A critical look at two photographers

My take on: Flor Garduño and Todd Hido

(Please note: not safe for work due to a large number of nudes.)

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Club-organized model shoot – what’s it like, anyway?

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My model Gee strikes a fierce pose, holding my awkward prop with grace. Larger version.

Last Sunday, a large local photo club (the Greater Lynn Photographic Association, which I joined this year), offered an indoor photo shoot with several beautiful models. Of course I was intrigued and had to check it out.

I’d never been to an organized model shoot, but had heard good things from acquaintances that went to – usually quite expensive – workshops and conventions that featured a bevy of models and/or locations in addition to talks, portfolio critiques and photo walks. What better way to test the format on a smaller, more human and less intimidating scale than to participate in this photo club event?

It turned out to be a very interesting experience. I made a ton of rooky mistakes, learned a lot, and best of all, still came away with a few photos that I really am proud of. Here is what it was like:

The setup:

We had three different stations, each with a model. Two were larger ‘booths’ for full-length shots, one was a portrait set-up. I think there were a total of six models that would rotate through the different stations, and also change outfits during breaks.

In front of each station was an information sheet that showed what settings to use as a guideline – for example, use either ISO 100, f8 or ISO 200, f11 or ISO 400, f16 at this station. There was also some information on the model currently at that station – mainly name and contact information (to send them some of your good shots afterwards).

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Model Jolie in high-key black-and-white. Larger view here.

 The constraints:

With many photographers rotating through the different stations themselves, each wanting to take home wonderful photos, a lot of thought was put into making throughput high. This comes at the cost of individual flexibility, of course, making it very different from using a friend or family member for a small session.

●The backdrops and lights were fixed – there simply was no moving the lights around. That said, the light was quite forgiving and tended towards flattering higher-key modes. Models moving around a bit did not make much difference to how they were lit.

●The models brought their own wardrobe, and did their own make-up. The wardrobe was mostly off-white/white or black, which I appreciated, as it does not distract in close-ups. The go-to make-up seemed to be ‘full-face’ (think Sephora spokesperson) – starting with concealer and foundation, going through eye shadows and lipstick, and ending with eyebrow pencil shaping and more. I learned that you can use both mascara and false lashes… which shows you how clueless I am when it comes to make-up. Generally, I prefer very little makeup, or very exotic applications, but was pleasantly surprised at the look of the photos. Partly, I think this may be due to the light from the high-power studio flashes –they tend to wash out colors in the face, and makeup often shows up differently under these conditions from what you see in the incandescent overhead light.

●The. Worst. Part.: You have virtually no time. I only could stay for an hour of the five hour workshop, and it was during the busiest time. There always was a line in front of each of the model stations, you’d hop in line, wait your turn, get the controller for the studio flashes, wrestle it onto your camera, and… the clock is ticking. Two minutes or three shots – whichever one comes first. Eek!

If you’ve ever photographed with me, you know that I am… uh… deliberate. I need a lot of time for each shot and each setup. (I’ve heard that other workshops have different time limits – it might be 10 or 15 minutes, but the general premise is the same; you’re under pressure.) I think I hyperventilated a few times.

 

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“Through the looking-glass”. Gianna holding a stone I brought. In hindsight, the stone was probably way too heavy, and I can only marvel at how gracefully Gianna is cradling it. The eye on the stone is taken from a headshot of EvaMarie, another model. Larger image here.

The good parts:

●The lights were all set up, the backdrops were hung, the models were made-up… yes, these constraints are also freeing you from making a lot of decisions on all the peripheral things. You can concentrate on the pose or expression (or, like me, freak out quietly).

●The models were gracious, and most had some prior modeling experience. They all did a phenomenal job. I can’t imagine having to smile on command and tilt my head just so for a new photographer every two minutes for the next five hours.

●I brought a few props that would be quick to use – two different cardboard cut-outs and a stone. Thinking about the shoot beforehand made me really concentrate on how to get a different look with very little ‘extra’; it forced me to think ‘high impact’ and ‘simple’. Again, the models were very approachable and affable, taking my weird instructions in stride.

●I survived. (Joking aside, I was surprised by how reasonable my photos looked despite all my mistakes.)

Which brings me to my next point: my mistakes.

●The guide lines on the information sheets are really just estimates. I learned that my camera tends towards darker exposures when I compared shots from the same model and station with another photographer. Also, I was surprised how different the light requirements were for the diverse set of models – individual skin tones, but also differing reflectability of the foundation and makeup made a huge difference. Fortunately, the exposure goofs were not dramatic and were easily fixed in Photoshop.

