Steve Wylie Photography: Blog en-us (C) Steve Wylie Photography (Steve Wylie Photography) Thu, 07 Aug 2014 02:23:00 GMT Thu, 07 Aug 2014 02:23:00 GMT Steve Wylie Photography: Blog 120 120 The Post I Meant to Write 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.

]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Fuji Travel X100S Tue, 05 Aug 2014 06:33:34 GMT
Runnin' on Empty 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.

]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Rants Travel Tue, 05 Aug 2014 05:19:59 GMT
Traveling Light, Working Heavy 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….

]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Events Portraits Travel Fri, 25 Jul 2014 07:03:27 GMT
Things are Gonna Get Real Busy 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.


]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Dance Portraits Tue, 03 Jun 2014 00:06:31 GMT
Emily 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.  







]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Portraits Sun, 23 Mar 2014 22:36:29 GMT
And Now for Something Completely Different: A Geology Question Asked and Answered

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.

]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Landscape Travel Mon, 25 Nov 2013 09:04:10 GMT
My First Exposure to Wheelchair Tennis

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.  


Convey Motion

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.


Convey Emotion

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!

]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Sports Fri, 15 Nov 2013 20:12:18 GMT
Nick Colionne, Eight Ways


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.

]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) KSBR Musicians Portraits Sun, 14 Jul 2013 09:55:02 GMT
The Fashion Show 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.


]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Events Mon, 06 May 2013 23:40:45 GMT
One Lighting Setup, Three Looks 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.  

]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Portraits Sun, 05 May 2013 08:07:40 GMT
The Busy Season Some photographers (i.e. the good and famous ones), are noted for either a specialty, such as landscapes, or portraiture, weddings, sports, or whatever, while others are known for a particular style.  Then there are guys like me, who shoot everything under the sun, and hope that something sticks.  I'm being a bit hard on myself, because just about everything I shoot these days is in response to a request, whether paid or not.  So I've set myself up for this, and I'm certainly not complaining.  The point, however, is this: no matter what the assignment, whether it's a dance competition, headshots, a charity event, or family portraits, the photographer has to bring all of his or her skill, experience, and perspective to the assignment.  That doesn't mean pigeonholing the client's needs into the photographer's own "art"; it means drawing on the photographer's experience, technique, and ability to see and tell the story visually, no matter what the assignment demands.

My last blog post was in early February, and here it is in mid-April.  In the intervening weeks, I've had fourteen assignments, some requiring only a small amount of time, and others covering multiple days of shooting in high volume, with similar demands on the back end, editing and delivering the final images.

The first assignment came from the Advancement Office at Santa Margarita Catholic High School, where I volunteer my photography services on request.  This one was to cover the visit of Bishop Kevin Vann, the new Bishop of the Diocese of Orange.  Bishop Vann's visit to the school was his first public appearance in his new role, and the school was very proud to welcome him to celebrate the Mass.  This was the kind of assignment that demanded a quick turnaround, as the school and the Diocese both wanted photos as soon as possible.  This image was my favorite of the day, isolating Bishop Vann visually, with a diffused background of students in the gym.

Later that same day, I traveled to the theater at Soka University in Aliso Viejo to photograph the first Winter Showcase of the JSerra Catholic High School performing arts department.  This production featured drama, musical theatre, dance, vocal, and instrumental music.  I shot two rehearsals and the performance over a two night period.  Lots of good images came from this venue; one of my favorites was of this violin player, whom I placed in the center spotlight during a break in the rehearsal.  Normally, performance photos are "found"; this one was "made".

Two days later, still in a black and white mood, I covered another live radio broadcast of the Gary and Kelly Show on KSBR, featuring pianist and composer Brian Simpson.

I picked up a new dance studio client, Center Stage Dance and Performing Arts in my hometown of Rancho Santa Margarita.  My first assignment was to photograph their Dance Team.  This engagement included photographing approximately fifteen groups and individual portraits of each dancer.  Because some of the groups were quite large, the lighting setup was intentionally broad, flat and flexible.  Not particularly artistic, but appropriate for the fast-paced progression of groups, individuals, groups, and more individuals.  So, from a photographic perspective, I can't say that this was an "artistic" result, but it was a success from the clients' point of view.  For my purposes here, the photograph presented below represented a highlight of the weekend.  This is Brooke Schulte, trying to replicate a jump attempted by a previous dancer.  In two attempts, she nailed it.  

This was a high-volume project requiring about two weeks of editing and order fulfillment.  As soon as it was completed, I was back in dance competition mode, this time at Santiago High School in Corona, one of my least favorite venues.  Why?  Because the gym floor is the darkest place in the entire gym, and it usually requires significant post processing to pull anything usable from the captures.  This time, however, there was some sunlight filtering through the windows, enabling me to get some direction to the light and better shots than on other occasions.  Empty bleachers on the other side "helped", at least in that there were no other distractions back there.

Two days later, I was in mid-afternoon sun shooting 65 members of the SMCHS Pep Squad.  Shooting in mid-day sun requires careful attention to mitigating the harsh shadows cast by the sun, which at this time of day is behind the camera-right shoulders of the girls.  Filled properly, the sun angle presents a pleasing rim light; improperly filled, it could be a mess.  The challenge here is wrangling all 65 members of the squad across the chosen location, taking into consideration the placement of the individuals as well as the curvature of the group, and lighting them effectively.

