When life gives you lemons…

Yeah… so… I have this thing about photography wherein I tend to have something in mind which I wish to accomplish. I call it project photography.

Instead of simply picking up my camera and photographing stuff I get an idea into my head, plan it out and then go and do it. I meet with varying degrees of success as is painfully obvious when one views either this blog or my Flickr account. There are those who strongly support the shoot every day mentality, but I can’t get behind that for myself. It’s like those 365-projects you see so often on Flickr. The pictures often seem forced, if that makes any sense and I’m not into forcing myself to snap pictures if I’m not inclined. But I sure do love setting up for a photography outing and so it was I did such last month.

I had been searching for a new model when at a local art festival I ran into a young lady my daughter knows. I had thought about asking her before, but never got around to it, but here she was. And I was. And there you go. Numbers exchanged I began making plans for a project with her. And I had it all planned out… the location, time of day, what I wanted to actually shoot, etc. And so it was the day came and I arrived early to scout the location, which I had been to before, for our photographic get-together.

But there was a problem. Actually… two problems.

First, the incredible graffiti, which covered a lot of the walls around this set of buildings in downtown Dayton, was gone. Painted over. And fairly recently. So much for my cool-as-shit backdrops. Second, my model was late. By over an hour. Not really being a model she wasn’t aware of the great importance of the waning daylight I had intended to make use of. We were off to a poor start. But instead of being dejected (too dejected I mean) I opted to make do with what I had of the remaining daylight and the fact I had brought my single-light kit.

And so it was we tackled my first selected location with the now fading ambient daylight…

Sarah in Doorway I

Sarah in Doorway I

I had noticed this tiny green door surrounded by the red-painted bricks and thought it might make for a nice background. And I think I was right, but I had no small amount of difficulty figuring out how to arrange her within the space. So many of the poses looked tense or even awkward… as if she was just a bit too big for the small doorway, but we continued in hopes of finding some sort of magic.

Sarah in Doorway II

Sarah in Doorway II

While I’m not certain I was actually aware of the thought-process, I eventually came to settle upon two styles which seemed to work better. The pose in the above picture seemed to work well. I mean, if the space is vertically challenged then go horizontal, right? Seems pretty self-evident in hindsight, but at that moment in time I was having issues with seeing this. And the other style which appeared to work better was to get in close and let just a part of the doorway be the backdrop.

Sarah in Doorway III

Sarah in Doorway III

Alas… the sun was setting quickly and at this location we were already shooting in strong shade brought about from the shadow of the building. I was loath to let my model go after such a short period of time… hell… I had been there longer in advance of her than we had been shooting thus far. And so I suggested, if she didn’t mind, we try and make something of the evening with the flash, stand and umbrella I had dragged along.

Sarah being game she helped me get the equipment out of the car and we moved on to another spot I had selected. And here was where things became more complicated as I hadn’t planned to shoot with just the flash and I’m really not adept at it in any way. I mostly use the flash and umbrella for fill-light and the like and not as the sole source of illumination. Add this to the general complications which come from photographing a model when you don’t really do that sort of thing anyway and it’s more-or-less a recipe for disappointment.

Still….

Sarah on Escape Ladder

Sarah on Escape Ladder

I think the above is my fav of the entire evening. It may not be my most favorite pose, or lighting, or framing/composition, but I think it possesses the best overall qualities. Kudos to Sarah for having been so cooperative too as we spent most of the rest of the evening working on the escape ladder, which couldn’t have been particularly comfortable.

The ladder had presented a unique problem in so much that she was up fairly higher than I and my light, while on a 9-foot stand, just wasn’t tall enough to throw light on her in a more or less 90-degree angle to the plane of her face. In other words: I was often throwing light up to her at an angle, which led to some really weird and undesirable results. In the above image she had come down onto the steps and I was able to get the light thrown more directly upon her.

Eventually we wondered off to one last spot in front of a solid brick wall. Just her and I standing there with me trying to find a way to get light on her in a way which might be pleasing. I didn’t want her to be lit face-on as she was in the last image, but nor did I want anything which cast large portions of her face into too much shadow. After a great number of attempts I finally found a pose and positioning on my part which seemed to work.

