"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

 

 

 

The Post I Meant to Write

August 04, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

As I sat down to write a blog post on our weekend getaway to Cambria on the Central Coast, I had in mind a short piece on traveling light, with just the Fuji X100S.  This, after lugging around 25 pounds of essential (I think…) gear from London to Paris to Rome with a wonderful choir last month. But the Cambria weekend blog post kinda got hijacked by the story of the severe water crisis in this idyllic community and what the they are (or aren't) doing about it.  See below for that screed.  So this piece is the one I had in mind, minus the water rant.

One of the few things I regretted about the Europe choir tour was the lack of time to really focus on travel photography.  Touring with 260 people ties you to an unrelenting schedule, and that's not conducive to photography.  But a leisurely weekend, combing the beach, gave me an opportunity to try some things I hadn't really had time to do with this amazing little camera.  So Karen and I strolled Moonstone Beach on a late Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday, while she slept, I got up early and tried some different things again.  Here are a few takeaways.

This little thing was a total mystery to me.  I first saw one, then another, and another, dried up on the beach.  In a dried condition, they looked like clear, twisted up plastic drink lids.  But fresh out of the ocean, they revealed deep, iridescent blue hues and textures.  I learned that they are a very small species of jellyfish, with the blue underside and the clear "fin" which protrudes above the water and acts like a sail.  This specimen is about three inches in diameter.  The photo attests to the incredible detail and macro capability of the X100S.  The shot was made from about six inches away, and is pretty much straight out of the camera.

One of the things that really impresses me about these Fuji files is their ability to handle significant amounts of clarity and contrast without breaking down.  I rarely make any adjustments to saturation, and when I do, it's always a reduction.  This might be my first photo with saturation added, to bring out and intensify the various colors of these tiny beach stones.  And you can pixel-peep all you want and you won't find artifacts, chromatic aberration, or fringing of any kind.

Likewise with this "still life" of more or less fresh kelp.

Adding clarity, contrast and saturation really brings out the colors of these marine plants, and makes them look like they were just deposited onto the beach.

So if it works in these close-up shots, how about a landscape (or seascape)?

What initially attracted me in this scene was the intense color of the green moss on the rocks in the center of the frame.  Unable to get down onto the rocks, and limited by the 23mm fixed focal length lens on the X100S, I hoped that the naturally intense green would be enough of a point of interest to "anchor" this scene.  But adding a lot of clarity and contrast, plus a bit of saturation in the blue-gray water helped to make this a more colorful palette than I originally saw.

After our beach stroll, we decided to drive up the coast a few short miles to take a look at the elephant seals that inhabit a stretch of beach just north of San Simeon.  Again, the 23mm fixed lens on the APS-C X100S would not be my first choice in photographing these ungainly but fascinating animals.  I'd rather have a tight portrait of the males jousting for supremacy.  At the very least, 200 mm on a full frame body would be required for such a shot. Maybe even 400 mm from the public viewing area.  But the X100S still held its own, even with the significantly too-wide perspective.  Without an anti-alias filter on the X100S, you can crop in as tight as you can, and still get incredible detail.  This shot is about 15% of the original file.

 

Sunday morning was a bit foggy and overcast.  I thought a black and white treatment might be good for the subdued light.  So I switched to the X100S's black and white film mode, rather than convert a color image in post.

 

 

As much as I'd love to have a Fuji XT1 and an array of dedicated lenses, the budget doesn't have room for that just now.  So I'm going to continue to explore with this great little camera.  I continue to be impressed with it.


Runnin' on Empty

August 04, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Karen and I decided to make a quick getaway up to the bucolic and beautiful Central Coast community of Cambria for the weekend.  We were lucky enough to get a nice room in a small inn right on Moonstone Beach.  We drove up on Saturday and did the usual routine for us: first stop - tri-tip lunch at the Main St. Grill, formerly owned by the great Central Coast chef Ian McPhee, who has since consolidated his holdings down in Templeton, and has sold the Grill to a new owner, who has enlarged the place significantly.  Fortunately, growing the business hasn't reduced the quality of the food, perhaps only the quaintness of the place.

But what immediately struck me, and set the tone for the entire weekend, was the prominently displayed sign on the restroom doors, which advised customers that due to the severe water shortage in Cambria, some restaurants are prohibited from opening their restrooms to customers.  Instead, customers are directed to use "Honey Huts" (yes, that's a brand name) outside.  "Honey Huts", as in porta-potties.  No flushing needed.

