Wednesday, October 31, 2007



It is Halloween today so here's a suitable ghoulish photo that I took at the weekend. We were sitting around outside at Randy's place in the country, talking after an afternoon workshop. We got to talking about painting with light and he casually mentioned he'd just picked up a 5 million candle power spotlight. I was all over it :) This shot is a mix of the light from a sodium vapor floodlight, to the camera right, that is providing the vivid green colour and then the rest of the shot is painted in using the portable flashlight/ weapon of mass illumination. 5 million candle power is bright! I also painted myself in as a suitably ghostly presence on the porch, it almost looks like I'm wielding some sort of phantom sword too, from how I swung the light around. This was about a 30 second exposure. The one thing I try to remember when doing this sort of painting with light is not to set up the camera and then illuminate everything from that same perspective. You have to move around, get off axis to the camera - otherwise it's as exciting as putting a huge strobe right above the lens.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007



I had another opportunity to try modifying a scene by shooting through a translucent object while out in Death Valley. The previous attempts with ashtrays, pint glasses and wine glasses had given me some ideas that I wanted to try in some portraits. This time I used the water bottle that I was carrying around with me. The clear plastic added some interesting effects, but even more effective was the specular highlights from the sun, glinting from the edges of the water in the bottle. It was about half full, with the top edge in the frame to the left, giving those rainbow refractions that you can see flaring across the shot. A couple of people have mentioned problems achieving this effect with other lenses. I do wonder if it is because I'm using a very wide open and very fast lens. Physically the aperture of the 85mm at 1.8 is 47mm across - so there is plenty of room to hold something over part of the aperture and still have part of it unobstructed. I suspect with slower lenses or smaller apertures it would be increasingly difficult to co-ordinate holding something right up against the lens to cause this sort of distortion. You can still certainly shoot through an out of focus foreground element to get a similar effect, but it might take a bit more arranging to not obscure the subject. I'm really trying to work with the very edge of these modifiers, moving them in just enough to cause some change, but not covering the lens in most cases. If you try it out, please let me know how you get on, what you used and share the results.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Interview with Steve McCurry

Just finished up listening to a great podcast interview by George Jardine with Steve McCurry. He explores his approach to working with strangers and photographing them, even when he isn't really able to communicate with them verbally. Also his ideas on light, composition and how that should be applied to portraiture is really informative to hear. At the bottom of it all though, he details how much work and dedication is required to get great pictures. The interview is about 40 minutes long and well worth the effort, I think. Steve McCurry is well known for his National Geographic portraits, such as the iconic Afghan Girl. There's also an exhibition of his work currently on in Waco, Texas that I hope to get to soon.
The most important thing is to photograph something that you are passionate about. Thanks to John Cornicello for the link, via the RadiantVista website.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

aussie aussie aussie

aussie aussie aussie

Amanda, Kate & Tim this weekend. Shot with window light. Tim and Kate have a great apartment in the middle of Houston. They had an Australian flag on the wall and it seemed like a perfect opportunity as a background. I opened up the blinds for the window to let a bit more light in and shot a few quick portraits. I loved the fact that everyone was wearing shades of blue, so they fill in the part of the flag that they cover up.
oi oi oi