Sarah at Wall

Sarah at Wall

There are still some things I could do to this image in editing which I think will make it even better (like adding some light to the dark side of her hair), but in general I’m rather pleased. Of course this sort of thing gives me just the excuse I need to dump the file into my recently purchased Adobe Photoshop CS5 and try and make the image more the way I really want it to be.

But boy… CS5 sure is a complicated bit of programming.

And so it sweats…

My last post discusses the beginning salvo of my SoBoFoMo project revolving around the feral and homeless cats I watch over and feed. Since then I have encountered two bits of ‘fun’ I thought I’d share.

Here’s fun number one:

The weather...

Yeah. It says “90” right now (and ‘right now’ is almost 9:30p.m.), but it was 96 at the peak today with a heat index of around 110. You know… I left Florida to escape this sort of thing.

(sigh)

It has been like this all week and will remain like this through tomorrow, as you can see in the above picture. While things will cool-off over the weekend and into the week it’s still scheduled to be warmer than average. Just not stupid-hot. Needless to say working with a dSLR in this heat, with this humidity, in a small wood which only serves to trap the humidity under the leafy canopy (and between the two humidity is far worse than direct sunlight) I’ve been reluctant to shoot pictures.

The cats look and act distressed (lethargic) and I don’t blame them. It’s nasty. I myself looked as if I had just stepped out of the shower as I returned to my car to come back home. And into a real shower.

(heavenly sigh)

So this first week of photography has yielded precisely three-days of photographs when I had planned at least six. Kid you not… the camera actually slipped out of my hand the other day as both it and my hand were so covered in sweat.

Gross… I know!

But I did learn something yesterday while out with the camera and I apologize for not having the pictures to prove it as I’m entering this blog post from a different computer. What I “discovered” is when trying to photograph cats in a small wood with a flash attached to the camera there is a very good chance the flash will highlight… even over-expose… the leaves and branches that lay between the cat and me; the humble photographer.

This does not lead to the sort of results one had hoped for. It also begs the question: does forkboy have the slightest clue what he’s doing?

It’s probably best we don’t answer that…

And so it begins…

Solo Photo Book Month.

31-consecutive days to create a PDF book for upload to the SoFoBoMo site. Said book containing at least 35-newly taken pictures.

Text? If you’d like.

Fancy or plain? Doesn’t matter.

It’s something to do. Something to try. A new way to express myself centered around photography, but creating something more than a finished JPEG for upload to Flickr.

And so it was I began photographing on Thursday.

As these books typically revolve around a theme of some sort I opted to go with one close to my heart: the feral and homeless cats. It’s a shame I cannot use the plethora of pictures I already have, but that isn’t the purpose of the project. Not that I have any objection regarding taking more photographs of the cats, but there is a difference between just snapping pics because I want to versus needing to.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t get some nice shots anyway.

I have already noticed a difference in my temperament regarding shooting as a need: I’m not real patient.

I suppose part of the issue is that I feel I will need to spend more time on the book creation part than the principal photography so there is an impetus to get the photography out of the way, so to speak. However, like most any creative process (and undoubtedly photography is a creative process) there will be great days and not-so-great days. These first two days have provided some good pictures, but not as many as I had hoped for.

Granted, part of the problem is lighting. Specifically: the lack thereof.

As the homeless and feral cats live in a small wood and as this time of the year the wood is in full-leaf there is not a whole lot in the way of light on the forest floor, where the cats reside. Certainly shooting at higher ISO’s is possible, but it’s not exactly what I had in mind for quality photos for this project. Still.. not all has been lost.

It occurred to me I should submit the idea to SoFoBoMo for having these projects sprinkled through at least three portions of the year. This way those who elect to participate are not trapped into one season and one season only, such as we are currently. For my purposes mid- to late-Autumn would be a far more ideal time as sunlight reaches the forest floor quite readily with the disappearance of the leaves. There is also the problem of it being particularly warm to hot at this time of the year meaning we photographers who elect to work outside find ourselves sweating for our work.

Blech. (oh… and not to mention the issue with mosquitos, which are a major issue at this time of the year)

So I snapped almost 200-pictures in two days and of that I felt maybe 5 were real keepers for the project. Granted…I kept more than that: 63. But I kept those additional 58 only because I may find myself in need of them to make this project work as principal photography time winds down and book creation gears up.