Well, okay.  Everyone knows that we're in a severe drought here in California and throughout the West.  Down here in Orange County, cities are discussing ways to incentivize conservation, ranging from patrols looking for over-irrigation on lawns, to actual fines for using too much water.  Predictably, the pinheads on the editorial board of our local libertarian rag, the Register, say that if water management were left to the private sector in an unfettered free market, profit incentives and pricing would take care of the matter.  Which, on its face, is ridiculous.  Economic theory doesn't create rain.  Which is ultimately the fact and the problem.  (Pardon me for a quick rant…. The Register is the poster child for the adage, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."  But enough of that.)

So back to Cambria.  After visiting a Honey Hut, we wandered the town, looking at all the neatlittleshops, and speaking with the friendly shopkeepers.  I asked several of them, just how bad is the water shortage here in Cambria?  The answer: our water source is groundwater wells, and the best estimates are that we expect to run dry in November.  

Holy crap!  November, as in 90 days away.  "Run dry", as in no water.  Not something that's fixable "when we get around to it."  So what is the community doing about it?

The answer, severe restrictions (e.g. no watering landscaping with potable water, no pools, no water at campgrounds, etc.) while debating growth vs. no growth.  The no-growthers believe that conservation alone, strict growth limits, and restrictions on the tourist economy (e.g. restaurants, lodging, etc.) will enable the community to survive the drought.  Which is also ridiculous.  Conservation and restrictions on human activity (whether growth-inducing or mere human survival) also do not create rain.  Some fear that expansion of the water supply will induce growth, and thereby reduce property values.  Of course, a million-dollar home without a source of water is, well…not exactly prime real estate.

Both of these seemingly polar opposite philosophies share one thing in common.  They're economic models based on supply and demand.   But when the supply side of the equation is absent, all you have is unmet demand.  And when the issue is water, that's a life and death deal.  (Unless, apparently, you're Lady Gaga and can cajole the powers that be to fill the pool at Hearst Castle just up the coast with 345,000 gallons for a music video.)  But at the end of the day, you can't really play poker with Mother Nature; she never folds.

So now you have the local electeds, the Board of Directors of the Cambria Community Services District, trying to implement a small desalination plant on a brackish water stream just up the coast in San Simeon.  This, by itself, is not a long-term solution, but it's not a small matter either, especially in these parts. It's a $15 million project, subject to the jurisdiction of the usual lineup of regulatory agencies, including the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the fiendish Coastal Commission, which never met a project it didn't either hate or use as leverage to achieve something else unrelated to the matter at hand.  So the chances of getting the plant built in 90 days are slim and none. Trust me, I've been there.

And you have the no-growthers using the predictable tactics to thwart the desalination project: claims of back room deals by the CCSD, and a lack of "transparency" in its deliberations.  "Transparency" is the buzzword of the decade, as if the press' and public's ability to see all and know all in real time will somehow generate agreement on pressing problems among people who can't even agree on the time of day, whether in Cambria or anywhere else in our great land.  But again, I digress.  Meanwhile, time marches on, and each day the community draws closer to November than they were the day before, which means no water.  

Well, not completely.  There is one additional alternative: trucking in potable water every day for this community of 6,000 and its tourists, upon whom the community depends for its economic survival.  At dinner on Saturday night, the restaurant we visited offered beautiful vistas of the Pacific, but alas, no water; instead, they sold bottled water at their cost, which was the best they could do.  Sad.


Traveling Light, Working Heavy

July 24, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

My last blog post came at the beginning of the most hectic month of photography I've yet experienced.  Two nights of Pops Concerts, a quick editorial/architectural shoot, two dance studio shoots on four weekends, followed by five days of intensive rehearsal and performance shoots, altogether around 9,000 images to sort through, rate and save the best, fulfill print orders, etc., etc., etc.  The day after the final dance performance shoot, I left for ten days in Europe to accompany an incredible choir from the Bay Area on a performance tour in London, Paris, a chateau in the French countryside, Rome, and the Vatican.  I returned from Europe with just under 3,000 additional images.  (I also returned with $15,000 in fraudulent charges against my business account that hit while I was gone, but that's another story altogether.)

