Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Lensbaby 3G

I have a couple of lensbabies. Looking like the offspring of a vacuum cleaner and a camera lens, these fun little lenses let you create images with selective focus through the focal plane. There is a sweet region in focus that can be moved around by bending, pushing and pulling the lens. The lens aperture is controlled by dropping physical rings right into the lens, held in place by tiny magnets. There are several generations of lensbabies and I recently purchased the more robotic looking lensbaby 3G which allows finer focus control and repeatability - perfect for shooting on a tripod or with the need for more control. The 3G lensbaby also comes with aperture rings all the way down to f22, something I haven't yet played with.
There are a few features about the lensbaby that I really enjoy: First, the organic nature of shooting with it. Because you have to constantly manipulate the lens to change the focus point on the frame, pushing and pulling it to focus at different distances, bending and twisting the lens to move the sweet spot around the composition, it leads to a very tactile way of shooting. Often the question is asked Why can't you just do it in Photoshop? Partly this is because the final effect of the lensbaby would be hard to achieve, but mainly the difference is doing it in Photoshop, you'd just shoot normally and consciously add blur after the fact. With a lensbaby, you do it right then and there. Reacting to the scene through the camera, not thinking so much, there is less control which leads to maybe more happy accidents but also to you doing things you'd never try in Photoshop. The results for me are just totally different. Looking through a lensbaby changes how I'd compose the scene and how I would approach the subject - something that is lost if I try to do it later. The second thing I really like about a lensbaby is how it treats highlights in the out of focus areas. I'm used to round or at least regular bokeh, but if you push and bend a lensbaby enough you get elliptical bokeh which I just find fascinating, particularly on bright spots in the out of focus regions. You can see those elliptical effects in the statue image above. I'm intrigued by the idea of cutting custom aperture disks with stars or different shapes to further play with the OOF highlights. I've recently heard that Lensbaby are going to be selling custom aperture kits, star & heart shapes plus several blanks to cut your own. This effect is particularly attractive for city night photography - lots of point light sources that render the aperture shape when out of focus. Compositionally, I find a couple of good or common uses for the lensbaby The first ways it gets used is to control confusion. Many fans of the lens use it for street portraiture, where the backgrounds or edges of the frame might well be chaotic. The lensbaby helps here by throwing those regions out of focus and helps you pay attention to the subject. The build in focus vignetting allows the photographer to worry about the subject and expect everything else to just blur into the background. Something I'm finding even stronger is to use it when there are specific regions that have strong design elements that I want to throw out of focus. These aren't regions that are clutter or distracting, but just sections that will retain a strong compositional element when out of focus. Examples of this are the strongly coloured, stripped shirt or the person at the edge of the pool. In both cases, the selective focus doesn't diminish the contribution of those regions. The person is still recogniseable, the stripes and colours of the shirt are still part of the composition; but the softening of focus strengthens their contribution as elements of design. They become more abstract and act as powerful framing elements. The fish portrait of Amanda is another example of consciously using the lens blur to focus on her face; not to control any confusing elements from the fish but more to turn it into a stronger design element of the scene. The leading lines and colour becomes even more relevant with the selective focus, rather than being hidden or removed from the scene by the blur. Fish faceOne initial problem I had with the lensbaby was trying to shoot it wide open. The lens without any aperture rings is around f2.0 which gives a very narrow depth of field for this ~50mm focal length lens. When I started using f4 or f5.6 rings to practice I started getting more frames where something was in focus! It is also difficult with a second generation lensbaby to push the sweet spot too far to the edge of the frame. It is possible but you do start to get to a point where nothing is in focus at all. The 3G lensbaby is easier to distort even more in this respect, due to the fine focus controls and ability to fix the bend and then move the camera around. All of the shots on this page were taken with a 2G lensbaby. I'm just starting to explore the possibilities that the 3G provides. I can see it being usable for self portraits because of the fixable lens flex, usable for landscapes because of the smaller aperture disks, more usable for studio portraiture given the repeatability inherent in fixing the lens and perhaps also for HDR and other types of photography that require multiple exposures of the same scene. I've already shot a few self-portraits with the 3G lensbaby and tried some night photography. It isn't easy manually focusing in the near dark!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Free photo books

