Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Last night was a picture I never want to see again

It was 9:30pm, and we got the phone call that no parent ever wants to get. It was a call to our home phone from someone we did not know, telling us that our son had flipped his car on a curving road in the hills of our town. As we all panicked, I found a small amount of hope, knowing that he was conscious enough to tell our phone number to the stranger at the scene.

We quickly got into our car and drove to the location of the accident. As we turned a corner, we saw a scene which I hope to never see again. Unfortunately, it is a picture which is forever engrained in my head. I saw endless emergency vehicles and flashing lights. And I knew that all of these people were there to help my son.

I remember jumping out of our car and running through all the firemen and police and saying "that is my son" and not much else. Of course, the emergency personnel would not let me near the overturned car, as they were trying to free my son from the vehicle, but I saw it. The convertible car surrounded by countless firemen and EMT personnel. A sight that I never want to see again.

My son was transported to the nearest hospital which has the best trauma center, and he is going to be OK. He got so incredibly lucky, ending up with 35 staples in his head, a concussion, but not much worse. All I could think about, as we watched him in the ambulance and trauma room, was how different this could have turned out. And that picture, one that did not ever occur, is stuck in my head as well. That picture now haunts me.

At the hospital, my son, who will turn 18 this Friday, said "this isn't going to be a very good 18th birthday" and all I could do was be thankful that he is going to have one!

At 3:30am, he came back to our house, head bandaged and surely about to have the longest headache of his life. As these images flash through my mind, the mind of my wife and daughter, our heads all hurt as well.

I tried to sleep, but that damned picture keeps popping into my head. As I laid in bed, tossing and turning, I realized that sleep was not going to come easy, and for the first time in many years, I now have a picture that I wish I could FORGET.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Photographing portraits in New York City: Part Two (Megan)

OK, I guess I should start this blog post by saying that this one makes me feel old. As it turns out, the subject of this post was just a little girl, living close to us here in Northern California, way back when. Megan was probably no more than 10 years old when I worked with her father. Even though they moved back to their hometown of Jacksonville, Florida about 15 years ago, we have kept in touch with her parents, Tom and Laurrie by phone, email and Facebook.

This photo (sent by the family) shows Megan and her little sister back in the 90s.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a call from Tom, telling me that their oldest son is getting married and wondering if I could photograph the wedding later this year. So, later this year we will be flying to North Carolina to photograph Trey's wedding. During one of our phone calls, I mentioned to Tom that I was heading out to NYC yet again. It was at that time that he mentioned that his middle child was living in the city and needed some new head shots for her acting portfolio. After exchanging some emails, Megan and I determined a time that would work for both of our schedules. And the plan was made.

It was great to see Megan after so long, all grown up and looking beautiful as ever. Megan and I decided to meet over by the High Line area in New York City to see if we could find some cool areas to shoot portraits of her. Since it is winter, and all the foliage is dormant, there wasn't a whole lot to work with. But then we came across these wooden steps, with great repeating lines, and made our first stop of the day.

Like so many photo sessions in the past, the first shots serve as a good warm up for myself and the subject. It is that time where I am trying to get my creative juices flowing and the subject is getting used to my working style. I started shooting wide shots, using the wood and the brick above Megan, but didn't like the separation line going through her head, so I asked her to move down another step.

Now we had a consistent pattern of wood behind her and I shot in tighter. Using the Canon 5D Mark III and shooting the Canon 70-200mm 2.8 IS lens wide open at f2.8, I separated Megan from the patterned background. I was also using the Canon 600EX-RT flash (one stop down) to throw a little bit of extra light on her.

Even though it was a bit chilly, Megan was a trooper and we tried some shots without her jeans jacket.

We finished shooting the first set of images on the wood steps and packed up to find another location. It wasn't more than 50 feet before I saw this painted brick wall and thought that it would make a good background for Megan. We shot some images here and then continued our search for more cool locations.

While walking on the High Line, I kept seeing small panels of rusted metal which I thought would be a perfect complimentary color to what Megan was wearing. I even said to her "I wish we could find some pieces of this metal large enough for a background." We did not see what I was looking for, so we descended the High Line for the city streets. And right as we reached the bottom of the steps, voila, a large wall in this exact same color.

