"The pictures you make are like a connect-the-dots game that becomes the line of your life, as real and vibrant as the lines on your face and hands. We tell stories with our pictures. In turn, our pictures tell our story - what we did, and how well or poorly we did it, and very significantly, if we stuck with it." - Joe McNally
Karen and I had the brilliant idea to spend a nice weekend in Tucson, Arizona, watching the Ducks of the University of Oregon defeat the Wildcats of the University of Arizona on their march to the Pac-12 championship. It would be a mild, sunny weekend in the desert capped by a big Oregon win. Too bad that I'd have to miss a chance of a lifetime to photograph the great Al Jarreau performing at the McKinney Theater at Saddleback College, but choices had to be made. Well, crap, if it didn't turn out to be a major embarrassment for the Ducks, who got hammered 42-16, knocking them out of the BCS championship consideration, the Pac-12 championship, and quarterback Marcus Mariota from any consideration for the Heisman Trophy. And it wasn't a mild, sunny weekend either, until we got the hell outta Dodge.
Which brings me to the La Posta Pluton, which rises like a wall from the eastern edge of the Coachella Valley as you come westward on Interstate 8 into San Diego County along the Imperial County line. Or conversely, it forms the backbone of the mountains east of San Diego, home to a half dozen Indian casinos and the troops from the Border Patrol. My first exposure to this weird and wonderful geology was in high school 40+ years ago, when my church group spent a Spring Break week helping to build a one-room schoolhouse just across the border into Mexico from the tiny town of Jacumba. We stayed in Jacumba and walked the hundred yards or so across the border into Mexico every morning to build the school. My fondest memory of that trip was a communal dinner prepared for us one evening by the local Mexicans, including a stew of chicken complete with feet (chicken). Today, there's no way to walk across the border, which is hermetically sealed off by that giant metal wall, equipped with forests of communication infrastructure, and Jeep-mounted Border Patrol agents who eye you warily, because after all, there's no reason for anyone to go to Jacumba anymore. Except, perhaps, to explore the geology of the La Posta Pluton.
When you come along I-8 from either direction approaching the vicinity of Jacumba, the landscape turns magical. The mountains are no longer forested by scrub (from the west) or tamarisk and cactus (from the east). Instead, the mountains are literally covered with giant, weathered granite boulders. Millions and millions of boulders. The kind of boulders you might expect to see along alluvial river banks draining the San Gabriels, the San Bernardinos, or the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada. But these boulders have not been deposited by alluvial runoff. They occupy steep slopes from the bottom of the mountains to the very tops.
It's as if they were scattered along the tops of the mountains like chopped nuts on a hot fudge sundae. How can that be? Boulders don't roll uphill. And if you examine a road cut, of which there are many along this stretch of I-8, you see that the underlying layers of granitic rock are (more or less) solid.
I had to figure this out.
Fortunately, Karen and I stumbled upon one of those roadside "attractions" that are so unique to the desert southwest: this one by the name of the Desert View Tower. Built in the earliest decade of the 20th Century, Desert View Tower was meant to be a visual reward for travelers who made the arduous trip over the mountains or across the desert and up through the maze of rocks. For those heading west, it was a memory of what they had endured; for those heading east, it must have been a warning of things to come. But for me, Desert View Tower was the answer to my question, "how did those rocks get there?"
As we wandered around this property, complete with rocks painted to resemble animals, a guy selling handmade knives, and assorted other memorabilia, I wound up talking with the current owner of the place (I wish I got his name, but unfortunately I didn't). He told me the story of the La Posta Pluton. And as someone who's had a lifelong interest in geology, it made perfect sense to me.
This region lies astride the San Andreas Fault, the border of the North American Plate (seen in the far distance in the photo at the top of this post) and the Pacific Plate, on which we stand. As we know from Geology 1, the Pacific Plate is subducting under the North American Plate, except that along the California coast, it has largely been stopped in its subduction, and instead is grinding past the stable craton of the rest of the USA, and is moving more or less steadily north. That grinding is the work of the strike-slip fault known as the San Andreas.