The location selected for the individual portraits provided the same challenge: harsh side lighting and deep shadow on the other side of the face.  Not really a problem, though.  I asked another squad member to hold a two-stop scrim just out of frame between the sun and the subject, and filled the face with light I could control, in this case a Qflash in a socked beauty dish.  At the end of the session, I asked one of the girls, Mari Yacoubian, to take a different pose for a more casual look, but I used the same technique to diffuse  the harsh afternoon sun and fill with flash.

Two days later, it was young actor headshot time.  I've photographed the St. John's Episcopal School Middle School play for the past seven years.  This year's production is "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory".  Big cast, young cast.  I tried a different approach here.  One light in a 72-inch diffused Westcott umbrella with a white seamless behind.  Placed properly, this one light gives an almost shadowless look vis-a-vis the background.  If you look closely at the catchlights in Lexi's eyes, you can see me, blocking the lower portion of the light.  

The very next day, it was back to high school dance competition, this time at Glendale High School for the CADTD State Championships.  I had never photographed anything at Glendale High School, so I wondered what kind of knuckleball this venue would present.  Friday night was the preliminary solo competition, held in the school auditorium rather than the gym.  Nirvanna!  No crappy gym light, no distracting gym floor or bleachers behind the dancers.  This was like studio competitions, but with no annoying competition banner behind the stage.  What could be better than that??  Here's what:  Ashley Traber of Saugus High School.  When I shot this, I knew she had nailed the leap; when I opened the image on my computer, I literally stared at it for nearly thirty minutes.  My favorite image of the year.

Well, this was the high point of the competition.  The rest of the event transpired in two gyms, one decent and one absolutely devoid of anything to work with.  I was spoiled.

I'd say that at least 75% of what I shoot involves performing arts or performers of one sort or another.  So shooting products and architecture takes me out of my comfort zone.  But for the past three years, I've shot the National Charity League Canyon Chapter's annual Home Tour.  It involves careful awareness of my own limitations of equipment (no Tilt/Shift lenses to mitigate wide angle lens distortion) and access to the properties.  So you get what you can, and concentrate on the environment, the details, and the people.


Three days later, back to performances.  I've been blessed with the opportunity to photograph the Tesoro High School choral groups twice now; most recently at their Spring Concert.  For this particular engagement, Director Keith Hancock asked me to get some shots of him directing the Madrigals.  This sounds like a pretty straightforward photo, until you realize that the subjects (Keith and the singers), are facing each other, and the photographer has no angle to capture both, except in profile, and even then, with no angle to get the whole group without Keith's back to me.  Well, I got those shots, and they're competent frames.  To get them, I concentrated on the Director, timing my shutter to his instantaneous movements.  But for me, the better shot was made in the tight corner of the stage, tucked in next to the singers, during the final rehearsal.  What did I see from there?  The light on Keith's face, bounced back into it from behind him via the sheet music on his piano.  Sheet music fill light; what could be more beautiful?

Two days later, it was back in mid-day sun covering the Special Olympics at SMCHS.  This was a huge event at the school, with hundreds of athletes of varying ages from all over Orange County competing in track and field events.  Lots of opportunities for good picture making.  My favorite of the day was this guy, the winner of his 50-yard dash.  It's the thrill of victory.  And as I said when I posted this shot on Facebook that day, there was no agony of defeat that day, anywhere.

Two days later, a celebration of a different kind, the commissioning of Lieutenant Sean Watson into the United States Marine Corps.  I had photographed Sean first several years ago, as he came back to St. John's as a high schooler to portray the Cat in the Hat in St. John's production of "Seussical the Musical".  Little did I know that the next time I saw him, it would be on the Janss Steps at UCLA receiving his commission.  Photographically, this was actually a tough gig.  Absolute mid-day sun (high noon), in a ceremony that lasted only five or ten minutes.  Gotta get everything and get it quickly.  Followed by portraits of family and friends, while the restaurant was holding our reservation.  No pressure there....  So after the ceremony, I asked Sean to follow me to the colonnade at the front of Royce Hall, where I could find some soft yet directional, diffused light. Three minutes and we were out of there.

With all of this activity, I was a very busy guy.  But just when I completed delivery of all of these disparate projects, another one flew in over the transom.  One of my favorite dancers, Emily Justiniano, needed some senior photos quickly.  I mean, like now.  Her mom had an idea to create some cap and gown shots with Emily en pointe, so off we went to the Mission Viejo Library to place Emily in the stacks.  I had done a variation on this theme two years ago with the seniors on the SMCHS Dance Team for a calendar project, so this was an easy task.  One speedlight in a Westcott Asymmetrical Strip Bank and we had the shot.  The scholarly dancer who's going to study the human body.

Emily wanted some more "traditional" senior portraits, so we went over to the windows for some casual, relaxed looks.  No lights, no reflectors, no nothin'.

That night, I delivered her favorites of the day, in time to make her deadlines.

Right now, I'm smack in the middle of the busy season.  This week it's more volunteer work at SMCHS, including shots for the school's publications,  plus rehearsals and staging of a runway fashion show fundraiser and the Middle School play, all in the same week.  Then it's more portraiture, and vocal and dance concerts followed by studio dance recital season.  

I need a bigger hard drive.  And vitamins.





]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Dance KSBR Musicians Portraits Sports Tue, 16 Apr 2013 06:26:06 GMT
Sophie, On a Moment's Notice Lots of good, young, ballet dancers aspire to attend summer intensive workshops put on by some of the most prestigious ballet companies in the nation.  To be accepted, the girls need to submit an application, accompanied by a photo of the dancer doing one or more ballet poses, including an arabesque, and a headshot.  Many times, a dancer (or a bunch of dancers at a studio) will simply have a mom or dad with a camera snap a frame or two at the studio and submit them with the girls' applications.  So these apparently don't need to be portfolio shots, but they get the job done.

