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The Story in a Box

January 23, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

A little, yellow-orange, Kodak box has followed me around for more than fifty years. I remember when I bought it; not the date and time but most things.

_B4A5635Velox Paper

I was somewhere south of 15 years old and had ridden my bicycle down to the camera store on Colorado Blvd.  It was about an hour’s ride there and another back but I really liked riding my bike… almost as much as whatever adventure I was heading toward.  My brother had just found an old bellows style camera in the trash cans along our back alley and I was riding down to the store to buy some 620 film for the new old camera. I don’t remember the make or model of the camera but I know it had a Carl Zeiss lens and that was good.  It also had a light leak in the bellows, but it was easily fixed with electrical tape.  


The problem was, I didn’t have an enlarger in my make-shift closet darkroom.  So, when I spied the box of paper on the shelf, I thought it would be the perfect size for making contact prints.  So that’s what I did.  I took pictures of people, flowers, trees, my brother and even pictures of pictures.  My parents had a Polaroid and I set about taking pictures of the Polaroid prints so I’d have a negative to work with.


You can surmise that I was pretty much a geek, at least since puberty.  I liked to build things and trips to the hardware store, army surplus and camera store were the starting points for many, what seemed at the time, great ideas.  I built crystal radios, solar-powered transistor radios, electric motors, generators, and even a focused light beam transmitter/receiver for a radio.  If I could have just laid my hands on a laser…


But I digress. My point was that I ran out of film before I ran out of paper and came up with an idea.  Having worked with 4x5 film cartridges in Printing class, I realized that the paper might fit directly in the film guides of the camera and replace the film.  I tried and it did so I started to experiment with exposures to see if I could properly expose the paper to obtain a negative paper image.  Once that was sorted, I just developed it like a print and then put the dried paper negative together with a new sheet of paper and made a contact print, as usual.  The apertures needed to be smaller, for sharpness, and the exposures longer than film but the results were passable.  Not much later, I bought a diffusion enlarger for my darkroom/closet and never looked back.  


Today, that box holds some curling old paper prints, a few flat 620 negatives and a half dozen 35mm negatives.  All from around that time.  They’re nothing to look at really but, in that box, they mark a turning point in my life where I started to see photography as a creative medium; something I could build with.


Photographing Cars

May 26, 2015  •  1 Comment

IMG_0158-EditMini ZoomA young couple with their new Mini Cooper. Note how the angle adds to the motion effects. I love cars. Lots of us do and that's what makes them an interesting subject.  Like portraits of people they can be young or old, moving or still, posed or candid.  But they can't smile and they can't make expressive faces or pull you into the moment with their eyes.  At least not without some work.

The first thing that you need to ask yourself is what is it you are trying to accomplish with your photos of any particular car.  Are you trying to sell it?  Are you trying to show how it makes you feel or how it represents you? Are you recording it for posterity or, perhaps, you're using it as a prop in a portrait?  The best images make you feel something and this is no different for flowers, fruit, vases, people, landscapes, buildings, seascapes... or cars. 

Into the WindInto the WindPolished hood ornament from 1937 Cadillac.

The next thing to consider is "scope" of the images.  Is there any particular aspect of the car that is key to your purpose?  For example: the wheels, the steering column, the grill, the headlights, all of it.  Details have their own special beauty separate and apart from the overall vehicle, yet they are often overlooked. If you are only interested in specific details, then the setting or location may not be as important.  However, if you want that full image, then location becomes very important.  SUVs and other recreational type vehicles will "almost" always need an outdoor location like the beach, mountains, trails. I say "almost" because there are no hard and fast rules... creativity would demand that they be broken anyway. That said, you need something that provides a backdrop that says something about the car or will make the viewer feel a certain way about the car, or not. Sometimes a "hint" is all that is needed and allows the car to remain the subject, without distraction.

Probably the most important aspect of the location is the lighting.  What lighting will be available? On the roadAlong the roadSimply the best car I've ever owned; my 2002 Honda S2000 parked along US Highway 93 between Phoenx and Las Vegas. Outdoors you may have bright sun or cloud covered skies. In a garage, it will be shaded but some areas may be very bright and others excessively dark.  I've found that shaded areas are best... but not dappled shade, for obvious reasons.  Covered parking garages with indirect natural light work well.  Underground garages can also work well but you will need to deal with color temperature issues for the type of lights being used in the garage but they can provide some interesting highlights, if they are not too distracting.  Using flash or other light sources works best when the light is diffused - again, no hard rules.  A garage tends to give a grittier, urban feel and works very well with the sleek, curved lines of newer vehicles.  Antique or more rustic vehicles often do better in open air garages or out of doors.  The most important thing is that the lighting be even.  This will let the shape of the car and details like paint, grill work, badging and wheels pop.  

