So, recently I had one of those super-awesome opportunities that are so prone to giving me impostor-syndrome: thanks to my ETC peeps I ended up helping the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre out by shooting their annual fund-raising Radio Show. I guess shooting it fell off their usual guy’s radar, so, I was helping them out at as a last-minute fill-in. But really, given that the Radio Show is a fun little night of local celebrities and Indy big whigs, it was really them doing me a solid.
I knew going in I was going to have to grab a photo for a cast of 30, and in a hurry at that. Not an easy task under normal circumstances, and in an unfamiliar place and with a time-crunch I thought it was a good excuse to finally try the epic 86″ version of my beloved parabolic umbrella. The 64″ extreme silver I have has served me well for years now, and with a diffuser cap on it did an admirable job shooting the much smaller cast for ETC’s “Shakespeare Wrote What?” last summer.
64″ Extreme Silver PLM with diffuser about 20′ from cast on top of a metal stair ladder.
Since the medium PLM did such a good job with a small cast, I figured the larger version with the softer silver would probably be a good choice with a larger cast. So, I dragged it out to the IRT, and set-it up a good distance from the stage and about as high as I could get it:
Actually, I got it a bit higher than this, and reduced the angle a bit in the end.
And, sure enough, it didn’t disappoint. Because of the rush I had it slightly off center, so, I had about a 1 stop gradient across the frame, but nothing LR couldn’t handle in post. The shadows cast by the umbrella were, for the context, just perfect. Hard enough for definition, soft enough to be pleasant still.
Can you guess who everyone is? I sure couldn’t.
It wasn’t until the actual performance I learned who the cast was for the evening. The sudden realization that you just took a picture of the CEO of Lily and his wife, one half of the infamous Bob and Tom radio show, one of the newer member of the Colts, and a bunch of other People who are People To Know is a bit of a terrifying rush, let me just say.
But boy, a lot of people made it out to see them (and, you know, to help the IRT raise money for little things like underwriting tickets and transportation costs so students can see more live theatre).
After an hour or so running around through two packed floors of guests and cast mingling (shot with a Fong Cloudsphere, love those things), it was back into the main theatre to catch the Radio Show on the One America Main Stage. It was a delightful “parody” of Downton Abbey (“Downtown Abbey”), with lots of good cracks at Indianapolis foibles and follies. Fun was had, and quite a deal of money was raised very quickly to help underwrite those student tickets. I was glad to be there for it, and glad to see how strong the theatre patronage in Indy really is.
And, boy, am I glad with work like this I made the jump those years ago to a D700. Everyone assumes the problem with working in theatres like this is the dark, but you know, very rarely did I have to go above ISO 3200 (thanks in part to the awesome new Tamron 70-200mm f2.8 VC I was giving a spin). The real problem with theatres is actually the light in the dark, if that makes sense. It’s the stage lights, which aren’t by themselves technically bright, but they are much, much brighter than the dark without them, creating a pretty big EV range to try to capture. And the dirty secret of high ISO too few people think about is that as ISO increases, dynamic range decreases. So, the trick of shooting these conditions isn’t to just ramp up the ISO and call it a day. If you do that, you end up either only having the highlights exposed and just massive stretches of pure black blah, or else you get the shadows but your highlights are too blown to recover. The D700 has much better headroom for highlights in RAW than my E-3 ever did, and that’s made shooting like this possible. I usually try to split the difference these days, where the shadows are a bit dark and the highlights slightly blown then I fix them in post to have something that looks more, well, natural than a pure “in the camera” process could ever give me.