Me?  I'm not satisfied with that approach.  I've done several of these audition sessions.  Until last night, my approach has been to set up a white backdrop, whether muslin or 12' seamless, and light the heck out of it.  Last time I did this, I set up two completely separate shooting sets, one for the dance pose and another for the headshot.  The dance pose was lit by four moonlights, including a key fitted with a big octa, a broad umbrella fill, and two accent lights in stripbanks.  The headshot was lit with a Qflash in a beauty dish augmented with two speedlights to hit the back.  Lots of setup time, but when you're shooting a dozen or more girls, the results were worth it.

So yesterday (Wednesday), I got an urgent phone call from a mom whose daughter, Sophie, needed an arabesque/headshot combo for an audition this weekend.  She needed the photos ASAP.  Uh, okay....  I'm thinking to myself, how am I going to pull this off?  No time to set up the usual grid, and I certainly don't want to set up two.  But the most important aspect is the need to have a qualified ballet instructor present to ensure that the pose is good, and that the image selected is the best one captured.  So I immediately called the studio, whose staff helped secure the assistance of one of the instructors who kindly agreed to stay after her last class to help with this.  

Knowing that the instructor would stay after class was a big relief, but the pressure to set up quickly and efficiently to not abuse her generosity weighed heavily in my thoughts on the approach I decided to take.  First off, no backdrop.  Setup time for the seamless is not long, but steaming a muslin would be out of the question.  Instead, I decided to use the environment of the studio, including the marley floor and the ballet barre as a setting.  My lights of choice: the Qflash T5DR mounted in a Photek 60" Softlighter to provide a big, soft, pillow of light.  It was set just to the left of the camera position, because I wanted to get a slight gradient effect from left to right as the light falls off.  In post, I decided that the gradient was a distraction, and a quick fix in Lightroom took care of that.  The other light was an unmodified speedlight from camera left pointing to the wall, to add a bit of spark to Sophie's face and knock down the barre shadows just a bit.  Manual mode, maybe 1/32 power.

We needed to get in and get out quickly, so I put together the Qflash and Softlighter at home and brought it to the studio already assembled. I even decided on exposure settings ahead of time: ISO 400, f/6.3 at 1/160 of a second.  I set the Qflash to give me that at around 6 feet away from Sophie. I also mounted the speedlight on a small stand at home.  On arrival, all I needed to do was mount the main light on a C stand and check the exposures of both the key and accent lights with my trusty Sekonic flash meter.  Total setup time: less than five minutes.  Call in the instructor, make about 20 frames, and here's the result:

I'll take it.  Sophie's form is good, the instructor's happy, Sophie's happy, and that's what matters.

So on to the headshot.  I brought a popup Westcott black/white reversible "Illumimator" muslin with me.  Allowing it to spring open and propping it up on the floor against the wall, it became my backdrop.  I put Sophie on a stool about two feet in front of it.  I moved the speedlight on the stand to a position immediately behind Sophie (so as not to see it), opened its zoom setting to it's widest at 14mm, aimed it at the backdrop and metered it to just clip behind her head (giving me f/16).  I then moved the Softlighter to a position about 3 feet from Sophie at about an 11:30 position.  Not quite straight over camera position, but close.  Dialed down the power and metered her face at f/8.  I then asked her mom to sit on the floor in front of Sophie and hold up a white foamcore fill card just out of frame below her chest.  Total setup and test time, less than five minutes.  Because Sophie has a perfect face, about ten snaps later we have this: 

I like delivering headshots in landscape orientation.  It allows me to put the subject's name in an attractive font to the side of the image if desired.  Plus, I just like the look of a horizontal headshot better than the old-school vertical.  

So, from arrival at the studio to turning the lights off and locking the door, we spent less than an hour.  Post-processing at home was minimal, including cloning out some distractions on the floor and wall on the arabesque shot, and not much on the headshot.  Delivered five shots to Sophie's mom last night via email.  She prints them today, and Sophie's good to go for Saturday.





]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Ballet Dance Portraits Thu, 07 Feb 2013 19:01:31 GMT
Why I Love Lightroom

My last blog post described the challenges we face when shooting in late afternoon unfiltered, slashing light.  This one follows on that, but from a different perspective, editing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.  

I was asked to photograph the Santa Margarita Catholic High School Girls Soccer teams at the Frosh/Soph and JV levels this year.  (The school's official sports photographer Bob Russell had responsibility for the Varsity, which won the Trinity League for the fourth straight year, by the way.)  The intended result of this assignment is to provide images for the teams' awards banquet at the end of the season.  

So today's game was the final game of the season, a convincing 4-0 victory over neighbor and rival JSerra.   Lots of family members came out for the finale, and with the win, the girls were upbeat and in a celebratory mood.  Perfect for a big group photo, for which one of the moms eagerly asked the girls to organize themselves, and they happily obliged.

I absolutely love the composition of this group.  It's natural, with no posing direction whatsoever.  Every girl's expression is great, and despite the glaring sun, there are no blinks and surprisingly little squinting.

But here's where we started from:


This is the result of hard, slashing sunlight, which produces blinding highlights and deep shadows.  Exposing to avoid blowing out the white jerseys results in an underexposed image right from the start, which forces the shadows even deeper.  But I'm just one of several folks shooting here, and am in no position to re-orient the group or to keep them from their celebration.  I'm not sure I could replicate the spontaneity and genuine joy of this particular moment anyway.  I'd rather deal with what I have going for me already.