However, while I was becoming rather frustrated with the natural light situation in the wood, it occurred to me that I could try to rectify the situation by introducing some of my own lighting. While this may require fiddling about and experimenting a bit, and thus costing me valuable shooting time, it may be a solution to my lighting problem.

Bringing my own lighting could help immensely in getting the shots I both want and need for the project. Sure… things aren’t so bad without the addition of lighting…

But instead of shooting a bunch of pictures and having to dump 95% of them simply because there is blur (thanks to camera shake and/or moving subject), I could salvage a lot of those shots and then find myself in the enviable position of having to select the best composed and framed instead. Not such a bad deal after all.

Of course it does mean making some decisions about what is both useful and practical in regard to bringing in some lighting. I could go with the most basic and simple solution: on-camera flash. Let the camera make all the decisions and hope for the best. Or I could shoot as I typically do (aperture-priority) and shoot the flash manually, just adding fill. Or so I hope.

Or I could take it a step further and bring my portable light kit with me and drag around a light stand, umbrella and electronics in hopes of getting the most effective use of my flash. While this route sounds very appetizing for what it could bring to the picture quality it also has the horrible down-side of meaning dragging a bunch of equipment through a wood rife with shrubs, trees, thorny-things, etc.

I confess it sounds like more work than it may be worth.

I suppose the solution is to try the on-camera options and see what results I can obtain. Ultimately I want great photos, but I must temper this desire with expediency as well.

Such is the life of a photographer, eh?

Light, camera, model…. action!

A couple of posts back I introduced the world of WordPress to my new & portable, single-light kit. Nothing fancy, of course. Just my Canon flash, a stand, an umbrella, the do-hickey that connects the flash and umbrella to the stand and a wireless firing bit of hardware (not PocketWizard or Radio Poppers – perish the expensive thought!).

I did spend the extra few bucks to acquire the 9-foot light stand as opposed to the 6-foot variety. It seemed a reasonable investment and actually turned out to be the right choice when put to use the very first time. Can’t get much better than that, eh?

Anywho….

Back in September I finally corralled my model, Jenna, into an afternoon shoot on what turned out to be a too-warm Sunday afternoon. The weather, being unseasonably warm, made the excursion less than ideal, but I was anxious to give this new bit of kit a try and I was really excited about my location. Well… some parts of the location that is.

Jenna had never modelled before and other than the shots I took of the daughter a few years earlier I had zip for experience as well. So we were both in good hands undoubtedly. We started off with some shots by a neat tree on the premises of the Dayton Art Institute. I actually worked these with my flash affixed to my camera and set to manual, thus leaving me the chance to work with some fill light. Fun, but not the real crux of my we were there. Still… the results weren’t bad. Not great, but not bad.

We moved away from the tree and over towards the spot I was most excited about. The front of the Dayton Art Institute includes a long set of winding stairs leading from the street to the actual museum, which sits up fairly high from the street. About half way up the staircase is a landing where once must have been a small fountain and some statues set into three curved alcoves.

At some point the fountain was turned into a planter and the statues removed, thus leaving their lovely spaces quite open. “Perfect for a model,” I thought when I first came upon them during a recce of the grounds around the Institute. The beautiful yellow, brown and gold tones of the sandstone combined with the intimiate location seemed perfect for my plans.

We set up the light stand such that it faced her rather directly. Perhaps not the best thing, but choices were limited. There was little space in front of the alcove in which to work so straight-on was about the best we could do. In addition, the choice to go with the 9-foot tall light stand paid off handsomely as the alcoves were all about three or so feet off the ground. Add to those three feet a five-foot-plus model and you can quickly deduce the extra height was a wise choice. Well…. see for yourself.

Not too shabby a spot, eh? And not to shabby a picture if I do say so myself.

This whole endeavor was really one giant experiment. Because this area was in shadow I knew some lighting would really help lift things nicely and help me avoid having to use apertures that were too big or shutter speeds too slow. Letting the camera meter the scene I would then dial down the flash in manual mode to some setting… say 1/4 power…. and shoot. Checking my results on the camera’s LCD screen I would, if needed (and I always needed) adjust the flash’s output up or down and try again.

This went on for maybe 45-minutes or so when I felt I had exhausted my model’s good natured willingness to pose and suggested we call it a day. It didn’t help that this mid-September day was touching upon 80F (26.7C) and I was getting tired of sweating (I don’t like photographing in the heat). But ultimately this was all a big test and I had felt things went about as well as one could expect and I’m not displeased with the overall results.

