Editing down a portfolio with Don Giannatti and yours truly – LIVE Webcast

This Sunday 8/4/2010 at 9pm EST (6pm pacific) Don Giannatti has been kind enough to do a live portfolio review with me on the air.  We’ll be talking about making the final cut of images, and finalizing a portfolio.  Maybe a bit about design and branding and style as well.  Should be fun – tune in at:


see y’all there!

lighting essentials advanced workshop – a brief review

For those not familiar, Lighting Essentials are a series of workshops put on by Don Giannatti (you may know him as “Wizwow” on flickr).   I am a big fan of Don, not only is he an excellent photographer, with years of commercial experience under his belt, but he is also a fantastic teacher – which is just as difficult a skill unto itself.  He’s also a really down to earth guy with a low tolerance for BS and fools, which I find refreshing, particularly in the online photo community which can often turn into a bit of a hive-mind circle-jerk at times (you know what I’m talking about)…

Anyway, I got to go to his workshop in Philly in ’08 and it was awesome – definitely kicked my work up a couple of notches.   At the time I was already somewhat experienced with lighting, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was blown away; it was amazing to watch Don demonstrate things that I already “knew” lighting wise, and still be able to pick up something new – a new way of thinking about it, new ways of analyzing and constructing and deconstructing light.

A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to attend the advanced lighting essentials ‘shop down in Baltimore.  Different than the standard workshop, this one assumed a baseline familiarity with lighting to begin with – getting a baseline exposure, balatncing flash/ambient, ratios etc… This was fantastic, as we were able to jump right into working with little “catch up” required.  The format was well done. Don split us up into groups, with various assignments/challenges – in the morning we worked “in studio” talking about and working on precision lighting techniques for still life/objects.  I gained a whole new respect for product photographers – it’s a lot more difficult than you’d think.  One light, and lots of carefully placed white/black cards/diffusers etc…  I particularly appreciated this as it  really made you focus on analyzing and constructing light carefully rather than the “throw some strobes on it till it looks good” approach which many lighting novices seem to take.

In the afternoons we worked with models,  but instead of the standard “how to light/balance” we focused more on creating a mood or complex lighting schemes – sometimes using 4, 5 or more lights – little accents and subtleties to construct a meaningful lighting scheme.   Now I tend to be more minimalist in terms of my own lighting (I tend to favor zero, one or two lights – rarely more) but even so it was valuable to concentrate on the subtleties of the lighting scheme as a whole.

One of the things I like the best about Don’s workshops is that it’s all hands-on.  There’s no “sit around and listen to the instructor talk about how great he is” for 6 hours, as is the case with many “workshops” – Don has everyone jumping right in and shooting right off the bat.  It’s simply “talk about technique -> apply technique”.   Good stuff.   We also spent quite a bit of time talking business.  Don has been a full time photographer as well as designer and creative director for many years, so he has a fantastic amount of the experience in the industry and shares freely.  There are few things more valuable for a new photographer than the lessons of experience from someone who has “been there and done that”.   It’s like going through the school of hard knocks without having to take the knocks.

To sum up, aka the TL;DR version:  if you get a chance to attend one of Don’s workshops, go for it – it’s worth every penny.  What boggles my mind is that folks who will drop thousands on a new camera body or lens, are so hesitant to spend money on education or workshops.  I can say without reservation that the couple of hundred bucks for the LE workshops improved my work far more than any gear purchase I have made (and yeah, I’m also guilty of chasing the latest and greatest toys when it comes to gear).

finally some shots from the ‘shop:

hand coloring in lightroom

I’ve always loved hand-colored photos.   They have such a great look, very unique, very interesting.  For those who don’t know, “hand coloring” refers to any process where a photographer uses pigment, dye or paint of some sort to manually add color to a black and white photo.   Historically this was done in the 1800s by photographers using pigment and gum arabic on daguerreotypes!  The technique persisted in one  form or another throughout the years until it was supplanted by actual color photography.  Of course, just because it is no longer necessary to get color in such a way doesn’t mean it can’t be used for asthetic effect.

