Photography, Filmmaking, and Design Explorations


Design Project: Dive

Design Project: Dive

Magazine spread graphic design project. Uses photos I shot while shooting the Leica M8 underwater with model Meredith Kimberly (MM#96286). Thanks, Meredith. (See the full set of photos.)

My design goal was to contextualize the underwater shoot and bring some meaning to the images via brief text and captioning. It was another opportunity to use the Müller-Brockman grid, while seeking a clean, modern look.

Design Project: Underwater Magazine Spread - Cover


An Underwater Photoshoot
June 2011


Photos, Writing,
& Design

Design Project: Underwater Magazine Spread - pgs. 2 & 3


The weightlessness of the underwater environment encourages photographs like this–free floating, as if in deepest space. Surrounded, for a moment, by blue void and tranquility. Unbroken silence. For a moment.

Design Project: Underwater Magazine Spread - pgs. 4 & 5


A push through the water–leaving a trail of bubbles and churn, captured as glistening spheres, a cloud of motion-that-was. Up is down and down is up, the light playing on every trail left behind.

Design Project: Underwater Magazine Spread - pgs. 6 & 7


The water’s surface, seen from beneath, is a mirror, trapping and reflecting light. Tilted, and working the angles, the surface becomes a wall of liquid, suspended in space before a traveler: a gateway to another world.

Design Project: Underwater Magazine Spread - pgs. 8 & 9


Captured breath, rising, and otherworldly hair playing in the void are the only hints of which way is up. Slow motion, frozen in time.


My interest in underwater shooting began near the end of the Summer of 2010: It started with a thread I wrote on the Leica User Forum asking if there were any way to shoot the M8 underwater–apart from spending eight thousand dollars on a custom-made housing, of which (I learned later) only 12 were made.

Comments ranged from “why would you want to use an M8 for that?” through to a few snide drive-bys. Apparently, it hadn’t been done.

Within a week or two, I acquired an EWA Marine U-F housing, which includes a built-in glove for focusing and adjusting camera settings. The housing is an industrial-grade plastic bag with a glass porthole in the front, rated to a depth of 33 feet. The M8 drops into the housing.

While running a few underwater tests, I discovered that the rangefinder (used to focus the camera) didn’t work in the bag. Framing was troublesome: The glass porthole and lens adaptor blocked about 60% of the viewfinder, which was troublesome to use underwater anyway because of distortion.

But, I got some interesting shots over a few days, the possibilities seemed bright, and we closed the pool for the season.

Enter early summer 2011 and model Meredith Kimberly. I had the pleasure of shooting very briefly with Meredith in February–but I’d seen her work. She had grit and, being trained for theatre, sweeping moves. So, I invited her to shoot underwater with the comment: “The shooting goal? Succeed.”

This set of underwater photos with Meredith is the two of us working with the medium: she explored weightlessness, fluidity, and the freedom to pose without regard to an “up” or a “down.”

The work itself was very tricky.

Light: Light was at a premium (we were shooting at night). I encountered the troublesome tradeoff of speed (usually 1/180th of a second) versus depth of field.

Depth of Field: These photos were all shot at f/2, which at a medium distance provides a foot-or-so of perceived “sharp enough.” But it’s not a lot to work with when you and the model are both drifting. Focusing was accomplished by measuring distance from camera to subject, prior to submerging, by 3.5 foot, 7 foot, and 15 foot pieces of string. Like this: Submerge and don’t shift distance forward or back. Additional light was added in some of the shots by free-handing a very strong diver’s light. This had mixed results. But I haven’t played with it enough yet. I have ideas.

Framing: Ah, framing. When 60% of your rangefinder is blocked there’s a lot of guessing about where your subject is. Especially when your subject is moving. Not to mention that the distortion renders a clear view troublesome, at best. (I’ve since worked out the framing problem by not using the included lens adaptors provided for the U-F housing–I have an acceptable 10% blockage now.)

I can’t stress enough that Meredith was an excellent sport and very collaborative when working to get a good performance. Repeated submerging. Treading water. (And not very warm water, at that.) Me: “I didn’t get it. Let’s do it again.” Meredith: “OK!” Thanks much!

As a parting shot, several folks online told me: “You’re doing this the hard way.”

Yes. I am doing this the hard way. Because doing things “the hard way” builds skills while leading to new ways of working and, often, new and interesting results.

–Will Stotler, July 2011

See the full set of photos.


Design Project: Aqua Night

Aqua Night Magazine Graphic Design Project

This is another magazine spread graphic design project. The work uses photos I shot while attending Aqua Night, which was a fashion event focused on hairstyles hosted at the Walnut Room in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Thanks to all participants. (See the full set of photos.)

