Category Archives: technique

Making your environment work for you

For any photographer who is not in the safety of their studio, they are at the whim of whatever environment the location has to offer. The real professional and why the client pays for the professional is the small fact that the professional can make almost any situation into a great image. To  illustrate this point, I took a five year old to a local park on a blustery and cool day with virtually no skies, clouds or anything at all of interest in the sky. The light was basically flat and pretty low contrast from the cloud cover. So what is a photographer to do?  On the way into the park we passed onto a tree lined sidewalk and I was stuck by the beautiful yellow leaves on the trees, very fall-like even though it was mid December. My problem was the leaves are a bit high and my subject at five is a bit short. You can see my set up shot below. Just as a note of interest, the set up shot was taken with my 4S iPhone rather than my DSLR. I do this often in part because I use a location scouting app called “PocketScout” that lets me keep pictures of the site along with notes.

Tree lined sidewalk before portrait session at park

As I looked at it, I saw that at first glance while it is a nice landscape, it’s not much for a background with a five year old. But, we professionals have ways to make our images speak!  In this case, I pulled out the 70-200 F2.8 in order to use the compression of a racked out 200mm at a shallow depth of field. This compression of distance let me fill the frame with yellow leaves and get them nice and blurred at F3.5. I put my subject up on the rail and had her sit there. This got her up a few feet from where she stands and let me pull in the background right behind her. I shot a bit hot knowing I was going to go for the somewhat bright post processed look playing off the fall colour in the leaves.

little girl against fall yellow leaves portrait

 I shot several times given that kids do not give a natural smile on demand, you have to work it out of them. In the end, I was pretty happy with my final shot.

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Holiday Pictures, Santa Claus, Travels and More

Christmas means more than just family time, it is a time to get some really spectacular holiday pictures of the family on the road or with relatives. It’s also a time to see some places all decked out in their holiday best. Disneyland is a special place to my family and we actually stay at one of the hotels every few years as a “stay-cation” for the kids rather than traveling long distances. Trying to fly a family of five somewhere is very expensive and driving is not much cheaper so we just go the 30 minutes or so to Disneyland and leave our troubles behind for a few days.

One of the keys for nice pictures at any park, ship, theme park or even just in front of the Christmas tree is shallow depth of field. You blur out the distractions but leave them clear enough so people can sorta tell what they are and where you are. It makes for a nice background that adds to the story.  I typically keep my camera at an F stop between 2.8 and 5.6 with Aperture mode locked in place. When I’m at Disney with the kids, things move way too fast to be in full manual mode much of the time but I want that F stop locked to control the DOF.

Three sisters at Condor Flats at California Adventure, Disneylan

This particular image along with a relatively shallow DOF also uses the popup flash to throw some light on the faces. I had moved the kids from sun to shadow and I wanted the eyes to sparkle a bit. So up goes the popup flash and I dialed it down -2 so not to over power the nice light reflecting off the cement.

Night shots are the best in my opinion as you get all the color lights and such that people put up. In this case, full manual is almost mandatory as the camera will try to exposure the black sky and blow out the lights themselves. I use a bit more DOF so I’m shooting through the sharpest part of my lens and I crank up the ISO to compensate for this. The ability to shoot clean at a high ISO is one of the big benefits for shooting with either a very HQ small sensor camera or a full frame sensor like my Nikon D700.

Its a small world at Christmas

So get out your camera and shoot, shoot and shoot some more. Holidays are special days and it’s a great time to get some very memorable images of your loved ones. You never know what tomorrow will bring so enjoy today.

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The making of a premium whiskey product shoot

Photographers tell stories, that is what we do with our pictures whether it is a bride or a family portrait. But, we also have to tell a story even if the subject is completely devoid of any emotion such as a product shoot. The photographer has to tell the story or “sell” the story by use of props, product placement, environmental conditions, colors, lighting and shadows. All of this is to evoke a emotional response in the viewer, normally to make them want to buy whatever the product is. This can get very complicated very quickly for the photographer. It’s not just the normal details of F stops or aperture, it is the psychology of of the audience that the photographer must keep in mind. It can be the props to work with the subject, to frame it or enhance it or to give it an emotional hook as it were. The color temperature of the lighting can evoke just as strong of a response as the props can. Soft shadows or hard light can really set off the drama or provide a memory of hazy, lazy summer days.

I recently did a practice product shoot using a favorite whiskey called “Knob Creek“. Now, in my mind, premium whiskey is something enjoyed at the end of the day primarily by men. The name of Knob Creek gave me thoughts of the water used to make whiskey, the wooden barrels used to store it, and just the over all process of making fine whiskey.

