Photography, Filmmaking, and Design Explorations

Latest

Photography Workshop: Metrics & Downloads

I taught a Photography Workshop on Sunday, November 14, 2010, at Studio 5 for the Tri-State Photography & Arts Meetup group. It was a privilege to work with everyone and I really appreciate that people demonstrated great professionalism and a willingness to learn throughout the event. Special thanks to Albert Heefner, who organized the meetup, provided studio space, and was a great host/troubleshooter throughout.

Forensics

There were six photographers, three models, and one MUA. Photographers were presented with dedicated coursework. Models were encouraged to work on their craft via examples, during downtime. The MUA just knew what to do when presented with the sets (awesome). In the last 60% of the course both groups were brought together to perform as a team. Photography from the workshop is pending the photographers working through their photos and posting.

Survey results:

Workshop Content – 9/9 – “Very Satisfied”

Instructor Performance – 9/9 – “Very Satisfied”

One-on-One Attention (Photographers) –  5/6 – “Very Satisfied” and 1/6 “Satisfied”

One-on-One Attention (Models) – 1/3 – “Very Satisfied” and 2/3 – “Satisfied”

Workshop Fee – 3/6 – “Inexpensive” and 3/6 – “Appropriate”

“Will you be able to immediately apply techniques you learned today?” – 9/9 -“Yes”

“Would you like to see a continuation of this class offered?” – 9/9 – “Yes”

Overall Workshop Rating – 8/9 “5 Stars” and 1/9 “4 Stars”

Comments:

“Had a blast! Can’t wait to do it again!” DannieO, Model

“[For future meetups] Stress level of class (i.e, no knowledge, basic, etc.) so not [such] a wide range of experience or [photographers] at least know the basics [before attending].” Jeff Hart, Photographer

“Awesome” Anonymous Photographer

“Very useful!!!” Anonymous Photographer

“Would like to attend a second class.” Theresa Rivers, Photographer

“Thanks Will!!” Kenny K., Photographer

“The class was a great review of basics and gave me an outlook on techniques and methods.”  Anonymous Photographer

Lessons Learned

(1) More time needs to be blocked out for group shooting. We were short by one hour (with only three-and-a-half hours of dedicated shooting) because the presentation of information went fifty minutes longer than I expected and we started fifteen minutes later than expected. Needs to start earlier, cover all learning material, break for lunch, then shoot through the entire afternoon.

(2) Additional pre-planning needs to be invested into the sets. The good news here is that the time investment on my end in the course materials is complete, with perhaps a tad of tweaking. I can focus more energy and attention on this next time to improve the experience and make it less guided ad hoc.

(3) The models were not all “very satisfied” with the level of interaction and instruction. I likely need to work more with the models during the shooting phase to guide and assist them while working with the photographers.

(4) Don’t expect to shoot, Will. You will be way too busy. 😉

Downloads

This page holds downloads for people who might want to have a digital copy of the instructional materials for their later use.

First, there is the Keynote presentation. It isn’t really prepared for use by third-parties as the whole workshop has a strong hands-on component, but it’s here in PDF format.

In addition to a Keynote presentation, I prepared two handouts to support the workshop.

The first handout is a simple, foldable, EV/ISO vs. Aperture/Speed chart. Workshop participants were given these sheets and then folded them down to reveal the aperture/speed combos they could use when setting their cameras manually before shooting.

The second handout shows all the steps of the High-Speed Post-Processing Workflow that I blogged about earlier.

Other course presenters are welcome to use these materials, provided they credit me and this blog as the source.

Advertisements

Photography Workshop: Preparing to Teach

Next weekend, I’m teaching a photography workshop, so I’m thinking quite a bit about training and communication concerns. (Obsessing, actually.) From the logistics through to the message. My goal is to really communicate about photography’s “technical” side while providing a guided environment and structure in which people can successfully use what they’ve learned.

Terence McKenna (writer, ethnobotanist, and psychonaut) said:
“If the truth can be told so as to be understood it will be believed.”

I’m thinking about McKenna’s statement quite a bit because it clearly puts the responsibility and burden of communication on the trainer/storyteller. What I take away from his statement is: “If they didn’t ‘get’ it, you didn’t teach well.” With a caveat or two: The audience must be able to cognitively grasp the concepts—this is assuming the concepts have been reduced to simple, straightforward pieces of information. Additionally, the audience must want to ‘get’ the concepts—so, part of the work is to persuade people about the material’s worth.

