For the past couple of years I wanted to facilitate a simple portrait lighting workshop with my favorite local photography group, the Hwy 9 Photography Group. Ideally what that meant was that I’d coordinate with a local portrait photographer who would actually do the presentation. After a few false starts I decided OK… why not me?
What I wanted to show was that you could create stunning portraits using low cost equipment. No need for high end lighting; this could be done with speedlights, diffusers, a backdrop, radio triggers, and a hand-held light meter.
I worked out a basic outline that I thought would take 20 minutes to present. I contacted Katie to model for us, worked out times, availability, and rates. Then I worked out a deal for the exotic location of the gym at the Boulder Creek Recreation Center. Fancy, I know.
I did my best to keep my actual talking to a minimum. I get a little tired of hearing my own voice. I also don’t really consider myself an expert on much, but like I said earlier “why not me?” I wanted to give the basic idea. What you could do with one light. Two lights. Three.
It didn’t matter that none of the attendees had never shot with off-camera flash before. It also didn’t matter that none had worked with an experienced model before! I had a series of emails with Katie where I explained the situation. What I needed from her was to be herself, know where the lights were, be at ease, and mostly just do her stuff without needing direction. She was magnificent.
Next I introduced a reflector at camera right to fill in some of the shadows.
The results from just adding the reflector were stunning. Each participant spent about 5 minutes each shooting with this setup. I would tell everyone the exposure recommendation based on my meter then I’d hand my radio trigger to the next participant.
Two lights: one at camera left, one at camera right
I setup the second light; virtually identical to the first light. The only difference was that the second speedlight was triggered optically. That meant that I needed to have only the one set of radio triggers. As soon as any other speedlight would fire then the second light would fire too. The optical trigger itself was built into the speedlights. I setup the second light to be about a stop less than the main light. Now we started getting even more volume to our subject. The point isn’t just to light your subject, it’s also to provide depth.
Three Lights: gels
I added a third speedlight behind Katie and put a purple gel on it. This speedlight was also on an optical trigger so it would fire when any other flash would fire. I had a few goals with the third light:
separate the subject from the background
demonstrate that you could change the color of the background
introduce rim lighting
Another great look is a rim light. Ideally you’d setup a light higher up and pointing down from behind your subject. Here I simply turned the speedlight around to face into the camera. I left the same color gel so Katie’s hair lights up with purple.
The Popup Flash
Now that everybody was acquainted with the benefits of off-camera flash and getting a little comfortable with the idea I wanted to take a step backwards. I wanted to show where the typical popup flash falls short.
The flash built in on many cameras points straight at your subject and right above the lens barrel. The result is a flat look. There is very little volume now. Notice also the weird catchlight in Katie’s eyes. It’s right there in the middle of her eyes. It’s not awful, but we can do so much better.
Putting it all together
It was time for a wardrobe change when Jon had an inspiration. He saw a small plush chair and thought she would look nice seated in it. Katie came back out in a stunning red dress and Jon’s idea absolutely came to life.
It’s no big secret that I love being physically active, outdoors, and probably doing something that takes some real effort. Yesterday I joined a group of friends for a long day hike to Berry Creek Falls nestled deep in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. This is one of my very favorite California State Parks not only because it’s historic and stunning, but hey it’s also just a few miles from my home.
Usually when I do this hike I go lightweight and I carry a smaller Canon Rebel XT. That poor little thing finally met its demise late in 2018. We had a good run. I went heavy this time to photograph the falls. When I’m carrying my gear with a plan that means I’m using my 65 liter backpack. I can strap my better tripod to it, carry lunch, plenty of water, a couple of lenses, a warm jacket, emergency gear etc. The weight is just under what I’d carry for a 2 day backpacking trip. This time I used everything but the jacket.
The Artistic Photographs
Photographing this waterfall is both easy and difficult. There’s a viewing platform that’s nice and stable. It’s a long day hike to get here and the condition of the trail will vary depending of recent weather and park funding. This can technically be done with a small travel tripod and a reasonable quality camera. The trick is getting here in quality light. If you start hiking around 9 you can expect to arrive about 11 or 12. On a clear day that makes for a high contrast snapshot that’s not especially pleasant to the eye. Today was overcast and about as close to perfect as you can get near noon. One of the fun details is the prisms that occur. I shot this one with my Canon 5d Mk III, a 3-stop ND filter on my favorite Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod.
