TTT – Anatomy of a Product Shot

Curvature of the spine

In this week’s Tuesday Technique Topic, I’d like to take you through the thinking that went into a product shot that I did a couple of years ago and present you, the reader, with a little challenge.

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Graffiti Anatomy

First of all, let me talk a little bit about the product here.  As you might guess, the product is the wonderful spine with a spray paint can actuator for a head, which was created by the wonderfully talented Scottish artist Chris Alexander who also founded Creology, which is focused on the study of creativity.  This piece is called Graffiti Anatomy, of which Chris created a total of 10; the choice of the color schemes were up to the purchaser, which made this truly a one-of-a-kind item.

The challenge in photographing the amazing Graffiti Anatomy was in picking up the high gloss finish, so that the shiny nature of the finish showed up really well.  As I truly enjoy the challenge of photographing shiny objects, this was a fun shoot and I thought that the product table would provide a nice surface, as I could pick up a cool bit of reflection as well.

When I first looked at setting up this shot, I felt that the Graffiti Anatomy looked a bit ‘naked’ and alone without something to offset it in the image.  As luck would have it, I have this small blue vase in my studio, which was both complementary in color and provide a nice bit of counterpoint to the curvature of the spine (yes, bad pun…).

The rest was all up to figuring out how many lights to use and placing them, which leads to my reader challenge:

  • How many lights did I use and what was their placement (hint: this may be a little tricky).

I look forward to your answers and hope you enjoyed this post!

TTT – Analyzing an Image

Framing is everything

As I got a number of positive responses the last time that I did an analysis of how I made the decisions that got me to my particular take of the scene in front of me, I’m doing another post along this vein with a very different image.

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Late Summer’s Day

This image is more about discovery than any other factor, as I found this location while driving through the Harvard University research forest in Petersham, MA.  There are times when one should not believe all signs; on this fine day, I chose to ignore the ‘Road Ends’ sign.  The paved road ended, but a dirt road continued and led me into a forest, where I found this stellar location.

This particular landscape has a lot of beautiful elements to it, but not one stand-out element that I wanted to highlight in this photo.  When this is the case, I like to frame the image, such as with the tree on the left and top, the overhanging branch on the right and the tall grass down low.  Framing provides a sense of looking into the scene, as it provides depth and a sense of looking into the scene rather than at it.

This rather simple trick is something that dresses up many a scene, whether you shoot it in portrait or landscape mode.  I’m looking forward to hearing from you, if you have tried this as well.

TTT – Analysis of a Photo

Cabbage anyone?

In this Tuesday Technique Topic, rather than covering a wider range of technical topic, I’d like to do an analysis of a single image.  Please let me know, if this is something that you would like to see done on other images.

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Ornamental Cabbage

This image is rather simple, isn’t it?  At first glance, you see a rather colorful ornamental cabbage.  As you look closer, you’ll notice that the cabbage is sharp in its bright purple center, but that the edges are blurring, as we go away from center.  This is not something that was added in Photoshop, but, rather, a conscious decision at the time that I photographed this lovely Autumn vegetable.

The sharp center and blurred edges have the effect of allowing the eye to leave the center, but always drawing it back in; this makes the image a bit mesmerizing in, I hope, a good way.

The advantage of most DSLRs is that they have a variety of settings that allow the photographer to control the final result of the image.  As the depth of field was the critical aspect, I shot this image in aperture priority, so that I set the aperture to f/5.6, which for a focal length of 105mm produces a rather shallow depth of field; at the distance of just under 5 feet, the focal plane is about an inch on either side of the focus point, providing the effect you see here.

What other questions might you have about this image?  If I have any insight into what you may be curious about, I will be happy to share it with you.

Post-processing

My post-processing routine is pretty straightforward, as I am by no means a Photoshop expert.  On this image, the layers used were (in order):

  1. Base image
  2. Unsharp mask
  3. Overlay at 41% opacity
  4. Levels to increase the pop of the colors
  5. A slight bit of contrast increase
  6. A little extra saturation

Nothing overly dramatic, as you see.

I hope this is of interest to you.  I’d love to hear feedback both positive and negative!  Thank you, as always, for reading!!

TTT – Creating composite images – pt 2

Some simple tricks to get us there

In last week’s post about Creating composite images (pt 1), I went over visualization, development of a story, planning the shoot and capturing the images needed to create a composite image.  This post will address some of the post-processing steps to achieve a final result, such as this:

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Searching for Answers

Creating the background image

The first step is to put together the background image from the variety of shots that were taken to to get the entire scene, as shown in the prior post.  Depending on the amount of real estate that is covered in these images, there may have to be a bit of fancy processing to be done in your favorite image editing software; I use Photoshop, but there are many other capable software packages available.

