Saturday, April 23, 2011

Senior portraits and a trip to the local fire station

Last Sunday was a fun day of shooting here in my home town. My wife's sister and her husband had previously asked if I could shoot senior portraits for their son (and my nephew) Phillip. Of course, I readily agreed and so we made plans for them to come down for the weekend and we would shoot for an afternoon.

For the first set of photos (in his casual clothes) we went to one of my favorite local wineries. They have great backgrounds and the area is shaded nicely all afternoon. It also happens to be right by a reservoir, so we brought our kayaks and hung out by the water for a couple hours of R&R.

When we had Phillip sit down by this large barrel, I didn't think that I would like this pose, but after shooting the images and coming back home to look at them, all of us agreed that he looked good in this position. This just goes to show that, as a photographer, you should try many different poses in many different locations, and you might get something better than you hoped for.
Many of the old structures around this winery have these well aged wood walls, which make for a perfect background. This weathered wood adds color and dimension to the images.

This is one of my favorite images of the day. Phillip looks really comfortable in this position and I really like the lighting on his face (half light and half shadow). I shot this image at f2.8 to have his eyes in focus and have everything else fall out of focus. This draws the viewer's attention right to Phillip's eyes. (Photographer's note: You will notice that in half of the images Phillip is smiling, and the in the other half, he is not. I always try to shoot portraits with different expressions. It is interesting how some people look better smiling and others look better with a more serious look. Sometimes, when I am photographing a younger child, who only gives me that cheesy fake smile, I will use this as a technique to get a true expression from them. As it turns out, Phillip looks great with both expressions, but it is still nice to half a variety for them to choose from.)

After 45 minutes of shooting against different backgrounds, I saw this wide open area and thought that it could be something different. I had Phillip stand on the grass, I metered for the background and used the Canon 580EX II to add some fill flash - or would that be Phil flash? :) 

Phillip really wants to become a fire fighter and he is doing volunteer work at a fire station near his home town. He brought his dress blues and his turnouts so that we could take some photos in those outfits. Being a photographer, my first thought was: "Where would we find a good background for these outfits?" and of course, the logical answer would be a fire station. Figuring that the local firefighters down the street would be willing to let us use the station for some shots, we drove down there and asked. They were more than willing to help us out.

This is one of my favorite shots of Phillip at the fire station. I had him stand next to the truck for some shots but the shot was a little flat. At that point, I asked him to put one leg up on the rig to add some dimension to the pose. But it was still missing something and he had nowhere to put his right arm. I tried having him move his right arm to different positions but all of the poses looked awkward. That is when the firefighter, who was watching us shoot, asked if we wanted a prop. Great idea! I asked if we could borrow an ax, and it was just what we needed to complete the photo.

I created this B&W version of Phillip using the new version of NIK Software Silver Efex Pro 2. This software gives you amazing control of all of the gray scale tones within the image. Love it!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Jessica's Bat Mitzvah - Amazing eyes, amazing family and one fun day!

On Saturday, I was lucky enough to photograph Jessica's Bat Mitzvah in Walnut Creek, CA. I shot the images for her brother's Bar Mitzvah a couple of years ago and was thrilled to be capturing images for this awesome family once again. It is one thing to photograph an event for a family and yet another when you feel like you are part of the family.

This image was taken in 2009 at her brother, Alex's Bar Mitzvah. I remember photographing Jessica because she had striking eyes back then, and now they are even more awesome.

As you can see, Jessica has grown up in the last couple of years and become a beautiful young lady.
For a photographer, when you have a subject who looks like this and with SO much personality (like her mother), it makes life really easy. (Photographer's note: I shot numerous portraits around the Temple, with different backgrounds and colors. When driving up the road to the Temple I noticed these cool plants with red and green leaves. And they were in the shade, so I could avoid the harsh morning sun. I knew that her eyes would absolutely pop against this background, so we walked down the road to grab this shot. Always think about your backgrounds and how they will compliment your subject and their outfit.)

Here is Susan (the proud mother), Alex and Jessica. Since this Temple is surrounded by beautiful trees, I made sure to capture images with them in the background.

The key element to good photography is what? Come on - you know this! It is light. At certain times during the service, the light came in through the windows and hit the people at the front of the synagogue. I was standing in the back thinking "oh yeah - this is amazing!" and shooting away. When I downloaded the images and saw this shot, I was psyched. The tallit (the Jewish prayer shawl) and Jessica's hair were perfectly lit by the sun, highlighting the significance of the moment.

