Friday, January 29, 2010

Love is in the air. Duck!

Duck! Love is in the air

If anyone has an idea of what I was trying to say with this photo, kindly let me know, 'cause I sure don't.

Happy Friday.

Photograph © 2010 James Jordan.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lonely hearts

Lonely hearts

Isn't that all any of us ask?

Still playing with Valentiney still life ideas. Helps to keep me occupied in the bitterly cold January of northern Illinois.

Good old box of Sweethearts candies on a light box with a gridded flash high and behind the subject.

Photograph © 2010 James Jordan.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Valentine take-out

Valentine take-out

Mmmm ... loooove.

Technical details: A coupla flashes, some red gel, a coupla grids, beaucoup reflectors. Mix well.

Photograph © 2010 James Jordan.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Valentine's Day is coming ... the Love Pug waits

The Love Pug

Some fun with Photoshop.

Photograph © 2010 James Jordan.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Lookin' at the world through love-colored glasses

Lookin' at the world through love colored glasses

We just might be amazed at how differently we view others.

Picked up a bunch of cheap Valentiney-type stuff over the weekend to play with setting up some Valentiney-type still life shots for my own amusement and for the editors over at Getty Images to consider. It's a nice way to spend some photographic time when it's grungy outside -- rain and warm temps pretty much nuked all our snow and left behind a soggy, muddy mess.

More to come.

Technical stuff: One flash camera left behind a diffuser panel to soften the light and put a nice little reflection in the lens of the glasses. Another flash camera right, low and aimed through the lenses, set at half the power of the main flash. It's counterintuitive, but a flash shot through a colored gel or other colored semitransparent material will register better with a lower level of light. A quarter-inch grid added to the flash to focus the beam to throw a more defined shadow.

Photograph © 2010 James Jordan.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Icy dream

Icy dream

Yet more from last weekend's frostiness.

Photograph © 2010 James Jordan.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Actually, I didn't want it to

Frost meets red rule

Stop, that is. Great foggy/frosty mornings over the weekend. Hadda geddout and shoot. Saw the stop sign against a backdrop of white, and the red rule* called.

*Red rule: If you see red, shoot it! Photograph © 2010 James Jordan.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rocking the white background

White background test

Her, not necessarily me. Alyssia is an aspiring teen model who already has developed a good sense of where the camera is and how to create a presence on it. Me? I'm a photographer who tends to light my portraits much the same way a blacksmith makes a horseshoe -- hit it with a sledgehammer.

In my defense, I hearken back to something one of my art school instructors drilled into his students -- be decisive, not timid in your creative choices. Better a bold mistake than a timid line or color well-placed. Armed with that creed, I've spent much of the last 30 years charging into creative places that more reasoned folks would dare not go, making bold mistakes left and right.

Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But if you gotta fail, at least make it a spectacular failure.

Not that this photo is a failure -- Alyssia gave me a killer smile while simultaneously spinning and swinging her hair and I happened to nail it. A split second earlier or later and this photo would have been destined for the trash bin. And the light is dramatic -- but maybe a little too dramatic. Or sloppy. The key light from camera left is just about perfect. The kicker light from behind Alyssia and the light used to blow out the backdrop were a little too hot and were spilling back onto the model, threatening to blow out the side of her face. I had already lost part of her jacket.

Too much of a good thing. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I think it's much easier to overdo it the first time, then back off on your second opportunity rather than underdo it the first time, then have to push harder after that. If you've already gone as far as you dared the first time, it's going to be mighty uncomfortable going even farther the next time. Progress is slower.

All I have to do next time is grab a smaller hammer.

Photograph © 2010 James Jordan.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Frosty morning


We've had a lot of those lately. Fog at night freezing on surfaces and turning the landscape into a sugar-coated spectacle.

Photographed by setting up a flash unit on a stand to backlight the branches. Two layers of warming gels on flash, with camera white balance set to incandescent to simulate the early morning sunlight that wasn't there. Fired with a remote wireless flash trigger.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Monday, January 18, 2010

One of Jack Frost's better efforts ...

