There’s been so much going on that I’ll start with the most recent and work backwards. Life has been busy. New job, new adventures, new family things, new thoughts. I’ve found myself in a familiar place — so busy and so noisy that stillness and silence are prized commodities. Let’s just start with last night.
Late autumn and winter is when the sun is setting earlier and towards the south. The sky is usually far more interesting than summer months. This is a great combination in Santa Cruz since our part of the bay faces mostly south. I had some ideas involving the setting sun over the SS Palo Alto at Seacliff State Beach. What I didn’t plan on was the glorious sunset that followed. The photograph below is available for custom prints or at my SmugMug site
The idea was to use my longest lens and force the setting in into a giant ball of fire. There was plenty of time to setup and enjoy. I called my friend Jon Kahn and asked if he’d like to join me. We sat quietly for a bit, talked about friends, family, work stuff, new camera stuff. Seriously this was the best part.
Where ya been Sean?
It’s been my habit to share photographs on Facebook, etc on a nearly daily basis. I don’t like Facebook. Not at all. For now I’ll spare you the details but let me say this — I hate being part of the problem. I have a lot of thoughts on this and they’re still forming. For the moment I want to sit Facebook out aside from the groups I run. I still kind of like Instagram but there are serious problems on that too. Deadly serious problems. This article by Don Giannatti hit me hard. He says “Never build your house on someone else’s land.” I encourage you to read it.
There’s something appealing about rocks and water but not all compositions are especially compelling. The rains brought plenty of water that’s still flowing down the creeks towards the ocean. Each scene has its charm but I passed by many possibilities. Essentially most were too busy. A cascade over this, a pool within that, but nothing tying it together.
This composition spoke to me. No not literally, that would be weird. This scene presented elements that were different and when combined presented something more compelling. The rocks in the foreground led to the small cascade. This cascade was different because it was at a diagonal which leads the viewer into to frame up and to the right to the center. The eye then travels left along the rocks in the middle of the frame or along the fallen tree branch covered in bright green moss. Either way works well for me because they lead to the upper horizontal cascade creating a loop. This photograph is available on my sales site. Please contact me for licensing information.
Other compositions were plentiful although not quite as compelling as the first. I’ll explore this one more later. There’s probably an element worth isolating with a telephoto here. This photograph is also on my sales site.
Coming or going?
Something I thought of was that most of my photographs of creeks involve water flowing towards my position. I purposely turned around and explored compositions involving the creek flowing away from me. This has a lot of elements that I like and one that I don’t. I like the way the composition is anchored by the rocks in the foreground. I like the relative bright vertical portion of the forest in the background surrounded by darker trees on either side. I don’t like the brighter flow of water at camera left. This is distracting, but it was worth exploring for future visits.
I used my Canon RP for this photograph. I bought this camera in December and it’s been a nice addition to my toolkit. The Viltrox lens adapter works well enough to use my EF mount lenses. The lack of internal image stabilization doesn’t bother me since it’s a feature I rarely use anyway. So far it’s a lot like a Canon 6d Mk II, just simplified a little. I absolutely love the articulating LCD and focus peaking features. It hasn’t replaced my Canon 5d Mk III, but it’s getting close. There are clearly times when this is the tool for the job. I used my favorite carbon fiber Manfrotto tripod which provided stability and shock absorption when in the flowing water. I didn’t mind the relative weight for this short hike. For something longer I’d bring my aluminum travel tripod.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Create a mask from the selection.
Click on the Curves Adjustment Layer tool to make the mask
Invert the mask. (control-i, or select “Invert” from the “Adjustments” menu
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.
Click on the curves tool and darken to taste!
… then consider backing it off just a little bit.
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.
Paint white onto the black layer mask to reveal only what you wanted to sharpen.
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.
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.
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.
A few short weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend some time in the backcountry of Hollister, California. I was out here for a few reasons, mostly to spend some time with some of my favorite people. I was also there to explore some subjects that have fascinated me for years. Oaks on rolling California hillsides have a special place in my heart, but I never really thought about why.
To me this is another iconic California scene although maybe overlooked because it’s so common. I love to see twisted backlit trunks on hilltops. Why? Yes they’re naturally beautiful, but why else? I think it’s because I usually see them on some road trip. These signify the beginning and the end of trips east.
Debbie and I had talked about studying these scenes almost always when returning from some epic Yosemite adventure. We recognized that this kind of thing needed time set aside just for the subject. That opportunity arose just a day before another epic Yosemite trip to Tuolumne Meadows and Elizabeth Lake .
We camped here for a couple of days with Debbie’s husband Tom. We also got to hang out with my friend Elizabeth who made sure that our campsite was set aside for us.
We did photograph some other scenes since it was high Milky Way Season. I’ll save that story for another time. Hint: it involves a nest of hornets.