I shoot a lot of black and white film, which I generally scan and process in lightroom rather than wet printing.  Now if you’ve used lightroom, you are probably familiar with the brush tools for things like exposure, clarity or even skin smoothing.  However, the oft overlooked “tint” option can be used to easily paint in color to a black and white image for a “hand colored” effect.

let’s take this image.

This was shot on film (with a holga!) during a vintage pin-up shoot.  In other words, there is no actual color information in the file etc…

Now I’m going to hand color it to approximate the actual colors of the scene.  First we start by going into the lightroom brush tools.  Make sure all the adjustment sliders are set to zero (we are just painting on color here, not adjusting the photo itself)   Click on the tint box at the bottom right to bring up the color picker.

A little trick with the color picker is that if you hold the mouse button down you can drag the eyedropper out of the little selection window and  sample color from *anything* on screen.  One useful trick with this is to have a “reference photo” open separately and sample your colors for hand coloring from that.

Since the couch in this shot was a green color, I grab a nice rich green and begin painting my mask.  I find it more accurate to paint with the red overlay on (click “O” to toggle the overlay on or off).  You’ll want to use a separate mask for each area of color.  Here’s the green mask for the couch all done.

yeah, it’s not perfect, but close enough 🙂

I then do separate masks for her shirt (pink) and her skin.   With hand coloring, I like to leave a portion of the image uncolored which gives it it’s signature b/w+color look, different from “selective coloring”

and the final result:

Now this may be kind of a “niche” technique, and certainly not suited for all photos but it’s quick and easy and yields a very unique effect.  Overall it’s a nice trick to have in one’s toolbox.

baselining your strobe for quick exposures

Digital cameras have been a great boon to photographers working with off-camera lights.  The ability to review an image instantly on an LCD (with histogram!) has obviated the need for tedious polaroiding and exhaustive metering of every inch of a scene to ensure correct light ratios and eliminate unwanted shadows.    So much so, in fact, that many photographers have begun to eschew the use of a flash meter entirely – relying on the LCD and histogram via trial and error to set their lights correctly.   Now while quick and easy, this method has it’s drawbacks, particularly for young photographers.   The question that frequently arises is:

“well, I’m essentially just guessing what power to set my flash on then chimping the exposure and adjusting accordingly but how do I know *where* to start with my flash”

Essentially this comes down to a combination of making an educated guess about the exposure and *knowing how much light your flash will put out*.

The beauty of light is that it is predictable.  Whether from the sun, a lightbulb, or a flash, given the same source and conditions, you will always get the same light.    We can use this to our advantage!

When working with flash, we have fundamentally 2 variable that we control to determine how much light falls on our subject – power and distance.   Power meaning how much actual light our flash is outputting and distance meaning how far away it is from the subject (remember that light falls off predictably according the inverse square law).    Since we know that light always behaves the same, we can be certain that at a given power and a given distance from our subject our flash will give the same result every time.

Now also remember that light from a flash behaves linearly – going from 1/4 power to 1/2 power is doubling the amount of light that it puts out and vica versa.  Thus if our flash exposes properly at f/8 at 1/8 power, it will give us f/11 at 1/4 power, f/5.6 at 1/16 and so forth (given the same distance to the subject).