I've now culled my 3,000 Europe photos down to a more manageable 500 to share with the participants.  For most professional photographers that's an absurd number.  Professional travel photographers, or portrait photographers, or landscape photographers will all tell you that if you post more than a dozen or so photos to your portfolio, you're wasting your time, talent, and marketability.  But when you're an event shooter, or trying to capture meaningful images of a tour with over 200 participants, a dozen photos just don't cut it.  Welcome to my world.

Am I complaining? About the sheer volume of photos from this amazing tour?  Absolutely not.  About the equipment needed to adequately document it?  Well… yes.  It's often said that nobody travels to Europe, or any other destination, and wishes they packed more stuff.  Traveling daily means carrying luggage and photo gear in and out of hotels, around town, onto and off trains and buses.  Traveling light is a real plus.  And don't get me started on the increasingly restrictive airline policies governing carry-ons.  

So I travel with only those pieces of gear that I know I will use.  For now, here's the packing list: one Canon 5D MarkIII with the "trinity" of fast glass - 16-35mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm, all capable of f/2.8 across the range, plus one Fuji X100S, one speed light with sync cord, batteries, chargers, and memory cards.  I recently purchased a small MeFoto travel tripod, which I really don't need (as a tripod), but it handily converts to a monopod which also fits nicely in the ThinkTank Airport Airstream below (minus the monopod, not shown):

The Airport Airstream is a roller, which is a godsend, as it tips the scale at 25 pounds, loaded as shown.  It fits easily in all airline overhead compartments (and you stroll quickly and confidently past the gate attendants because it's likely to be overweight).  It's great for rolling through airports, along well-paved streets, church floors, and other smooth surfaces.  On cobblestones, gravel, dirt, grass, or other uneven surfaces, not so much.  On one particular event, following a performance at the beautiful Chateau Vaux Le Vicomte in Maincy, France, I had to hand carry this beast around from location to location, as there were no smooth surfaces on the entire grounds, except inside the chateau itself.  Ditto in crowded venues such as Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, where I rolled over way too many toes dragging this equipment around.  The Airstream is not a backpack, so lugging 25 pounds by one hand is no walk in the park (even when it is a walk in the park).

For daily review and editing I bring my 13" MacBook Air, 500GB external drive for backups, a small Wacom tablet (an absolute must for any meaningful editing), and associated power cords, extension cords, international plug adapters, card readers, etc, etc.  All of these fit nicely into a ThinkTank 15" Artificial Intelligence laptop bag.  This 15" bag is made to fit a 15" laptop, but the dedicated and well-padded laptop compartment also accommodates the smaller 13" MacBook Air and the Wacom tablet.  I also carry my iPad mini and Bose noise-cancelling earbuds in it, for in-flight entertainment.

So in the cabin, the Airport Airstream is my carry-on, and the laptop bag is my "personal item".  The laptop stays in the hotel room, locked in my suitcase, which is typically locked to an immovable object.

On sightseeing or travel-only days, the Canon gear stays in the Airstream, and all of my "travel" photos are made with the Fuji X100S.  I lose absolutely no image quality with this camera in comparison to the 5D MarkIII.  The one downside is that it's a fixed focal length camera, so the only zoom capability is my feet.  But it's a joy to use, and absolutely never a problem to access it.  It's either around my neck when I'm using it alone, or in a small belt pouch when I'm carrying the Canon gear in the Airstream.  

Which brings me to the main point: there's a significant migration going on in the professional (and advanced prosumer) ranks toward mirrorless cameras like the Fuji lineup.  Fuji is a current leader in this market, but Sony, Olympus and Pentax are also strong in the marketplace.  In fact, at the temple of high volume photography sales, B&H Photo in New York, there are 320 DSLR's offered, and 263 mirrorless models.  Although Nikon is in this marketplace, Nikon DSLR sales are lagging, and Nikon is frantically looking for additional options to boost sales.  

Why is this?  There are two main reasons.  First, the advancement of mirrorless technology is incredibly rapid, with new models coming out seemingly every month.  Image quality for most photographers and most purposes is practically indistinguishable from that which can be obtained from prosumer and advanced DSLRs, particularly those with crop sensors. (Landscape photographers will vehemently argue this point, and for that specialty, they're probably right.)