Great court, British Museum

Photography books are fantastic resources. Great places to see the work of other photographers, poach ideas, inspire new creative heights or just marvel at fantastic images. But photography books are also ridiculously expensive, particularly for something that might take you an hour or so to peruse. If it is a great book then it is probably well worth a longer investigation but so many aren't always worth the time. I am probably guilty of not paying enough attention to the images, in the way that Mike describes in the link above. However, I am trying to spend more time looking at photo books. I am going to try to give them more attention, to savour and really take in the images.
So how do you see as many books as you might want, without spending a fortune ? Step into your local library. Somehow I always forget about these quiet treasure troves, paid for by our taxes. Austin seems to have a particularly well stocked library service, though my local branch is small and sorely lacking in photography books. Luckily they have a very functional web interface, where I can search and explore authors then just hit the 'hold and bring to my local branch' button. I get an email in a couple of days and the book is ready for collection just up the road from my house.
I've viewed some really interesting, classic books this way. Books that change hands in second hand stores for hundreds of dollars - classics, some duds, but lots of inspiration just waiting for you to request them. Picking some well known photographers can lead off into Cartier-Bresson's collections of work or the FSA photographers. Lesser known photographers are worth a gamble, because it only costs some time. My recent interest in portraits has Richard Avedon and Annie Leibowitz featuring a lot in my requests. A visit to The Austin Museum of Art lead me to check out a Cindy Sherman collection of self-portraits. And all just there waiting on you.

Monday, January 22, 2007

What's your favourite f-stop ?

The question in the title started out as a joke question sometimes asked of photographers in interviews. It seems initially stupid - after all, we can use whatever f-stop we like and tend to change it for each shot. But after thinking about it a bit, I realised it is also a fairly defining component of a photographer's style.
Sure I shoot landscapes with deep depth of field and try to pick the most appropriate f-stop for whatever I'm shooting. Or I'll pick f8 when I don't care but want to make good use of my lens. Or I'll shoot a wide open aperture when I want a lot of blur or low light, stopped way down when I want the most possible depth of field.
But all things being equal, I tend to gravitate to shooting wide open or with a very shallow depth of field. My default choice, if I don't think of a good reason to change it, is close to wide open. This lets me be lazy - I don't need a tripod so much. It also lets me shoot a lot with available light - I can hand hold indoors. I also tend to select very fast lenses, 50mm f1.4, 85mm f1.8 and shoot those wide open, recently. My choice of f-stop influences my choice of lenses and how I'm using them.
My f-stop of choice frees me from the digital bane of existence, sensor dust. As I prefer to shoot at the wide open end of the scale, sensor dust doesn't feature in many of my shots. It also gives my portraits a consistently subject oriented feel. I'm not shooting the environment, any that is there is very quickly relegated to background colour and texture by my choice of f-stop.
Being aware of this bias in how I approach shooting is hopefully going to open my eyes to other ways to approach the same scene, maybe by trying to shoot some things with other f-stops on occasion, even when the situation doesn't demand it.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

UT Gobo light test 2

UT Gobo light test 2

Second attempt (first here) at this idea for a University of Texas logo gobo and lighting test. Same basic lighting setup as last time (See Lighting Diagram), but with the key light firing into a umbrella about 2ft to camera left and quite a bit more background/ foreground separation. Background shadow isn't quite so well defined this time. Still playing around with the relative distances to cast a good, crisp shadow. Perhaps I need a bigger cutout to really get what I want.
This time I used the plamp to hold the cut-out, so gives it more of a floating in space feel, but that could be improved with a bit of photoshop to clean up the shadow at the bottom. Skin tones are also as shot, without any toning this time.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