I like to help tell the story of the folks hiking the trail. It’s fun for me, fun for them, and gives everybody a keepsake from the trip.
Tara led Sunday’s hike. She’s fun, outgoing, energetic, and all around good people. She’s training for the John Muir Trail section of the Pacific Crest Trail which she expects to take 3 weeks.
Not everything goes to plan. A few minutes after this this fun snapshot @misfittany slipped and the sole of her boot completely fell apart. This is why I carry so much stuff. Today’s gear to the rescue? The cord I use to hang food up in a tree so the critters don’t get it.
For 45 seconds I watched the sun’s light move across Half Dome like a flashlight sweeping across the north face. I wasn’t remotely prepared for this. I was all setup with a telephoto when what I really wanted was my wide angle. I made do with what I had ready to go. Then I saw that storm coming with 4+ miles to hike back in the dark. This was one long, incredible day that I will never forget.
This is a photograph reimagined from a hike out to North Dome with my bud Gary Crabbe in Oct 2016. I had my Canon 70-200 f/4 ready to go with the plan of getting a nice shot of Gary against Half Dome. Then the sun poked between the clouds, lighting up the granite face in a way that I can only hope comes across in this series of photographs. I knew I didn’t have the camera/lens combination that I really wanted for this moment since it was unexpected. So, I filled the frame and ran with it.
I want to do more of this kind of thing. Much, much more.
I spent a fair amount of time with Lightroom and Photoshop to bring the colors about the way that I want to get across. There are competing color temperatures in this so it needed a lot of tweaking. Admittedly there’s still a touch of green that I’m not crazy about in the sky. The funny thing is that there are a lot of reflective surfaces here: the granite, snow, clouds etc. All of these reflect more blues from the sky than you’d really imagine. Bringing that back down to something believable takes some effort (and masking in Photoshop). The foreground is this blazing warm tone: oranges, purples, reds as the sun shone across it. Meanwhile the snow in the background is under cloud cover and is reflecting a lot of blue.
This was shot in a couple of years ago now, and my memory of how it looked isn’t nearly as accurate as how it felt. So here I am trying to bring across how it felt.
A few minutes ago a friend of mine asked about the hike back. That was a great question, so I’ll post my response to Anita here:
We got about a mile before it got genuinely dark. That was a good thing because honestly that first mile it’s kind of hard to pick the trail back up since we were on exposed granite. We made a lot of noise (talking etc) to keep the critters uninterested. By the time we got to the cars it was pretty obvious that we were in for a really good storm. We made it to a little camp site in El Portal where we rode out one hell of a lightning storm. I don’t think I ever slept so soundly. That’s the truth.
It’s been a custom of most photographers that I know and follow to collect their favorite photographs from the past year. This is the first time I’ve gathered my favorites and let me tell you, narrowing it down to ten was difficult. Whittling it down to the top 30 is pretty easy. The top 20 a little harder. Those last twelve though… ouch. Excluding two favorites was hard because I had to really think about why they were included in the list.
Here we go in no particular order for 2018.
Not surprisingly a lot of photographs are from Yosemite and the surrounding areas. Debbie and I visited our favorite spots and explored some scenes that were new to us.
I added some new gear this year: A Canon 5d Mk III and a Canon 17-40 f/4 L-Series lens. I don’t want to say that it made me a better photographer, but it did add some new tools and new choices. The 5d Mk III also added couple of new limitations too. I spent the past few years using a Canon 7d, a 7d Mk II, and my trusty Rebel XT, all crop frame cameras. Each one is the right tool for a specific job. Each one will also be the wrong tool in some situations. I found that the experience with the crop frame cameras gave me a solid foundation to put that 5d to good use.
Debbie and I made a trip to Bodega Bay and decided on a stop at Bodega Head. An incredible sunset waited for us along with backlit ice plant and wild flowers.
2018 was largely about seeking new angles and trying new ideas. Of course many of those ideas were explored in Yosemite. Below is a favorite walk to Yosemite Falls.