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

the amanda project

the amanda project

I've been talking a lot over the last year about the value of projects. A recent vacation to a few national parks seemed like the perfect opportunity to work on something with a consistent theme. For this trip, I picked my wife, Amanda, as the subject. The goal was to take a set of good pictures (around 20) of her that we were both happy with, in the various locations we found ourselves.
I decided to limit it technically too - I just took two lenses with me. I had a 50mm prime and an 85mm prime. The 50mm is one I haven't used much at all and the 85mm has been my go-to portrait lens for the last year. In fact, it's been my go-to lens for almost everything for the last year. I wanted to use the 50mm but put the 85mm in the bag as a fall back position. I tried to shake things up a bit by shooting almost everything with the 50mm. It turns out that about 90% of the shots I took were with the 50mm. Quite a turn around for me.
Now a 50mm and 85mm lens aren't exactly classic lens choices for a trip around national parks like Death Valley and Yosemite. Typically, you'd be thinking about some super wide lenses in the teens range and also a longer telephoto to abstract elements of the landscape. I decided to totally skip those options. I've been to Death Valley before and shot a lot of very wide scenics. I've never been to Yosemite but I've certainly seen a lot of classic landscapes from there. I wasn't going to compete with those images. I didn't even want to bother recreating various Ansel Adams views of the park, in worse light, or David Muench cloned images. Maybe I've finally gotten to the point where I have the courage to look for my own vision rather than copying others. Or I've switched to copying portrait photographers - I guess I'll find out over time. A few people suggested I was mad in taking this approach. That I'd spend the entire week regretting the decision or kicking myself, missing shots of a lifetime with the wrong lenses in my hand. Instead I took shots of my life and my times - I shot what matters to me. More valuable to me than pretty scenics of well-worn subjects. There's a joke that says half dome requires an extra stop of exposure now, than it did when Ansel Adams first took his shots of it, because so many photographers have sucked the light out of it. I contributed a bit, but with a slightly different motivation.
So the Amanda project was born, from an idea from Steve Barth with his excellent series featuring his wife. One week, 800 shots, lots of locations, dramatic changes in lighting, collaborations on clothing choices, hair. Hiking for miles, 4am starts, rain, bear sightings, climbing, driving : all in all a great time for both of us and I think a pretty good collection of images with a consistent theme.
I did cheat a touch on the only 50mm/85mm lens selection aspect - I took along a small, wide-angle, panoramic format point and shoot that I used a couple of times in this collection - but other than that, nearly all 50mm. I think there is one 85mm shot and that's the night image from Las Vegas. By the end of the week I was trying to find fresh ideas, use lighting, new focal lengths. I never actually felt I was missing out on shooting the grand landscapes by not having a wide angle lens. Yosemite is beautiful. Death Valley is amazing. We drank it all up, together, looked at the views, enjoyed the sunrises, sunsets and times in between. I did take a few landscapes and I'll start posting them up later, but I had a much more interesting project to work on, than scenery.
The project focus also pushed me beyond some of the standard portrait shots I'd have taken. I started looking for new angles, compared to how I've been shooting with the 85mm. Normally all I do is fairly tight head/shoulders portraits. The 50mm forced me to step back a bit. Shooting the same subject for an extended period forced me to look for new angles, new body positions, new ways to move. It got me thinking about posing a full person, even when they aren't posing as such, rather than just eliciting an expression. So again I found that pushing a subject area via an assigned project has helped me break new ground. I also pushed my lighting skills a bit, using room lights, rearranging furniture, etc. to light the night time Las Vegas shot. Something I probably wouldn't have done without this assignment in the back of my mind.
Hope you enjoy the results. We had a great time shooting them all. Click on the collage above to go to the set of images. Comments are very welcome.
In the comments, Kate asked: Of the shots in the project montage, were most with the 50mm? Of the 25 shown, 18 were taken with the 50mm lens. 2 were taken with the point and shoot DMC-LX1 and five were shot with the 85mm lens (old habits I guess).

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


I've admired James Nachtwey's images for many years now. War photographer was a fascinating documentary of some of his life and what he's borne witness to. This speech from is also well worth your time, though the images are often hard to view. Maybe you can help make his wish come true.
Or watch the talk in High Resolution (480P) JAMES NACHTWEY'S WISH:
  • I'm working on a story that the world needs to know about. I wish for you to help me break it in a way that provides spectacular proof of the power of news photography in the digital age.

Plan of Execution:

  • Gain access to a place in the world where a critical situation is occurring and fully document it with photography.
  • Set a date to unveil the pictures and find a series of innovative ways to create powerful impact with them, using novel display technologies and the power of the Internet as well as media.
  • Use the campaign to generate resources for organizations that are working to address and transform the situation.

We Are Looking For:

  • Diplomatic and logistics help in order to get James to the story location (potential contributors will be given confidential access to the story being contemplated).
  • An advisory team of creative mavericks to help conceive the strongest ways of making an impact.
  • Offers of large public space worldwide that can be used to display the images.
  • Help with plastering the story online with media impressions.
  • A partner to provide a solution to project images digitally outdoors.
  • A PR and communications partner.
  • Media partners.

Questions we're still asking:

  • What are creative ways to make the biggest impact in a way that others could use in future?
  • How do we best ensure that this effort leads to action to solve the problem?
Get involved if you can