Shooting theatre is fun, but it’s definitely got its own flow. Most of your attention has to be on the performance itself, trying to watch the actors, how they behave, who does interesting things, and trying to predict where the action is going to move on you. So, you don’t have a lot of time for focusing on the technical. Which, thanks to the decreased DR of the higher ISOs you need but the expanded range of the actual scene thanks to the stage lights means you have to take a lot of shortcuts. The big one is that I only use stabilized lenses, both tele and wide/standard, when I shoot like this. Sure, stabilization doesn’t compensate for actors moving, but at slower speeds like 1/50 it sure does take out a lot of the slop my own shakey hands would otherwise be introducing to the mix. Speak of 1/50, that’s about as slow as I care to go shooting theatre. Slower than that and you get too much blur too often. It’s nice to go faster when you can, but, once it requires raising the ISO the lack of blur is compromised by further compressed dynamic range, so, I prefer to err on the side of motion blur. So, what little time I do have to devote to the technical mostly goes to constantly fiddling the shutter up and down a few stops to compensate for the rapidly changing (and meter-baffling) stage lights.
With handshake blur canceled by stabilization, you’d be surprised what’ll come out sharp even at slower shutter speeds.
All-in-all, I shot well over a thousand frames at the Radio Show. Mostly because, heck, I was having fun. It was a cool event, and one I was glad to be present for–even if I was technically working it. And, hey, the gal handling the audience cue cards totally rocked it with the best dress in the house and green hair. Take that, things.
It’s no secret: I firmly believe that ridiculous, overinflated art language does little to help people understand or appreciate art. At best is alienates viewers who would be more receptive if you just told them what you mean. At worst, it makes you sound ridiculous. Shame On You, Artspeak highlights those latter moments.
The captured oil paint, placed with conviction, permanently shows off the cleverness of the stroke.
Really? How is a stroke ever clever? Velociraptors are clever. Strokes? I remain less convinced.
The Intended Message:
It’s a little hard to tell here, but in the context of the page where the captioned image is illustrating the usage of copal painting medium, I think maybe something like:
The use of this medium lets the detail in these strokes show cleanly, and adds durability to the paint that’ll let it last longer.
But despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience. [...] In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing their standards on subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.
Susan Sontag, On Photography
Via my old friend Chris I’ve been picking at Susan Sontag’s nearly forty year old essay on photography, written well before I was even born, and it’s a little dismaying how fundamentally different things aren’t now. Some things really don’t change much. Well worth a read if you, like me, had somehow not been shown it before.
Whew. Seriously, the last day of 2013 already? What a year, folks. And, rather than bore you with a recap of it, here instead is a list of thoughts I’ve had rattling around about photography as you encounter it on the internet. A lot of these are inspired by my time spent recently trawling around 500px looking for some lighting inspiration, the rest come from helping customers at the day job. As always, my perspective is as a fine art and portrait photographer, I don’t consider any style where simply being in the right place is the entire first half of the battle (photojournalism, sports, travel) to be governed by the same rules as the styles where you’re out to create and not just record a moment. But that’s a separate issue all together.
So, without further ado, some thoughts:
Good gear is always worth what you paid. I promise. Yes, better gear is worth more money. It’ll last longer, make your life easier, give you more options, let you spend less time swearing, and (often) will be more versatile.
Flipside: I would only ever recommend buying what you expect to need, with about 10-20% more than you currently think you do. Take the money you’ll save by not going to a higher price point needlessly and apply it to another piece of good gear that does something else instead.
In general, you’ll know when to move up to a higher price point because it’ll become the only thing you can find that does _______ that you’ve been trying to. Unless you can already fill in that blank with something, I’d stick to the middle range gear aimed neither at beginners nor at bored doctors and already-famous fashion photographers. The middle of the pack is a sweetspot for most photography, and there are some real gems to be found in it.
When you’re getting started, spend most of your time figuring out what it is you want to do. There’s a lot of gear, and a lot of advice, and it’s all pretty much bunk if you don’t know what you want to do. My kit is very, very different then it would have been if I had decided to spend my time shooting birds instead.
