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Archive for July, 2008

Let There Be Light!

Jul 31

In Friends, Lighting at 8:25am

If anyone ever deserved a set of wings, it is my friend Donald. Let me be clear, not in heaven, right here on earth. I want Donald to stick around for a long, long while, and keep spinning his honey on the dance floor every Friday night, as he always does.

But he does make for a perfect fit for this retired set of wings I’ve got hanging around. My garage is prop city. Stuff. Things from shoots gone by. These wings were made for a Sports Illustrated shoot by a prop outfit in LA that does wings. Talk about a niche market. My studio manager, a dear friend and divine in her own right, Lynn Delmastro, found ’em. They call themselves Mother Pluckers.

These got made at the last minute and drop shipped to North Carolina so I could pop ’em on the back of Brandan Wright when he was a member of the overlarge NCAA freshmen class of a year or so ago.

This X-men rig showed up at about 11:30, and I got Brandan at 1pm. The North Carolina SID was real clear. I could have him for all of 30 minutes. (Funny, I don’t recall my time being quite that valuable when I was 18.)

So I hung ’em, lit ’em, and then lit up Brandan inside of two hours and put Chapel Hill in the rear view. It ran as the opening double truck for the story, but I never felt like I got a pic of the wings I could kinda hang my hat on. So they’ve pretty much been in a box. Just like this 6′ prop volleyball I got in the garage.

My subject here is Gabby Reece, legendary female volleyball player and athletic icon. Shot this for a story in LIFE that I conjured about strong women.

I proposed a photographic gathering of strong women to the editors at LIFE based on the fact that every night I came home, my two daughters would be engrossed in Xena, Warrior Princess. They dug Xena cause Xena kicked butt. I became intrigued and watched a few myself. I mean, I had no real interest in a six foot Amazonian woman charging about the forest wearing little else but a breastplate, but hey, the kids needed supervision.

I got to thinking. The LIFE year end issue was coming, and as usual, it loomed as a compendium of death. Many, many famous folks died that year, and the obit pages rolled on forever. (Didn’t really bother me much as I find all that kind of news sort of morbidly fascinating. But then, they don’t call the obit section of the newspaper the Irish sports pages for nothing.) But, thinking of the newsstand reader of the mag, I suggested we spice up our yearly sign off by doing a picture series on powerful females. The WNBA debuted that year, Xena was hot, and actresses like Michelle Yeoh, famed for her martial arts prowess, were center stage. Let’s do some cool photos! They bought it, and Gabby was a lock for the story right away. The editor on the piece, a very bright wordsmith with an overblown sense of his grasp of photography materialized imperiously in my office doorway. “What’s the concept for Gabby?” he demanded.

Hmmm…..think fast, Joe. How about we pose her as Atlas? We could have her holding up the world, along the lines of the big fella, but the earth would be a volleyball! He nodded and left. Cool! I went to LA and spent three grand at a prop house on this volleyball. (Hey, the editor nodded, right?) Distressed it with desert mud, guy wired it with monofilament and Gabby hoisted it in beautiful desert light. It’s in a box in the garage, as I speak. Available at reasonable rental rates:-)

Teaching at Santa Fe last week, I figured I’d give the wings another go as a class lighting demo. Rigged them with two c-stands a couple Bogen super clamps, and a few sand bags.

Lit ’em from the back with two SB800 speed lights, dome diffusers on and zoomed at 14mm. As you can see they are banged right into the back of the feathers, and the happy accident here was that they backwashed light onto the old wall in pretty nice fashion. (Anytime you can get your lights to do two jobs at once, it is a good day in the field.)

Lighting the portrait part was trickier. As soon as any frontal light flies at those wings, the white feathers bleach out, and the backlit glow and romance is gone. They get flat as yesterday’s newspaper and less compelling. So, the trick is to light the face and nothing else. Hoo Boy!

