Steve McCurry - Portraits

Something I'm going to try to be better about on the blog this year is writing about some of the photography books that inspire me. I love flipping through the pages of good monographs and I want to share some of the ones that I find draw inspiration from in my collection. This time I thought I'd talk about a neat little book by Steve McCurry called Portraits. While it's a smallish book, it is quite thick and packed with nothing but full page portraits and spreads. I'm betting a lot of people who don't recognize the name Steve McCurry will certainly recognize his iconic Afghan Girl photo on the cover.

While Steve is known for his photojournalism work, he's also quite an accomplished portrait photographer. Most of the photos in this book aren't photojournalistic per se, rather they appear to be posed shots of interesting people that he encountered in his travels. The reason this book is so inspiring to me is that the images cover decades and were taken across continents, countries, and cultures. Yet, there is a consistency to Steve's portraits. A lot of the look in many of these images comes from that wonderful Kodachrome film that he liked to use. The lighting is usually natural, taken in shade, maybe some fill here and there with a small flash - nothing fancy. As a photojournalist he wasn't running around with a studio strobe and soft box. The eyes are what are so amazing in his portraits to me. His lens seems to look deep into people and invites the viewer to linger. You want to meet his subjects.

Portraits is certainly a great book for anyone who photographs people. Even if you don't, it's a great example of how a photographer produces a unique look with simple gear. Steve is one of those photographers that when you see one of his portraits, you recognize his work.

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Lighten Up and Assist!

My pal Mikey from Lighten Up and Shoot was in Austin recently to teach a "tag along" workshop where he takes students around on an interactive photo walk taking flash pictures of total strangers on the streets.  It's a cool concept and while I'm not much of a street shooter myself I've admired Mikey's style and techniques.  I offered to lend a hand and play photographer's assistant for Mikey and his students.  He shares so much information on his website, which helped me greatly when I was first learning flash photography.  This was a great chance to give something back.

That's me on the right holding the Apollo Orb.  Photo by ATMTX.

I've had a few opportunities to assist other photographers and it's something I enjoy doing from time to time.  I always get a lot out of it and it's fun to contribute to the making of great images whether I'm snapping the shutter or just being a voice activated light stand.  While I am usually invited to snap a few shots on assistant gigs, I leave my camera at home.  What?!  Yes, you read right.  Why go to the trouble of lugging gear around and adjusting lights for someone else without bringing a camera to grab some images for myself?  There are a number of reasons.

  1. Assisting others lets me think about the creative process of making a photo without any pressure. I'm not the one delivering the shots.  I can be relaxed about the situation and provide objective feedback and suggestions to the photographer or model as appropriate.  
  2. The photographer is free to work without feeling any obligation to let me shoot.   He or she can concentrate on the job at hand.  No pressure, no competition.
  3. When my camera is not with me, I'm focused on the job at hand.  If my camera is there, I guarantee I'll be thinking at least half the time what I'd do for my shot.  Admit it, you would be too!  Leave your camera and your ego at home.  Be the best damn assistant you can be.
  4. The photographer is counting on me to keep track of his or her equipment.  Carrying it around, making sure things don't get knocked over or stolen, etc.  I don't want to have to keep track of my gear too.  
  5. I can help give the model and the photographer a break.  Instead of jumping in to grab shots while the main photographer makes changes, chimps shots, or whatever, the model can take a break.  Sometimes it helps to engage in small talk with the model to keep boredom from setting in during down times.  It helps improve my rapport with models and keeps the model engaged.
  6. When I engage completely in a shoot and concentrate on helping another photographer get shots, I never fail to learn something.  Genuinely helping someone else work through a shot will get me thinking in ways that I sometimes miss when I'm under pressure to deliver something.  

There's nothing wrong with doing collaborative shoots with other photographers but once in a while I highly recommend serving as a dedicated assistant.  It'll do you some good.  Make sure you get the other photographer to return the favor sometime.

Here are a few of the shots I had the privilege of helping folks get during Mikey's workshop.

Photo by Jay Guilloty

Photo by Rudy Ximenez

Photo by Sebastian Hernandez

Mr. Lighten Up, Photo by Jay Guilloty

The banner photo is one that I snapped through the window of a bar that we stopped in for a drink at the end of the day. I didn't take any photos of my own during the day but I found this fun shot while enjoying a cold beer with some talented friends.

Portrait Retouching with Carolyn Coffey

The Austin SMUG group held its September meeting on Thursday, September 27 at the Parish Hall of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Austin.   This time around we were treated to a demonstration of portrait retouching by Carolyn Coffey.  Carolyn is an Adobe Certified Photoshop Instructor and a professor of Photographic Retouching at Austin Community College.  She recently completed a book on Photoshop CS6, which will be available through iTunes soon.  

Carolyn started by talking about her preferred tools in Photoshop.  Layers are key to her process.  All retouching is done on separate layers.  When it comes to making corrections to an image, she prefers to use the Healing Brush Tool because it does a better job at preserving details and textures.  It is important to keep the Healing Brush at a hardness of 100%.  The Clone Tool can be useful as well and she advised that it should be softer, typically around 60-80% in hardness.  She recommended keeping brush flow at 100% and using opacity adjustments to change the brush strength.  It is best to start low on opacity and build up as necessary.  Curves Adjustment Layers are very useful for adjusting tones and colors.  A handy tip to remember when working with Curves is that you can "clip" the layer so that it only applies to the layer immediately below.  The various selection tools, such as the Lasso Tool, are also extremely useful.   