There’ll come a point in gear shopping when it can’t be avoided, but as often as possibly avoid unitaskers. It’s true when Alton preaches it, and it’s true in photography too. A tool with a dozen uses is always a better return on your money than one thing that only has one purpose. You’ll get a lot better shots by reacting to what you’e given that by trying to make circumstances fit the narrow slice your unitasker demands.And, for what it’s worth, I will insist until my dying breath that every prime lens on the market is a unitasker. It gives you one look. You will find with regular use that there’s one type of photo it consistently gives you that it excels at, and a lot of others it never will. A good quality constant-aperture standard zoom is only more expensive until you realize you need five primes to pull the same weight. Buy primes hesitantly, and only when you’ve hit a wall where you just can’t get that look without them. Or, if you’ve just fallen in love with that one look that they do and you’ve decided to commit a bulk of your photography to it. That second one’s not for me, but I’ve seen people who can flat-out rock it.But when someone tells you to skip a zoom and just buy a 50mm prime, be really, really skeptical. Especially if you haven’t decided what it is you want to do yet.
[Personal note, the biggest benefit to primes is f-numbers faster than 2.8. Past f4, I dare you to pick out the difference between most primes and good zoom at the same focal length. Buy a zoom or two, shoot around. Find what focal lengths you shoot at most, then buy a prime in there for those times when you need shallower DOF.]
The single best thing you’ll ever do is to start putting the lighting first. The second best thing you’ll do is learn the light should come from the sides and not above.
You probably need a bigger light source. I mean, yeah. Probably. And, if you’re in doubt what to do about lighting, then you definitely need a bigger light source. Buy a parabolic umbrella, you won’t regret it.
The third best thing you’ll do is admit that every single in the history of ever has been dicked with, adjusted, or altered. There’s no such thing as an honest photo, and learning all that boring stuff like black clipping, gamma, saturation, sharpening masking, and yadda yadda yadda will give you way more results than any lens or body ever will. A copy of Adobe Lightroom was the single most cost-effective thing I ever did to push myself up a notch. People were willing to swear I had bought a new camera. Just saying.
If you can’t take a good picture of a pretty person, you have some real issues you need to work out. They’re doing the heavy lifting for you, as far as most viewers are concerned. Not to say you should get discouraged, I’ve taken plenty of unflattering pictures of pretty people and “I’m making sure the camera thinks you look as good as you do” is common patter for me at shoots anymore. But, still, if you’re taking pictures of good lookin’ folks and they don’t already look halfway to stellar, I’d hold off on hanging that shingle out just yet…
Corollary: It’s really stupidly easy with good light and pretty people to take good photographs. People will love them and you’ll get lots of empty comments and likes. But if that’s where you stop, they will be boring and immediately forgettable. Any photo of a pretty person in pretty light that doesn’t also have ambiance or meaning is just a fashion ad. And the thing about ads is they’re meant to have text on them. You know, to give them a purpose.
Ambiance trumps concept every time. Concepts are sticky things, and I’ve seen a lot of otherwise decent photos fall into the Deep Well of Hokey because they couldn’t let the concept go. Ambiance is better, and it’ll make a viewer linger. Concpets tell, but ambiance asks. And asking is good. Photos should make me ask questions. Just not “What the hell were they thinking?” That’s the wrong question.
Light everything as if it were a nude. What is it about nekkid people that makes photographers break out an A-game they’ll leave on the table unless a model piles clothes on it?
Speak of nudes, do you really need boobs to sell it? Your image, that is. I mean, I like boobs as much as the next guy, and I’ve shot boobs. But, in my trawl for lighting references lately it’s become obvious that “boobs” are conflated entirely too much with “art.” Here’s a helpful reminder, if the only reason you have a naked person in your photo is because they look hot, that’s porn. There’s a time and a place for porn, and you can have artful porn, but don’t go thinking you can just insist it was Art and it’s somehow different. If the person’s only there to get someone’s juices going, you’re shooting porn bucko. (Hint, this actually extends to boudoir and lingerie shoots too.) (Bonus hint: all lingerie ads are basically porn. They may be the most valid reason to take well-lit pictures of a tall gal in her knickers, but the back of your mind should always be reminding you the reason she’s in her knickers is to look sexy. It’s right there in the last word: sex. Don’t lie to yourself.)