My goal was to further use the Müller-Brockman grid that I derived from a 1963 LOOK magazine, achieving a vintage look and feel from a modern setting, while giving selected shots from the event a context.

Design Project: Aqua Night Magazine Spread - Cover


JUNE 2011


Makeup Artist
MM Pending

Wardrobe Stylist

Event Coordinator

Photography, Writing,
& Graphic Design

Design Project: Aqua Night Magazine Spread - pgs. 2 & 3

Touchups & Adjustments

LEFT: Candace Whaley (wardrobe stylist) adjusts a design on Becca Morris (model).
ABOVE: Michelle Rivera (makeup artist) touches up lipstick for Becca Morris (model).
RIGHT: Michelle Rivera (makeup artist) finishes applying touchups for Sally Wong (model).

Design Project: Aqua Night Magazine Spread - pgs. 4 & 5

One Photo: Two Views

After looking at the work of hairstylist Bethany Bell, I thought the biggest challenge would be capturing the sculptural aspect of Bethany’s work. The weave and flow of the hair captures the light in particular ways and demonstrates interesting textures and forms. Models move—and different angles and sculptural aspects of the hairstyle are exposed as they move. This is part of the experience of seeing a hairstyle, its interplay with the model and the environment. Certainly, Bethany considers the hairstyle from all angles and designs her work so that it can be viewed—and reveals itself in stages—from any direction. Wanting to bring this experience into the photographs, I exploited a mirror that would show off the hair from two angles at once. The final lighting, through careful technique, appears as though it is mid-day, soft window light. This natural look accentuates the curves, soft shadows, and intricate weaving. I think Bethany’s work looks great in this light—I hope you do, too.


Design Project: Aqua Night Magazine Spread - pgs. 6 & 7


Design Project: Aqua Night Magazine Spread - pgs. 8 & 9

Aqua Night Graphic Design Project

I was invited to Aqua Night, an event that focused on fantasy, fashion hairstyles. The event was hosted at the Walnut Room, a lounge/club in Philadelphia.

I figured it would be fairly dark, so I decided to shoot with my CV 35mm f/1.2 lens—bringing my SF-24D flash (and sync cord) along, just in case it would be needed.

I arrived at the event start time—meaning two-and-a-half hours early—and took time to inventory possible shooting scenarios: Places to shoot and also lighting conditions. Ambient light was poor, averaging an EV of 2 or 3 at ISO 320.

Pre-event, the models staged in a side alcove downstairs—I shot a bit of this area and the models getting touchups and wardrobe adjustments. I also dug out the flash—even f/1.2 wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of light.

The event itself, including a fast runway walk to show off the styles, happened in the main Walnut Room lounge. I elected to not shoot the runway work because I didn’t like the clutter in the frame—any shots I took wouldn’t convincingly look like runway.

That left post-event portraiture. However, conditions for portraiture were problematic because of the event’s guests being, well, guests—wandering in and out of frame. However, I’d scouted the unused forward lounge area. It was unoccupied, had a gigantic mirror, and was perfect for a “show the hair from the front and the back at the same time” concept. So I settled on that. (BTW, thanks, Phillip, for directing models forward to the shooting area I’d selected.)

I shot for about 25 minutes. Light was put into the scene by a hand-held, off-camera flash, which I bounced off of the bank of windows, camera left. Intensity and direction of light was controlled by pivoting the flash in my hand, shooting a test, and then refining angle. TTL mode was used to balance the scene’s light. The models were patient throughout the process—I had about 120 seconds, give or take, with each model and pair of models.

This set was really screaming at me for context—so I decided to select a few key photos to get at the concept of the shooting and then make this spread.

Layout of this spread was completed via InDesign, using a custom-made Müller-Brockmann grid, which I had designed to be based on LOOK magazine dimensions, content ratios, and typography. It was a carry-over from my previous LOOK magazine project work—I’m not yet done with this kind of grid and look. One more chance to learn.

I built the vintage page background from a few different scans, creating (via Photoshop) an unbroken surface that could be used in the page spreads. The shadowing and lighting effects for the pages—which give the optical illusion of page solidity and depth—were developed on a previous project and further adapted for use here.

Black and white shots were treated using TrueGrain and Tri-X Pan grain, with filters as needed to bump intensity/density of luminosity.

Color photos were treated by using a layering effect in InDesign, compositing the color photo over Tri-X Pan treated black-and-white versions of the same photos. This layering of photos—provided the balance of the compositing is correct—emulates the tonality and “color character” of 1960s film stock, as displayed on vintage paper.