Jack Frost's handiwork

It fogged. It froze. It looked pretty. I shot it. Pretty simple. Simply pretty.

Bumped the contrast and pumped a little color saturation in the final image. Okay, a lot of saturation. The original image was nearly monochromatic. Pumping the color brought out the blue, which adds to the "brr chilly" aspect of the picture. And then, I added a warming filter, of all things to round out the tones.

Sometimes it pays to go counter intuitive.

Photograph © 2010 James Jordan.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

12 significant photos #10-12

Keeping watch
Keeping watch. Made on October 3, 2009.

Finishing off a retrospective of what I think are 12 significant photos I made in 2009. Ansel Adams, the dean of American landscape photography said that 12 significant photos in any one year is a good crop. The same lighthouse is featured in two of these photos. The one above is the lighthouse at Wind Point, Wisconsin as an autumn rainstorm approached. I'm rarely disappointed with a trip to Wind Point. Something always seems to happen that's camera-worthy. It was a cold and windy afternoon. A wedding party was getting their formal portraits taken in front of the lighthouse and having a miserable time of it. I aimed over their heads and got this shot. The clouds were just begging for some HDR to bring out the texture and menace.

Restless. Made on October 4, 2009.

The very next morning, I returned to see what I might see. What I saw were light clouds in the morning sun. I heard geese approaching and saw that their flight path might take them close to the light tower, so I quickly slapped a telephoto zoom on the camera, focused and waited. I processed the color picture into black and white with two Hue and Saturation layers in Photoshop to create a more dramatic range of tones. It's one of the first black and white photos I've made that I've truly been happy with. Rounded out with a touch of Orton processing.

Up in smoke
Up in smoke. Made on October 18, 2009.

This picture makes me appreciate how much power resides in the hands of a photographer. There is a plume of smoke that rises just north of the Illinois-Wisconsin border off Interstate 94. My wife and I followed the plume to a coal burning power plant in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin.

In the context of its surroundings, the plant is not much to write home about. But when you zoom in on the funnel and make a picture of the billowing steam and smoke, it gets attention. This picture has since appeared on numerous web sites and blogs as a symbol of all things environmental, mainly having to do with global warming. It really wasn't intended to make any type of statement -- it's just a picture of a small power plant in a small corner of Wisconsin. People read into it what they will. Had I shot a wider view with all the pretty blue sky around it, I don't think the reaction would have been the same.

That wraps up my 12 for 2009. Already at work on the 12 for 2010. I wonder what they will be?
Photographs © 2009 James Jordan.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

12 significant photos #7-9

Red-eyed fly
Red-eyed fly. Made on June 30, 2009.

This past summer, I went through my insect macro phase ...

Ghost in the forest
Ghost in the forest. Made on July 23, 2009.

... my get-out-and-take-pictures-whenever-it-got-foggy phase ...

Golden field
Golden field. Made on September 20, 2009.

...and my autumn-is-coming phase.

This past year was one of exploring new techniques, subject matter and moods with my photography. In between my personal photo outings, I photographed weddings, events, portraits and products.

2009 was a year of growth, both personally and professionally, and laid a strong foundation for the year to come.

2010 should be even better.

Photographs © 2009 James Jordan.

Monday, January 11, 2010

12 significant photos #4-6

Night comes rolling in
Night comes rolling in. Made on May 8, 2009.

Garfield Barn
Garfield barn. Made on April 4, 2009.

Pondering. Made on June 30, 2009.

High dynamic range photography consists of merging several different exposures of a scene via computer software, then applying various filters to control contrast and coloration throughout the image (called tone mapping).

This past year, I experimented with the technique, and the months of April through June saw my hard drive filling up with multiple exposures as I got a feel for when and when not to go for an HDR image. These three photos show what I like best about HDR -- color saturation, enhanced textures and the ability to capture a range of tones that would otherwise have been impossible.

