Saturday, March 31, 2007


brianThis shot came from playing around with a lensbaby 3G, with the creative aperture kit. In particular, using the star aperture and going out of my way to find lots of point light sources.
I'd met up with some friends to have dinner at Chuy's on Barton Springs Rd. We then went out to shoot some of the interesting neon on the various restaurants along the road. I brought along my lensbaby 3G as I really haven't spent as much time as I'd like getting to know how it works. Also I've recently picked up the creative aperture kit and knew that all the point light sources would potentially give me cool effects. I'm still finding the 3G an interesting lens to get to grips with. There's definitely more potential for in focus shots than with the 2.0, but I still have to get my fingers in tune with the various knobs and switches on the 3G. I keep finding myself trying to focus but landing on the lock release knobs, rather than the focus knobs. The juice bar on Barton Springs Rd happened to have some brightly coloured spot lights, that I tried to use for effect in this shot. Brian is standing under a green spotlight and I then used the lights from the bars on the other side to frame him with the stars. I found that to get really good stars, the point light sources have to be quite a long way back from the point of focus. This makes sense - the more out of focus they are, the larger they appear. Getting the relative distances correct took a bit of playing around. I also shot maybe 30 frames here to get one close to being in focus. That in general seems to be a challenge with using the lensbaby, but particularly at night. It is just difficult to see through that small viewfinder in low light. I also think I might need to dial in the diopter adjustment on my camera, to suit my eyes. There is a car passing in the background that created an interesting star trail from the brake lights - something to play with more I think with these creative aperture disks. The stars, being symmetrical also don't suffer from the inversion that occurs with a heart shape aperture. With the heart, the out of focus bokeh inverts if the focus point is in front, or behind the light source that is creating the shape. You can see this if you look at a light ray diagram ( which I might get around to drawing soon). It can make it a bit fiddly trying to get the effect you want with the disks, but a symmetrical aperture doesn't have that same issue, as it is the same reflected on any axis. I worked on this image a bit in Lightroom, using the 'on image' colour adjustments. These are great - you can adjust hue & saturation directly on the image, clicking on a particular region you want to modify and dragging the mouse up or down to change the particular parameter you are working with. In this case I made the background regions more red by adjusting the hue. Working with this, along with a graphics tablet is even better than with a mouse - I just click with the pen, on the image and drag - it feels very intuitive. I'm looking forward to trying this out for black and white images too - I think it has a great deal of potential.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Backing up is hard to do


