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Archive for December, 2009

A Pointing Picture!

Dec 9

In In The Field at 8:38am


Always wanted to have one of these published:-)

Actually, I’m pretty happy with the picture, and my editor at the Geographic, Bill Douthitt, made a good pick here. The jazzy looking thing in the photo is NASA’s  Hyperwall-2, a conglomeration of 128 hi def screens all linked together via a main frame computer the size of Arizona and spinning out coordinated images of the galaxy. The huge telescopes at play now generate tons of information every night on ever deeper areas of space, and this device is one way scientists can actually visualize the info these puppies are generating. I was like, hey, I got a DVD of Death Race, whaddaya think? Wanna pop it on? The scientists frowned at me.

I’ve always believed that the art and craft of photography is a diverse collection of styles and substances comfortably living together and jostling each other in creative fashion under one big tent called visual storytelling. You can shoot phojo on the streets, fashion in the studio, landscape in the wild, you name it. All of it is valid, all of it has merit. Being a generalist myself, I’ve always embraced that notion of diverse approaches, even within the context of a single story. Most of the stories I’ve shot for the Geographic in the 25 years I’ve worked for them have been either problem children, or grab bags of diverse elements that needed sorting out. In other words, I’ve had stories in the mag that over a series of pages encompassed portraiture, straight up photojournalism, production work, and concept photography. A big, rambunctious hodgepodge of stuff, all of it heading in the same direction, albeit down different paths.

The question at the end of the day that needs to be asked is: Does it serve the reader? That’s the bottom line. The page stops there. We are a conduit. It’s our job to communicate in a powerful, effective and interpretive way the visceral, flesh and blood experience we are having in the field with the camera in our hands onto ink and paper, and see it get shipped halfway round the world and hope that someone opens those pages and goes, “Holy shit!”

That’s hard to do. Sometimes, on these stories, you have to wait out there with the patience of Job, and let the story and the pictures come to you. Other times, you have to dig for it like deep core driller. Other times, you have to think it through, and play out the story in your head, then go out there and create pictures that give that it a beginning, and end, and a meaning. All different approaches, all valid. (Tom Kennedy, the DOP for a number of the stories I shot at the yellow magazine, used to say there was a tipping point in every assignment when the photographer, after having the story just generally kick their butt for a while, steps forward and gains control of it. That eureka moment can come from a shot frame that turns the key in the photog’s head and heart, or from a signature personality encountered during the coverage, or even a stray phrase or piece of conversation. After that, the shooter knows what is needed, and where the pictures should go, even if that destination is surprising and unanticipated.)

The pic up top was just me by my lonesome, no assistant, and a couple of bags of stands and small flashes. It was a great day. How often do you get into a room with a device like this and have people say to you, okay, it’s pretty much yours’ for the day? (The crew of folks running this device were terrific.) Worked hard, and ran through a bunch of different lighting scenarios during the course of things, some of which worked, and others that were perfectly ridiculous.

The glow behind the array comes from four SB units, gelled a deep theatrical blue and pounding into the back wall. That surface serves as a giant fill board to wash the light off, hence the glow that surrounds all the monitors, and helps define them. (Don’t light it, light around it.) That was the basic building block of the shoot–the background light, not the foreground light. Drew took every frame I shot that day and squished them into a quickie movie you see below. Things got a little strange there, in the dark, with me using myself as a polaroid subject, but ya gotta have some fun.

I also tried some stuff with a couple of lights on the scientists at the work station driving the imagery on the screens.The keys for the people in foreground were another set of SB units, gridded and gelled warm, just establishing someplace for the person out there in all the foreground blackness to live. To give form and shape, basically.




I pretty much knew the zoom wouldn’t fly back at the ranch, but ya never know, so I gave it a try. On location, shoot it. Don’t think for the editor. Don’t foreclose a possibility. You will never be there again.

At the end of the day, the published double truck was a pointing picture, that old no no of press photography. But it worked okay. Once again, we are in a business without rules.

I tell ya, it was easier than this shot.


I showed this one before on the blog, and it is in the current American Photo. This is a whole mess of big flash, three assistants, two truckloads of gear, and a very nervous photog atop a 175′ boom crane.


Not nervous because of the height, just nervous I wouldn’t get the damn picture after all that trouble. The crane had a 25 mph wind tolerance, which you can easily exceed at 11,000 plus feet on Mt. Graham. That bucket was waving around pretty good, but thankfully, it remained calm enough that they didn’t pull me outta the sky.

So both of these efforts ran in the story, the big effort atop the mountain, and the one conjured by me with few small flashes, dinking around in dark room for a day. Radically different methods and scale of approach. But they both helped tell the story. And I guess that’s the point…..more tk….

But Then, He Got Distracted….

Dec 7

In Friends at 1:55pm


And I’ve gotten some work done:-)  Photo by Anne Cahill.

When Nigel Needs Some Attention….

