Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Three Degrees of Isolation

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The word "degree" has two separate and very different meanings: It can refer to a unit of measurement, e.g.,  degrees of an angle or degrees of temperature, or it can refer to the amount, level, or extent to which something happens or is present.  For this blog update, I'm using that second definition of "degree," the latter one, and I'll probably use it multiple times, each time referring to an amount, a level, or an extent of something, and I'll probably do so with varying levels of success. But hey! I try! Right?

Okay. Let's talk about Three Degrees of Isolation.  (Note: Not to be confused with Six Degrees of Separation, a theory that says everyone is six or fewer steps away, by way of introductions, from any other person in the world. I don't know if I'm a believer in the Six Degrees of Separation theory or not, but I do believe the Three Degrees of Isolation helps make better photographs.)

One of the keys to good model images,  make that most any photos of almost any subject -- and this is a big one --  is a photographer's ability to isolate a photo's main subject from its surroundings.  Photographers accomplish this via varying degrees of creativity and technical skills, doing so with various levels or degrees of success.

You see, our eyes and minds cut through the visual "noise" and clutter of what we see utilizing both physical as well as mental processes. It's an automatic and instinctive ability we humans have. Hell, many animals have the same ability.  We're born able to do this, leastwise once our eyes and brains, soon after birth, develop enough in order to do so.

Not so, however, for cameras and lenses. While it's true our eyes are quite similar to a camera's lens, what cameras don't have is a brain with the ability to mentally process what the eyes (the brain's lenses) see in order to isolate the main subject(s) they're looking at from other things peripheral to the main subject or focus. In other words, what the camera sees doesn't automatically isolate the main subject from its surroundings. (Those surroundings being the visual noise and clutter I mentioned at the start of this paragraph.)  Instead, photographers need to do things in order to isolate their subjects so the resulting photos, often in less than subtle ways, point viewers to those main or key subjects. Once reason photographers should use "isolating" practices is because, for one thing, our eyes see in three dimensions (with our brains processing those three dimensions) while cameras only record two of those dimensions, and the camera does so without a brain able to isolate the key elements or the main subjects of what its lens "sees."

So how do we, as photographers, isolate our key or main subjects from the noise, chaos, and clutter (or lack of it) in a model's surroundings? We do so, for the most part, in three ways by utilizing varying degrees of three, general-but-separate, specific-yet-overall, photographic skills or techniques.

The three skills/techniques for isolating a subject are:

1. Depth of Field (Not to be confused with Depth of Focus which refers to lens optics-- more specifically the placement of the image plane, i.e., the film or sensor plane in a camera, relative to the lens.)

2. Lighting

3. Composition

When I'm shooting a model, one of the first decisions I make is what degree of Depth of Field I plan to record in order for my focus -- that is, where focus generally begins and ends -- to be used to help isolate her from the shooting environment; to varying degrees, that is.  (I say "generally begins and ends" because Depth of Field does not have an exact point where the focus abruptly begins and ends. Rather, those points are subtle and gradual, yet they're still quite noticeable, in a subtle-but-noticeable and gradual way.)

Let's say, for example, I'm shooting a model in front of a plain, uniform, seamless background.  (As many of my clients often have me do.) Depth of Field isn't much of a concern with a model in that environment. But, if/when I'm shooting a model outside in daylight at an exterior location, well, that's a very different matter.  I might, for instance, decide to shoot her in front of a seamless at f/8 or f/11 which delivers a fair amount of Depth of Field. I'll make that choice because, no matter how much Depth of Field my photo produces, the seamless won't seem to be in focus. (Unless it has wrinkles and creases, etc.) 

If I take that same model outside, I may (and I do, often enough) choose to shoot at f/2.8 or f/3.5 in order to shorten the Depth of Field and throw the background (and foreground) out of focus. (Again, to varying degrees depending on how I want the resulting images to appear.) I'll often do that, specifically, to help isolate my model from her surroundings, usually the background, which is something I'm not much concerned about when she's in front of a seamless. 