So I have two parts of my concept for Knob Creek shoot. I have thoughts of how it’s made and that it would be a manly drink served in the afternoon or evening while thinking about the day. Ok, time to start the process of putting together the subject and the props. First was the subject which was an opened bottle of whiskey. I had an idea of using kraft papper and some charcoal to hook to the idea of how whiskey is made by filtering it through charcoal. I also felt I needed to have a nice heavy glass with some whiskey in it as if it were ready to drink. The kraft paper and charcoal came from the backyard BBQ where I had some hardwood charcoal left over from BBQing last summer. I used a wooden table that I let the kids play on. It is honey toned and has been battered by the kids so it has some “character” in the surface. I set up one SB800 to shoot up and bounce off the ceiling for easy shadows and soft light. Here is the very first image of the session.

Knob Creek Whiskey Produst shoot -1st shot 3200K

It really does not look like very much does it?  So what was next? Well, In my mind’s eye, I wanted things warmer since it was to be late afternoon and I got this by shooting on “shade” white  balance rather than keeping it on automatic or flash. This warmed up the tones very nicely as you can see here.

Knob Creek 2nd shot with adjusted temp 5700K

Now things are working better conceptually for me. But it still needs alot of work to really work as a product shoot. This image does not make you want to buy or drink Knob Creek. So next I decided that I needed  to add some “whiskey” the glass and some ice. Personally speaking, ice offends me in my whiskey but alot of people disagree with that. But, I did not have any fake ice and real ice looks so bad and melts rapidly. Instead of “ice”, I did have “whiskey stones” which are carved stones that you freeze and then drop into the drink to chill it but not dilute it. So now  I have my ice but I need whiskey in the glass. For this shoot, since my kids were watching and I had limited amount of whiskey on hand, I made up some water with two types of yellow food dye which matched very well to the real whiskey. This way, if one of the kids got too curious as I was in and out of the room, no harm would be done.

Knob Creek product shoot with stones and drink

Closer, I’m getting closer but the stones are too white and the background is too blah. So what to do?  I decided that someone who enjoys a premium old school whiskey like Knob Creek would also like to collect vintage items. I happen to restore vintage radios so I grabbed a small one so it would not compete with the subject and put it into the image. Now I also had to work out my fill light since I need some light on the glass, the label and the radio. I used a white board and bounced a second SB800 flash off that and onto my “set”.

Knob Creek product shoot with angle and lighting

I also started to settle on my angle for the hero shot at this point. I also made a fun discovery that by using a manilla envelop as a flag on the first flash firing up to the ceiling, it also put some wonderful amber highlights on the bottle. Who knew? I really liked what I had so far but the background was still lacking some balance.  Again, with thinking of the type of man who would be sitting here with a vintage radio, whiskey stones and classic whiskey, I thought some vintage books would work well.

Knob Creek product shoot with added books and cropping

Now I’m getting to be very happy with the overall look and feel of the image. At 70mm and F4, my depth of field is right about 4 inches which is just enough to keep the bottle in focus and foreground/background out of focus. I also wet the stones so they went more of a black/grey than white.

Now I was able to take this image and do some retouching on it which cleaned up some blue toned reflections that were out of place, darkened up the lettering of the label, removed some reflections on the glass and added a vignette. There also was the normal tonality adjustments and sharpening that takes place with any digital image.

My final image is here. I have a very successful image of tone, product, props and overall “look and feel”. It makes a gorgeous wall print in my office.

Knob Creek  final edits from photoshop

 

Here is a image showing the progression of the set and shooting.

sequence for knobcreek edited

Here is the set up for the shoot. As you can see, it’s very basic and not complicated at all. This session revolved more around color and props than it did about fancy lighting or accessories like grids and such.
My equipment for this shoot was:

Nikon D700 with a 24-70 F2.8 lens at 70mm and F4 – Two SB800 flashes with Atlas PW clone triggers

ISO 200 and a shutter of 1/125

marked up whiskey set up shot

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The fine art of high speed panning

So this post is about few different things. First, it is a test of using SmugMug galleries in my WordPress blog. It’s a nice demo to the art of “Panning” where you track a subject with your camera while swinging the camera one way or another. The subject can be NASCAR race cars or just a kid running at high speed. The idea of the pan is to keep the subject sharp while providing motion blur on the background which gives the image a very dynamic feel of motion.

In the case of my NASCAR images, I was panning with the subject hitting somewhere around 180 MPH. With a 200mm lens on a crop sensor, I was having to pan very fast side to side. I was also shooting at a shutter between 1/320 to 1/800 of second which normally would stop the action but given the high speeds in involved, gave just enough motion to the tires and background to keep the cars from looking like models set on a track.