Armed with this knowledge, we can quickly and easily estimate a “starting point” for exposure in almost any situation.  We do this by establishing a “reference point” at which we *know* the exposure of our flash, and can calculate from there.  I like to call this “baselining” the flash.  To do this:

  1. start with the flash on a medium power, which gives room to adjust up or down.  1/8 power is a good starting place
  2. now we need to ensure that we can replicate a consistent flash->subject distance.  You could carry around a tape measure but a fantastic trick I learned from the inimitable Don Giannatti is to measure using your outstretched arms.  Given that the average (male) photographer is probably between 5’5″ and 6’something, your outstretched armspan or “wingspan” is somewhere around 6′, which is a comfortable working distance for lights.   This also has the advantage of being quickly and easily reproducable “on set” – you simply stretch our your arms from subject and place the light at the end.
  3. Meter your light at your set power, at “wingspan”  – if you don’t have a flash meter, you can approximate by photographing an 18% greycard till the histogram spikes dead center and recording the appropriate aperture.
  4. adjust your light till you get a “comfortable” baseline.   Let’s assume that at “wingspan” we find our flash gives us f/8 at 1/8 power.   This is our baseline – we write it down (or just remember it).

Now lets put this info to use!

Let’s say we’re in the studio.   We want to do a shot with a key and fill light in a 2:1 ratio.   We want to shoot at f/11 to give  good depth of field for our subject.  What do we do?  We place our lights in the desired position, both at “wingspan”.   We know that each of them gives f/8 at 1/8 power at that distance.  f/11 is one stop up from f/8, so we set our main light to 1/4 power (one stop more power).  Our main light is now already double the light of our second, so we have our ratio right there – the second light stays at 1/8.   We shoot at f/11,  and our main light should be spot on with the second 1 stop under.   now if we want to “blow out the background” we simply add another light on the background at 1/2 power, giving us an exposure of f/16 – one stop over main. Of course this is not as “exact” as using a meter, but this gives us our starting place and we can adjust the lights from there based on the histogram.

It’s that easy!

This technique becomes particularly powerful when balancing ambient and flash outside.   Combined with the sunny/16 rule, we can use our baseline to roughly estimate the combined exposure of flash and ambient without chimping a single frame!

consider the common situation:  We are shooting outside and want to drop the ambient by 1 stop.  We see that it is mildly overcast – the sunny/16 rule says that our exposure should be approximately f/11@1/100 sec.   Again, we know our flash give f/8 at 1/8 power, so we set it at arms length from our subject.  In order to drop our ambient by a stop we increase our shutter speed to 1/200 (still at f/11) and adjust our flash up one stop to 1/4 power to give us f/11.    Done and Done.  Chimp, and adjust as needed.  If we are in situation where we can’t drop the ambient by shutter speed (already at sync limit), we can simply adjust the flash power to compensate.   Assume the same situation (ambient is f/11).   to keep the shutter speed the same and still drop the ambient by 1 stop, we need to shoot at f/16.   Again, knowing our flash gives f/8 at 1/8 we simply bump it up 2 stops to 1/2 power (f/8->f/11->f/16 = 1/8->1/4->1/2)

This may sound complicated, but once you  are comfortable estimating these exposure, it becomes almost second nature.  by using your baseline you will find yourself able to get exposure dead on within 1 or 2 “chimping” shots.

the DIY 30 second light tent

Ever had an assignment that you needed a light-tent for, say a product shoot – but didn’t have one handy?  Yeah, me too.  I started searching around for some material to put together a DIY one and then it occured to me – isn’t the center panel of a 5-in-1 reflector basically the same stuff?  And already stretched around a nice springy frame too – perfect for an instant light tent.  After a few aborted attempts, I hit upon the following.  You will need

  1. the center diffuser from a full length 5-in-1 reflector
  2. 4 clamps
  3. a piece of matboard (or something else to make a nice sweep)

In short – bend the diffuser so it makes a nice arch, and clamp it to either side of a table.  (best to do 2 clamps on one side, then the other).  use the matboard as a sweep under it, and light as desired.  Voila! instant lightbox  (caveat: not quite as good as a “real” lighbox, but if you don’t have one and don’t want to spend the $$$ for one it’s a good substitute!

