On the road..

Or, technically, high above it.

Back in a few days with more stuff. Stay tuned..


Shooting group portraits

Looking at the December 2007 issue of Vanity Fair, I was pleased to see that Annie Leibovitz didn't shrink from the challenge of shooting a giant group photo of the American patrons of the Tate Modern Museum. Way to go, Annie! You're gonna do just fine in this biz.

In my own humble corner of the world, I'm shooting group shots all the time. These range from family clusters with just a handful of members to large assemblies that show off every person invited to a wedding. (As a rule, I try to keep these bigger crowds to fewer than 125 people; beyond that it gets harder to be creative.) But it seems that I use some of the same guidelines that Annie does. Of course, I can only guess at how she puts these together, because I'm too shy to call her, but here's a few tricks I do:

1) Mix it up. And down.

Putting people at different heights and in different positions can add a great deal of texture to a group photo. I joke with my clients that I try very hard to NOT make their photos look like "the debate team in the high school yearbook." They laugh because it's pretty much an archetype: a bunch of people lined up in a row looking awkward. Sometimes it's two rows. Doesn't matter. You don't get any sense from that image of who's naughty and who's nice, who the funny guy is and which girl is most likely to succeed.

By having some people sit, some stand, some lean, a maybe a couple people interacting with each other, you create a relaxed scene that has the potential of saying a lot more about the personalities and characters of the people in your photo. After all, those powerful memory-triggers that are activated when we see a photo of some old friend usually come faster and more powerfully when photo shows that person being him- or herself.

Mixing it up and down also serves another useful purpose. And that is to..

2) Create depth.

Photography is inherently a two-dimensional medium. Whether you're looking at a print on a wall, or illuminated pixels on your computer screen, you're basically seeing a flat surface. Why magnify that limitation by creating a police lineup? In the image above, even though the subjects are all basically standing in one plane, I've created a pleasing front-to-back sense of depth by moving off-axis. Do all that you can to spread out your action and take the viewer's eye from place to place in the image. You have to watch your depth of field if you spread them out too much, but if you're working with the light you can pull it off.

One big issue that I run in to all the time is that a lot of people just aren't very comfortable being photographed. This is where I think Annie has it easy sometimes. Sure you can get Scarlett Johansson and Lucy Liu and 14 other Hollywood Lolitas to hit dramatic poses for you to produce a dynamite photograph: that's what those people are paid to do! They practice doing it all the time! Whereas for those of us in the real world, we are often dealing with people who are having their picture taken because they've been told to show up and behave. So how do you get people to soften up and stop worrying about how ridiculous they think they look?

3) Get your subjects to do something.

If you can get your peoples' minds off the fact that they are your subjects and distract them in to think they're having fun, you're going to get a better picture. One very natural and easy way to do this is to have them walk around. I have the whole group walk maybe 50-60 yards away from me, and then turn around and all come back. I tell them to talk to each other, joke around, shake off any tension they have. Shooting with my 70-200mm zoom, I can generally fill up the frame with the crowd and widen out as they get closer to me. After a few attempts at this technique, you'll figure out some ways to get people moving in a more coordinated fashion. As your people loosen up a bit, they will be more likely to look pleasant and comfortable if you do have to tell them to look up at you for a second. And they'll look up at you because you have elected to;

4) Get some height over the crowd.

I carry a 3-step ladder in my trunk all the time, and I have it ready whenever I need to work with a group. Gaining some height serves several useful functions.
  • - It lets you see everyone in the photo. If you're at eye-level with a crowd, somebody is going to get blocked by someone else's head. I tell my groups, "If you can't see me, I can't see you."
  • - It helps to get rid of double chins and frowns. If people have to look up, it pulls the skin on their face a little tighter, and tends to keep them from being able to mope.
  • - It lets you shout instructions to the group, and puts you in a position of authority. Think of yourself as a band leader, and get everyone marching to your rhythm. You might only have 1-2 minutes to hold everyone's attention, so make it count.
  • - It usually helps your composition by cleaning up the background a bit.
If you're up high, there's one last guideline that's very helpful..

5) Put the sun behind them.

You'll see in most of these images that old Sol is striking everyone on the back of the head and shoulders. That's a great way to separate everyone out from the background. If you need, you can generally get away with just a bit of fill light on their faces from a couple of small strobes. Perhaps even more helpful, it avoids the issue of having a viewfinder-full of squinting, uncomfortable people staring up at the brightest part of the sky. If they don't have to squint, they can smile. And they'll feel better about you, because you haven't blinded them. So don't be afraid to shoot in to the sun, or at least get it off to the side.