The "Before" Image

The "Before" Image

After going over the basics of Photoshop tools, Carolyn dove right in with a portrait retouching example and walked the group through her typical process.The first task she tackled was removing stray or fly-away hairs.  The Healing Brush is very useful for this task.  Frequent resampling of a source area near the area you are retouching will help make a seamless repair.  For large areas, you can sometimes save time by selecting an area of background near the area you are correcting and you use it to patch the area containing the stray hairs.  She did this by making a selection, copying the selection to a new layer (Command/Control - Shift - V is a keyboard shortcut for this) and then moving the selection into place.  You can feather edges of your selection to blend it in smoothly.  

In addition to removing problem hair, we were shown how to add hair to fill in missing hair as needed.  In her example, Carolyn used a selection tool to copy hair from an adjacent location to cover up a model's ear.  She showed us how to blend the replacement in so that it looked perfectly natural.   

Eyes are critical in portraiture and Carolyn had some tips for making them stand out.  An empty layer set to a soft light blend mode can be used with a mask and blended in to lighten the iris and make it stand out better.  You can also enhance the lighting in the eye by adding a bit of "escape light" to the opposite side of the iris from the catch light.  Basically, you brighten up a small area where the light would exit.  We were also shown how to use the Brush Tool to enhance or add eye lashes.

Skin softening and blemish removal is perhaps the most important part of portrait retouching, especially for female models.  Carolyn showed us how to use the Color Picker to take samples that could be used with brushes on a separate layer to touch up makeup or add a rouge effect to cheeks.  She used the Healing Brush tool to touch up blemishes, sampling skin areas frequently as she made the repairs on a separate layer.  While she is not real big on third party Photoshop plug-ins, Carolyn does swear by Nik Color Efex.  She uses the Dynamic Skin Softener filter to smooth out skin.  Nik creates a new layer with the corrections that you can blend in to taste.

Finally, Carolyn demonstrated how to use the Liquify tool to alter the shape faces and hair.  This is a powerful tool that should be used carefully.  A tip for working with Liquify is to push, rather than pull modifications into place.  This produces more realistic results.

The "After" Image

The "After" Image

Portrait retouching may sound like a daunting and time consuming task.  With practice, it can go fairly quickly.  Carolyn said that she can typically retouch a portrait in 15 minutes or less.  

Lovegrove Speedlight Mastery Review

I'm always looking for inspiration for my portrait photography.  Some time back, I stumbled across some of Damien Lovegrove's work and I was attracted to his style.  In particular, it was his urban location portraits that caught my eye.  His shots have a punchy look and he typically incorporates the environment in his shots of models.  I wanted to learn more about how he gets his signature looks and I was thrilled to discover that he produced a video course on speedlight photography.  After asking a few questions about the content (Damien and his staff are very responsive and helpful, BTW), I placed an order for a download copy of his Speedlight Mastery video tutorial.

The Speedlight Mastery course has several things I was looking for in an instructional video series.

  1. Damien shoots most of the shots as what I would consider to be an environmental portrait.  It's very common for portrait photographers to attach a fast lens to the camera, open the aperture wide, and blur anything behind the model to a soft bokeh.  That works for a lot of shots and it is certainly a good way to focus attention on the model by eliminating a distracting background.  Frankly though, I think this technique tends to be a little overdone these days.  I find it much more interesting when a model's surroundings can be integrated in a complementary way.  Blurring a background through shallow DoF is somewhat of an easy way out - not to say that there isn't considerable skill involved in nailing the focus and getting an appealing bokeh in the background.  It is more of a challenge, in my opinion, to work a background and a model's surroundings into the shot in a way that supports and complements the subject.
  2. Obviously, the course is all about shooting with speedlights.  I like to travel light and have no desire to drag studio strobes and battery packs around town.  
  3. A compact kit is used for almost all of the shots in this video tutorial.  Most are done with 1 or 2 speedlights.  Damien carries around a shoulder bag and 2 light stands throughout the video series.  It is a kit that travels easily and sets up quickly.  For each shot, you see him setting up the shot from scratch and he still gets the shot done in about 10 minutes or less typically.
  4. Most of the shots are done with bare speedlights.  Hard light, baby!  This was the biggest selling point for me.  It's a lot easier to get good looking light with a 60" umbrella or a large softbox.  I love using modifiers like those but not dragging them around town.  I've had the wind take my umbrella stands over enough times that I'm amazed my flashes still work.  For run and gun shots on the streets, especially when shooting solo, big modifiers suck.

The tutorial is comprised of over 30 individual videos, one for each shot.  There is over 2 and a half hours of material.  The videos were shot in HD with several Canon 5DmkII cameras and the quality is excellent.  Each video is relatively short, making it easy to watch them as you have time.  In each video Damien walks you through the shot concept, sets up the lights, and positions the models.  You see everything from the time he arrives at the location until he gets the shot he wants.  Damien is a very energetic and enthusiastic photographer and I found it a joy to watch him work his shots and interact with the model.

The videos are shot such that the viewer will feel as if he or she is accompanying Damien on a photoshoot.  This is not a formal workshop by any means.  There is no structured lesson plan.  It is more like a "thinking out loud" sort of thing.  Damien explains what he is after and how he intends to get it.  You get to hear how he problem solves as things come up.   There is not a lot of technical detail in the videos.  You're not going to hear any in depth discussions of lighting ratios, light modifiers, or anything about the inverse square law.  This video set is simply Damien getting effective location shots with speedlights as quickly and efficiently as possible, explaining what's he's doing along the way.