But the main advantage is size and weight.  For example, if I were to replace my Canon gear with the same focal length range in Fuji gear, I would buy a Fuji XT1, along with a 10-24, and the eagerly awaited 18-135 zoom lens, and be done with it.  That would cut my size and weight budget by 80%.  80%!  I would kill for that, especially after nearly stroking out at the chateau.  No more rolling luggage, no risk of hernia, and no more monopod; just a small shoulder bag that weighs maybe five pounds.

So why the heck not?  Why do I not have this rig right now??  If it's good enough for David Hobby, Zack Arias, Bill Fortney and a host of photographers infinitely more talented than me, what's holding me back?

In short, I need the reach and the speed of the Canon glass, which no mirrorless system currently offers.  As a performing arts photographer, I live in low light.  I rarely have the luxury of shooting below 1600 ISO, and often need to get upwards of 6400 ISO.  Even at these elevated ranges, I still need fast glass (e.g. f/2.8) to get exposures as fast as 1/125, which is the minimum needed to freeze singing faces, or 1/320 for dancers in motion.  Mirrorless systems like the Fuji can give me that.  But in a performance venue other than a rock concert or jazz festival, I cannot approach the stage; I need to stand off and use a 200mm lens to get the faces I need.  And that's the killer right there.

So there are four elements that combine to give me the shots I need: high ISO, fast lenses, telephoto reach, and reasonably fast shutter speeds.  With my Canon gear, I have all four.  With the current state of mirrorless systems, I can pick any two, sometimes three.  But I can't get all four.  So guys like me crave a fast  telephoto lens in a mirrorless form factor.  But will it ever be available?  It may be that the physics of lens design make it impossible to fit all of the optics required to achieve a fast telephoto in a form factor that fits with the mirrorless aesthetic; I don't know.  

I do know that I love my Canon gear.  I'll probably never replace it for most of the performing arts assignments I have.  But for performance photography that involves travel, I'm hoping that someday, I'll be able to truly travel light. As it is, that Fuji kit I mentioned above is burning a hole in my psyche. 

THIS JUST IN!  On the day I posted this blog entry (tonight) Fuji has just announced a 50-140mm f/2.8 lens, to be released toward the end of this year.  Must have….


Things are Gonna Get Real Busy

June 02, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

I haven't posted anything on the blog since March, as things around here have been pretty hectic, including several quick turnaround jobs for Santa Margarita Catholic High School and a wonderful choir trip to Spain with a great group from Tesoro High School.  Well, things are going to get a lot busier during the month of June, with 14 days of shooting, including five days of dance portraits, seven days of recital rehearsals and performances, plus two nights of choral performance work.  The dance and recital shoots will each require about three days of non-stop culling and editing, plus print order fulfillment.  By my math, that means 29 days of full-tilt project work, a few hours after which I hop a red-eye to Europe to join the Monte Vista High School (Danville, CA) choir on a performance tour to London, Paris, Florence and Rome, with performances in Notre Dame, St. Peter's Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel.

So I'm taking a few minutes to post some images from yesterday's dance portrait shoot at Pacific Ballet Conservatory, the first of two weekend shoots there.  I brought a new, very large Studio Dynamics backdrop, which I unrolled for the first time at the dance studio.  It's so big (12' x 30') I have no room at home to even look at it.  Why so big?  I want the ability to move the subject far enough away from the back of the backdrop to enable me to control the light on the subjects independently of the backdrop.  I did that to some extent on Sunday, and I like the way it turns out.  But there are other reasons for picking the photos I've selected to show here.

Sometimes a costume makes a huge difference in how a dancer looks.  This is Carol, who has great technique and a real stage presence about her.  But this brilliant blue dress flows with an elegance that accentuates Carol's technique, and provides a dimension to the photograph that other costumes might not.

 The same is true with the photo below of Kendra, whose form and technique are augmented by the same blue dress.

My lighting approach for weekend-long dance studio shoots has to be broad and flexible, because I need to be able to shoot individual dancers ranging from very young, inexperienced children to accomplished and technically proficient older dancers.  I also need to shoot groups as large as 20+ dancers, followed immediately by individuals, with no time to change the lighting grid.  So one way I can adapt to rapidly changing subjects is to design the grid to selectively use the lights.  The change that makes the most immediate difference is to either kill or drastically reduce the fill light, which is placed on axis with the camera and is used to provide lighting for the backdrop and to open up shadows on the opposite side of the key light.  Then, by placing the dancer either in or just behind the spread of the key light, I can get some dynamic images primarily lit with the back rim lights placed at a 45-degree angle behind the dancers.  You can't light a five year-old with this, but a proficient dancer certainly benefits from this approach.  Here is Amanda, lit by the feathered rear edge of the key light, plus the rims:

And here's Jenny, lit similarly. The feathered edge of the key light, combined with the right rear rim defines her jaw and neckline.

