Sunday, December 30, 2012

10 Favorites from 2012

It has been forever since my last blog update, so I feel that it would be proper to post an end-of-year top 10 to recap some of the work that I've been doing:

To this day, I still consider this photograph one of my best overall images - light, pose, composition, setting, all came together for this instant.  On camera right is a reflective umbrella with two speedlites providing the one main light.  Outside of the frame, and also on camera right, I had his mom and my assistant hold a white sheet to diffuse the sunlight.

I don't often shoot ambient light, so it's sometimes tough for me to realize when to put down the speedlites and modifiers.  The soft light fits perfectly with their embrace...I couldn't see it working better any other way.  Also, finding this location came about through simply getting out of the car, and chatting it up with the locals.  Otherwise, I might have driven past this spot a hundred times without ever noticing, and recognizing its potential - it has since become a go-to for my couples portraits.

This photograph is from my first engagement session.  When planning any session, I always come with at least one new idea to try out - one 'go for broke' kind of shot, and this was what I had in the back of my mind.  We attempted three leaps, with the photograph above resulting from the third attempt.  For the set-up, I slightly underexposed the ambient while front-lighting the couple with a pair of speedlites camera left.  I feel that there a perfect amount of motion blur (from the ambient settings) combined with their expressions frozen by the flash.

The summer months were a bit slow as far as work was concerned, but I think that a lot of families were simply waiting for the magic of the Southwest in fall.  This was from near a location that I knew well, but had not ventured back along the paths very far until I location scouted for this family.  It always pays to have an understanding of where the sun will be at a given time of day, because otherwise you'll have a group of people waiting around for that 'best light!'  To that end, this session was planned around the movement of sun across the sky catching the best light in each location as the two hour session progressed.

From the same session, but taken later in the day, back to the location that I knew transforms beautifully just prior to sunset.  If you're photographing the fall leaves, there is a tremendous difference between leaves that are front-lit (with the sun behind you), and ones that are side or back-lit (shooting into the sun).  There's a glow about them that simply cannot be matched. 

Along the same lines as the black and white couple portrait above, it never hurts to chat it up with the locals about potential portrait locations...especially since so many great spots are privately owned!  This photograph came about after purchasing a bag of apples from a local couple's roadside apple stand, mentioning that I'm always on the look out for new locations, and them inviting me over.  The timing could not have been better, as only a week later a frost hit and most of the leaves and apple were gone.    

As evidenced in a lot of my work, I rely heavily on the dramatic light that is created by shooting into a setting sun and then front lighting the subjects with off-camera speedlites or strobes.  This is especially useful out at White Sands National Monument, as the ridges in the dunes only reveal themselves with low-angled light.  At any other time of day (other than sunrise, of course), the dunes will photograph very flat and featureless.

When brainstorming for this session, what started out as an indoor studio product shoot for the steampunk corset, soon progressed into an on-location session based upon a story line.  It was my first time attempting to tell a story through a series of photographs, and with that mindset, really helped me guide the models and progress the theme.  Of course, mother nature lent a hand with one of the most brilliant sunsets I have yet witnessed here in the Southwest - a perfect aesthetic for the hero and heroine.  

Hopefully one day I will have a 'method' named after me, but until then, here's an example of what can be achieved using the Brenizer Method.  This is actually a composition of 27 separate files, combined in Photoshop, to create a wide-angle photograph with an impossible-to-otherwise-achieve depth of field.

As 2012 comes to a close, I am reminded (in this photograph especially), that it is not always about perfect light, perfect pose with everyone smiling and looking a the camera...that most times it's those off-guard moments that reflect best who we are as people, as families, as partners in life.  And, isn't that what portraiture is all about?

A big thank you once again to everyone who has supported's to a happy, and healthy new year!


Thursday, February 23, 2012

White Sands Family Portrait

The one photograph that gets referenced most when folks call me about getting family photos done is this one (click images for a closer look):

A fellow photographer, and friend, asked me recently for a few tips on the creation process behind it...and I'm finally getting around to writing it up.  So here's the long story short: add perfect weather, time of day, a couple off-camera lights, a bit of Photoshop magic, a coordinated family, and presto!