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Master Image
Base-Image-layers
Image Layers

You see the finished background image here, but it is actually made up of components of a number of shots, as can see in the screen grab of the Image Layers.  The base image is opened to show the 7 different shots that were used to create the background.

Additionally, I did a bit of warping on some components of the base image to get them to stitch together more perfectly, and you can see that I use masks to control what is visible from each image.

Of course, if I had used a wider angle lens than the 85mm f/1.2L, it would have been easier, but then I would have to deal with not getting the benefit of a telephoto, which gives more of a sense of looking into the scene than a wider angle lens would (if it were possible, I would have shot from a larger distance, but I was already in a corner of the library).

In later shoots, I have often been able to get the entire background image in a single shot, trusting the pixel quality of my camera.

After the background or master image is complete, it is time to put our model into the image and have her float ethereally in front of the bookshelves.

The Main Subject

Our wonderful model will now make entrance into the image.

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Steph on the ladder

It is rather straightforward to get Steph into the image while she stands on the ladder.

We simply add the image of Steph on the ladder as a layer and, voila, she is there!

Note how this image also changed the breezy curtains to Steph’s left, as the moved curtain was not in her main image.  It is layered on top of the master image, so we need to make some corrections.

You guessed it!  It’s time for another layer mask, which is your friend in Photoshop.

Masking out the Steps shows each of the components that create the overall look coming together with their individual layer masks.

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Masking out the steps

A quick note on masking and selections in general.  A common mistake that many people make when first starting with masks and selections is that they try to be very precise, which leads to artificially sharp boundaries. When our eyes see those sharp edges, our brain immediately screams: Photoshop!

In order to avoid this, you’ll want to feather your edges by a couple of pixels.  This causes the foreground and background image to blend rather than delineate sharply.  Too much feathering looks fuzzy, but a couple of pixels usually will get the look that you want to achieve.

So let’s take a look at what we have created in the image thus far.

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Steph is floating

Final touches

We’ve got a pretty good image, but there were a couple of details that I wanted to address:

  • The book – it became too translucent, when I reduced the opacity of our ethereal being to give her some translucence.  My fix for this was to put another copy of the book on top, which obscured her right thumb, which I then put on top of the new book.  Part of the reason for taking this extra step is that I wanted to throw some additional light on the book, so that the eye would go there naturally.
  • The floor – it’s just way too bright, which draws the eye to it, for which I used a curves adjustment with a mask.

At that point, I was pretty happy with my first truly composite image.  Over time, I have found flaws in it, which I will edit at some point.  Part of the issue is that I have learned more over the past couple of years, which has made my eye more observant and thus critical of earlier work.  Regardless, I’m still pretty happy with it.

I’m looking forward to hearing from those of you who have taken on similar projects or are thinking about them, and I hope that you enjoyed these posts.

TTT – Creating composite images – pt 1

Revealing the magic…

In this past Sunday’s Shot of the Week blog post, I floated the idea of putting together a post or two on the technical elements that go into creating an image along the lines of ‘Searching for Answers‘.

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Searching for Answers

Visualization

The first step in the process should focus on visualizing the image that you are trying to create.

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The Library

When I walked into this mansion’s classically adorned library, it was rather brightly lit through the magnificent windows off to the left in this image.  After taking a look around there were a couple of items that stood out to me about this scene:

  • Red curtains
  • Old books
  • Classic woodwork

This gave me a couple of mental and visual cues to start the process of putting together a storyline for the image.

A Story for the Image

As this type of image is all about telling a story, it is critical to start with the story.  Having a library full of books, the first thing that came to my mind was that the books might contain answers to questions that may have troubled someone in their life.  What if they never had access to these books during their lifetime?  Could they come to visit the library as an ethereal presence, so that they could search for answers to those questions?

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A Base Image

As you can tell, the imagination quickly adds some details to put context together for the shoot.  A quick check of the available wardrobe confirmed that we had a flowing red dress available, so that the color red could be used as a thematic cue.

Planning the Shoot

When creating a composite image, the most important thing is to have a plan.  Ideally, you shoot all the components for the image at the same time, so that lighting is consistent, which will make the final image much more believable.