Using the word “Truth” to describe training? A bit strong for this context. “Truth” is in practice a localized phenomena and “Truth” (unfortunately) comes burdened with moral connotations. It just doesn’t make sense here.

A little surgery nips and tucks the phrase so it works and reflects my point of view:
“If the facts can be told so as to be understood, they will be believed.”

In the end, one-on-one training is about persuasion. I think that a good trainer is able to persuade about a given topic, while being responsible for understanding and using the facts. I also believe that good training results in people being able to immediately do something with what they’ve just learned—while the new learning becomes self-perpetuating though future use. If it can’t be used right now and also going forward, what’s the point?

Keeping all that in mind, I’m refining my training plan to ensure I’m on target:

  • Facts should be communicated clearly and illustrated when possible.
  • Facts should be separated from matters of taste and style.
  • Facts should be recognized by a learner as useful and useable.

To improve retention, I’m approaching the session with these deliverables:

  • Presentation – visual and aural
  • Handouts – visual and tactile
  • DIY – tactile, visual, and aural

To keep personal accountability, I’m hitting each of these areas:

  • Full manual camera operation
  • Ability to light a scene
  • Ability to recognize light and leverage manual camera operation to shoot it
  • Fast and accurate operation of RAW developing software

To ensure some level of immediate success:

  • Work with attendees to shoot well-lit, “commercial look” sets
  • Process photos on-the-spot to check work and demonstrate results

What I want attendees to take away:

  • Real value from the workshop
  • Improved future shooting results through application of process/skills

Well, we’ll see how it goes. I have high expectations for what I can communicate effectively. But I’m up for it.

To shift gears, I’d like to take a moment and give credit where credit is due. Photographer and organizer Albert Heefner made this training session possible by listening to what I had to say about training, recognizing that my interests aligned with his interests for adding value to his Meetup group, and then facilitating the session. For this event he offered the studio space, published details I provided, engaged in the fun-fest that is “herding the cats” (getting attendees, models, and the MUA to come), and will be “production-managing” the actual event. This has let me focus on content and approach instead of having to focus on organizing and physical logistics. So, thanks for the work, Albert.

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBNlL23sUGI – First Two Minutes

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvnjHevRceQ – Throughout

Montage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-GQCb1nMGY

And this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_noir#Visual_style

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.

Tokyo 2010

Back from a week in Tokyo and working through images now. Each of the Tokyo photos has a narrative to accompany the image—and in many cases links for more information about each location or item—so it’s photo-blogging, proper. And time-consuming. I won’t be adding anything else to this blog until they’re finished.

See the set here.

Update October 3: Added shots from Roppongi Hills—installation at the Mori Art Museum, skylines shot at the Tokyo City View, and some others.

Update October 11: Added shots from Senso-Ji temple and Asakusa.

Post-Processing: Development Study 1

Roughly 90% of my photos’ “look” is manufactured by exploiting on-location light and capturing it, while only 10% of the “look” is manufactured with post-production work.

This post is about the “10%” involved with manufacturing a “look” during my post-production workflow—digital development of a thoughtfully shot scene.

Shooting On Location To Get A “Look”

The shoot with model Petrarcha (ModelMayhem #1218983) was an intentional attempt to get a contrasty, vintage look out of Philadelphia backdrops and period clothing.
Photos of Model Petrarcha by Will Stotler
I scheduled the shoot for the late afternoon and early evening to get this specific kind of light. Additionally, I hunted backdrops while working that would accentuate Petrarcha’s look and also have interesting light effects on their surfaces. How boring is a brick wall? Pretty damn boring. But, very interesting with the right light to give it a golden hue, interesting shadows, and when it complimented Petrarcha’s period look.

A high-contrast, period look can be gotten by using very contrasty light and then deliberately under-exposing the contrasty scene to save highlights and drop most of the frame into shadow or dimly lit backdrops. I will shoot this way because I know I can “bring up” the backgrounds in post. (Or hide them more, depending on the shot.) But I can never save the highlights if I “blow” them out. They’re just gone. The image for this Study has borderline blown highlights, which was by design.

The RAW photo below was shot at 1/4000th of a second at f/1.2, with an ISO of 160 and white balance set to daylight. This captured the highlights, dropped the rest into darkness, and pushed the color of the photo toward a warm, golden hue as the white balance is (from a technical perspective) incorrect. Shooting at ISO 160 ensured that plenty of shadow detail data would be available for tweaking in post.