More Yosemite adventures intentionally included areas that I haven’t explored much. Debbie and I went for a long day hike to Chilnualna Falls on the south side of the park. We could have gone lighter and in retrospect I really didn’t need the 70-200 f/2.8 when the 70-200 f/4 would have done just as well and weighed less than half of that beast. Still, this was as much about a physical challenge as it was about making art. I think I saw 20 people all day. I’d see that in the first 2 minutes in the valley.
One idea I really wanted to explore was long exposures and more different angles. My daughter and I went for a stroll in downtown Santa Cruz on a rainy day. We stopped in front of Bookshop Santa Cruz where I was excited by the reflections, patterns, and lines. I decided to blend exposures of various lengths, the longest was about 240 seconds.
More black and white and more very long exposures what a big theme for me in 2018. Most of my recent black and white photographs were inspired by Nathan Wirth, Clyde Butcher, and AJ Alfano.
I spent a little more time at Shark Fin cove than I usually do. Again, exploring more long exposures, black and white, and post processing techniques.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park has been a source of much inspiration over the past several years. This year I was very choosey and very happy with the choices. The patterns of the redwood burl have always excited me and I explored them as black and white.
One photo was very personal. I rarely post pictures of myself and even fewer of immediate family. My daughter and I made a run for Taft Point for what I expected to be the last day that Glacier Point Road would be open. This photograph is a favorite for many reasons, almost all of them because of the strong emotional attachment. The sky was especially red because of the Camp Fire still raging.
By now you probably think that I spent most of my time at Shark Fin Cove and Yosemite. I suppose you wouldn’t be far from the truth. I met with a couple of friends where we explored the typical angles. I wanted something different so I got down very low to capture the details, lines, textures, and reflections. I waited for the sun to catch on a low layer of clouds miles away to create a fun lens flare.
Thanks again for visiting and for reading! What are some photos that you are especially happy with from 2018? What are your creative goals for 2019? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.
For the past several months I’ve been feeling a certain restlessness about my creative process. I photograph a lot of surf and landscapes but rarely people. I started to seriously ask myself why that is. Then I thought back to my last trip into Yosemite Valley. Yes always stunning. But there I was standing in El Capitan Meadow fully aware that the scene in front of me has been done. Hell, I’ve done this subject before: climbers on El Capitan. So I’m purposely thinking, what do I do different here? Inspiration arrived but it left me really thinking about what I’m doing and why.
Aside from the surf photography that I enjoy so much I usually try to capture these pristine natural scenes. Often I’ll either crop out evidence of human activity either in camera or in post. I know why most of the time; for me it’s overhead power lines and aircraft contrails. Yuck. But does that mean remove all human things? I had to really think about that.
An acquaintance recently sent me a box of CD-ROMs from the LensWork series. I happened to be listening to an interview with Larry Wiese. He was describing how he was preparing to show his portfolio at a very nice gallery. He was all ready to show his traditional landscape work when he had an epiphany (and probably an anxiety attack) about what he was doing and why. The interview CD was titled Transition. It was like he was speaking directly to me. I devoured that interview, then I listened to it again.
Essentially he realized that he was producing fine art landscapes not because it was what he loved doing, but I think because others expected him to produce landscapes. He wasn’t excited about it anymore. He excused himself from his meeting, packed up his portfolio, and reconsidered pretty much everything. This made me think about that last Yosemite visit specifically. He mentioned that he had visited Yosemite twice. He researched all the photography topics for the area and pretty much planned on how to copy the work of the masters before him. And so what? What made it his own work? He decided that landscapes were a starting point for him and now it was time to expand his creative process.
I started photographing different subject matter and processing them in different styles. I don’t photograph wildlife much. So I spent a few hours doing exactly that.
I started incorporating more people into the photographs as the sun was setting. I’ve often thought that a photo of the sunset alone wasn’t enough. It needs an interesting foreground. What I usually avoid though was people in the scene. This time I really thought about that. Why? Adding people gives the viewer a reason to connect. A sense of scale. An emotion.
Today was a very rainy day in Santa Cruz. Honestly a pretty miserable day to even consider landscapes but I wanted to explore. I did some street photography which is very rare for me. I processed the photo differently from how I usually would by incorporating some color grading.
