Friday, December 30, 2011

Ten Things I Learned in 2011

1.     That I learn as much from my students as I teach them.
2.     That persistence pays off. Eventually.
3.     That gray hair is really OK after all.
4.     That Atlanta is the best possible place for me to be.
5.     That losing ten pounds isn’t really that hard. And it makes a big difference.
6.     That my children never stop amazing and impressing me with their intelligence, talent, and humanity.
7.     That new friends are just as wonderful as old friends- they just have less history.
8.     That old dogs really can learn new tricks.
9.     That great photography can still take my breath away.
10. That just when I thought I couldn’t love my wife Andrea any more- I do.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Light Meters

Sometimes I wonder if I'm old school and a borderline dinosaur. But then I think about it and I realize that sound technique is critical to fine photography. It's not a substitute for a keen eye and interesting content, but when combined with those attributes, a photograph sings and encourages the viewer to spend time and linger.

I've been a diligent user of handheld light meters for a very long time. My first serious meter was a Gossen Luna Pro. It was the industry standard for decades- if you wanted the most accurate results, you owned a Luna Pro. As I started using flash, my meter use became even more important. When I light a scene, I can do it faster because I've taken meter readings all over and I know exactly what things will look like.

Now, many years later, I still use Gossen meters. In my Studio in a Backpack I carried the Gossen Digisky. It's a very full featured meter with a huge range of f/stops, shutter speeds, and ISO settings available. It's always on the money and consistently repeatable. And the nicest thing is that it has a wireless transmitter built in. The Elinchrom strobes I use (stay tuned- there will be an in depth article about them in next week or two.) have a wireless system built in, too. The Skyport system (also to be reviewed in coming weeks) is a small and powerful radio slave and having it inside my Digisky makes things simpler and more convenient. My Skyport can stay connected to the camera while I walk around reading the strobe exposures. Nice.

Now, if you don't need the extensive features contained in the Digisky, you might want to look at the Digipro F. I carried it as my back up and I've found it to be a perfect complement to the more expensive unit and available for a price that the budget conscious photographer will find attractive.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Lastolite Tri Flip Kit Reflector

When you open my Kata backpack, the first thing you see is a large flat compartment with a 33" Lastolite TriGrip Reflector in it. This is a fairly indispensable item to own. It's relatively small, light, and can be used in a bunch of different ways.  The primary way I use it is as a fill for my portraits. When I light, I almost never use a second light to fill shadows. The fact is I love shadows- they give faces shape and character. But I want to control just how dark they are. In some situations they need to be inky dark, in others barely there, and, most of the time, somewhere in between. Using a reflector to bounce a little light into those shadows gives me the control I need.

Generally, I use the TriGrip with the Trigrip bracket . Although this bracket includes an arm so you can attach a shoe mount strobe, I took this off. The arm made it a little bulky to carry in my backpack and I figured if I needed to use the Tri Grip as a diffuser, I had other options. I generally put one end of the bracket on a light stand and on the other I attached the reflector with a Super Clamp . The bracket has a double ball joint which makes it infinitely adjustable, so I can place the reflector in any position I need.

The TriGrip has some features I really like. Unlike other collapsible reflectors, it has a  built in handle with a velcro strap. If I'm working with an assistant, this makes it really easy for them to hold wherever I need it. The kit also comes with two reversible covers with different surfaces. These include black, silver, gold, half silver, half gold, and others. They slip over the translucent white stock surface and essentially give you 8 tools in one. The black can be especially useful if you want to put an outdoor subject in the shade and then light them with a strobe. Or the silver can be used to bounce a little sparkle into your subjects face on a cloudy day or when you have to shoot under florescent lights in an office situation. And using the translucent white as a diffuser on a sunny day to soften that hard (and often hideous) light can allow you to make an attractive portrait in less than opportune conditions.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tripod, Light Stands, and Modifiers

On the outside of the pack, I carried my tripod, light stands, and light modifiers. I didn't try to take these on board with me when I was flying- they went in my checked bags then. But, whenever I went out shooting, they were with me.

