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.

Advertisements

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!)

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.

Gonna be a long one…..

Like the title says, this is likely to be a long posting. But I do have lots to say and I think it’s only fair to warn you advance. So settle in, grab a cup of tea or a bottle of beer or a glass of single-malt, and take a journey with me…..

This is the daughter being semi-forced into being my model for an afternoon of shooting at the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio.

Bug11

Nice, eh?

A few weeks back I ventured to the cemetery with some fellow Flickr mates, who also happen to live in the area. We had a great time shooting and chatting, and then followed it up with some nice dinner. While shooting I thought about how nice it would be to return on an overcast day and shoot some images of the various statues and such. You know….pretty common fare for cemetery photography. But as I like that sort of thing I have no problem with running with the crowd. And so I did return on just such an overcast day with pending rain.

While visiting on this overcast day I noticed that the Ginkgo trees had finally shed most of their leaves, which had been quite attached when I was there the week before. Even in the diffuse light of this overcast day the leaves made for quite a splash of colour as they lay upon both lawn and road. While it took a while an idea did eventually develop in my mind that I should return with daughter in tow and shot her against these leaves. I thought that her darkish red hair, pale complexion and penchant for blue-coloured clothing would make for wonderful contrast and compliment against these Ginkgo leaves. And so it was that I returned home with this idea in mind only to find that the weather predicted for the next day was to be more of the same: overcast, but without threat of rain. And so I informed the daughter of my plans for her.

Bug08

The next day (Thursday, if memory serves) was indeed overcast and I eagerly awaited her return to home from school. Once she arrived I filled my car with my camera kit, some towels (as it was damp from the previous night’s rain) and a ladder, which was to be used to offer me some altitude by which I might better shot the photographs as the daughter lay upon the leaves.

So far the planning and excursion have been pretty straight-forwarded. But this was, for me, an incredibly stressful situation. I had never before done anything like this. I did manage to cajole the daughter and a friend of hers to semi-pose for me for a series of pictures of them playing Guitar Hero, but this was completely different. I was about to embark upon something new and completely different and my life’s history tells me that such journeys always, not sometimes or almost always, but always end in failure and misery.

We started with a few pictures, but I realized that she was too stiff so I talked her through loosening up and being more natural. Surprisingly it worked. She took well to my directions and relaxed, thus relieving much of the tension that the first few photographs conveyed. I also quickly learned that full-body-length images weren’t working. Not at all. They looked to linear and didn’t pop in any meaningful way (as much meaning as one can gather from the 3.0-inch LCD screen on the back of a digital camera). So I shifted focus (pun completely intended) to shots that were much closer up and here I struck upon success or, at the very least, success compared with what I had been getting.

Concerned that the overcast day was going to leave the daughter underexposed, I had brought along my flash unit (Canon 580EX II) to help me through the shoot. However, I wasn’t certain it was worth bringing as I really have zero knowledge and/or skill with its use. About the only thing I know is that I can regularly obtain better flash images indoors by bouncing the light off ceilings or walls when using it (thanks Strobist!). And I have managed to get better flash pictures in this manner, but I had always set the camera to full automatic mode when doing so. Under cemetery conditions there were no walls or ceilings from which to bounce the flash and full automatic mode for the camera seemed….well….non-experimental. As such I had made up my mind that I would shoot in my preferred mode of Aperture Priority and use the flash to help lift shadow or even tones as I saw fit.

The results were interesting if nothing else…

Bug06(flash)

I knew that full-power flash would not work at all. Period. No way. No how. And I do know enough about the workings of my flash such that I could change it’s output (up or down), which I did. I experimented with different settings: -1/3, -1/1, -1&2/3, etc. until I found a setting that didn’t completely wash out her skin tones or create shadows on the leaves behind her. This was actually quite a bit of fun for me, experimenting and all that, but not so much for the daughter, who had to remain in the same position while I took multiple shots of her at different flash power settings.

In the end I believe that the non-flash images are fine on their own. I do not think she is underexposed or that the images are too dark in general (it was really overcast and being November the sun doesn’t get very high in the sky anyway). As a matter-of-fact, I think lifting the shadows with the flash unit removed a bit of the three dimensional quality that comes from the aid of shadows. However, and in defence of my efforts, I think the flash versions came out far, far better than I had any right to imagine. Some are better than others, but on the whole I think the flash versions stand up in their own right and that there are other pictures not yet uploaded to Flickr whereby the flash version was definitely better.

Upon getting home and going through the pictures I was quite nervous. I was, at first, wowed by my results. They were, on the whole, far better than I had anticipated, especially considering the so many firsts that were involved on this shoot. But I was afraid that as days passed and I looked at the images more closely I would find fewer and fewer with which I was pleased. However, I’m very happy to report that as time went by I became even more pleased and proud of my results.

Bug14

In addition, after my wife had an opportunity to view them she passed along a compliment, which both warmed my heart and surprised me as she usually doesn’t make too many comments (much less compliments) about my photography endeavor. She said something to the effect that it seems to her that I have improved upon my framing and composition as the months have passed. I’ll take that, thank you very much!

Finally, there was one flaw with many of the images taken with the flash and that was of reflection in the daughter’s eyes. Granted, as the power-output was low the reflections weren’t overwhelming, but simply distracting: a little pinpoint of light on an otherwise lovely brown. To remedy this situation I took advantage of the clone stamp in my oft-used JPEG editing software, Paint.Net (freeware). Problem solved!

So there you have it. Work with a model. Flash work outside my usual comfort zone. Utilizing photo-editing software for something other than tweaking and conversion to JPEG. A grand adventure in every manner and one which I greatly enjoyed not just because I obtained results with which I am so pleased, but because it was truly a great way to spend an afternoon with the daughter.