Last, this project wouldn’t have been possible without the work of everyone who made the event a success—hairstylist, makeup artist, wardrobe stylist, event organizers, all the models, and a general community effort. Well done, worth shooting.

—Will Stotler, June 2011



Links to PDFs are provided below. These can be opened using the free Adobe Acrobat Reader. NOTE: It is recomended that you “right-click save-as” the files to your computer, then open them there.

Design Project: 1963 LOOK

1963 LOOK Magazine Graphic Design Project

Model Kristina Paulk requested a shoot in late February 2011. I had some ideas about what we might be able to do, based on earlier shooting with Petrarcha in Philadelphia. Just a walkabout shoot, but with vintage clothing. Kristina liked the idea—she appreciates and has vintage fashions—so we scheduled it.

We shot for about three hours in Philadelphia—the basic concept was to pick up shots as though we were shooting for a vintage magazine. I processed and delivered photo sets shortly after.

I wanted to do some magazine spread work and I had this copy of LOOK from 1963 that had grabbed my attention. . . .

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - Cover

Concrete Underground

When Kristina met me in Philadelphia for the shoot she was wearing this dress. And I had her change out of it because it didn’t strike me as being particularly vintage—and, I wasn’t sure what to do with it photographically. I did promise her, though, that we’d shoot with it last so I’d have time to think about how to use it in a scene and pick up a vintage look with it. While Kristina was changing out of the dress I had time to look around and start thinking about it. I had a solution. The dress, evocative of the 1960s, was part of a future that never happened.

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - pgs. 2 & 3

J.G. Ballard gets at this concept in his work from the early 1960s: The atomic age is as much about the artifacts in concrete that are littering the landscape, the cradles of a future that has seemingly moved on without us. The structures being the only remaining objects, reminders, sentinels, warnings. I was also thinking about the ‘64/’65 Worlds Fair in New York City. The future was a marketing ploy—an imagined space where corporations had a vital (and continuing) role to play in shaping how we live. They were serving up the promise of a better life. As though the technology would solve the all-too-human problems of the present.

The building material of choice was concrete. Plastic final forms made from liquid stone and left behind to decay. It was the future when they made it—and their work then serves as a reminder now that we’re in the future, but this vision of the future is from the past. And we’re still stuck with it. For good or ill.

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - pgs. 4 & 5

In any case, this is what I was thinking about when preparing to shoot Kristina in this dress: How to effectively capture the promise architects and workmen cast into their concrete structures—and the decay of that promise.
I’d shot near the subway at City Hall in the past with Atul Narula—an accident, really. The time-period of the look was right for the early 60s. So was Kristina’s dress. So, why not?

Almost half of the photoshoot’s photographs came from the shoot with this dress and in this environment. Kristina was on her game, I’d like to think I was on mine, and something was just clicking.

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - pgs. 6 & 7

I can say that going into this phase of the shoot I was unsure of whether or not I’d “gotten it” earlier in terms of the shots. (I had, but I was unsure.) It was largely uncertainty about using a 50mm focal length with tighter framing (I normally use a 35mm focal length in the city), trying to put into practice lessons I’d learned during the “Shooting Six” shoot from February (in terms of composition), and a bit of worry that the Elmar 5cm lens from 1953 wouldn’t give me results I could actually use—I’d never used it for this kind of shooting before.

But, conceptually—and with the swap to the 35mm focal length—I got more comfortable. And the architecture was positively humming with “future promised but not delivered.”

Kristina met the task. She matched her performance to the scale of her surroundings. Whether this was conscious or unconscious, I don’t know, but I’d like to credit her with working well in her surroundings to nail the look.

Well done, Kristina. And the future is concrete.

Something Blue, Something Red

During the shoot in Philadelphia, I wanted to work closely with Kristina to use texture and color as backdrops for her vintage looks.

As I said to Kristina—and as I was discovering myself—the more I shoot the less interesting most backdrops and backgrounds become. I’ve shot so many photographs now that I want interesting things, in terms of texture, color, how the light falls on the object, etc.

For this dress, I wanted good, interesting light, and color to set it off.

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - pgs. 8 & 9

We shot with backdrops of stone, brick, the shiny red tile (above), and the degraded and decayed blue paint (left).

I stressed backgrounds when working with Kristina and she had said at one point: “I’ll get a lot of photos with great backgrounds.” She did.

In my opinion, the backdrop is the most underestimated object in most photography. The way a surface appears, the way it feels, the way the color will render—or how the texture will pop in a black and white treatment—are often overlooked. Or, just ignored.

The subject is the whole photograph. The backgrounds are a critical part of the whole thing.