There was one minor incident which occurred very near the end of our shoot. I was standing closer to Jenna discussing what I wanted her to try next when this pained look quickly spread across her face. She raised her hand to point behind me and seemed to be trying to get words out, but they simply weren’t coming quickly enough. It wasn’t necessary though. My brain, being a bit more on-the-ball than usual, quickly surmised what was happening: the light stand was falling over!

And indeed it was. A small gust of wind had struck, and between the umbrella and the teetering height of the stand, it was just enough to topple my inexpensive, but priceless-to-me, light stand. I lept to grab the whole contraption and with no small amount of luck managed to capture it before it all crashed to the hard and merciless cement.

Crisis averted.

Unfortunately, Jenna and I were not able to get back out again for another try at this thing before our cold weather kicked in. She is a senior in high school and has an awful lot on her plate between courses, work and just being a teenager. However, my neighbor across the street, who offers violin lessons, has a student named Emily who I met the other day. She has this whole teen-hipster look and vibe going on and while it’s not quite my thing it does have a strong visual component. I offered her one of my quasi-business cards and asked if she’d like to model and she replied in the affirmative. I have yet to hear from her, but I remain hopeful I will once the holidays are put behind us.

Let there be light…

Notice I said “light”. As in singular.

Very exciting, eh?

Some months ago through the generosity of my parents I was able to purchase a basic indoor, two-light studio setup. Just the basics. Lights. Stands. Umbrellas. Light boxes. It’s nice. But I haven’t had a chance to use it. It is, after all, primarily made for photographing a human subject(s) and my then subject, the daughter, decided to do a one-eighty in terms of cooperation. Typical teen, eh?

And so my lovely kit has sat rather abandoned in the upstairs closet while I pondered what the devil to do about it all. But that’s not completely true. I sort-of knew what I needed to do: find a new model. But finding a model isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Nevertheless I put my mind to it and a few months later (no surprise at the time line, right?) I contacted an acquaintance who has a daughter about my daughter’s age.

I have seen her daughter a handful of times at our community’s pool and across the street at my neighbor’s, where she receives violin lessons. She’s long and lean. Pretty, but not pretentious. And so it was I thought she might make for a good model. Her mother thought Jenna, that’s the daughter, would be interested and promised to speak with her about the idea. Soon thereafter I had my answer: Yes! Saints be praised, I had a new model.

I explained how I would like to do some outdoor work as well as indoors seeing how I had these nice lights and such and she was completely fine with it. Very good thought I. And so it was I scouted a few locations out-of-doors last weekend, settling upon one particular place where I sincerely hope we will find good shooting.

But during the course of my recee I discovered that lighting was a bit of an issue. Earlier in the day it would be far too sunny, but in the mid-afternoon it might be a tad too dark. Clearly some lighting would be helpful, but I couldn’t use what I had and while a camera-mounted flash can be better than nothing… let’s just say it’s not ideal.

A down & dirty strobist kit seemed the best way to go and as I already had the flash and umbrella I only needed a better stand (something more solid for working outdoors), an umbrella attachment device and some electronics to fire the flash. And so it was I found myself heading over to see my fav camera store guy and he hooked me up. Basic, but sturdy 9-foot light stand. Cheap (i.e. plastic) umbrella adapter (which he’ll swap for the better Manfrotto one when it’s again in stock – go Alex!). RPS radio flash firing electronics (more reliable than some of the others they carried, but no where near as nice or expensive as the Pocket Wizard stuff). And what may be the real winner is that I have a second flash in the house! I had completely forgotten about the small Nikon flash I purchased with my last film camera. Another stand, umbrella holder and electronics and I will have a two light kit!

And so now I’m ready to experiment. A model. A capable, if modest portable light kit. A location. I’m hoping for great things and I don’t mind if that great thing is simply knowledge (as in what NOT to do!)

Educating the barbarians

While in Florida for my sister’s baby shower I took it upon myself to play “staff photographer” for the event. Mind you, nobody asked me to do such, but what sort of amateur photographer would I be if I didn’t drag along my equipment and blind everyone with a firing flash?

I did take plenty of pictures (about 400) and I will eventually upload some to Flickr, but I took so many and I have an important project to undertake with them such that Flickr will have to find itself on the back burner. Sorry about that folks.