IMG_0811Pushing the LimitA high angle shot of a new C7 Stingray convertible. Night time images with reflected highlights from streetlights or other sources can be stunning.  Additionally, images taken on a tripod, where the car is "painted" with a flashlight or strobe can be very powerful. The vehicle stands out from any background easily but other background light points like a deep sunset, the moon, lamp posts, stars, or bridges can provide a great backdrop as well. Remember to use a tripod in low light situations.  A sharp, crisp image is paramount.

Depending on what it is you are trying to feature in the photo, the shot angle IMG_0248-EditWoo Hoo!An excited young couple posing with their new car as a prop. can be critical as well, especially if you are using a wide-angle lens. The part of the car closest to the camera can appear distorted and to the point of detracting from the artistry of the car itself.  But it can also add to the image as well.  It all depends on the "look" that you are going for.  Clearly, many shots at different angles provides the best chance of finding the perfect perspective.  Often, going with a high angle provides a clear image of overall car but also tends to compress the perspective.  While shooting low makes the car seem to "loom" ominously and gives a more aggressive look.  If you are trying to accentuate the natural lines, use a more natural focal length, 40 or 50mm, and stand a bit further back from the car.  Try to shoot at a camera level slightly lower than the top of the hood line.  Again, different angles work best going all around the car.

IMG_0780StingrayFuel door detail in toned black and white image. Note how the highlight runs through the key elements.

Be careful not to get reflections in the chrome or body.  This means you will need to avoid shooting square on to the vehicle since you and your camera are likely to become subjects in your image.  Minor reflections can often be removed in Photoshop or other photo processing tools.  Which brings me to dust and other imperfections.  Clean your car thoroughly.  A small amount of effort in wiping and dusting will save a lot of time and effort in post processing.  And, if you're not planning or not able to do post processing, pre-shot cleaning and dusting are vital steps to getting the best possible results.

IMG_0813_HDR-Edit-Edit-EditUrban C7Post processing used to smooth out the overall look of the vehicle while leaving the grunge of its urban locale.

Movement is a big issue.  Cars are meant to move and it just seems natural to photograph them that way.  There are more than just a couple of ways to portray movement in your image.  "Panning" is a common choice and involves moving the camera with the car as it passes by you.  You will need to keep your shutter speed low but not too low.  Probably around 1/60th to 1/100th of a second.  Keep the car in the camera's viewfinder as it passes by and move the camera with a smooth, steady motion.  As the car comes square to the camera, exhale and squeeze the shutter gently so there is no vertical momentum added. Another popular method is by traveling in another car or truck ahead of or even behind the vehicle being photographed.  This can be dangerous so proper precautions should be taken. Again, use a slower shutter speed but keep pace with the vehicle.  Depending on the speed of both cars, the photographed carshould then appear sharp with it's surrounding blurred around it. You can also achieve a similar appearance using layers and motion blur in Photoshop. Import the same image into two separate layers in Photoshop then add motion blur to the background layer with the position of the vehicle in the frame as the focal point of the motion.  The mask around the vehicle in the top layer and use "Transform" to make the vehicle slightly larger than the one in the base image.  You just need to soften around the edges of the vehicle to pull the blended image together.

IMG_0141_HDR-EditMini Coper, Max FunNote how the angle also adds to the motion effect.

Lastly, I'm a big fan of post processing.  Not just because of what can be "fixed" but mostly because of how the mood of the image can be manipulated.  You can add glow effects to smooth paint and brighten chrome or you can go gritty and dark to give amore menacing or even somber feel to the image.  The same image can often be done in multiple ways with different effect and it can be hard to choose which is the best overall.  There's so much that can be done that, if you haven't tried any tools like Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz or Perfect Photo Suite you are really missing out on half the fun.  Getting the best image out the camera to start with is key but, as said in my favorite quote from Ansel Adams, "You don't take a photograph, you make it".