●It’s actually difficult to clearly and concisely state what pose you would like the model to assume. And when you show the pose, don’t do it too fast for the model to mimic or, worse yet, mirror.

●I came in with a set of preconceived images in mind, and they were basically all portraits. Yet I did not get close enough for a lot of the shots. Partly I was afraid to cut off too much that couldn’t be reconstructed in Photoshop, but a big part was also that I felt awkward getting in close to the model. So I have a lot of wasted pixels in the majority of my photos.

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“Cassiopeia”, modeled by the wonderful EvaMarie. The Greek legend of Cassiopeia tells the story of a beautiful woman who incurs the wrath of the sea-god Poseidon and is ultimately chained to a throne and circles the North Pole. There is a constellation called Cassiopeia in the Northern sky, and I’ve mimicked the constellation and the various brightnesses and colors of the stars in it within the model’s hair. As Cassiopeia circles the North Pole, the constellation is upside-down half the time, which I thought was rather fitting, as I turned the original photo upside down as well, to have the model appear to be sailing through the skies. View larger image.

That’s it in a nutshell. The photo shoot was extremely well organized and everything ran like clockwork. I’m sure other group photo shoots will run slightly differently, but the same constraints will apply. Making the photos your own under these circumstances will be your biggest challenge. That’s why I was glad to have given it some thought beforehand – I came away with a lovely mix of spur-of-the-moment poses and a few firmly previsualized images with my own props.

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“Not a collage”. Johena with a smaller cardboard cutout. This was probably the most surprising of the shots I took. It was a previsualized image, Johena held a perfect pose, and then magic happened. I love how her little shoulder tattoo curls like another hand, forming an imaginary circle with her real hand, and I love how this straight shot looks like a collage from the dada movement. Larger view here.

Quick tip: don’t delete so fast…

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Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) in my garden. There is a flash positioned to the right, and it fired, but the leaf had bent out of the flash’s cone of light. f7.1, 1/100s, ISO 200.

Above is an image – a failure, really – from a recent photo shoot. I had found two large praying mantises hiding in my artichoke plants. With a size of 3 and 3.5 inches, respectively, they were truly giant insects, but they were also quite docile and slow-moving – as long as I kept them strictly apart (there was one harrowing incident I’d rather not recount; I managed to separate the vicious beasts).

The size and manageability inspired me to photograph them outside, with a natural background rather than the black board I use so often. Finding a suitable background for their size was actually a little difficult, as one needs a lot more separation for each added inch in size to get the type of creamy out-of-focus backgrounds that so often enhances insect photography.

So here I have a background I really like – the shaded fence on the left gives some blue lowlights, the grass in the middle lights up somewhat yellow in the bright sunlight, giving me some natural complementary colors; and the creamy grey on the right has a calming effect. So that’s pretty perfect for the background, and the mantis is in a very evocative and graphic position. The leaf and the mantis form a grounding triangle; the mantis itself, with its antennae, forms a strong diagonal. It could be a good image. Except for, well, I’m sure you noticed that the mantis isn’t lit. It’s not a silhouette either, and the entire image is underexposed.

If you are faced with such an image, do you automatically discard it? I advocate giving it a chance instead! Waiting a few days, or maybe even weeks, can give you a different perspective, or maybe you acquire new photoshop skills that could overcome the problems you face. Here, I let the image sit on my hard drive for a couple of days, then went back and still liked the composition an awful lot. So I played around with it in Adobe’s raw converter: cropping, lifting the general exposure, lifting the shadows, boosting color, lightening the red to yellow components and darkening the green-blues. As I shot this at ISO 200, all those manipulations did not lead to overly problematic noise or other image problems.I also touched up a few imperfections in photoshop itself, including cloning out the little aphid bottom left.

It’s not – and never will be – a diagnostic, typical shot of an insect, but I really like it for the mood…

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Seeing the world from a mantis’ point of view.-Right now, I’m really enjoying this image, and am very glad that I didn’t delete like a champ the day I went through the files for the first time. Larger image here.

Not all images can be rescued, nor should they be. But oftentimes, the first look through the photos from a recent shoot can make you hypercritical and unattuned to the potential of imperfect shots. Adopting a wait-and-see approach for those shots can be very rewarding and lead to some new favorites.

