Timing is everything

Just a quick post to demonstrate what a difference a couple days makes, which is true with almost every subject you'll ever shoot.

Here is a field of aspen trees in Hyde Park, above Santa Fe, New Mexico, about ten days ago..

And here is the same scene (I think I'm about 15 yards to the left, but you get the idea) just a few days later when I returned to the park. 

I had a photo professor, the very lovable Will Counts, who said, "when you see something you want to shoot, you have to stop and shoot it right then and there, because it's never gonna be there again." He was very right about that, and on the few occasions where I've told myself I could come back and get the shot when it was more convenient I pretty much always got burned.

You can see a few more aspen photos from the area where I grew up here on my Facebook page. Go on, like me if you like them!


Clearspire Law Firm business portrait guidelines

For the past couple years I have been doing some corporate photography for a Washington D.C. law firm called Clearspire, which has been a very interesting group of people to get to know and to work with. Starting from the ground up, we worked together to establish a unified look for the photography their website and materials that might promote this unique firm. From the start I’ve known that the firm would be hiring new members around the country and overseas, so this posting is done in order to provide some guidance about how other photographers, shooting in locations where new Clearspire attorneys are hired, might try to replicate some of the work that has been done so far so that there is a consistent look to the site as the company expands.

Photos on the Clearspire web site, showing the rollover effect

For all the Founders and also the lawyers and staff who have been brought in to Clearspire, we had two very specific types of portraits that had to be created:
A biography and larger image appear when the thumbnail is clicked.
First, there was a desire to create a nice environmental portrait of each individual that could be used as a thumbnail on the website, and when clicked on, would appear adjacent to some biographical information. Rather than trying to make these static portraits, there was a desire to make the people appear accessible and somewhat interactive, almost as though you might be seated across from them in conversation or at least in the room observing or participating in the action.

I approached these photographic challenges in a couple of different ways. I say, “challenges,” because in most cases there wasn’t much real interaction taking place, and the offices where we made these photos are somewhat spartan in their trappings. The idea behind the firm is that most of the lawyers can work from home, so the offices are mostly used for conferences and training and aren’t elaborately furnished or decorated.
In the photo above, another Clearspire staff member has stepped in to serve as the person being talked to by the main subject of the photo.
The training and orientation sessions did offer some opportunities to put the individuals in a context where they are around other people, and that was helpful. Thus I’ve been able to shoot over shoulders to suggest the presence of other people in the room and also to use objects in the foreground of the images to suggest a bit of meeting activity. In some cases, we have asked other Clearspire staff to stand in so that there is the appearance of a meeting or conversation happening.
In general, I am using one large umbrella (48”) with a speedlight about 45˚ off to the side from the subject, generally set so that it is only about ½ stop brighter than the ambient. But in the conference room photo above, I'm just bouncing a couple speedlights off the wall in relatively small room. In a few cases I’ve used a small speedlight in the back to light architectural elements or to backlight the subject so that there is a small amount of separation from the background, as with the woman above standing in the reception area of the office suite.
Diagram showing lighting setup for the photo above
In these photos we don’t want the background to fall off to black, so meter the ambient carefully and use that for your baseline exposure.

Diagram showing the lighting for the portrait of the woman in the doorway
With quite a few members of the staff, though, we have had to establish a more traditional portrait situation. Here also we have tried to not make the photographs too “stiff,” and this has been achieved by having the subjects adapt a comfortable and relaxed stance. The lighting for these has been about the same as for the “interactive” series: a medium-size umbrella (or less often, a softbox) filling in most of the front of the person from about a 45˚ angle. It has not mattered which side the light is placed on. The goal is to create a bit of sculpting with the light but not to make it look overlit. 