Improvisation ruled the day. Took a Nikon SB900 and zoomed that puppy to 200mm, and snookered it even further with a Honl snoot. Tried that alone, and the results were predictably harsh. Not too much spill, but bad dog light. Dropped a Lastolite Tri-Grip diffuser panel over it, and got soft light, and way too much of it. Not in terms of power, just in spread.

Out came the gaffer tape. (Is there anything in this world that can’t be made better with gaffer tape?) When we were done, there was maybe a 6″ square of diffuser left exposed. The rest of the panel is gaffered.

Amazing what a little diffusion will do. We went from harsh, awful light to just enough softer glow to cover the face and shoulders, but not dull the wings.

I wanted that soft light for Mawgie, as this was the last time she will accompany the location light class. She and her husband Shaylor packed up the kids and moved this week, leaving the Santa Fe Workshops all the poorer for it. I cannot tell you how many of my lighting workshop participants she helped along the way by her patience, grace, humor, decency and elegance in front of the lens. She posed for the workshops for 13 years, and will be missed a lot. All of us wish her and her family the best as they turn a new page on their adventure.

And Rick, of course, stepped in front of the wings, insisting that he play the role of the fallen angel.

For Rick, I didn’t retouch any of the support structures and set stuff. I left the frame alone. He is an American original.

And of course, the intrepid Kevin Vu, a terrific shooter and the redoubtable studio manager at Santa Fe, stepped in to add his, uh, two, uh, cents……

If you notice in one of the production pix, Kevin is off to the left of the frame, his rugged, manly face festooned with red lipstick marks. We’re talking chick magnet, here. Major league. Big time.

And, speaking of the production pix, they are courtesy of photog Karen Lenz, also working the SF studio, who is one the true stalwarts of the workshops. If I needed anything done, I’d look around, and somehow, it already was. She is headed for NY to be a producer, and anybody’s job will be the better for her attention to detail and dogged determination to dot all i’s and cross all t’s. Kevin’s headed for the Big Apple, too, and trust me, when he arrives, the world of photography and the women of NY will shiver in equal measure.

My class rocked. Take a look. Location Photography and Lighting

They really went after it, throwing caution to the winds and trying new stuff, from Ranger lighting kits to Elinchrom Octas, to beauty dishes and complex setups with small flashes. The reason they had all this stuff to play with is the Bogen Corp. and their continuing support of photographic education. Not only did they send the stuff, they sent the irrepressible Mark Astman, one of their mainstays, and an incredibly congenial, knowledgeable resource for the whole class. A great week, rambling around, lighting stuff up, and talking pictures…..more tk


This One Goes to Eleven!

Jul 23

In Lighting, On Location at 10:31am

This Is Spinal Tap

Actually, this one goes to 200. And we’re not talking decibels here, we’re talking millimeters. Zoom throw. The SB900 goes to 200 millimeters. You know, on the back of the SB800, you push the selector button for the little trees to the big trees, and you zoom to 105? Well, the big trees just got bigger.

Now to some folks this may matter as much as a single, silly, fictitious, click on the old amp. (You know, all those other blokes are at 10, and where can you go from there? We can go to eleven!) In other words, it might not matter at all. But for the rest of us who mess around with small strobe units, it matters a lot. The ability to control and shape the output of a small hot shoe flash unit is a big deal. It means you get a longer throw, more concentration of light, and perhaps a bit more of a defined edge between highlights and shadows. I told the folks at Nikon that now that you can zoom a 900 all the way to 200, they should do something jazzy to announce it, like program the unit to go off like a Vegas slot machine every time you hit 200. I don’t think they’re gonna do it.

I’ve also been experimenting a bit with the feature that controls the spread of light right at the source. You can input standard, center weighted and even. I’ve opted for even in the early going, hoping that edge to edge spread of even illumination might be handy for a portrait. To play with this feature, I hired a well known, demanding NY super model…….

Brad! Cut it out!

