I recently had the pleasure of photographing Dwight Witten for a local magazine. Check his story out in the January 2018 issue of Tops Louisville.
I haven't sat down to write a blog in some time. There's been plenty I've been wanting to write about including switching lighting kits from Paul C. Buff to Elinchrom then to Flashpoint and switching camera systems from the Nikon D810 to the Pentax 645z. I still plan on writing those posts but life, both personally and professionally, has been busy lately so writing those posts have been difficult to say the least. But today, I'm making a point to write a post about my camera kit and switching from the D810 to the 645z... and then to a Sony A7RIII. Yeah, that last one surprised me too.
I've written before how the D810 was my end game camera. When I first started professionally that was the camera and after making enough to afford it I did put a lot of work in with it. I would be hard pressed to come up with any negative about this camera, it worked and it worked well. In a lot of ways, I think Nikon had made a perfect portrait camera. It wasn't the best all around and I wouldn't have recommend it for many genres of photography but it absolutely shined for portraiture. There wasn't an upgrade path for me with this camera, I was going to use it till it died and then pick up whatever the newer version of it was. But like most plans, it fell apart early one morning, before a second cup of coffee early, while browsing eBay.
The 645z wasn't a camera I saw myself getting primarily due to cost. Brand new the body itself starts at around $6000, lenses start around $1000, and, due to its size, new cases, which aren't inexpensive, would need to be bought. Medium format just seemed financially out of reach but, of course, I would still occasionally check eBay prices. I mean, no harm done by just looking right? Again, I loved the D810 so I didn't feel any need or want to buy a new system. But here's the deal, I'm browsing eBay in the morning and I find a post for a 645z for a great price. It's nearly half the cost of one brand new and although it has a scuff or two and it's closer to 20,000 clicks than 10,000 it still seems like a crazy good deal especially considering the amount of accessories it comes with. I send a few messages to the seller and she is willing to throw in two lenses for, again, great prices. Prices that put the whole system lower than what I know I could sell my D810 kit for.
Ordinarily, this sort of purchase would have been fraught over for days and probably up until the point that someone else bought the auction and it was no longer an issue. But life had taken a path out of ordinary and with everything else in chaos I thought, why the hell not. And like that, I became the owner of a Pentax 645z.
I don't have a great answer as to the switch. Don't get me wrong, the Pentax 645z is a goofy good camera. The files are incredible, the amount of detail it captures is insane, the dynamic range is huge, and overall it's just an amazing camera. Its build quality is also second to none, I'm pretty sure if it was large enough to fit a human inside, Indiana Jones could hide in it to ride out a direct nuclear blast. I've heard it called a good entry point or introduction to digital medium format and I think that completely undersells how impressive this camera is. If you look at it from a completely technical, spec to spec comparison it blows the D810 out of the water. But as a photographer, it's not always about being completely technical and as impressed by this camera as I am, it wasn't the camera for me.
I could and have made the excuses that the camera is too heavy, that it's bulky, that it's exhausting after a long day of use. There's been more than one occasion where I just sigh at the bag with the body and lenses because I know how heavy it's going to be when I put it on and make the walk to my next shooting location. And while I don't feel like those aren't invalid complaints they're not the real reasons I decided to sell my kit. The real reason is simple yet hard to explain because there's no real factor I can point to to say that this is why or this is the cause. To be honest, the camera simply wasn't for me and I don't have a specific as to why. I could spend the rest of this post giving analogies and explanations as to what that means but in reality its just comes down to personal preference with no objective reasoning.
At the time of writing the Sony A7RIII hasn't released and I haven't used it. I have it on preorder with a set of lenses but without using it I of course can't write about any experience with it. I've liked Sony cameras since the release of the A7 but I think it's only been recently when they've become a viable professional option. And before too much is read into "professional" I simply mean two card slots, viable zoom lenses, reliable battery life, and a line of servicing that caters to those who make careers with their cameras. I wasn't interested in the A9 as it seems geared more towards work I don't do so I would have been paying a premium for features I won't utilize. The A7RIII seems much more in line with what I want out of a camera. One question I am nagged with though is, why not the D850?