One interesting aspect of this video series is that Damien shoots with Canon and Nikon cameras.  There is no brand loyalty here and no one in either product camp has any cause to complain!  He also mixes things up a good bit by using both Canon or Nikon proprietary wireless systems as well as Pocket Wizards.  A few shots make use of an umbrella or small softbox.  There is one video that demonstrates the combining of speedlights with battery pack powered studio strobes.  The vast majority of the videos involve the use of 1 or 2 bare speedlights.  

I learned how to light through Dave Hobby's great Strobist blog and videos.  I'm a full manual lighting guy and I have to say that I was a little disappointed that the Speedlight Mastery videos are virtually all done with the flashes in TTL mode.  I do wish that Damien would have dedicated at least a few of the videos to manual flash control.  This video is about how he works though and I can appreciate that he's a TTL guy.  TTL can be a good thing and it's probably faster to dial things in for a lot of scenarios.  I was a bit jealous watching Damien dial down his flash power from the camera since I have to trot over to my flashes to make any changes.  TTL is an expensive game though and for me it's just not worth the price of admission right now.  He also uses high speed sync a good amount.  That's almost cheating, but certainly more convenient than ganging two or more speedlights together to compete with sunlight.  Regardless of the expensive TTL speedlights and wireless triggers, this video set is still perfectly relevant to us Strobists - just be prepared for different terminology and you can roll your eyes as flash exposures are entrusted to the camera's meter (sorry, Damien, couldn't resist)! 

The best part of the videos for me was seeing how Damien builds the shot.  He is very skilled in pre-visualizing the final result and making it come together.  He is masterful at integrating the model into the background, making use of elements such as reflections, textures, and patterns to complement the model.  I also enjoyed how he turns seemingly mundane locations into gorgeous settings for his models.  Damien puts the old "I just don't have anywhere interesting to shoot" excuse to bed.  Great shots can be made just about anywhere with a little creativity.

I came away from watching these videos amazed at how good bare flashes can look.  Yes, there are deep shadows with sharp lines.  Damien shows how you can still create flattering shots with as simple of a configuration as a single flash on the camera's hot shoe.  With a couple of flashes, a shot can really come to life.  Damien usually zooms his flashes as tight as they will go and sculpts the light perfectly.  It's OK to leave the umbrellas at home; these videos are proof.

Each video ends with a few looks at the final shot.  Several of the images obviously have a decent amount of post production work and I was a bit disappointed that Damien didn't devote any time to giving a quick software workflow sample of at least one shot.  Hard light can present some challenges and I would have liked to have seen how he handles skin retouching, color, and contrast enhancement in post production.  

The cost of the Speedlight Mastery video set is £80.00, about $125.  That's not chump change but it's not terribly expensive for close to 3 hours of training.  Is it worth it?  It depends on your style of portraiture and your level of experience.  This is probably not the best course for a beginner.  You should be comfortable with your gear, have a solid understanding of exposure, and perhaps have a little experience working with off camera lighting.  If you like dramatic images, environmental portraits, and working with speedlights then this is a fantastic resource for examples, tips, and inspiration.

Note: All photos in this review are shots by Damien Lovegrove from the Speedlight Mastery video, copyright Lovegrove Consulting Ltd, used with permission.

Dramatic Portraits in B&W

I recently had the chance to be a part of a fashion shoot at Bella Salon and Spa in Austin.  They were putting together some different looks to enter into a contest put on by a maker of hair styling products.  It was a good chance to photograph a number of models with a bunch of different looks.  It also put some healthy pressure on me to get a bunch of quality shots to meet their needs in a short time frame.  Mostly I shot basic head and shoulders shots suitable for a beauty and fashion portfolio.  

While I was there, I of course had to get some images for my own portfolio.  For each model that I worked with, I grabbed a few images with the intent of post processing in black and white with a bit of dramatic flare.  I wanted to share some of the shots I came up with.  As always, you can click on any image to view a larger size.  All black and white conversions were performed in Lightroom 4.1.  

This first image was shot against a white seamless backdrop that I exposed to a shade of gray.  A Westcott 28" softbox was used for my key light on all my shots.  I wanted a bit of drama in the images so I positioned the light in a sort of Rembrandt position and added fill light to taste.  I wanted some shadow to add some dimension without cutting the shadows too sharp since it was a fashion shoot.  In this shot, the model was positioned such that her hair framed her face.  This is one of the more standard portraits that I shot that evening. 

 This next shot is my favorite from the event.  To be perfectly honest, it was somewhat accidental.  The model stepped on to the set and I asked her to just stand on her mark while I grabbed a test shot to check my exposure.  At the time, I paid no attention to her pose.  I just looked at how the light was falling, checked the histogram, and then started the posed shooting.  When I saw this shot on my computer later, I was in love with this look.  I couldn't have directed a better expression and the shot converted beautifully into a black and white with a dramatic high key look.

After shooting with a couple of models, I decided that my space in a tiny corner of the salon was just too cramped.  I wandered around and found a red, maybe it was a purple (Have I mentioned I'm colorblind?) wall in another part of the salon and decided to ditch the paper and use the wall as a background.  My next model had some colorful makeup and a great dress that almost seemed a shame to convert to black and white!  Inspired by Hollywood portraits of the 30s and 40s, I went a glamorous look with an almost high key lighting on her face.  The textured background is something I overlaid on each of the shots against this wall in order to mask irregularities that I failed to notice during the shoot.  I ended up really liking the textured look!

