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.

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.

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.

Oak on a Hollister Hillside

Oak on a Hollister Hillside. Available on my sales site.

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.

Trees, Granite, and Alpenglow at Elizabeth Lake

Trees, Granite, and Alpenglow at Elizabeth Lake, September 2019

This photograph is available from my sales site at:
https://studiocomradz.smugmug.com/SeanMcLean/i-gWvNp5j/A

I can seem very busy when photographing a scene like this, especially when it took some effort to get there. This is a continuation of photographs made at Elizabeth Lake just outside of Tuolumne Meadows. I had just a few minutes to scout and get ideas for compositions. This photograph was towards the end of the good light just as the sun was dipping behind the ridge to the west, lighting the granite in the photograph with a warm glow.

This is another photograph made using a telephoto lens rather than my typical wide angle. The lens of choice today was my Canon L-series 70-200 f/4. I like that lens for landscapes because it does a fantastic job without being nearly as heavy as my 70-200 f/2.8.

Fun snapshot courtesy Tara Magpusao. There are almost never pictures of me so this is pretty cool 🙂

Elizabeth Lake, Yosemite National Park

Elizabeth Lake, trees, and granite. Available on my sales site

A few days ago I went with a group of friends to meet up with Tara Magpusao in Tuolumne Meadows. She had just completed hiking a big portion of the John Muir Trail on a solo adventure. Debbie and I had hopes of photographing Elizabeth Lake since it was fairly close by and the conditions were absolutely perfect. It was a wonderful surprise that Tara and some of our other friends were willing to keep hiking with us for the next few miles.

The original plan was to get to Elizabeth Lake much earlier, scout around, and wait for the light to be right. A car mishap thwarted that idea hours earlier near Pleasanton, California. I probably knocked this loose somewhere in the Hollister back country on a related trip a couple of days earlier.

The mud plate came loose near Pleasanton, CA. We made a quick trip to a nearby Walmart for tools, some bolts, and yup; zip ties (and some freeze dried ice cream sandwiches). My hands are way too big for some of the work here, so Debbie would take one end of the bolt while I’d thread the other side. As always we made a really great team. The zip ties on the front of my Subaru have resulted in a name change from “Penelope The Little Burro” to “Mr. Whiskers”.

The idea was to get there with enough time to spare so that we could cook some dinner while waiting. It’s only a 4.6 mile hike but with all of the photography gear, dinner, cook kits, etc that meant lugging around something over 25 pounds of gear uphill to about 9500 feet. That’s just 900 feet in elevation from our starting point but I really start feeling the change in altitude once I’m over 9000 feet. (Side note to my friends everywhere else in the world: yes I know “feet”, “miles”, and “pounds” are stupid. I wish we could adequately use the metric system. Funny thing is that when I go running I think in terms of meters for shorter distances.)

I’ve been doing more landscape photography using telephoto lenses recently. They’re very good not only for bringing the subject closer, but also for isolating the subject. In this case the sky above wan’t very interesting, so I planned to crop it out in camera to include more granite and less bland sky above the subject. This was photographed using a Canon 5d Mk III and a Canon 70-200 f/4; f/16 at 200mm. I wanted the trees in the foreground while the granite in the background would have enough detail to be visually interesting. I probably could have done this at f/8 but at the moment I wanted a bit more detail in the background than f/8 would have given me at 200mm.

“Bella And The Umbrella” or “chromatic aberration overdrive”

A beautiful young woman with an umbrella on a rainy day in Santa Cruz, CA

I have a treasured side gig taking pictures for a local magazine here in Santa Cruz. In November of 2014 I needed something for a gallery of photos. Usually that’s a collection of surf photos from some favorite spots. This particular day it was raining and there was nothing going on. I went downtown instead looking for anything interesting. I had a new lens that I was dying to put to use: a Canon 135mm f/2.0 L-series that I bought from Dan Mitchell. This thing is glorious and I rarely get to use it.

While I wandered around I spotted a beautiful young lady under an umbrella walking my direction. A quick decision on my part meant a ISO 800, f/2.0 for 1/500 second. I loved the result. The texture of the rain drops on her umbrella were what captivated me the most. The fact that I couldn’t see her face added to the story.

A nice lady who often commented on my posts on Google Plus (ahh remember Google Plus?) titled it “Bella And The Umbrella” and the name stuck.

I keep a version of this photograph as a wallpaper on my display at work (ahh that’s right, I don’t do photography full time. I know very few people who do or can). There’s a problem with that version that’s been bothering me since November of 2014. Wes Hardaker pointed out a severe problem with chromatic aberration throughout the photograph. I just had no idea how to fix it because it was so rampant.

I can’t unsee it

Once you see it you can’t unsee it. You start seeing it everywhere. Look at the high contrast areas. There is a green and purple fringe where light meets dark. And it’s everywhere in the picture.

Chromatic aberration detail – look at the high contrast areas.

Tonight I had some time and decided to tackle the chromatic aberration monster that tried eating my photograph. Lightroom alone is not enough in this instance. Helping this one meant opening the image in Photoshop.

  • Duplicate the layer
  • apply a Gaussian blur enough so that the edges are blurry but you can still identify the main subject
  • set that layer’s mode to “color”
  • The chromatic aberration mostly vanishes

Here’s where I get fiddly with it (that’s another term for “detail oriented” or some would say “anal retentive”… your call really). I don’t like how applying the color mode dulls the color throughout the image. I want this to be selective to the problem areas.

  • Create a black layer mask for the layer mentioned above
  • using a fairly small brush paint white on the outlines of the problem areas just in the black layer mask
See the layer named “Background copy”. Yeah clever name, I know. Shaddap.

This takes a lot of time but it’s worth the effort. It’s not perfect, but to quote The Cult Of Done Manifesto

“Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.”

The Cult Of Done Manifesto

That’s a pretty cool quote. In this case please ignore #3 just for me. Just this once. Please. This is photography; I edit everything. Even the line to the left about editing things. I edited that. Twice. No shit.

There is no editing stage.

The Cult Of Done Manifesto