Actually, my friend Vanessa who is one of the more beautiful ballerinas I have ever worked with, came and helped us out. She is not only a lovely dancer, but she has a face that is right out of 1940’s Hollywood glamour. She is posing here at the Red Hat bistro in Irvington, NY, which is a truly wonderful eatery right on the Hudson River and serves food to match the setting.

We did this really simply. There is a 900 on a boomed, shoot through umbrella (Lastolite all-in-one) camera right, just out of frame. And the background is lit with one 900, gelled with a full CTO, again camera right, flying into the area behind Vanessa and giving it some warm glow. That light is zoomed to 200, and has no diffusion. Another thing I am liking is the filter holder that comes with the unit. It is designed to hold the filters that are embedded with chips that communicate color temp information to the camera. (Example: With the camera in auto white balance, you can take the CTO gel and slip it into this filter holder and slap it on the 900. It will communicate to the camera that the light has been shifted to a tungsten balance and the camera will shift accordingly. Camera must be in auto, and it appears to me the light must be on the hot shoe for this to occur. More on this in the future.)

But the fancy filter holder also functions straight up and simple as, well, a filter holder. Cool! Means my flash units don’t have to all gummed up at that end with scotch tape residue and bits of gaffer anymore.

Here’s our basic set.

(Note: The gold reflector material on the bar is from a 3×3 Lastolite kit has a SB200 close up strobe, again with a full CTO, sitting on it. I experimented briefly with putting a little bar glow off to the side of Vanessa but then decided the room had a daylight feel to it and killed it. It was also creating shadows I ran out of time to wrangle. In the grand tradition of all photographers who are outta quarters and whose location meter is about to expire, I just shut it down. (Uh! Light cause problem. Mongo kill light.)

To make sure the far light saw my SU800 signal I ran the SC29 cord off to the right and we clamped it to a stand.

Then, quickly, to take advantage of Vanessa’s amazing red hair (she basically has never had it cut) framing her face, we moved in a hand held SB800, low and camera right, coming through a Lastolite tri-grip diffuser. Instant beauty light combo.

Funny, even with nice light like this, I don’t think Brad would look as good. WAG on my part.

Shot these with my 200 at f2. The background 900 fills the restaurant with glow, which translates to her hair. Limited depth of field emphasizes that. (I mean, Vanessa would look great even if I was using flash powder.) Both up front lights are dialed down a touch, running around minus one EV, and the background 900, again at 200 mm and throwing light a good distance, is dialed up just a tic. Minimal set up, which was great cause the restaurant was starting to jump and we hadda get going quickly.

After that, we hit my favorite desolate corner in Manhattan with a D700 and an SB900.

We ran against type here, shooting wide but zooming the flash to 200. It hits Vanessa’s face with a street quality of light, and then sharply gradates down her body.

Then I just let the camera drive the train on this, auto white balance under street lamps and the result was really clean. Jeez, I just remember being out there with some sort of funky Ektachrome and a stack up of wratten filters of so many different increments and colors I felt like Dumbledore.

And then of course….the ongoing mystery man. Kman. What is he doing out there? Nefarious things about to occur. No doubt….

This is two SB900 units…on the floor stands that come in the kit. No gels. On the street, camera right, aimed up. White light, tungsten balance in the camera. Find two busted up wood pallets and stand them in front of the lights and let fly……more tk…

Note and news: The 700 and the 900 are hot items right now….got this from Jeff Snyder ( the other day…

Good morning-
If you are an NPS Member and have not placed your order for the new
D700 and/or SB900 Speedlight, now is the time. Deliveries will begin
within the next 10 days, and being a member of NPS gets you a priority

If you have already placed your order, and have not notified NPS (
), then you should email them, and let them know that you have an
order in with ADORAMA/JEFF SNYDER so that your priority can be entered
into their system.

If you have NOT placed your order yet, there is still time….contact
me as soon as you can.