I had another idea incorporating a very wide angle and the patterns in the sidewalk along Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz. I expanded on the idea by blending three exposures, 2 that were fairly long exposures and a third that was over 240 seconds. Processing the image was well outside my typical style and I’m glad I explored the ideas. Pattern, time, color, and definitely not how you would see the scene with your own eyes.
I pushed the idea a little further. I don’t photograph architecture. There’s probably a simple reason for that: I live in a rural area and there’s just not a lot of that. Even in the more urban areas there’s nothing really resembling a skyscraper as such. I thought about that for a while.
I spotted this window across from a reasonably high vantage point (that’s a fancy way of saying “parking garage”). A few things struck me as unique here. It’s a brick facade. Nobody would dream of building entirely with brick knowing that our state’s geology is the rough equivalent of Jell-O pudding. The water draining from the downspout caught my eye. The basketball shoe in the window pane and the warm glow from inside inspired me. I setup my tripod and fitted my Canon 5d Mk III with a 70-200mm telephoto to isolate this subject.
Initially I imagined this as black and white but instead I went with a very different approach. With what I’ll just loosely call “a lot” of masking I brought down exposure of the brick wall while carefully adding contrast to the window. I desaturated the wall itself while adding some split toning to the window. This added some blue to the light tones and warmer colors to the mids and darks tones. Then selective sharpening and vignette. I was very happy with the result.
I’m going to keep exploring. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not giving up on traditional landscapes. The truth is that I love the adventures and the effort. People or man-made objects will almost certainly be more prominent elements. Portraiture has always been an interest but I have a lot of thoughts on that topic that I want to be very careful about. Self portraits will probably happen more often at the suggestion of somebody I admire.
I thought it would be worth writing about the creative process and workflow behind this photograph. For a few miles I walked along the trail looking for compositions that I liked. Up high, down low, close to the water, high above. Many things spoke to me here. The whole area was still damp from recent rains and the colors were saturated. There were yellows, oranges, and of course lots of green.
At a turn in the trail I seriously thought about a small cascade. There wasn’t anything especially unique about that cascade and I decided to keep looking. It just didn’t do anything for me at that time. About half a mile later there was a concrete diversion dam. This was a beautiful spot which I wrote about in an earlier post.
Side note:A funny thing about the paragraph above; as I’m developing my blogging style I try to keep in mind how I want this to be read. I want to write it as if I’m talking with a friend over a beer. I started this with “But there were visual elements that compelled me to…” . That may be what I was thinking, but that’s definitely now how I’d say it. So, hang with me please while I get the hang of this.
A lower, rudimentary dam – just concrete and rebar really created a nice vantage point. Some visual elements that had me think about it for a while. I wanted to create a photograph that leads the eye around the frame. As I looked at the scene in the first “A starting point” picture above, I saw the curve of the San Lorenzo River taking up the lower 2/3 of the frame. The river curves, leading the eye to the colorful trees. The reeds half way up the photo do a nice job of framing the river. The rock at the bottom left 1/3 does a nice job of anchoring the scene. The river itself was moving and I thought it would be good to slow down my shutter speed.
Seeing the problems
As I looked at the scene I realized there there were problems. Potentially this would also be a really good topic for a workshop and a blog topic. I’ll try to break this down into bullet points to keep it brief. (note: yeah I kind of failed at the “brief” idea)
The scene was really busy.
The plants (I really want to use a word more interesting than “plants” but does “vegetation” seem like something you’d really hear me say? Probably not) in the center were colorful but they were also total chaos.
The river was nice but it had a lot of distracting reflections
The amount of green was overwhelming. Green on green, with pops of yellow.
I knew that the river would turn this weird unnatural blue in post processing
A gap is in the upper right where the tree line ends and the sky begins. The sky was definitely going to be an uninteresting blown out blob so I composed the shot to omit as much of it as possible.
But here’s the thing — I recognized all of this in the field. I also started thinking about how to approach this in post processing while I was there.
Setting up the shot
I got up on the lower concrete & rebar eyesore dam (it’s really ugly, I’m not mincing words here) and setup my tripod. I stood up and squatted down a few times to decide what height I want to shoot from. I chose a height that was nearly fully extended. I wanted the colorful trees in the background to be in the upper 1/3 of the frame so I setup the lens at 40mm. The composition of photo is very “rule of thirds.” You can see how I placed certain elements in the frame so that the object would be where grid lines would intersect. That’s not an accident.