We met Ronnie in Yosmite Valley at the overlook out towards the classic Tunnel View/ Inspiration Point view. On a clear day you can see El Capitan and Half Dome, right down the end of the valley. This day however was cloudy and wasn't really a great photo op at the time we were there. I was also much more drawn to the fantastic, colourful outfit and big happy smile that this person presented to the world. So I complimented her on her outfit and really wanted to take her picture. Standing at a viewpoint it is a bit awkward to approach a stranger and ask to take their portrait. So I asked her to take Amanda & my picture, together. She did a great job of it, took our picture, wanted to switch on the flash, composed it well and everything. Then it was simple for me to turn the tables and take her picture, now that the ice had been broken. The picture she took of Amanda and I is the one below. That was the thing that moved us towards me getting the picture above. That was the MacGuffin in this case.
tunnel view

our trip by the numbers

In lieu of posting pictures from our trip around Death Valley, Yosemite and Las Vegas, I'll post some numbers instead. I managed to get them downloaded, backed up and sorted last night. Just haven't had time to finish off or upload any images. Hopefully some time this week!
Between us we took two cameras, my 1dII with a 50mm lens and and 85mm lens and also a Panasonic DMC-LX1 point and shoot. The point and shoot has the nice advantage of being wider than average and also shooting in 16:9 widescreen ratio - good for scenics particularly as I was deliberately limiting myself to a fairly narrow set of prime lenses. Across the two cameras we shot 1563 images in a week. 1351 with the 1DII, 212 with the point and shoot. Out of those, 778 were exclusively of Amanda for the previously mentioned project! About 80 of them are just the two of us, mostly 'long arm' self portrait shots or set up on a mini tripod. Of the lenses I took, 1207 (89%) of the shots were with the 50mm and 144 were with the 85mm. That's entirely different from my normal shooting which is usually almost exclusively with the 85mm - so it gave me a bit of a different perspective on things which was fun. 700 of the shots were taken in Death Valley, 680 in Yosemite, 183 of the shots were in Las Vegas. But we only spent 1 day in Death Valley, 4 days in Yosemite and 2 days in Las Vegas (and 2 days driving between), so I think we peaked early! Truth is we hiked a lot more in Yosemite so time was spent in less photographically intense ways. What do all these numbers mean ? Other than I'm still an engineer at heart ? Well it means that Lightroom has good metadata analysis capabilities and will let you see a lot of information about how you shoot. Being able to call up which lenses were used most often was particularly interesting given that I was aiming to push myself towards using the 50mm for a week. I can quickly see I was successful at sticking with it at least. I can break these numbers down further and see how many shots were taken at f8 (480) or how many were taken at a higher aperture than f8 (124) leaving a huge number taken at a fairly wide open aperture. Doesn't sound like a whole lot of traditional landscape views in there! A combination of not taking a wide angle lens and no tripod pushed me away from that sort of very stopped down view of the world. Metadata in a good browser (like Lightroom) can give you quite a bit of insight in to how you shoot - perhaps exposing areas that you are weak on or deliberately avoiding. I've used it in the past when I moved from a point and shoot to a DSLR to take a look at which sorts of focal lengths I use the most - in part to help me decide which lenses to buy. It can also point towards focal lengths you never use - something maybe to explore in the future. My clear preference for shallow depth of field can be seen in the metadata from this trip, for example. Now - is this all just useless measurebating ? Or can it provide worthwhile insights ? Shouldn't I know all of this already ? Probably - and mostly I do - but it can be interesting to confirm your suspicions - you might be surprised. Digital capture and EXIF data gives access to all of this information in an easily digestible form - do you ever use it to improve or inspect your process ?

Monday, October 22, 2007

from above

valley floor

Got back in to Austin very early this morning. The Southwest flight from Vegas managed to get delayed then bounced around in turbulence the whole way back. Finally got home and to sleep around 2am, so I'm feeling a bit tired just now! I have a ton of photographs to work through from the trip. An interesting set really. Not much in the way of traditional landscape views of all the beautiful places Amanda & I visited. Mostly I took a cue from Steve Barth and his project Stephanie idea. The whole week turned in to a portraiture project based around pictures of Amanda in the various locations we ended up in. I had a great time trying to come up with new ideas and approaches for the same beautiful subject, over and over again. I think Amanda also enjoyed being part of it and getting to come up with concepts too. It was a challenge not to just repeat ideas and I suspect a harder challenge for her to find new expressions too! Expect to see a lot of these portraits over the next few weeks. The shot above was inspired by some of the portraits by Holly Sisson. Amanda and I were hiking through Yosemite valley in the middle of the Autumnal leaves. A lot of the trees were turning golden and red but there were also already many leaves on the ground. I decided to try and use them as a background and a yellow colour compliment for Amanda's green top. We found a large boulder, surrounded by crisp orange, yellow leaves and I clambered up on top. With a wide open aperture giving a shallow depth of field, this angle really puts all the emphasis on the face. having Amanda looking up at me also fills her face and eyes with the light from the sky behind me. It was a mostly cloudy day so the light is quite soft and even.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

vegas, baby!

vegas, baby!

