Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Little Black Dress as Technical Exercise

Emily in an American Apparel Dress

I recently shot a whole series of shots with the models appearing in their favorite Little Black Dress, or LBD, as it will be abbreviated here. I also decided to shoot on a black or dark grey background, to simplify the shot and increase the emphasis on the subject. This post, like most on this blog, will discuss the technical challenges of the shoot. For more on the philosophy and concept, read the blog on my website at

I always like to light my subjects in studio (and usually outside) with an Octobox for the key light. I place it as close to the subject as possible, usually off to one side, but occasionally right behind me. This provides a soft flattering light on the subject. A circular catch-light is another nice aspect. (See photo below of Karli Henneman for catch light)
Karli Henneman in LBD with Vintage Jewelry
The challenge here, with the dark background is getting a good separation of the black dress from the background. The first thing I tried was creating a slash shaped gradient of light by throwing a strobe on the background then cutting the light in a diagonal shape using flags. (You can see this effect in the first photo of Emily above.) I found this frustrating and inconsistent, every time I got the light balanced on the subject, I has to rebalance the background. Also, unless the studio is huge and the subject is a long distance from the background, light from the Octobox spills onto the background, spoiling the dark effect. This can be mitigated to some degree by flagging the Octobox.

Later, I decided to place a snooted or gridded strobe above the model that points to the background, at waist level. I like the circular gradient I get. It generally flatters by outling the curves of the model. It also tends to be behind the black dress. The darker part of the background tends to be behind the head, arms and legs, giving a nice contrast to all aspects.
Miss Nicole Malice in her own dress
I like to throw a rim light on the opposite side from the Key Light. This is usually done with a grid or bare strobe placed behind the model and just off camera. I center it on the shoulder so that it falls on the hair and the arm as well. Occasionally, I will rim both sides for variety.

Finally, I often use a handheld speedlight, right above the lens for some fill to give the dress a little more detail. Sometime this adds a second smaller catch-light as you can see in the Karli photo.

As for camera settings, I usually shoot around 5.6. This allows me to get most of the subject in focus, and have the background somewhat out-of-focus, minimizing and flaws in the seamless.

I think this set up is very dramatic and flattering. It also has the simplicity that mirrors the dress.
Krysta Kaos in her own LBD and shoes

You can see the entire collection of black dress shots on my flickr page.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Fun With Gels

For portraits, the photographer is often presented with a drab or at least colorless backdrop. One way to liven up the shot is by using a gel on a speed light or strobe. It is particularly easy using a speed light. All you need is a little strip of gel taped to the speed light to make it happen.

In the first shot of Model Michelle Cisneros, I posed her in front of a grey roll-up door at a warehouse. I balanced the main lights using an Alien Bees A800 strobe with an Octobox on Michelle’s right. To fill in the shadows and add a catch light I used an Alien Bees Ring Flash on the camera. Finally, I placed a Lumipro LP160 speed light on the ground pointing up at the door. I used a deep blue gel taped over the light. You can see the dramatic effect of the blue as the door appears to glow.
In the second shot of model Kill Joy, I used a very similar approach. The dramatic red light was shined on a concrete wall. I aimed the light a little higher and placed it close to the wall so that the main part of the light was behind her dark skirt. In this photo I used an Alien Bees A800 with a 20% grid for the key light on her face. I wanted big fall-off so that the lower part of her body would be almost a silhouette against the bright red. Finally I used a LP160 handheld just above the lens of the camera to give just enough definition in the shadow.
The final photo gets a little more complicated. When Boo Yao showed up at the shoot, she sported magenta hair and a green dress, those complementary colors begged to be exploited. The shot was in an abandoned munitions depot. I lit Boo with the same Alien Bees A800 with a 20% grid for the key light on her face. I used a 580EXII speed light handheld for fill. The LP160 with magenta gel was placed on a stand to the camera’s right and pointed forward to provide a rim light and light the floor behind the green dress. The second LP160 was given a green gel and point to the back wall so that the green light was behind the magenta hair. The resulting double-decker complementary color combo pops.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Natural Light Portraits

I am really getting in to Natural light portraits. I will discuss some things I find work well here. But first a little background on how I figured this out.