At the very least, create a mental checklist that ensures all the bases are covered to put the final image together in post processing, particularly when shooting a square composition.  Here are some things to keep in mind:

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Positioning
  • Make sure that you shoot extra width and height for the image; other than the obvious reason, you may decide later to adjust the exact positioning of your subject
  • Make sure that you have a complete base image for the entire scene (you can see the central portion of the base image above)
  • Give yourself options by playing with some of the elements in the shot, such as the curtains or books, even when you’re not sure you will need them; you might end up throwing some shots away, or end up using one of them in a way you just didn’t expect.

Equipment Notes

Although there are many ways that good shots can be achieved, here are a couple of equipment notes that will make the process a little easier:

  • Always have your camera on a tripod; if you have a tripod that allows for smooth rotation that is ideal for aligning for additional width to your shot.
  • A fixed focal length, prime lens is ideal, but a zoom lens is workable.
  • A remote trigger for your camera makes your shoot a lot easier (see ‘Positioning’ image)
  • Use manual settings on your camera, including manual focus.

Shooting the Key Element(s)

The most important element of this image is the ethereal presence floating in front of the bookshelves, in search of answers in the many volumes stored there.  The next image gives away some of the magic, as you see the model, Steph, standing on a ladder rather than being suspended through unseen forces of levitation.

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Ethereal Presence

Keen observers will also note that that is my thumb holding her dress in a more floating position.  Even keener observers might see that her head position doesn’t match that of the image at the beginning of this post; you are correct, as I used her upper body from one of the other images.

Next week, we’ll go over the details and the process of editing in your favorite image manipulation program, which is not quite as difficult, as you might think.  I’ll leave you with some of the other shots that went into creating the resultant image, as a bit of a behind the scenes view.

I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction.

TTT – Abstract Photography – Ep. 3

Driving force behind a project

Gold and Green Composition
Gold and Green in Motion

Over the pass couple of weeks I have covered concepts and techniques, and I promised to do a bit of a deeper dive into what lies beneath the surface of the process of capturing these images.

In terms of photographic technique, the ideas are rather simple and mastered relatively quickly.  Most of my personal photography projects tend not to last very long, as quickly I start looking for novel ways to capture and present material; at such a time, I usually put the project aside for at least a year or so, waiting for it to feel fresh again when I go for the next image in a series.  This project has been different, in that I have been shooting in this genre for more than 4 years thus far, and it has not felt stale to me yet.  As this surprised me somewhat, I started looking into the how and why this project is different.

There are several elements that I uncovered, which make the Kryptomorphaics project different from prior efforts:

  • on-going discovery
  • emotional connectivity
  • re-examination
I am certain that there are other elements that I may uncover, as I push forward in this project, but these appear to be the drivers at this time.

Discovery – photography is a journey of discovery for just about all of us, who have picked up a camera and started shooting in earnest.  This project has afforded me continual discovery through opening up all senses and taking input from all of them in the process of capturing content that is not just visible to the eye.  This deeper sense of uncovering this cryptic that lies hidden within the world around us has opened my mind’s eye to further explore these scenes in new directions.  These include examination of the scene not only in its current juncture within the space-time continuum, but also past and future lines that may be occupied by the players on stage within the scene.  This has opened up some connections that I had hitherto not observed, some of which demonstrate how universal forces flow through the quotidian.

Berries in Motion
Berries in Motion

Emotional Connectivity – as I deepened my exploration, part of which included opening up all senses to the environment in which I found myself, I started noticing a sense of emotional connection to what I found within the scene.  In a manner, which can be likened to meditation, a more complete sense of the image, as it should be captured, is refined by opening up the senses to subtle emotional triggers.  It can be described as opening oneself up to a feeling washing over the entire being and letting that guide the decision making process for how to capture the image.  This feeling is more pronounced for certain images that others.

Re-Examination –  upon capturing an image, the next thing I do is a taking stock of how it felt to capture the image.  I take sensory stock of the image rather than examining it visually (I am not a big fan of chimping, but one could say that this is a sort of sensory chimping).  Without looking at the image, I will then make a decision to either shoot the scene with some adjustment, which can be slight or radical, or if it feels just right, I then walk away from it.

Mystery in Green
Mystery in Green

I find that the success of the process depends more on my ability to quiet all my senses and open myself up to my surroundings; this is where the simile with mediation extends, as I will use meditation techniques to improve my feel for the environment.  In this process, I do not over-analyze how I might be able to capture the feeling that lies before my lens; a couple of rough guesstimates guide my camera settings adjustments, as I let intuition be my guide.