I really like it when a dancer wants to try something new.  I often tell them that the best photographs are usually made with dancers doing something relatively simple but executed perfectly.  But when a good dancer wants to try something new for her, I'm certainly game.  Here's Carol again, trying this move, and nailing it on the fourth take.

I also really like it when a young dancer who is new to me takes the set and just kills it.  This is Makenzie, and this is her first frame in front of my camera.

Seriously, her first frame.  So later she comes in and gives me this, again, on her first frame.

Can't believe it...

On a long day, things can get a bit routine, shuttling in dancer after dancer.  So sometimes I look for other opportunities to make a picture with some impact, something out of the ordinary, something not designed to be "perfect" dance form.  Often it's of younger dancers.  Here's Rachel, trying to decide which pose she'd like to do next.

This is totally candid, and not to take anything away from Rachel's dancing ability, this was her best picture of the day.  Everything from her facial expression to the curve of her foot tell a story.  There is always a place in the family archive for images like these.

Sometimes you create these looks.  This is absolutely posed, but with no technique to worry about, it's a lot more natural, especially for a youngster like Ivey.

This is what you do late in the day when you, the photographer, try to decide what pose to try next….

Finally, here's Mackenzie, tying up her pointe shoes.  This shot has been made thousands of times with variations by just about every dance photographer. So I finally jumped in that pool.  She had no idea I snapped this one off, but she liked it a lot and wanted it in black and white.

So, back now to culling, editing, order fulfillment, and the wheel goes around and around.  That's June for me.  Back after Europe.

 


Emily

March 23, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Back about ten months ago, I posted a tutorial on how to achieve three different looks from one headshot lighting grid.  This past week, Emily came over to update her headshot portfolio to submit to her agent for occasional work.  Based on Emily's requirements, I decided that the same basic approach would work well for her, with a little tweak.  In May, with Halley, I decided to warm things up just a bit, and to render the white background significantly below clipping, but still apparently white, or nearly so.  For Emily, I wanted just a touch under "blow out" white, so there would be no question as to the color of the background.  As always, I flagged the two speed lights lighting the background, to prevent any kind of blowback from robbing the subject of contrast.  And in keeping with that decision, I wanted to open things up a bit more, and cool things down just a bit, and present Emily in a bright, snappy light, perfect for her skin tone and choice of wardrobe.  So this is about 1/3 stop brighter than Halley, and the same 1/3 stop over my Sekonic meter reading of the beauty dish-mounted Qflash.

Although we started out with a portrait orientation, I also showed Emily and her mom what a landscape orientation could do for her.  In this particular frame, however, I manufactured the 10x8 aspect ratio by adding "canvas" to the right of the edited, retouched photo above, matching color, and recropping.

 

From there, Emily changed her shirt and we moved on.

This look, achieved by having Emily simply cross her arms across her chest, has the natural effect of causing her to lean back a bit and drop her right shoulder.  Normally, I wouldn't recommend anyone leaning back for a portrait.  Rather, you want the subject to project the face forward, by leaning forward over the belt, actually more than the subject would normally find comfortable.  In a photo, however, it projects strength and accentuates the jawline.  Here, with Emily leaning back, it's a more relaxed look, and her classic facial structure, lit carefully with the beauty dish, takes care of the jawline just fine.

Next, we simply switched off the backdrop lights, letting the white backdrop go gray.  I love the flexibility of using a white backdrop, whether muslin (as here) or seamless paper.  I also like it when the client sees how simply turning off the backdrop lights creates a totally different look.  No other changes to the key light or camera settings were made.

And finally, we turn the white backdrop around to the black side, take it off the stand, and move it to Emily's right side.  I move my position to Emily's left side, leaving the light just as it is.  The look is now radically different, but just as beautiful.

At this point, it's all about expression and mood, and minor facial changes and orientation toward or away from the light make all the difference.

Emily and her mom came in with the expectation of getting something akin to the first look above.  In the end, they chose all of these.