That is the magic for any panning shots like this. You want and need to show motion. With the race cars, it would have looked “Wrong” if the tires were as sharp as the cars and you could read the letters. With the tires blurred, you have a very sense of motion and that the picture looks “right”. This is the same reasoning why when shooting warbirds at an airshow, you want the props blurred some. No blur or not enough blur and the airplane just looks “wrong” to us. Motion can provide visual tension and a very dynamic feel to an image. And it does not have to be alot of motion, just a touch will work wonders depending on the image.

 

[smugmug url=”http://michaelsweeneyphotography.smugmug.com/hack/feed.mg?Type=gallery&Data=11352184_xkV9Hh&format=rss200″ title=”NASCAR%20-%20Fontana” description=”NASCAR%20racing%20at%20AAA%20Raceway%20in%20Fontana%20California” imagecount=”50″ start=”1″ num=”50″ thumbsize=”Th” link=”lightbox” captions=”false” sort=”true” window=”true” smugmug=”true” size=”L”]

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Mad Men Themed Photography Shootout

I’m a member of a local of photographers that gather every couple of months for a “shootout” where we have a themed photography event. This month, the event was a Mad Men themed “shoot out” where the group brought in  models, make up artists, photographers and rented a venue for a shoot that was a bit different than the normal “bridal” shoot. This Med Man shootout was held at “The Casino San Clemente” and offered a very different look and feel for the event.

Why are these events important? Because they offer a chance for local photographers to network with each other, to meet fresh faces for models, work with  talented and local make up artists plus to work in a venue that we might otherwise be unaware of. I had never heard of this Casino venue in San Clemente but now I know about it and what it can bring to my own clients looking for something unique.

Our shootouts would be considerably lacking if it were not for our stylists and make up artists. Here is who put together the awesome styling and make up for Mad Men

THE STYLISTS:
Heather Skelton   thesoundoflace.blogspot.com

Kaylee Sizemore   www.thetangledvineonlosrios.com

THE HAIR:

Diego Ortega – Lead Hair Stylist diegoortega.com  Assistant: Tricia Marie

THE MAKE-UP ARTISTS

Jennette Pulecio – Lead MUA and Casting www.jennettepulecio.com   Assistant: Amanda McDaniel

We had the perfect venue for this type of shoot and I highly recommend the venue for any affair that you want space and a cool vintage feel to the style of the venue.

The Casino San Clemente www.thecasinosanclemente.com

 

Here are some of my images that I made at the Mad Men shootout. When shooting this event, I tried to keep storytelling in mind and I tried visualize how they may have looked in the time frame that the series Mad Men is depicting.

A "film still" from Mad Men Shootout[pinit]

Blond bombshell admired by male admirer[pinit]

Don Draper Character from Mad Men photoshootout[pinit]

casino san clemente ball room[pinit]

[pinit]

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What is old is new again

Kodak Starflex Camera with inserted babty portrait

So I picked up some old vintage cameras this past week to use as props and “frames” for images. They add a really cool look and feel for a fun portrait.  I’m putting together a set of these new “frames” to be options for your portraits. I have some samples here to look at and enjoy. If you have special colors you want to match or even a special camera, let me know and we can work it out. This particular camera is a Kodak Starflex which was a very popular camera in the late 50’s and was considered to  be a ten dollar “point and shoot” at that time. Now it works as a pretty cool vintage  frame for a baby’s portrait.

Here is a different camera with a retro style of portrait.

Kodak Duaflex Camera with vintage hollywood portrait

These cameras live again in photographer by providing a unique and very interesting way to show off your images. And it’s not just portraits, I can also add a bit of flair to a favorite set of wedding pictures like this one with a 1957 Yashica camera with the bride and groom.

If you like what you see, call us up and talk about it. Even if you have existing pictures, we can certainly clean them up and add them to a very unique frame like this.

DSC9893 1957 yashica with bride and groom

 

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80 / 20 rule or how good is good enough

Point and shoot cameras are a dying breed. Virtually everyone now has a smart phone with a camera and that includes myself. Yes, I have my very expensive cameras for projects and assignments but in truth, often times for myself, I’m shooting with my iPhone. Why? Because it’s “Good enough”. For 80% of the time, it’s perfect for what I need in my daily life. Would I shoot a wedding with it? Only if you paid me AND signed a contract saying as much. For most people, it’s the old 80/20 rule where the 80% is close enough. The iPhone or other smart phone is 80% close enough and they dont need or even want that last 20%.

With the new software like Snapseed and Photoshop apps, you can do alot with the phone or iPad that even a year ago seemed out of reach. You can now get iPhoto for the iPad.. really? a real editor and photo manager on an iPad? Oh yeah.. now we are styling.

So here is an image taken with the iPhone and edited on the phone using Snapseed software. Pretty amazing !!