A lot of reflected light was in the water so I put a circular polarizer on the lens to cut that back some. I wanted a longer exposure and thought that about one second would be nice for the water. This created a problem though; (ooh a semicolon! Fancy schmancy!) stacking circular filters on the lens creates unwanted vignetting. Ditching the circular polarizer wasn’t an option so I decided to use f/16 to reduce the amount of light. I sure didn’t need f/16 for the depth of field. I’m pretty sure this would have been good around f/8. For longer exposures (really anything under 1/40th sec) I like to use a simple remote trigger.
Knowing that I had a lot of depth of field to work with I set my focus manually about 1/3 of the way into the field. That was a pretty good estimate to gauge hyperfocal distance. The result is the elements close to the camera are in sharp focus while my main subject (the colorful trees in the distance) are also in reasonably sharp focus. I use my Canon 5d Mk III’s live view to select where I want to focus, then I zoom in using the zoom buttons on the camera body to tighten it more.
I’m paying attention to the histogram displayed in the live view while I’m working. I set mine up to display values in red, green, and blue rather than the default luminosity. This way I can be sure no individual value is overexposing
Post Processing – Adobe Lightroom
Work in Lightroom was kept very basic with a little exploration into color grading. Most of the work was going to be done in Photoshop. Lightroom was used to bring up the shadows, bring down the highlights. Color temperature was changed to something warmer. The scene was shot in an “open shade” kind of situation which the camera would usually decide is around 6000k.
Finish the job in Photoshop
Basic RAW edits from Lightroom are exported to Photoshop for more work. I usually break this down into a few groups of edits. I use adjustment layers (I keep looking for a phrase that’s more interesting than “a lot…” but hell…) a lot. The great thing about adjustment layers is that it’s as close to “non destructive editing” as you’re going to get in a raster editor like Photoshop.
So many adjustment layers…
A Levels adjustment layer is added where I am working with red, green, and blue channels. I bring the darkest values of each channel to the edge of the meaningful data in the histogram.
Bring some things up, some things down
My goal is to lead the viewer’s eye around the frame. I added an adjustment layer that darkens most of the image. I painted black into the layer mask with a large brush to bring some brightness back up selectively
Color Grading In the Mid Tones
Raya Pro was used to get the mid tones luminosity mask. If right about now you’re cross eyed and saying “wha???” that’s cool. I wanted to be very selective about how I got creative with color. Admittedly I didn’t go wild but this did have a nice effect. No, this isn’t how I actually saw the scene in front of me, but it is how I wanted to present it. That’s the difference between a photograph and a snapshot. I’ll keep this brief, mostly because this post has gotten to be very long and I’m into beer number two while writing it. The YOST SEO plugin is telling me I’m wording poorly.
Below you can see that I was editing the curves for each color channel. The neat thing is that I’m doing this only in the midtones to keep it selective. No, the screenshot below isn’t really an accurate depiction of the whole thing but it gives you the general idea.
Selective color correction
There was probably a better way to do this. I wanted to add a little more contrast. I also thought at the image was too blue. The levels adjustment layer at bottom brings the middle slider for the blues up, reducing the blues in the midtones. The curves layer darkens the darks values a bit, and really just a little bit. The levels adjustment later up top is where I make a custom mask to keep the edits to a portion of the image.
Essentially the river is reflecting a lot of blue from the sky and I found it distracting. That last levels adjustment layer is to bring those blue tones down to something I liked better.
Selective sharpening and a vignette are added last. Sharpening will be different depending the camera used and the final output. My Canon 5d Mk III needs a little more sharpening in post processing than newer Sony mirrorless cameras. I’ve found that the sharpening can also cause problems when the job goes to print. My favorite high end shop, LightSource SF, adds some custom sharpening. I compensate for this by doing my sharpening in an adjustment layer that can be disabled for printing if needed.