This time, since we had really nice directional light coming from the street, I chose not to fire the flash. All natural light, and perfect for this shot.

Here is a tighter shot at the same location.

Megan and I were walking towards the Meat Packing District when I saw this one home with a decorated tree. It was half way down the street, but I knew that it had potential to make a great background. We walked down the street and I determined a place for Megan. I positioned Megan about 10 feet from the tree, and shot this photo at f2.8 to blur the harsh lights and turn them into a beautiful background. The old style street light (which I had not seen initially) was a bonus. I moved Megan to a point where I had her off center and well balanced with the light in the background. Once again, I used the Canon EX600-RT flash to throw some light on Megan. This is one of my favorite photos from the day.

I love integrating repeating patterns into my portraits. In this case, I saw these black columns and asked Megan to come out from behind one of the closer columns. Not only were the patterns interesting, but I was drawn to the blue and black colors which perfectly matched Megan's outfit. This image was shot with the Canon 24-105mm lens, which is my favorite "walk-around" lens.

We had finished shooting the photos for the day and were walking back towards Megan's apartment to say goodbye, when we walked by this great staircase. It was just too good to pass up, and I could not help myself. So I unpacked the gear for one last shot. And after seeing the final image, I am glad that we made this one last stop.

All in all, we spent about 2 hours shooting photos, and it was a ton of fun. Not only did we end up with some really nice photos for her, but we had a great time getting caught up. I am looking forward to seeing the rest of the family at the upcoming wedding!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Photographing portraits in New York City: Part One

This week I had some free time in between my presentations at B&H Photo and Unique Photo in the New York area. And what do I do when I am not teaching photography? Shooting of course!

I have two good friends who live in the city and wanted some portraits taken.  Scott, who is the husband of my second cousin, and Megan who is the daughter of a good friend who lives in Florida. As always, I love taking portraits for friends and family, and loved the challenge of doing so in Manhattan.

At 11am, Scott met me at the Marriott Marquis hotel which is located right in the middle of Times Square. Not wanting to shoot images in this heavily congested area, I suggested that we head towards Grand Central Station to see what we could find there for interesting backgrounds.

As we made our way east, I saw Bryant Park and suggested that we take some photos there. We started by one of the fountains. Luckily, we had a mostly overcast day, so the harsh sunlight and shadows were not an issue at this point. The following image was one of the first that we took.

This first shot was OK, but I really was not thrilled with the rather generic background. So, we continued our walk towards Grand Central Station.

As we were just about to leave Bryant Park, I noticed stacks of chairs that were up against a wall. I am usually drawn to repeating pattens, and thought that this would be a fun shot with Scott in the foreground. So, I grabbed one of the chairs and asked Scott to strike some poses for me.

After shooting some wide shots, I asked Scott to move his chair closer to me (to create more separation from the background). I was using my Canon 5D Mark III with the 70-200 2.8 lens, and chose an aperture of f2.8 to give me the least depth of field possible. (Camera settings were 125mm, f2.8, ISO 250, 1/640 sec taken in Aperture Priority mode)

We then went back to the wide shots. I decided to switch the camera to spot meter mode to expose for the highlights and accentuate the contrast of the sunlight on Scott's face.

Just as we were getting ready to pack up and head off to the next location, the clouds covered the sun and I saw a chance to shoot the same portrait without the harsh sunlight.

Then we continued our walk, which lasted all of about 2 minutes, because just on the other side of Bryant Park is the NY Public Library. For those of you who are regular blog readers, you know that I posted a blog when visited this amazing location once before. I thought that it would be a cool place to take some shots of Scott in a really unique environment.

I found a location for Scott, where I could frame him in between the lamps, and had him grab a book from the shelves. This is one location where I really appreciate the silent shutter mode of the 5D Mark III, since it was incredibly quiet and I did not want to distract everyone with the sound of the camera shutter.