Just Playing Around

January 01, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Clearly  IMG_9446-EditIMG_9446-Edit I've been remiss in my blog posting duties with over a year since my last post. In my defense, it's been a busy year - just not photographically.  I've taken less than 4,000 pictures this year; last year I did more than twice that number! But, a few days after visiting the St. Louis grandkids for Christmas, I found myself culling and editing hundreds of images.  It can be a tedious process requiring hours of work for that many images.  Hence the reason that wedding and portrait photographers charge so much for their work... because it IS work.  That said, editing pictures of grandkids is not so bad. Though culling the poor images can make for some tough decisions and end up leaving in some marginal shots!

But that's not what this post is about. It's about having fun with your pictures by playing around with some new "toys".  Topaz Labs recently introduced their "Topaz Glow" product and I've been anxious to try it out.  Fortunately, there is a 30 day trial available so I signed right up.  Having spent so many hours already editing Christmas images I wasn't thrilled with the idea of more editing but I had to see what this "Glow" product could do.  As I've mentioned before, I'm addicted to the "Wow!" feeling. Sometimes so much so that I have a tendency to "over cook" adjustments and have to dial it back a notch... or two. 

After a quick install on my iMac, I was able to edit directly from Lightroom and I wasn't disappointed. The first image i tried was of my granddaughter's favorite "princess" ornament.   Princess OrnamentUsing "Brilliant Fibers" filter of Topaz Glow. I went with a neon style filter that, although it darkened things considerably, resulted in a fireworks type display at the top of the image.  I played around with the adjustments but, as usual, I found that I liked the effect "full on" the best. 

Under the TreeUnder the TreeChristmas packages and toys under a Christmas tree fractal processed in Topaz Glow. Next, I decided on a reasonably well composed but somewhat uninteresting image of packages and toys under the Christmas tree. I tried out a lot of filter types but, when I selected "Brilliant Fibers", that "Wow!" moment hit me as the image seemed to come alive with color. Again, maybe too much - but i loved it! It has actually turned out to be one of my favorite images.

By now, I was feeling pretty empowered by the type of abstract beauty that the "Topaz Glow" fractal manipulations could pull out of some of these "less than thrilling" images. So, I went after a few more brightly lit and colorful decorations and tired out a few more filters.  Of course, most of them didn't really  Garland Hanging on a LightBrilliant Fibers filter of Topaz Glow deliver and I just left well enough alone but, when I found the right image and filter combination the artistic pull was compelling.  And, photography is art. Different medium, different skills and different tools but art nonetheless and, as such, the results should make a connection with the viewer. It should make them feel something.

So, when I say I'm "playing around', that's exactly what I'm doing. I'm trying to create something - usually from something not that great to start with - that gives me the rush that you can only get when something goes directly from your eyes to your heart so fast that your brain can only stop and say "Whoa! What just happened?".

About Portraits

December 22, 2013  •  1 Comment

I am not known for my portrait photography. Let's face it, portraits are intimidating. People are very critical when it comes to what constitutes a "good" picture of themselves and are usually less than thrilled with having their portrait taken.  So, to start with, you're often working from a negative perception by the subject and it can be challenging to get them to relax IMG_2727-Edit-EditChris & SarahA side by side and over the shoulder pose works well with couples by keeping both faces in the same focal plane. enough to coax the best expression from them. And, as much as I might embrace failure as a learning experience, I still don't like it.

In the spirit of "confronting your fears", I decided to set up my portable studio at the family gathering for Thanksgiving at my Mom's house. I forewarned everyone, of course, which accomplished two things: first, I couldn't back out at the last minute, and second, everyone would show up mentally prepared and dressed a little better than normal.

For the unfamiliar, let me explain the concept of a "portable" studio: the key elements of a "permanent" studio thrown into a big-ass, heavy bag. I got mine on eBay and it came with a backdrop stand, three light stands, 3 fluorescent soft-box lights, 12 light bulbs and 3 different cotton backdrop cloths. Throw in some extension cords and clamps and you're "good to go" - mostly.  

There are a few problems, starting with fold lines in the back drops.  You can usually handle that by placing your subject far enough in front of the back drop that it's not in focus and the lines disappear.  But, guess what? Portable studios are usually set up in tight quarters - spare bedroom, office, etc. and there is not much room to work and fewer choices still about where to place the backdrop. And then there's usually some window with a small amount of ambient light that ends up highlighting the creases.  You just have to deal with it so be prepared to spend some time in PhotoShop.