Now, for the long version...

This is actually my first "cold call" customer - one where the mom landed on my Google Place page, liked what she saw, and contacted me for a family session.  Up to this point, I had not done any White Sands family sessions, and all my 'clients' so far were friends from work.

Once I was contacted, I dragged Ally and Sheba out to White Sands to do some practice shots - just getting comfortable with balancing my lights with the ambient.  In essence, it all revolves around the "look" that Annie Leibovitz pioneered, where you slightly underexpose the environment, and slightly overexpose the subject, in order to make them "pop."  This is an example from the test shoot:

So, getting back to the family, we had rescheduled several times leading up to this day (I think she first called in May?).  One thing or another would prevent us from heading out to White Sands, but one day in late July, everything worked out and we met at the visitor's center around 6pm (sunset this time of year is around 8-ish).  From there, I was planning on heading out to a fairly distant location, away from people, and full of the big swooping dunes.

Unfortunately, I was a little too enamored with the incredible skies that day, and missed the transition from 45mph down to 35mph.  I subsequently got pulled over by a park ranger getting ready to do the sunset stroll, just a mile or so into the park.  I didn't get a ticket, but lost quite a bit of time in the process - ask Ally, I was freaking out the whole time: new clients, a perfect sky, and I couldn't do anything but sit and wait!!!

Because of the delay, I scrapped the original plans to head deep into the park, and just got out where I was pulled over...I had no idea what this area would look like over the dune blocking the view, but I didn't care - I had to get that family out there before the sun got too low!  We climbed out of our cars, up over the dune, and to my relief, there wasn't a soul around, and the view was perfect...better, actually, than what I had planned.

This shot was created pretty early in the session...pretty simple, just have the family walk and look towards me.  The set up involved two bare speedlites on stands about 10 feet away from my left side.  To get the sky and sand exposed properly, I metered off of the clouds - I figured that a "0" in-camera meter reading would give me a slightly underexposed landscape due to the bright parts of the clouds and sky, and resulted in 1/200, f/6.3, and ISO100 camera settings.  That aperture setting, coupled with a 35mm focal length, I knew that I would have a large depth of field, and most of the scene would be in relatively sharp focus.  Of course the sun would be "blown out," but I chose to include it in the image because you just don't get weather like this every day out at White Sands!

The two speedlites were set to full power, and were about 15 feet away from the subjects.  I knew that I would need a lot of light to balance the people and landscape, but to be completely honest, the light settings were an educated guess, after a few practice shots.  Also, I placed the family on a ridge line to better mask any shadows that might be created by the speedlites - I was able to reduce them in the final image, but you can notice them in the original file, with default RAW settings applied:

Once opened in Adobe Camera Raw, I knew I had a great image on my hands, but it could gain from a bit of added contrast - most of which would come later in Photoshop.  In ACR, my exposure was spot on, but I did add a touch of fill light, raised the black level a smidge, added +36 of clarity (which simply adds more contrast in the mid-tones), and the tone curve was given a shallow "S."  That's it for ACR.

Now, moving to Photoshop, I imported the file and ran a custom action that is based off of a lomo photography tutorial that I found on the web, but tweaked for my own use.  In it, I add a layer via copy, do a global curves adjustment (slight "S" again), fill a new top layer with black, change the mode to hue, and adjust opacity to 40% - this gives the image a slight desaturation/silver kind of look.  Next, I merge all layers, change the mode to Lab, select the Lightness channel, throw on a good bit of unsharp mask, then convert back to RGB color.  This is what adds the "punch" to the image - high contrast all around, but especially in the mid-tones without affecting the color saturation.

If you notice, the dad's head is turned differently, and the daughter isn't quite smiling.  These two elements were grabbed from another file and composited into the image.

Finally, a touch of dodging brush was used on the family's faces - it's a tool I don't use any more, since there are less destructive methods of doing the same thing through the use of a curves layer and masking.

