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Archive for the ‘In The Field’ Category

A Tripod in the Desert!

May 4

In Gear, In The Field, Jobs at 4:41am


I’m a perennial idea recycler. I’ve had picture notions rattling around in my head for years that have never met the click of a shutter. They’re the things in the attic of my head that go bump in the night, the meandering pinballs I try not to lose in the drain and keep frantically flipping up into the bumpers (otherwise known as clients) that might occasionally ring a bell, or sound a siren, and thus get done. Read the rest of this entry »

The Magnificent Lads on the Side of the Tower!

Mar 17

In In The Field, Jobs at 7:20am


It is a task as endless as the desert. The Burj Khalifa tower, tallest structure in the world, soars out of the sands like a sharply constructed, elegant needle, seemingly designed to pop the blue balloon of sky overhead.

Downtown Dubai

It is a magnet for the eye, and hence the camera. Courtesy of the gracious folks @BurjKhalifa, Waseem and his team, and the Emaar Group, I was allowed to climb to the very top a couple years ago, and made a snap of some very battered shoes.


This time, with the training given to me by the Grako Corporation, and the intrepid duo of Mike Flamson and Pieter Van Der Walt, who are top rated industrial climbers and safety experts, I went over the side of the tower with a crew of amazing, wonderful window washers.


These guys….geez. Diminutive to a fault, but crazy strong, they dangle from the side of this structure daily, vaulting into space on their ropes with the casual ease most folks display when getting on a city bus to go to work. It is their efforts that keep the desert, a raging, living beast that never sleeps, at bay. The sands rise up on the wind every day, and cloak the buildings of Dubai with a gritty, transparent shroud. Ignore it, and it will smother you. Fight it, and it becomes a task worthy of Sisyphus. The crews start at the top, shining up the chrome and glass, go to the bottom….and then start over.


Slinging into space at floor 112, as a newbie, can shrivel many things deep inside of you. Your confidence, your….well, never mind. Keep calm. Breathe. Fight gravity with battered legs that have carried too much gear for too many years. Don’t worry about the nothingness below. Your rig is bomb proof. Push off the glass. Walk the wall. Descend. Shoot. Repeat. Work it the way Mike taught you. Wax on, wax off. Establish a rhythm. Look down. Smile. Remember to enjoy this moment.


Go below the crew and look up. Now your cameras are getting pelted with soapy, sandy water. Tough to see. Wipe down your glass. Trust the gear.


My battered but functioning gear, with cameras straps wired, and extra tethers clamped to carabiners. Each camera swinging in space. D810, D4S, 14-24mm f2.8, 16mm fisheye, 70-200 f2.8. They do not fail me.


Nothing here except the air and the light. The click of your shutter mixes with the squeaks of the wipers, sweeping the desert off miles of glass. It is oddly, pleasantly quiet. Like a silent, invisible hand, the wind will take hold of you and move you. Let it be. You really don’t have a say in the matter.


Think! Say the photographer’s prayer. Lord, don’t let me screw this up. You won’t get this back. Work entire to detail. Shoot from above, shoot from below. Work wide, work tight.


Push off the glass. Descend. Concentrate. Do your job, while they do theirs.


It’s the coolest thing. You’re in the world, in the air, looking, seeing, with a camera in hand. Sweat and uncertainty drip off you. But, there is also the powerful knowledge that this is what you were supposed to do—for all the years, and right now, today.


On the other side of the fancy glass, people sit. Computers hum. Meetings take place. Paper gets pushed. Great things are decided. Or deferred. Words in the air. Notes in a ledger. Numbers on a screen.

Click of the shutter. Time trapped. Absolute certainty measured in hundredths of a second. A knot in the string of time, not to ever be undone.

Have I mentioned on the blog lately how much I love being a photographer? More tk…

Firstly, thanks to Mohamed Somji and Hala Salhi, both of Gulf Photo Plus. They created the tradition of GPP which has allowed me to visit Dubai now almost every year for 10 years. 

Again, gracious thanks to Waseem and his marketing group, the folks at the Emaar Group, and @BurjKhalifa, @mydowntowndubai. Thanks to the Grako Corp. and Mike and Pieter, who literally showed me the ropes. Mike’s a pretty good shooter, witness his shot below. (


And Pieter helped me be confident in the ropes, by showing me, during training, that even when you go upside down, you are not going to fall.


And to Waseem Khan, without whose can-do energy I would never have made these climbs! Many, many thanks. I think the two of us could converse all day just using Monty Python quotes. He likes to confuse the cat, and I like not to be seen:-)))

More tk…


A Fun Walk

Mar 5

In In The Field, Tips & Tricks at 11:16pm

In Dubai, now, from Las Vegas, desert to desert, one kind of glitz to another. WPPI was fun. I was very honored to give a keynote presentation there, but mostly it was a gathering of friends I’ve known in this business for many years.