Fortunately, I can bring this photo to some semblance of balance relatively quickly in Lightroom.  The current version of Lightroom (4.3) is a vast improvement over previous versions in the way it segments certain tonalities and luminosity values, allowing more targeted adjustments even when applied across the board.  I shot over a thousand frames during the game, meaning I shot jpgs, which have their own parameters baked in already, giving me less flexibility than had I shot in RAW.  With about 150 keepers to edit, most of which suffered from harsh light and deep shadows, this is a real timesaver, especially when you're on deadline.

So what did it take to resuscitate this file?  First, in the late afternoon sun, the photo was a bit too warm, so I lowered the Temperature slider a bit.  Next, to counteract the reflectivity of the grass, which produces a green cast, I upped the Tint a bit to introduce a bit of magenta.  You'd think that adding exposure would be counterintuitive, but with the underexposure to begin with, I moved the Exposure up by around a half stop, which did quite a bit of the heavy lifting needed to bring the darker tones up.  Recovering the now blown jerseys was accomplished by a countering move downward with the Highlight slider.  The most radical move here was a very aggressive application of the Shadow slider, nearly a full stop.  This brought up the shadows in most of the image, including the back, but it also introduced a quirky, almost HDR-like feel to the image.  I kinda liked it, but it was a bit too heavy handed, so I reduced the Vibrance slider a bit to modulate it somewhat.  That left just a couple of the girls' faces in deep shadow.  Fortunately, the Adjustment Brush took care of that, with additional exposure of another half-stop of light.  That left me with the following result, accomplished in less time than it took to write about it.

The only thing I couldn't do in Lightroom to finish this off was to remove the tree trunk behind the girl in the middle of the back row and a bit of a house up in the upper left corner.  A quick trip to Photoshop took care of that.  This one fix is the only Photoshop edit in the entire batch of 148 images posted that night after the game.

Is this a portfolio shot?  No.  Is it a genuinely joyful capture of a perfect moment in these girls' year? Absolutely.

]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Lightroom Portraits Sports Tue, 05 Feb 2013 10:42:55 GMT
Nuclear Light

High school dances are a lot different today than when I went to school, back in the middle of the last century.  These days, at least among Katherine's cohorts, a high school dance is first and foremost a fashion show and an opportunity to take pictures before the gig.  What comes after is apparently anticlimactic (or so I hear).

This year's photoshoot was scheduled for sunset on the grounds of the beautiful Montage Hotel overlooking the ocean in Laguna Beach.  It's a favorite spot for this sort of thing.  Last time we did this, a blanket of fog enveloped the hotel and beach, giving the kids and their camera-toting parents a lot more dampness and softness to the light than they bargained for.

This time, we had the opposite circumstance, a cool, cloudless, low-humidity afternoon, producing hard, slashing, brilliant, unforgiving, blasting light.  The girls and their parents were scrambling to find light that (a) didn't produce squints, or (b) didn't produce absolute silhouettes when shot into the western sky, or (c) didn't produce razor-sharp delineation from blown highlights to deep shadows on their faces.  

That's the problem that slashing sunlight gives you.  Undiffused by clouds, the sun's a highly directional, pinpoint source of light, putting out more photons than a billion hydrogen bombs.  It travels in a straight line, packing a punch.  It does not fall gently, gracefully on the face, filling the shadows nicely.  It hits hard, and to get a good image, you have to fight back.

Okay, how?  Well, first up, you probably want to avoid the squints by putting the sun to the subjects' back.  This is why you're at the Montage at sunset in the first place, right?  Then, to avoid the absolute silhouette, you need to bring your own punch, in this case, a simple 580EXII speedlite. If this were a commissioned shoot, I'd consider bringing in a big light and an octa or at least an umbrella, and have a chance at overpowering the sun.  In this mob scene, that's just not gonna happen.  So instead of walloping back, I'm just going to jab, with the most mobile setup I can bring.  I'm not even going to drive the flash into high speed sync.  Instead, I'm going to peg my exposure at the native sync speed of 1/200 and let the aperture go wherever it will, to give me a nice baseline exposure for the scene behind my subjects.  In this case, it's about f/16 or so, not your typical portrait setting, but who cares about shallow depth of field when the nearest background element is 26 miles offshore?

So then, it's a matter of balancing your exposure on the faces, lit entirely by the flash.  In the shot above, I wanted to bring the sun into the frame, which drove my aperture way, way down (the camera was squinting).  That meant cranking the little speedlite to the max, full power.  Undiffused, except for a Stofen Omnibounce, it cried for help but gave me enough to light Katherine and Chris.  Still not as powerful as the sun, which left a nice rim light on the couple.

Moving the sun out of the frame, I was able to give the speedlite a bit of a break, and reduced the power to give me this:

And this:

I liked this pose especially for Chris, and thought it might make a pleasing black and white conversion:

I finally settled on this composition:

As the sun gets lower in the sky, it begins to lose some of its punch.  It's still highly directional, but you can have your subjects look in the general direction of the light without overly squinting.  Color balance becomes an issue, but a late afternoon shot like this can be effective and very pleasing, if your subjects are.

Of course, there are other problems with slashing light, and several ways to deal with them.  As mentioned at the outset, the transition between blown highlights and deep shadows can be very stark, which is rarely a good thing in a portrait, especially portraits of beautiful young ladies.  So you take what the light gives you and follow its lead.  No longer a boxing match, it's now a dance.  Instead of trying to bring the exposure down to a conventional level, you go the other way, and fill the shadows with overexposure in camera.  Here, there's just a hint of fill flash, not even pointing directly at the girls.