None of these photos are by Annie Liebovitz, by the way. You think I WANT to get sued??


Photoshop adjustments time-saver

Working in Adobe Photoshop, I often found myself confronted with a situation where I had a lot of images that needed a similar adjustment. Especially with portrait sessions I may have a number of images with very nearly the same lighting and color. Because I'm good about using my meter and my noggin, my exposures are usually pretty close, but I often like to add a bit of contrast or saturation as I prepare images for clients.

I may want to lighten or darken many photos in a row
that were shot under similar conditions, and do it quickly.

Very quickly I got tired of trying to repeat a curves (CMD-M on your keyboard, or CTRL-M on a PC) or levels (CMD-L/CTRL- L) adjustment on picture after picture, calling up the adjustment controls box and then trying to use my mouse to make the same corrections I made just a second ago. Particularly with curves it can be hard to try to redraw the curve just the same way time after time, and I really want to have these images look consistent from shot to shot. It turns out there's a way to repeat the last adjustment you did, and I discovered this quite by accident one day.

It involves the OPTION key.

Open up the images that you want to make a similar adjustment to, and work with the first one as you see fit. Then when you get to subsequent photos, hold down the OPTION key as you CMD-M or CMD-L to call up the levels or curves dialogs. It will apply the previous adjustment as it opens the dialog box. If it looks okay you can just hit "return" and go to the next picture and so the same thing.
This trick with the option key works with a wide range of adjustment tools: Hue & Saturation, Color Balance, Selective Color, Shadow/Highlight, and many more.

One hitch.. this only works with pictures handled one right after the other. If you have an adjustment that you make on one photo, and then five pictures later you want to do the same adjustment, it won't necessarily give you the result you want. The adjustment information is only cached for the previous photo, which is why it's helpful to try to work with a bunch of similar photos.

So, what if you're not dealing with a series of photos needing similar adjustments where you can work with them back-to-back. You might be shooting a wedding, for instance, where you've got photos taken in several different rooms at a reception site. The bride and groom may spend some time dancing in the ballrooom, where you've got one set of lighting conditions; then go back to the dining room to mingle with guests, where conditions are different: and spend some time at the bar socializing before going back in to dance in the ballroom.

Photoshop has for several generations let users save a set of adjustments and then apply them later with the "load" option.

Now, in CS3, the folks at Adobe have made that process a little easier and more elegant. When you save a set of Curves adjustment, you can quickly access them in a pull-down menu at the top of the box. As long as you have Photoshop running in any one session you can access those adjustments quickly and easily. (If you quit, you have to use the "load" option to make the adjustment again, but then you can use the pull-down menu until you quit again.) Theyve included some interesting adjustments of their own as well, such as a cross-processing option.

I have my own frequently-used curves preset, called "tiny bit more contrast, eh?"
The one called "warmer skin tones" will only appear in the pop-up menu during this session of Photoshop.

If you've got a type of curves adjustment that you make all the time, for instance if you shoot in a studio or in a set of offices repeatedly, you can store what you've saved in the Curves Presets folder in the CS3 folder in Applications. (So, on a Mac, the path is HARDDRIVE>APPLICATIONS>ADOBE PHOTOSHOP CS3>PRESETS>CURVES. Dunno exactly what it is on a PC, but if you've gotten this far, I'm sure you can figure it out.)

Choosing a good lens for traveling

Kayaker on Cape Cod

When I travel with my camera, I consider it an opportunity to make the pictures that I'm really gonna treasure down the road, and I never quite know what sorts of situations I'm going to be facing. Sometimes I want to make a photo that shows the grandeur of a large cathedral or palace, and other times I want to show off little details. So I used to carry a pretty big pro SLR and would have at least two lenses with me and sometimes a flash. This gave me most of the tools I needed to make those neato pictures I want to make big prints of and put on my walls. But it also meant if I bought any souvenirs pretty soon I was awfully weighed down with stuff and had no extra hands to try all the local delicacies from street vendors. If you're walking around allllllllll day, as I often do when some strange exotic land, that gets old in a hurry.

