Bringing a Victorian dress to a desert sunset

Our muse, Melanie Friedrich, has a Victorian-looking dress, that she salvaged from an opera-house-wardrobe yard-sale.... and we agreed to take her to the desert, East of Palmdale, to shoot at sunset. On the way, we found an old abandoned house, and made many, many late afternoon images:

We made all our images very simply, with one battery-powered monoblock, inside a 5' soft box, balancing the strobe against the sunlight (later, after sunset, by slowing down the shutter):

We had another half-hour drive to the (not-so-dry) lake-bed of El Mirage - and the sun set while we were still walking toward the edge.... a long walk against a strong wind!

But we were able to shoot a number of images after the sunset, with the strong wind providing great motivation to Melanie's hair and dress:

The lesson? Always plan for twice the amount of time you think you'll need.... Especially with a sunset/sunrise, be sure you're ready and capturing images at least 30 minutes before it crosses the horizon.... And bring your "A team" with you - this work wouldn't have been possible without Beata Bernina, Katherine Barcsay, and Jonathan Caballero!

Shooting a Goth Fantasy - under the harsh noon sun

Only mad dogs and Englishmen.... and the Iron Relic Entertainment crew - a group of extremely talented (and fearless) actors/athletes who specialize in authentic sword fighting - would be photographed under a noon sun, in an empty back yard, in the Northern Valley..... Here's what it looked like on an iPhone:

We had one soft box with a strobe in it - and a full orange gel - to try to compete with the sunlight (and I shot from below, against the sky, to keep the faces shadowed, and to try to underexpose the sky compared to the strobe-lit face). This is Straight-Out-of-Camera:

And this is after shifting the color way toward blue, and going crazy with micro-contrast in Photoshop (as well as overlaying a partially-visible black&white layer):

And a few more images from the shoot - to see the rest, click HERE!!!


Thank you to Victoria, Alex, Bryan, and Carolyn for performing, to Moranne for assisting, and to Beata for keeping it all organized! Questions?

Guerrilla Fashion Photography

We recently shot a series of clothes for the designer AOCO, in an gutted auto-body-painting shop, shooting as simply and rapidly as possible. The strategy was to provide catalog-style images, with a hint of the rough environment (and carry that feel in the finished image). We used two large soft sources, plus a direct light against the back wall (intentionally letting it fall off in the corners, again to visually differentiate our shoot, from a studio shoot). With only a couple of minutes per outfit (there were 20+ changes) we were in-n-out in less than the length of a feature film....

Thank you Melanie for performing, my crew: Vytas, Alberto, Eric, and Beata for keeping it all together! Simple is best!

In the airport with a battery-powered strobe

After our recent Location Lighting workshop (where we took a group of photographers, four battery-powered monoblocks, and 4 young actresses to the Arts District, and lit them with the strobes overpowering the ambient light) I've received several questions about whether I'd ever use a battery-powered strobe on my indoor jobs )seeing how I'm such an evangelist for the large, heavy, A/C-powered Profoto strobes) 

I only had to bring up these images from late 2013, made in the Dulles International Airport (outside Washington, DC), to demonstrate that yes, I DO use battery power, even on indoor commercial shoots. On this job, we had to portray the managers of 4 different East Coast airports, in the middle of their shopping arcades (what, you thought airports make their money just from parking the planes? and cinemas make their money just from showing films?).

Even on an commercial photo shoot, the first consideration is solving problems - here, the "mall" is a busy pedestrian thoroughfare: running power cables across it would involve a lot of gaffing tape (and make everyone anxious about liability!) as well as a lot of time (we never, ever have enough)!

The solution is a mono-block and a battery, on the same light stand, inside an octodome. Above our subject we have a black scrim, to block some of the overhead ambient, and on the opposite side, a white curtain for fill. The entire "tent" is easily and quickly assembled, moved to different locations, and hand-carried through the airport security screening.

Above we see our airport manager under the tent, a passerby, the art director (always on his iPhone), myself, the strobe (and its orange battery pack) inside the octodome, and my assistant rocking his awesome dreads!

One last pep talk, an exposure with the aperture matching the strobe and the shutter speed underexposing the background by a stop, a custom white balance for the slightly cool gel inside the octodome (to warm up the background) - and we have our shot:

Medium-format digital at ISO 1600: game changer!

Medium-format digital backs, from Phase One and Hasselblad, have (up to now) used CCDs for their sensors, to obtain great tonal range, 16-bit beautiful color, and a usable ISO from 35 to 100….. any higher, and the noise was unbearable!