Choosing between the D850 and the A7RIII was a hard decision but it came down to a single feature, image stabilization. If the D850 had in body stabilization, or more of their lenses had it, then perhaps I would have went back to Nikon. But this feature is one that could be the difference between getting the shot or not or one of not feeling required to always pack a tripod. It is possible it won't have any impact at all on my shooting but only through use will I know.
I've made a big deal out of camera choice but in reality any of these cameras, and nearly all cameras manufactured today, are capable of creating beautiful photos. There's been plenty of ink spilled on whether or not gear matters and while that's a good discussion to have it's not one I'm interested in right now. I don't expect any gear to make my photos better or me a more capable photographer. But I do want tools that work with me and that I am comfortable with and confident in. Is the Sony A7RIII the right tool? Well, I guess I'll find out.
Dani is a local model I've been wanting to work with for some time. Again, it became a game of matching schedules so luckily last month we were able to find a time we were both available. This is also the first time I've used my home studio. There's still work to be done to get it full ready for clients and other work but it's getting there!
Kesley is a local model that I've wanted to work with for some time. She's done a ton of work and always nails the look. The problem, as there always is one, is that my work with models has been few and far between lately. Editorial work has taken up the majority of my time, not a complaint!, so finding time, much less coming up with ideas, has been a difficult task. Luckily one evening I was caught up on edits and had a bit of free time when Kesley invited me out with to shoot with her and another local photographer, Blake Randall, in a local downtown area. Although we did get rained out on the original concept for the shoot we did find an overhang to create the photos below.
The most interesting part of the evening was shooting with another photographer. This was my first time working when another photographer was shooting and it was an enlightening experience. Blake does great work and shoots much differently than I do. While I, for better or worse, nearly always use a flash or strobe of some sort Blake is, I believe, primarily a natural light shooter. I learned a lot watching his approach to model placement and use of available light. It's an entirely different approach than my own and a good reminder that there's an innumerable amount of ways to approach taking a photo that I should keep myself open to.
Getting schedules to align sometimes is more of a waiting game than it is actually planning. Such is the case with working with Brittany. It's not that we didn't try to get things to work out, but our schedules just never really worked. Luckily, a few months after we first met to discuss the shoot our schedules aligned and we were both available on the same day. The up side of this is that I had plenty of time to plan what I wanted to do. Brittany was on board and nailed every look we tried. Below are the results:
Over the past two weeks my friend and amazing makeup artist Matt Goodlett, MattGoodlettMakeup.com, has taken part in makeup inspiration challenges issued by another local makeup artist. I've worked with Matt on several occasions and regardless if it's SFX, beauty, or anything else there's never been a time when he hasn't absolutely nailed the look for the photo. So when he asked me to photograph the makeup for these two challenges I quickly accepted as I knew he would kill whatever look he was going for. But even after having worked with him multiple times before and seeing him work on other ideas it's still incredible to see how quickly and skillfully he draws from a source photo and creates something beautiful.
Mandarin Duck Challenge
Matt did a great write up of this challenge on his site here that I suggest you check out. Photographing this one was fairly straight forward, Matt knew how he wanted the photograph to look and I knew how to get that look. This was more or less a simple clam shell lighting setup with a gridded beauty dish as key and a silver reflector for fill. Using a gridded light with a reflector can be tricky but it does create a beautiful light when done correctly. If I had to do this one again I would probably try an even tighter grid on the beauty dish for an even more directional light. The beautiful Kaylynn Nyree was our model here who I suspect you'll probably see doing big things soon.
Drawing Restraints Challenge
This challenge, to me, seemed a bit more complicated. No colors, no defined shapes, white background, and a ton of possible interpretations. Going into this shoot I wasn't quite sure what Matt had planned. I thought we might go with a high-key look but after seeing the makeup Matt was doing I knew that wouldn't quite work. So white was out but I also wanted to avoid a pure black background as well. With the makeup as dark as it was I was worried that the model would get lost in so much blackness. Luckily the room we were shooting in provided a solution. Behind the model was white shelving which, when tilting the key light up slightly, is barely discernible but enough so as to help separate the model from the background.