Photo by Will Stotler. Model is Petrarcha.

So, looking at the underexposed image on the left—which is not really underexposed, but exposed to preserve the highlights—and then the final image on the right, you can see how it’s possible to shoot in light like this and “save” the photo as a shooting strategy. Details on how to do it are below.

Step 1 – Hot/Cold Areas Turned On

Photo by Will Stotler. Model is Petrarcha.I always look at an image when I’m working with my “hot” and “cold” areas turned on. Red areas represent “blown” highlights (shown on the right of the histogram). Blue areas represent “lost” areas of shadow that have gone completely black (shown on the left of the histogram). Most normal images need to have near zero blown highlights (red areas), except for bright sparkly light reflected from, for example, water, eyeballs, or shiny objects. Likewise, “lost” areas of black should be slight, although it is more acceptable to lose shadow blacks for effect.

Step 2 – Bump Exposure

Photo by Will Stotler. Model is Petrarcha.

Here I’ve dialed up my exposure dramatically to bring up detail in the foreground and background. The red areas can be recovered. What you can’t see in this image is that I bumped Exposure, then Recovery, and played with the sliders a bit to make sure I’d be able to Recover my highlights later.

Step 3 – Too Bright? Dump Some Contrast

Photo by Will Stotler. Model is Petrarcha.

After playing with the relationship between Exposure and Recovery, I determined that the photo would be “too hot” with its current level of Contrast. So, I dialed that down. The problem is that when you dial down Contrast you solve one problem (blowing out highlights vs. overall Exposure) but create another: a “flat” image. So. . . .

Step 4 – Bump Saturation & Bump Vibrancy

To start to deal with the problem of the lost contrast, I bumped the Saturation and Vibrancy—quite a lot, actually. This was to dump some color into the photo and bring out the golden hues. (Remember: I shot with a regular white balance at the end of the day, which means the white balance tends to be warmer than “technically correct.”) This, in turn, made the area that will have to be Recovered larger. No problem.

Step 5 – Bump Brightness

Photo by Will Stotler. Model is Petrarcha.

To better match the very bright areas of the photo with what could be “blown” highlights—and also to really bring up the background—I bumped up the brightness. Brightness has a color-killing effect, though—using Brightness can suck the life out a photo. But, we’re OK because the lightness of the skin tones came up to be closer in brightness to areas I’ll need to Recover.

Step 6 – Bring up the Black Point

Photo by Will Stotler. Model is Petrarcha.

Bringing up the Black Point for this image puts some punch back into the darks—punch that I lost by reducing Contrast and bumping Brightness. A little adjustment on Black Point can make a lot of difference (and “tear up” a photo), so using it sparingly is advised.

Step 7 – Apply Recovery

Photo by Will Stotler. Model is Petrarcha.

Dialing up Recovery has brought the blown highlights into control, while not really affecting much else. The final photo is a bit on the bright side in Petrarcha’s face, but with the positioning on the background, helps separate him and bring the viewer’s eye to his face.

Step 8 – Vignette for Emphasis

Photo by Will Stotler. Model is Petrarcha.

Adding some vignetting adds to a “vintage” feel whether the viewer knows what “vignetting” is, or not—it’s recognized in photos from the timeframe. It also drops the edges of the photo into darkness, further accentuating Petrarcha’s face. The photo is finished.

Here’s the “before and after” example again:

Photo by Will Stotler. Model is Petrarcha.

When to Use This Technique?

This “underexpose deliberately then develop to bring up darkness” technique is appropriate for night shooting, where you position your subject in a very bright source of light surrounded by dimness or darkness. Or, with very bright sunlight and shooting appropriately. Or, in situations where you have a bright light and a backdrop that is very dark. It assumes you don’t mind shadows and I don’t mind them at all—they help make the subject appear more three dimensional and add interest/mood if used correctly. Positioning of the subject so the features are highlighted by the light (or concealed) while aiding your composition is a must—done well it becomes almost cinematic in appearance.