This next model had a really interesting, almost morbid look.  The black veil made me think that she could have come from a funeral.  I decided to play on that idea and directed her into a contemplative, plausibly sorrowful expression.  A good bit of light was directed onto her face and I allowed her hair and veil to remain dark and moody.

The model below was a bit of a challenge in that she was new to modeling and I had to provide a lot of direction.  I think we were both a bit nervous at this busy event and most of the shots of her had a rather stern expression.  I played upon this with a classy looking toned image with low texture and a good bit of vignette.  The juxtaposition of her classic hair style and modern piercings made for an engaging portrait.

I wish I could have had a couple of hours with the next model.  Her stylist really rocked this Dia de los Muertos themed look!  I actually preferred my color images but I did want to do something in black and white.  I went with a fairly heavy texture and a darker look to create an emotive image.  Something I worked on with a few of the models was getting shots where I did not have eye contact.  In general, the eyes are the main "selling point" of a portrait.  However, I'm finding that a lack of eye contact can create a lot of emotion with the right pose, lighting, and environment.

One last image to share.  In spite of the mature look afforded by hair styling and makeup, I believe this was my youngest model at 14.  I went with a classy look here to match her traditional bouffant hair style.  The background was darkened to keep contrast with her darker skin.  You may notice in this shot in particular that while I did some smoothing of the models' skin in these portraits, I did not fix stray hair strands.  I thought about it and it is certainly easy enough to do.  Personally though, I kind of like these little imperfections.  They make for a more realistic representation in my book.  I try to make models look their best without resorting to Barbie doll perfection.  I'd love to hear other photographers' thoughts on this!

I hope you enjoy these portraits as much as I enjoyed working with these talented models and processing the images.  I really enjoy this style of black and white portraiture with a dramatic edge.  Look for more in the future as I continue to experiment and hone the art.  Thanks for looking!

Location Portraits with the Fujifilm X100

I enjoy doing portrait photography on location.  Dragging around a heavy bag of equipment can really take the fun out of it though.  It's especially unpleasant in the Texas summer with temperatures hitting the triple digits all too often.  Lately I've been leaving the heavy DSLR at home and shooting with a smaller rig using my Fujifilm X100.  I have to say, I'm really loving it!

The X100 probably doesn't sound like much of a portrait camera.  It sports a wide angle lens with a 35mm equivalent focal length.  That puts it more into an environmental portrait perspective and I'm OK with that.  Take some of the features of this little camera into account and it is a actually a superb tool for location portraits.

Model: Brittany - 1/125, f/2.8, ISO 400

First, you have the image quality.  The APS sized sensor in this camera is awesome.  I really don't miss my full frame Canon 5D when I shoot with the X100.  Yes, the image quality is that good.  Then there is the f/2 lens.  It captures great images wide open.  I usually stop down just a bit, maybe to f/2.8 to make sure I've got all the facial features in focus.   The sensor is large enough that you can get great background bokeh if that's what you want.

Model: Stephanie - 1/60, f/2.8, ISO 400

The X100 keeps the noise low.  I have shot portraits at ISO 1600 and the images are fine.  I have to admit that I haven't always done that on purpose.  Daylight in the sunflowers didn't need it but after a long day I forgot to check my ISO setting and fired some shots.  It didn't really matter and nobody knew without me telling them.

Model: Eight - 1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 1600

I was able to keep a hot shoe flash on a low setting, popping it into a decent sized softbox as fast as I wanted to click the shutter at ISO 1600 in the moody shot below.   For a shot like this, the higher ISO grain is pleasing.  Meant to do it that time!

Model: Eight - 1/500, f/8, ISO 1600

When I'm shooting with a flash I can confidently take my ISO up to 400 or 800 to keep my strobes at a lower power for faster recycling or to boost ambient light.   The results above at ISO 400 and above are cleaner than what I get out of my 5D.

Model: Carol - 1/15, f/4, ISO 400

The coolest thing about the X100 for flash photography is the leaf shutter Fujifilm used in this lens.  We're talking blazing fast flash sync speeds.  Have to shoot in harsh daylight?  Drop the ISO down and crank up a fast shutter speed.  My Cactus V radio triggers and Nikon SB-28 flashes have no problem firing at 1/1000 sync.  That's how I get shots with the sun blazing in the background.

Model: Brittany - 1/1000, f/2.8, ISO 200

Another really cool feature is the built-in ND filter.  It comes in handy for bringing down the daytime ambient when a wide aperture is desired or for making a cloudy day even gloomier.

Model: Carol - 1/500, f/2.8, ISO 200, built-in ND filter

The small size and weight of the X100 makes it great for quickly moving around to different locations.  I find that I am more apt to stay out longer with a willing model, seeking out suitable locations to set up a shot on the fly.  A strobist kit built around the X100 carries in a small shoulder bag, perfect for run and gun flash portraits around town.

Model: Eight - 1/125, f/8, ISO 400

The X100, of course, can't match the versatility of a DSLR.  It's a one trick pony with its fixed lens and the 35mm focal length isn't for everyone.  If your style can accommodate it, the X100 is sure easier to carry around and its features give a DSLR a run for the money.  I find it creatively liberating.

Model: Eight - 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200

Mind Your Settings

One of my goals in writing this blog is to share the things I learn in photography.  I learn a lot from others out there who share freely and I like to give back to the community of photogs through the sharing of my experiences - even if it means embarrassing myself a little.