Where the fault erupted, approximately 100 million years ago (give or take a few million), some pieces of the North American and Pacific Plates broke off the main basoliths and subducted down into the hot mantle below. This molten rock then "burped" back up in the form of a chain of plutons running roughly from Riverside down into Baja California, of which the La Posta is the largest. A pluton is a belch of rock emerging from below, cooling as it heads back up the tectonic equivalent of an esophagus. It's not a volcanic eruption of molten lava. Rather, in effect, the earth hacks up a mountain, or in this case 1700 square kilometers of mountain. The mineralogy of the pluton is complex, but basically it's granitic, and not especially dense. It's easily worn down. So the processes of erosion by wind and weather over eons have stripped much of the sand and softer elements and sent them eastward to the dirt bikers, ATV riders, and other denizens of the desert of Imperial County, leaving what are now boulders in place.
With the answers to my questions in hand, Karen and I left Desert View Tower, as the late afternoon sun rapidly faded to twilight. The place got cold and eerily silent. At the base of the entrance, we found the perfect accompaniment to Desert View Tower: "Coyote's Flying Saucer Retrievals and Repairs Service". The only thing missing were the all-seeing eyes of the Border Patrol.
Several weeks ago, I was asked by Steve Bell, Community Services Manager for the City of Mission Viejo, to provide official photography services to the City for its upcoming wheelchair tennis tournament. Well, I've never shot tennis before, I said to myself, but hey, how tough could it be? I shoot dance pretty well, and am reasonably competent at high school football, so I know how to capture peak action. I have that going for me. Plus, these athletes would be in wheelchairs, so following them shouldn't be all that difficult, right?
Little did I know at that time that these 38 men and women would be world-class athletes who happen to be in wheelchairs, and that if given the opportunity, they could beat the pants off you without breaking a sweat. I didn't know at the time that these athletes compete at Wimbledon, at Roland Garros in Paris, at the US Open, and other elite venues around the globe. I didn't know that the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters and the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Doubles that I would be shooting are considered Grand Slam events in the wheelchair tennis world, and that tennis organizations around the world would want my photos, pronto. In short, I didn't know anything.
Eight days after the tournament began, I ended my work proud, happy, and exhausted, but most of all, blessed. Covering this event was one of my most fond photographic experiences, one which enabled me to exercise my best skills, learn new ones, and best of all, just be with these amazing athletes and the people who help promote their sport.
Just to get the technical stuff out of the way, this is how the week went. In addition to covering the two draw parties (singles and doubles), I covered all matches I could (I missed the Friday night matches due to other commitments). Until the Finals, there were usually two, three, or four matches going on at once, so I had to bounce back and forth between them. I sat in a very low folding three-legged stool at the net across from the umpire, enabling me to swing right or left to focus on one or more players. I knew that shooting low would be absolutely necessary to capture the best angles. The last thing I wanted to do was to shoot down on these athletes. I found the most versatile lens in my bag to be the 70-200 f/2.8 IS L, and stuck with it for all of the matches, pulling out my 24-70 for some portraits, and the 24-105 for the Finals awards ceremonies. (On a couple of occasions, the local paper sent out photographers to cover the event. They'd bring 300-400mm bazookas and wind up standing at the top of the bleachers to get a single player in the frame. One guy even brought a 1200mm behemoth. I have no idea what he thought he'd get with that thing.) Each day, I'd shoot anywhere from 800 to 1500 images, go home, and spend about 6 hours culling, editing, and pushing the selected images to the International Tennis Federation, the United States Tennis Association, the City of Mission Viejo, and various paralympic organizations in Canada and Europe. These were 18 hour days, and I operated with very little sleep for a week.
Once I got over my initial shock at the spectacle before my lens (the shot of number one-ranked Shingo Kunieda above was one of my very first frames), I settled in to work on the goals I had set out for myself as I planned for my coverage.