Dec 7

In Friends at 9:39am

It’s really tough to get much done:-)


Email’s running slow this morning. Nigel is, well, about 20 pounds of needy. He didn’t see Annie and I much this weekend, and when he and his brother Arie are deprived particularly of Annie’s attention, they really let us know about it. His patented way of saying, “Scratch my ears now!” is to park it on your keyboard and just make you deal with him. I’ve tried typing around him, keystroke at a time, and occasionally, he’s even sent some email, albeit before they were really ready.

Gonna try to ramp up a few things on the blog as the year closes out. Got some stuff coming about camera work, and a few things of note about the long and interesting road of 2009.

Had a great weekend. Scott and Kalebra Kelby came up and we did the Big Apple thing. They are wonderful friends, and it was great seeing them and not being work crazed. Scott, as he notes in his blog, made the mistake of leaving his camera in my care for a few minutes, which prompted me to do some, well, experimental self portraiture. We had a blast. More tk…..

One (Or Two) That Got Away….

Dec 3

In In The Field at 8:28am


Couple folks have asked about Wilma of late, the Neanderthal beauty I shot for last July’s Nat Geo cover story. She has hit stateside evidently, and there are rumors in the hallways of Geographic that they may be preparing a tour for her, kind of nationwide, rock and roll type extravaganza. She’s getting her own bus and and entourage. Evidently since the cover, she’s gone diva and there’s just no dealing with her:-)

Anyway the above pic did not run in the mag, which is cool. Thought I’d show it and discuss a bit, because there is some camerawork here that is really simple, but can appear hard or complex. First thing I always deal with for Geographic is that I do no post on any photo whatsoever. Every frame I shoot goes to my editor, and those frames are straight up raws that come out of the camera. Don’t touch ’em. Don’t go near ’em.

Which means anything I offer to them has to be a field solution. Done deal, in the camera. Fancy or not, lit or not, street shot, portrait, big production–it all goes to the mag just as it came out of the camera. And they are cool with at least receiving things like double exposures. If they run them, it is noted to the reader.

So this is a double that was done in-camera. Programmed a D3 to two exposures, lit each face in turn, and the two exposures became one file. You can see below the rough physical layout of the shot.


The notion sprang from a chance meeting with Marina, the current resident of the land where the new batch of Neanderthal DNA was found. It was that discovery that prompted Geographic’s re-examination of the Neanderthal life style, and the construction of Wilma, our red headed star. (She was exquisitely crafted by the Kennis brothers, who are amazing artists, and great guys to have a beer with.) Marina, a lovely lady, and a modern, slightly red haired female, owns the land that Wilma might have once walked. It got me to thinking.

It lead to us putting black material on the side of a barn, and building this impromptu studio in broad daylight. As you can see, I have identical light sources (shoot through Lastolite all in one umbrellas, and Elinchrom Ranger packs) positioned off the the sides of our subjects, who stand in profile to the lens (70-200mm). The angle of the light is from behind them. (Imagine each of their noses to be 12 o’clock. The lights are at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock, respectively.) This angle of the approach of the light to each of their faces ensures there is drama to the profile, and serious, quick fall off into shadow on the camera side of their faces. This gives me dark shadow area to play with as I mesh the backs of their heads together. Too much detail back there, and the mix of their hair and their craniums could get confusing and messy.

Ran the lights pretty hard, power wise so I got around 11 to 16 as an f-stop. Two reasons–depth of field across their near eye and nose, and snuffing available light. No stray ambient allowed. Black background. The only thing the camera sees is what you light.

Shooting was pretty simple. Each exposure was made with a single pop from each light. (Each pack was programmed to its’ own Skyport channel.) To enable multiple exposure mode on a D3, you need to go into the shooting menu and program it (up to 10 exposures) for each multiple you shoot. The setting expires after each exposure made, I guess, because the precise, organized engineers of camera like this view photographers as scatter brained and irresponsible, so much so that we would shoot a whole day with multiple exposure engaged if this setting wasn’t programmed to be a one frame at a time deal. Saving us from ourselves, yet again:-)

The sleight of hand, if there is any, is to use the focus cursors for lining up each image. (This is just the way I do it, there are others, to be sure.) I go to focus mode where I have one cursor highlighted in my viewfinder, and I locate it over the near eye. Then, for the second exposure, I toggle the cursor to the corresponding left or right or matching spot where I then put that little red doober right on the near eye of the second image. That way, I know the images will line up. I keep the zoom the same, and in this instance, I had the additional help of Bill Marr, the art director of the Geographic, holding a string, literally, from the edge of my lens shade to the nose of each of the ladies. That way, as I did my little two click dosey doe with the camera, I knew I had the same distance from camera to subject. (Great having an AD like Bill in the field, something that happens only rarely. He’s got a terrific sense of the picture on the page, and he was a shooter himself, so he knows the reality of location work. All hands were welcome on this shoot, ’cause Wilma’s 200 pounds, and we had to carry her a good ways into the woods.)

Only shot a few frames, and I as I mentioned, it was not published in the story. But it remains a good memory of that take, and a worthwhile stab at an impromptu, different, field solution to a problem. The pic of Marina and Wilma that did make it into the mag is below, with Marina playing with Wilma’s hair, and Wilma spectacular in a fur wrap.


More tk….