We survived the ravages of Death Valley. Managed not to dehydrate in the 100F+ sun. Made it through the Sierras to Yosemite just before the Tioga pass was closed with snow. Hiked Yosemite valley and avoided the bears (well, almost). Made it to the top of North Dome and didn't get lost on the way back. Crossed the Mojave desert and now we are in Vegas for a few days recovery.

Busy week!

Monday, October 15, 2007

where the sun shines

where the sun shines

Amanda and I are away for a few days, visiting some national parks and generally getting away from it all. Death Valley National Park is a beautiful, awe inspiring place. Austere, stark but riveting at the same time. We have been having a great couple of days soaking it all in. Catching sunset at Dante's peak, sunrise out in the sand dunes, hiking through canyons in the hottest part of the day (only about 100F just now, well shy of the summer 130F's) Then we watched sunrise last night at Badwater - the lowest point in the western hemisphere. Amanda took this shot of me this evening out on the salt flats. Not a bad way to spend a weekend...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Shoot what matters


Jim Merithew on what's important to photograph and my best picture this month.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tybee island

Tybee island

I took a series of images out at Tybee island. I also tried to write about the experience. My first pass was: I GREW UP by the ocean. My favourite place to run is right on the surf line. Where the wet sand is firm enough not to slide and shift under your feet but dry enough not to splash and soak your shoes. The trick, and fun, of it is that the perfect equilibrium point never stays in the same place. Running, chasing the ocean is pure play - trying to find that flowing state of mind when your body moves to the right place just ahead of the tumbling waves. Get out of sync and the run is a haphazard journey of frantic dashes up the beach and back down after the retreating firm sand as the waves flow out. Get it right and everything flows effortlessly and your mind can soar. I ran for about half an hour along the beach at Tybee Island, relaxing from a stressful week. At first I was all over the place. Then everything clicked. I was just happy. Pure, simple joy.
That describes what I was doing, but in some ways I think the photography is more interesting for me. You can click on the big picture above to go to a set of my favourites. I'd been on a workshop for a week, pushing myself in ways I didn't really like to be pushed. Hadn't exercised for a few days. Was feeling really out of sorts. Think I'd slept for about two hours the night before too. I got to the beach and everyone else spread out with their cameras, set up their tripods and prepared to stake out the coming sunrise. It was a beautiful, silvery blue morning. I haven't been to the ocean for about 6 months, even though I grew up about 2 blocks away from the sea, in Scotland. I miss it. I miss running too - late nights, bars, no exercise. So running was the perfect escape that morning. But then I tried to take pictures that expressed how I felt. I love running. I switch off all the cascading thoughts and just be, where I am. I've talked before about how running connects me with my creativity. Shooting while running was similar. No thought of composition, other than where I was pointing the camera. I'm not looking through the lens, just gesturing in the vague direction I'm interested in. So some intention still, but not so controlled. I'd change settings intuitively, focus as I went along, shooting, running in and out of the surf. Some of the shots are really close to the water - when you realise they were shot at 17mm, perhaps it becomes clearer how close I was in some cases. Yet never too close. Or too far away. The lens just seemed to land right, time and time again. For once I actually felt the results captured something of what I was feeling. I find them beautiful. They connect me right back to that time and place on the beach, at Tybee. Every now and then I manage to let go and actually take some pictures. I need to keep working on that.

Monday, October 08, 2007

1% inspiration, 99% moving furniture

1% inspiration, 99% moving furniture

I like the Arnold Newman quote I have at the end of this blog. Good photography is 1% inspiration and 99% moving furniture. In this case, I took that to heart. The red ottoman seemed like such a great piece to build a shot around. But it just didn't stand out enough in the room. Outside, the (quiet!) road was covered in white crushed granite and seemed to be a perfect backdrop. The parents were thankfully on board with the idea too. (Really the street was very quiet!) We spent a bit of time clearing fallen leaves from the the background and set things up under a bright, cloudy sky which gave really soft, even light. I had the parents jumping around behind my head, rattling keys, clapping and generally trying to attract his attention. I like the mostly bemused expression in this one more than some of the happier shots we got - seems to suit the mood. One thing that's changed in the last year with my photography has been a bit more motivation to follow through on ideas. This is a shot that I might have thought about a year ago, but not even mentioned. It was a whole lot fun, quick, painless and certainly worth making the effort.