Megan inserts at this point that she thinks the previous disclaimer is a fairly male assessment, and she’s never looked at a lingerie ad and thought that. I counter that even when targeted at straight women the point of them is to show how you would better attract the male gaze, which is sorta the flipside of the same coin. I’m also assuming, based on portfolios I see online, a very large chunk of people shooting lingerie stuff are dudes, which colors it a bit more. This may apply less for women shooting lingerie as that power dynamic is different, but hey, YMMV.
One last thought here, and it’s a bit more rambling so bear with me. Most nudes I see are more what I’d think of as studies. There are some really good reasons photographers love shooting nude forms. Doing so will teach you how to control lighting very, very quickly. It will do so because all of a sudden you’ll actually pay attention to what it’s doing, something you mostly won’t when clothes are helping pick up the slack for you. But, keep in mind that drawing students also spend a lot of time with nudes. Most of them don’t fill a portfolio with those sketches though. Shoot them, learn what you need to, show them on your blog or Flickr or what have you. But there are a lot of nudes out there, unless you’re doing something more than “celebrating the human form” with them, maybe skip the portfolio and just accept that they were studies.
You suck at titles. There’s no shame in numbers, untitled, or titling a photo for the model. But, you’re shooting hundreds to thousands of pictures a year: they don’t all need titles. Honestly, none of them do. Spend more time shooting, less time being cute. Blue Dream, White Queen, and Sacred Shivers aren’t photo titles… they’re next year’s featured fragrance lines.
Your photo is going to get stolen. Take a deep breath, calm down, and admit that now. If it’s online, it’ll get stolen. Period end. No amount of watermarking will stop that. Don’t believe me? Remember that time Capcom stole the cover for their own game off of a blog?
Need more than an isolated incident (even if somewhat notable) to convince you? Why not trawl PhotoshopDisasters posts where stolen stock photos made it all the way to production with the watermark in place?
Starting to come to grips with the fact that it will be stolen? Good. Now, instead of putting a huge watermark on your images (which will do nothing to actually stop it being stolen, clearly), if you’re worried about losing money to this take the actual steps of shelling out and copyrighting your photo. Embed your copyright info in the meta. And then if you must keep watermarking your photos still, show some reserve and decorum and keep it small so I can actually see your photo, k?
And for the love of the gods, pay someone to make you a logo and don’t just type your name in the lower corner in papyrus. There is no quicker way to spot an amateur playing at being a bigger fish. NONE.
If your HDR image looks like a newly-discovered Thomas Kincade, you’ve gone too far. HDR is both the Kincade of photography, and the solarization effect of the new millennium. It’s not going to age well, and it’s going to turn off more people than it turns on. Or, at least, I hope it does. Just… show some restraint, yeah? Used right HDR is a wonderful tool, especially at night, to fill in the dynamic range our eyes can see but our cameras can’t. Used wrong, and, well…
So, it’s been a while since I’ve actually posted, you know, other people’s art out here. And it’s like Christmas Eve and stuff, so, I’ll keep this short.
This isn’t Basquiat. Heck, I don’t really know the name of this artist, she just goes by “AbstractCelebrity” on Reddit and Etsy, but Basquiat’s primitive style was one of my early influences in my style and I love seeing someone who can nail that look far better than I can.
Good job, AbstractCelebrity, whoever you are. Now, if you also like this, head on over to her Etsy and buy it, therefore assuring my jealousy as I can’t currently swing the money to myself thanks to a recent gear-glut.
