Monthly Archives: January 2008

Improvisation in the Studio

Recently I needed to photograph flowers with a very specific look for an ongoing project for a client. These were controlled, studio images. While it may seem unusual to photograph flowers in a studio mode, in my experience it’s not that different from studio product photography of small objects such as watches and jewellery. Except that, in my opinion, flowers are more beautiful, fun, and difficult to photograph.

All the flowers in the series needed to be brightly lit to bring out colors on a black background. I like the way the sunflower (immediately below) came out. In this photo, the flower looks like some kind of beast about to come alive!

Sunflower

View this image larger. Read the back story featuring this image.

To achieve the simple look of the sunflower image, I improvised a studio in a sunny room in the house and used a black velvet background. I then manipulated the shades to light just the flower.

To photograph the paper-white narcissus (below), we used the same black velvet background as I’d used with the sunflower. We used a pin to stick this tiny flower, upright into a piece of foam core beneath the velvet.

I started with the ambient room light much dimmer than with the sunflower. Then I lit the flower from beneath using an angled LED lamp, to make the core of the flower glow brightly. I used someone from Apple’s business card, picked up at MacWorld, to shade the LED light so that the petals weren’t too blown out.

Finally, I angled the tripod in place (the whole setup was nestled on an old, stuffed armchair), and photographed straight down on the tiny Paper White with a macro telephoto plus extension tube.

Moral of the story: always pick up business cards, you never know when they’ll come in handy. Also, as I make a point of stating in Light and Exposure for Digital Photographers (now available for pre-order!), you don’t need fancy real estate or equipment to make a studio of your own, just the ability to see light and to improvise.

Paper White on Black

View this image larger. Read the back story featuring this image.

[Sunflower: Nikon D300, approximately 100mm in 35mm terms, 4/5 of a second at f/32 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]
[Paper-White Narcissus: Nikon D300, 200mm f/4 macro lens (300mm in 35mm equivalent terms), 36mm extension tube, 5 seconds at f/36 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]

Posted in Photography

Pine Branch

Phyllis cut this branch from a western cedar tree in the median strip of a major street. I photographed the branch by placing it upright on a light table. I used clear museum gel to hold the branch so the pine needles stood straight up. Next, I inverted the background in Photoshop to create the digital image that you see here.

Other recent on black images: Sunflower, Paper White on Black, Trillium.

Posted in Photography

Fluctuat Nec Mergitur

I did a tour of the floor at MacWorld, and then with some time to spend before my panel at the Apple Store, what else to do in downtown San Francisco but take some photos? This one shows the surprising ceiling in the Neiman Marcus store across from Union Square.

I had my “sketch” camera, my Canon G9, with me. I’d really rather have had my full rig with tripod and a wider angle lens for this shot. Then again, I don’t know what the reaction at the store would have been if I’d tried to take complex exposures in the middle of their rotunda. With my little Canon guy I could drop to the floor and take a perfectly reasonable 12 megapixel capture, steady enough at 1/25 of a second (and f/8 for maximum depth-of-field) thanks to the in-camera image stabilization. No one even gave me a glance, although I imagine not giving anyone a glance is part of the Neiman Marcus snob appeal.

The Latin inscription in the stained glass ceiling, Fluctuat nec mergitur, means something like “Wave tossed, but unsunk.” This phrase, the motto of Paris, France, seems apt for the subject of the stained glass, a little odd for a snob department store, and definitely an appropriate way to describe my life at times.

Related image: Glow.

[Canon PowerShot G9, 7.4mm (approximately 35mm in 35mm terms), 1/25 of a second at f/8 and ISO 200, handheld using IS (image stabilization).]

Posted in Bemusements, Photography

Trillium

I photographed this tiny and wonderful wild Trillium in Steep Ravine last spring, and Phyllis just recently masked it onto black. Here are my original versions of the trilliaceae in Steep Ravine with their natural backgrounds.

Related image: Paper White on Black.

[Nikon D200, 105mm f/2.8 macro (157.5mm in 35mm terms), 8 seconds at f/40 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]

Posted in Flowers, Photography

Paper White on Black

We used the same black velvet background as I’d used with the sunflower. We used a pin to stick this Paper White, also called a narcissus, upright into a piece of foam core beneath the velvet.