Three-point or triangular lighting, glam style.
Lighting is my second consideration for isolating my models from their shooting environments. For studio or other interior work, I mostly use a lighting setup that is called "Three-Point" or "Triangular" lighting."  It's old school but then, so am I.  Plus, my clients like it so that's what's most important. 

Three-point or Triangular lighting requires three lights at a minimum: A main or key light plus two back lights (the glam version) or a main or key, a fill light, and a back light. (The original version.) The two back lights (in the glam version) are generally set on either side of the model, from behind, to produce  highlights (or edge or rim lighting) designed to isolate (or separate)  models from the shooting environments. 

Certainly, I can add more lights. And I sometimes do. I can, for instance, decide to separately light the background or seamless. But I don't often do that because, for the most part, especially when shooting with my model in front of a seamless, my clients don't care about the background. Their art departments, most often, will be cutting the model out of the BG for whatever they're using the pics for-- like packaging, posters or slicks (slicks being a small poster), and that sort of stuff.  So, I don't light it. I can also add other lighting, e.g., a fill light or a hair light or some other highlighting light but, again, I don't often do so. I often  add a reflector or two into the mix for some subtle fill, but reflectors don't count as lights, on their own.

Once again, when I'm outside it's a different matter. When shooting in daylight. I still want to isolate my model from the shooting environment to various degrees, and I'll mostly do so using just one artificial light as a main or key light.  Generally, though, I'll place my model with the sun behind her in order to allow the sun, as a light source, to produce edge or rim lighting that is quite similar to what I produce in the studio with back lights. 

Composition is the third technique utilized to help isolate subjects/models, to various degrees, from the visual noise, clutter, or lack of it, whether shooting inside or out.  There are more than a few compositional techniques one can employ to accomplish this. I won't call them "rules" because many photographers are resistant to the notion or mention of "rules." That's cool. But do yourselves a favor: learn the friggin' rules! That way, you can use them if you decide to. (While you're at it, take some time to learn about the Elements of Design as well.) Trust me when I tell you those Rules of Composition, as well as the Elements of Design,  will earn their keep and often come in quite handy. 

BTW, I'm not going to identify all of the techniques/rules of composition you can employ -- once again, to varying degrees -- to help isolate your models from their shooting environment and produce better pictures. Why not? Because this is a blog update, not a chapter in a book or an entire book, and composition is a subject, like lighting, that can encompass whole chapters in books or entire books for that matter. 

So, next time you're shooting a model, consciously think about the Three Degrees of Isolation -- DoF, Lighting, Composition --  and how you can effectively utilize them, to varying degrees of course, to help you make better photos. 

The pretty girl at the top is Ms. Lupe Fuentes. All three degrees of isolation, to varying degrees, are at work in the image to help isolate her and make her, especially her pretty face, quite obviously the main subject of the photo as well as for directing its viewers' attention. Here's another snap of Lupe from the same shoot. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

NLP's Bullshit Badge of Courage

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What is NLP? It's my simple acronym for Natural Light Photography. What is NLP's Bullshit Badge of Courage? It's what some photographers seem to wear, in a bullshit attempt to claim some sort of photographic superiority when shooting with natural light alone versus shooting with the help of flash or reflectors or scrims. Why do I think it's bullshit? Because while it takes skill (or luck) to shoot a truly terrific model image with pure, unadulterated, natural light alone, it doesn't take any more exceptional skill than shooting with flash or with reflectors or scrims added to natural light.

Lately, on all kinds of photography pages, I've been seeing more and more photographers wearing the NLP Bullshit Badge of Courage. Many of them often provide commentary that smacks of their belief that shooting their subjects in natural light alone, without the help of flash or any other lighting tools, makes them, somehow, more skillful or accomplished or better as photographers. To them I simply say, "Bullshit."

Here's why some photographers insist on shooting with natural light alone:

1. They don't own any lighting gear (or own a bare minimum of such equipment) and/or barely have a clue how to employ flash photography with daylight.