Also did a photowalk, which thankfully occurred on one of those beautiful desert mornings when the light was so crisp and clean it felt like it had been dry cleaned and pressed. I invited the lovely Charlotte O’Dowd, a dancer at Showstoppers, to come along with our group, and her statuesque presence, combined with the light, made our walk more of a skip. It also provided a couple of really good, simple, off the cuff, two frame teaching moments.

As I do, I was explaining to the class about the levers of control you have over the situation, which are, at the most basic level, f-stops and shutter speeds. We talked of how you could then add a third lever into your arsenal, by adding your own light, via the mechanics of a speed light and TTL. I did screen caps, below, of the frames in Mylio, with metadata off to the side.

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 7.29.30 AM

Up above here is a quick snap with a Nikkor 20mm f1.8. Simple, available light, shoot it where you stand example picture for my fellow photo walkers. The f-stop shutter speed combo is 1/30th @f16, ISO 100. Charlotte is exposed properly, and the background is blown. Simple chip mechanics. Expose for her, standing in open shade, you lose control of the background. Expose for the background, she’s a silhouette. Solution, add flash.

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 7.29.55 AM

She stays in exactly the same spot and I expose now for 1/160th @f16, ISO 100. Light source is Nikon SB 910 flashes, set up on a Lastolite tri-flash, firing through a Lastolite 4 in 1 umbrella rig, which is a big, versatile light source. All this sits atop a ShurLine paint pole, fitted with a Kacey Pole Adapter. One frame, TTL, no compensation. A quick two frame demo of light dynamics in the field.

Move the light to the other side of Charlotte, and come in tighter with an 85 f1.4. Try now to quickly eliminate background, again through the dynamics of shutter speed, f-stop, and flash. The below is also ISO 100, this time at 1/4000th @ f2.0.

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 7.45.29 AM

Okay, the flash is working relatively well, but there is uncontrolled splashes of hard sunlight on Charlotte’s chest. And shadows from the feathers, now that she is standing in open, hard sun. Quick fix? Lastolite Tri-grip diffuser, hand held, to create a portable version of open shade.

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 7.45.51 AM

Hard sunlight disappears, and she falls more under the governance of the speed light array. High speed sync technique at camera squelches the background both in terms of sharpness and exposure. All very simple, hand held, run and gun strategies, done in a couple frames, in minutes, while we walked.

Tech stuff:

Cameras: Nikon D4S, with Nikkor 20mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.4 lenses

Lighting: Nikon SB910 Speedlight, Lastolite Tri-flash, 4 in 1 umbrella, and Tri-grip.

A fun walk in the light with a camera. More tk.





Off to a Fast Start

Jan 20

In In The Field, Lighting, On Location at 5:27am

The year, that is. The facts of the calendar. The pace. Not me, really. I haven’t accelerated at all. In fact, I might have lost a gear along the way. It’s barely mid-January, and I’m already in danger of being left behind. That’s nothing new. As I showed in my last blog, had a blast at the end of December shooting underwater production for a Kelby class. During that same visit to Tampa, I also shot a light shaping class. Definitely fun. The below was shot with an Acute 2400ws unit outside this abandoned warehouse, some strategically placed holes in the wall, a smoke machine, an overhead beauty dish, and two Speedlights flicked off the floor into a silver Lastolite panel. More on this class at a future time.


I’m surprised actually that the lovely Orshi, above, posed for me again. Last time we worked, I had her fictitiously killed off in a noir-ish scene in a seedy Tampa hotel that was definitely on the bad side of town.

Tom Aellis and his son Jared

The shot at the top the finished the clicking for 2014, but there I was on a plane on Jan. 4, heading for Vegas. You always figure the year is bound to be interesting when the first stop is Vegas. First night there, I was humbled and honored to receive the PMDA Photog of the Year award. Shocked the heck outta me, I tell ya. But it was a wonderful evening and certainly a positive opening salvo from 2015. There have been years I’ve started off staring at an empty calendar and a pantload of bills, and looking at my (very) used cameras and wondering if I turned them upside down whether any loose change might fall out of them.

Then….onto CES. The Consumer Electronics Show. The gods of technology were in full cry at the Vegas Convention Center, I’ve never seen that many people walking around in slack jawed stupor, literally being actively concussed by the visual power of curved megaplex sized TVs, ear popping, thrumming, shock wave audio capabilities, and of course a popular display mannequin amazingly infused with seemingly human woman qualities and who appeared to be more conversational and friendly than the person who checked me into my hotel.