For portraits shot when the subject is seated, it’s often useful to have the person leaning in toward the camera just a bit, as though they might be stressing a point while chatting. And it’s often very useful to ask the subject to hold something. Clearspire is a very tech-savvy firm, and lawyers do much of their work from iPads and Mac laptops, which can make for decent props. In order to have iPad screens not simply appear black, it’s a good idea to ask people to turn up the brightness all the way and also to have some app running that is fairly bright (the “field” of apps as they float on the screen is pretty dark overall: books and publications are often good to have on screen, as they often have white or light backgrounds.) You can see here that the screen is not on at all, but so little of it is showing that it's not as distracting as it might otherwise be.
All of these environmental portraits have ended up running as verticals. On the website the viewer is first shown a color thumbnail cut from the larger image, so you need to keep the images uncluttered, and then when you click on the thumbnail or information link a larger version is shown in black & white. Shoot and deliver everything in color.  Some photos I've composed as horizontals, but with the awareness that they will probably be cropped, as the photo below was. As all these are being turned over to a design firm, it is good to give a little bit of variety while trying to stay within the guidelines I've talked about here. 
These portraits are often shot with a medium telephoto, for instance in the 135mm-200mm range, in order to throw the backgrounds out of focus a bit and to “stack up” any elements in the foreground to give a greater sense of depth to the images. Shooting with a longer lens (as compared to a wide-angle or “normal” lens) will also clean up the background and keep the focus on the people. For all of these images I have done a custom white balance — and also created custom DNG profiles, which is helpful but not critical — and then warmed up the skin tones just a bit from the neutral white temperature reading.

The other requirement has been to produce a series of three clean, simple variations on the standard mugshot for use in the company’s internal communication platform, which is accessible to some degree by clients, and some of the images are also used for the lawyers’ LinkedIn profiles as well. There are three settings that need to be created on a white background (I used a Savage bright white seamless): 
  1. A “straight-on” headshot. Generally I’ve had the subjects rotate their shoulders a tiny bit to the right to add a little bit of depth. 
  2. An “I’m on the phone” photo, where the subject holds an iphone up to their ear like they are talking. Again, the person is rotated a tiny bit to their right, so their right shoulder is back, and it’s a good idea to have them hold the phone in their right hand so that it doesn’t block off the body. Also, we’ve found that it’s better if the person holds the phone just a centimeter or so away from their face, because when it’s pressed right in to the cheek it both obscures the phone and can distort the cheeks a little. 
  3. An “I’m busy now, don’t interrupt me” photo, where the subject holds one hand out in the traditional “stop” gesture like a traffic cop would. It’s important to make sure that the hand is perpendicular to the floor, so that it doesn’t end up looking like a fascist salute in the 1930’s. 
For these photos, which Clearspire calls "Presence Indicators" on their site, I've used two 24" softboxes at subject-eye-level on each side and then a larger umbrella just to the side of the camera and above me. The softboxes are providing an exposure about 2/3rds of a stop brighter than the umbrella, to give some depth to the subjects' faces and to throw extra light on the white seamless. 
These three photos all run quite small on the company’s website (I’d be surprised if they were even 100 pixels), so they have to be clean and instantly readable. Again, shoot with a long lens. This is particularly helpful with the “hand up” photo, because it will be separated from the face more than if you use a wide-angle lens. Also, as you can see from the set-up photo, there were a number of other obstacles that we had to shoot around, working in a busy office.
Because Clearspire's clients may see a number of the lawyers on one webpage when they log in to the system, it is important to keep these images consistent. Though they run small, I've been shooting them a little bit loose so there is room to play with keeping eye levels consistent, for instance. And it's quite important to keep the white background pretty bright, because if it's even 1/2-stop dim it will start to look grey in comparison with the others pretty quickly.
I created my own naming conventions for these images, using the company name and the shoot date and then a sequence number. It is also important to have good information in your IPTC description or caption fields, such as "Joe Smith in the Dallas Office, photographed July 2012."I've been delivering these photos via the FTP facility I have through my website, but your methods may vary. Clearspire has been eager to get the new lawyers and staff on their site as soon as possible, so I've been trying to turn images around in a couple days for them. For the most consistency of color, I've been delivering JPEGS in sRGB color space for use on the web.

Many thanks to for creating the files that I used to show the lighting setups.


Fun summer engagement photos

In the past few weeks I've been pleased to spend time with several very fun couples making engagement portraits in the DC area. For me this is one of the best parts of the wedding photography process, because I get to be with couples without all the time-pressure (and emotional pressure, too) of the wedding day, and we often get in to situations that would never occur when everyone is all dressed up.
This is Krupa and her fiancé, Ronak. I first met Krupa around 17 years ago when my wife and I moved in next door to her family. Best neighbors we've ever had. Sadly they've moved away now, but only by a few miles. When I learned Krupa was engaged I could scarcely believe it, because I still think of her as a kid in junior high. As a present to celebrate her engagement, we got together at Ronak's house one very hot afternoon.
These photos were actually made at the end of our time together shooting. Krupa had seen the idea of using water balloons in a magazine somewhere and had filled about five or six of them as a possible photo prop. But we realized pretty quickly that those were going to be used up in just a few seconds, and for any decent water fight we needed gallons, not ounces. The hose came out, and that's when the real fun started. Plus it helped them cool off on one of those not-so-rare 90-plus degrees days.
It was actually in December of last year when Matt's mother contacted me, wanting to give an engagement portrait session to her son and his bride-to-be, Lauren. Because he's finishing up post-graduate work, it was some months before we could all get together out at a nice winery in the Virginia countryside. 