here’s how it looks:



how to load 120 film in the holga

Seems like more and more folks are getting curious about film these days – whether it’s new photographers who started out on digital and want to see what the “old skool” is all about, or the old dogs who cut their teeth on tri-x and red safelights coming back to the fold.  I started out shooting 35mm film, then digital, and then medium format film.  I’m not embarassed to admit that when I started with MF the most daunting thing for me was how to load the darn stuff…  I figure there’s got to be a couple of newbies out there with the same question, so I made a quick video to illustrate the process using 120 film and a Holga (cheap, easy, generic).  Apologies for the atrocious production values this was basically me by the window with my G9.   I doan no nuttin bout this here videeo stuff  nohow…

One “gotcha” with MF film is that unlike 35mm, there is more than one way to load it.  Many MF camera systems have slightly different loading methods, but the basic idea is always the same – put in the uptake spool, thread the paper leader into it, wind until the “start” marker, then close it up and wind till frame 1.  easy as pie.  always remember to keep a finger on the film roll when loading or unloading to keep it from unspooling and ruining your roll.  that’s basically all there is too it –  happy MFing!

An old flame…

It’s funny, there seems to be a kind of “collective unconscious” in the photo community… All the buzz about film lately, from discussions on strobist to Brian Auer’s fantastic “build a film developing kit for <$50”  Of course it just so happens that’s I’ve been rekindling my lost love affair with film as well…I started out developing film (from my 1967 Pentax spotmatic) and printing it in a wet darkroom.  Once I moved to digital, my 35mm film kind of fell by the wayside…

I picked up a Holga a while back with the intention of just messing around, running some 120 film etc…  At the time, I still had access to a pro darkroom, and intended to do my own processing and printing… Of course, that never happened.  With 99% of my work being digital, my poor rolls of 120 sat un-developed for <ahem> quite some time.

Of course that was before I discovered Diafine.  (for those who don’t know, Diafine is what is known as a “Compensating developer”  It comes in 2 parts, solution A, and solution B.   You pour in A, the film absorbs as much as it’s emulsion can hold, you then pour it out, and pour in B.  B reacts with A, doing the developing until A is all used up – then it stops (as there is no more A left to react.) essentially it is a “self terminating” development process.   What this means in practice is that it is just about the fastest, easiest way to develop black and white film that I have ever seen.  No carefully controlling temperatures of solutions (it works just fine anywhere from 68-80F), no exact timing down to the second (because it is self terminating, it doesn’t matter how long your film in).   You can load your film, pour in A, walk away and eat a sandwich, come back pour in B, go grab a beer, come back a half hour later, and your film will be done.  Just like that.

There are a couple of other cool features as well (eg it gives an effective “speed boost” of a stop or more to many films – my preferred HP5+ becomes effectively 800ISO when souped in diafine) and a few downsides.  It’s definitely not the developer to choose if you demand exacting precision & control over each step of the development process.  But for a low-fi neg like the holga produces it’s a match made in heaven.

Say what you will about film v. digital.  I love them both, I think they both have their place, and I think that every photographer should use both to at least some extent.   Even if you are die-hard 100% “digital is superiour to film in every way”, the “creative experience” of film is very different than digital.  It makes you shoot in a different way, think in a different way, see in a different way.  Not better, not worse, just different.  And that in my opinion is one of the great “creativity juicers” that we get.   So if you are in a creative rut, try it out.  Grab a holga and a few rolls of black and white 120 film ($30-40 bucks) and some diafine, and shoot some blurry, light-leaky, distorted, streaky, vignetted, *beautiful* frames.   Guaranteed to cure what ails ya!