I have been getting better and better at lighting my portraits. My workflow is as follows:

- Compose the shot and shoot with no added lights. (Natural Light)
- Examine the shot and add a key light or a fill light.
- examine that shot and add a fill light if I added a key previously
- add rim or accent lights (with a grid)

So the shot builds up gradually from no lights to as many as four or five lights. More on this in a future post. What I wanted to talk about here is some of the wonderful shots I have been getting without adding any light at all beyond the natural light.

I like these shots for several reasons. They typically have a very narrow dept-of-field (DoF). This means that only a very small portion of the photo is in focus. As an example, in the photo of Tainted Gypsy above, only her eyes and lips are in focus. This is accomplished by using a wide-open aperture. The best lenses for this have an aperture that can open to f2.0 or better. In this shot I used an 85mm F1.8 Canon lens. This lens retails for around $450 most places. Quite a bit less than the 84mm f1.2 for $2100.

Another great factor is the warm rich colors. Because you are lighting with sunlight, it comes off as a little warmer. All the colors match because all the light is coming from the same source, usually the sun. I like to use indirect light. I place the subject in a shaded area. The light should come from the side ideally. In other words, don’t have your back to a window that the light is coming from. Also, if you are using a window for your source, have it be a window pointing away from the sun, so that the sunlight is not coming directly in the window. In this photo of art gallery owner Joan McLaughlin, the subject is about 8 feet from a huge window that faces south. The shot was in the city, so light was bounced off of buildings across the street.

The lack of glare and harsh light really allows the colors in the photo to be very saturated. In the photo of artist Tim Christiansen, the colors in the paintings that surround him, really pop. Not only does this technique work well for portraits, I found it works best for shooting portfolio shots of art. Here we just opened Tim’s garage door. And all the light came from that.
Sometimes a great effect can be made by using a reflector. This shot of Kristie California has a large white reflector on the right side of the shot. The sunlight was coming from behind and left as you can see on her hair. The reflected sunlight really adds a nice soft highlight on the side opposite the sun. It also creates a huge catch light in the eyes.

One hang up for shooting this way is that you often use very slow shutter speeds. I find it helps push the ISO higher rather than risk the blur of camera shake. Even better is to leave the ISO at 100 or even 50 and use a tripod. Then you get a crystal clear image with minimal pixilation. This shot was at 1/30 sec, f2.0, ISO 100 using the 85mm f1.8 lens.

In my final example, you get the full effect with one added feature, a flattened perspective. In the shot of Miss Rockwell DeVil. the light was coming from behind her. So a very soft light rims her face, elbow and stomach. I used my beastly 70-200mm f2.8 lens set at 90mm, 1/30 sec and ISO 200. I can’t hold this one still at 1/30 so I used the tripod again. The window light was coming from the south. By using the longer lens the DoF is about a foot. Notice the front corner of the couch is out of focus as is her necklace. There were some side windows in the room. They provided some fill light for the shadows and a nice catch light in her eyes. She was closer to the back window, so that light is brighter.

If you want to see these larger and see more examples, I have a set on my Flickr page.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tattoo Portraits

The tattoo series of portraits has been one of my favorites to execute. Over a period of about 6 weeks, I photographed 16 different subjects. I originally intended to photograph both men and women, but after finding Model Mayhem, a veritable treasure trove of tattooed women who want their photos taken, I decided to focus on women only.

