji has always made some top-grade glass, especially for their medium-format cameras). The falloff in sharpness at wide-open or near wide-open is creamy-smooth, and the rendering of out-of-focus highlights is never harsh or jagged.
Takeaways from this shoot:
-Work with good models. Not everyone is a good model, and not all good models start out that way, but if you’re new to the process of working with models, hire folks (and I do mean hire, as in pay for with cash, not just trade-for-prints/CD) who have experience working with photographers.
-know your equipment. If I were not as experienced with studio lighting, figuring out what was going on with my Calumet/NEEWER flashes could have been a pain, as they don’t have modeling lights (to save on battery life) and are not TTL because they’re made to be universal and are not dedicated to any one system.
-have fun. Be loose, work with your environment, take advantage of the opportunities it presents, and challenge yourself to overcome its obstacles. You’ll make much better pictures that way.