Photographing with intent in overcast weather

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It wasn’t snowing when I took this photo. So I created the look of winter. A perfect snowstorm in September requires just four little ingredients: a drab overcast day, a little overexposure in the original shots, selective use of the red channel for black-and-white conversion, and a bit of Nik Silver Efex love. (Very) large image here.

Sometimes, a scene presents itself to us fully formed, beautifully lit and all around gorgeous. All we need to do is press the shutter…

More often than not, a little more work is required to come away with a neat image. That’s where photographing with intent comes into play. Visualizing the image you want to end up with and analyzing how to use conditions out in the field to your advantage will make your images much better under less-than-ideal circumstances. This can be as little as moving to a better vantage point, but may include more dramatic remedies, such as under- or overexposing an image to have a certain tonal range present for your eventual processing.

I recently went for a walk in our local stand of trees in terribly overcast weather. With all the rain and gloominess, I hadn’t photographed anything in days, and I itched to shoot something. Photographing with intent was needed if I wanted to make any reasonable images.

Now overcast weather leaches all the fun out of skies (I’m in the woods – framing without much sky will be easy), but it is good for portraits (perfect! I have my dog as a willing model!), and can make for great black-and-white conversions. With those prerequisites in mind we come to this boulder, framed by tree trunks forming a decidedly vertical pattern.

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A shot of the boulder, straight out of the camera – and destined straight for the rubbish bin. I included it here just to show the location.

I really like the pattern these trees grew into, and have wanted to use them as a background many times. With sunlight, the pattern is very graphic, but it becomes exceedingly difficult to separate my black dog from such a busy background. So the overcast lighting started to become a plus… The trunks were still very dark, though, and I quickly experimented with how much I could overexpose the scene while keeping my dog at an acceptable darkness.

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Separation between dog and tree trunks made possible through exposure control. The scene is overexposed (there is no true black, not even on the dog), then developed incredibly soft (low contrast, no clarity, aggressive highlight recovery etc) to retain an acceptable level of highlight detail. The sky is still blown out. The idea is to start out with a ‘mushy’ image. Contrast this to the image of the boulder above with ‘normal’ exposure and contrast.

Posing my dog on the boulder was no accident either. It lifts her up by four feet, and allows me to cut off the boulder rather than incorporate a lot of foreground, roots and tree bases that compete with the pattern in the background.

All in all, I spent five minutes preparing – envisioning the photo in my mind and sorting out technical details (here: using overexposure and an elevated perch). Then I quickly snapped the ten photos needed to stitch together the panorama shown at the beginning. Sometimes the process is shorter; occasionally it takes longer, when a scene looks like it has good potential, but no ideas form readily in my head. Using previsualization will allow me to get the angles I need, an exposure perfect for my intention and ultimately means less time spent in photoshop.

Being open to chance helps as well. I will quickly confess here that the ‘snowy’ scene above was not my original intention, but it was aided by a little luck during processing.

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A portion of the original panorama, showing the awkward pastel orange color of the dropped needles. With the trees containing a lot of orange-brown as well, I explored using just the red channel in the channel mixer palette to further lighten trunks and ground while keeping my dog dark. It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas already…

After converting the scene into black-and-white, I felt that the image had become wintry, and wanted to emphasize this mood. (Again, I’m driven by intent in how I process the image further). A quick export into Nik’s Silver Efex (free from google) had me playing with presets to create an old-fashioned looking photo. I started out with the preset ‘cool tones I’, but (as always) I found the effect a bit too strong and consequently dialed it down, removed grain, toned it differently, added highlight protection and more. I really did like the local contrast enhancement, it brought back the tree bark texture that had been nearly erased by overexposure, a soft development and the red channel conversion.

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A different development done entirely in photoshop, with blue tinting and a curve adjustment to further separate the dog and the background trees. Not as dramatic, a more contemplative mood. (Very) large image here.

So I hope the next time you go out with your camera, you’ll give photographing with intent a try – It’s a very useful technique if the conditions aren’t perfect.

Short lighting versus broad lighting

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Woolly eye lashes are totally the new trend! No need for three different mascaras to elongate and curve, accentuate and voluminize anymore… Single studio flash, shot through a large softbox – the light is very soft. Larger image here.

The photo above shows classical short lighting. The light shines on the side of the face away from the camera, and most of the side presented to the camera is in shade. This means, of course, that the light source is located at a 90 degree angle (or further away) from the camera, in our case to the left. If my model were facing the other direction, the light would have to come from the right for it to be called short lighting.