2. They don't own and/or have skills and know-how in the effective use of reflectors and scrims.

3. They are smug elitists in general and their photography is no exception to their sense of elitism and exceptionalism.

4. They know how to "create" pseudo or faux-lighting with post-processing -- be it with their own skills or with automated apps -- and, therefore, feel they have little need to effectively employ good lighting skills and techniques or even gear while in production. 

5. They simply prefer, for creative reasons, to shoot with daylight without the help of flash or other tools. (Probably the least common reason but at least one I respect, when it's actually true.)

I am regularly taken back (a bit) when I see people posting pretty good model pics but, instead of simply being happy to have created such photos and enjoying the nice comments about them, they seem to relish informing everyone how they boldly and expertly snapped it with natural light alone, making sure they add some commentary about how they didn't even use so much as a reflector cuz, I guess, they're just that fucking good.

Whoop-dee-fucking-doo!  Color me unimpressed in the extreme.

Here some 411 for those wearing the NLP's Bullshit Badge of Courage:

First off, if I had to rely on natural light alone every time someone hired me to shoot a model at an exterior location in daylight, my income over the past couple of decades would have been seriously impacted in negative ways. How so? Because great natural light is not always available at all exterior locations at all times of day and, as a result, many of my images would have suffered and so would my re-hires by the clients who hired me. (Clients don't accept excuses like, "Oh. Sorry. The light sucked. I'll do better next time if there's good light.")

Secondly, while shooting with natural light alone might seem like the most efficient way to shoot, the absolute most efficient way to shoot is not always the correct approach if that efficiency doesn't produce images that are, at the very least, minimally competent. (And "minimally competent" doesn't always cut it with clients. In fact, in my world, it rarely does.)

Third, some of us working photographers don't perform the post-production on our sets of images that our clients will be using for various artwork. Instead, we hand over images (burned onto CDs or DVDs) straight out of the camera, generally at the end of a production day. In other words, there's no enhancing or fixing fuck-ups of images that simply don't cut the mustard, whatever cutting the mustard actually means, you know, originally when people first started using the phrase.  Again, images that don't cut the mustard, be it brown or yellow or even grey (Poupon) mustard, might have a serious and negative impact on a photographer's hope and desire for being re-hired for future work.

Personally, when I'm working, I'm all about keeping it simple and using the best tools for the job. If there happens to be super-excellent natural light where and when I'm shooting, I'll go that way, without any added tools. But that doesn't happen too often and, consequently,  I often need to add some tools into the mix to capture the sorts of images my clients expect. You know, like artificial lighting gear or reflectors and scrims to enhance, modify, or control the natural light.

If you're someone who wears that NLP Bullshit Badge of Courage, for whatever of the 5 reasons I provided above, the odds are you're seriously limiting yourself as a photographer of those human beings who professionally model in front of a camera or those who are in front of a camera for various other reasons.

Trust me when I tell you the image of the model at the top, Dahlia, would have been barely competent (i.e., appearing like un-cut mustard without some heavy application of post-production manipulating) if, for whatever reason, it was snapped with the natural light alone at that specific location and time of day. In this case, the artificial light was a Paul C. Buff "Zeus" power pack with one head inside a medium, rectangular, soft box for a key light (pretty much on-axis from slightly above and angled downwards) plus the Buff ring flash mounted around the camera's lens for some subtle fill.  By the way, if you didn't already know, lighting pioneer, Paul C. Buff, passed away just recently. RIP Paul.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Attention Rule Breakers

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I know many of you are rule-breakers. Proud rule-breakers! Dedicated rule-breakers. Uber-creative rule-breakers. Breakers of all kinds of rules because that's how you roll! For the most part, I'm not. A rule-breaker that is. But that's okay. I get by being old school because, heck, I'm old plus everyone knows all this rule-breaking stuff was invented by today's hipster-type digital photographers, which I'm not.