Lighting this was a bit more complicated as I wanted to, of course, not only highlight the work Matt had done but help bring out it's character. For the face, a 24"x24" softbox provides soft, beautiful light but it's a small source so it quickly gives way to the harsher rim lighting from the 10"x36" stripboxes behind the model. This contrast between the softer and harsher light matches the contrast between the the chaotic nature of the body makeup and the more controlled beauty makeup on the face. Our model, Bec E. Bien, nailed the looks and helped create one of my new favorite photos.
I love being a part of these challenges and seeing Matt's interpretations of the inspirational photo as well as all the other makeup artists who participate in these challenges. Their approaches to the same subject are all different yet equally creative and well done. Be sure to check out more of Matt Goodlett's work at his website MattGoodlettMakeup.com and pop over to my Conceptual gallery to see more work we've done together.
Another shoot playing around with gels with the beautiful Portia.
Continuing my experimentation with gels, I recently did a shoot with the wonderful London Amore. Still have a lot in store for using gels so stay tuned.
At the beginning of April I had the opportunity to sit in a three day class by Joe McNally about photography. I'll talk more about that in another post but one of the biggest take aways I had was how to approach lighting a scene. One bad habit I had gotten into was setting up all my lights at the beginning, putting my subject in the frame, and trying to adjust the lights together to create the scene I wanted. And while this can work in some scenarios it doesn't work well when there's multiple lights, gels, different modifiers, mixed lighting, etc. To put it another way, I was throwing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle onto a table and trying to figure out why they didn't land as a completed puzzle.
Watching Joe McNally work made me realize that this approach of mine meant I was starting each shoot as an uphill battle. Instead of putting my subject into a lighting setup I needed to build the scene around the subject, one light at at time. I took this approach to heart, which is why below was the first picture from a shoot after Joe's class:
No lights but the window and I already have the mood and tone of the photo down. Starting here is like having the frame of the jigsaw puzzle already completed. Yes, there's still a lot of work to be done but I already know the scene in which the pieces need to exist. From here, I knew I would need a controlled light on the subject so as to light her properly but not overpower the natural light. Easy, bring in a beauty dish with a 30° grid, gelled with a single cut of CTO. Soft, beautiful light but not spilling everywhere. She also needed to be separated from the background so a gridded strip box with a double cut of CTO was put slightly behind her right shoulder. Then a lamp behind the subject to balance the composition more. The lamp was actually too powerful of a light source so it was turned off and a strobe was shot into it with a double cut of CTO as to make it appear on.
Last step, getting the pose right and small adjustments to ISO and shutter speed so the natural light was exposed properly.
I love how the photo came out and I don't believe I would have gotten as good of a photo if I continued with my usual approach. But it is important to keep in mind that there are no absolutes in photography. Joe McNally emphasized this several times throughout the three days and it's made me realize that there's not necessarily a right or wrong way or approach. While I did enjoy using a "building" approach to this photo and it was the better approach to create this photo, it doesn't mean its the best approach to every situation. Corporate head shots, for example, usually entails setting up lighting and making tweaks as each person comes through. Ultimately, neither approach is better or worse than the other but rather different tools for different jobs.
Matt Goodlett reached out to me last month and asked if I would be interested in shooting a body painting he was doing for a documentary. The idea he explained was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and his poem The Raven. Never passing up an opportunity to work with Matt, I quickly agreed with nervousness about the shoot. Even with his explanation I had trouble visualizing the outcome which made figuring out the lighting difficult. Lighting a body painting, like many other types of portraits, is all about brining out the best in the subject. Here's a few things I keep in mind when lighting a body painting.
- The body painting is just as much, if not more, the subject than the person wearing it. Lighting should compliment the painting, e.g. not put details in shadows, like it compliments the person
- Consider the mood. The lighting should work with the theme. In this instance, a gloomy Edgar Allan Poe body painting is probably going to look better low-key rather than hi-key
- The lighting should not be noticeable. The lighting should enhance, coincide, compliment, but never distract from the subject(s).
With that in mind, I created the portrait below. Matt and team did amazing work and I'm happy to have worked with so many talented people!
I hate wasting time. Not my own time, I'm spectacular at wasting my own time, but other's time. It's one of my biggest pet peeves which is why I show up 15 minutes earlier to any engagement, sometimes even waiting in my car if I'm too early to whatever it is I'm there for. I also try to have have everything ready to go in my studio before the subject arrives. If we have an hour to shoot, I don't want 15 minutes of that going to them waiting while I put lights on stands. Sometimes this doesn't always happen so my subject is then barraged with thank you's for your patience throughout the shoot if they stood by while I was putting things together. It's not just about being polite and courteous but being sure the subject/client/whomever knows I value their time the same as they do. So on a recent shoot when I left my Alien Bee power cables 40 minutes away some quick thinking was needed to save not my only subject's time but the entire shoot.
So what do you do when you have Alien Bees with no power cords, no other light modifiers besides soft boxes with Alien Bee mounts, two flash guns, some bungie cords, and a roll of gaffers tape? You improvise and adapt.
The crude bungie cord and gaffer's tape adaptor luckily worked long enough to get the photo below. I say luckily but it was truly the skill of the model nailing the look so quickly that allowed a final photo at all to be made. Anyone else and the whole thing could have broken around us with nothing to show for it. The moral of the story here is to always have gaffer's tape. And bring the power cords I guess.
I'm not a fan of downtown between jobs so I try to stay as busy as possible. Inevitable there's still times when I'm caught up on everything, all my e-mails and responses have been sent, all photos have been edited and delivered, and there's just nothing business related to do. It's rare, but it happens. I try to fill these times with creative or personal shoots but things come up so that's not always possible. So last week when I had a day of down time I decided to work on product photography.
Although I have no real intentions of getting into product photography, it is good practice on lighting. Light placement, ratios, spill, power, and fall off are just as, if not more so, important on products then they are people. So the considerations made to ensure the product is lit exactly how you want are easily extrapolated to lighting a person. It's also a great way to learn how a new modifier or piece of kit works, how you can apply it to get the results you want, and then having that information to inform shoots later on. There are differences, of course, between the two genres but my approach is not to have a deliverable to a client. Rather, its more of a way to practice with lighting that only takes up my time instead of that of a subjects as well. Plus my Sekonic l-308 complains less than most live subjects even when pulling double duty as a tool and a subject.
Yatta approached me about shooting with her and Shanee for a magazine submission. The idea was a Calvin Klein inspired shoot that highlighted their ink. Below are the results.
A few weeks back I accepted a job that required shooting tethered. I don't normally shoot tethered so I didn't have the cables or a place to set my laptop that would keep it secure and accessible. Now Tethertools is a company that offers solutions explicitly for this problem. The reviews for their products are always glowing, I constantly see them recommended for tethering, and all things considered they seem to be the best route to go for regular tethering. But for someone like myself it doesn't make sense to spend that sort of money for products I'd rarely use. Luckily, with a bit of searching, I found these alternatives below.
The Samson LTS50 is sturdy and fits my 15" Macbook perfectly. It comes with a sticky pad to adhere to the tabletop to keep the laptop from sliding around. I still used a long piece of velcro around the laptop and tabletop for extra peace of mind. I paid roughly $50 for it.
Oddly a long USB 3.0 cable was hard to come by at the time but Amazon does appear to stock them now. I went with a similar 15' cable in blue for a few dollars cheaper on Newegg but with Amazon's free shipping it's about equal in price. I paid around $5.
Lastly, when testing out the setup there were some instances of the USB cable become loose from my camera causing photos to drop. I used a velcro cable tie around the cable and into the neck strap loop on my camera to secure it. Worked surprisingly well and no longer had an issue with the cable coming loose. Paid roughly $5 for mine but you can get find them in any quantity it seems.