The final result works perfectly against the high contrast lines in the sand, the broken clouds and the family's wardrobe.  In the end, it was a perfect confluence of subject, location, weather, lighting technique, and post-processing that I feel makes this image really stand out from the crowd.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

These Photos are Junker

This was a fun one...a faux fashion/product shoot with some friends who have interesting clothing.  A majority of the items are from Junker Designs, who in my opinion, needs some better imagery for their wares than what they already have (basically, they don't do their products justice!)...but, then again, they're outfitting people like Steven Tyler and Xtina, so who am I to critique!?

As you may have seen already, I'm going to school for photography.  One of the things that constantly gets drummed into our heads is to find our own voice, our own signature style through the lens.  I'll be the first to admit that I am not breaking any new ground with these fact, I'm treading dangerously on very cliched post-processing and lighting technique waters here.  But, I wanted to at least give this technique a go and hopefully make some progress from it.

While the lights were moved around and adjusted in power, they pretty much stayed in the same general position during the whole shoot - one on-axis reflecting umbrella for front fill, two kickers on either side of the subject, and one against the back brick wall.  My camera settings did not change: 5D, 50mm (nifty fifty), 8.0, 1/160.  I included a before and after post-processing example to show the extreme difference maxing some sliders in ACR can make...for the most part, Clarity plays the biggest part in the "look."

So that's all, just wanted to put something out there since I haven't updated the blog in awhile - school started again, so while that is taking up my time, I should be making some great, fresh work this spring, so stay tuned!

Oh, and everything is copyright Photography by Michael Grados...I may be a photography student, but I've got the funds to track you down and sue if you use without permission and compensation.  You've been warned!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Shooting for Big Business

"Big," when referencing businesses is, of course, a relative term, but for me, I recently had the opportunity to shoot for one of Alamogordo's largest (if not THE largest) home builders.  It was definitely 'big' for me, as I was hired by French Brothers to shoot team photos and portraits, when they were looking to update their site.  Not bad for a guy that has a portfolio of kids and families, eh!?  This is exactly where I want to move my focus the professional/commercial realm.

When I was first contacted, the request was to add a bit of "fun" to their team/group photo and I began thinking about how I might be able to do something different from the norm - my first thought went to one of my grandfather's old Kodachromes, where a group of friends were getting together at a going away party.  It's a candid, snapshot type of photograph, which brings a sense of "real-ness" to it, the lighting is pretty good for old-school on-camera flash, and the composition of faces moves the eye around the frame.

With this as a template, I knew I would need an interior of a home.  As would be expected, French Brothers have an excellently decorated model home just up the road from my house.  Perfect; a group portrait, shot in a casual style, in a home built by their company, and decorated by the same VP that contacted me to do the shoot:

The above is from one of my "test" shots...shot with ambient light, and was just a rough draft that I could then take back home and figure out lighting positions and any possible compositions of the subjects.  I also realized that the glass in the photo frames might pose a bit of a challenge if I start throwing some off-camera light towards any subjects there...but more on that later.

This is from my first session with some of the French Brothers employees.  I have two speedlites camera left shooting into a reflective umbrella, and one speedlite in a shoot-through umbrella camera left.  I had the lights about 10-12 feet back from the subjects - this allows for a more even coverage of light (at the expense of a stop or two of strength), although the guy on the left is a little "hot" relative to the others since he was closest to the key (something easily fixed in post, but just wanted to highlight here).  I added the camera right light to provide some fill, and to reduce any shadows against the back wall.  

In this photo, along with the others I got that day, I felt I had captured a nice candid moment (natural smiles and laughs), along with a decent composition that would work well for use on a web page.  As it turned out, though, not all of the team members were able to make it for the shoot this day, so we'd have to re-shoot a few weeks later.  Also, the VP that hired me wanted to move away from this casual approach to the more 'posed' look - no problemo!  (...side note: I had them say "housing recovery" instead of "cheese" - know your audience!)