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - pgs. 10 & 11

Backgrounds, through framing and careful selection of color, accentuate the point of focus in the photo—and an interplay between the point of focus and the background are critical to establish mood, tone, time period, and a general aesthetic.

Great backgrounds can be pulled out of just about anywhere—you work with what you have. The camera is as dumb as a brick, having no sense of time, place, or space. With something interesting to frame up your point of focus—in this case, Kristina and her vintage fashions—the negative space isn’t just there, it helps to make the final photograph work well.

Design Project: LOOK Magazine Spread - pgs. 12 & 13


The “Something Blue, Something Red” photos, along with the cover shot, were taken with a 1953 Leitz Elmar f/3.5 5cm lens. I’d picked this lens up just to see what it could do and specifically so that I could have “poor” optical quality to degrade the image, as one would expect to see from an old lens. It did surprisingly well. My only criticism might be that it was “too nice” in how it rendered images. Bokeh is classic, which is excellent, but at f/3.5 it holds its own in terms of image quality.

The “Concrete Underground” photos were taken with a more modern Summicron 35mm ASPH. I needed a wide for those and had already “risked” half of the shoot on the (to me) unproven Elmar.

Black and White

Black and white shots were treated using TrueGrain and Panatomic-X grain.
Layout was completed via InDesign, using a custom-made Müller-Brockmann grid, which I designed to be based on LOOK magazine dimensions, content ratios, and typography.

Vintage Ads

The vintage ads (with the exception of the Leica ad, left, which I was compelled to include), were all scanned in from the March 26, 1963, issue of the magazine and then laid into the design. I selected ads that served layout purposes and also helped to set the time period. The Pennsylvania Tourism ad is probably my favorite, strictly because the photos were shot in Philadelphia and this is a “Pennsylvania” project.

Backgrounds and Page Depth

I built the vintage page background from a few different scans, creating (via Photoshop) an unbroken surface that could be used in the page spreads.

The shadowing and lighting effects for the pages—which give the optical illusion of page solidity and depth—were developed on a previous project and adapted for use here.

Handling Color

Getting reasonably “accurate” photographic color was tricky. I didn’t want to spend time tweaking each photo. I did want the page texture and color to affect the photos directly. The “aged look” of the photos in old magazines are caused from the breaking down of the paper, which gives them their look.

In other words, the “old look” of an “old” photo is one part optics, one part film stock, and one part condition of the paper upon which the photo was printed. Well, I’d gotten the optics down (the 1953 Elmar) and the film texture was handled with TrueGrain—but what about paper?

The color photos you see are actually a color photo laid over a black-and-white photo (treated with Panatomic-X grain)and then composited using InDesign’s effects and controlling for opacity—so that the tint of the paper comes through Panatomic-X grain, then the color of the topmost photo. I quite like the look.

In short, it’s not a clean look. But it has an authentic look. Again, I want to stress that in my opinion “vintage” things look their best when they’re degraded and destroyed in exactly the right way.

Fun and Thanks

Fun, all around. And. . . . This project wouldn’t have been possible without Kristina—a huge shout out to her for her elegant style and work.

Previsualization: Case Study

I was approached by Nick LaBella, a model I had shot earlier in the year, to do some “fall shooting.” Nick was looking for updates to his port along the lines of men’s fashion. Based on Nick’s look, I decided to contact Amber C., another model I had shot previously in the year, who had demonstrated action attitude. She agreed.

I had two models with which to work, both of which had strong looks and willingness to work a scene. Well, now what? I had been wanting to do an “action shoot” for some time and figured: “This is it.” So, I spoke with both models and they agreed to do action shooting in addition to “standard” fall fashion portfolio work—and to bring black “Matrix-like” clothing to the shoot.

Two models. Ready to shoot action. Well, let’s not waste the opportunity through a lack of planning, eh?

I decided to keep the action shooting small and doable. To generate ideas and get a good view of what the final product might be, I knew I’d need to do previsualization (“previz”) so I could think about story. Without story—at least in the flow of images—I’d have nothing. I grabbed my 5-volume set of Vertigo’s The Losers off of my shelf and started to flip through. Most of it wasn’t useful for my purposes, but there were individual shots I really liked. So, I stayed away from storyline and looked strictly at the layout of panels, the positioning of characters in the individual panels, and the use of angle/distance to convey mood and action.

In the end, I scanned in about 12 pages from the whole set and swapped them around, using a page-level cut-up technique, and settled on a flow of six pages, the first and last being “signature” looks, and the four pages in-between conveying a rough flow of action. The key to this process was to find pages and panels that would convey a scene—completely divorced from the characters that appear on those pages and panels.