It was all very impressive, in a numbing sort of way. For me, it was a simple lesson in how to feel like a troglodyte. But, I tried to turn the overwhelmingly gee whiz uselessness of the environment into an advantage. I was shooting, seminar style, in the Nikon booth everyday. And I said often to the weary throngs in the booth, you have just spent several hours wandering canyons of circuitry and gadgets you will never, ever use. Only to arrive here at the Nikon stage, where in a half an hour, I could actually teach them something they could use–how to use a speed light to make CES go away.

Let’s face it, ya can’t do much in three yards of stage, with no backdrop, and a couple of small flashes in hand. You are facing off against about a zillion different color temperatures, and a background so jumbled and distressingly colorful it looked like somebody ate a convention sized bowl of Trix and then barfed it everywhere. The only healthy thing you can do in this environment is to make it disappear, and for that mission, the speed light is your magic wand.

Thankfully, my foreground was occupied by the lovely Alexandra, all like, seven feet of her, in stilettos, doing her showgirl thing. Below is an available light snap from the stage. Nice, huh?


You just know you’re in trouble here. Especially onstage in front of like, 300 to 400 people. You got a half an hour, and less than half a prayer. Shutter speed becomes your friend, as does high speed sync. Not to mention maybe a calming, zen like interior chant, “Be one with the photon, be one with the photon.”

Actually it’s not that stressful. I try to have fun at these things, engage the audience and try like heck to make sure at least somebody goes away with a modicum of useful information. And if I screw up, well, it ain’t the first time, so it wouldn’t exactly be news.

But, via the relationships of shutter speeds, f-stops, and flash, in fairly short order, with some help from the audience of course, I was able to take the superfund cleanup site of a photo above and turn it into something respectable.


Nikon D810, three SB-910 units, two behind her, firing through red gels, and one up front, on a paint pole, with a little Lastolite Speedlight Box attached. 1/8000th @ f1.4, with 35mm prime lens. Alexandra, on cue, sprouts wings and a smile. I go click, and, at the combo listed above, the clutter behind her goes away. Except of course for the dude who chose to wear frikkin’ white pants in the lower right. Maybe he just came in off the links. Oh, well. The high speed maneuver crushed just about everything else, and for a brief split second of exposure, the absurdist world of CES, a riotous Pandora made of ones and zeroes and wires, went away, tamed by a four battery speed light. Technology I can use…..

More tk…..


A Gift at the End of the Year…

Jan 5

In In The Field, Lighting, Thanks at 11:54am


Everybody’s got a bucket list, or something akin to it, I imagine. Photographer’s bucket lists are most likely pretty extensive. It’s not average, almost certainly. (That’s a presumption that any “average” bucket list exists, which is most likely not the case.)

But, I guess what I’m saying is that a photog’s list is not just, “I wanna climb Everest!” It’s, “I wanna climb Everest and carry a drone up there and make aerials of the top!”

“I wanna meet JLo!” Not enough, perhaps. “I wanna meet JLo and photograph her for the cover of Vogue!”

Obviously, there are most likely a lot of unrealized items on photographer’s bucket lists. I’m certainly in that boat, or bucket, myself.

But I did get one lately, with all thanks to Scott Kelby and his intrepid group, and their legendary patience for my meandering imagination. Their home office in Tampa sits just about right at the doorstop of the Weeki Wachee Springs, home of the America’s favorite underwater creatures, the Weeki Wachee mermaids.


I went diving years ago with these legendary ladies of the deep, sinking an American Olympic snow boarder into the springs to be attended to by merfolk as he did his swirls and turns in a somewhat weightless environment. It was a fun, and obviously bubbly shot. It was also only marginally successful, falling short of my hopes, for reasons, as I look at the picture now, I really can’t remember. I just have always wanted another go at trying to make a picture down there.

It’s not easy. Or, maybe it is when you have sun. Which is never guaranteed. For instance, on the morning of our Kelby shoot, it was hard to distinguish where the fog stopped and the water line started. Pea soup, in other words. So, I was glad I had toted in about 10,000 watt seconds of Profoto flashes into the viewing theater and had them lined up at the windows, ready to pick up at least a bit of the slack.


This is all for a coming video class that is less instructional than it is a fun account of an attempt at a very uncertain photographic adventure. Not too many folks are going to wake up some day and think they might want to light the Weeki Wachee Mermaid Springs, to be sure.