I have a problem. I take pictures. Lots of them. Gigabytes of pictures. Many of them I actually quite like and I'd like to keep them around. But I shoot digitally and the one constant fact for digital storage is that it fails. All the time. Hard drives are just little time bombs spinning away, ready to destroy your data. So, at the first level, I make two copies of the images when I load them on to my computer. Straight from the memory cards they get copied once to a directory on my local PC and once into a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. The local hard drive on the PC is a fast RAID 5 set-up, to give speed and some redundancy. Those are the copies I work on. The larger (1 Tb) NAS box is at the end of a 1Gb ethernet connection, which still somehow ends up too slow to work on. But it is fine for secondary online storage. When I work on an image, I store the final Photoshop version, with all the associated layers. This lets me go back and edit an image or easily recreate a print at different sizes. I've been caught out before by not keeping these files, thinking I could just recreate an image from the original RAW file. Then someone wanted 40 images with a short deadline and I had to turn down the opportunity - so now I keep the PSD files. Those can be 250Mb each. They get sync'ed to the NAS box as well, using Unison. I also occasionally go through and cull the terrible images. I don't believe in keeping everything from every shoot - there is plenty of bad stuff to cut out. But that takes time and if you are in a hurry, you have the opportunity to delete an important image. So the lazy approach is to not clean out things often enough.
So with all that, I must feel pretty secure, right ? Well - not really. Now I have a couple of copies of my images, so that's good. Except the drive space on the local PC is a bit tight, so I occasionally have to delete images from there. So I'm left with one copy on the NAS box. Now it is RAID too, so I have some protection if a drive fails in there, but I still only have one copy in the online storage. A virus on my machine could go on a rampage across the network corrupting files. Something less malicious but more common is that I could do something stupid and delete the files. Lighting could strike the power cable (Texas has a whole lot of thunderstorms) and fry my computer and the NAS box. Sure I have surge protection and UPS on all the power supplies. But not the network cables, so there is still a vector. I don't think I really trust the $30 surge protection from Fry's anyway.
So I make backups onto DVD. Well, occasionally I do. Problem is I can easily produce enough data to fill 2 DVDs each time I take my camera out. Sitting there, backing up files to DVD is a fairly long & boring chore so it doesn't get done as often as it should. Then those DVDs can suffer from the usual bitrot of all digital media. So to be on the safe side, you really need to burn 2 copies of each DVD. Suddenly that is 4 DVDs any time I pick up the camera and several hours of popping back to the PC to swap over disks. Then the pile of disks starts to well, pile up.
Even at that point, now that I've got my RAID backup & NAS and stack of (mostly fictional) DVDs. I'm actually thinking of buying another NAS box and only occasionally powering it up and connecting it - doing a weekly or monthly backup of the online NAS box to that as a stop-gap solution. But then I worry about those hard drive platters that are sitting non-spinning and worry if they'll start up each time or what that sort of operation does to the Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF) of the hard drives.
What happens if the house catches fire ? Or we have another typical Texan biblical flood ? Or if we get burgled ? So maybe those fictional DVDs need to be stored out of the house - but I don't know where that would be. We have a small safety deposit box in the bank, but it isn't going to fit all those DVDs. A larger disk format would be fantastic. Blu-ray or HD-DVD promise 25Gb or 50Gb writable disks. That's just about perfect for my needs right now. I just wish it was a bit more affordable and more importantly standardised. But then - do I need to do duplicate copies of the blu-ray DVDs ? Is there any faith that they won't suffer the same fate as DVDs or CDs now ? A few years lifetime in careful storage before the errors start to appear ?
I suppose I could shoot less, but why would I want my photographic process to be dictated by the availability of secure storage ? I've yet to see a solution that would give any confidence that the images were secure from accidental deletion when online or store enough for easy off-line maintenance. Please, please, please - if you have a good solution - let me know!

Finding the fun

Some days just remind me that I love taking pictures. It has been a couple of weeks since I picked up my camera, due to work, training, lack of motivation and all the things discussed in my last blog post. But at the weekend I met up with some of my friends from The Radiant Vista that were in town to do their inspirational photography tour. The first night we went out for dinner and everyone but me had a camera with them - shooting things, being silly, having fun. The next night out I took my camera too. I shot a few hundred, blurry, out of focus, silly lensbaby shots. Played around with the star apertures, didn't worry too much about getting things sharp - in fact for the best stars it pays to have everything out of focus. The results may or may not be that great - I haven't even really looked at them yet - but I had such a blast just shooting and composing and seeing the world through a lens again. I always forget how much I can lose myself behind a camera and just let go. I love the sense of calm and focus that I get when I'm working well with a camera. Letting go yet being in control at the same time, trying to balance the creative and the controlling voices in my head - the ones that want everything sharp with the ones that want to swing the camera around and see what happens. When the pictures work it is a huge thrill, but the process of shooting is where the real fun is at for me. The process changes if I'm on my own or if I'm shooting alongside other photographers, or shooting people as the subject. Shooting with people is a great way to make a connection, talking to them if they are in the shots, sharing the fun of goofing off and making interesting pictures if they have cameras. Shooting alone is a much more slow and calming process for me, that relaxes and energises. Shooting with people seems much higher energy when it works - perhaps being more draining but also often leading to more exciting results. I usually feel exhausted if I shoot with other photographers but I find myself riffing on ideas that I don't think I'd have purely on my own. I get a kick out of both styles, the loaner and working with others. There is much to be said for both ways to approach photography and I think if you only find yourself working in one way or the other that you owe it to your picture taking to push off in the other direction some times. Moving out of your comfort zone is a great way to surprise yourself and find new avenues to explore.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Dry Spell