The final, rough version of the previz, looked like this:

For story, I settled on a confrontation between a courier (with a Haliburton Zero briefcase)—played by Nick—and a contracted assassin who wanted to steal the briefcase—played by Amber.

What I needed for Amber was a gun. I tossed around the idea of having her use a Glock. But it wasn’t enough. Based on Amber’s presence, I needed big, unreal, badass-looking guns.

So . . . . I prepped up the guns and went off to the shoot.

Results from the shoot can be seen below.

NO I didn’t get something as stylish as what I wanted, but I did get lots of practice with linear narrative. And Amber and Nick had fun. So, win-win.

Page 1

Amber & Nick Action Shoot - Comic, Page 1 of 6

Page 2

Amber & Nick Action Shoot - Comic, Page 2 of 6

Page 3

Amber & Nick Action Shoot - Comic, Page 3 of 6

Page 4

Amber & Nick Action Shoot - Comic, Page 4 of 6

Page 5

Amber & Nick Action Shoot - Comic, Page 5 of 6

Page 6

Amber & Nick Action Shoot - Comic, Page 6 of 6

See the full set on Flickr, here.

Shooting Noir

Had the pleasure of shooting at a meetup Sunday with photographers and models at Yards Brewery in Philadelphia, courtesy of Joe Burke and Albert Heefner, event organizers. The theme was “film noir” and the 1940s. So, I brought the light kit, secured space, and shot.

(Psssst. See the full group of photos on Flickr in my Film Noir set.)

Let’s talk about noir for a moment. Well, let’s not. A lot has been written about the genre. I am primarily interested in the lighting—painting with shadows. You can have a look at these resources for the kind of look I’m interested in “getting” when I shoot noir: – First Two Minutes – Throughout


And this:

Speaking of shooting noir, when I shot the feature film Able I was interested in approaching a Chiaroscuro feel, but in color. This shooting style was successful—you can have a look at the trailer to get a visual feel for the film (NSFW)—and the results are wonderfully dark. Of note, there was a strong initial desire that Able would be shot in black-and-white. We killed this idea early in the pre-production process due to concerns about being able to market the film. No color = not marketable. Meh. Maybe another time.

Which delights some people but annoys others. You either like the look, or you don’t—no middle ground.

For this shoot, I wanted to play with really dark shots. Maybe it was too much, maybe not.

I knew in advance that I wanted to post-process the images using the TrueGrain software package and Panatomic-X grain to get a fine grain with smooth characteristics that would be reasonably faithful to the emulsion and look of much older film. But, of course, retaining an authenticity of look and not a “slapped on” simulated grain plus tinting effect designed to mimic (badly) the look of a “vintage” photograph. BTW, you can learn more about Panatomic-X and TrueGrain, if you like.

Another goal was to really work with the vintage clothing and likewise ensure the backgrounds worked with the clothes. The backgrounds were tough because the location, Yards Brewery, is essentially an industrial warehouse with backgrounds I didn’t want. I couldn’t “make” them vintage and they “out” the time period. Industrial coolers, steel beams, concrete block, graffiti, no brick, industrial stainless steel machinery clearly from the 1990s, etc. Not “time appropriate.”

So, I focused on working in an area of near darkness with loading pallets from ceiling to floor where I could craft light and “kill” the backgrounds, mostly.

Before I shot, I severely “overlit” subjects—all but blew them out with light. Then, working at higher speeds, I was able to match my exposure (along the lines of a compressed Zone System) to the brightest areas in the frame while dumping the background into darkness. There was some standard post-processing adjustment required to further dump backgrounds and spill light, but nothing that was a huge slow-down.

I could control, shot-by-shot, what was lit and what wasn’t by positioning the lights. And there was a lot of tinkering with the lights. I feel almost bad about the amount of attention I had to pay to the lights. But full attention had to be paid. If something was “overly” lit, it would show. If lit “normally,” it was on the borderline of making the cut into the image. When in doubt, I erred on the side of “show less” and positioned the light to “paint” what would be visible in the frame.

I was pleased to play with rim light, backlight, sidelight, top light, and other effects. In addition to direction, composition, the challenges of shooting at f/1.2 throughout. Etc.

The noir lighting and feel was better in some cases than others. Shots with an implied story worked more effectively, I think. A moment in time, frozen, as part of a story that the viewer can interpret.

Lessons learned:

  1. Seek backlighting opportunities.
  2. Ensure you have a story implicit in the image.
  3. Work more slowly to account for lighting setup time.
  4. Bring longer extension cords.
  5. Manage spill light more effectively.

Want to learn more about my post-processing technique? See my blog post titled “Post-Processing: Development Study 1”.

You can also see the full set of work on Flickr.