You can also achieve this in post processing, going high key to even out the transitions between highlight and shadow.

This is nowhere near what the human eye sees at this moment in time, but it's a great way to solve a problem that the camera's limited dynamic range can't handle.

And here's the interesting part...the difference in time between the final shot above and the scene below: about five minutes.







]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Events Portraits Sun, 13 Jan 2013 10:32:49 GMT
One Light, Two Very Different Looks

This past weekend, I did a promotional shoot for the Center Stage Dance and Performing Arts studio in my hometown, the beginning of what I hope will be a lasting relationship.  The purpose of this shoot was to create a promotional poster to be displayed in the studio for some upcoming portrait shoots at the studio, including individual and group shots.  Some of the groups will be rather large, and the individual shots may be static full-length portraits, tighter headshots, or aggressive jumps and leaps.  There won't be time to change the lighting setup between shots, so the set and lighting grid will have to be broad, open, and flexible to accommodate shooting changes on the fly.  Typical dance studio environment for me.


But the point of this blog post is that broad, open static lighting setups can still yield vastly different results, with only minor modifications and no change to the basic lighting grid or even exposure settings in camera.


The two shots above were made with the same single light, in the same position, with pretty much the same exposure values in camera.  The shot on the left is Brooke, made before we started, as nothing more than a lighting/exposure check.  I wanted to make sure that my key light, a monolight mounted in a 53" octagonal softbox located 45 degrees up at camera left was positioned so as to capture light in the eye sockets and not leave them "hooded".  I placed Brooke about five feet from the octa and asked her to simply look at me and we made a test.  It was fine in terms of light placement, so I asked her to look at the light, and the result is what you see on the left.  The gray background you see is a big Westcott "Pearl" backdrop mounted horizontally to give me 24 feet of lateral coverage for a large group.  It's lit with another broad fill light in a 60" umbrella at camera and two more lights in stripbanks at the wings to guarantee even fill across the entire sweep.  But for all practical purposes, Brooke is lit entirely by the key light in the octa.  The exposure was made at ISO 200, 1/160 second at f/7.1 (to give me sufficient depth of field for a group shot).  I tweaked the exposure a bit in Lightroom, giving me what would effectively be f/6.3.  Done deal.  I didn't measure the light at various places on her face, but the lighting is pretty even, showing decent but not overly dramatic rotation between light and shadow.  Very forgiving light, good for fast production shooting on a schedule.  I went manual for the rest of the day at 1/160 at f/6.3.


As we moved through the planned shots for the day, Jacqueline took her turn, dressed in a black costume with a neat, intricate hoodie.  I knew right away that I wanted a dark and moody headshot with the black hood enveloping her face.  But with everyone waiting and much more to shoot, there was no time to change the lighting grid or the set.  How to accomplish what I envisioned for Jacqueline?  Easy.  Bring her right next to and parallel to the octa, add a black panel behind her to cut the pearl backdrop and attendant lighting on it, and hold an additional 2 stop diffuser between the octa and Jacqueline.  She's about 8 inches from the octa's front diffuser, and the handheld 2-stop is no more than 3 inches from her shoulder, just out of frame.  The location and power level on the key light haven't changed and the exposure value in camera is still f/6.3 at 1/160.


But the difference is dramatic.  The light is much softer; the shadow rotation is rich, and the effectively larger source of light wraps around the hoodie into the recesses of her face next to her eyes.  This is all due to the proximity of Jacqueline to the key light and extra diffusion between the light and her face.  These two images couldn't be more different.  The time needed to set up this second shot?  About 30 seconds.  


As is so often the case, thanks go to Joe McNally for this one.

]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Portraits Tue, 08 Jan 2013 21:40:13 GMT

For the past three years I've had the pleasure and the honor of photographing the Pacific Theatre Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker Suite".  Under the direction of Ann-Marie McClellan, the production draws its cast from the Pacific Ballet Conservatory and spends months in preparation, choreography, costuming, and rehearsal, culminating in a weekend of six performances at the Laguna Hills Community Center.

My part of the process begins with portraiture, which occurs on one day a few weeks prior to the performances.  This year, with a growing cast, the challenge was to keep things fresh throughout the very long day of shooting.  The lighting setup has to be open and flexible, enabling the girls to cycle through in about five minutes each, giving us precious little time to shoot a number of poses for the families to consider.  They range from traditional ballet poses, to poses with props, and sometimes as whimsical as we can make them.  I light them with a key light in a 53 inch octabank from a traditional 45 degrees up and over position (from the left this year), supplemented by a broad fill to give me an approximately 2:1 ratio, with two back 45's in strip boxes to accent and separate the girls from the background.

The performances, as noted above, are held in a multipurpose room at the Laguna Hills Community Center.  I've described this location before.  It's a small stage, maybe thirty feet wide by twenty feet deep, lit by nothing but overhead cans.  Sometimes a light from above can be missing, but when they're all working, the lighting is predictable, warm, and surprisingly flattering. 

From the back of the audience, shooting with a 70-200mm lens, you can get the entire stage, and get what might be called "record" shots of the production.  I don't mean to discount these shots, because the cast is really good, and you can pick up some nice images.