UT Gobo test shot

UT Gobo test shot

Trying out an idea that I have for a portrait of a friend of mine. He's a bit of a UT fan so I have this concept with a burnt orange background and longhorn gobo for the shadow and then lit myself with another unmodified strobe. Light on the subject will need to be a bit better controlled for the final shot but may well be natural light, rather than a second strobe, if I can work the angles out properly. This was really just exploring the potential for the background graduation and shadow effects, which I think have worked out quite well. The large dark area under the gobo UT logo is caused by the cardboard I'd mounted the cut-out in. I'm going try using a plamp for the next test. A plamp is an articulated clamp arm that is thinner and more controllable. It should also give a fairly easy to edit shadow for the final shot. UT Gobo lighting diagramSettings: Canon 1DMk II, 1/250s @ f5.0, ISO 100. 17-40mm F4L at 33mm. Set the camera at the max sync speed (1/250s) then adjusted aperture and background flash power to get the sort of shadow brightness I wanted. Brought in the second key light and adjusted the power levels on that appropriately too. More details are in the lighting diagram. Custom toning is similar to the rest of my 'friends photo project' which semi-desaturates the skin-tones.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Athlete lighting test

Athlete lighting test

Lens & lighting test shot for 'ironman' portrait project. Aiming for typical heroic athlete poses, with cross light, almost at 90 degrees to the camera, on both sides. Comments and suggestions on how to improve this are very welcome. Note - this is just a lighting/ lens test, the subjects will be in slightly more typical athletic gear for the actual shoots, and outdoors! But I do want feedback on the camera position, lens choice and light location/ modifiers if anyone has thoughts or suggestions. Thanks to Amanda for letting me put this unprepared test shot out for comment. Both lights have CTO gels and the intention is to shoot these actual portraits outdoors, with tungsten white balance to blue out the backgrounds. Also, planning on exposing the ambient backgrounds about -1EV below a 'typical' exposure to further emphasize the subject. I burned down the background a bit on this shot - I think I want to darken it more by controlling the ambient when setting up - again, suggestions very welcome!Athlete Lighting Test : Setup Lighting was two strobes, at not quite 90 degrees to the camera, with full CTO gels, on 6ft stands, fully extended. I had card flags on the camera side of the strobes to control any spill into the lens, but no other modifiers/ snoots other than that - suggestions for something to use ? Lens is a 17-40 F4L, at 40mm, on a 1DII (52mm effective) though I might shoot wider than that, still playing around with lens choice for this. Camera position about waist height to the subject, to give something of a more imposing feel to the portrait. I feel it is a bit too much 'up on the nostril' at this angle, so I'm thinking of raising it up slightly - or maybe it is something I need to work with on the posing ?

Amanda in her new hat

Austin grinds to a stand-still because of about 10 flakes of snow. All the offices are closed, people are stock-piling food and firewood. Nobody on the roads. The weather people have been talking this up as the worst storm to hit Austin in a decade. So far, we've had a very light dusting of snow and a few patches of ice.

Though I did see on the news last night a discussion that people were driving faster to get to their destinations safely. Perhaps that explains the problem! Forecast is that this is going to remain until Wednesday or Thursday. Maybe we can get back to the normal insanity by then. It was finally cold enough that Amanda could try out the new hat her mum bought her for Christmas though.
Canon 1DMkII, 580EX off camera on TTL cord, CTO gel on flash to warm up the subject/ cool down the background. +1 EV bias on the meter to keep the snow white.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Calm on top, paddling like crazy beneath the surface