Take a closer look at my sharpening layer. It’s a high-pass filter with a layer mask painted black. I paint white with a big, soft brush on that layer mask so the sharpening is applied only to the parts of the image that I really want. The high-pass filter layer is set to an “overlay” or “soft light” mode. Honestly I can’t tell the difference between the modes by looking at them. No, really.
A vignette is used to further draw the eye around. How do you something brighter? One way is to make everything else darker. I make an organic shape using a Wacom Intuos drawing tablet. That vignette is applied to a curve layer and the white parts of the layer mask make darker areas in the final image.
Oh Hi! Heh, yeah pardon the awful picture of me (shot by me… gee that must inspire confidence). I was recently invited to show some of my work at Green Hills Cafe in Scotts Valley, California. I’m pretty excited about this spot because the food is great and it gets a lot of foot traffic. I’ll be coordinating a meet & greet sometime in the near future. Stay tuned!
There’s a fairly well known spot in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park referred to as the Garden Of Eden. Rather than my usual workout at the gym I went for a weighted trail run. Granted the “weight” was my camera pack and tripod.
Colorful Diversion Dam
A dam is in place to keep the river diverted in a more controllable manner. Folks have been using this as a canvas for years and the current “selection” is pretty colorful. My goal here was more than going for a run; I was also scouting the area for an upcoming private photography lesson.
Why yes, I do the occasional private workshop.
Contact me about a workshop some time! The workshops are fun, inexpensive, and run 2-3 hours. We get out and explore locations like the Garden Of Eden not only because are they beautiful, they are also very good object lessons. Shutter speed, depth of field, wide angles, and on top of that you had to hike a little so you had to earn it.
Tonight at Shark Fin Cove. I have to admit that I have a mixed relationship with this place. An iconic Santa Cruz scene that’s been “loved to death”.
This scene is occasionally found on the cover of magazines like Outdoor Photographer. It’s a tricky location to shoot, and I’ll be honest there are a lot of times when this place doesn’t do a lot for me. There’s usually a lot of garbage from visitors who couldn’t be bothered to pick up after themselves, graffiti, or any number of people who want a selfie while I’m trying to compose a photograph here. Usually I patiently wait out that last one.
A fashion shoot was actually happening off to my right and we were all careful to work around each other. I’m grateful for that kind of awareness. The selfie variety… not so much.
This scene is shot from just about every angle; up high behind this perspective, up and to the right, and slightly less often up the cliff and to my left. I think that what really makes this scene work is an interesting foreground. The rock outcropping that I’m standing on here almost always has interesting reflections and leading lines. The algae on the rocks provides a little color contrast. Tonight the sun was setting to the southwest and provided a fun pop of lens flare.
Processing the Image
It’s a little more complicated than it seems; this is a blend of two photographs. It’s nearly impossible to get both the sunset and the foreground exposed the way I like in a single frame, so this is a blend of 2. I can see a good argument for using 3. Actually blending them together is a lot of work and met with varying success. This area is alive and not standing still at all. For example the cliff sides have tall grass swaying in the breeze. To blend the two images together means carefully painting in a mask along the grass.
There are dangers shooting here. A lot of folks along the cliff don’t realize that they’re standing on an overhang. If you’re visiting here please leave no trace, pick up some trash, and be very careful along those cliffs.
Last weekend my daughter and I made a quick run for Taft Point. We were expecting a rain storm soon and I took that to mean that this was going to be the last weekend Glacier Point Road was going to be open for a few months. The Three Brothers were across the valley bathed in a glowing sunset. There was a lot more haze from the ongoing Camp Fire that I dialed down for the sake of this photograph.
In an earlier post I wrote about how wide angle lenses were commonly used in landscape photography. I also hinted that occasionally you might use a telephoto. This is one of those times. Telephotos are excellent for isolating your subject and creative composition. Here I used my Canon 70-200 f/4 L which I prefer for hikes because it is so much lighter than my 70-200 f/2.8.
Haze from lens compression
I was expecting the haze from the smoke to be even more prominent because of lens compression from the telephoto. Honestly it wasn’t much different from when I shot the broader scene with my wide angle. This article on F-Stoppers gives a pretty good explanation for that. Interestingly that article says that lens compression doesn’t exist. I’m not so sure about that, but their writers are paid to research these topics while I’m not. I’ll keep their article in mind.