Everything changed with the new Sony 50MP CMOS chip, now in the Phase One IQ250 (and soon in the Hasselblad, as well). CMOS technology places processors right behind each sensor, thus enabling noise reduction before the signal is even recorded, hence, great capabilities at higher ISOs! 

I had the chance to try out the new Phase One IQ250, which can be set as high as ISO 6400 - I found ISO 1600 to be completely usable. Same astounding tonal range - over 14 stops of exposure latitude - same great 16-bit color, same shallow depth-of-field and smooth tonal transitions from the larger lenses projecting a larger image over a larger sensor…. but now, at much higher ISOs! This is the solution we've been waiting for: when shooting ambient light in low light, or under continuous-light setups (staged for recording motion), and for balancing strobes and ambient at reasonable shutter speeds indoors!

Here're a couple of full-size images, one on the Phase One, the other on a Canon 5D Mk2, (made a couple of weeks apart, as I didn't have the Canon with me when testing the IQ250)

 This could be printed as a 12" X 18"

This could be printed as a 12" X 18"

 This could be printed as a 20" X 28"

This could be printed as a 20" X 28"

And here're closeups, with the Canon at 100% (hence, a 12"X18" print), and the Phase One as a crop of the same view, as if also printed 12"X18"

 24-70 at 70mm, 1/1000 at F 2.8, ISO 1600, processed in Capture One

24-70 at 70mm, 1/1000 at F 2.8, ISO 1600, processed in Capture One

 80mm lens, 1/750 at F4, ISO 1600, processed in Capture One

80mm lens, 1/750 at F4, ISO 1600, processed in Capture One


Noise? Details? Color? Draw your own conclusions…….

On the street with an off-camera strobe

Los Angeles' "Arts District", a large neighborhood of abandoned warehouses and industrial lofts, just East of Downtown, has blossomed into the visual center of the film and graphic-arts world (and is rapidly gentrifying with condos and cafes). Many of its walls are covered with highly creative murals - most put up illegally, before City Hall finally acknowledged their artistic value, and repealed the regulations that criminalized outdoor wall painting!

We took a short walk, just before sunset, and shot some test photos, for a future workshop, in front of a few different murals. It was a very fast, "guerilla-style" shoot - a photographer, a model, an assistant, and the photographer's wife (and "behind-the-scenes" photographer). We had very little time, and wanted to keep moving, while lighting the model with a strobe, to have the attention focused on her (as well as to bring color and shape to the light!). We chose the lightest/smallest pro strobe at hand - the Photoflex Triton Flash - at 300 watts about 6 times stronger than a speedlight, but weights only a couple of pounds, including its lithium battery!

Without the strobe, the light on the street at sunset was open shade - flat, from the top, cool in color and low in intensity.



We put the Triton Flash at the top of a very handy Lite Reach pole, even with its lithium battery pack and a 5' OctoDome it weighted only a couple of pounds! My assistant simply kept a constant 5' distance from the OctoDome to the model - hence, all our exposures were at F8.



We started with the shutter at 1/125, and, as it got darker, gradually dropped to 1/60, then 1/30… all at ISO 200, and a custom white balance.


We modified the effect of the available light, by first using a blue gel inside the OctoDome (hence, pushing the ambient light to very warm), then switching to an amber gel (hence, making the ambient light very blue). 

 read more about the  artist behind this mural

read more about the artist behind this mural

A hand-held, off-camera flash, in manual exposure, kept at a constant distance from the subject, gave us a constant F-stop (and also bypasses the city ordinance requiring a permit for the use of any tripods or light stands!) We balanced the available light, for the background, by slowing down our shutter speed, as necessary. We changed the color of the ambient light by gelling the strobe, and custom-white-balancing the camera to the color of the strobe, hence, pushing the background in the opposite color direction. 

Simple, fast, and effective - with no more than a few minutes at each mural, we walked around a couple of blocks, and got all our shots, within the last hour of daylight.

Capture One 7 vs. Lightroom 5

I support the APA-LA chapter , by serving on its board, and by giving seminars on digital post-processing. On Saturday July 20, I ran a live "race" between Capture One 7 and Lightroom 5, by demonstrating shooting tethered into each app: 50 images captured non-stop on a Nikon D800E. We applied a special "look" in each software on the test image, then started the shoot (and the clock). While both apps took about 2+ minutes to import the images, Capture One brought each one in with the special "look", as well as a focus check window - in Lightroom, the images appeared unprocessed, and only after the import was finished did the software start rendering the special "look" - the client would not have seen them with that "look" during the shoot - it took more than twice the time for Lightroom to finish the entire process.