Then I lit the flower from beneath using an angled LED lamp, to make the core of the flower glow brightly. I used someone from Apple’s business card, picked up at MacWorld, to shade the LED light so that the petals weren’t too blown out.

Finally, I angled the tripod in place (the whole setup was nestled on an old, stuffed armchair), and photographed straight down on the tiny Paper White with a macro telephoto plus extension tube.

Moral of the story: always pick up business cards, you never know when they’ll come in handy. Also, as I make a point of stating in Light and Exposure for Digital Photographers (now available for pre-order!), you don’t need fancy real estate or equipment to make a studio of your own, just the ability to see light and to improvise.

[Nikon D300, 200mm f/4 macro lens (300mm in 35mm equivalent terms), 36mm extension tube, 5 seconds at f/36 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]

Posted in Flowers, Photography

Sunflower

I photographed this sunflower as part of an ongoing project for a client. To achieve the simple look of this image, I improvised a studio in a sunny room in the house and used a black velvet background. I then manipulated the shades to light just the flower.

[Nikon D300, approximately 100mm in 35mm terms, 4/5 of a second at f/32 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]

Posted in Flowers, Photography

Seating

This is another photo of seating at Memorial Stadium, scaled so that at first glance you might be seeing a Venetian blind or a feather.

[Nikon D300 using 18-200 VR Zoom lens at 200mm (300mm in 35mm terms), 1/4 of a second at f/36 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]

Posted in Photography

A Sense of Scale

Blue Feather, Boulder

View this photo larger. Read the back story featuring this image.

When a photo is about pattern, the thrill of composition can come from a dissonance in size. Is the subject big or small? What is the sense of scale?

In these kinds of photos, that which seems to be big is actually small, or that which appears to be small is actually big. The viewer gets a thrill when the actual scale is recognized. The thrill comes from recognition, from a sense of oneness with the photographer, and from enjoyment of the paradoxes of scale.

Cases in point: the photo (above) of a detail of a blue feather is a close-up macro exploring at most one inch, while the photo below of UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium covers hundreds of feet.

Stadium

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Posted in Photography

Stadium

This is a photo of the seating at UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium, notorious as the home of the California Golden Bears football team. The stadium straddles the Hayword earthquake fault, and is the subject of controversy between those who love groves of California oak trees and those who prefer fancy locker rooms. You can guess which side I’m on!

The other day afternoon light was wonderful. I had a Photoshop image in my mind’s eye of looking down on a stadium, with the center receding downward forever. So I decided to try my luck at Memorial Stadium.

The theme of the shoot was definitely you can’t always get what you want, but you just might get what you need, to quote the Rolling Stones. No way I was going to get a shot I could use for the basis of an infinity image like my Endless Stairs, or my Endless Doors. On the other hand, the patterns of the stairs and empty stands in the golden late afternoon light made a just swell abstract subject.

[300mm in 35mm terms, 1/160 of a second at f/6.3 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]

Posted in Bemusements, Patterns, Photography

Petals

We were proofing a 176 page book–Light and Exposure for Digital Photographers from O’Reilly–on our Epson 4800 printer using rolls of proofing paper. A time consuming, tedious, and exciting process. I took an art break, and captured these alstromeria petals (on white below), then played in Photoshop to come up with the version on black (above).

Alstromeria Petals

View this image larger.

Posted in Flowers, Photograms, Photography

Noise As a Historical Artifact

In my spring release from O’Reilly Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers, I show that image noise can be used creatively. This material is in the ISO and Noise chapter. For example, the noise in this close-up capture of a tiny Lobelia flower is what makes the photo interesting.

Lobelia

View large size. Photoshop Nyet: see my blog entry for backstory information featuring this photo.

However, since I’ve begun playing with my new Nikon D300, my thinking about noise has shifted. It takes a fair amount of effort to get an extremely noise-filled image out of the D300, even at relatively high ISOs. Very long exposures do still create noise in the darker areas. But still, the direction of things is as clear as a noiseless image.

Within the next few years, five or ten at the outside, noise generated by digital sensors will be a thing of the past. If you want noise, you’ll have to Photoshop it in. This will mean that noise will become a visual and historical artifact, like film grain. Perhaps people will even collect digital cameras vintage circa 2006 and 2007 for the ability of their sensors to add “pleasing” levels of sensor noise!