I will focus here on a couple of shots I felt really stood out in the collection. If you would like to see them all, you can see the entire collection on my website at

I met Vicci Vice (see photo above) on model mayhem. We met up at her favorite hangout in Oakland, CA. Vicci had some lovely photos on her model mayhem profile, but seeing as this was a portrait, I told her to come as herself. She showed up in some very cool black jeans and a red wife-beater T-shirt. We posed her in a teal Naugahyde booth surrounded by graffiti. This shot featured her gorgeous profile. I used an on-camera 580EXII with a Coco flash ring flash attachment. In the final photo, I pushed the color and made the booth more teal to contrast with the red shirt.
I actually had two sessions with Roxy Rage. In the first I met her and her boyfriend at a carnival in Oakland. There were several colorful backdrops on the sides of the game trailers. With the 5’10” Roxy walking around in her mini skirt and blue wig, we drew a lot of offers of free games and entertainment from the carnival employees. We ended up with this shot on a blue background, which I felt really complermented her hair. Once again I used the Coco flash 580EXII combo.
Our second Roxy shot was at Treasure Island in San Francisco. This shot was on the veranda of an abandoned barracks building. The veranda was raised up. I was able to hang a bare speed light above her, using a super clamp on a pipe. It was my only artificial source of light. I then set my camera on a tripod and got back as far as I could using my 70-200mm zoom lens set to 200mm. I tried to get barely above the level of the floor. Roxy did a great job of contorting to show her great legs and those brass-knuckle pumps, while turning to show her upper body and all that great ink.
Jayne Doe met me at Santa Cruz boardwalk one Saturday morning. We retreated under the pier where the light was perfect. I added an Alien Bees AB800 light with an Octobox to get this soft light. I also threw a speed light with umbrella from camera right down low to light her legs and another speed light with a mini soft box behind her to put some rim light on her back and hair.

On all these shots, I increase the contrast on the tattoos by using a partially masked high pass filter in Photoshop. Some shots have as many as 12 layers of adjustments.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Clone Self-Portraits

Being the egotist that I am, I always wondered what the world would be like if I could clone myself. I could get a lot more done. Have work, fun, family and fitness all happening simultaneously. Well, I am happy to announce, I have succeeded in cloning myself - at least in a photo. To date, I have done four such photos. The process is straight–forward, if somewhat tedious. The imagination is the biggest limiter.

In the first photo (below), I imagined myself at home doing the normal daily chores of life. Things like eating, sleeping, watching TV, etc. To get the shot, I set the camera with a 20mm lens on a tripod in the corner. I exposed for the ambient light at about 4 seconds on a f8 aperture. I used the camera’s 2-second exposure delay and a remote trigger to get in place. So this was actually several full exposures with me in the different places. After all the shots were taken, I opened the first one in Photoshop CS5. For each subsequent shot, I opened the new photo, selected all and copied to the clipboard. Then I went back into the main photo and pasted the image as a new layer. Next I filled the mask with black to hide the new photo. Then I painted the mask with white to reveal only the part that I wanted to add. I did this with each subsequent layer until the entire shot was composed. This one was easier than the bicycle shot at the top because there was no overlap between the layers.

For the bicycle shot, I used a similar technique, except for using a Canon TC80N3 intervalometer. I set this on 15 seconds and did a different loop on my bicycle, making sure to be in a different place each time. The camera was again on a tripod. I used my 580Xii on camera for fill because of the time of day. I changed shirts, glasses and water bottle every 10 shots or so, so I could have a variety of characters in the shot. I intentionally cropped some characters in half to show more motion and imply even more cyclists than were in the shot. The girl handing me the water bottle, just happened to walk by and agreed to help out.

The layering for this shot was much more complicated than the other. There were those pesky see-through wheels with spokes. Lots of images overlapped. So selection of images to mask and reveal was much more complicated. Also, several of the characters ended up being moved from their original position. Namely the tire-changer and the front bottom character in the yellow. It was tricky to position them so that they looked correct. The shadow on the tire-changer had to move as well. I lowered the contrast and lightened the tire-changer to make sure he looked farther away.Finally, I showed a shot of me editing photos in my home office. This would certainly make me more productive if I wasn't arguing with myself. Jerseys in this shot, except for the Livestrong Jersey are by 11-gear, my favorite cycling apparel. You can see more self-portraits on my website at

Sunday, April 3, 2011

InMenlo Photos

I have been taking photographs for This is a hyperlocal blog in the town where I live. Menlo Park is loaded with the famous and influential of Silicon Valley. I have quickly gotten to meet several very interesting poeple.