I don't use a tripod all the time- in fact, I use one for fewer than half the photographs I make. I generally like to stay quick and agile and move around a lot to find the perfect vantage point for whatever I'm shooting. I always have one with me, however. I don't like to be caught unprepared for any situation I might run into. For my European trip, I brought the Gitzo #1541 Series One tripod with the #GH1781QR Series One quick release ball head. I've owned other tripods in the past, but when I made the switch to Gitzo, I was shocked and amazed at what a difference it made. The sections always open and close quickly and smoothly. The legs open flat to allow a low vantage point. The ball head operates exactly the way I prefer. And they last forever. I actually own the larger 3531 to use when I'm not traveling. It's beefier and can hold big cameras with long lenses in the wind and stay steady. But the 1541 was the perfect blend of light weight, small size, and adequate sturdiness to be the right tool for the job I needed when I was carrying it on my back.

The light stands I chose were two Manfrotto 5001B's. Like the tripod and some of the other items in the pack, these were chosen because of their size and weight. They're not as heavy duty as the stands I carry in my usual shooting kit, but they raise to over six feet, they hold what I need them to, they are very small when folded, and they weigh about two pounds each.

I most often use portable softboxes when shooting portraits. Depending on the size, they provide a stunning quality of light. But they can be a little bit of a pain to set up and with the quick rings necessary, they're bulky and little heavy. Umbrellas solve the problems of set up time, bulk, and weight, but they just don't provide the control because their design allows light to bounce all over the place. (By the way, I carry both softboxes and umbrellas in my standard kit.)

The Elincrom Varistar was the perfect compromise. It essentially is a shoot through umbrella that has a black skirt on the back that keeps light from bouncing back and all around. It allows for almost as much control as a softbox, but it sets up as quickly as an umbrella- and there's no quick ring to carry. It's a great design and I carried two in the 33 inch size in my Studio in a Backpack.

In the next post I'll talk about my reflector/scrim set and the hardware I use with it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Kata Beetle 282 Backpack

At the heart of my "Studio in a Backpack" is the Kata Beetle 282 backpack. There are a lot of things I like about this pack, but let me tell you about a few of them. It's a fully adjustable pack, just like sophisticated camping packs and it has both shoulder straps and a waist belt with dual adjustments. What seems like a minor detail, but one that I particularly like, is found on the long straps that adjust the waist support. They have little velcro tabs attached that allow you to secure the long ends of the straps when you've found the right length. This may seem like a little thing, but not having lengthy flopping straps is a really nice touch.

Another feature that makes this pack unusual is the fact that it opens from the side holding the supports. With most similar packs, you put the pack down with the straps on the ground and then zip it open from the reverse side. This means that you put the side you're soon going to put on your back in the dirt, mud, and crud, thus transferring that stuff onto yourself. With this Kata, you put the opposite side down and open the pack from the straps side, keeping the side that goes against your body clean. Smart design, if you ask me.

Once the pack is open, you see the Kata feature that seems very simple, but no other companies have followed- that is, the interior of the pack is bright yellow instead of the usual black.  This means that it's much easier to find your black cameras and lenses when the lights are dim. Again, it seems like a little thing, but if you've ever fumbled around looking for a certain lens or body and you can't find it because black on black renders it invisible, you know what I mean. It's a very nice detail.

The rest of the 282 is what you'd expect from a quality camera bag. It has a fully customizable interior, allowing you to set it up with multiple configurations. There's plenty of cushioning to protect your gear, in case you have to check it with the airlines. There's a laptop compartment that accommodates a 17 inch computer. You can even get an optional wheel system ( Kata calls it the Insert Trolly) so you don't have to carry the pack if you don't want to.

This pack sells for around $ 290.00 in the US and I think it's worth every penny. If you'd like to learn more you can check it out on the Kata site .

My next post will discuss the items carried on the outside of the pack.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Studio in a Backpack

In early 2010 I was lucky enough to live, travel, and photograph in small towns and villages throughout Europe for three months. You can read about it here . I had a specific look I was trying to accomplish in the photographs I produced and I put together very specific gear in order to do that. You can see some of the pictures I did there on my web site .  