When you illuminate the side of the model that is facing the camera, it’s called broad lighting:

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Same position for the model, but a single light coming from the right now. This is a studio flash shot through an umbrella. The light is a little edgier, as an umbrella doesn’t diffuse as much as a softbox. Larger file here.

People love short lighting, it seems. Whenever I read an article about short vs. broad lighting for portraits, the writer usually comes down firmly on the side of short lighting. But I’m not so sure it’s always the best option. So let’s compare the two images side-by-side.

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Short lighting, left, and broad lighting, right.

Short lighting makes the face narrower, and gives good volume to the face. This can hide a little extra weight, look youthful – or accentuate the volume on that big honker you’ve got! Broad lighting can feel flatter. By virtue of accentuating the jawline and cheek facing us, it shows a broader expanse of face while also flattening the overall curve of the cheeks. This can make one model look pudgy, but give another model superb bone structure. I feel that no light is right for all models, and exploring which light shows off your model to best advantage can be eye-opening (and lead to happy repeat modeling!).

As always, it comes down to three different aspects that should all be carefully considered before deciding on where to set the lights for your next photo shoot: personal preference, the artistic vision for that specific shoot, and your model’s looks.

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In the end, I chose a completely different image for my preferred shot. Light set as for the short lighting shot, but model facing nearly towards it. I like the graphical quality and how those eye lashes have become like little triceratops horns. Larger image here.

 

 

Tailoring b&w in lightroom or photoshop elements

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Tomato with spiral crack. You don’t need much for punchy black&white conversions – a red tomato, green cutting board and overcast light can be enough. I obviously darkened the red and orange channels to get such a black-looking fruit out of an intensely red colored tomato. The dull green cutting board was less saturated in the original, so darkening the yellow and green sliders had less effect, but this slight darkening added to the somber mood.

Last week, I wrote about tailoring a black-and-white conversion in photoshop, specifically using the camera raw converter. I got a few questions on how to do a similar conversion in lightroom or photoshop elements, two programs I unfortunately don’t use. But fear not, the internet has answers – I found two nice articles from digital photography school that talk about just those conversions:

For lightroom, this article shows in detail how to use an equivalent function, the black&white mix.

For photoshop elements, reading this article will be helpful.

So now you’re all set to do some magic conversion on your images. And if you remember to work with intent (being mindful about what you would like to contrast and which feature should be highlighted), your black-and-white images will pop.

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Intent can lead you down very different paths: same image as above, developed for maximum contrast between the green stem and red tomato, by lightening red and orange channel and darkening the greens. The crack is no longer the most important element, it is relegated to circling and framing the stem. While there are light yellow and near-white tomato varieties, this conversion does not ‘look right’. It’s more related to a solarization look or an inversion (negative) – and this can of course be a neat effect. If this is the look I would have been after, I would have chosen an unblemished fruit, though, as I feel the crack does distract.

Maximizing location potential

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My favorite photo from a recent shoot of waves, when post-tropical storm Hermine stopped by in Red Rock park in Lynn, north of Boston. Tripod, 35mm, f22, 1/5 s. Full-size photo here.

I often will venture to a specific location with a particular image in mind. Maybe I want to photograph my dog in front of a cave I discovered during the last hike, or come back to a scenic location once better weather makes it more stunning. Sometimes it’s a simple portrait I’m after, in front of a subtly nuanced background that requires a certain dress to evoke a period feel, yet the first time I came by, that dress was hanging in my model’s dresser at home.

Once you’re at a location, it’s easy to make that image on your list and move on. But unless time is pressing, it can be a very fulfilling endeavor to shoot a variety of images and experiment with different settings. Whenever I do this, I come away with a better understanding of my camera, and very often have additional images to share.

In this post, I’ll show you how to get the most out of a single location. The basis is very simple: Set a location and goal. Once you’ve accomplished your goal, add plenty of variations. Try out new angles and approaches. Let’s see how this worked out for me at a recent shoot.

The location: a little rock formation jutting into the Atlantic ocean and prone to having waves crash over them picturesquely. With parking nearby and quick access from the adjacent park, this is as easily accessible a location as they come. But the viewpoint seems pretty fixed – there is only one rock grouping and then the vast ocean.

The goal: With a post-tropical cyclone whipping up the waters, I wanted to grab a close-up shot of waves crashing over these rocks, spray flying as high as possible.