During the opening of the gifts portion of the party I had seated myself on the floor not ten or so feet from my sister so that I could take picture after picture of the lovely gifts she received from all in attendance. Being that this part of the party was indoors I had to resort to flash and was making best use of what little I know about flash work (on camera to be specific). During a brief lull in the gift opening one of the younger family members in attendance (an approximately 12 year old niece of my brother in law), who was seated right by me, asked why it was that I had my flash pointing at the ceiling and what was the little white thing poking out the top (the bounce card built in to my Canon 580 EX II).

I was rather intrigued that this twelve year old little girl was asking such a smart question and felt it deserved a real answer….as real as I could give that is. I said to her “Let me explain it by first taking a couple of pictures,” which I did in quick succession while making changes to the flash unit’s settings for each photograph. The pictures follows:

straight flash

straight flash

bounce

bounce

Using the camera’s LCD screen I showed her each photograph and asked her which she thought looked better, hoping she would select the right photograph such that my explanation would make more sense. Fortunately she did indeed select the second photograph and so I asked her why she liked it better. Being a clever young lady she suggested it was because the lighting looked better…”…more even….” being the main thrust of her commentary.

And she’s right. As such I took a minute to explain how bouncing the flash off a white surface (the ceiling above) spread out the light more evenly and thus more gently on the subject; my sister. I further explained that the pull-out white card on the flash directed a bit of the flash’s output directly towards my sister to help lift any shadows that may have been created by the flash’s main light being bounced from above onto my sister-the-subject (mostly for the area around the eyes and under the chin).

It was really a pleasure to spend a few moments explaining what I was doing and why I was doing it the way I was to someone. I’m certain other folks (and by “folks” I mean adults) must have wondered the same thing, but perhaps they were simply too afraid to ask the question for fear of feeling dumb, which is simply absurd. Had I not read about bouncing flash off walls to create a better effect I would have wondered why the crazy guy with the camera was pointing his flash at the ceiling instead of at the gift opening woman in the chair.

Or maybe they just didn’t care.

Gonna be a short one….

Seeing how I pretty much covered everything of the photo shoot with the daughter at Woodland Cemetery, I really don’t have much to add except for something about the most recent upload to Flickr (10 pictures) and some final thoughts.

Bug20(flash)

In my previous post I mentioned how I frequently took at least two snaps of each pose: one with and one without flash. Some of the pics with flash were repeated at different flash outputs so I may have wound up with five or six flash versions before we moved on to a different pose. On the whole I was more pleased with the non-flash versions of all the photos where she is on the ground with the lovely Ginkgo leaves. However, this isn’t the case for the pictures in the latest upload to Flickr.

Bug18(flash)

The images I took of her against or by the tree (with the Ginkgo leaves still about) looked too dark when first viewed in review on the LCD screen of my camera. I took a number of non-flash images before I realized that maybe flash was the way to go and again began the process of shooting multiple images at different flash output levels until I found that for which I was looking: images that looked natural and without any harsh shadows. This was, for the most part (and keeping in mind this was my first time trying such a technique), a success, but not as complete a success as I would have liked. If you look at the above image you can see a distinct shadow created by her right arm upon her exposed skin. Oh well….I’m not going to worry about it. I still think it’s a lovely shot and the shadow a very minor annoyance.

Bug19(flash)

So…final thoughts. This was a great achievement for myself. I real pat-on-the-back moment if I do say so myself. When at the cemetery I saw the ‘scene’ and realized its potential. I thought about its potential and found a way to exploit it. I opted to work outside my comfort zone and try not just one (portraiture), but two (flash not on the camera’s automatic settings) new things. I had fun. And of all these moments it is the fun part that I will likely remember the best. It was fun because it was new, exciting and different. It was fun because the daughter and I got to spend time together in a positive manner, which is always difficult with a 16-year old. And yes, it was fun because things worked out. I’m not so certain the impact of the fun bits would be so strong if the whole endeavor had led to rubbish.

The only problem now is, where do I go from here? How much of this was simply a coincidence of moments that happened to work together relatively flawlessly? What are the chances I can do this again, but under different circumstances? Can I replicate this bit of good luck without over-thinking it and making it decidedly less fun? I don’t yet know the answers to these questions, but I’m hoping or the best.