This wraps up this 3-part series on abstract photography, but, fear not!  From time to time, I will feature an image from my Kryptomorphaics collection to discuss it in more detail.

I sincerely hope you enjoyed this introduction and look forward to hearing what other topics might interest you.

TTT – Abstract Photography – Ep. 2

Playing with fire

Looking into the fire on a summer night
Playing with Fire

In last week’s post, I touched on some of my motivations that have driven me to start experimenting with my photography: looking to differentiate my photography and provide a creative outlet.  In another post, I will explore these more deeply, as there are several other aspects that have led me to evolve a deeper connection to these images.

As a number of photographers have asked me how these images are created, this post will describe some of the techniques that I use.  This is by no means an exhaustive treatise on experimental photography, but rather is intended to lay bare some of my basic approaches to a style of photography that has allowed me to reveal some new imagery.  If I inspire some people to go out there and play with their cameras and lenses to produce some images that they had not thought about previously, my goal will have been met!

The Equipment – it is pretty basic, but not to be overlooked: a single lens reflex camera with a zoom lens.  There are no special requirements of the camera other than that it can be put into a manual mode; most any DSLR will be ideal for experimenting, as you get the opportunity to get a feel for the results on your camera’s LCD panel.  As for the lens: a zoom lens with a reasonable medium range of focal lengths works well.  Most often, I use a 24-105mm lens for most shots (on a full frame sensor camera).  I have tried out some different zoom lenses, such as a 17-40mm and 70-200m, but have not been as pleased with those results.

Explosion of fire
Pyrexplosive

The Process – in the age of achieving a specific image look in post-processing, we are going back to the days of doing everything in-camera.  And, no, we are not going to use some fancy setting of the camera or a high-end software component within the camera.  We are going to do the entire capture the old-fashioned way: manually.

First: set your camera to manual mode.  It is possible to create the image in another mode, but I have found it easier to work this in manual mode, as shutter speed is eliminated as a variable; in all honesty, I have not tried any captures with shutter priority mode, as I want to make sure that I know what my aperture is beforehand.

Second: take a test shot to get a feel for your composition.  The test shot should be taken at one end of the zoom range you are planning to use or the other; more about zoom range in a bit.  This shot is to get a feel for how you may want the dominant elements in your image to look, as in the example sequence here: Playing with Fire shows the test shot, which led to Pyrexplosive as the final product; note that the wood in the fire remained in the same location in the second shot.  As one gets more adept at visualizing the desired shot ahead of time, it may be possible to skip this step.

Flowing fire through the night
Pyroplasm 3

Third: decide on the effect that you want to portray in the image and how much you want to emphasize the effect.  In early attempts, it may be best to try a couple of different effects, in order to get a better feeling for how each looks.  I categorize the effects in the following manner:

  • Zooming from tight to wide – this creates a look as in the above image Pyrexplosive.  Smearing of light in a radially outward direction; note that light trumps dark, so that the light overlays any dark while going outward.
  • Zooming from wide to tight – this does the inverse of the above method and causes more light to be brought to the center of the image.  The radial smearing is similar with the key differentiator being the concentration of light.
  • Camera rotation around fixed axis – this can be achieve on a tripod (or with steady hand) and causes circular light patterns, such as in the image Portal in the previous blog post.
  • Camera movement – movement of the camera can be done in several ways.  Either treat your camera as a videocamera and write with the points of light that you see or use linear or non-linear motion to create patterns, banding, etc.  An example of the former can be seen in the image Connections in the previous post.
  • Combination – any of the above.  Your imagination is your only limitation in what you create here.  Pyroplasm 4 is an example of a zoom/rotation combination (mostly zoom with a little rotation).
With each of the above effects, one of the key decisions is how much and how long to expose and use effects.  The images in this blog post range in exposure times from 0.5 second (Playing with Fire) to 8 seconds (Pyroplasm 3), with varying degrees of movement.
Flowing fire through the night
Pyroplasm 4

Fourth: experiment, experiment, experiment!  I simply cannot overstate the importance of experimentation in your endeavors and pushing the envelope of experimentation as you become more comfortable with controlling the effects.  With enough trial and error, you learn to control the image and ultimately will achieve the images that you visualize.

Yes, there is more to this…  As with most of our photographic exploits, there is more than just great technical execution to create an image that speaks to you and, possibly, others.  My first forays into this area of photography were driven by an innate desire to experiment with my lens and camera and to see what would come out of it.  This helped me work on my technique, so that I have developed a feel for how fast and how much I want to zoom in or out or rotate or move the camera.