The biggest challenge is coming up with a concept and a photo with limited time to prepare or actually take the photo. My favorite moment so far, was meeting Barry Eisler (photo above), the author of one of my favorite spy novels, Rain Fall. Linda Hubbard Gulker the editor and I metMr. Eisler at Cafe Barrone on morning for coffee. After Linda finished her interview, I had a e few minutes for the photo. Mr. Eisler and I headed for the nearby train station. I thought a photo in front of a moving train might be interesting. I was fortunate to get a nicely framed image with the red swoop on the engine. This photo was shot at 1/30, f9.5 and ISO 400.

Other shots from the InMenlo session are below.
Joan McLoughlin owner of The McLoughlin Gallery in San Francisco. This photo was taken with Natural Light from the large window to the right.

Menlo Park artist Colleen Sullivan. This shot was taken using an on camera 580EXii and Coco Ring Flash and another Speedlight and Umbrella mounted to camera right.

Charley Scandlyn is a long time friend. Charley is running a fantastic fundation that provides educational support to thousands of children in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park. This shot was taken early in the morning with light coming from the right side. I added a strobe on the right to increase the effect.

Group shots are often a challenge. It is hard to get the light even and have everyone look their best. This shot of the Menlo Masters was a special challenge. Taken at 7 am on a rainy cold morning, I used an on camera flash balanced with the ambient light. I also had to apply a gradient in post to darken the front of the photo a little.

The Empower group is a fabulous group of ladies who have raised $60,000 to build libraries in Afghanistan and Pakistan with Three Cups of Tea's Greg Mortinson. I enjoyed working with them to try to come up with a pose where everyone looked comfortable and natural. I used an on camera speedlight for some fill light.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Olivia Dantes at St. Brigid's Church

Olivia Dantes sat for me at St. Brigid’s church. Once again I used the Octobox on an Alien Bees AB800. Shot on above also used a grid light on the background. I had great makeup from Monica Bulyard. These fashion shots can be quite fun. The dress in the alter shot is a PVC dress I love the Rembrandt style lighting in the first shot. To get this lighting the Octobox is only about 3' from the subject. Similar to the light in the Lady with Ferret shot previously shown. You can see more from this session at my flickr page.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Maggie Runner

We travelled to Long Branch Farms near Half Moon Bay. This shot used three lights. My make up person, Christina Del Ben, had a friend, Maggie Runner, who decided to pose as a 50s bombshell for the shot. Maggie has a great wardrobe, and this yellow number was perfect for the location, an old airstream-style trailer being used as a mini-golf clubhouse. The lighting worked out great, but the background through the trailer door and the window did not. I tried to blow it out, which I did. But I ended up replacing it with a background from nearby Pescadero that I had shot a month or two earlier. I am very happy with the result. This shot ended up with 30 or so layers.

The shot used a grid on the 600B next to the camera on her face. Octobox on 7B strobe camera right. And a snoot on the other 7B strobe to light behind the models head on the left.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Josey Baker

I met Josey Baker at Pizzaioli at 6 am for a shoot of him baking bread. When I arrived, Josey was cooling doen the wood fired oven form the night before. He has to get it down to 500 degrees to to bake the bread perfectly. I like getting him in the act. In my favorite photo, at the top, he is tapping the loaf after removing it form the overn. He can hear if it is cooked enough.

I wanted to reflect the morning light so I used my big octobox from the left side. In the top shot, I filled with a hand held PL160 speedlight, just below the camera lens. I like this light. It is soft and dramatic at the same time. A few people suggested I should put a light in the oven to make it look like fire, but there was no fire. Just the radiant heat from the fire the night before.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Lucy Billings Album Photos

I had the privilege of working with Lucy Billings to do the photography for her album “No Other Road”. Over three different sessions we worked on various locations, lighting schemes and ideas to create a group of photos that could serve the purposes of the album and be used for publicity. Here are a few with a brief discussion of how they were created.