Recently, I met up with my good friend and model, Eight.  For those scratching their heads already, "Eight" is her modeling moniker.  Cool name, huh?  Anyway, we were working on some product shots for a mutual friend in the jewelry business.  Eight had some time to spare so I got her to pose for some quick shots that I wanted to do with my trusty Fuji X100.  I'd noticed some yellow flowers nearby and she had a yellow dress.  Perfect!

I'd worked a long day already and we spent a couple hours on the product shots by this time.  We were both rather tired.  I intended for it to be a quick shoot so I grabbed a couple of flashes and stands and we walked out to a nearby field.  OK, maybe not as nearby as I thought for a model wearing not so comfortable heels (sorry, Eight!)

We got out there and I found a good looking spot - at least as good as it got.  Sadly, the brutal sun was already wilting the blooms in our drought stricken area. "Let me make sure there aren't any rattle snakes," I said as I used a light stand to rustle through the weeds and tall plants.  Wrong thing to say to a model.  After some reassuring and quick setup, I told her it will just take a minute.  OK, anxious model in place, nervously looking at the ground and listening for rattles.  So much for putting the model at ease.

Normally, I'm a stickler for using a light meter to dial in the exposure.  Being that I was tired, hot, and had inadvertently freaked out my model, I just winged it.  I dialed up an exposure, got the light power set with a couple of guesses, and got a test shot that looked fine on the LCD.  Cool.  I fired a few frames.  Done.  Back inside to the AC where there are no snakes to worry about.

Later on at home, I imported the files from my SD card into Lightroom.  Immediately, I saw that something wasn't right.  The images looked a little noisy and not as sharp as I expected.  What the...damn it...ISO 1600?!  How the hell did I manage that?  Well, last time I used the camera I had turned on auto ISO.  The base setting had been set to 400 and that was what the camera showed when I glanced at the ISO setting - failing to see that auto was enabled!  I had dialed in a fast shutter speed intending to bring down the ambient.  It failed to click in my head that the shutter speed that was working was a bit too fast for the ISO I thought I was at.  The X100 knew and was happy to help me out and bump up the ISO to 1600.  It did exactly what I had told it do.  Stupid me.

Had I used my light meter, I would have figured this out.  In my haste, I cut some corners and made a silly mistake.  Thankfully, all was not lost.  The X100 produces incredibly clean images and it didn't take much to bring the noise down to a negligible level and sharpen the images back up a bit.  I don't know that I would have been so lucky with images from my Canon 5D.  The X100 gave me clean enough images to save the shoot and help me save face.

Lesson learned and hopefully I won't make that mistake again.  Know your equipment and mind your settings.  Turn on exposure details in your image preview, at least temporarily when dialing in your exposure, and check your values.  Surprises on your editing system back at your home or studio aren't fun.  

Mark Daughn's 50 Dollar Project

The Austin SMUG group held its May meeting on Thursday, May 24.  A little over 30 photographers attended the meeting at the Parish Hall of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Austin.   This month we were treated to a presentation by Mark Daughn, a professional glamour and fashion photographer based out of Austin.  His work has been published in numerous magazines including Elle, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and Mystique.   

Mark's photography takes him on location around the world, often to exotic locations with fairly high budget assignments.  Someone made a comment to Mark a while back , stating that it was easy to get gorgeous images of models when you have a high budget to work with.  Mark took that as a challenge and created the 50 Dollar Project.  The premise is simple.  This year Mark is doing one model photo shoot a week with a per shoot budget of $50.  This includes everything associated with the shoot: model, makeup, wardrobe, equipment rental, and location fees.  

Any existing equipment that Mark already owns is fair game to use for the project.  It might be tempting to dismiss the idea of pulling off a shoot with $50 when Mark already owns tons of pro camera and lighting gear.  However, he is keeping the lighting setups fairly simple and, more importantly, attainable by photographers with a modest amount of gear.  Most of his project shoots so far this year were lit with single or dual light setups with inexpensive modifiers like umbrellas or grids.  He also makes good use of natural light when possible.

A big priority for Mark is to keep the project fair.  He has had opportunity to bring professional models, locations, and resources into his personal project through his commercial resources.  True to the spirit of the project, he has not used any people or resources that he has not booked himself within the project guidelines.  Yes, Mark has to seek out models through sources like Model Mayhem like the rest of us!  

It would probably be enough for Mark to post some images from his weekly shoots to show what is achievable on a shoe string budget.  It gets a lot better than that.  Mark is running the project completely open-book.  Everything about the shoot is shared on his project website: contact sheets, a narrative description of the concept and process, commentary on what went right or wrong, lighting diagrams, and final edited images.  Visitors to his project site get to see everything from the polished final cuts to the epic fail rejects.  I've seen a lot of photographers share details on the creation of their images but Mark's openness on the entire process, whether successful or not, is rare and refreshing.

Mark talked about the obstacles he has encountered and how he pulled through when things went terribly wrong.  On a small budget with limited resources, it is easy for things to not go according to plan.  In one shoot, Mark discovered after 3 hours of frustration that he isn't very good at airbrushing body paint on a model and that using double sided tape to adhere jewelry to skin can produce unexpected consequences!  At least a couple of the project shoots proved to be lessons in overcoming adversity and still coming away with quality images.