Da Bet

Jul 16

In Seminars & Workshops, Travels at 12:04am

Jerry Courvoisier is a good guy. He’s also a terrific shooter, a great Photoshop/Lightroom guy, and a gifted teacher. I love to teach with him cause he’s down to earth and easygoing about everything. We get along, in short. We often teach the National Geographic Expeditions workshop courses offered via the Santa Fe Workshops, and it’s always fun, even when he gets the entire class to pick up buckeyes in the park and pitch them at me when I start a lecture. When we teach an NGS class in Santa Fe for instance, we often assign the class to go to the town square and be adventurous with their camera. We go to one of the benches in the square and sit there, ostensibly to be a resource to the class, but in truth we just talk and toot, doing our own version of Grumpy Old Men.

But boy, did he screw up. Last time I was in Santa Fe, he proposed a bet. We calculate our weight (vetted by our wives, who are scrupulous and honest about this stuff, something Jerry and I would never be) and whoever lost more weight by the time I got back to SF wins. Loser buys dinner at Geronimo, a really tony restaurant on Canyon Road, the heart of the gallery district, a street where a lot of rich folks go to buy really bad art.

I arrive in Santa Fe on Saturday, and man, is he in trouble.

Jerry sent me an email after we made the bet, noting his weight, again, with Julie’s stamp of approval. He evidently has got one of these fancy pants scales at home cause he sent his weight (won’t tell you exactly, but it was north of a deuce), his body mass indicator, his muscle to fat ratio, his shoe size, his favorite cologne, and whether he wears boxers or briefs. This machine calculates all that stuff in one shot. We ain’t got one of those, so Annie and I jumped in the car and headed out on Interstate 95, where Annie pulled off at an inspection station and threw my sorry ass on a truck scale, where I clocked out at an eye popping 211.

Jeez. Who knew. I fell off the gym wagon about 3 years ago, when work kinda sorta took over my life. I got real busy, and real lazy, at the same time. Another unfortunate trend intersected with this development. I tied on the feed bag, big time. There wasn’t a plate of pasta out there I didn’t like, from straight up spaghetti with meatballs to expense account truffle ravioli soaked in squid urine. Not good. I was like a hot air balloon, and 211 wasn’t even my low/high point. I remember after one really bad, excruciating job consoling myself with a beer and a Baby Watson cheesecake. I topped out at 215.

Leave it to Jerry to motivate me. (Geronimo is a really expensive restaurant, and their truffle ravioli in squid pee is excellent.) I’ve been working my ass off, kinda the way I used to. I figure this is a good time to attack, cause I know Jerry’s been working on this book he can’t talk about much, but it will be all about post production, workflow, digital asset management, you name it. Given the depth of his knowledge of these areas, it’s gonna be one of those go-to, gotta-have books that will stay by your computer for a long time. Pretty sure it’s out very soon, like this summer. Track it and sign up now, is my advice.

So I gotta figure Jerry’s been up at night, stressing about this book, writing actions and workflow plans and scarfing Freihoffer’s. Too bad for him, cause I’ve lost 25 pounds, and I’m around 190, cruising for 180. Annie’s been helping, cause she’s super healthy, and a great cook. She’s been preparing all this stuff that probably lives on the underside of mushrooms but tastes like a Delmonico steak the way she spices it. (How does a man get this lucky?) Jerry will get off easy at Geronimo’s though, cause I pretty much consume only rainwater, bark and sprouts now.

Poor Jer. i think he proposed the bet to get back at me cause when we teach together I demonstrate flash by using his head as a fill card. He never gets ruffled, though. That’s why it’s great teaching with him. I always say, he’s got good bedside manner. We’ll have a workshop participant positively melting down, I mean just spritzing about some thing or another, like I lost my files, or where did my pictures go, or I turned on my computer and it’s making a noise like a thirty horsepower milking machine, and I’m ready to go for the defibillator and shout CLEAR! when Jerry walks up and says okay, well, let’s take a look, maybe you have them behind that other file on your desktop, the one with the pictures of the family trip to Niagara Falls and those other almost certainly personal pictures, and, ahh, there they are, underneath everything, just around the corner and down the hallway inside this monster Dell that causes a brownout in most of Santa Fe every time you turn it on. There they are!