I was not supposed to shoot any still images during the service, except for the 5D Mark II which was mounted on a tripod and in "video mode". When I saw the lighting in the synagogue, I could not help myself and had to capture one fish eye shot for their album. I grabbed my second 5D Mark II, mounted a 15mm fish eye lens and headed towards the back doors. As I made my way out of the synagogue, I quickly turned and grabbed 2 or 3 images. I hate to break the rules, but this was too darned good to pass up.

If you follow my photography, you know that I am always looking for something different at each event that I shoot. This is that "different" shot from this weekend. I had finished shooting images at the luncheon and was heading back into the synagogue to pack up my gear when I noticed this reflection in the Temple windows. I went and asked Jessica if we could shoot a couple more images and she readily agreed. I had her stand in the sun and shot right into the glass. Very cool! She liked this so much that she grabbed her friends and we took a whole bunch more of these "ghost shots".

Then at 7pm, it was time to party! As usual, I had the DJ help me round up all the kids for a group shot. As soon as I saw this cool sculpture, right out side the party room, I knew that this would make a great group shot location. (Photographer's note: I got to the venue about an hour early so that I could walk around and scout good shooting locations. This is really important, especially if you have never photographer at that location before. I pre-visualized individual and group shots at certain locations. This way, when the family arrives, you already have a plan.)

I also saw this tunnel of trees and took numerous family pictures at this location. This picture is of Jessica and her god mother (who delivered her at birth). 

I took this shot when everyone was watching the photo montage. At one point, Jessica stood up, and I caught this shot of her standing out from the crowd of kids. Even though she was brighter than the other kids (from the flash on my camera), I used Photoshop to brighten her a bit more to really draw the eye to her.

My first question to any DJ (Denon and Doyle, who are amazing!) is, "Are you guys setting up cool lights for the party?" Multi-colored lights or lasers can really make for interesting party pictures. For this image, I purposely stood so that I was standing directly in the path of the light, and caught Susan busting a move. Does it break all of the rules of photography? Yep! it really cool and does it tell the story? Yep!

Towards the end of the evening, it was time for the candle lighting ceremony. I shot the "safe" images with my 50mm 1.4 lens and a flash, but I also shot images with the Sigma 85mm 1.4 with no flash. I love using the ambient light (from the candles) to light my subjects. (Photographer's note: Use a flash on camera to make sure that you get the shot for your album, but don't be afraid to use another camera to experiment and get creative. I will typically push my ISO to 3200 and use a 1.4 lens wide open to gather as much light as possible.)

I even used the same technique here for this group shot. Sure...many of the kids are dark in this image, but my main subject is nicely lit, right in the center.  

This is another one of those "available light" shots. I had to include this shot in the blog, not only because of the image, but the story behind it. Jessica was trying to light one of the candles and could not get it to light. As you can tell by her expression, she was in a bit of a panic. But, surely, like so many other times in her life, mom was there to help out and everything worked out just fine.

Lastly, I should mention that I received the ultimate compliment from the family, when they told me that I was their "official family photographer". I am honored!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Inside New York City

Last Friday was a rather nasty day in New York City. It was cold and rainy - nothing like the Spring day it was supposed to be. I had some free time in the afternoon and wanted to get some different photos of the city. So I tucked my camera (with only my 24-105 lens) under my jacket, grabbed my tripod, and set out to see what I could get.

I hung out by the windows at Macy's (34th Street) and wanted to get some shots of their Spring Flower displays. But I soon realized that taking a static photo of the display would be boring and rather "typical". So, in order to show the contrast of the Spring displays and the Wintery weather, I moved back and took motion blur shots of people walking by the displays with their umbrellas out. I took many different shots, generally waiting for people with very colorful umbrellas. 

Then I was off to Grand Central Station to try and get some photos of all the people moving around this amazing building. I have tried shooting here before and was told that I could not use a tripod, so this time I came in through one of the lower entrances and shot as many pictures on the tripod as I could, before the cops asked me to stop. :)

I liked this image but felt that there was too much going on. It was a little difficult to find the main subjects within the frame. So...I created a B&W layer and exposed the color back into the two woman, (who remained still and therefore sharp) on the right.

Finally, I set out to find the Rose Reading Room at the main library. I had seen a photo of this room in Popular Photography Magazine and have wanted to photograph at this location for quite a while now. My friend, Phil Ryan, from Popular Photography told me where to find this location.  I figured that, with the crummy weather, this would be the perfect time to go shoot this indoor location. As I walked into the reading room, I was blown away by the amazing architecture and all of the people who were quietly going about their business.

Like most places in NY City, they did not allow the use of tripods in the library, but there was enough light in the room to let me shoot these images handheld (with a low enough ISO to get nice clean images).