It's pretty obvious that wheelchair tennis would involve motion, just as able-bodied tennis does. What impressed me right off the bat was the speed and dexterity these athletes brought to the game. The best of them hit just as hard as anyone else can, and that means getting from one place on the court to another with speed, and stopping just as quickly. So conveying speed and motion were actually pretty easy to do. For me there was no compromise between freezing motion and conveying motion (which is usually captured by slow shutter speeds); I opted to freeze the action and let the athlete's body positions convey motion as in the frames below:
A side note to this: Consider the strain on the back muscles of these athletes, who are strapped and immobilized in their chairs, putting all the torque on their back as they push, pull, twist, turn, reach, hit (violently hard), and react. It has to be more straining than an able-bodied tennis player who can move his or her lower body.
A good sports image needs to convey not only the action, but the athlete's reaction to the action, either in the intensity of the moment itself, or immediately after. (There's a different category here, the jubilation [or "jube" as sports shooters call it] of a great shot or victory and we'll get to that later.) Facial expressions during play can convey the joy or difficulty of competition, the energy required to compete at this level, or other factors. So I needed to be aware of these, search them out, and compose the finished image to place focus on them:
Show the Sponsors
The organizers and sponsors of an event like this are paying you to bring back great shots. But for them, what makes a good shot great is when you incorporate their logo into the frame. Fortunately, the two main courts were ringed with sponsor logos (though other courts weren't). So putting the logo into a photo wasn't exactly difficult. The best shots, however, were a blend of great action, the athlete's emotion, and careful placement of both against the backdrop of the sponsor's logo. You can't plan for this kind of thing, but when it happens, you'd better be able to get it. This is where experience in anticipating peak action really helps. It also helps to pull back a bit, to give yourself some room to crop effectively in the finished image.
Catch a Break
Here's a category that absolutely can't be anticipated, but it's wonderful when it happens. An interesting framing of a body part in the composition, something that only a super fast exposure can catch, or some other anomaly can turn an ordinary photo into an eye-catching image. Sports Illustrated runs these all the time, and while I have no illusions that my captures are worthy of SI, it's great when you get them.
Lucy Shuker and Marjolein Buis have their eyes on the ball:
I don't think I could have asked Maikel Scheffers to frame his head within the racket as perfectly as this:
An exposure of 1/2500th of a second froze the fuzz being knocked off the ball by Joaquim Gerard:
Catch the "Jube"
This one's so easy, but also easy to miss, as many photographers do when they stop shooting when the crucial play is over. Sometimes the most compelling images are made after the play, as the athlete celebrates his or her accomplishment with jubilation.
Here's a category I was totally unprepared for when I first started. I quickly gained an appreciation of the speed and agility of these wheelchair-bound athletes, but it took me by surprise when I saw how fearlessly they pursued a volley, even when it meant a certain crash into the fence. They're strapped into their chairs, and at that point, they're pretty much passengers. But they get back up quickly, as if nothing happened. At one instance (on a court other than the one I was covering at that particular moment) one of the competitors actually came out of the chair; I'm not sure I wanted to see that. But these frames show the commitment they have to getting the point.
This one was a near rollover by Michael Jeremiasz during his match point victory in the Men's Doubles Final:
Make Some Portraits
I guess, at bottom, I'm a portrait guy. As the tournament progressed, and I had made thousands of images, I began to focus more and more on the faces of the athletes and others associated with the sport who were there. Some of the images made during the matches almost rise to the level of portraits. For them, I ignored the goal of sponsor inclusion and got in very tight, either by cropping in camera, or after in post. As the best sports shooters will tell you, "Get in tight, and when you do, get in tighter."
Others were made with specific portraiture in mind. Here's David Hall, six-time World Champion from Australia, whom I posed seriously (he's not a very serious guy) to show off his artwork:
Brad Parks is credited with inventing the game of wheelchair tennis in 1976. He joined David Hall on one of the side courts for a few minutes of friendly banter and volleys.
One of the more interesting people at the tournament was Mike Box, who builds custom wheelchairs. He was there to provide repair and maintenance services for the athletes. He would work on their chairs right there on the court, where I first saw him, or in an EZ Up shelter away from the crowds, where I made this portrait during the "blue hour" after the sun went down on Saturday:
The clear crowd favorite of the tournament was San Diego's David Wagner, defending Quad Champion. Several family members and friends were enthusiastically supporting David, including his grandmother, sporting a larger-than-life-size cutout of David's face.