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A pretty classical view of a wave crashing around rocks. 1/500 s freezes most of the spray as droplets. I photographed several waves to be able to pick the most appealing one. Larger view here.

As there was no set-up, photographing my ‘goal’ shot didn’t take all that long. So I moved on to variations.

Variation I – longer or shorter exposures: I had brought a tripod for some nebulous reason, even though it was incredibly windy (the word ‘cyclone’ should have tipped me off). Once I had the classical view I came for, I thought I’d give the tripod a try anyway; after all, shooting more digital photos doesn’t cost anything more. But I couldn’t even set up a properly extended tripod, so I sat down on the rocks, pressing the tripod down and against me for stability. Awkward, yes, and providing a bit of amusement for the smartphone crowd as well. This produced images with a pretty different feel, though.

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Similar viewpoint and wave timing as the image above, but with an exposure of 1/5 s. It’s as if someone has turned the shower on… Larger image here.

While I wasn’t altogether convinced by the long exposure shots of waves taken at their zenith, shots of the rivulets running down at the end of the wave action were fascinating to me (see the lead-in image above). I really wish I’d experimented with different times, maybe 1/20 and 1/50 s, but didn’t think it would make that much of a difference at the time. Having used the tripod, I took a mental step back and evaluated what else I could photograph.

Hence variation II – look around (right, left, up, down): While up and down wasn’t really much of an option, given it’s a flat beach, moving a few steps left and a few paces right provided extremely different views.

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Left hand side: View of Swampscott, with a long wave breaking along the shore. You can really see the flat terrain all around me here, an indication as to why so many seascapes are presented in a 9:16 (or even more elongated) format. Larger image here.
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Right hand side: View of the bay, with Boston’s skyline in the far background. The water is frothing all around, leading to a carpet of bubbles. Larger image here.

I emphasized the different feel of the photos with contrasting processing, but it’s still hard to believe these photos were shot a mere 9 minutes apart.

On to variation III – shoot wider or tighter, or both: Bringing different fixed focal lengths or several objectives would have been fun, but I knew that the salty spray of the waves would coat everything within minutes. After an hour, I couldn’t even see through my glasses anymore! So before heading out I settled on a 24-70mm zoom that is reasonably water resistant (‘tropicalizing’ rubber ring round the bajonet, front lens filter attached). I did wish for longer focal lengths for a few beautiful vertical sprays, but using 24mm or 70mm already leads to very different images.

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At 24mm, the Swampscott shoreline becomes a supporting element and shows scale and depth. Larger image here.
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At 70mm, and cropped somewhat, the rocks are the only feature and texture becomes very important. Larger image here.

All this wave action let me to explore variation IV – shoot a complete motion timeline for moving subjects: Animals have distinct looks dependent on what moment during a repeating movement you capture. For a leaping leopard, a full out stretch and balling up for another jump will make a shot have a very different energy. Waves are similarly interesting at different points of their cycle in that the start of breaking wave feels like an explosion is going off, whereas the trailing end shows a hazy shower of drops. They’re also usually less dangerous to photograph up close than leopards.

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Erupting wave. Larger file here.
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Near the end of a wave action. Larger image here.

I know, it’s a lot of photos of the same old rock, but I hope you can take in one more image for the last ‘variation’ – serendipity… Be aware of changing weather conditions, people walking into your frame and other circumstances beyond your control, then be ready to use these elements to make your own special brand of lemonade. Most times, a bunch of folks crowding in from the left will not improve the composition; or your camera will be set to long exposure or 10-second timer delay while a lone horse gallops beautifully but quickly through the meadow, and your perfect shot only got captured in your mind. Sometimes you’re ready, though, and it’s gratifying.

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Alas, no exotic Arabian stallion on this beach, but the seagull offered a nice point of interest. During the hour I was shooting waves, this was the only one that flew close enough to be recognizable in the image. To my wild surprise, I managed to swing the camera around, zoom in and get a few snaps rather than freeze in indecision. I guess having tried off-the-cuff shooting in similar situations did finally reap rewards! Larger image here.

Using variations allowed me to bring home a diverse assortment of wave images. Of course I won’t be printing out and hanging up every one of these images! However, one of the variations I photographed (lead-in image) ended up being an image I prefer over the original type of image I set out to shoot (second image). This doesn’t happen all the time, but it makes it well worth trying out such variations.