This last shot is my favorite from this trip to New York. It is very similar to the shot that was in the magazine, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery - right?). I love the color of the room, the way that the lines draw your attention down the center of the image, the colors in the ceiling, and the people all looking down at their books. I was lucky to have the overcast skies outside, so that the window light was not too harsh, therefore overpowering the rest of the image.

(Photographers note: On days when the weather is not cooperating with you, take advantage of what you have and find something different to shoot. If it were not for the rain and overcast skies, I would never have captured any of the images that you see here.)

Oh - and thank you Phil, for the heads up on this amazing place!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Heading way up town in New York City (Washington Heights)

On Thursday, I was luckily enough to join an amazing nonprofit group called NYSalt, led by Alicia Hansen, on their photo shoot in Washington Heights. Alicia started NYSalt to take a group of underprivileged kids and teach them photography, and she has done some really amazing work. Many of the kids are heading to college, and even getting scholarships for their photographic work.

Washington Heights is way up on 175th Street and a totally different area than the New York City that I am used to. It is a rougher area within the city, where many of the kids live. Each of the kids was given a photo assignment (shoot low, motion blur, shoot from a high position, framing images...) and we went out with them to teach them their techniques. I think I had more fun than they did, stopping by some cool places to capture the essence of the area. In this image, I saw this guy getting his haircut and stepped into the barber shop, asking them if it was OK to snap some images. I was showing the kids that you need to be social and not be afraid to ask people to take their pictures.

Continuing that same lesson, I saw this guy standing up against a wall smoking a cigarette and thought that it would be a cool shot. I asked him if I could take his photo and, with a little hesitancy, he agreed. The first time that I shot his photo, the smoke came right at me (instead of straight out) and I continued shooting to get shots with the smoke going straight out. And...of course...I showed him the images as I shot them. Funny thing is...when I got back to my hotel and looked at the images, the first one, where he is slightly hidden amongst the smoke, was my favorite.

I saw this cool wall with graffiti and asked Danny, the student, to stand against the wall so that I could take his portrait. Not only is he a good photographer, he makes a good model too. :)

This shot just makes me smile. We found a great place to shoot images of the Washington Bridge. It was a high vantage point on the top floor of the bus station. This was the part of the road which connected the station to the bridge (allowing movement at the junction point). I looked down and saw the pattern looking like a face and had to shoot that.

At 7:15pm, the sun set (although it was not visible behind all the rain clouds) and the rain started. But rain was not going to stop us from getting some shots of the bridge at night.

We stayed in Washington Heights for dinner, eating at a traditional Dominican restaurant. We had chicken, rice and fried bananas. It was very inexpensive and very tasty! Then, those of us who were heading back downtown, headed back to the subway station. I thought it would be fun to set up the tripod and take a shot of the group with a subway going behind them. We heard a train coming and I got ready, but then we all laughed when we saw that it was a maintenance train. But, you know what, it made for a fun shot with a bright yellow background!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

New York City Streets

On Tuesday, I finished my training at Adorama (photo store) and headed out in the early evening to shoot some images on the streets of New York City. As I was walking on 5th Ave, someone pointed out this alligator coming out the sewer. No, it was not real, it was a promotion for a TV show. But, it was really fun to stand there and watch all the people, and their reactions (or lack of) to the display. I set up my tripod and shot some images. I wanted to slow the shutter so that I could capture a mixture of people paying attention to the gator and also show the hurried people that paid no attention.

What a great marketing gimmick!

And from that same spot, right by Bryant Park, I turned and saw this cool reflection of some older buildings in the windows of this more modern structure.

As I continued my photo walk, I came across this common scene in Manhattan. Without letting the woman know that I was shooting her photo, I set up the tripod and captured this scene. (Photographer note: On this shot, I slowed the shutter to 1/3 sec to freeze the woman, while showing the blur of the taxi passing her by. In post, I then added two additional layers in Photoshop. One layer was a gaussian blur layer to blur the background a bit, and the second layer was a black and white layer. I then created a layer mask and exposed the color in the woman and the taxis. I liked the original image but felt that the background was too distracting and drew too much attention from the main subject, the woman.)

My next stop was Macy's on 34th Street. But, before I made it to the big department store (across the street from this building) I was captivated by the colors of this clothing store. I waited for a group of taxis to come along, to give me some good color and motion in the foreground, and shot this image.

And then later that night I got adventuresome and, with the help of a nice person from New Jersey whom I had met while watching the alligator, took a bus through the Lincoln Tunnel and shot some images of the city from the New Jersey side.  

Always looking to try something different...