It has taken me about three days to recover from this project. But was it ever worth it! The City of Mission Viejo, particularly Steve Bell and Jason Harnett, did a masterful job of planning and organizing the event, with extensive support from the rest of the City family and community volunteers. I heard many unsolicited comments from the players how much they enjoyed competing in Mission Viejo and the support that was offered to them in transportation, lodging, food, and other needs of daily life. I hope the event comes back to Mission Viejo next year, and that I'll have another opportunity to play a part in it. Now, the challenge will be to bring this exciting sport to the general public, and fill those stands!
It's been several weeks (months?) since my last blog post; Spring is my most busy season, what with dance studio portraits, multi-performance dance concerts, and other end-of-school year projects. I'm still working through over 300 portraits from one of my dance studio clients. But sometimes a guy just has to take a break and do something for sheer fun. For me, it's photographing live music, and most often, it's at one of KSBR's "Gary and Kelly Show" broadcasts from the Norman P. Murray Center in Mission Viejo. Today's show featured Nick Colionne, who pretty much blew the roof off the place, as we all knew he would.
I've posted several images from previous outings at the Murray Center, and I have a gallery on the website solely devoted to artists photographed there. I've also discussed at some length the strategies needed to produce good images at this venue, primarily the need to shoot from the sides into the dark voids in what would otherwise be wings if this were a legit stage. Otherwise, shooting from the front toward the back produces utterly distracting and unmanageable backdrops to the artists, due to bright windows covered in sheer draperies lit by colored gels. Looks okay to the naked eye, but in photographs, no. I've also commented on the limited shooting angles here, necessitated by avoiding conflicts with the video crew and the audience members. Some of these shooting angles are measured literally in inches. Constrained as these angles are, photographs can tend to take on similar looks, and thus, become repetitive and boring, no matter how talented the artists are.
So lately I've turned to different post processing techniques to try to give fresh looks to otherwise repetitive compositions. I've found several I like, and will use them depending on the mood of the shot. These techniques are primarily based in Lightroom, my first stop in the post production process. Next comes a trip to Photoshop for more detailed or localized adjustments not possible in Lightroom, especially getting rid of distracting background elements. Finally, I'll employ one or more plug-ins from Nik Color Efex Pro if the mood of the shot would benefit from them.
Today, Nick Colionne provided opportunities to make use of many of these techniques. Colionne hails from Chicago, and was introduced to the music scene at a very early age. He auditioned and toured with the Staples Singers at the age of fifteen. His mom wanted him to play like Wes Montgomery. Dad wanted him to emulate the style of Kenny Burrell. Nick himself preferred Jimi Hendrix. Today, you can see all three of these influences in Nick, both musically and visually. (My first photograph of Nick Colionne, made at the 2013 KSBR Birthday Bash, immediately struck me as channeling Jimi Hendrix, before learning of Hendrix's influence on Nick. It's the photo at the top of this post.)
So today, we saw and heard each of these musical influences, which created visual moments captured on the sensor of my Canon 5D Mark III. These moments can be characterized, in the words of Jay Maisel, in terms of light, gesture, and color. Together, they create a mood, which leads me in certain directions. Sometimes I want to tone things down, while at other times I want to jack 'em up.
So here's Nick Colionne, captured and processed eight ways.
This image has relatively little post-processing. The lighting today, for some reason, rendered more yellow/red and contrasty than in previous broadcasts, so color correction and reduction in vibrance was applied globally to all of the images. This had the unfortunate result of washing out some of the blue in Nick's suit and hat. But it provides a baseline for further adjustments depending on the composition and mood of the frame.
As Nick's performance gets edgier, so too does my interpretation. More liberal application of mid-tone contrast (clarity), and less vibrance gives the shot a bit more "grit".