He’s calm, in word. Knowledgeable. Along with Reid Callanan and Renie Haiduk, he’s helped build Santa Fe into a powerhouse workshop center, especially in the realm of digital and workflow. It’ll be good to see him. All 200 plus pounds of him.

Many, Many Thanks

Jul 14

In Lighting, Stories, Thoughts at 11:12am

To everyone who read last week’s blog, and to those who have commented so graciously. As I mentioned, the greatest reward of doing that project has been meeting a very special group of people, and the lasting friendships that have resulted.

Lots of folks asked about contributions. I mentioned Ellen Price, who is the curator, and she can be reached at She has worked incredibly hard at keeping the pictures on people’s minds, and putting it forward, especially to the folks making decisions down at the Memorial Museum. She also has obtained NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts) status for the collection. If you email her, she can give you a link to the Foundation. Any funds accrued there would go to the care and feeding of the pictures. No money comes to my studio. For me, for now, thanks to the partnership at Adorama, the collection and the storage will remain stable for some time to come. Hoping of course, that they actually start building the memorial, which is an emotionally charged, tortuous process. Getting everybody on the same page in NY is a long haul, to be sure.


The above pix from the bad old days in NY, when I started at the New York Daily News….

Dudley and a couple folks were inquiring on Flickr about recent settings I used in a Kelby Training Video, specifically using 1/60th @ f5.6 as a kind of middle of the road starting point. Speculation was that using a sixtieth could introduce camera shake, and why wouldn’t I go to a higher sync? I think that was kind of the basis of the thread.

There was some further thinking along the lines that I’m an old newspaper dog, and that’s what I grew up with, and…they’re right. Youse guys got it knocked! Sixtieth used to be top end for shutter sync when I first took a camera in my hands. Old habits die hard, what can I say? I’ve always felt comfortable there, hand holding a camera when using flash, especially when I am dominating the exposure with that flash. (Pretty much figure I could throw the camera in the air at a sixtieth with flash and come away with something sharp. Come to think of it, most of my better pictures were made that way:-)

There’s more of course, just a bit of personal history. The Daily News was a real union shop. You went from being a boy on the newsroom floor, a copy boy, specifically, to being a boy in the studio, as what they called a studio apprentice. You weren’t a man until you went on the street as a shooter. Apprentices would do jobs like maintain the Versamats (70’s style processors, sort of like throwing your film into a wood chipper), captioning, filing, all the boring studio stuff. I was running the machines one day and the “Inquiring Photographer” came in with his roll of 20 exposure Tri-x. He was the guy who would ask people questions on the street, like, nowadays it might be, “How do you feel about the Governor playing grab ass with high priced call girls while running the business of the state?” He would write down their comments, take their head shot, and that was that. He had been doing this for, oh, about 75 years.

So he gives me the roll, and I stuff it into the machine, and it comes out blank. (That wasn’t an uncommon result for some of the guys at the News.) I brought it to him and he naturally blamed me, and started ranting and raving. “What did you do to my film?!!” I told him there had to be a problem with his camera, or he had made a mistake. He looked at me and said he couldn’t have made a mistake, he had shot it at a sixtieth @ 5.6!

And then it dawned on me. This guy had been on the streets for a major metro daily for years, and he thought the entire world was set at 1/60th @ f5.6. Okey dokey! That’s what I thought, too!

As boys back in the studio, we never took any of this shit particularly seriously. We would just roll our eyes, and try to have some fun. Passing the time could include inserting old style flash bulbs into the sockets of the boss’ office desk lamp, or tormenting some of the more colorful members of the staff. DJ was still on the street back then, even though his eyes were fading. He was a true NY original, and a dirty old man. Vain to a fault, he also wore a wig. This presented possibilities.