 

I love shooting 30 second video clips for one group I’m active with on Facebook. Why? Because it’s a fun way for people to really get to know me by HEARING me speak and watch me talk about something. I’ve included a small sample here of my “Cooking Show” for my friends on Facebook.

As Pros, we sometimes forget that the 80/20 rule really does apply in alot of ways. AS consumers, we live in great times but all the apps will not make you a professional photographer. If you want a professional shot, you need to track one of us pros down for that critical 20% of your life when the iPhone picture just wont do. But also remember  that with a bit of work, that small phone can take some amazing images.

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Shooting a veggie a day

So today was a practice day for me. I have been threatening for weeks and weeks to shoot some food and today was it. Or at least some of it. I used a 50 dollar battery operated LED video light, a mirror and a home made silk that uses Toughspun. I spent about ten dollars for the various veggies and fruits which is cheap for models. I used a c stand to hold my video light attached to my monopod stand which doubled as a boom. The mirror provided some light from the side and underneath the glass. My post processing was done in Lightroom using a preset that emulated Kodachrome 25 since I wanted that very contrasty punchy look. You can see from the set shot that I didnt do anything special other than clean off the end of the dining room table.

I used my D300 with two lenses. My first lens was a favorite of mine, the 17-55 F2.8 and the second was a Lensbaby composer at F4. My ISO was 400 and I shoot from 1/60 to /1/160. No flash was used, just the video light which I got from Amazon for something like 50 dollars plus 30 for a battery and charger.

When you are shooting something like this, it can be trickier than people at times as the still life does not move at all unless you move it. So you are always on the look out for reflections, lines, composition and so on. You need to worry about color and texture plus what props you are using. Lighting becomes critical for shadows and highlights.

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How to show off your images in a retro viewmaster reel

English: A GAF View-Master Viewer Model G red....

English: A GAF View-Master Viewer Model G red. Italiano: Visore View-Master GAF Model G rosso. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you remember the viewmaster with the wheel of pictures? You know the ones, pictures of national monuments, theme parks, cartoons and the like. You would insert the wheel of pictures, hold it up to the light and, klunk, wheel rotates, klunk, wheel rotates and on and on.

You can still buy one of these machines today and look at Hot Wheels or any of the old wheels so long as you have a bright light handy.

So why am I bringing this up? Because I was trying to work out in my head the other day how to show off some pictures from my 4th of July party and I was inspired to make and fake a View Master picture wheel as a prop of sorts.

A bit of googling and I found the perfect template created by ScrappinCop in the form of a Photoshop PSD file ready to go. So one template download later and we are off and running.

I did make each image a clipping mask to ease the adjustments and cropping. I used the transform tool to resize images to the dinky openings. And I make each “image” a smart object so I can go back and swap out the image pretty easily.

After I put my images in the openings, I added a used paper texture to the wheel so it had the used and aged look to it.I selected all the openings and outside edge and added a brownish stroke of 1 pixel to set it off against whatever background I have on.

Here is what I ended up with as my vintage prop to show off my images in a unique way. Go ahead and give it a try.. it was a lot of fun to do and everyone liked the results as a fun way to show off a collection of images.

Vintage View Master Wheel of Personal Images 4th of July

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Repurposing a light box to be a light table

I saw a very interesting blog posting on how to shoot flowers using a light box. I took a different approach since I did not want to build a cardboard box so anything else. I took my large softbox and flipped it upside down. I could do this because I use C stands with boom arms and it becomes very easy to change the orientation of a modifier. I just made sure that the legs were in the right position to take up the low weight and added a few sand bags for good measure.

I then put a piece of clear plexiglass on top of the softbox or now light table and put my subject on top of that. I have a Photogenics 1250 strobe but now I would pull it and put in the 600 instead. The 1250 is too strong even turned down as low as it can go. I plan to try it with white plexiglass whereas I’m shooting with clear right now. The white should be worth a couple of stops.

White on White Lilly

 

 

I had a second mini softbox using an SB800 in SU mode on a monopod that I held over the subject. I manually set the SB800 to something around 1/8 power and about 3 feet high. I tried straight on, sideways and all kinds of angles. The best results seemed to be feathering the small soft box slightly to pick up some edge shadows.

I used a pair of Atlas pocket wizard clones on this shoot only because they were handy and my real PWs were packed away. I shot with:

 

SB800 flash mounted to small softboxLight table set up shot

Next time I will put the small light box on a second C stand instead of holding it. That was just too much trouble but I was in a real hurry to try this and get back to the family outside. The ladder was the only way I could get enough hight to shoot down on my subject, anywhere else and I was shooting across it and it did not work nearly as well.

 

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