NOTE: I still have yet to have anything land on a memory card that I feel like publshing to the world and January is almost half over. Yikes! It's not for lack of trying. I stood out in near zero temperatures over the weekend photographing winter scenery and captured what I thought were some killer sunset images from a forest preserve near my home. Only thing is, a mistake in a lens setting rendered every image unusable. I hate when that happens. Despite advances in technology, a camera still can't fully compensate for a clumsy person standing behind it. I went out to the same spot the following day hoping that the magic would return, but conditions weren't cooperating. They gave me my chance the day before and I blew it. Ah, well.

Photographs © 2009 James Jordan.

Friday, January 08, 2010

12 significant photographs #3

Under the stars
Under the stars. Made on March 29, 2009.

Only a handful of times do I recall being in the presence of something spectacular with a camera in hand and thinking to myself, "Don't screw this up." The first time it happened, I screwed up. I was photographing the lighthouse in Escanaba, Michigan at sunset. After the sun slipped below the horizon, the sky exploded in a golden afterglow, bathing everything in an eerie yellow light. I shot two rolls of film of everything I could to capture the otherworldly sights before me. When the film came back from the photo finisher, I was angry -- they had managed to make all of the shots look, well, ordinary. Where was the yellow?

I stormed back to the lab and asked why they printed the pictures that way. "We just print what's on the negatives," was the reply. Determined to show these morons the errors of their ways, I took the negatives to another lab and asked for a contact sheet -- straight prints, no adjustments, no hank-panky from smartypants technicians to ruin my shots. To my dismay, there was no yellow to be seen on the contact sheet either -- actually, there was almost nothing to be seen at all. I thought back to how I metered the exposure in the golden twilight and realized I compensated for the diminishing light in the wrong direction -- instead of underexposing from the meter reading, I overexposed by two stops. I basically was the proud owner of two rolls of nothing. The fact that the first lab got any pictures to come out at all should have earned them a medal, not my scorn.

Where was I going with that story? Oh, yeah. For most of us shutterbugs, the spectacular happens only very rarely. Unless maybe you live on a mountaintop or a rainforest or are a storm chaser or something. The rest of us lead fairly ordinary lives. For us, the trick is to find ways to make the ordinary look extraordinary. It can be done. Either through relationship of the subject to its surroundings, angle, lighting, distance -- the name of the game is to try to look at old things in new ways.

Visiting family in Tennessee last spring, I became enamored with some old trucks abandoned in a field nearby. I spent night after night with a tripod and a hand held flash unit trying to get something interesting to show up on my camera. I'd set the camera for a long exposure, then trigger the flash from different angles to create the picture. After two nights I didn't have much to show for my efforts.

The third night, I set out again. When I shoot at night, I usually set the camera low on a tripod -- usually no more than a foot off the ground. It makes the night look more imposing. As for exposure, instead of keying on the trucks, as I had the previous nights, I set the exposure to catch the night sky. While the camera's shutter opened for the 30 seconds necessary to get the stars to register, I ran around the truck with my flash, firing six or seven bursts of light, finishing off with a burst in the cab with a blue filter placed over the flash head.

Other than adjusting contrast, the image above is as it came out of the camera. The orange glow in the sky came courtesy of the lights in a town about ten miles away.

So an ordinary truck in an ordinary setting (in Tennessee, at least) became extraordinary by picking the time and method of making the image.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

12 significant photos #2

A barn that time forgot
A barn that time forgot. Made on February 14, 2009.

Continuing the retrospective on significant photos taken in 2009.

I photographed this barn while on the way to a photo session. I live on the edge of the Chicago metroplex and it's not uncommon for the occasional barn to intermingle with shopping centers and subdivisions. This barn sits behind a CVS pharmacy south of Crystal Lake, Illinois.

Normally, the barn would have been mostly hidden among the trees and brush, but a dusting of snow the night before painted the roof white and covered the foreground grass. It looked interesting, so I pulled into the pharmacy parking lot, walked over to the edge of the barn property and shot a few frames. I was finished in less than five minutes.