Posted in Photography

Wet Leaf

On a recent day of wild but intermittent rain it was fun to photograph this leaf during a pause in the precipitation. To me, the water drops look like glass. The grit in the drop on the lower right comes from blow back due to the violence of wind and rain, and adds measure of irregular reality to a surface that could otherwise be too perfect.

[105mm f/2.8 macro lens (157.5mm in 35mm terms), 36mm extension tube, 1.6 seconds at f/36 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]

Posted in Water Drops

From Reflections to Abstractions

I sometimes wonder how I end up with images that are elaborate photo composites, having more visually in common with paintings than photographs. This images are born of photographic parents but brought up differently. It is nature versus nurture. In this case, the influence of nurture is so obviously non-photographic that the resulting composites must stand or fall on their own merits. They cannot be judged strictly as photos.

A case in point: the shoot of the photos of the reflections in downtown Oakland that I describe in There Is a There There. (Also see Reflections, Downtown Oakland, Persistence of Reflections, and More Oakland Reflections.)

A number of these photos of the Oakland reflections became grist for my Photoshop mill. Here’s how it usually goes: I am post-processing a photo in a relatively straight way. I see something neat, and this starts a “what if” visual train for me. Later, I find a related image to combine with the original “what if.”

For example, Persistence of Reflections and More Oakland Reflections got worked over this way. I started with these photos shown in small size:

Persistence of Reflections Oakland Reflections II

Looking at color inversions of the photos, I knew I had to try something weird with them. Many Photoshop hours, layers, and masks later, here are the results:

Tower of Babel - Blue Variation

Tower of Babel - Pink Variation

Finished photo composite images: Civilization, Tower of Babel, Tower of Babel Variations.

Related story: Myths, Metaphors and Digital Photography.

Posted in Photography, Photoshop Techniques

Active D-Lighting on the Dipsea Trail

After several days of savage rain, with violent wind and pelting water that the winter Pacific storms bring, Julian and I set out to photograph Cataract Falls on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais. The weather had partially cleared, but was still intermittently drizzling.

When we got to Pantoll Station we found that the Park Service had closed the road to the upper slopes of Mount Tamalpais. So we parked by the Dipsea Trail near Steep Ravine instead. Crossing the bridge towards the bottom of Steep Ravine, Julian and I headed up the moist stone and wood stairs, and into the redwood grove shown in the photo.

Digital photography is the art of combining one’s vision with the possible. What is possible changes with each generation of technology.

My new Nikon D300 has a feature called Active D-Lighting, which the camera manual describes as follows:

Active D-Lighting preserves details in highlights and shadows, creating photos with natural contrast. Use for high contrast scenes, for example when photographing brightly lit outdoor scenery through a door or window or taking pictures of shaded subjects on a sunny day.

Trying to deconstruct this manual-speak, my take was that Active D-Lighting provided the ability in-camera to extend the dynamic range of an image. In other words, Active D-Lighting might provide a jump start on the kind of layering of different RAW exposures that I use for most of my photos.

Overcast but bright skies lit the tops of the trees, the tree trunks themselves were almost hidden in darkness, and a light mist rose from the Dipsea Trail itself. This scene, with a great deal of contrast in dynamic range, seemed perfect for taking Active D-Lighting out for a trial run. I scrolled through the menus, and turned Active D-Lighting on to High.

While I was making my 5 second Active D-Lighting exposure, Julian was fooling around with his camera, moving it during his exposures to create images of ghost trees and people (people meaning me). Perhaps I’ll post one of Julian’s photos later.

I think Active D-Lighting did pretty well with the contrast range in this photo, with much less multiple RAW layer masking than I’m typically used to. But to really get a feel for the setting, I’m going to have to do some tests in a more controlled environment where I can keep good notes about each exposure and exactly what changes I’m making (this setting doesn’t appear in the EXIF data, so I’m on my own for keeping track of whether Active D-Lighting was on, and how it was set).

Related images: Yosemite Valley Forest Floor; Big Sticks.

[12-14mm zoom lens at 12mm (18mm in 35mm terms), 5 seconds at f/22 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.]

Posted in Landscape, Photography, San Francisco Area

Crepuscular Shadow

This is a photo from my files. I took it in November, 2005 from a sailboat below the Golden Gate Bridge. The image shows a shadow of the bridge projected on the clouds (sometimes called a “crepuscular” shadow).

Related story: Bridge Shadow.

Posted in Photography, San Francisco Area