We then processed one image, with the default settings, in both apps, to compare the results - you can judge for yourself - the Capture One image starts with more contrast and sharpness, but with a very different color rendition than Lightroom (again, white balance is "as shot", and no additional adjustments are made at all)

Draw your own conclusions - my advice is to start using both, and choose the one that'll be most effective in each situation. I use LR 5 for managing my archive, and CO 7 for tethered shooting!




Fine-tuning your camera's auto-focus accuracy


Everyone of my students, who follows my advice and upgrades from a kit zoom to a large-aperture prime lens (that's a fixed focal length with a very low F stop, such as 1.4 or 2.0), discovers that their camera is consistently focusing in front, or behind, the critically-chosen focal plane. What's going on is the result of cumulative production tolerances, both in the lens and the camera body, adding up to a missed focus. 

The manufacturers finally admitted this mass-production shortcoming, and most cameras made in the past few years have an additional feature: "auto-focus fine tuning", in the custom functions of the menu.

What we then do is run a series of controlled tests, using a target that includes a scale to measure the "depth" of focus inaccuracy. 

Basically a vertical target with a ruled scale tipped at 45°, it's meant to be used with cameras that have a micro-focusing adjustment feature (pretty much every camera over $2K made today). 

You align your camera (leveled on its own tripod) and the target at a reasonable distance (aim for 5X your focal length - bit of a challenge to those who forgot their metric system after junior high...), use your high-speed/high-price lens wide open, focus with the center spot on the target, shoot, and examine your result.

Using your menu, move the focus micro-adjustment numbers by large leaps, until, by iteration, you can zero into the best setting for focusing precisely on the center of the scale. Repeat with each of your lenses (wide open, zooms set at their longest focal length), and all your photos will be in focus from now on!

A few pointers: shooting tethered will make your adjustments much, much easier, as you'll have to examine a small section of your image at 100%! Lightroom makes this a no-brainer, with the advantage of setting a preset that will add a bit of sharpening and clarity to your images, to better discern the center of the focus zone.

A bit more disconcerting, you'll find that all your lenses and bodies focus on different planes. 

Very important note: most of your high-speed/wide-aperture lenses will also shift the focus further back, as you stop them down - you need to test/note/re-adjust-while-shooting your settings both wide-open, and at F5.6 (they'll probably stop shifting at higher F-stops than this....)

I know, I know, WTF? Well, I make a strategic decision before I start: will this be shot all ambient-light/wide-open (one AF-FineTune setting), or will I be using strobes and working at F5.6 to F11 (second AF-FineTune setting)? I always carry my chart - different bodies give different settings for the same lenses, at different F-stops....

Forget about calibrating zooms with variable-aperture, or most old film lenses, as the auto-focus sensors in your camera will have such a hard time with them (or in any high flare situation) that your focus will jump all over the place...

Now start practicing your focusing skills in the field, assured that, at least, your camera's autofocus agrees with your image focus. 


NEWS: I now use FocusTune, from Michael Tapes, for a more critical (and automated) determination of the optimum auto-focus adjustment for each lens, at each aperture! Highly recommended… see it here

Here're my settings for 2 different bodies, 2 different lenses, at wide-open vs. stopped-down apertures:


85mm      F 1.8: +20   F 5.6: +18

50mm      F 1.4: +18   F 5.6: -16

28mm      F 1.8: +11    F 5.6: +13


85mm      F 1.8: +14    F 5.6: +12

50mm      F 1.4: +4     F 5.6: -17

28mm      F 1.8: +13    F 5.6: +6

and the 24-70 zoom, while not having much of a focus shift with stopping down, has two different settings, depending on focal length, such as 70mm: +8 and 24mm: +17 - totally defeating the purpose of a zoom, to rapidly change from wide to tele

Videos of George teaching

Here're a couple of live videos, documenting behind-the-scenes during actual workshops: 

First, here's one of the Pro Lighting workshop, where we use professional strobes in a studio environment, to master lighting people:


Next, behind the scenes at our Location Lighting workshop, where we bring the strobes and models to a real-world environment (here, the lobby of a classic art-deco downtown building), to make commercial or editorial portraits: