True Story…

In November 2019 I called up my buddy Kevin Foster. I said “Bring your ‘Best Hat’ and your ‘Favorite Hat.’ I know they’re different. I have ideas.” Kevin’s kind of a local legend as that dude who showed up when the community needed a hand and decided it was time to change things for the positive. Then he kept on going with it. Funny thing is that once the pandemic hit the Bay Area and Santa Cruz County one of his photographs started getting shared tens of thousands of times. “Viral” might not be the right word yet, but the image plus the text that Kevin added to the photograph conveyed a badly needed message.

“Sometimes you have to sit back… Watch, and Observe… People will show you who they are without you saying a word.”

Kevin Foster

Now funny thing for me is that’s probably the photograph I put the least effort into. I mean there’s almost no editing there. I like to fuss. I like to draw out what I see and spend some serious time with a photograph.

This is actually the photograph that I had in mind. This was the “Best Hat”.

After we went through my ideas Kevin had a surprise. He spends a lot of time rescuing animals and developed a love for birds of prey. He brought this magnificent hawk inside and we ran with it.

As you can imagine some unexpected things happened. Actually when I read that I suppose you could say that we expected some unexpected things to happen… making this next moment expected. I think.

They Didn’t Notice The Surf

August, 2015. I was looking for subjects along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz to photograph. There was no surf. Flat as a proverbial pancake. I setup to photograph a passing boat, carefully set my focus point and waited for just the right arrangement.

This isn’t that arrangement.

Moments later a man and a woman paddled out into the frame. They didn’t seem bothered that there was utterly no swell. Their eyes never left each other. Surfing clearly wasn’t as important as being together. I don’t think they noticed anything else in the world.

The scene changed quickly. The boat kept moving to the right and out of frame. The couple got closer together. The light continued to fade and I had to make a decision. Was I changing my focus away from the boat and to the couple? There just wasn’t time. I kept focus where it was knowing that the couple would be a little blurry. The resulting image still told such a compelling story that I kept it and worked on the photograph again nearly five years later. On close inspection I can see now that they’re even on the same board.

Inspired during “Shelter In Place”

I found myself inspired in early February, 2020. As I was exiting my nearly predictable semi-annual dry period I was invited to participate in a portrait shoot in Illinois. I’ll write about that experience soon. Spoiler alert, it was worth the trip.

The dry spell was smashed to pieces and I was back on fire. Right about then we all started hearing about a mystery illness in China. I’ll bet you’ve heard about that. Shortly after getting home the world I knew went seriously sideways. I wrote about the beginnings of this around me in an earlier post.

Shelter In Place

Like a lot of folks I have a “day job” that, lo and behold, has almost nothing to do with my art degree. The good news is that I’m one of those weirdos who mixes left brain and right brain traits. After the “shelter in place” announcement from the state of California I started seriously wondering if my new found inspiration was in danger. No. No it wasn’t.

Empty Highway 9, Boulder Creek, California
My little town on the first day of “shelter in place”. It was pretty quiet and stayed this way.

Opportunity from necessity

I took this as an opportunity and didn’t slow down. There was a wealth of subject matter under my nose, all I needed was the necessity to explore it. Walks around my rural neighborhood became scouting missions for tiny subjects. As a result I was actively seeking out mundane subjects to create interesting photographs. If anything my creativity accelerated.

California Poppy in monochrome
A Golden California Poppy envisioned as black and white

Selfie Central

Without my muse friends, my interest in off-camera flash became an opportunity for self portraits. I setup a backdrop and a strobe in my home office. Selfie Central was born.

Self portrait in my improvised home studio
A response to a “show me your mug!” challenge. Yes, it’s a chicken. I love my chicken mug.

A little knowledge, a speedlight, and a tiny diffuser became a strip light to create dramatic light for small subjects.

Dramatic lighting on a Hawaiian figure
A tiny keepsake from a trip to Maui, lit for dramatic effect.
Study of a sea shell in dramatic light
A study of a sea shell in dramatic light

This also became an opportunity to encourage friends to create. I know they’re in the same situation, or in a lot of instances recently out of work, stuck and home, and dearly needing something constructive to do. I love to be helpful so I’m glad to support and mentor.

New ideas for my backlog

I also had new ideas for post processing previous work. I have volumes of images and a backlog of portrait projects. This was a golden opportunity to look for gems and reinterpret those with new ideas. This has had the bonus effect of reconnecting and growing friendships with my model friends.

Katie Belle during a swimwear/surfboard shoot.
Katie Belle, aka @umitsonlyme

Opportunities abound

Of course this was also an opportunity to follow up on a contact with the editors of Photofocus from weeks ago. Not only was I inspired to create images, I was inspired to write. I keep using the word “opportunity.” Yeah, things are weird, hard, scary, and for many deeply tragic. Opportunity is there, you have to want to see it.

Quiet Monday morning – pandemic in the USA.

Monday March 16, Santa Cruz, California. The morning after our governor, Gavin Newsom asked for bars to close, older residents to self quarantine. This wasn’t a directive, but it seems to have been a broad request to help slow down this highly contagious virus. I had a physical therapy appointment this morning and forgot to enable notifications on my phone. The therapist office had called me on my way there, saying that appointments are cancelled. I brought my camera with me just in case there was a story to tell somewhere. That story started right across the street.

Some things stopped

All shows postponed

Some things need to go on

Still need to walk the dogs

Storytelling

I genuinely believe this is an important time for story tellers everywhere. I headed downtown for just a little bit — with great care. I saw a mix of things and behaviors. It was a bit quieter than usual. There were fewer people out. Coffee shops were nearly empty. Places like Verve Coffee are usually hopping with activity. There were a few customers but not empty, and not full. People kept their distance. I met a nice man named Mike, a financial consultant visiting from San Jose to meet a client. That client has asked if they could postpone the meeting for an hour, so he was here for a cup. He was friendly and well dressed. We struck up a conversation easily. We tapped elbows and chuckled about it. I didn’t get his picture — I really should have. We exchanged contact information and I hope to hear from him again.

Inside Verve. This little sign didn’t surprise me. The folks there kept on doing their job and made a great latte.

Notices

Chocolate the Restaurant, To-Go ONLY

I was expecting to see some businesses closed, or at least not open yet. After all, it was Monday morning. What did surprise me was how specific the notices were. Consider ordering something amazing from Chocolate via their website. You’re in for a treat.

O’Neill Surf Shop: closed

A little down Pacific Ave and O’Neill Surf Shop was closed. A sign in the door explained why. It’s a smart move, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the reality of it. An iconic surf shop. In Santa Cruz. Closed.

Pacific Avenue. Not empty, but not busy.

People

I walked further past Palomar and Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company. Both were open, and with some customers. I stepped out into the street with a wide angle lens. It’s not an empty street, but I’m accustomed to a little more activity. There were still folks making deliveries and some business as usual. Ish. I saw two men happy to see each other greeting with a big hug and handshake. This seemed like exactly the wrong move today.

Wandering around I always come across familiar characters. I think some recognize me too. We have a number of homeless on this street, although in much denser concentrations elsewhere in the county. I worry about these people today.

Troubled in a blanket. Everybody kept some distance from each other.
Homeless man with a mask
Street performers
Man in jacket with skateboard
Familiar characters
City employee keeping things going

Some elements of life looked normal but with subtle dissonance. A family out with their baby stroller. A UPS truck out for deliveries. A couple of cars on the road. 114 parking spaces available. That’s most of them.

114 parking spaces available.

Favorite photos from a story about local radio

I had a photo assignment from my favorite Santa Cruz website/magazine in 2015. KUSP radio had new management and it seemed like everybody was doing a story about it. I think we all knew that the closure was coming any time.