Dry Spell

I've been going through something of a photographic dry spell recently. I had a very productive flurry of activity towards the end of last year and the first couple of months of 2007. I made a lot of progress on shooting portraits, started to discover the fun of off-camera lighting and generally learned a lot and took a lot of pictures. Some of them were published and others feature amongst some of my favourites that I've ever taken. Yet here I am in mid March and I haven't really taken any pictures this month at all. Somewhere along the line I ran out of steam. Sure I'm training for a race that is only a few weeks away and that is starting to impinge on my thoughts. Yes, the training takes up a lot of my time, as well as mental & physical energy. But I've been training for this since March last year and I managed to fit a whole lot of photography in and around it for the last three months. So that can't be it. I've been working more hours at my job too, but I was working hard over those other three months as well. So where is the procrastination coming from ? It isn't that I have a lack of ideas. There are at least three shots in my head right now that I would love to go and shoot. If I start thinking about it I can come up with half a dozen more just as I'm typing. These aren't even half-formed - I can visualise how I want them to work out and what I need to make them happen. They are interesting to me, would push me in some new directions and I think would be rewarding to do. So it isn't a lack of ideas. The thing that is slightly different from before is that all of those ideas involve other people as part of the scene or as subjects. Suddenly it isn't just my schedule that has to line up, but I need to organise someone else and time it with them and the available lighting. But even that isn't so hard to do. I feel that I'd be imposing myself on them. I know I have more enthusiasm to take these pictures than most people have to be in them. Though I think looking more inwardly, it is really a fear that the pictures just wouldn't be good enough and that I'd be wasting someone's time. But I've dealt with that with all the previous shoots I've done recently too. The thing that has changed is that I was keeping a private creative journal - just a private blog that I posted about things I wanted to do and what I needed to do them. This log seemed to push me onwards to work out the next step along the way, each day. I've let that daily journal falter and I've noticed a marked downturn in how much photography I'm doing as a result. That seems to be the key thing that has changed and that I'm going to try to return to over the next few weeks. Maybe it was all the rain last night that made me realise this. But really, it was writing this blog post - at the start of writing I wasn't sure what I thought the problem was, but now five paragraphs later, I think I've worked through the issues in my head. That's just what the personal journal helps me do too - I just start writing about things I want to sort out and I mentally order and process the issues as I go along.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Laguna Gloria

Laguna Gloria

I've just finished a 5 week portrait class at the Austin Museum of Art. The shot of Jennifer above was taken on the final session as an experiment with mixing studio strobes and outdoor ambient light. We were fighting against the setting sun to set this up while there was still some colour in the sky. I'm standing with a 6ft square softbox quite close to the model, on the camera right, shooting in manual mode with the aperture around f8 and the shutter set slow enough to pick up some of the colour in the sky. I'm actually triggering the strobe with a 580EX on camera, set at 1/128th power and pointing in the general direction of a peanut slave that is connected into the strobe power box. There's another smaller strobe pointing at the fountain to light it, set about a stop lower power than the main light. I like the composition of this particular shot because of all the acute angles, in the angled fountain, her legs, her arms and all through the shot. The side lighting gives some drama and mixing in the sky colour really makes the shot pop. This was really set up as a lighting test, there were another 5 people shooting at the same time as me, so it ended up as a slightly strange experience. Nobody was really very comfortable talking to Jennifer, giving her suggestions on how to pose or generally working with her to get good results, so it all came off as a bit artificial. I think some were maybe too shy to direct and others didn't want to be pushy when others were trying to get the shots too. I much prefer working one on one, with less of an audience of people around - I think that's mainly a lack of confidence but also I'm just not really sure what changes I want to make or what suggestions to make to improve the shots - something I want to work on more this year, by studying successful portraits and getting a better idea on how I want to visually compose the space. The portrait class was a good experience for me - to spend an evening a week on just this one subject, sharing my work with a dozen other people and getting to play around with some studio strobes. It also introduced me to some new photographers and made me spend some more time in the library studying some of the history of portrait photography, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and so on. I picked up some interesting ideas and got some more experience with lighting. A big improvement on trying to discuss this sort of thing on-line. It is always much more effective to just get in there and see how it all works. The theory is all well and good but the actual practice of moving the lights around and seeing the effect is much more educational for me. My main regret was that the class was only 5 weeks. As a group we were just starting to get more comfortable with each other and start sharing more interesting ideas and suddenly it was all over. I'm hoping I can keep in touch with some of the people that were in the class or even shoot with them in the future.