Before we began shooting, I scouted the area for roads we could shoot on. We were looking for something scenic and somewhat remote, in keeping with the title. The cover shot (at the top of this blog post) and the inside back cover shot were done on Stage Road near Pescadero, CA. This is about a mile from the coast. This photo was taken in the section of road with large eucalyptus trees on both sides. The eventual cover used an illustrated scene with Lucy lifted from the photo. Touraine Bellah at Bellah Design was the creator of this colorful cover. The lighting was natural sunlight. We filled in the shadows with a reflector held by my assistant Sara Kline.

Our second session yielded one of my favorite portraits I have taken. (Above) On a cloudy and windy day, we headed out to the San Francisco Bay under the Dumbarton Bridge between Menlo Park and Newark. There are various dirt roads through this section of the bay that were used by Morton Salt when most of this part of the bay was salt evaporation ponds. There is also an abandoned railway bridge that we used in the background. Lucy braved the cold wind and stood for several photos. I used a coco ring flash and an on camera Canon 580 EX II speedlight. This brightened Lucy up against the background and made the red dress shine. This photo is on the inside flap behind the front cover.

The next shot is on the back of the album. This was taken at the end of the same day we did the bay shot. This shot was done inside at Lucy’s house. I used a Pepper hot light positioned high above and stood on a chair to get the above angle. I like the way the tungsten light warms up the photo and chose not to balance out all the effect of the warm light.

For the publicity shots, we started off at Vida restaurant in Menlo Park, CA. Ali El Safy, the proprietor who had previously posed for my shot The Restaurateur is a big supporter and let us use the restaurant for a backdrop. This shot was taken inside in the front of the restaurant. I used a narrow depth of field to keep the background out of focus. There is one LumiPro LP160 speedlight with an umbrella mounted camera left.

The outdoor shot with the columns was taken at Stanford. We got a strong background with the columns and added a light camera left. Once again we used an LP160 speedlight with an umbrella mounted on a stand.

This shot with the guitar and the embroidered blouse turned out to be another favorite. Back at Lucy’s house, we used an Alien Bees AB800 with a softbox to light Lucy’s beautiful red hair and get the great reflection on the guitar.

The fun for me on this project was getting to do so many different types of shots with the same subject. Lucy is very patient and willing to try lots of different ideas to get a good photo. Give her album a listen. You can access it on her website or on iTunes.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Black and White

I recently converted a bunch of Burning Man portraits from color to Black and White for printing. Originally, I thought these portraits would work best as color, since so many of the folks at Burning Man are literally colorful people. But the power of the Black and White really brought home the impact of the portraits. My professor in Digital Printing, Ryan Farnau, really impressed upon me the fact that a black and white image gives more freedom of interpretation by the artist. Since, by definition, a Back and White is not realistic, then the print can stress the parts of the photo with the greatest impact. In this example, I will go through the steps of one of the more complicated conversions I did. Starting with the color image and going step by step until the final B&W image. Here is the original image. I shot this in natural light. I had a silver canopy tent set up with a white seamless background.
The first thing I did was increase the contrast. the image is a little flat, so i used a high pass filter and dialed the opacity down until I liked it. Then I selected out the subject and filled the enture background with white. This brings out the features of his face and gets rid of that uneven background. The tattoos pop a little more as well. This version is still a little dark so I boost the exposure and brightness.That completes the global adjustments. I would like this to pop more, so I darken the leather in the vest and increase the contrast in the metal "S" shapes. I also boost the contrast in the glasses to make the reflections whiter. Now the conversion to Black and White using the B&W adjustment layer. Now for the final image I darken the tattoos, the wrist bands and the contrast in the hat. Now it pops!Of course, the whole thing took several hours. Selections and adjustments take a long time. Each adjustment gets its own layer in Photoshop, so it is easy to turn them off and on and go back to the original. You can see set of Burning Man portraits on my Flickr page by clicking here. I left some color photos in the set. They still looked better in color.