But let's say you are. A digital hipster who breaks the rules or even someone who isn't a hipster but still breaks the rules and, one morning, you get up and, over your coffee (or latte, if you're a hipster) you think to yourself, "You know what? I think I might shoot some stuff today that falls well within the guidelines of those rules I usually snub, ignore, or have little use for."  Hey! Stranger things have happened.

But here's the rub: You've become something akin to a dyed-in-the-wool rule-breaker. Rule-breaking is the creative essence of your photography. It's woven into the fabric of your photographic being. Or, perhaps you just aren't too edumacated regarding the rules. Either way, today's you're lucky day!  Famous rule-employing photographer, Steve McCurry -- he's the guy who shot that muy famoso pic of the Afghan girl -- and an organization called, The Cooperative of Photography (whoever they are), have put a little video together to help educate you on the rules of composition and, in one fell swoop, how to use those rules in photos as well. Trust me. It's good stuff!

Now, before you read the article and watch the video let me mention something-- Most all of these rules can still be employed to various extents even if you're not a globe-trotting photographer like Steve McCurry and, like me, you mostly shoot pretty girls, for instance, in front of a seamless background. How cool is that?  Very cool, if you ask me. Which you didn't but I did. (Asked myself, that is.)

Here's a link to the article with the rules of composition video. Enjoy. And learn. Or just enjoy. Your choice.


In the pretty girl pic at the top, I employed some of the same stuff shown in the video. There's diagonals (I especially love diagonals and arms and legs offer great opportunities to use them) symmetry via that "S" curve, a center dominant eye (even though it's looking down), plus I filled the frame cuz I don't bother with silly questions like, "Is the frame half empty or half full?"  I usually just fill the fu... I mean it.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

It Ain't Easy Being Blind

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For many years, I worked as a half-blind photographer. A half-blind videographer as well. If vision is the #1 requirement for any decent photographer, I was (technically) handicapped by only having 50% of the vision the vast majority of photographers rely on. Or, was I? Handicapped, that is.

How was I a half-blind photographer/videographer? Well, I was blind in one eye. 100% blind in one eye; my right eye. I was 100% blind in my right eye for about 15 or so years, plus slowly going blind in that eye for quite a few years prior.

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, it ain't easy being blind.

Being half-blind is easier, of course, than being all blind. Much, much easier. With all blind you see nothing. With half-blind, you still see, albeit not the way most others see. While being half-blind is  infinitely easier than being half-blind, half-blind still ain't easy if you know what I mean. Actually, you might not know what I mean because most of you probably haven't been blind, half-blind or otherwise.  Some of you might be blind-ish to some extent but, if so, you likely wear optics to correct that. There were no optics that could correct my half-blindness. It wasn't correctable with lenses or prisms or, for years, by any other means.

The interesting thing about being one-eyed is that the world you see is two-dimensional, just like the world we see in photos. It takes two, functional and working eyes to have depth perception. (Depth representing that third dimension.) From that perspective, only being sighted in one eye might have actually been something of an advantage for photography. I suppose I could more easily see what a photograph might look like before shooting it. Leastwise, with both eyes open and without a camera's viewfinder hoisted to my eye. Course, once that camera is in mine or your hands and pressed to our faces, we're all one-eyed in terms of our photography. (Unless we're using Live View on a camera's rear LCD screen or a camera with a two-eyed focusing screen, e.g., a twin-lens reflex or the way some larger format cameras have.)

Eventually, much the way modern digital camera technologies have evolved and advanced, medical technology caught up with my right eye and the vision in it was restored via surgery and an artificial lens implant. That's right. I have a bionic eye.

At first, the success of my bionic eye was looking rather dubious because my blind right eye had atrophied over time. As a result, I was left with a serious case of double-vision after the artificial lens was implanted.  My right eye, you see, wouldn't de-atrophy itself for a while and I wondered if I wasn't better off being half-blind.  But, in time, my right eye corrected itself all on its own.  To my great delight, I didn't need prisms. Yeah. Prisms. That's what the doctors called what I might need in the form of eye-wear that resembled the bottoms of glass Coke bottles to correct the double vision. For a while, I thought I might have to change my name to Poindexter or something similar. You know, if I had to wear Coke bottle glasses.