Sure, you might’ve missed out on owning quite a few of my paintings, including a few rather popular ones. But, surely it’ll be comforting then to know I’m already back to work making new ones you’ll someday be able to pick from instead. Like this, the as-of-yet untitled third painting in my Scenes From Antropolis series. And, if you’re not sure you’re the sort of person who wants a painting of a girl in a bikini in a car with a gimp picking up a squirrel hooker from an oppossum madame… well, then I’m not sure we can be bestest of friends….
I have today sold an eleventh total piece as a result of my Life In Flux show, and I wish “Albert Speer” happiness with the lovely couple who now own it. You may all mentally extend them your jealousy for their totally excellent choice in paintings, and cry a single sad tear that you now won’t be able to own this one yourselves.
But, never fear, I should have a new post going up after this one in about 5… 4… 3… 2…
Whew. Just took down my show at New Day Meadery today, and what a show it was. In addition to picking up a fiancée from the deal, I sold eight (can I count? I think not) pieces at the show, with another two pending. So, I dedicate this brief post to the faithful works that have found themselves better, more different homes to live in now. If you’re reading this and recognize yourself as one of the happy owners I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting, drop me a line. I love meeting the people who collect my stuff. They’re easier to market to ;) But seriously, I’d like to tell you thanks myself for your purchase. Hit me up.
I don’t honestly remember when I met Megan the first time. Certainly it was back in the booze-soaked, couch-surfing days at the end of the Grimey Studios. Almost certainly at a party, because that’s what we did. She was Liz’s friend from the bio department, and in that context I’ve known Megan (or, at least, of her) for quite a few years now.
But, for the past two, she’s been a considerably larger part of my life. What started as an interest finally pursued after Liz’s wedding rapidly became her practically living at my apartment. Then it was actually living there. Then there were cats. Total elapsed time? A few months, tops. It happened fast, when it finally happened. Which isn’t really the interesting part. I’ve done fast before. I went from never being kissed to losing my virginity in three days, fast isn’t new.
What was new was the way everything immediately felt familiar and comfortable. A few weeks felt more like having known her a month, and rapidly we began to joke that each next month was like having been together another year. We watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I made cavatappi and meatballs. We went for walks in the various parks nearby, and drank coffee.
Over the course of the next 23 months, we’d deal with everything you could ask a couple to. After dating for four months, we had to drive Megan out to Texas on a broke budget so she could do some field research. She was gone all summer. We used video chat a lot.
We’ve dealt with unemployment, and moving to a new apartment. The death of a cat. Getting her first full-time job in her field. Me joining EclecticPond, and the time commitment that came with that. More field research, more weekends away. A vacation to New Orleans where my car died in Meridian, Mississippi some nine hours from home.
It was in her second field season, actually, that I realized I wasn’t bothered by the notion of marrying Megan. It took me only a drive home to decide how I would like to propose, and three months to pull it off. If I, as legendarily vocal about the nature of marriage as I am, was going to get engaged, I wanted my friends to witness it. I wanted them to be a part, and I wanted it to be a very public affirmation. I was going to need an excuse to have a lot of people around.
So I did what it is I do best. I put on a show, and was able to use it as my excuse for all my planning, worrying, and guests. Jennifer Spurgin got me a connection with Tia, who runs New Day Meadery in Fountain Square. She loved my idea and just happened to have a spare two weeks at the end of November following an auction I could use. Then the auction canceled and my little smokescreen became a full-fledged First Friday show.
Photo by Jennifer & Chris Spurgin
I made it a retrospective, and hung thirty pieces. One for each year of my life. On the sly, I painted a thirty-first piece, the culmination to my green man series. Halfway into the show, I unveiled it. Thanks to a bit of fussing by Nick, the ring was on it. And, to end my speech, I showed everyone what I really meant by life in flux.
Photo by Jennifer & Chris Spurgin
Fortunately, she said yes. Thank you, Megan,for deciding to commit your life to me. I love you so much. Here’s to the next thirty years, and the next thirty after that.
Photo by Jennifer & Chris Spurgin
Thanks to the joys of the modern world, you can watch the thing itself right here, if you’re into that.