Using hand gestures, I instructed Scott to look up from the book, as I wanted some photos showing more of his face. (Camera settings were 150mm, f2.8, ISO 1000, 1/320 sec taken in Aperture Priority mode)

Looking at the LCD on the back of the camera, I really liked what I saw, but wanted to get some different perspectives. We moved over to the book cases, which line the perimeter of the room, and I had Scott face towards the center of the room. I shot these three images to incorporate both book cases. (Photographer tip: A really strong image usually has a foreground, middle ground and background. These images has all of these, along with strong colors and leading lines, which force the viewer's eyes to travel to Scott's face.)

It was Scott's idea to sit on the floor for these shots. I got down on my knees, so that I was shooting at his level and took these photos.

At the entrance to the NY Public Library, we found these fountains, and I thought it would be fun to shoot some photos here, since it could just as easily be in Italy, from the look of it.

And finally, we did make it to Grand Central Station...

My goal was to set up a shot with Scott perfectly still and have everyone else in the station moving. So, I set up the camera and flash on my Gitzo tripod, set the camera for a 2 second exposure and fired a bunch of shots to see what movement I could get in the background. This was a fun shot and a great way to end our couple of shooting together. Then we came back to my hotel to go through images to see what we had captured. So much fun!

Stay tuned to the blog to see the images of Megan.

Here is one of them...

Monday, February 11, 2013

Everyone kept asking me to give away some cool Lexar and Crucial products so...

OK everyone, You asked for it! I have created the contest for you all. Here is your chance to win a 256GB Crucial M4 Solid State Drive (SSD), the 64GB Lexar Profesional 1000x CompactFlash card, the Professional USB 3.0 Dual-Slot Card Reader (and something special as a surprise).

Go to the following link which will take you to the contest on my Facebook page:


The contest goes until midnight on Feb 22nd. 

Oh, and...the more friends you get to join in, the more chances you have to win. Cool huh?


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Something a little different: Cool new technology that I am using now

As you know, most of what I post on the blog is photography related, but today I am writing about some of the great new technology I am using in other parts of my life. Yes, believe it or not, I do have time to enjoy things other than my camera and lenses, and is well known for those who know me personally, I love technology! When people ask me about my toys, I usually respond with "If it has batteries or plugs into the wall, I want to own it!"

With that said, I am also very picky about the technology that I use. Since time is at a premium, the last thing I want, is to take a lot of time learning a product that is not well designed or will be of little use to me in a short time. I learned many years ago, from my good friend Steve Wozniak, that a really great technology product needs to be something that is easy to use and solves a problem.

In the past couple of weeks, I have started using some really great new products, so good that I thought I would share them with you.

Fitbit (+Fitbit)

This is a really cool piece of electronics that sits in my pocket all day long. This great little device monitors how much I am moving all day. My family gave this to me as a gift for Christmas, after hearing me ponder the great question, "I wonder how much I walk during a typical day of shooting?" The fitbit One, as it is called, monitors how many steps I am taking per day, how many sets of stairs I have climbed, miles walked and more. All of this is captured in this tiny device and transferred to my iPhone through Bluetooth. This little $99 device has helped me get up and move even more. Now, after sitting at my desk for hours on end, I look down and see that I need to get up and move to meet my goal of 10,000 steps a day.

Oh, and the answer to the big question, of how much I am moving during a typical day of shooting an event: 8 miles! I can't wait to bring this to Russia to see how much I walk each day at the Olympics. That should be VERY interesting.

You can log into your own dashboard at fitbit.com to see how you are doing, or just look at your smartphone to get the latest updates. This is my weekly summary.

I go to the iPhone app or the dashboard to log additional activities that are not tracked by the device. Like, when I play ice hockey, when I have nowhere to put the fitbit and don't really take "steps".

After showing this cute little contraption to friends, many of them have gone out and purchased a fitbit for themselves. You can link up with each other and get a little friendly competition going, to see who can get the most exercise.