Lee Ferraro, the new manager of KUSP public radio. December, 2015

Over the past few days a handful of images kept coming back to my mind. I revisited the photographs tonight and edited them again with a different look.

Alex Burke joked about having a “face made for radio”. I enjoyed meeting her. Lots.

Probably my favorite photographs were with Lee by the stacks of vinyl records. He would poke through, finding his favorites. We’d pause and talk about one for a while.

SEE Challenge Day 1 Also

Day 1 Also?

Yeah, I know. Look, I was going to title it SEE Challenge Day 1 until I discovered that my friend Elizabeth Hahn beat me to it by 4 hours. That and it’s funny.

I’m lucky to have a friend who’s a wonderful photographer, mentor and inspirer of all things. Yes I just totally ripped off a line from Elizabeth’s blog on exactly the same topic. Lauri challenged us to shoot a roll of film daily for a while. I haven’t personally developed a roll of film since college and I’m pretty sure all the chemicals are in a box somewhere in my garage. But stick with me here; limit the photos taken as if each image was precious enough to burn a frame out of a small set of possible frames. So naturally I plunked a 128gb SD card in my Canon 7d Mk II. That part was more of a coincidence since it was the first SD card I grabbed before leaving today, but again it’s funny.

Precious

I thought about this idea: precious.

My typical day is pretty mundane. Up early. Stretch, yawn, scratch, shower, dress, coffee, scratch some more, cereal, shave, out the door. Drive from heavily forested area to tiny mountain back commuter road. Tiny road to major highway. Major highway to major freeway. Crawl through Silicon Valley traffic for the next hour. Arrive in parking garage, exit to building of concrete and steel (albeit a pretty one), work at my desk (yes I have a “day job” but I think you knew that) around stuff I’m not allowed to take pictures of. Repeat the process in reverse like squeezing toothpaste back into the tube.

So what was precious about any of this?

I haven’t done this in a while because I was too hurt to drive. So yeah, this was precious.

Today all of it was. Every last bit. I won’t bug you with details but over the past 6 weeks I’ve had two significant health things. One where I was’t sure if I was going to live to see the next morning. The other where I got to understand what a “10” is on the pain scale for a week straight. So simple things like driving my car. Getting gasoline. Watching an airplane land were pretty damn precious. Pardon my stroll into existentialism for a bit please.

We have a popcorn popper at work. One like you’d see at the movie theater. I was captivated by the texture, color, and the sense of fun. This was precious to me at the moment.

Popcorn. Precious, precious popcorn.

My commute home tonight brought me close to the airport. Was this moment precious to me? Yes. Do you remember a day when you looked up in the sky and there were absolutely no aircraft flying? I mean at all? I do. It was September 11, 2001. Not one airplane. I don’t take this for granted. Also think about the people on the plane. Somebody’s coming home. Somebody’s excited to see somebody else. Somebody’s terrified of the landing part. Precious to somebody else.

A Southwest Airlines jet landing at San Jose Mineta Airport

The rest of the virtual “roll” was mostly looking for a pleasing composition of the aircraft in motion. Another way of saying that is “crap” but tonight I’m OK with it.

Sand Bags In Capitola Village

If you’re familiar with Capitola Village then you’re aware of the colorful beach vacation rentals practically on the sand. I visited a few weeks ago hoping for a particular view that didn’t work out. I went looking for otherwise mundane subjects to explore. The doorways closest to the burm all had sand bags to keep out water from winter storms. People were looking at me like I was a little bananas taking pictures of doorways.

Woah that’s a lot of blue

As I refined the image, darkening this, brightening that, more blue tones showed in the sand bags. This isn’t a big surprise since they’re against this blue door. The light gray bags are reflecting the colors in the blue door. The blues in the image became more saturated as I darkened the texture of the bags. I liked it so I left it. It’s possible to “correct” the colors in the bags but why? This isn’t intended to be photojournalism. It’s intended to invite the viewer to explore and to invent a story around the scene.