Over the last year or so I’ve been doing workshops covering my “Studio in a Backpack” and I’ve been asked if I could publish a list of the items in that notorious pack. So here it is. Keep in mind that I had another case with various chargers, cords, and back-ups that I left in my room when I was shooting, but this is exactly the outfit I carried when I went out to photograph. Over the next weeks I’ll be posting follow-ups every few days with more detailed descriptions, estimated prices, and the reasons I chose those particular tools. For now, here goes.

Kata Beetle 282 Backpack

2- Manfrotto 5001B lightstand

2- Elinchrom Varistar umbrella-softbox 33”

Gitzo #1541 Series One tripod with #GH1781QR Series One quick release ball head

Lastolite TriFlip  30” 8 in 1 Grip Reflector Kit

Lastolite Trigrip Bracket

Manfrotto 026 Swivel Umbrella Adapter

2- Manfrotto 035RL Super Clamp with Standard Stud

2 each- Manfrotto #118 and 119 studs

2- Manfrotto 039 U-Hook

Metz Mecablitz 58 AF-2 shoe mount flash

Metz P76 Power Pack

Metz Mecalux 11 Hot Shoe Slave Item #0126 Female Hotshoe to Elinchrom Skyport adapter

Elinchrom Skyport Universal Starter Kit

Elinchrom Ranger Quadra Head A Pro Set

Gossen Digisky and/or Digipro F light meter

small roll black gaffer's tape

various CF cards, straps, cords, etc.

Cameras to be discussed in a later post

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Review of Day & Night

Today I was sent a review of Day & Night posted online. The writer, Cecelia Smith from Houston, came across my Kickstarter page and pledged right away. A day or so later she wrote this reaction. I'm moved by her kind words. Her review follows:


Project: Day and Night

For almost the entire time I have been in the lifestyle, people have said how much they wish that there was a positive representation of "us" in the main stream media ...

I was following a friend's blog and discovered that there is actually a legitimate VANILLA endeavor, to produce a very well done photo-journalist perspective of people ... showing that "we" are very normal, every day, neighbors, contacts, doctors, nurses, teaches, etc... and that our expression of our sexuality is not "who we are" ... just ... a part of us.

 I have pledged to support this effort, and hope that they reach their ultimate goal. I believe this project is a very POSITIVE one for our "identity" because it is not trying to "explain" who we are. It is not trying to make people "comfortable" with what we do. It is simply a statement, an observation, of the fact that WE are part of society. It is not a case of Us and Them. Because we are Them.

Have a look ... if you can .. support the effort.
Click here:

Day and Night


p.s. Please consider posting this elsewhere to get people to at least look at it, and hopefully also support the effort.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Timothy Archibald

I spent an hour or so on the phone this morning with photographer Timothy Archibald. I'm working on the possibility of a book deal for my Day & Night project and he had a book called Sex Machines published a few years ago. It contains similarly controversial photographs of an unusual fringe social group like mine. And, also similar to me, he's not a big time name in fine art photography circles. I've been following his work for some time, I think since he shot the Kodak annual report years ago. He's a terrific portrait shooter and has a quirky sense of humor. He also has recently completed a project called Echolilia with moving and sensitive pictures he created in collaboration with his son Eli. Please take the time to look at his work.

His fine photographs aren't the reason I'm writing. I'm writing because he spent an hour of his time sharing his experiences and valuable insights with me. We've never met. We've had a few e-mails back and forth, but to him, I'm just a faceless guy on the other side of the country. As an educator, I'm expected to share my time with my students, with prospective students, with all sorts of people. It's my job. But I've also always done what I can to help those in my profession who come to me asking for help. Assistants, colleagues- I believe it's important to give back to the profession that has been so good to me. These days it's rare that I'm on the other side of that relationship and it's good to realize that there are people out there who are so giving. Tim's sharing of his experiences was invaluable. I'm very grateful.