But I much prefer to capture these dances from the sides, and focus on individuals or small groups of dancers.  With the amount of light available in the room, shooting at 1/250 is about all I can get, and at f/2.8, the depth of field is pretty limited.  Also, shooting at acute angles means the stage is also angled, which presents another limitation.  But from these angles, you can really focus in on the dance skill of these performers.


As nice as this venue is, one thing it is not is "grand".  One of my dance photographer colleagues, Ron McKinney, recently showed some marvelous Nutcracker images of the Ballet Chicago on a very large and very brightly-lit stage.  His sweeping images were stunning, but absolutely impossible to get in the intimate setting of the Laguna Hills Community Center.  Instead, I go in an entirely different direction.  My favorite images from this production are those that capture the expressions of joy that these performers display.  One of my favorite performance lessons comes from hip hop choreographer Shane Sparks, who once told my daughter's class that performing on stage is like selling shoes: "If you ain't sellin' it, the audience ain't buyin' it!"  These ladies knew how to sell it.  I think they sold it, because they genuinely love it.

As I write this on Christmas evening, one of the things I'm grateful for is the opportunity to get to know this community of dancers and their families, and to photograph them doing what they love to do.

]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Ballet Dance Wed, 26 Dec 2012 02:57:21 GMT
Working the Scene, Part II

In my previous blog post, I talked about "working the scene" to eliminate distracting elements from the periphery of otherwise strong photos, and refining the images to bring something unique to what might otherwise turn out to be rather ordinary renditions of even extraordinarily talented artists.  I wound up with a really cool take on an image of sax virtuoso Euge Groove.  I ended with a look forward to the next show at the Murray Center with Brian Culbertson.

There are three things I know about Brian Culbertson.  First, he's a very talented musician, as are all of the folks that hosts Gary Bergeson and Kelly Bennett bring to the Murray Center as a part of KSBR's ongoing series of live performance radio broadcasts.  Second, Brian is a versatile musician on many instruments.  I've seen him perform at the annual KSBR Birthday Bash on keyboards as well as the trombone.  The third thing about Brian is his exceptional energy.  It's seen not only in his trademark spiky hair, but also the stage presence he projects during his performances.

Which is why I was looking forward to trying something a little more edgy with my shots of Brian at last week's radio show.  He did not disappoint, starting out his set with a high-energy, up-tempo rendition of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" (it was, after all, the beginning of December, and time to do this sort of thing).  From there, Brian stuck with the keyboards.  His keyboard playing style is interesting.  Especially in this setting, playing the Rowland in front of a more "mature" audience (it's the Norman P. Murray Senior and Community Center, by the way), Brian's style was measured, nuanced, and different from what I expected.  I probably have over 100 photos of Brian, and in most of them (including the shot above), his eyes are closed either leaning closely into the keyboard or serenely looking upward.  Not that the music wasn't beautiful; it certainly was, and the audience enjoyed it immensely (as did I).

But as the set progressed, I finally got the shot I envisioned from the outset.  It's a simple treatment actually, with almost all of the editing done in Lightroom, except for the removal of some distracting elements in the frame that required more intricate masking in Photoshop.

Now THAT'S the Brian Culbertson I was expecting.

I don't know who's next up in this continuing series of broadcasts, but I'm definitely going to continue to explore different post-processing techniques to bring out what I consider to be the essence of the performers as I see them.

]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) KSBR Musicians Portraits Fri, 14 Dec 2012 18:56:13 GMT
Working the Scene I usually like to open my blog posts with an image, hopefully a somewhat interesting image.  But this one needs a little setup.  

One of the lessons we learn as photographers is the need to "work the scene".  It means looking at all of the visual elements and photographic possibilities inherent in a given location, with an eye toward composition.  It's most frequently employed in landscape and architectural photography, where the scene doesn't change, but the position of the photographer and camera angle can change in relation to the scene.  It's also used in portraiture, so the subject can be placed in a way that minimizes background distractions and renders the subject in a more compelling way.  Most folks aren't typically aware of this process; they look at an interesting landscape and fire away without knowledge of how the eye moves through (and hopefully stays within) a photograph.  Or they focus on the face of the person being photographed, and fail to notice the tree seemingly growing out of the person's head.

I've posted quite a few photographs here that were made at various live performances during broadcasts of KSBR's Gary and Kelly Show at the Norman P. Murray Center in Mission Viejo.  These broadcasts are great fun for those who attend them, and they give me wonderful access to incredibly talented performers.  I've also commented on the benefit of repositioning myself during a performance to get a more interesting background.  But today I want to take this concept a little farther, not only in terms of working the camera angles, but also exploring the performer in greater detail.

This opportunity comes by way of the realization that at this particular venue, with the audiences' chairs set up the way they are, and video crews located where they are, there are only about five unobstructed camera angles available to the photographer: center rear at eye level, stage left (high or low), and stage right (high or low).  So the more I shoot there, the more challenging it is to get fresh, compelling images that differ from those previously made.

Such was the challenge I faced last Saturday when sax virtuoso Euge Groove performed hits from his recent release "House of Groove".  The morning of the performance was bright and sunny, rendering the window behind the stage (although covered by a drape and some light) completely unusable as a background.  Sometimes, if the weather is cloudy, this can be overcome, but today, no way.  Here was the starting point:

Euge sounded great, but visually...yuck.