All in all, I paid around $60 for my whole tethering setup and it worked great. The stand extends and pivots for great viewing, the cable transferred D810 files in seconds without dropping any files, and everything was secure with velcro strips. For me and my needs, these offered an affordable solution that worked without issue.
This year I began to get serious about photo storage. It's not that I never worried about it in the past but with getting more and more work this year being sure my photos were safe and available became increasingly important. Having everything stored on my computer's HDD was not only unsafe but was become literally impossible due to limited disk space. My first solution was simple, store everything on an external HDD with this year's photos duplicated on the computer's HDD. I would import new photos to the computer's HDD and then copy the raw files to the external HDD. The problem with this solution is that it's still incomplete and unsafe. One power surge and both HDDs could be fried and I'd lose the entirety of my work. This is often why a 3-2-1 solution is suggested. 3-2-1 breaks down as follows:
- 3 different backups
- 2 different types of storage
- 1 offsite storage
I had 2 backups but both where of the same type, HDD, and both were onsite. Not a great start to a 3-2-1 solution. The reason cloud storage is so important is because it's not only a 3rd backup of your files but also it prevents a local disaster, such as a house fire, from completely wiping out all your files. There are any number of services to choose from for cloud storage but I decided on Amazon Cloud.
Several months ago this entire part of the blog would be a frothing at the mouth rant about the Amazon Cloud service. Sure it was a "free" unlimited cloud storage service but when I first started to use this service it was well... bad. The upload speeds were terrible, large files would halt upload for days, and managing files after upload was slow and tedious. To Amazon's credit, many of these issues seemed to have been alleviated with updates and improvements. File management after upload still isn't the greatest but it's more of an annoyance now rather than completely unusable. I've managed to upload all of my RAW files to their cloud in roughly one to two months rather than taking a month to upload a month's worth of photos . What I like about this service, that other's may not like, is that it's simple or, more accurately, rudimentary. As far as I'm aware there's no automatic backup, there's no easy restore, and there's no syncing drives. I might regret this one day but those aren't features I want. I simply want to upload folders and have them available to download if another drive fails. It's simple with no flairs and it works well in that space.
A quick aside on this service being "free." As far as I'm aware, Amazon Cloud started as a service that accompanied an Amazon Prime account. So it's "free" in so far as you're already paying for a service and this is a bonus to that service. So sure, "free." What's changed over time is that this service was "free" unlimited storage for all files. This has recently changed to being "free" unlimited storage for photos only with unlimited storage of other file types becoming a paid service. Luckily, unlimited storage for photos, currently, includes RAW file types so paying for this service in addition to paying for a Prime account hasn't become necessary.
Covering the 3s
With the 2 and 1 portion of a 3-2-1 solution covered I still wasn't happy with using both external and internal HDDs especially after switching to a laptop with a 256gb SSD. Also with switching to a laptop, portability became a new concern. Working with smart previews is great at times but they do have their limits in usefulness. Not only would an portable HDD allow me to work on the go but also act as a third backup. Since it's portable and thus always accompanying my laptop it's become my main storage device with the 4TB desktop unit above becoming more of a "deep storage" device rather than one that's used daily.
To recap, the 3 storage devices in use is a 4TB portable external HDD, a 4TB desktop external HDD, and Amazon cloud storage. There are 2 types of storage types in use, HDD and cloud. And 1 is permanently offsite. So 3-2-1 accomplished! For importing files my work flow looks something like this:
- Import RAW files using Lightroom to 4TB portable HDD
- Once conversion to DNG is complete I copy the folder to Amazon Cloud
- Beginning of the week, I merge the files from the 4TB portable HDD to the 4TB desktop HDD
- Once a week, I backup my Lightroom catalog to the cloud
I'm currently happy with this setup and confident that I'll have my files regardless of any circumstance. Would something like a drobo or a raid setup be better for deep storage? Maybe, but I think that's a beefier, not to mention pricier, solution than I currently need. But what's important is that my files are multi-duplicated, safe from local disasters, and readily accessible. One last thing to note, brand and service isn't terribly important as long as they are reliable. Seagate currently seems to be the leader in reliability but I've had very good luck with Western Digital HDD in the past. Amazon Cloud is one of many cloud services and seeing as Amazon won't be going anywhere anytime soon I feel confident in the service being available for as long as I need it. Ultimately, brand and service isn't terribly important but what is important that you actually utilize whatever devices and services you go with.