I didn't even bother to post the photo anywhere for a few days, but when I did, the reaction to the picture was instantaneous and deep. Views and comments poured in on Flickr and for a time, the photo appeared in the rotation of featured photos on one of the site's main pages, which generated more views and comments.

I'm still not exactly sure what the fuss was about, or what drew people to this particular image. I was definitely thinking "Red Rule" when I made the picture. The doors hanging askew adds some quirkiness to the barn and quirkiness is good in a picture. The doors perhaps add to the feeling of neglect and abandonment. And maybe I should have known about the fuss, seeing as how another picture of a barn after a winter snowfall is one of my most viewed online photos -- it's received nearly 30,000 views and after two years, still gets 70-90 views every day.

Hey, it's snowing today. Maybe I should go look for some barns.

NOTE: Fixed the link. Sorry.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

12 significant photographs #1

New Year's Day, Forrest, Illinois (adjusted)
New Year's Day, Forrest Illinois. Made on January 1, 2009.

It's happened before, when the current crop of photos on my memory cards and hard drive just don't seem to be cutting it or I'm just stuck on finding topics about which to blog. My solution? The photographic retrospective! Of course -- pull out some old pictures and come up with some thoughts to make them relevant (or seem that way).

Ansel Adams, the dean of American landscape photographers, has a lot of quotes that I like. Among them, "You don't take a photograph, you make it." "A good photograph is knowing where to stand." "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept."

Ansel also said, "Twelve significant images in any one year is a good crop."

The photos on my computer are stored in folders according to the month they were taken (I'm sorry -- made). So I thought I'd go through each folder from the past year and pull out the best image and expound on it a little. I'm fully aware that some months may contain more than one significant photo and others may not contain any, but ah well.

The photo above was my first one of 2009. My wife and I were traveling to Urbana, Illinois on New Year's Day to visit our son who is at the University of Illinois. We like to take back roads in lieu of highways. As we rolled through the flat farmlands of central Illinois, I noticed a magnificent display of clouds overhead.

There are some photographic rules I try to follow. One of them is, if the sky is doing something interesting, find a place to take a picture, and quickly! I told my wife I was going to pull off on the next side road we came to to take a couple of shots because the sky was just too darn cool. She nodded in that way of hers that says, "Here we go again." She knows me.

I was hoping to find something -- anything -- to use as some foreground interest at the next crossroad to feature against the sky. As luck would have it, a whole lot of junk had been left at the edge of a field, the tires and cable being the largest items. I have another rule, which is to try to avoid shooting into the sun. I broke that rule. I shot two exposures, one for the tires in the foreground and one for the sky, then merged them later in Photoshop.

This particular image is significant in that while making the exposures, I accidentally shot them "too dark." My camera was still relatively new to me, and the LCD display on the back is pretty much useless in bright daylight. Getting the exposure to give me something I could see on the back of the camera actually made them very dark (I've since learned about histograms, but that's another post). In post processing, I was amazed at the range of tones I could recover by playing with the Highlights and Shadows sliders, and this was even with a JPEG image (I've since learned about RAW, but that's another post, too). In effect, this image represents my first high dynamic range (HDR) photograph, despite making adjustments to the tonal range manually. The making of this picture laid the groundwork for other pictures to come in 2009.

On top of that, it's just a good picture. Abandonment, desolation, distance -- along with some hope in the sky and the road that leads over the next hilltop. Perfect depictor of what I was experiencing at the time, having lost a job a few months earlier. I guess I saw myself in those discarded tires.

What you might witness in the rest of this series is the process of me becoming retreaded.

January 2009 significant picture runners up number one and number two.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Sophie, the Chinese Foo Dog

Sophie, the Chinese Foo Dog

Meet my brother's pug, Sophie. Or as David Letterman refers to the breed, Chinese Foo Dog. I had been wanting to try my hand at pet portraiture, but the offerings are limited at my house. Our cat passed away last August and our tropical fish don't come off as warm and cuddly. Go figure.