A Note on Workflow

In terms of overall workflow, I developed this one photo in less than three minutes. (The final settings—and the order in which they were used—are shown above, but I did tweak each slider a bit back and forth as I went to zero in on what was needed to get the result.) I then used the Lift and Stamp tool to push those settings to all other shots taken at the same time, in the same light. About 20 other photos. Each of those other photos required examination and tweaking depending on their particular situations, but I didn’t have to repeat the process of manually developing 20 photos. This is, in my opinion, a good way of working. But, it does presume that you know what you’re trying to get when you shoot. (These photos could have been unusable if I had shot them differently on location.) You can learn more about efficiencies of a high-throughput workflow in the “Post-Processing: Workflow” post.

Post-Processing: Workflow

As I mentioned in my 10 Guidelines for ShootingAll shots should be developed and then graded.”

I believe that responsible, artful photography involves reviewing the work, and digital developers (newly created in the scheme of things) are the key, especially when we’re talking about working through a 300-shot session.

To understand more about what I mean, I’m providing a quick look into the full workflow that I’ve created and refined since 2006 and use for every shoot.

High-Throughput

The workflow is high throughput, meaning it is designed to let me work through a large batch of photos quickly (300 to 600), without making compromises. Because the workflow is efficient, I can often see and deliver my final, developed photos in no more than a few days after shooting. Because I shoot a lot, I have to have a workflow like this. My portfolio has benefitted, too. I imagine that working professionals use a similar workflow because time is money.

What is a “Digital Developer”?

Digital developers are applications that are specialized in performing the following tasks:

  1. Ingest image files
  2. Manage and store the ingested image files
  3. Provide detailed adjustments for images, including touchup work
  4. Permit “lifting and stamping” of adjustments from one image to many similar images
  5. Enable curating of images by ratings
  6. Can export in a variety of formats
  7. Permit easy searching, browsing, and filtering of images throughout the whole image library
  8. Provide storage and backup features

Popular Developers: Aperture and Lightroom

My developer of choice is Apple’s Aperture 2.1.4. (I refuse to upgrade to version 3.x because of its poor performance.) Adobe Lightroom is also very popular. Other developers, like Capture One, also exist. My description below refers to Apple’s Aperture, but the same basic principles apply when using Lightroom or Capture One.

The Workflow

This workflow can be performed quickly, efficiently, and is repeatable. Each step involves only a single, focused task performed across all images—which keeps me focused and sharp at all times. Additionally, grading-as-I-go shrinks the size of the batch as I work, letting me apply more effort and concentration on the images that deserve my complete attention while filtering out images that don’t. Last, every image is viewed multiple times, which puts me in a better position to curate effectively and deliver consistently good work. Nevermind that I think you have to develop and then grade images—I would never just grab just a few images and work on them straightaway. I would miss great shots that I couldn’t see until they were developed.

Download this graphic as a printable PDF.

Here are the steps:

  1. Import RAW images from the memory card into Aperture (apply copyright metadata at this stage).
  2. Filter images by calendar date so only the imported RAW images are visible.
  3. Review and delete all RAW images that are clearly “very bad” shots.
  4. Adjust white balance on one image. Lift+stamp to all photos. (Or, subset by subset if WB changed set-to-set.)
  5. Adjust contrast and saturation to taste. Lift+stamp to all photos. (Or subset by subset, as appropriate.)
  6. Adjust one, lift+stamp to many. Work more finely on a “subset by subset” basis with similar images, finding an ideal setting on one image then lift+stamping that to all images in that similar “subset.”
  7. Promote images, what I think are my best and all other “maybes” with one star.
  8. Filter images by calendar date and one star so only one-star images are displayed.
  9. Tweak one-star images, one-by-one and case-by-case, to pull the right look out of each image.
  10. Promote images, both your best and “maybes” that made the cut, with two stars.
  11. Filter images by calendar date and two stars so only two-star images are displayed.
  12. Treat selected images with B&W conversion in TrueGrain or with NIK filters. (Strictly optional.)
  13. Filter images by calendar date and to show one- or two-star images.
  14. Sharpen images with edge sharpening or regular sharpening.
  15. Create and then export Web Gallery.
  16. Export high-resolution and web-resolution shots.

Uh, What About Photoshop?

“Photoshop” is clearly the name that’s associated with post production (and also technical credibility) and it is expected to be used by many photographers, models, and others in the photography business. Photoshop was created to be used on an image-by-image basis and is the best game in town for image manipulation, complex image compositing, very complicated color handling, and myriad other “shop” type tasks. I’ve been using Photoshop professionally since Version 4 in 1997. But Photoshop is not the ideal tool to work through large quantities of images, performing modern image developing tasks. Image development software, like Aperture or Lightroom, new to the scene in 2005, is specifically designed to provide post-processing workflows. Photoshop is appropriate to be used after executing the workflow to prepare final, high-value images for printing/Web use, or to apply very complex touchups and effects. Otherwise, digital development coupled with good shooting practices is more than enough.