Event Photography: The 1st Annual Santa Cruz Waves Soiree

A few years ago I was asked to do some event photography for Santa Cruz Waves. I had no idea I was wandering into something I’d really love doing. Last night was the The 1st Annual Santa Cruz Waves Soiree where Alison Gamel and I were hired to photograph the event.

Photos from the event are available on my commercial site.

Event photography is a challenge. You play the part of host, guest, on the fly portrait photographer, lighting technician, lens juggler, battery wrangler, and eternal camera strap adjuster. You’re also invisible as necessary and life of the party the rest of the time. This is, to use all of my extensive powers of the English language: hard.

Be so engaging that people want to take pictures with you!

Lighting is often a challenge. Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to focus on my subjects because it can be so very dark. On-camera flash is really the only way to go and there are so many lessons applied from previous events. Get that light up high. Bounce the flash off the ceiling when you can. Move the flash around when you can’t. Shoot RAW. Be pretty good with Adobe Lightroom. Ask people to move. Pose them around for something super fun. Take note of the folks who really, really don’t want their picture taken. Have a couple of good jokes ready to go. Know who the VIP’s are.

Try to know your VIPs!

Over deliver

That doesn’t necessarily mean provide more photographs than required. To me that means anticipate. Research the venue, the type of the event, the details happening around that event.

Be prepared to narrow down the top 50 out of hundreds of photos. While you may think that supplying hundreds of photos speaks well of you (it kind of does) you may actually be creating more work for the person tasked with publishing the photos. Provide the service and break out those top 50 at delivery time.

Anticipate!

For this event I checked out the venue. I learned that people were coming in costume. I also learned that a couple of classic cars would be out front with a red carpet. The combination of beautiful building, red carpet, costumes, and period cars told me that people were going to want their pictures taken with those cars.

Guests with a classic car out front of the venue
  • I setup my favorite general purpose lens; a 24-105mm Canon L series
    • this allows me to get in tight while still ready for a group shot
  • I learned some of the backstory about each of the cars to get people engaged (and to give a good reason why leaning against it might not be a great idea).
    • One was a Bentley that once belonged to Bob Hope
    • The other was a Lincoln from the early 1930s made in Pasadena, CA.
    • The owners of the cars were incredibly generous with their time, and just like most folks love to tell their story when asked. The amount of good will created here will blow your mind.
    • I brought one of my studio lights, a powerful external battery, a solid light stand, and radio triggers.
  • Bring business cards. People will ask. This is a perfect opportunity to network and gain new clients.
  • Before the event I rounded up some volunteers to help meter the light and look for good angles.
Round up a couple of volunteers to test lighting and angles. Here’s an angle that I liked yet decided wasn’t safe since, hey, it’s a city street. That and these two ladies are stunning.

Be everywhere

These candids are what makes it special. Photos of people having a great time helps provide a memorable experience. You have to move around to get them though!

Roam! Make sure everybody knows why you’re there and that you’re having a good time too! Most importantly look for moments when people are engaging with each other. Tell the story.

Dance

No, really! Get out on the dance floor and dance! Be part of that party. Engage. Make people happy that you’re capturing the moment.

Get out and dance!

Be invisible

Turn it off so they can turn it on

Yes, that’s a total contradiction to nearly everything I said earlier. There are moments when you need to not distract. A perfect example is when there is a performance. Turn off the flash. Spot meter on your subject. Crank up the ISO as needed and break out that telephoto.

Know when to turn off that flash so that the entertainment can do their job without distraction. Let them be the center of attention.

Pose people!

One of my favorite group poses. The ends are looking in. The center is engaging with each other. A couple are engaging with the camera. Exactly what I was looking for!

Honest, people usually love it when you have an idea of how to make them look great. This is also a perfect moment to have a funny joke ready to get a reaction from your subjects. Have a couple of standard poses and draw out their personalities. This is a skill and in the end it’s probably why you were hired for the event. I’m mostly an extrovert but even I had to work to develop this skill. I’m sure this is far more difficult for an introvert but like any skill it can be learned.