Did being a half-blind photographer impact my photography? I have no idea, although I've thought about that more than a few times. Frankly, if it did have an impact, I'm not sure if it was a positive or negative impact. Perhaps it really didn't matter? I'm right handed but have always swung a baseball bat as a lefty. I can't do so like a rightie. Never could. I played a lot of baseball as a kid. Being a lefty at the plate was an advantage for the most part. Not sure if being a lefty with my eyes contains any sorts of advantages though.

BTW, although the sight in my right eye was restored, I still shoot with my left eye. I didn't shoot that way before I lost the sight in my right eye.  I shot with my right eye the way most people do. At least, I think that's how most people shoot. Then, when I lost my sight in that eye, I became a left-eyed shooter by necessity. Since the sight in my right eye has been returned to me, I haven't been able to return to right-eyed shooting. I don't' know why that is. It just is what it is, I suppose.  I don't really see any reason to return to right-eyed shooting. There certainly isn't any necessity to do so.

I've been happy and grateful for becoming sighted in both eyes again. More than happy about it:  Ecstatic! My bionic eye is more sensitive to blue hues, i.e., everything I see with it is to the bluer or cooler side of the spectrum, color temperature wise. It's like the world has a slight bluish cast to it when I look with only my right eye. With both eyes open, however, I don't notice any shift in color perception. At least not consciously. I suppose human brains, like most modern digital cameras, have an auto-color function which corrects for color... but only when both of my eyes are open. I can only see the difference in color between each eye when I close one and look with the other, then change which one is closed and look out the other and so forth. . I don't do that very often but I have done it enough times to be aware of the difference when it comes to color perception between my two eyes.

Sorry if this update doesn't contain anything useful in terms of helping anyone with their pretty girl shooting.  Hey! After over one thousand updates to this blog, coming up with anything write about can be a challenge and, more often than not, when I think up or stumble on something to write about, I'll often go for it even it's, like this update, mostly about me.

The image at the top is how I imagined people would be looking at me, at least behind my back, if I ended up having to wear a pair of Coke bottle prisms like those I mentioned in this article. Yeah, yeah, I know. That's just insecurity. Still, it's how I envisioned things might be.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Are you a Photo Ditto Head?

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I read plenty of photography stuff about gear heads versus those who are less focused on the equipment they buy and use and more focused on the creative aspects of photography. It's been a fairly common discussion in recent years, more so because of the many advances in camera, lens, and lighting technologies, as well as photo processing software.

There's an old Egyptian proverb that tells us, "A beautiful thing is rarely perfect." With the possible exception of gemstones, where perfection is highly regarded and sought after, I'm a big believer in that old Egyptian saying. Especially, when it comes to photography and, even more so, as it can be applied to photographing models. You see, many of the advances in photographic technologies, the hardware as well as the software, have been aimed at helping photographers create more perfect photos and/or more perfect photo subjects.

If there's a common denominator to the way in which many shooters process their (model) images in PS or LR or however they might do so, it's that many of them are all-too-often focused (consumed, it sometimes seems) on manipulating their images in ways that reflect high levels of perfection, both in terms of creating perfection in their models' physical appearances, as well as the photographic processes themselves.

"A technically perfect photograph can be the world’s most boring picture," famed photographer, Andreas Feininger, once said. I'll go a step further by saying that creating perfection (or near perfection) when shooting models and processing their photos can produce the world's most boring pretty girl pics. And they often do. Trust me on this-- I've shot a ton of technically competent yet overall boring model pics. Course, that's what they were paying me to shoot but it doesn't change the outcomes... but that's another story.