IMG_3477-Edit-EditJessicaHaving the subject look up can be effective in opening up the eyes. It also minimizes reflections from eyewear.

Because you're in such tight quarters, the temptation is to use a wider lens. Maybe 50mm or even less. Don't - you may not notice the distortions while shooting but they will become painfully evident in post.  I prefer a 200mm for portraits because of the flat field, shallow depth and you are far enough away that the subject isn't uncomfortable. But a 200mm will almost never work while shooting 8 feet away unless you're going for the "mug shot".  I try and stay as close to a 100mm lens as possible.  It still works in tight quarters and is sufficiently flat.

Aperture is the next most important thing to the lens itself. A 2.8 aperture, or better is preferred but 4.0 still works. Don't be afraid to shoot wide open. Aberrations or softness at the edges will probably get fixed in post through a lens correction filter, cropping or vignetting. A wider aperture provides a shallow depth of field and keeps the attention on the subject, not the background.  There is a huge problem with this approach though. Too shallow of a depth of field will cause parts of your subjects face to be out of focus as well.  And, though that can be desirable at times, you never want the eyes to be out of focus.  The eyes are almost always what pulls the viewer into the portrait.  So, if you are shooting with a wider aperture it is important to focus and re-focus, keeping the focus point on the forward or best illuminated eye of the subject.  Easy to say, not so easy to do. I usually don't use a tripod for portraits. That allows me to move around and get different angles quickly and easily.  My subject will move as well - tracking with me or at my direction. This means my focus may have changed as well.  This happens most often when the subject is more animated by laughing, making faces or hair tossing.  It's not so much a motion blur problem because you can address that with a faster shutter speed or using flashes, it's that the subject's face (and eye) is moving in and out of the narrow focal plane.  Auto focus doesn't address the issue fully unless you can keep the focal point specifically on the eye.  Otherwise, you get shots with forehead in focus, the chin in focus, the cheek in focus, etc. - but not the all important eye.

IMG_3452_HDRMichaelStarting with an HDR image gan give a gritty feel to the image and often works well with men. So what to do if you have that great shot but the eyes are not in focus? If the eyes are not too far out of focus, you can add a little sharpening, clarity and brightness in post to just the eyes and it will make them appear to be in focus - sometimes.  If they are too far out of focus, it's usually the trash bin. There are exceptions, of course. Shots with glasses, sunglasses or where the eyes are hidden or obfuscated and another part of the subject becomes the primary viewer focus (e.g. a smile).

That brings me to my next point: it's all in the details. Make sure that your subject has clean teeth and gum line, mascara that has not clumped, combed or, at least, non-frizzy hair, no lint, clean glasses, clear eyes, etc. You can fix a lot in post but it's best to start with as little as possible that might need "fixing". I am a big fan of re-touching, but not re-forming.  Everyone has blemishes or skin aberrations that come and go.  Anything that is not a "permanent" part of their facial features is ok to fix - up to the point that it no longer looks "real".  What I don't like to do is to reshape the jaw line, elongate the face, widen the eyes, etc.  When I first began playing with those things, I thought it was "cool" but, as soon as I started flipping between the before and after images and I was "startled" by the difference, I realized it was just "too much".

Now for the all-important lighting. I said, my "portable" studio has three lights so it makes a 

IMG_3311_HDR-Edit-Edit-EditChrisA hollywood style with a more rugged look. A warmer tonality makes the image more appealing and the eyes are bright and clear.

great three point system.  I can also turn each soft box on to "half power" to adjust the lighting without moving the lights further back.  This is not only important because of the often cramped quarters but also because the farther away a light box is from the subject, the harsher the light becomes. So, for the softest light, you want a larger light box placed closer to the subject. Usually, I have two lights at 30 - 45 degree angles to the subject and another higher up and somewhat behind the subject as a "hair light". Light boxes can be unstable - especially when fully extended - so I hang weights on the stands, toward the feet. If you don't have sandbags with handles laying around, I've found that a grocery bag with a heavy object in it works well. I ended up using cloth grocery bags with fireplace logs the last time!  Also, watch out for the extension cords. They are easy to trip on and hurt yourself, your subject or your equipment. Keep them out of the way and tape them down, if possible.