orangeShot these over a couple of hours walking around the 2nd and 6th street areas in Austin. Jeff was interested in going out shooting with our cameras, so we met up at Austin Java in the city hall. We agreed to go and shoot to a colour theme and set off looking. I was shooting orange, Jeff was looking for yellow. At first it can be hard to find anything. We both breezed along the whole of the second street district and only took a couple of shots. Couldn't find orange anywhere. Then suddenly it gets hard to stop seeing 'your colour' everywhere. Markings on the road. Splashes on some plastic bollards. The beer we stopped to enjoy along the way. I find this a really effective way to key in to a particular theme and then go shoot it. Otherwise I worry that there won't be anything to shoot in a given place or that I have to go somewhere special to find the right pictures. Truth is, they are everywhere, just waiting on you to notice them.
I also used to worry that if I was shooting on one theme, I'd be missing other shots, but I always find I'm much more productive and focused when shooting to a concept. I settle in, I explore subjects, I'm not wasting as much time searching for something to jump out at me, ready to shoot. Anyway, you don't have to be a slave to whatever concept you pick, it can just be a useful way in. Colours are a great concept, colour pairs, line, shapes, circles, squares, triangles, S-curves, textures, anything that gets you shooting and paying attention to the surroundings really helps. It can be a fun way to explore but also I find it teaches me a lot each time I do this, about what works, what I like, how I want to use things in my photography and that comes back when you aren't 'just' shooting a colour, later. Click the collage to jump to the whole set.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


michael red
A couple from today. Jeff wanted to go and shoot together so we met up in downtown Austin. For a change I picked up my 100mm macro. I don't think I've used that lens for about 6 months now. Forgot how much I enjoy getting up close and personal with a lot of different subjects.
I gave Jeff a vague assignment - to go and shoot yellow - and I walked along and shot orange at the same time. We talked about different approaches, different ways of seeing and generally had a fun time switching from feeling there was nothing to shoot to having too many choices. Getting tuned in to a colour really helped focus and slow us both down.
Along the way I took a few portraits of people around downtown Austin. These two are my favourites. Both these people came up to us, offered advice on the pictures we should take and generally opened themselves up to being subjects - so I took the opportunity when it presented itself! Spent a bit of time with both of them, got them to move into the better light and talked a bit about where they were from and what they were up to. Two totally different sets of expressions but they were both pretty much up front and friendly. Some times its easier to let the subjects come to you, while you are doing something else.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


We heard about Henri before we met him. We told the staff at the Woodrose winery in Stonewall that we were heading to the Becker Vineyards next. They said we should be sure and look out for Henri. He was handling the checkout and pouring the samples out on the balcony at Becker. A big, gregarious man, he was chatting to all the people in line, keeping everyone happy. He and I talked a bit while he worked out my change and then I asked if I could take a few shots. He's been in Texas for 35 years and was originally from Morocco. He seemed surprised I wanted to take his picture, while I was ignoring the groups of women on bachelorette parties just behind me. I told him that none of them had quite as interesting a mustache. That got a smile...

Friday, October 05, 2007



Further down this path of exploring shooting through glass, up close to the lens. This is just a high ISO grab shot of Amanda cooking last night. The light on her is bad, but the concept is there. There are a couple of half full wineglasses really close to the lens providing the distortion and blur in the foreground. There's fairly direct light above the glasses, causing hotspots that bounce around and bloom in the lens. Think it has some potential.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

open to new ideas

openNew ideas seem to occur in waves. A few times now I've noticed the same idea in different contexts. The shot above was taken a couple of weeks ago in a bar. I picked up the glass ashtray and started using it to distort the light hitting the lens. I was using it almost like a mute for a trumpet, feathering the edge over the open aperture of the lens, letting some sharpness in, blurring some of the edges. As I was shooting with a 85mm 1.8, wide open, there's plenty of scope to have some of the aperture covered and some not. I played around with it on quite a few shots, then finished my beer and stuck the empty pint glass over the lens. Sometimes it pays to have a weather sealed, beer resistant camera! The thick, round bottom of the glass gave the circular distortion in the third image below.
harp red beer goggles
Then this weekend I was shooting some portraits, while we were out wine tasting. I ended up playing around with distorting the empty spaces in the shot by shooting through a wine glass up close to the lens. Much in the same way I was using the ashtrays a couple of weeks ago.
Last night I was listening to another Lightsource podcast, discussing several images by Mark Robert Halper, many of which use just that same technique to blur down edges or create more interesting light in the scene. I think it is something I'm going to come back to in some more portraits and see what else I can find with it.

Monday, October 01, 2007


Which is your dominant eye ? Do you look through your camera with that eye ? I realised today that I'm right-eye dominant but I shoot with my left eye looking through the viewfinder/lens. Do you use your dominant eye ? Does it matter ?