A couple of people have commented on how lucky I am to have so many subjects willing to pose for me. I agree. I have wonderful friends. But the reality is that I also put quite a bit of effort in up front to make these shoots go quickly and appear simple and effortless. Most of the actual shoots are brief - 5 or 10 minutes per person is what I'm aiming for. I don't want to intrude beyond that. But prior to that there is often a week or more of email, discussion and cajoling that goes on. In some cases, the 5 or 10 minutes of shooting took two months from asking if I could take the picture to actually getting together to shoot it.
I think many people only ever have had their portraits done in the assembly line of school pictures or perhaps in the mayhem of their wedding day. So when I first ask if I can take someone's picture, there's all those 'fun' experiences that flashes into their head. So I need to get beyond that barrier and explain what I'm wanting to to - why I want to take their picture. Also, the majority of people are just shy about having their picture taken, lots of perfectly normal doubts and insecurities surface - it all seems much more formal than a quick snap at a party. I suspect most people are secretly flattered to be asked, but there is also usually a lot of questions or reticence about it. I show samples of what I've been doing (which is getting easier now that I have actually got more samples to show). Having a web site with the images on it helps a lot too. I can point people right at what the pictures will look like. I try to answer the questions or put the fears to rest. So far nobody has turned me down - though that's also fine if someone isn't interested. Nobody has to take part!
The other thing that pays off big time is asking more than once. That follow-through or persistence seems to count. People take you more seriously if you actually set up a date and try to schedule it in somewhere. It also gives them time to mentally prepare, to be in the right place and be ready to give you 10 minutes of their time, rather than just springing it from nowhere, with a camera in hand. I usually try to give some guidance about clothes or at least general styles that will work and we try to pick a time when the light should be good.
Before I turn up, I try to think through where I want to shoot. I'm lucky for this project because part of the aim is to shoot in familiar places - people's homes, or spaces that we spend a lot of time in. So I usually have some idea of what the location will be like. I'm thinking ahead for good windows facing away from the sun for even, easy to use light (such as in the shot with Arun) or else I'm looking for something that will work well as a background in good light. For the shot with Michelle, I saw where I wanted to shoot her about 4 hours before we actually shot there - a bright yellow wall - but when I saw it, it was in full sunlight. So I waited for the light to change and we happened to be near there that afternoon as well and I suggested we go and shoot. It took about 5 minutes total, from her perspective, but only because I'd been trying to find the right location all day. I also spend time thinking about what poses or expressions I want to get. People very strongly reflect the mood of the photographer, so if you are high energy, the shoot will be high energy. If you are quiet, the shoot will be quiet - so I have to get into the right frame of mind for the results I want to get. I also get the camera set up so that I can pay as little attention to it as possible and spend all of the time trying to talk to the subject, interact and move towards the results I want. I'll direct a bit but not a whole lot. Often I just try to talk about something I know will engage their attention and then just watch and shoot when I see the things I want happening. I'll try to guide the conversation in the right direction but I'm really aiming to keep things natural and flowing. The main thing I'm trying to pay attention to is the catchlights in the eyes and how the shadows are working in the scene. I'll occasionally check that the shutter speed is fast enough or that I'm getting a good exposure on the histogram but that's all I do with the camera. I use a small, prime lens (85mm 1.8) to avoid the lens looking too big or imposing, which is intimidating. The camera is often on a tripod so my head can appear out from behind it and make some eye contact while talking. Expressions change quickly so I try to react and shoot a lot, knowing that I'll miss some shots but that I can get natural responses rather than something that is really stiff or posed.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


I spent a fun Sunday afternoon with JoEllen and Arun, taking their pictures for my friends' project. Arun was one of the first people I met in Austin. He & I worked on the same project at Motorola and he was very kind to me in those first few weeks, inviting me to his house for a Hallowe'en party, where Amanda & I first got to know each other.

We've become good friends over the last seven years, with repeat Hallowe'en parties and a shared love of whiskey and also the occasional game of squash. (Very occasional) Very simple set-up for this one, just available window light, to the camera left. Canon 1DII on a tripod, with an 85mm 1.8. Shot at f5.0, 1/40s, ISO 320

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Needing better subjects

I was lucky enough to get a Canon Speedlite 580EX flash for Christmas. I've added that along side an Nikon SB-28 for a dual wireless flash setup, using a set of wireless slaves I picked up on ebay. I'm early on in learning how to use these and honestly just playing around to see what effects I can achieve. The shot above has the SB-28 down behind the chair, pointing into the background, with a blue gel on the flash. Power set to about 1/4. To my front right is the 580EX speedlite, with a home-made grid over the front to focus the beam onto my face, turned down to about 1/32th power. Exposure was f6.3 @ 1/160sec, ISO 160. All the settings were just eyeballed manually, using the display and histogram on the camera and took a few tries to dial in. I just need to find some better subjects. One thing I was trying to play with was changing the strength of the gel colour on the background, both by changing the flash power but also changing the camera aperture. I'm not quite certain I have my head around how those relationships play yet, so I've got plenty more to learn!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