IMG_3886-Edit-Edit-Edit-EditJonathanUsing a slight angle in the pose can bring the subject's posture more upright and forward, into the frame. Of course you can also use flash - open, umbrella or boxed. I'm "on the cheap" right now so I only have the one flash and it "does not a system make" so I only use it for "fill" in a "studio" environment. I tried using it to light my subjects from a lower angle in order to soften some shadows but it didn't work out as well as I hoped. It made the subjects faces flatter overall while also darkening some shadows in the upper face, around the eyes. In general, lighting from below is usually not flattering in a portrait and should be avoided. Again, there are always exceptions and one of the most fun things to do with your photography is experiment!

From my other posts, you know that I use Lightroom, Photoshop and Perfect Photo Suite.  I have rediscovered Black & White photography as part of my post-processing with the introduction of Perfect Black & White 8 from OnOne Software. I am particularly fond of the "Hollywood" styles and have tried them on a number of my recent portraits.  They add tone, softness and a glow to the image that is reminiscent of Hollywood in the 40's and 50's. Great stuff - I am looking forward to trying out more filters as I continue with MY experimenting!

I love fine art and landscape photography but, as a friend of mine recently noted, pictures of people are more "interesting".  He has a point.

That's a Wrap!

April 20, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

House of Many WallsManhattan Panorama_HDR-Edit "The Wall" has occupied much of my life for the last year.  The project was to post an image a day for a full year to my Facebook fan page "wall". It has been a chore and it has been a joy.  I am happy to say mostly a joy.  Today's image, "House of Many Walls" is really above and beyond by one.  The project started on April 20th, 2012 so the April 19th post should've been image number 365 - year complete; but I couldn't resist one "parting shot".  It's an image that I've posted before, as my timeline photo, but with a slightly different "treatment"; one that I actually like much better.  To me, it represents the project as a whole because that's how much of this project has gone - find an image and make it better.

The first image of the series, "Vermont Barnyard", set everything in motion.  It was a drab, lackluster image that I had managed to ignore for more than 7 years.  When I finally purchased Adobe Lightroom and imported all of the images I'd accumulated over the years, they all came "front and center" back into my life.  I adjusted, I tweaked and I cajoled new life into them and was rewarded with the occasional "Whoa! Where'd that come from?" moment.  That little rush, it turns out, is about as addictive as crack cocaine!  Who knew?

Apparently, Lightroom (or LR as we addicts call it) was a "gateway" drug.  I needed more... so I turned to HDR with the help of HDRsoft's Photomatix Pro.  That was really a "guilty pleasure"; I had entered the realm of "stylization" and surreal lighting effects.  My "Car Parts",  album is that first foray - and I love some of those images.  They taught me to look deeper into a photograph for what might be there - not just at what I saw on the surface.

Then I found onOne Software's Perfect Photo Suite and Brian Matiash's tutorials on stylization.  I quickly learned there was so much that I didn't know (and still don't) but one thing was clear to me: less is more.  I learned to compound effects by taking each from zero to the point where it became "a little much" and then dial-it-back a notch.  The images have an enhanced but still believable look.  The truth is, many of the "enhanced" images are actually a better representation of reality than the original image.  And that's good, because that's what I set out to do - make the viewer feel like they are there.

Still looking for more, I turned to Topaz Labs for effects that weren't in Perfect Photo Suite.  Things like "star effects", "cleaning" and "simplifying" that allowed me to abstract images to works of art.  "Surfer Dude", "Slippery When Wet" and "Right Hand Rails are good examples where the image becomes so much more with an "artistic" spin.

Finally, after all of my "experimentation", I turned to the "heroin" of digital art; the drug of choice for photographers and digital artists everywhere - Photoshop.  My addiction complete, I set about making all of these tools part of my daily life - my "workflow".  And, the truth is, they all blend so well that I now live in an unending fog, medicated by my "drug cocktail" and mesmerized as much by what I have been able to do as by what lies still beyond my grasp.

So, when I say "That's a Wrap!", I only refer to this project, "The Wall", because I am addicted to the rush of discovery.  As photographer Imogen Cunningham once said, "Which of my photographs is my favorite? It's the one I'm going to take tomorrow".