There are more than a few well-known model shooters who consistently produce perfect-looking images of perfect-looking models. Many up-and-coming photographers see those photos and they say, "Hey! I want to shoot models like that!"  So, the first thing they do is try to learn how to emulate those shooters of perfect-looking pics and (seemingly) perfect-looking models, often asking those photographers a gazillion questions (via Facebook and other ways) how they too can create that sort of photo-perfection. They often seek step-by-step instructions for shooting and processing perfect-looking photos of perfect-looking women so they can proudly post their perfect-looking images. 

Emulating the work of others by learning from them and mimicking their work can be great ways to practice and learn but, at some point, doing so can also stifle a photographer's ability to develop a personal style. Plus, there's this: I've shot enough models over the years to know how rarely any of those models look perfect, beauty wise. They all have "flaws" (for lack of a better word) of one sort or another, just like we all do, some of us more than others. Some of their "flaws" are worth fixing. But other flaws, if flaws they are, are what makes some models stand out from the pack. That's right, it's often a model's so-called flaws or imperfections which are responsible for them standing out from other models, rather than their inherent degree of physical perfection.  But then photographers come along and, not being satisfied with a model's natural beauty, flawed in some way I suppose, they think,  "Hmm... she's perfect except she's got that one thing. That one flaw. That slight imperfection. But I can fix that in post."

Sometimes, that's the right decision; fixing the perceived flaws and imperfections, that is. Other times, it's a very wrong decision. How do you know the difference? i.e., when to fix it when not? That's where your personal sense of aesthetics (and more) comes into play.  It's also about whether you want to be, as a photographer, a ditto head or something else-- something less like most of the others who are making those perfect photos of perfect-looking models.We see it all the time on the covers of magazines and elsewhere. Occasionally, someone comes across before and after photos of those perfect-looking models and, all of a sudden, viewers realize those fantasy girls are just that: a fantasy.

While editing my images, when I spot flaws in the model -- again, for lack of a better word --  flaws that I may or may not have paid much attention to when shooting the pics, I don't automatically think, "How can I fix this? How can I make her perfect?"  Rather,  I first ask myself a simple question: Does the model's "flaw" or imperfection add more interest to the photo or does it detract from viewers' interests in the photos? Or, does it  really matter one way or another?

You see, even when a model's flaws are quite subtle or barely noticeable, they can sometimes add much interest to the photos and fixing them can reduce potential interest. The same goes for other aspects of the photos, aspects that don't reflect the model but, instead, reflect how you, the photographer, snapped the pics. And that's what it's all about, isn't it? We want viewers to be interested in our photos. To find them memorable in some way. Often enough, that sort of interest is generated by things that go beyond (or fall short of) perfectly photographed photos of perfectly perfect models.

You know how some photographers choose to shoot with crappy cameras or inferior, plastic lenses, or with expired film?  Do you know why they're doing that? Well, it's not because they want to produce technically perfect photographs or perfection in other ways. It's because they are actively and purposely seeking imperfection. They are hoping for flaws. They know that beautiful things are rarely perfect. They also know that Feininger was correct: that the world's most technically perfect photos can also be the world's most boring pictures. Yep, it's often those flaws and imperfections which make images all the more memorable in our photographs.

Food for thought... assuming your mind is hungry.

The pretty girl at the top is Devin, snapped in the front foyer of a large, spacious, luxury home in Las Vegas a few years back. It was my client's house. I used to go up there two or three times a year to shoot for him. I'd stay at his house for about a week and shoot, either at the house or we'd venture elsewhere. The 2nd floor guest bedroom I'd stay in was larger than many rooms in most luxury hotels in Sin City and came with a big bathroom and a private balcony. No maid or room service though. Bummer, right? Oh well. There was a large, sweeping, stairway to the right of the table with the vase and flowers. That stairway made setting my lights a bit tricky, but do-able nonetheless. Devin is posing under the stairway. I really liked the way the vase and artificial flowers looked so that's why I shot some in that spot. I was going to move the table and vase to another spot in the house, one that would have been easier to light and place my model, but my client was very persnickety about his house and his stuff so I said, effit, and just shot there.  I'm easy that way. Plus, his checks always cleared.