Focusing Techniques

I shoot with the Leica M8 rangefinder, which means focusing is always manual. This was a deliberate choice. I take pride in my ability and skill to manually focus for each of my photographs. I also like that I can pick up just about any camera, old or new, familiar or unfamiliar, and make it work.

“Focus manually, why, exactly?”

Remember guideline #2 from a previous post, “Do Not Blame the Camera”? I believe the following are not good reasons to lose a shot:

  • “My autofocus couldn’t get a lock.”
  • “My autofocus was too slow to get a lock.”
  • “My autofocus focused on the wrong thing.”

If a shot is going to have a focus-related problem, it should clearly be my fault because as photographer I am responsible for the final image, not the camera.

Speed Focusing: Focus, Reframe, Shoot.

I am able in most cases to manually “Focus, Reframe, Shoot” . . . . As fast as I can say that phrase. Sometimes autofocus is faster than I am. But my focus always goes right where I put it and I know it’s in the right place, every time.

Normal Focus – Over-Rotate and Then Slide Back

This is a technique that I adapted from an observation I made when watching users during Graphical User Interface (GUI) testing. When scrolling, 99% of users pull the interface’s slider one way slowly toward the target. (The target is a known location, about half-way down or up a document.) Users do this because they don’t want to “miss” their target. However, it’s much faster to move the slider quickly past the desired stopping point (gross motion) but then reverse direction gently (fine motion) to nail the spot. Always faster. Here’s how I use this principle with focusing:

  1. Over-Rotate: While paying close attention to your subject, quickly spin your focus ring slightly past the point where you see your subject is in focus. (Do not attempt to find the focus point slowly. “Drive by” the point of focus and then stop.)
  2. Slide Back: Now, smoothly but quickly dial the focus ring in the opposite direction until you’ve nailed the focus.

Infographic for Quick Focusing

Fine Focus – Lean and Then Slide Back

Very fine focusing is required when I’m shooting with a very narrow depth of field, at an aperture of f/2, f/1.8, f/1.4, f/1.2, with macro, etc. I’ve seen most beginners with manual focus “see-saw” their focus ring back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, trying to “find” focus. Waste of time. I do this, instead:

  1. Over-Rotate and Slide Back with your focus. Fast.
  2. STOP using the focus ring.
  3. To find fine focus, use your body from the waist up: Pivot at the waist to lean forward until you pass the point of sharpest focus in your viewfinder, then slide back to nail it.

Pre-Planning Helps

I normally make decisions about my aperture/speed/ISO, manually dial them in, and then forget about them until I must change them due to a radical shift in my light. This lets me concentrate on “Focus, Reframe, Shoot” without distraction.

Already Focused?

I take advantage of focus, once I have it. If the subject hasn’t moved but I’m already focused, it’s just: “reframe, shoot.” As fast or as slow as I want to shoot. This is another advantage over autofocus, which will seek a new lock on the subject every time, even when it doesn’t have to.

Practice

I challenge myself with shooting things that are in motion. I suggest that if you want to improve, shoot in what you think are impossible conditions but make them work. Also, work with your lowest available aperture to develop the skill. You can switch back to f/4 or f/5.6 once your skill is automatic.

Some Expectations

It ain’t easy, folks. Realistically expect that you will need to take several thousand manually focused photos of people moving, moving objects, etc., before you have an automatic level of skill. Also, expect to miss shots. You will. But every missed shot is an opportunity to think more about why you missed it, which is useful in learning.

Why I Prefer Rangefinder Focusing

  1. To get focus with a rangefinder camera, you align two images in the camera’s viewfinder. If the two images are aligned where you want your plane of focus, you’re in focus. Confirmed. Done.
  2. Rangefinder focusing relies on Vernier Acuity (more at Wikipedia about this), to which the eye is quite sensitive. This permits fast and accurate manual focusing in all conditions. Bright. Dim. Etc.
  3. The “focus patch” inside the viewfinder is small, while the remainder of the view in the viewfinder is just a view, unaffected by the focusing procedure.

Maybe a bit about Zone Focusing in another post.