So we move to the side, try to minimize the window as much as possible, and hope to get a good look at Euge talking with host Gary Bergeson, and place him in relation to his publicity picture on the stage.  We get a nice expression that shows what kind of guy Euge is, but that window is just killing the shot:


Okay, gotta get rid of the window altogether.  So we move to the tightest view from stage left and wait for him to step forward during his set:

Nice shot, but one I've taken a hundred times from this same vantage point.  I like the light from this angle; it's short lighting that provides a nice loop lighting pattern on the face.  But we need to do something more.  Maybe a tighter composition with a little more expression from Euge.  He's working hard, and with the hot lights, he's starting to get red in the face and sweat:

Not bad, but not that different, either.  So what can we do now?  What about a totally non-sax-playing portrait of Euge enjoying the applause from the audience after performing one of his hits?  This one requires careful observation of the performer and precise timing to capture a look of inner satisfaction, rather than simply a reaction to the fans themselves.

And finally, what can I do to create a different kind of look from all of the others that I've captured at these wonderful performances?  How about a darker portrait, softer but with deeper contrast, out of the specific context of this venue?  I think the application of different treatments specific to each performer is the direction I want to explore more as I continue to work this particular scene.  

Next up with Gary and Kelly:  Brian Culbertson on December 8. I'm pretty sure I'll be using different, grittier techniques for him.  I can't wait!

]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) KSBR Musicians Portraits Fri, 16 Nov 2012 02:01:58 GMT
Jordan Matter's "Dancers Among Us" Redux Back in March, in one of my first blog posts here, I wrote about a fantastic opportunity I had to work with Jordan Matter, who was working on a three-year effort to publish a book based on his "Dancers Among Us" project.  It was a fantastic opportunity to watch Jordan at work, and to contribute to the project by bringing him two amazing local dancers I know, as well as to scout, suggest, and coordinate locations for Jordan while he was here in SoCal.  There was only one caveat; I couldn't release any photos that I took that might be similar in composition to those that Jordan made, prior to the publication of the book.  Well, the book comes out later this month, and just today, Jordan released the names of the dancers whose images will be included in it.  So I conclude from these two facts that it's now okay to show you what we were up to on those two days.  These photographs are mine, not Jordan's.  Some were made to give Jordan something he could use for his own purposes (showing him at work).  Others were shot alongside Jordan, or from a different angle.

The first location I suggested was the famous entrance to Grauman's Chinese Theater, with the handprints and footprints of Hollywood's elite.  A shot of a dancer in Fred Astaire's or Ginger Rogers' handprints would be cool, and Jordan agreed.  So here's Kevin Williams doing a handstand, but in Jack Nicholson's handprints.  Why not Astaire's?  Because Fred Astaire had these little bitty hands, and Kevin dwarfed him.  Here's Jordan shooting Kevin in one of about 100 takes, before security kicked us out. 

After Grauman's, Jordan wanted to consider a location in the Hollywood Hills where there might be a sweeping vista of LA.  I knew just the place, so off we went, and Jordan captured Jamila Glass hanging off a fenced-in communications tower with LA in the back.  I don't think this shot made the book, but I do believe that Jamila, who went out to Joshua Tree with Jordan the day after we did this, will be in the book.  By the way, it's a long way down below Jamila.

When I first contacted Jordan about this opportunity to work with him in LA, I had two high school dancers in mind, Lauren Rauen and Caitlin Pulone, both of whom could easily perform the kinds of amazing leaps, poses, and characters that Dancers Among Us embodied.  Jordan envisioned an out-of-work actress in front of the iconic Paramount Studios gate on Melrose Avenue, and I knew that Lauren was the perfect dancer to pull this off.  So I made a sandwich board of a previous headshot I made of Lauren, and a stack of 8x10's for her to hold.  Jordan amped up the concept by asking Lauren to hold them in both hands as well as one foot.  We ducked into an alley so Lauren could get comfortable doing this very tricky pose in the middle of the street, and when she was ready, out we went.  She performed flawlessly.

Jordan wanted to photograph Caitlin in a bookstore, and I suggested Book Soup on the Sunset Strip.  It was long after dark when we arrived, and Jordan talked his way into shooting Cate on a bookshelf ladder.  The staff at Book Soup was more than happy to accommodate us.  I put a pair of reading glasses on Cate, and here's what we got.

It was a long day of shooting, and we got back to OC after 11:00.  Time to crash and burn, because tomorrow would be another long day.  The first location I had suggested to Jordan was the Walt Disney Concert Hall.  I had photographed Cate there on a previous occasion, and it was a sample from that shoot that got Jordan interested.  So we met there, along with a bunch of dancers who had responded to Jordan's casting call.

We met in front of the WDCH and Jordan briefed the dancers on how the day would go.  While Jordan was talking with the dancers, I made this tight profile of dancer Mysti Rose.

She would later pose in this partner shot with a male dancer whose name I unfortunately didn't record, in a location I had used with Cate previously.

Jordan is a very creative guy; one of the shots he envisioned at WDCH was to put this same male dancer up in a tree, reading a book.  Okay, a reasonable, kinda predictable shot.  But no; Jordan's concept was for him to hang upside down in the tree, reading a book.  Something like this:


From here, we went down to Skid Row, where Jordan photographed Terry Beeman in front of the Continental Hotel, not exactly the Ritz, where just a few days before, somebody got whacked upstairs.  This shoot was high-concept, and Terry pulled it off very well, first staggering (artistically) in the street, and later in this pose in front of the hotel.

One of the dancers we brought along that day was Melinda Marchiano, a young dancer from the Central Coast area.  Melinda loves dance, and she's a very good dancer.  What sets Melinda apart, though, is the fact that she's a cancer survivor and has published an amazing book on her experience.  It was her love of ballet that inspired her through recovery.  Here she is, down in the Toy District, with her book, titled "Grace".  The eerie, depressing mural provides a reminder of what she must have gone through on her journey back to health.  But Melinda is anything but depressed; she's an inspiration.