I managed to spend a bit of time on Sunday with my friends, Arun & Jo. The weekend had been hectic, with a long bike ride and a fairly tiring run that morning, so it was good to just relax and have a beer. They have a lovely, beautifully lit house with plenty of bright window light and white walls, so it was perfect for shooting portraits. I've probably known Arun longer than any of the other friends I've made in Austin, as he and I worked together on my first project here with Motorola. I've known JoEllen for about as long as I've known Arun. Since I met them, they have gotten married and now are expecting their first child in a few weeks time. When we first met, Jo was friendly to me, nodding and smiling. I only found out about a year later that she couldn't understand a word I said, with my odd, foreign accent! I think she can understand a few words now though. The shoot was pretty low key, with me needing to sit on a stool because my legs were aching and also just being tired and not feeling very creative or active. I just set the camera up on a tripod and talked to them, shooting occasionally when I saw something promising. This one above was actually taken after we'd pretty much finished and was shot hand-held. I like what was happening with the triangles of the red couch and yellow pillow, combined with Jo's neckline & face so we played around with some poses. Available light, shot handheld. Canon 1DII, 85mm 1.8 @ f3.2, 1/60s, ISO 320

Saturday, January 06, 2007

2007 projects

Well, I've been waffling around writing these down for a few days now. Life's been busy (well, mostly its been sitting on a bike or running, but that passes for busy, in and around working). I have three ideas in mind for the projects that I'm going to work on at least for the first half of the year or possibly through the whole year.
Two are continuations/resurrections of on-going projects and the third is something that I'm trying to force myself to start up but I seem to be having a big issue just putting it out there and going for it.
First off, I'm going to keep working on the 'Friends in Austin' project. I started this late last year and have been making good progress, with 5 shots done. I need to get a bit more organised and start making the appointments with people to shoot some more. Should be easier now that the holidays are over. The next shoot for this project is tomorrow, assuming I manage to stay awake after the ARA 20 miler. This has been a lot of fun so far and I've been really happy with the results I've been getting. It is, all shot available light and I think I'm going to keep it that way. Also, I'm using one single lens for all the shots (Canon 85mm) which is giving a good, consistent feel to the images, along with some similar processing/ toning. The idea is to get some great pictures of the friends I've made in Austin over the last 7 years, partly to make sure I spend some time seeing my friends, partly to work on my portraits and also finally to have a good memento if and when Amanda & I move on from Austin. I can see this being put together as a small single issue book when it is done. But I really need to list out who's picture I'm going to take so I know where I"m at in the process - maybe its done when we leave - seems appropriate!
The second project is the iconic Austin theme project that I started last year. I got suggestions from a lot of people on what they consider iconic things or views of Austin - I just need to go and shoot them! The suggestions were from a mix of local Austinites & new transplants and covers the range from the tourist icons to the more eclectic. I did start out shooting this with the lensbaby and I think I'm going to keep going that way - but maybe with some more consideration on how I'm using it. I'm not 100% sure about the tungsten white balance used in the shots above - it feels like a gimmick for the sake of it. I need to compile the list and organise/prioritise it so I know where I'm going and when I get there. I might also try increasing the range of suggestions I get and I've also considered linking it in to the first project - and shooting the person's idea of an icon along with their portrait, so they could be shown together. The third project is one that I'm both excited about and somewhat nervous about starting. I'm calling it 'Everyday Ironmen'. There are a lot of articles and features on the exceptional athletes who finish Ironmen triathlons in the top places. There are also a lot of articles about those who overcome huge odds to complete one of these crazy races. But here I am, stuck in the middle. A friend remarked 'You know, Gordon really doesn't look like an Ironman' and that's true - I'm just ordinary in that respect, nothing special. But there are a whole lot of ordinary, everyday people who complete these races. I'm training with a bunch of the exceptional, everyday people who somehow manage to fit this huge challenge in and around their normal lives. There is a group of about 20 of us, all training for one race in a few months time. So I want to take pictures of those people. I have a somewhat more grandiose idea to have interviews to accompany the pictures and also perhaps include race reports when we all get done with Ironman Arizona in April. I know the lighting style I want to shoot most of the portraits in (though I don't yet know how to do it) . I know the theme of shots I want - full bod or 3/4 portraits of people in race gear, on bikes, running, swimming. I'm even considering some underwater portrait shoots too. But I need to start getting volunteers and writing something up to approach people with. I guess I've started that process here. Again, I think this has the potential to be a great book project, I have a writer in mind and I think it could be really exciting. If any of you have suggestions, thoughts, comments or ideas on how these could be improved, I'd love to hear it.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