So, is Mark able to stay under budget?  Yes.  As of this SMUG meeting he has done 15 weeks of shoots at a cost of just over $100.  He has had good success finding models to work with him on a trade basis and the majority of his expenses have been for things like snacks and cheap props or costume garb.  That is good news for those of us who don't normally get flown to exotic locations for location shoots with beautiful models, lots of equipment, and a gaggle of assistants.

Getting the Most from 53" White Seamless - Part 2

I'd like to pick up where my last blog post left off and share some of the additional versatility you can get out of a modestly sized roll of white seamless background paper.  The obvious use of white seamless is to create a white background.  The cool thing is that you can easily do so much more with this material.  A few simple lighting changes can give you a nice shade of gray or you can even knock it down to black if you have the space to pull it off.

The gray part is pretty easy.  Just turn off your background lights and the white paper will be underexposed, resulting in some shade of gray.  The darkness of the background can be adjusted by increasing your shutter (up to the limitation of your flash sync speed) or by moving the key light closer to your subject and adjusting the light level accordingly.  Here's what this looks like right out of camera.

You'll notice that I kept my white tile board in place.  This is something that you might prefer to leave out and just roll the paper further onto the floor instead.  Leaving the board in place creates a harsh seam line to deal with in post production.  On the other hand it preserves the model's reflection, which I would like to keep.  Although I created a bit of a post processing work for myself, it's not all too terrible to address.  Depending on the look you want and the amount of post processing work you want to do, you might want to skip the tile board and have your model stand right on the paper.  Just make sure that you are doing this on a hard floor or you'll be cussing when high heels punch holes through your paper.

I'll admit that I wasn't sure at first about the best way to handle the paper to tile board transition.  My good friend and Photoshop artist extraordinaire Mark Heaps suggested using the gradient tool in Photoshop.  I created a duplicate layer of the image and created a mask of my model usingTopaz Labs Remask.  I ended up with the masked model on a top layer and the original shot on a bottom layer.  Next, I used the eyedropper tool to set my foreground color to a shade of gray near my model's head and the background color to a shade of gray near her feet.  I then used the gradient tool to draw a head to toe gradient on the bottom layer.  Holding down the shift key while you drag will keep the gradient perfectly straight.  This created a nice smooth gradient using the colors in the original background and floor.  I then checked the mask and smoothed out any rough transitions, making sure to mask in the bit of reflection in the flooring.

In order to get the required 8x10 image for this shot, I had to do just a bit more work.  First I used the crop tool in Photoshop to create the crop, which left space on either side.  To fix that, I used the marquee tool in Photoshop to select the gray area on one side of the model.  Then, I just used the transform tool to extend the gray area to the new edge of my image.  I repeated this for the other side.  Here's what the final result looks like.

The gray is nice but we can go even darker.  Here is where more space between your subject and the background is a good thing.  I'd love to have moved my model 10 feet or more from the background.  However, the narrow roll of seamless I was using was the limiting factor.  My best option was to get the key light as close as I could.  Since I was using umbrella softboxes with the shaft protruding toward the model, I was limited in that regard as well.  With a couple of 5-in-1 reflectors, I was able to use the black side as flags to keep the light from spilling on the back ground.   Here's what that shot looks like out of the camera.

I used the same gradient method as before, along with a little dodging and burning on the floor shadows to produce the final result.

White seamless is such a versatile and relatively inexpensive background to work with.  There are a lot of creative possibilities.  Certainly grab the 9' roll if you can.  If all you can move around is the 53" roll, it doesn't have to hold you back.  With just a bit of post production work you can make it work and achieve some great results.

Getting the Most from 53" White Seamless - Part 1

I was asked by a model friend of mine to do a group shot of her and a couple of other models in front of a pure white background.  This clearly called for some white seamless, which I didn't have at the time she asked.  Not to disappoint, I agreed to the task anyway!

My first job was to acquire some white seamless.  I made a quick trip to my local camera store and found that you can get two sizes: 53" or 107" (basically 4.5 or 9 feet.)  The 107" roll was what I really needed but that wasn't going to fit in my compact car.  I would just have to make do with the 53" roll.  Keep in mind this is for a group shot!  Not to worry though, I had an idea of how to make 3 girls fit on 4.5 feet of background.

Next on the agenda was to figure out how to hang the roll of seamless paper.  I looked at background support kits and they appeared to be just light stands with a crossbar of some sort.  Well, I already had plenty of stands at home (I think they must be breeding in my garage.)  I just needed a crossbar and some clamps.  The camera store had several options that would have cost me from $50 to $100.  That sure seemed like a lot to hang a stick!  I also knew I would need some A-clamps to keep my paper from unrolling.  Those were $5 each at camera store prices.  I'm all about supporting my local shop but that seemed a bit much knowing they are usually $1 at most hardware stores.  I left the shop with my paper but missing a few key components.

Back at home, I had an idea and dug through the back recesses of my closet where some drum hardware from my band days resided.  I found something that I thought would work - a couple of tom-tom clamps used to mount drums to stands.  These types of clamps are relatively cheap at around $18.  They are usually called L-rod clamps and you can find them at music stores like this.  They will readily clamp on to light stands.

For the crossbar, I headed up to Home Depot and bought a 10 foot section of electrical conduit.  It cost about $4 and they were nice enough to cut it in half for me.  While I was there, I picked up a few A-clamps for my paper roll at 99 cents each.  I thought at first that I'd drill a hole through each end of the conduit to slide over the L-rod on my clamps.  When I got home and experimented, I found that my setup would be perfectly stable if I just slid the conduit over the end of the L-rod and pushed my stands inward.  Barring someone bumping into it pretty darn hard, the crossbar and paper roll sat fine and felt plenty sturdy.