My wife and I spent a couple of days in Lansing, Mich. over the holidays visiting family. I brought my portable lighting kit along with me hoping to score a sitting with the Divine Miss S at my brother's house. Keep in mind that my portable lighting kit comes in several large bags and opens up to fill a 12x15 room. Everything's portable if you have vehicle big enough to move it, I guess. I brought it along just in case, but wasn't going to bring it out if I didn't have to.

Sophie, the Chinese Foo Dog

Day 1, I took some available light snapshots of Sophie as she wandered about the house, just to get a feel for how she would come off on camera. The first thing I noted was that her little wrinkly black face really sucked up the light. I'd have to get the light kit out of the back of the car to do her justice.

Day 2 was portrait day. Set up a chair in the entryway to use as Sophie's throne. I decided on using two lights. One with an umbrella choked up about halfway up the handle. I wanted soft light but wanted it concentrated on her face from the left. I aimed the light at the front of the chair to further achieve the goal. A second light with a grid to provide harder directional light was placed opposite the first flash to cross light Sophie and bring out the wrinkles in her face. I also set up a large white reflector just out of the frame to the right to throw any more light I could at her.

Once the lights were set (my brother has a life-size ceramic pug that served as a stand-in while I adjusted the levels of the flashes), the star was brought in. I shot far and close, and from different angles. She worked the camera like a pro. She went from aloof to pensive to disinterested with ease. Sometimes all in the same shot.

Sophie, the Chinese Foo Dog

Even with the barrage of light, I had to make some adjustments to Sophie's muzzle in post to bring out the details and make sure her eyes didn't get lost in the surroundings. Lots of work at both ends of the process, but it worked out pretty well.

My mother says that the markings on a pug's forehead resemble Chinese numerals. A seven on a pug is said to bring good luck. Sophie has a six. Close enough.

I know there's at least one fan of pugs who visits here. Enjoy.

Photographs © 2010 James Jordan.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Have an original New Year, or What are you going to do with YOUR blank canvas?

So what are you going to do with YOUR blank canvas?

For the past several years, my first blog post of the new year generally features optimistic anticipation of the 365 days to come and displays the first meaningful photo I've taken for the year. This year, the thing is, I have yet to take my first meaningful photograph (OK, aside from the quickie I set up to illustrate this post).

Not that I haven't toyed around with some shots, but so far, nothing has emerged that I can look at and say, "That's worth sharing with the world." For the most part, I've spent the last couple of weeks with family, enjoying the holidays and only occasionally taking time to think about photography-related stuff. Then I received a piece of mail on Flickr from someone who has been following my photos both there and here asking for some advice, which got me thinking some more.

So here's what I've thought about. Perhaps you can use some of it to inform your own picture taking, or maybe even apply it to other things in your life.

It's OK if you're not original, but do be yourself about it. It's true that there is nothing new under the sun. There are only about three dozen basic story plots, upon which all of the novels, plays and movies of the world are based. Every innovation of humankind has been or will be achieved by applying one of 40 basic principles. Dozens of hit songs over the years have been based, in whole or in part, on the same four-chord progression.

It doesn't matter what you're setting out to do. Most likely, it's already been done, and done remarkably well by someone else. Or maybe a thousand someone elses. So what to do? Go ahead and do it, but make it your own. Theoretically, there is no one just like you, so whatever you do, imbue it with your distinct personality and outlook on life.

The story is told of a budding photographer who is waiting while famed photojournalist James Natchwey, who has covered every major world conflict since 1981, is reviewing his portfolio. Natchwey silently and quickly flips through page after page of the studen't photos, which represent, up until that time, his life's work. When he reaches the last picture, he looks up at the student, who eagerly awaits the master's critique. "I'm afraid," Natchwey intones, "These pictures tell me nothing about you as a person." End of session.

Do your photos provide a glimpse of you as a person? The things you care about? How you feel about your subjects? If you can do that, then you will have accomplished something -- work that is unlike anyone else's.

And that's a good thing.

Photograph © 2010 James Jordan.