More thoughts on project definition

Many people are in the process of starting their Picture a Week projects, New Year's resolutions and that sort of annual re-commitment to the craft. I'm going to throw my hat into that particular ring too, but mostly by continuing to work on projects that I've already been working on, perhaps with a more organised work ethic. I've been re-reading on being a photographer by Hurn & Jay. This second reading, a couple of years removed from the last, is making more sense and I think answering some of the issues that have been jostling around in my brain. I think it will probably stand a few more reads to cement some of the notions, but certainly the idea of projects stands out clearly as the common thread for progress. Along with that is the commitment of working a subject, shooting a lot and critically evaluating the results. Early on, advice is given on selecting projects that seems to jive well with my experience. Succinctly put, the idea is to constrain the project subject matter as much as possible. Focus in on something specific. There's two important concepts in that last sentence - first the idea of focus in on something. Photography is really about the subject matter, not the means that it was captured in. I've spent a lot of time learning techniques or doing clever things with cameras and light but the stand-out images I've taken are always about the subject, not the cleverness with which I captured it. Certainly all the practice and interesting techniques can be well directed to record something in an interesting way, but the best ideas seem to be brought out from an intense interest in something, not photography for the sake of pretty images. Hurn describes this in the negative, as What is the alternative to an emphasis on subject matter ? It is a frantic grasping for instant gratification which all too often leads to works displaying visual pyrotechnics but of dubious depth and resonance. Photographers become pressured into a search for different-ness, a quest for newness which usually means an unusual technique. I see that in a lot of images that win contests or stand out in internet forums. Glitzy, initially dramatic images with large wow factor, but not something I'd want to look at for long or really keep my attention more than for a few minutes. The more satisfying images are always of something. The second key idea above, is to focus in on something specific. I've found the more wide-ranging a theme is, the more likely I am to jump around from idea to idea. If I choose a theme like portraits, I've got 6 billion people in the world to consider as potential subjects. Everyone one that I might be near enough to photograph would get superficial consideration. But if I constrain the idea to just one person, I'll potentially produce a much more in-depth and hopefully interesting series of portraits. Or if I had an idea to photograph flowers, again the scope is huge and wide ranging, but if I decided to specialise in one plant or one species, then the images would be all the stronger for the lack of choice in subject matter. The idea seems to be that the more narrowly defined and constrained the subject is, the less time you'll waste finding a subject and more time actually pointing a camera at it and actually taking pictures. The final key seems to be defining the end point -understanding how many images are needed, what they'll be used for and then working out what shots are needed. This gives a way to measure the progress and helps maintain focus on the right areas - on getting the whole project done, on covering the theme, rather than fixating on something that might be the most visually interesting but only a small part of the whole. I'm sure right now my lovely wife will be telling me to stop waffling on about the process and actually start doing something, so over the next few days I'll post the three project ideas that I'm going to be working through over the next few months. I'll be sharing the images here and also maybe starting to put up contact sheets to show the shots either side of the picked images, which might give some insight into how I get to where I was going. (another concept cribbed from the book mentioned earlier)

Monday, January 01, 2007

Sennheiser headphones

A quick product shot of the great running headphones Amanda got me for Christmas. She wrote a review of them on her blog.
These were shot in my Heath Robinson light tent that I built from a u-haul cardboard box and some tracing paper. Light is from the camera right, with my brand new Canon 580EX Speedlight (another excellent Christmas prezzie!) and with white bounce panels to the camera left and top for some fill to open up the shadows a bit. Decided to just use a single light for this to give some more interesting fall-off and some shadows rather than an evenly lit scene. I picked up a pair of wireless flash remotes on e-bay, for about $40. So far they've performed averagely well, with the occasional miss-fire. They aren't the best quality ever either, but compared to the gold standard of Pocket Wizards at $400, I'll put up with the relatively minor annoyances. But I think I'd like a bit more reliability if I want to use them more regularly for shooting people. Either that or I need to work out what's causing the flashes to not always respond. I actually had to pull one of the receivers apart a few days after getting them to re-solder a connection inside. Maybe I'm starting to notice the false economy of not getting the Pocket Wizards after all. My birthday's only a few months away...

Happy New Year!

First post of 2007. Happy new year !