The little village of St. Emilion, in Bordeaux

Longtime friend and one-time client Larisa (last name withheld "for security reasons") was finally able to upgrade her photography capabilities thanks to the new digital SLR that she got for Christmas from her loving, handsome husband. Rowr! Her Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi came as a kit, with an 18-55mm lens, but she's not sure that's going to be sufficient to let her make the kind of photos she wants when she travels to Japan and Latvia this summer. Issues like how easy it is to focus aren't going to affect her, and she readily admits that she's mostly going to use the camera on its automatic settings.

She has a couple of options for buying another lens, and the question arises of whether she wants to get one outside the 18-55 range so that she'll have to carry a second lens along, or to get one that also includes most of that range and gives her some telephoto reach. She's narrowed down her choices to a 55-200, a 28-200, or a 28-135mm lens.

Frankly, I'd take the 55-200 out of the mix right away. It starts out as a darker lens (beginning at f/4.5, rather than f/3.5 like the other two lenses) and only focuses as close as 4 feet, compared to 17 or 20 inches on the other two. There are plenty of times when you want to take photos of something closer to you than four feet.

Notre Dame de Paris. Duh.

I should throw in the caveat there that I don't shoot Canon, simply because I've always owned Nikons and never quite felt like I had to scrap an entire system and start over with all new stuff. Canon makes some great gear, and they're pretty much dominating the digital market these days. The technical information I'm citing here is straight from Canon's website. So while I can't speak to the exact "brand-issues" that may be involved with how Canon lenses and cameras work, there are many general observations that apply to these decisions no matter what you buy.

I found that I just wasn't using the flash much while I was traveling (sorry, David ) so I dropped that from my gear eventually. Most of the time I'm shooting landscapes and am in situations where I don't really want to get in the way of whatever the locals are doing, so I try to shoot unobtrusively. And as I often travel in the winter months when there aren't as many tourists cluttering up the places I visit (you get a much better feel for a place) I found on occasion that it was darned hard to change lenses when the temperatures are bitingly cold. So, lately I've been of the opinion that the decision has to be made in the direction of carrying one versatile lens that will give you as much as possible on both ends: decent wide-angle coverage, and a fairly long telephoto. In fact I like to carry about as long a telephoto as I possibly can, because not only do I like to shoot the whole cathedral but I also want to see the carvings of the tortured sinners high up on the walls. (In an age when literacy was rare, graphic depictions of the sufferings of the afterlife were potent teaching tools.)

Sinners suffering on a cathedral wall in Angoulême

What, then, should Larisa do? Well, it's not entirely simple. Or maybe, it's not as simple as it could be. In a nutshell, wide angle lenses with most digital cameras are not as wide as you think. And telephotos generally reach further than you would expect. So, there are costs and benefits that have to be weighed.

The lens that comes with her kit, the 18-55, is a pretty good wide-angle at the "18" end. But that 18mm lens gives the same range as a 28mm lens would in traditional film format. That's decently wide, but not remarkably wide. More importantly, it's not much of a telephoto at the 55 end, clocking in at the equivalent of 90mm. It lets you get a little closer, but in many circumstances it's not much better than walking a few feet closer to the subject.

So Larisa is going to want to buy one of those longer lenses. If she opts to carry just one lens on her travels, I'd go with the 28-200. On a traditional film camera, that would be about the same as carrying a 46-320mm lens. Not very wide on the wide side, but plenty long on the telephoto side.

She could go with the 28-135, which has the benefit of Image Stabilization. But for me I would end up frustrated using that because I'd want to have more reach than the 135 can provide. And as far as Image Stabilization goes, my suggestion is to just brace your camera and yourself against something when you shoot. That night picture of Notre Dame was a 3-second exposure! No tripod. Just my camera propped up on my glove and wallet on an old stone wall. It's fairly rare that I can't find a convenient lamppost or tree to snug up against, and with a little practice you'd be surprised how much you can get away with in dim light. So you pay a little extra (about 40-50 bucks) for this feature and if you're careful you can get away without it in most situations.

Towers, old and new, in Copenhagen

A couple of final tidbits..

You should get a UV filter for the lens, which will cost you around $20 or so, no matter what you brand you get. Make sure it's UV and not Haze or some other kind of filter. Again, there's technical geek-stuff behind that. Just trust me. And your filter will provide most of the protection you need. Don’t worry about lens caps, which will just slow you down. You should get a lens hood (which Nikon seems to include on most of its comparable lenses, but for which Canon is charg
ing about forty bucks) because it will give you valuable protection for the front of the lens and is very useful in keeping unwanted stray light out of your pictures. You will almost never see any professional photographers who don't have lens hoods on all their glass (technical, cool moniker for lenses) and there's a good reason for that. So Larisa, if you're buying the Canon 28-200, take the $40 you save from not getting the Image Stabilization and spend it on a lens hood.