When we met up at Bluemont Vineyards west of Leesburg, conditions didn't look entirely promising. Rain was in the forecast, and I spent quite a bit of time preparing special neoprene covers for my gear so I could keep cameras and lenses dry while letting Lauren and Matt slog through the downpour. Fortunately, though, the rain held off just long enough for us to make some fun pictures, and the soft overcast light created a nice mood. The tasty bottle of Viognier didn't hurt, either.

Back in the Leesburg area for another shoot with Mary and Brian, we met fairly early in the day in order to beat the summer heat. It was a good thing, too, because it was in the 90's when we finally wrapped up and it kept on getting hotter. But we had some pleasant breezes and a very pretty morning as we trekked around Merriweather Manor, where they held their wedding celebration.
The image below was the photo they selected for the big print to show off at the wedding. Mary loved the giant tree looming over them as they strolled along. She had picked up some flowers in the meadow during our morning together, and they made a nice accent to the scene.
You may notice that all the photos above were made with longer lenses. Lately I've been shying away from my wide angle lenses for portraits and opting for the compression and separation you can get when shooting closer to the telephoto end. Most commonly I'm using my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 for portraits, though sometimes I bring along my 300mm f/4 if I really want to have extra weight on my shoulders. The 300 really is wonderfully crisp, though: the only downside being that I have a little less flexibility in composition as my subjects move around, so that's why the 70-200 is the lens I rely on the most for these situations. 
But there are times when it works using a wider lens, particularly when you have a big sweeping vista like the one above to show off. I really loved the texture of the tall grasses, and they seemed to go on forever. The owner of the manor, Andrew, told me that people sometimes ask why he doesn't mow it down, and he tells them that he thinks it just looks too nice to put it to the blade. 

And I did play with shooting very wide when Krupa and Ronak started their engagement photo session. Both of them, they told me, are just big kids at heart, and one of the things they enjoy doing is playing on the swings in the playground near his house. So I got up on just about the top step of his fancy ladder from Costco and leaned out as far as I dared while they swung up on either side of me. They had fun, but it turned out that I didn't see the sort of motion effect I was looking for, and it also happened that whenever they were close enough to me and their arcs were somewhat synched up that they ended up being on the outside edges of the frame. What I probably needed to do was to get up much higher and shoot longer, maybe renting a cherry picker. (Note to self: get a cherry picker.) In the end, the water fight pictures were so much more fun that we chose one of those for the big picture.

One final photographic note: just about all these images were made just with natural light. I did throw in a bit of fill light with a diffused small speedlight when I was shooting Mary & Brian by the red window of the barn, and used a shoot-through umbrella to fill in Lauren & Matt by the barrel on the porch at the winery, because they were under a large awning.


More tips on travel photography, with photos from Istanbul

Recently I was able to spend a couple weeks in Istanbul, Turkey and also some time over on the Aegean countryside. When I travel, rather than taking a vacation from photography I probably shoot more pictures on a daily basis than I do when I'm here in the U.S. In these photos I try to offer a little bit of explanation of how to get the most from your camera when you're on the road.

I should confess that I probably make it harder on the people who travel with me because I try to time some of my visits to popular spots by when I think the light will be nice, like in the late afternoon. But one big factor that helps that is that my wife and I often travel in the late fall, winter or early spring. This helps us avoid the crowds of tourists that pack the popular sites in the warmer months, and it also means that I usually have better light almost all day. The sun rises later, stays a little lower in the sky, and sets earlier. Sure, I have to wear a heavier jacket, but that's a small price to pay for having such nice shooting conditions. And it gives me extra pockets in which to stuff camera gear.

This photo was taken just after 5 p.m. when the combination of sunset and city lights came together. Most of these photos have some additional explanation in them if you click on the image.
I love using shadows and interesting patterns in photos to set off the main subject. And sometimes the pattern itself is an interesting scene, as in the photo below of the hanging lamps in the Hagia Sophia.