The class has a working title of “Photographing Your Sense of Humor,” though that may change. Making an odd, quirky, or outright funny picture is hard to do. At one point, when I was a staffer at LIFE, I was allowed to do a series of tongue in cheek looks at America’s winter Olympians by putting them in offbeat environments. It was a reasonably well received effort, and actually, a couple pictures have stuck to me a bit over the years, which means, at least, they weren’t instantly forgettable, as so many pictures I’ve shot are.




Some years ago, I had sold a notion to Sports Illustrated to photograph the elite of the PGA tour in a way that visually represented their playing style or spirit, or the persona they have created for themselves out there on the links. Someone would be “The Battler,” styled as Rocky with a golf club; another would be “The Professor,” the player who studies the courses most thoroughly. The setting for him would be obvious. Another might be “The Machine,” renowned for his clinical precision.

And another might be “The Risk Taker,” the guy who’s always going for it, trying for the killer blow, going for the long ball, over all manner of hazards that would make a more prudent player pull up short. He ends up in the water, frequently. To represent this, I had the notion of dropping a golfer in a reef, addressing his ball, nonchalant as could be, trying to improbably save par. But here in Weeki Wachee, he would be assisted, yea, even directed, by the locals, in this case, mermaids.

So, my imagination goes out for a silly ramble now and then. In the case of the pro golf crowd, it was not appreciated or understood. Even with the muscle of SI behind me, the golfer’s agents, who only see the color green, would not play. They wouldn’t even ask the golfer. They thought I was a nut job. They might be onto something, there. Witness below…..hmmmm.


The underwater mermaid picture we just did is obviously highly illustrative, but it is one where I wanted all the subjects in situ, real time, not just disconnected pieces to be composited later. Here’s where the current state of camera tech really is helpful. The film image I made of the snowboarder, seen up above in the post, was shot on Ektachrome, has that traditional, seriously blue cast caused by underwater conditions, even with all the flash I applied. With the D810 I dove with for the current golfer with the mermiads pic, not only is the post production of digital able to bring this back to something approaching dry land color, but the resolution of the D810, combined with its remarkable high ISO capacity, makes it a wonderful tool for making this shot. Specs on the final pic are, 1/200th @ f8, ISO 800. Underwater crispness is not an issue, given the res of the 810. We are living in an era of amazing photographic tools.

And it was a bit of a production, getting all the pieces to work together, for sure. Below are some watery production pictures from the day. The water was cold, so I thankfully I didn’t notice how much I was sweating this out.

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What was wild to me was the way the fins of the mermaids, which above the water were a neon, shiny pink, reacted to the flashes. I’ve provided here a step by step, from the original to a somewhat halfway post treatment, to a full-blown finished file, which is otherworldly. The golfer is concentrating, and the mermaids offer their input as to how to rectify his dilemma. Their finny appendages are fairly glowing, with even more vibrance than they even have in regular daylight. Unpredicted, but fun.

Jpeg out of the camera….


Partial re-touch….


Full blown re-touch, fins aglow!


Almost all the light is coming from the theater, which is camera left. I’m triggering all the flashes from an on camera underwater flash, which in turn is triggering another trigger flash, which in turn is triggering the dry land power packs which is in turn triggering the hand held Sea & Sea Pro flash that Cali is literally floating around with. It’s not the first time I’ve deployed an underwater VAL and I suspect it won’t be the last. He did a great job, consulting my LCD periodically to determine how close he could get without over filling the mermaids. And Jon Cospito in our studio did a great job on the post. The shot at the beginning of the blog is a final, with the our finny, colorful friends of the deep toned down a bit.

Numerous things went wrong, and we only had thirty minutes with the ladies of the deep to get it done, given safety regs. Being underwater magnifies more than just the image you see. It hampers communication, slows things down, and makes a fix a laborious, time-consuming effort. We came close to not getting it, but we recovered some problems, and ended up with a shot that comes close to a picture that has lived in my imagination for many years. It was risky, to be honest, trying not just to do this, but do it while being recorded, fer chrissakes. It’s a good thing there was no audio track running in my regulator as it would have been a non stop string of language that would have made a pirate blush and the mermaids swim away.

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Many thanks to John Athanason, who made it all happen for us at the park, and to the artist in residence, photog Andrew Brusso, a long time New York pro who has relocated to Weeki Wachee, for his assistance and guidance on the underwater microphone. And of course to the underwater stars, Chelsea Stewart and Danielle DeMonaco, and our intrepid golfer, Dane Karcher, a noted free diver and all around wild man.

And to the Kelby crew—Adam, Mark, Jennifer, Meredith, and Lisa—thanks for attempting to film one nutty idea. And special thanks to Curt Leimbach and Kathy Porupski, who worked unbelievably hard and shot a lot of fun and important BTS stuff.