Moving through downtown LA in mid-day traffic can be daunting, especially when you're traveling in a caravan, with drivers who aren't that familiar with the territory.  Especially when you're pulling illegal U-turns in the middle of Skid Row so Jordan can check out a location.  Especially when you're two guys who are dancers, and acrobats, who don't exactly frequent Skid Row.  And especially when you get pulled over by LA's Finest, and get a ticket for said illegal U-turn.  That experience was enough to cause our two intrepid acrobats to depart the neighborhood for safer, more familiar digs.

Fortunately, we met up with them later that evening in Beverly Hills, at Two Rodeo, on the corner of Wilshire and Rodeo Dr.  I had suggested this location earlier, as it has a very European feel, with a winding walkway down a faux hill.  Jordan captured them at the prime location of this retail development and made a photograph before we got kicked out of this place, too.

Jordan Matter spent two more days in SoCal, but I had other commitments, and could not join him on those two days, as he photographed dancers in Venice Beach and all the way out in Joshua Tree National Park.  Nevertheless, it was an experience I won't soon forget, and one which has strongly influenced me in how I will approach my own location-based dance photography.

"Dancers Among Us" will be in bookstores later this month, and can be pre-orded through the usual online channels.  Check it out; it will change the way you think about dance and dancers.





]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Dance Portraits Fri, 05 Oct 2012 19:52:32 GMT
Alyssa with a Beauty Dish I've been asked to do a lot of headshots lately, including some environmental portraits (which I loved doing), to corporate headshots for a company wall, to studio work (if by "studio" you count my living room...).  Right now, if I had to choose, I think simple shots like these are my current favorite style.  This approach is strongly influenced by Peter Hurley, a New York-based actors' headshot specialist who has his style and method of interacting with clients down pat.  Hurley's lighting approach is bright, broad, and flexible, giving his clients room to move and interact with him to get the kinds of expressions that get his clients booked.  Lighting-wise, Hurley uses four banks of KinoFlo fluorescents with accents as needed; he shoots with a Hasselblad.  So there's about $40 G's right there.  For me, it's my trusty Qflash mounted in a socked Kacey beauty dish, with different kinds of reflectors underneath, and two 580EXII speedlites providing blow-out white on the backdrop.  The camera is my old-school Canon 5D, with a 24-105mm f/4 or the 135mm f/2.

We started out with the white backdrop and a white fill board underneath, to open up the shadows under the subject's chin in a classic butterfly lighting pattern.  In this case, the subject is Alyssa, a talented and powerful dancer who's looking forward to a professional dance career.  She needed a headshot for an agent.  So we started with this basic setup, and got this:

Okay, a nice, serviceable frame.  An engaging, forward-looking expression that says, "I'm here and ready to show you what I can do."  It's probably not the headshot you want to submit to the agent, but it's a good place to start.  So we move things around, get some different expressions, including the one at the top of this post.  We back up a bit, and get a vertical with more of Alyssa.  This one has her posing on a piece of white foam core.  What you don't see is my long-suffering wife Karen, who's sitting on the floor, holding up the foam core for Alyssa to rest her arms on.


It's always fun to take a break from focusing on facial expressions, to loosen up a bit and do some hair flips.  The flash duration on the Qflash isn't exactly bullet-stopping, but it's short enough to do these.  You're always at the mercy of the moment, but if your timing is quick and the hair cooperates, you can get some fun images like this one:

From here, we decided to change things up.  Off go the two speedlites, and the white backdrop goes gray.  Why?  It's the inverse square law; look it up.  So we also need a change of wardrobe; the blue tank contrasts nicely with the gray back.  Placing Alyssa off to the side gives her "room to breathe".  It also provides an opportunity to overlay some text in the negative space on the right if you want to do that in your headshot.

The thing about this image is THOSE EYES.  Alyssa can give you any number of looks, but the best ones are those where her gaze fixes right down the center of the lens.  She could have three arms, and your focus would still go straight to the eyes.  As Hurley would say when he gets one of these:  "SHABANG!"  This was probably my favorite of the shoot.  Alyssa chose this next one, but cropped to vertical as requested by the agent (I still prefer the horizontal orientation shown below).

As mentioned above, the off-center orientation of the subject is usually best from a photographic perspective for a number of reasons, but sometimes a face screams to be centered.  It's rare that a person has a perfectly symmetrical face; that's why people have a "good side" and a "bad side" for photographs.  If you were to take a picture of yourself, cut it down the middle, reproduce one side and flip it over onto the other side, you'd be amazed at how different it is from reality.  But Alyssa's face is quite symmetrical, and she can easily stand up to a centered frame.  Plus, when you have THOSE EYES, you want to maximize their impact on the viewer.  So this next image owes a lot to Scott Kelby, who teaches this version of clamshell lighting, replacing the white fill board with a silver reflector to open up the shadows even more, and to put some additional pop into the eyes.  This kind of photograph is very commercial and "graphic" in style; you want clean lines, minimal wardrobe distraction, and pulled back hair to really focus on the face.

We were at it for only about an hour and a half, but it was time to pack it in for the evening.  We decided to end with a few more hair flips, to see if we could get some lucky combinations of hair, eyes, and expression.  I liked this one best.  It shows the Alyssa I know, fun-loving, quirky, and great to be around.






]]> (Steve Wylie Photography) Portraits Fri, 14 Sep 2012 15:55:20 GMT