I want to start this off with making it clear that this shoot wasn't bad in any part due to the model. It was actually her patience, skill, and enthusiasm that made coming anyway with anything from this shoot possible. The sole originator or source of any and all issues was myself. With that clear, let's begin with the story of my worst shoot ever. The idea for this shoot was simple, use Christmas lights to create an interesting background and foreground to put a model in. Cool bokeh + pretty model = Success! That's about as complex as my thinking was for the shoot and, as far as ideas go, that's really as difficult as I thought it needed to be. Execution on the other hand apparently needed an entire dissertation in order to work.
Christmas lights. If you're used to dealing with these every year than you know where this is headed. There was the usual issue of tangling, strands not fully lite, and just general lack of cooperation on their part. I detangled the strands and ensured they all were working correctly before the shoot which means they still managed to tangle themselves and some of the strands now mysteriously had portions out when I began setting them up. What I didn't count on was not having enough lights as I had well over 100ft of lights which seemed plenty until I began trying to create a background and foreground. After the first couple of attempts I realized I had greatly underestimated the amount of lights I would need. I abandoned having any in the foreground and still felt the lights were too sparse in the background to give me the visual interest I wanted.
There's two routes I could have gone in correcting the lights issue. First, was just bringing more lights. I should have brought double or even quadruple the amount of lights I did but this would also double or quadruple the time spent hanging/fighting these lights (more on that later). Second and the solution I went with, layering multiple shots together in post. This is the approach I should have taken from the very beginning. Sure it requires a bit more time in post but reduces the time and hassle in hanging and dealing with Christmas lights on set.
Christmas lights. Seriously, @*$! these lights. Hanging the lights and structuring them in a way to get an interesting foreground and background is part of the planning I thought I had down. My initial thought was using three light stands in a triangle formation with the model in the middle of the triangle. With the light stand behind the model lower than the front two to fill the entirety of my frame with lights. My folly was thinking the lights would in any way agree to this plan. With light stands in place, sand bagged for support, and spring clamps for days I began stringing the lights along the stands and then restrung the lights along the stands and then again restrung the lights along the stands. Spring clamps be damned the lights would fall, sag indiscriminately, make remarks about my mother, and any tightening or straightening of the lights threatened to topple the sandbagged light stands. It was at this point I moved the lights and stands aside and shot a few portraits of the model to stop from losing my shit.
Don't work with Christmas lights? Honestly, I'm not sure what a solution would be without using 3 massive C Stands and a whole roll of gaffers tape to ensure everything was near permanent in placement. Actually, I suppose that is the solution. C Stands and rolls of gaffers tape.
These two problems, although important, really stem from a lack of proper planning on my part. Yes the Christmas lights were aggravating and weren't cooperating but ultimately I should have tested the setup first and found solutions to these issues long before the shoot. It was unprofessional and, honestly, rude for me to have the model wait while I fought with these lights and there's no excuse for that. Before this I had multiple shots that went spectacularly so hubris got in the way of me considering the plan I had in my head wouldn't hit any hiccups. Finding solutions to problems on set is a great skill to have and one I think I do well with but this should work in conjunction with, and not in place of, proper planning and testing.
I wanted to do a Halloween themed shoot this year so I reached out to to the wonderful make up artist Matt Goodlett. I've worked with him before on several shoots and wanted to get his opinion on an idea I had. It wasn't so much an idea as it was a question of what would a team of makeup artists do if given free reign on a Halloween theme. Matt suggested the makeup team from Devils Attic, a local haunted house, Team Demon Fabulous. The amazing team came up with four distinct looks that I couldn't be happier with.
In order (Model; Makeup Artist):
Victoria Nolley, Mary Proctor
Katya Estes; Matt Goodlett
Kat Rist; Lauren Bradley
Rebecca; Kelsey Pombo Eisenhut