Below is what the setup looks like in action.  Taking a tip from Zack Arias' great white seamless tutorial, I used a piece of white tile board for the flooring.  This was also acquired from Home Depot for about $14 if I remember right (thanks to my buddy Wes and his truck for helping me pick it up!)  That keeps high heels from destroying your paper while giving a pleasing reflection.  I used a couple of flagged speedlights to illuminate the paper to about 1.5 stops brighter than my key light.

So, back to that group shot.  To pull it off, I shot the models individually for a composite image.  One girl would be a little behind the others (kind of a V shape) so I shot their individual images in those positions by having the two in the front take a step forward from where the girl in the back stood and I moved my key light the same distance.  To keep the camera perspective right, I put it on a tripod that stayed in the same position for all shots.  I shot as tight as I could, making sure there was plenty of blown out white background around all sides.  Even with a 100mm lens, I wasn't able to fill the frame with a white background on a full body shot.  For my purposes, it wouldn't matter if stuff was showing outside the paper as long as I had clean white space all around the model.

A shot like the above can easily be put onto whatever size white canvas that you want in Photoshop.  Since I use Lightroom to convert my raw files, I first cropped out my model and as much of the white space as I could.  Don't worry if you have any areas on the floor or background that aren't blown out.  You can use an adjustment brush in Lightroom or a masked exposure adjustment layer in Photoshop to kick them to white.  I took the initial cropped image of the model on white into Photoshop and used the crop tool there to extend the white space.  To do that, first make sure that the background color is set to white.  Then use the crop tool to create a crop of the desired size, say 8x10, extending it outside the current image size and positioning the subject where you would like in the frame.  Hit enter and Photoshop will fill in the empty space in the newly sized frame with white.  The above image easily became this:

I positioned each of my models at appropriate positions on a wide white background and brought them together on individual layers in Photoshop.  From there, it's a simple matter to use masks to make them appear to be standing together.  There is clean white space all around so the canvas size can be easily adjusted to accomodate a logo or text.

While it would be nice to have the 9 foot roll of paper, it's not practical for me at the moment.  I like the portability of the 53" roll and with a little effort it can be workable even for a group shot.  Stay tuned for my next blog entry for more my exploration with white seamless.

A Dramatic Look Through Cross Processing

I was working on some shots from a recent photo shoot with Model Eight and had one shot that I really liked.  However, after doing my standard model post processing it seemed like it was missing something.  It's good shot (in my humble and biased opinion) so it wasn't like I was looking for a way to salvage a marginal image.  I just felt it could be a bit more dramatic.  After some experimenting with contrast adjustment and B&W conversions, I decided to sleep on it and take a fresh look the next day.  Here's the shot.

The next day I remembered reading about cross processing in the book Lightroom Adventure.  Not happy with anything else I had tried, I thought I'd give this technique a go.   Prior to reading about the technique and seeing some nice results in this book, my thoughts on cross processing conjured up a hokey software preset that usually gets used to make a bad image look even worse.  But, since I wasn't sure where to start exactly, I began by taking a look at Lightroom's presets.  None of them fit what I was looking for exactly.  In fact, they looked rather crappy.  Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.  Well, the more I looked, I decided that one of the presets was close enough to be a starting point.  It was a step in a good direction but it needed serious refinement.  I made some adjustments to the exposure and played around with the colors in the preset's B&W mix.  Colors in B&W mix?  Sure!  The colors are there; they're just converted to grayscale.  Tweaking the underlying individual colors allows you to manipulate the contrast and tone of a B&W image.  After a bit of tweaking, I reached something that I was fairly happy with.  Here's what the original spin yielded.

The change is drastic and kind of an unusual effect for me.  There is a  certain ghostly quality that I like and the image is definitely more powerful that the original in my opinion.  Still, I wasn't sure about this since I'd never done anything like this and I wasn't sure how it would be received.  So, I decided to let some of my photog buddies take a look for some feedback from folks with fresh eyes.  I would sleep on it one more night while waiting for the guys to hack it apart for me.

The next day I got some great ideas from the gang.  There were a lot of good suggestions and I picked the ones that made the most sense to me. It was suggested that the dark shadowing on legs was too much of a contrast with the radiant light on her upper body.  Very true!  I was actually shooting tighter in with a gridded light, so not much light was getting on her legs between light fall-off and her dress blocking it.  I backed up for a few shots when the wind picked up to get some of her dress blowing and I didn't change the lighting to handle full body coverage.  This didn't bother me at all in the original color shot.  Unfortunately, the cross processing effect further emphasized the uneven lighting and gave her skin an odd two-toned look.  Another suggestion was to boost the detail in her face.  The exposure adjustments had left it looking a bit washed out.  I liked the ghostly look but there was some room for improvement.

First, I dealt with her legs by using a Lightroom adjustment brush to bump up the exposure on just the legs.  The auto-mask feature in the adjustment brush made this a quick task.  Next, I boosted recovery a bit to help bring back more detail to her face.  It was still a bit lacking, so I took the image into Photoshop and created a B&W layer with Topaz Labs B&W Effects.  I blended the B&W layer in with the cross processed layer at a low opacity where it needed it.  Here's the final result.