As I learned technique, I started exploring emotional content of the image and started pre-visualizing scenes or items in front of me, and how I could morph them into a completely different scene.  These explorations have led to my acquiring a sense of deeper content, which may be hidden when viewed from the surface, but is looking for a means of materialization through the morphing process.

In a sequel to this blog post, we will explore the process further and look at what is brought to the surface.  That post will be published some next Tuesday.

I hope you enjoyed this post and will be back for more.  Of course, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

TTT – Abstract Photography – Ep. 1

Opening a view to alternate realities.

As part of the new schedule, Tuesday’s will get a regular feature titled TTT: Tuesday Technique Topic.  At the suggestion of one of my wonderful readers, I’m starting with the topic of Abstract Photography, as I have approached it.

Zooming abstraction of a brush pile
Brush Abstraction 1

A significant amount of photography attempts to capture the reality we see around us, often in the best possible light.

As a result, most of the advances in photography have been aimed at achieving ever higher fidelity in capturing this reality.  In digital photography, sensors have become more sensitive causing ISO ranges to expand, white balance is corrected ever more accurately and many other innovations have been programmed into the complex computers that we call digital cameras.

Of course, this is a good thing, as it has allowed photographers to get much more satisfactory results in capturing all matter of subjects under a wide variety of conditions.  Moreover, today’s digital cameras provide their users with a sense of instant gratification well beyond that of even the near-instant output of Polaroid cameras.  The added bonus of being able to delete a poor image has brought many people to photography on a scale that dwarfs the success of even the legendary Kodak Brownie camera.

Butterfly uncovered in variegated ivy
Cryptomorphosis 1

One side effect of this renaissance of photography, is that the digital diluvium of imagery may give one the impression that everything ranging from the mundane to the sublime has been recorded by someone somewhere.  How many times have you heard someone say, as you proudly show them your work, “I have a photo of that, let me show you!”, and they bring forth their smart-phone to show you their record of what you thought you were the first to see through your viewfinder?

I have to admit that there have been numerous times that I looked at a scene in front of me, weighing how I might want to photograph it, and felt the pressure to come up with a novel approach to creating the image.  Yes, each individual photographer views the world in their unique and personal fashion, but is it enough differentiation to satisfy our creative urge?  Personally, I refrained from photographing certain scenes that might be considered over-photographed.  Nubble Lighthouse on Cape Neddick, ME, comes to mind; this may be the “most photographed” lighthouse on the East Coast of the US.  It was years before I came up with a treatment of this lighthouse that told a story that I saw.

Light painting of intersection scene
Connections

Rather than replicating the great work that has been done by many photographers before me, I started looking for an alternate take on the world around me.  Yes, I still photograph what all of us see around us in the standard manner of faithful reproduction of the scene.  However, from time to time, I have been doing some experimental photography to try and reveal some of the things that our eyes don’t see, but that are still there.  After a little more than a year of experimenting, and learning some new tricks that can be performed with a zoom lens or through camera motion and careful timing, I have started to pull things together into a more unified portfolio of abstract photography.

Rotated columns with night traffic
Portal

The goal of this portfolio is to show some of the layer underneath the immediately visible; a layer that I see from time to time, when I look at the world through more of a mind’s eye.  This view is exposed only when I manipulate the camera or the lens, and never through post-capture processing; also, no special camera software or firmware is used.

These images come to me when I am on location and are inspired by the sense of mystery that I derive from that location.  What first started as pure experimentation has evolved into a new set of skills that uncover previously hidden insights.  An image unfolds in front of me as I visualize it, and I plan an approach on how to capture it.  The success rate is not 100%, but the results are interesting and encouraging in exploring new avenues of creativity that may otherwise remain cryptic.

The subjects that I have approached with this experimental methodology have ranged from fire to flowers and urban landscapes.  Each set of subjects evokes their own, specific set of moments in the space-time continuum that ask to be recorded in a particular fashion; some have rendered surprises and few have been disappointing.  There have been times when several attempts were needed to find the right balance that extracts the correct alternate sense from the subject; each subject has a series of alternate views that can be uncovered through opening up to the flow of energy that emanates from it.  Many more await discovery.

In next week’s episode of TTT, I will describe the details of the process that I use to create the images seen here and in my abstract images portfolio.  I hope you don’t mind waiting until next Tuesday for that post.  In the mean time, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask them.

As always, thank you for reading my blog!