All shot with the holga,  Ilford HP5+ film, processed in Diafine:

Philadelphia, Old and New

Independence Hall

At the Beach

Adrift on a sea of clouds


Seven photographs that changed fashion

You may have already seen it on the “What’s the jackanory?” blog, but I felt remiss if I didn’t at least mention the BBCs recent piece on fashion photographer Rankin reproducing 7 of the most iconic images by some of the masters of fashion photography.  It’s a really wonderful piece, with a lot of fascinating insights… worth the watch:

part 1:

part 2:

part 3:

part 4:

part 5:

part 6:

part 7:

part 8:

Making the Image #1

2007-10-27at11-45-42-pentax-k10d-edit-2I wanted to start off this series with one of my favorite images, which was actually relatively simple to make.  The piece is titled “Sunshine in the Rain” and began with a concept and a rainy day.


I don’t remember exactly where I came up with the idea for this shot, but it was something that I had been kicking arond for some time.  I had a vague notion of how I wanted to juxtapose the rain and “sunshine” with the umbrella by making it look like light was shining out of it.   As I recall, it had been raining for a while and Vicky and I were stuck at home.  I was itching to shoot, so the idea just popped into my head and started to take shape.  I was envisioning the model stainding in the park with rain pouring down all around while holding an umbrella with “sunshine” coming out of it.


Challenge #1 was how to get the light to “shine” out of the umbrella.   I thought of using a standard silver photo umbrella, but 1) it didn’t have the right “look” and 2) I had no idea if it actually was waterproof 🙂  I ended up taking a plain ol’ large rain umbrella and lining it with foil (taped in with duct tape).  I used  a cord to tie the strobe to the shaft, high enough to be hidden by the curve of the umbrella.    Since I didn’t have a park handy, I decided a cityscape background would look good as well.  I knew this place around city hall that had some open space with not a lot of foot traffic to get in the way of the shot.  We ventured out (in the pouring rain 🙂 and set up.   I was using a 35mm equivalent prime to get a pretty big FOV, as I knew I wanted sky in the image, as well as the ground with the light shining.   The scene was metered for ambient, and the strobe was fired wirelessly in TTL mode.   Played around with a couple of shots/angles, but I wound up liking this framing with city hall framed between the two buildings.


(note – that is the actual raw file, directly converted without any processing whatsoever.)  Pretty rough, huh?  I knew it would be a bit of work to get to the final product.  Most notably the “pool” of light on the ground is fainter and ill-defined.   I knew that this would be a compromise going into the image.  Because of the inverse square law (light falloff), given that her face was so close to the light source, if I had exposed for the light on the ground, I would have gotten a totally blown out face, but If I had exposed the face properly I would have gotten no light on the ground at all.  I compromised by overexposing the face a bit (recoverable) and underexposing the ground a bit, and planning on fixing in post.  Normally I like to do as much as possible in camera, but his was a case where I knew I would need to enhance it in post from the beginning.


With my concept in head, there were a few things I needed to do right off the bat – firstly to clone out the areas where light had leaked through cracks in the foil.  I wanted to keep the umbrella “solid”.   First the image was straightened and the overall exposure adjusted in lightroom.   Then it was exported to photoshop.  Since I knew I needed to do a lot of selective darkening and brightening, created two dodge and burn layers.  In short this is a layer in “overlay” mode filled with 50% grey.  By painting into this layer using either black or white you can selectively lighten or darken areas of an image (like dodging and burning in the darkroom).  White dodges (lightens) and black burns (darkens).  I made 2 separate layers, one for dodging and one for burning.   I burned in the outer edges of the pool of light while simultaneously dodging the inner area to create a more defined circle of light to enhance the “streaming out of the umbrella” effect.  I then lightened up some of the dark areas in the foreground and darkened the sky /lighter areas to give the overall ambient exposure more balance.  Once I was satisfied with the lighting I created a new layer, and cloned out the light spill in the umbrella Finally, a HSL layer was added to give the colors a bit more “pop”, masking out Vicky to prevent oversaturating the skin etc…

in the end the layers looked like:


and the final image:


Amazingly that was pretty much it for processing.  You can really do a lot with just dodge and burn techniques.  although the image was relatively “simple” I think it works well, and is to date one of my favorites (if not my favorite) in my portfolio.