Armed with all that, go have fun! And say hi to Julie & Andrew for me. And to your mom.


Making Black & Whites in Lightroom

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom gives digital photographers the ability to make terrific black & white images from digital images captured in color. In fact I think the latest round of this software (and also Adobe Camera Raw's recent updates) gives photographers the ability to make more interesting B&W images than could be made with film.

I should start by saying that I was a die-hard film user well in to the digital age. Additionally, in my role as Photo Editor I didn't actually learn much about photoshop and the potential for working with digital images, so once I began shooting on my own after bailing out of newspapers I had a huge learning curve to tackle. All my history up until, oh, 2004 was with film, and any of you who remember the disaster-that-was-Panalure can stipulate that about any time you wanted to turn a nice color image into a B&W print you were pretty much sacrificing a lot of tonality and hoping that the content alone carried the image (which, it could be argued, it should in any case). For those of us who were shooting transparencies — or "slides," as we used to call them — the thought of throwing away all that nicely saturated Fujichrome hue was a painful choice reluctantly made.

Now I have probably 400 rolls of film chilling in my basement, silently marching toward their "best by" dates, because I've become convinced that I can get exceptional quality from digital capture, both in color and B&W. And Lightroom makes it easy and quick. Watch my ebay listings for that film.

Here are a few reasons why I think Lightroom is so neat for doing this. Let me start with a very fun shoot I had with Kirsten & Henry, a great couple whose wedding I shot some weeks after doing this engagement portrait session. H&K like to hang out on his boat in the Chesapeake Bay most of their weekend days when the weather is warm, and we spent about two hours zipping around at about 20-30 knots on relatively calm waters. Going the extra mile, Kirsten bought a white cocktail dress that could pass for a wedding gown and Henry put on a nice dark suit (and his favorite watch) to give it a bit of a "James Bond" movie look.

Shooting with a Fuji S5, this shot takes advantage of the camera's ability to shoot at very high shutter speeds when coupled with Nikon SB-800 speedlights. I wanted a dark sky on an otherwise very bright day, so these photos are shot at 1/3200th of a second at f/4.5. One SB-800, acting as the "master" flash, is handheld off-camera with a ttl cord, and the other is clamped to the boat and was in "remote" mode. Both flashes were gelled with CTO (might have been 1/2 gels, I don't remember) to warm up the couple compared to the rest of the image. Since I'm underexposing the ambient at ISO 100 I had the flashes set to make the couple brighter than the surrounding scene.

Now, I think this looks mucho fantastico (technical photo term there) in color, although it is desaturated quite a bit on this post. But this image does give me a chance to show the potential for making nice B&W images in Lightroom. Taking this same image in to the Develop Module, I clicked on the "grayscale" option. In my preferences I have the "apply auto tone adjustments" option deselected, because normally I don't like the way Lightroom applies their auto adjustments, but in this first case I've decided to manually click the "Auto-Adjust" button under the greyscale sliders. It does a fine job on this image, though it seems to take a bit of drama out of the scene.

One fact I didn't know until very recently is that Lightroom picks the grayscale values based on the White Balance, so as a starting point in grayscale conversion you can adjust both the temperature and tint to get your image in to the ballpark. In the color version, and this first B&W, my white balance was around 5000 degrees with the tint at -6.

Another reason I don't rely on the auto settings is that you can do some really interesting things once you decide to take matters in to your own hands. Those sliders let you make adjustments that you could never do in the darkroom and until recently couldn't do in Photoshop either, or at least without a lot of work.

In the photo below I've been able to brighten their skin tones by increasing the luminosity of the Orange color range (drag the slider to the right into positive territory) and darkening the sky by reducing the luminosity of the blue and green range. The beauty of being able to do this with an RGB digital image as opposed to an image captured on B&W film is that you're working with the luminosity of different colors that may superficially look to be about the same brightness in B&W. That is, their faces and the sky are pretty close, tonally, in B&W before you start making any changes. So if I wanted to lighten their faces in a traditional curves or levels adjustment in Photoshop, I'd also be lightening the sky and anything else that was close to that brightness range (unless I had selected them first, which would be a pain in the boat.) Using the sliders in Lightroom, skin tones that fall in to the Orange range don't get adjusted in the same way as the blue sky tones. Check it out:

Sweet! But Lightroom lets you do some tricks that are even more dramatic, if you can fool the program in to thinking it's working with a color image. How do you do that? Go in to the HSL panel and pull all the Saturation sliders to the far left so they all read "-100." This opens up a whole world of options.