John Roca, still a terrific shooter, still at the News, and I got a small picture out of a girly magazine and taped it to the work desk just below the air intake for the pneumatic tubes that would powerfully suck the plexi containers filled with deadline pictures out to the photo desk. It made a big hissing sound, and you would insert the container, and with a big Thwock! it shot out to editors in the massive newsroom.

The picture was small, as I say, and taped down. Yo, D! Hey take a look at this! He can’t see shit of course until he bends his head over about 6 inches from the image of this young lady, and thus right in the firing line of the tube. BOOM! Roca and I hit the switch. This hairpiece just lifted right off Danny’s head and started traveling to the news room when, Danny managed to slap the top of his head and catch a couple of strands. Those strands held, and he hung onto his rug. All for the best, really, cause out in the newsroom they were waiting on page one, and not a wig to come flying out of the tube.

Anyway, I sort of have this background emotional attachment to that f-stop/shutter combo. Silly, really. I do embrace the faster syncs we have now, for sure. One of the most powerful tools in our bags. Gives us enormous control over difficult lighting situations and moving subjects. Another thing that I should really let go of, is the fact that in the days of radio triggers not being anywhere near as sophisticated as they are now, there was always a danger of clipping the radio signal at higher shutters. For instance, at SI, historically, whenever we would light a court or an arena, we used to drop a hard wire out of the ceiling (they might still do it as backup, dunno) so we could hard sync via zip wire to the Speedos in the rafters. Using a radio to trigger at 250th would often fail, cause the signal would have to travel too far to the packs, and by the time they triggered, your shutter would be closed. Never a problem in the studio, cause the radio signal doesn’t have to go far, but that sort of history lingers in my head, so I’m cautious, I guess you would say.


Friday night in the meat district…..SB900 on the background, SB200 for the portrait. What is this man doing? More tk.

From Brad…

Jul 9

In Uncategorized at 2:35am

First off, I just want to thank everyone for the overwhelmingly great response to Joe’s post yesterday.  It’s always great to see a community of people (no matter how far apart we are from one another) join together for a singular cause.

I also want to thank Adorama once again for their gracious support of both Joe and the Faces of Ground Zero project.  Can’t say enough about how great you folks are!

I want to take a second and point out a new addition to the blog for those of you who may not have noticed it… The Equipment Page!  As you’ll see, this is a complete listing of the equipment that Joe uses.  Believe me, it’s as much stuff as it seems.  Even more since we have multiples of a lot of those items.  When we load up the Suburban to go to a shoot, it’s filled from top to bottom and front to back.  Joe and I usually have enough room left for ourselves and a couple of coffees (or lattes, if it’s a highfalutin’ gig!)

For those of you who get the blog in an email or reader, you’ll always find a link to the equipment page at the end of the post, just above all of the “sharing” links.  For those who visit the blog directly, you’ll find a link on the sidebar, along with the link at the end of each post.  Depending on what Joe is talking about (and what kind of mood he’s in), he’ll put specific gear links directly in the post as well (i.e. “So I sparked the fnugy with a pepper, then had him re-adjust the c-stand with the Elinchrom Octa, which produced a beautiful quality of light.”)

To be honest, this is something we’ve had in mind for a while, but just now got around to doing.  I would say that the number one question we get when Joe teaches is some variation of either, “What’s that?” or,”Who makes this?”  Now we can tell them, then point them to this page in case they forget!

And, if I may take a second to make a shameless plug, I would like to point out that I too have a blog.  I’m not as consistent as Joe, but I try to share nuggets of assistant-wisdom when I can.  Be on the lookout for continued stories in my “Mistakes” series, including a multiple-part saga that occurred at the beginning of my stint with Joe.  Part of it involves me in a Mexican ER at 1 a.m. the night before the Baja 1000 (my mom loved getting that text message in the middle of the night!)

Seriously, thanks again to everyone for all of your support.  And, in keeping with Joe’s ending, more tk…