Draw out that personality!

Sky and Sea Post Processing

A friend of mine asked for thoughts on post processing a nice photograph today. The main elements involved a sky with dramatic clouds, a shoreline in the middle of the frame, and a seascape in the foreground. It’s a nice composition, but what would I do? I started poring through my image library for something similar. Sure I’m loaded with coastline, but what we usually lack are the dramatic clouds. I had to dig for a bit to find something appropriate.

Here’s the starting point after some basic adjustments in Adobe Lightroom

A starting point

Here’s a photograph from 2015 at Pleasure Point near Capitola, CA. We’ve got dramatic clouds, seascape, and a coastline. Not a bad start and close enough to the kind of image that my friend was asking about. I started with some basic edits in Lightroom.

  • Update the version in Lightroom (the color process has changed since I originally photographed the scene).
  • Straighten the horizon a bit (note there should be a little curve here)
  • Bring up the shadows
  • Export to Photoshop

Now the fun begins

Here’s my approach to completing this photograph. Note something interesting though. For me the process only starts with pressing the shutter button. Lightroom is an intermediate step. The rest of the image is longer and more purposeful to bring out the intention – or the updated intention since this was from four years ago.

Add some groups

  • I’ve exported the image to Photoshop.
  • The first thing was to create groups/folders. I usually start with 3 or 4 and almost always end up with more.
Create some groups. Notice that I’ve nested “Group 1” and “Group 2” inside of “Group 3”

Adjustment layers

  • Add a Levels adjustment layer for color correction.
  • Place the Levels adjustment layer inside a group
  • In this one you can see that I’m moving the leftmost point of the red channel to the right just a touch. The goal is to bring that slider closer to the cliff of data in that histogram.
  • Repeat as needed for the remaining channels (red, green, blue)
  • Why am I doing this as an adjustment layer? Because it is nondestructive to the original image! I can play with this all I want and revert back any time.
Adjustment layer for color correction
  • Add a curves layer in the same group as the Levels layer
  • Here I’m darkening the image from the midtones. The sky is a little bright as is the water. Let’s start by dialing down the whole thing
Curves layer to darken the sky and seascape

Playing with masks

  • Next up I paint in the mask in the curves adjustment layer.
  • I setup a large soft brush
  • Select black for the brush color
  • Set the brush opacity 50% or less. That’s a suggestion of course. Do your own thing.
Paint in the layer mask
  • Brush into the white mask, revealing the image beneath it. This darkens everything but the sections you just painted in.
  • In this case I’ve brushed along the coastline and the foreground leading to the boy and his surf board.
  • I touched the paintbrush around bits of the clouds that I wanted to bring up very selectively
Mask detail: Here’s what I actually painted into the mask. I like to use a Wacom tablet for this.

Finishing touches

This has already been a big improvement. Keep in mind that I’m going lightweight into this. I’m not spending any time on this image removing distractions. But then this image is pretty good like that I think, so let’s not dive into the minutia.

For me the finishing touches lie in directing the viewer’s eye around. That includes a creative vignette and selective sharpening. I almost never apply sharpening globally these days.

  • Select the lasso tool and draw around where you want the viewer’s eye to go. I prefer an organic shape rather than a typical oval.
A selection with the lasso tool just before creating a mask from it. This is already a big improvement.
  • Create a mask from the selection.
  • Click on the Curves Adjustment Layer tool to make the mask
Click on the Curves Adjustment Layer tool
  • Invert the mask. (control-i, or select “Invert” from the “Adjustments” menu
Invert the mask so that the next steps apply only to the edges of the image
  • Apply a gaussian blur to the mask for gradual darkening.
  • The amount of blur I apply depends on a few things. More for my full frame camera. Less for my crop frame. This is totally up to you of course.
I photographed this scene with a crop frame camera (a Canon 7d Mk II this time), so I’m not applying as much blur as I would with my 5d Mk III.
  • Click on the curves tool and darken to taste!
  • … then consider backing it off just a little bit.
Darken the masked area by dragging down from the middle of the curve.

Sharpen the image

The amount of sharpening needed will depend on a ton of considerations. Mirrorless cameras don’t seem to need much sharpening, if any. There are technical reasons for this. (I’m going to stick with my DSLRs until I have a really good reason to move on to mirrorless. That’s another discussion.) DSLRs almost always need some extra sharpening. Images shot in RAW on a DSLR always need some sharpening. Images shot in JPG won’t benefit much because they’ve already gone through a sharpening algorithm in camera. Side question: why did you shoot that in JPG? You may have had a good reason, but I’d say that there aren’t many.

I apply sharpening very selectively. I use a couple of methods for this, but for this article I’m going with the simplest. Why selective? Why not sharpen the whole thing? Because not everything makes sense to sharpen; clouds, waves with motion blur, purposely blurry areas from a shallow depth of field, portraits, etc. Sharpening that portrait you shot at f/2.0 with the bokeh doesn’t make sense but sharpening your subjects eyes might.

  • Hide the vignette layer that we made earlier.
  • Create a “visible layer stamp” of the image so far (shift-cntrl-alt-e … or the Macintosh equivalent… )
  • Consider what your subject is in the image. What anchors it? In this case it’s the young boy with his surfboard in the foreground. I’m going to sharpen around him and some other details that make sense.
  • For this example I’ve chosen to apply an “unsharp mask” filter.
    • Choose an amount and radius that make sense for your chosen subject. Then back it off a little bit. What you choose will be up to you. If you start seeing a halo effect around your subject then you’ve probably gone too far.
      • I use words like “probably” a lot. This is art. There’s no “right” or “wrong”, you either achieved what you set out to do or you didn’t.
  • Apply a black mask to the image stamp layer you just created.
Create a black mask
  • Paint white onto the black layer mask to reveal only what you wanted to sharpen.
A detail of my mask. It’s not pretty on it’s own but you can see what I sharpened compared to the rest of the photograph.

The final image

A larger version of the final image can be found on my sales site:
https://studiocomradz.smugmug.com/SeanMcLean/i-6zBKF55/A

This is what I had in mind when I photographed the scene back in 2015.

Eastern Sierra Dirt Roads

This year’s trip into the Eastern Sierra was a little different. I planned well, had many ideas, and in the end had to scrap most of them and improvise. Winter and summer seems to provide just the right conditions for all the gold and yellow I could imagine. The reality is that it was, in what I would call using my extensive knowledge of the English language, weird.

The areas that I expected to be past prime were right on schedule. Sagehen Summit was mostly brown by the time I got over Hwy 120. What surprised me was how much of a mix of past prime and utterly green it was in the valley from Ellery Lake to Lee Vining. Usually when I’m rolling through here it’s popping with yellows, although it’s in the early afternoon and poor quality light for me. Debbie and I usually promise that we’ll stop here on the way home. This time it was obviously unusable.

Yellow, Orange, and Brown .
Photograph available on my sales site: https://studiocomradz.smugmug.com/SeanMcLean/i-3jfhdGQ/A

This year I took my Subaru Forester with the plan that we could get into more remote locations. There are a few dirt roads near Conway Summit and this was the day to explore.

Power Lines, Dirt Road, and Grove Of Trees
https://studiocomradz.smugmug.com/SeanMcLean/i-F8txgbQ/A

Typically I avoid elements like power lines. They’re not natural and they’re kind of an eyesore. This time I included them as part of the landscape helping lead the viewer into the scene. I didn’t want to get much closer to this grove because the dirt road had a section of deep mud that somebody obviously got stuck in the day before. Judging by the tire tracks he had much more clearance than I did and got stuck anyway. No thanks. I chose to photograph this scene with my Sigma 150-500 to both isolate my subject and bring it closer.