In this way, you can still adjust the luminosity of the various color ranges, but you can also use the Vibrance and Saturation sliders in the top pane of the Develop tools to boost the intensity of some of the color ranges. And you can go in to the Camera Calibration pane to adjust the Red, Green and Blue Hue and Saturation for even more dramatic results. In this last photo I've made adjustments in all those areas, and I've also cranked down the white balance to 2000 degrees and moved the tint slider to -145.

Toss in the ability to tack on your standard Exposure, Fill, Black and Highlight Recovery adjustments as well as Curves, and you can do some really interesting things with your images.

Are these options producing "better" black and whites than what film gave us? That's not for me to say. But Adobe has given us some very powerful tools to make "interesting" monochrome images that were pretty hard to produce before. I spent years in the darkroom getting developer stains on my shirts, but I never got to where I could make a print like Edward Weston. Now, working digitally with Lightroom and the other tools at my disposal, I am able to produce some mighty satisfying images.

You can see my favorite images from this shoot here.


Afraid to open my umbrella outdoors

It seems that for a long time I fell out of the habit of using umbrellas when I shot. It was just one more thing to carry and set up, one more thing to break down or break on the job. As a news photographer I always wanted to get ready quickly and be as light and nimble with my gear as I could be. So most of the time I just used the little diffuser caps that came with my Nikon flashes or bounced them against the wall, if there was a handy wall. Lately, though, I've been using them a bit more, and I'm remembering what nice light they can produce in a very controlled way. You can get a nice soft spread if you get the umbrella close enough, though that can limit how much you or your subjects can move around. One way to get around that limitation is to create a bank of lights by putting two or more umbrellas side by side. But more about that in another post.

This photo of Catherine & Rich uses just one shoot-through umbrella a little to their left and about five feet away. My Norman 400B (which I also rarely use, for the same reasons I generally have not carried umbrellas on shoots) was triggered with a Pocket Wizard, enabling me to get back away from the couple about 60 feet and shoot with a telephoto to compress the couple and the nicely-backlit fronds and the fall foliage in the background. If you visit the link to their shoot you will see some shots from the same situation shot wide, and you don't get nearly as nice an effect from the many layers that can be had from this scene.

The results were nice, but this shoot did remind me of one more reason I often didn't use umbrellas outdoors: wind. The very gentle breeze on this autumn day was enough to topple my light stand, even with that fairly heavy battery pack anchoring the bottom. Fortunately, Rich is pretty light on his feet and was able to catch it both times it started to tip. But you'll also notice that many of the other pictures in that gallery were shot without any light supplementing the ambient.

Just a few days later, a mild breeze knocked over my
stand at a family portrait shoot and bent the umbrella pretty much past the point of repair. Bummer. And we're only talking about 5-10 mph winds here. A few years ago I had a gust of maybe 25 mph rip an umbrella right out of an assistant's hands (and out of the stand bracket) and after a 60-foot flight it landed on the hood of a very nice car during a corporate shoot. That may have been when I decided it was time to quit using. Umbrellas, that is.

Why, you ask, don't I use sandbags or weights to hold down my stands like all the big movie stars do? Again, that's more stuff to carry. My lovely wife often assists me on shoots, but just as often I'm out there schlepping everything myself. And while I've managed to reduce my load to under 20 pounds thanks to good zoom lenses and lightweight speedlights it still gets tiring after carting it around for an hour or two, and the last thing I need is another 20 pounds or more of something whose only benefit is that it's heavy.

On the shoot for Liz & Steve out in one of our lovely state parks, I felt pretty confident about setting up a light stand with two SB-800's and an umbrella out in the middle of the water.

The reason: big, heavy rocks.

Rivers are full of 'em. So after setting up my light and forcing my unsuspecting victims to balance on a nearby boulder I packed two or three large stones against the base of my stand and happily moved on down the bank to shoot them from afar. Mind you, we had darned little rainfall last year: if this river had been at its normal levels I probably wouldn't have dared plant a stand in it. And there was no wind on this day, so I could be daring. The downside: I did have to have my soaking-wet shoes on for about 4 hours until I got home.