Then, as Nick does a vocal performance, his mood softens. A brief guitar riff between vocal passages produces an inward-focused moment. I look for these moments as they, too, tell a story. For me, they call for a softer, less aggressive approach. A subtle application of the "Midnight" filter in Color Efex Pro takes the edge off the scene, while at the same time helping to restore the blue of Nick's suit.
Here's another shot without much noticeable post-processing. What's missing from this frame are distracting elements in the original capture, including light leaks from the gridded soft box behind Nick, and miscellaneous fixtures on the wall. These distractions are easily removed in Photoshop.
The image above was the first one that immediately caught my eye. The combination of light flare on the headstock of the guitar and Nick's facial expression led me to hit the Lightroom sliders hard. Boosting contrast, clarity, and vibrance restored color intensity that was threatened by the flare. At the same time, the flare is the key element of the mood of the photograph.
This image is one where the mood is contemplative, but not downbeat. It called for a light touch. A slight boost in clarity, offset by reduction in vibrance to reduce redness in the skin, produced a more natural result than the camera's internal engine did.
Back to higher energy, both in terms of Nick's performance, as well as the clutter of visual elements in the frame. This is one of those shots where the shooting angle is so constrained. As a result, the image is a jumble of colors, lines, and shapes. Perhaps not the most immediately accessible frame, but it's still one I like, primarily due to Nick's facial expression. So I went with it, boosting contrast, clarity and vibrance again. I left in some of the elements I would normally clone out, such as the light leaks and red label on the video soft box behind Nick.
Here's the final frame of the day, made in the final moment of Nick's final song. This image is clean, focusing solely on Nick, his expression, and his interaction with the audience. What it doesn't have are: a headless portion of host Gary Bergeson behind Nick, unrecognizable foliage from the background at the upper left of the frame, portions of a desk at the bottom of the frame behind Nick, and a half-wall of purple color above a black fabric used to flag off stray light behind the desk. Each of these distracting elements were removed in Photoshop, not by the use of selections and extractions, but by careful cloning away of each separate piece of visual junk. And although the final result is devoid of any contextual elements present in the other photos, the starkness of Nick's expression, and his engagement with the unseen audience, is a more powerful representation of this very talented individual. Would this treatment work in all cases, with every artist? Probably not. But for Nick Colionne? Most definitely.
Every once in a while I get to do something I've never done before. A few weeks ago, I was asked to volunteer my services in support of the Santa Margarita Catholic High School Mothers Club annual fund-raising senior fashion show. Well, I've never shot a runway fashion show before, so I said, "Why not?" As it turned out, I joined dozens of Santa Margarita students who also had never done anything like this before as well. Together, it was a fun ride.
The show had previously been staged in the school gymnasium, but this year, the organizing committee of the Mothers Club was able to secure the services of a professional fashion show producer, James Campbell, and the use of the neighboring San Francisco Solano Church Parish Hall, which was still under construction when rehearsals began. So the group conducted its first rehearsals in the courtyard outside the church. Most of the kids had no clue what they were doing (and some were wondering why they had been volunteered into doing this).
First lessons included how to walk like a runway model.
It was easier for some to grasp than for others...
The guys were even talked into learning some choreography, to Justin Timberlake's new release, "Suit and Tie", a perfect piece. The guys' ability to pick up the choreography....not so perfect.
Eventually, things began to shape up.
Though there were always a few that just didn't quite get it. if it was a guy, he was subjected to good natured ridicule from guys who probably just squeeked by themselves....
As the show neared, the kids finally got to move into the new Parish Hall for two final rehearsals.
The day before the show, the crews came in and transformed the Parish Hall into a full-fledged fashion show venue, complete with elevated runway and wings to create entry and exit points. The lighting crew erected a scaffold filled with LED lighting focused on the runway, which would be my shooting position. The power required for this rig pretty much taxed the load designed into the building, preventing the producers from bringing all the light they were used to. But things were rapidly coming together, which was a good thing, as the show was just 24 hours away. You could see the progress that the producers and the kids had made.
Sunday was show day. The event began with a boutique and a luncheon. To give some insight into the behind-the-scenes activities of the day, I like to shoot details of things like the clothing and food prep.