Sultanimiye mosque, which I think is the prettiest in Istanbul. Because we're not there in the peak tourist season, the place is relatively empty, and quite peaceful, adding to its beauty.

Look for opportunities to make nice detail photographs in markets and along the streets. I think one of the reasons people like to travel is to see the sort of scenes we don't get at home, wherever that is.

Shooting in to the sun is one of my favorite ways to add some depth and texture to photos, as in these photos from Priene, above, and Lake Bafa, below.

 Again, shooting in to the sun, but letting the structure clip most of it, gives a sense of depth and drama.

 Photography is inherently a two-dimensional medium. The places we see have not just width and height but also depth. Add to that other sensations like smells and sounds and the wind chilling you down to the bone, and you see why most photos don't do a great job of demonstrating the experience of what it was like to be there. This ancient Roman stadium at Aphrodisias, above, was so large that I don't think there would really be any way to properly show what an amazing space it was. It's three football fields long. Even though there are two people in this photo, way down on the field, this is a case where a few more would have helped give some sense of scale.
 In this photo, having just one person actually highlights the scale of the museum display, giving a feeling of how expansive this collection of friezes is in the museum at Aphrodisias.
 This photo of the densely-packed city of Istanbul is inherently "flat," but there is so much visual data in it that it achieves a sense of space and size. You can almost feel what it might be like to live in one of the thousands of rooms whose windows you are peering at.
 Again, dusk is one of my favorite times to shoot, when buildings like this fountain outside Tapkapi museum are light up and you get just a bit of dark blue in the sky. The couple holding hands in the foreground gives a sense of the size of this structure that wouldn't be there otherwise.
 In any city that's hundreds of years old you're going to find lots of places where the ancient and the new come together in interesting juxtaposition. The old fire tower on the campus of Istanbul University is reflected in a modern office building.
 In any town I visit, I try to go see the traditional markets, and I love looking at cemeteries.

 Pedestrians aren't wearing enough hats, our research has shown.
In the photo above a person would have helped show how very steep this street is. But the only person out was an old woman furiously chopping up a piece of furniture with an ax. The way she was banging on it, I figured it was best not to disturb her. In fact, I gave her a wide berth.
Here again, the organic forms of the people accent the regular, straight forms of the architecture.

In the Museum of Archeology, the signs don't lie! I was very amused by the document below, more than 3500 years old, saying that "Inanma prefers the farmer." Sorry, dude.

 Look for ways to shoot from different angles. From ground level, this "graveyard" of old Roman column parts didn't look nearly as interesting as it did from above on the palace walls.
 Using the giant doorway at Tapkapi museum to frame the Sultanahmet mosque.
 Keep an eye out for interesting patterns even in places you might not think of as picturesque. Above, a series of flagpoles seen at the domestic terminal dropoff area at Ataturk Airport.
 Mosaic in an excavation going on at Ephesus. This sort of work always amazes me.
 I'm not sure that I succeeded here in showing the scale. The tablet at left: maybe 3 feet high. The building front at right: around five stories high. But I do think you get a sense of texture and maybe a small feel of what it might have been like walking around Ephesus in its heyday.
 Interesting details that add to any trip. When was the last time you saw a "Stray" or "Fringe" bar in your local candy aisle?
 Without the young man standing on top of these columns, it would be hard to get a feel for how massive they are. Each section is probably 4-5 feet in diameter.
 Once the main entrance street to Hierapolis at Pamukkale, deserted now for hundreds of years.
I shot this photo from the car driving us to the airport on our last morning. Admittedly, a happy accident. I was trying to show the boats and the sunrise over the Sea of Marmara. But this demonstrates a maxim of mine: shoot, shoot, shoot. Always keep your camera ready for the next scene that you might encounter. If you do, you'll end up with travel photos that take you where the postcards and guidebooks can't.

You can see a few more of my Turkey photos at my Thomas Graves Photography page on Facebook.

A bit of technical information: these photo were made with either a Nikon D5100 or a Nikon P7100. For the D5100, I use either the 12-24mm Nikon zoom or the 28-300mm zoom. And though I love lighting pictures whenever I can, I don't generally carry a flash when I travel. So these are all ambient light. I shoot in raw mode, then convert to DNG and handle the images in Adobe Lightroom.