I have to say I'm really happy with the way this one turned out.  It was a lot more work than I bargained for because I was dabbling in a new technique.  The experimentation paid off and I came away with something new that I can stash in my toolbox of post processing techniques.  It's an extreme makeover sort of technique that certainly won't be appropriate for every (maybe not even many) images.  It certainly won't be everyone's cup of tea.  One of my photog buddies jokingly made the comment, "So, that's how you take an image from a $1200 camera and make it look like it came from an iPhone!"  I got a kick out of that and sure, on the surface, it may appear to be a one-click effect.  The truth of the matter is that it took 3 days of thoughtful consideration to produce, along with a lot of slider movement and brush strokes.  The effort was worth it to me.  Of course, there is nothing so subjective as art and whether or not the look is appealing will depend on whose eyes it is seen through.  I dig it.  I hope you do to.  The next time you're stymied by an image that needs "something," give cross processing a try.  It might be the ticket.

Escape From Oz

A while back my good friend and model, Eight, had an awesome idea. How about getting the characters from the Wizard of Oz out of their element and into a modern scenario? Wouldn't it be cool to have them sitting around playing cards or shooting pool? Maybe we could even get the Wicked Witch to behave herself and join in the fun. Eight recruited myself and Atmtx to shoot this concept with her and a few other talented models.

Last week, we got the opportunity to put this concept shoot together. The original bar we had in mind closed down, so there was a last minute change of location. We were able to secure a spot at Slick Willie's pool hall in Austin to make this happen.

The costume, jewelry, and makeup artists and designers did a great job getting the models into character. I really like the minimalist approach they took. Apart from some makeup and some straw (the latter of which got scattered about our pool table by the end of the night), the models could just about pass for regular folks.

Being that this was a typical dark pool hall, we needed lots of light. We pulled the shoot off in strobist style with a few hot shoe flashes and an LED video light. For the group shots, we used two flashes, one on either side of the group, fired through umbrellas. Another flash was high and behind the models for some separation from the background. An LED panel provided fill.

We shot a bunch of poses that carried along a little story. The game started off cordially with Scarecrow doing the break while the others watched on. There was some trepidation about the Witch being there, but Tin Man agreed to play on her team.

The Witch and Tin Man got control of the table and things seemed to be going her way for a while. It looked like Dorothy, Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion might lose the game.

Tin Man missed a shot and the Witch wasn't happy about that. At her urging, Tin Man got a little testy with his friends. Dorothy admonished him to be a good sport. It's just a game, after all!

Cowardly Lion stepped up for his turn. While setting up his shot, the Wicked Witch decided to try and distract him with a seductive look. Oh no, the Lion missed! Dirty pool, Witch!

"Two can play that game", thinks Dorothy. Tin Man loses concentration on his turn. Things are heating up now!

All of the attention is on Dorothy now and the Witch was steaming mad!

Turning away for a second, the Witch dropped a bit of a mysterious potion in Dorothy's drink. "Have a drink, my dear", she said with a sly grin. "No, Dorothy!", exclaimed the Scarecrow!

Her plan to poison Dorothy foiled, the Witch tried to make things a lot hotter for Scarecrow!

"Leave Scarecrow alone!", exclaimed Dorothy! And so what started as a congenial game of pool quickly degraded into a bar room brawl. Even though far from Oz, the Wicked Witch once again showed her true colors! Be careful, Dorothy! She fights dirty!

I had a blast shooting this! Thanks to all of our models, designers, and artists for their hard work putting this together. Special thanks to Slick Willie's for use of one of their tables!

Strobist HDR

It's no secret that I love HDR photography. I've also been enjoying strobist photography lately. Two great things...can they work together? My photog friend Atmtx and I decided to find out. We worked with Model Eight to create some scenes where the blend would be appropriate. Atmtx got some great shots in a dark alley way and you can check his results out here. I was so impressed with his images that I had to try my hand at it. I thought a sunset would make a great background for this sort of image and I'm happy with result.

So, how do you go about combining a strobe lit model with an HDR image? Well, the model and the background get shot separately. I captured the background first. My camera was set up on a tripod and I shot into a sunset, grabbing 6 exposures at 1 stop intervals. I shot in manual mode at f/16 for good depth of field. In retrospect, it would might be better to capture the image with the model first. This is because you may need to tweak the lighting and the model's pose, which takes time. In my case, I was losing the sun with each passing moment! Assuming a simple lighting setup that you can pull out of the scene quickly when you're done with the model, I'd suggest doing the model shot first. Here is the image that would become my background, after HDR processing.

I captured the image of the model with an off camera flash. A single light fired through an umbrella was sufficient to provide some fill light on her against the sunset. A big, close light source is important to avoid any harsh shadows. I opened my aperture up a couple of stops to get a bit more ambient light as well. The aperture change didn't matter since I was just going to be masking the model into the background image. Here is what the model shot looked liked. It doesn't matter that the umbrella is in the shot; I'm only using the model herself from this image.

Using Photoshop CS5 and Topaz Labs Remask, I carefully masked the model into the HDR image. At first, she seemed to pop off the background a bit too much. I tweaking the image further by blending in a bit more of the surrounding area around the model in places and using a dark Curves layer to add some faint shadowing where appropriate. This is rather painstaking work to make it look right! Here is the result:

There is a bit of a surreal feel to the image. Followers of my HDR work know I tend to process things just on the edge of reality. I could have added some tonal contrast to the model or even tonemapped her single exposure to make her more of a fit in the HDR surroundings. No, I didn't think that was the way to go. I rather like the contrast of an ordinary person placed into an HDR world. What do you think?

Check out another glimpse behind the scenes of this shot and a humorous look at why photographers can be terrible assistants!