The event was catered by Dave Hanna, owner of Hanna's Prime Steak in Rancho Santa Margarita. Not only is Hanna's the best restaurant in town, but Dave Hanna has got to be the most active businessman in town when it comes to supporting charitable activities. Here's Dave pausing during the morning rush to speak with guests.
After lunch, the show began. It was at this point that I realized that the big white void above the back of the runway was actually a video screen, showing the logos of the merchants who provided the models' clothing. Unfortunate for me, because I had dialed in a shutter speed of 1/125 or 1/160 of a second to freeze the models as they walked down the runway. That shutter speed was way faster than the video image cycling. The result was unacceptable color banding across the video screen. I would eventually have to desaturate the video screen in Photoshop, rendering it essentially in black and white. Occasionally, I was able to save some color. But the focus was on the models, who now walked the runway with confidence and poise. The audience was blown away. From my vantage point, so was I. It was great to have a bunch of dads around me, marveling at their sons doing something they'd never imagined they'd ever do.
The girls rocked it!
Even the guys' choreography looked sharp.
The merchants' part of the show concluded with some formal wear.
Finally, a parade of graduating seniors in their soon-to-be college sweatshirts.
All in all, it was a great day for everyone.
Here's a quick tip on getting three different looks from one lighting grid, without moving a single light.
Today I received another urgent request for a quick headshot for a young dancer, Halley, who has been accepted into a fashion show/dance competition. She needed the headshot for the event program. So it was time to set up the Qflash in the Kacey beauty dish as a key light, with a collapsible white muslin backdrop lit by two speed lights. The speed lights are unmodified, except for flipping down the built-in wide angle diffuser and attaching a velcro'd Honl Speed Gobo to flag off the light from spilling onto the subject.
The hardest part of this setup is getting even light across the backdrop with the two speed lights. I place each one about two feet outside the backdrop, about one to two feet in front of it, each one twisted vertically and aimed across to the opposite edge of the backdrop. This cross lighting, aimed properly, provides fairly even lighting across the entire backdrop. It requires multiple tweaks to get the coverage even. I check it first by using my light meter at various places on the backdrop. I then examine the coverage more closely by using the highlight clipping warnings on the LCD of the camera. With a constant ISO of 200, a shutter speed of 1/160 and aperture at f/8, adjusting the power levels and aiming the flashes will eventually trigger clipping across the entire sweep. Stopping down the aperture incrementally will reveal where the clipping drops off. From there, more careful aiming can reveal exactly where the light is hitting the backdrop. Once this precise aiming is complete, you can then dial up the flashes to blow out white, or leave them just below clipping, as I did here, according to your taste.
From there, the key light is placed in a clamshell configuration, centered above Halley about three or four feet in front, with a reflector below. I first used a white foamcore fill board, then decided to decrease the lighting ratio even more by substituting a silver reflector, placed immediately out of frame below her. With the backdrop metered at f/11 and the key light giving me 1/160 at f/8, here's the result:
After making several frames with this setup, the second look is achieved by simply turning off the speed lights. The falloff from the key light renders the backdrop a darker gray. Still at 1/160 at f/8. No other change was made. Here's the result:
From here, the next move is dramatic, but the lighting setup hasn't changed at all. What has changed is the camera position. I've moved about 120 degrees to my right. Halley is now rendered in perfect profile. I've taken the white collapsible muslin (which has a black side on the reverse), and placed it to what was the previously the camera left side of Halley, now behind her relative to the new camera position. That prevents spill from the beauty dish from contaminating the background. Why 120 degrees rather than a straightforward 90 degrees? Because at a 90 degree angle, the coverage from the beauty dish provided more illumination on Halley's cheek and hair than I wanted. From my position at 120 degrees, and turning Halley that extra 30 degrees toward me (leaving me 90 degrees from her - a perfect profile), the light is coming from slightly behind her, wrapping around her slightly, then falling off rapidly. The result is beautiful, and dramatically different from the look with which we began the shoot.
Still at f/8 and 1/160.