Nest Thermostat

I installed my Nest thermostat in the house about a year ago and I love this thing! After having a Honeywell thermostat for 20 years, it was time to have the heater in my house enter the 21st century. There are a couple of things about the Nest that make it stand out from all other thermostats. First of all, it was SO easy to set up. I connected two wires, screwed it into the wall and I was all set. This was designed by the original designer of the Apple iPod and it shows. Secondly, I did not have to program it, as it senses movement in the house and learns every time we turn the heater up or down, and it creates it's own schedule. And third, it is WiFi connected, which makes it really smart. I can control the Nest from anywhere in the world. Going on vacation? You tell your Nest that you are going away and it turns off the heater. But there is nothing worse than returning from a week long vacation to find your house unbearably cold. With the Nest, I can connect from the airport, and adjust the Nest from my iPhone, before we board our return flight. By the time we get home, the house has warmed up and we saved a lot of energy and money. Since it can connect to my wireless network, Nest can also update itself when there is a new version of software for the device. Lastly, it looks really nice. Nothing like the old ugly box that was on my wall before.

If the people at Nest are reading this, please make an intelligent sprinkler control panel. I absolutely HATE all of the controls that are available today. And I would love to have one with a user interface designed for people and not engineers. Think about this people...a sprinkler system that is connected to your home network, so it would know the weather and adjust it's schedule based on the amount of rain in your vicinity. And I would love to control my sprinklers from my iPhone, especially after Winter is over when I am testing each zone. No more running back and forth to the garage to start and stop each zone. Are you listening my Nest friends?

DropCam (+Dropcam)

I have looked at adding web cameras to my home, for security reasons, but never really liked the complexity of the devices. While roaming the halls of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last month, I came across a device that really piqued my interest. It is called the Dropcam and it is incredibly easy to set up and use.

You take the camera out of the box, connect it to your computer (using the included USB cable) and run the software, which is conveniently loaded in the camera's memory. Once you have married it to your wireless network, you unplug it from the computer and put it anywhere in your home. Using the same USB cord to draw power from any AC outlet, the camera is powered and ready to go. You can log into your dropcam web page or use an app on your smartphone to see what is happening at home, even if you are a world away.

What makes this device even better is the connection between your camera and the cloud. I have never been interested in having a dedicated DVR at my house for security reasons. This seemed like a lot of setup and I figured that any thief could steal the DVR along with whatever else is in my home. With a cloud-based DVR, the data is stored remotely and completely out of the hands of those who should not see it. The software is even smart enough to let me know when the camera saw movement throughout the day. I have logged in numerous times to check this feature, and enjoyed watching video clips of my dog running around the back yard.

The camera has night vision (with special infrared LED lights surrounding the lens) and provides reasonably good video quality in low light. I was happy to see that you can turn off the lights on the camera, since they were reflecting off the window in front of the camera.

Did I mention that the camera also has two way audio? Yep, this little camera has a microphone and speaker so that it can be used for audio monitoring as well. I could see this being used as a smart baby monitor. Since we are way past the baby stage, and have teenagers in the house, I have the audio feature turned off (or so I tell the kids). :)

Feit LED lights (from Costco)

Some people are going to see this and think "How the heck can light bulbs be consider cool new technology?" Well...let me tell you...this is actually cool stuff, literally and figuratively.

Ever since the introduction of LED lights, I have wanted to switch to this new technology to cut the energy use in my house. Where I used to have 150 watt bulbs, throughout the downstairs of our house, I now have 15 watt LED bulbs. They are brighter and run cooler than the old halogen types, and they don't have any of the drawbacks of the nasty fluorescent bulbs that energy companies and hardware stores have been trying to convince us to use.

The problem is...these LED lights have been very expensive and the color has been way too cool for most people. Yep, us photographers are more aware of white balance than the average consumer, but even the average consumer noticed how "blue" these lights were! I have purchased numerous brands in the past year and was never happy paying $40 a light and getting output in varying colors.

Then, about two weeks ago I saw that our local Costco store had Feit 15W LED lights for $16 each! I purchased 3 of them to test in my kitchen, figuring that at that price, I could take a risk and buy more than one. And, after installing them next to my halogen lights, and comparing the light quality, was absolutely sold! Just this weekend I went back to Costco and purchased 15 more of these lights.

My kids are constantly leaving lights on at our house, but now I can breath a little easier knowing that these lights use 1/10 the power of the halogens I replaced. Yes, each light still costs more than a standard incandescent bulb, but these are more efficient and they are projected to last for 23 YEARS before needing to be replaced. And to make it even better, these lights are dimmable. Nice!

Are you running to the store yet?