So, a few weeks went by, and the re-shoot was scheduled.  It was the same location, and this time with everyone able to attend.  The "first draft" shoot really helped me nail down my lighting, and now that I knew that we were going for a more 'straight' approach, the pressure of trying to capture folks in a candid moment was relaxed a bit - but, I still wanted a good, welcoming 'feel'.  I used the same lighting set-up as before.  Here's two that ended up being used on their site:

Here it is on their website

Here this one is on their website

I know I mentioned earlier about the glass on the back wall potentially posing a problem of reflecting light back towards the camera, and I was right - I just couldn't get the umbrellas far enough to the sides to eliminate them.  So, knowing this, I made sure that I took a few frames without the speedlites firing and used those to paste back into the photo.  Here's what the original looks like (notice some of the other cleaned-up items, like the fan and the green leaf on the right):

Lesson learned here, is to recognize where potential issues may crop up and take steps to be able to fix them later in post.  I'm not a huge "photoshopper" - in the sense of massive retouching - but I am a huge advocate of using Photoshop to clean up distracting elements in an otherwise solid composition.

All in all, it was an awesome experience where I took away a few good lessons-learned - some in photography, but even more in business, but I'll save that for another day.  Thank you to the French Brothers team for making it a fun experience, and for giving me a shot at commercial work that supports local business*!

*I ended last year with a Masters of Fine Art class final project that focused on locally-owned small-business owners, which I have displayed in the 'people' section of my fine art web gallery...enjoy!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

My First Infant Photoshoot - "Explosivo!"

Well, just like in the first post where I proclaimed that I would never shoot families or small kids...I had my first photoshoot with an infant.  12 days old to be exact.  We did a bunch of 'safe' shots, in front of a white background, very angelic-like.  My 'big' idea was to have dad, without a shirt, hold his 12 day old daughter - sans diaper - against his chest.

By this time in the shoot (about an hour into it) the kid had already spit-up, peed on a blanket, and dropped #2 (at least the latter was into a diaper), so I figured we were good to go as far as any fluid output was concerned.

The set-up here is just one speedlite through an umbrella camera right and slightly high.  They have an excellent sun room with pure white walls that allowed for some good bounce from any spill.  The background is just a white shower curtain, which I brightened up a bit in Ps, but didn't put any extra light on.  Pretty minimal all-in-all.

So, the moment comes for the dad and daughter shot...the tripod is set in place, focus is set, everything is good to go.  At this point my main concern was focus and composition, so I really wasn't paying much attention to any specific action going on - just the big-picture stuff.  I guess Murphy's law then kicked in milliseconds prior to me releasing the shitter, I'm mean shutter:

It was the one and only shot I got of my 'big' idea.

Here's two you can cleanse your eyes with:

So, in the end, I now have a new found respect for those that specialize in photographing infants.  If you're in the Alamogordo area, you have an infant, and you'd like to have portraits done of said infant, I would give a shout to Living Dreams Photography.  It's a dirty job...I'll stick with the three year olds!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Annual New Mexico Photographic Arts Show

Did a round trip to Albuquerque yesterday...about eight hours total on the road.  It was the last day of the Annual New Mexico Photographic Arts Show, and I had to pick up my work.  I took a few happy-snaps to record the occasion:

USAFA Chapel Interior

Big Sister to Be

...and no, I was not able to sell any of my work there, but it was a good experience.  More than anything, I was definitely honored to have two pieces of my work juried into the show.  The biggest thing I wrestled with, was how to price my work - there's no formula, and I was told over and over again not to undersell my I didn't.  As a result, though, I was a bit overpriced relative to print size and the rest of the work shown there.  Oh well, live and learn.

On a positive note, I finally found a functional Argus C3 camera and case in one of the antique stores along Central Ave!  It is the same camera by grandfather used in the late '40s and '50s.  I'm looking forward to putting some film through it!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Beginning...

Well, hello there!  Welcome to the Photography by Michael Grados blog where I will share a bit of insight into my I did what I did, why I did it, and what I learned from it.  I'll also be including some links to various things photography related, stuff that interests me, and concepts that I'm learning in my MFA/photography classes.

That being said, let's start with my first family photo shoot, going all the way back to December, 2010.  It was over the previous year that I had 'committed' myself to being a landscape photographer, happy with my second-hand 35mm film Canon A-1 film SLR and looking to progress towards using larger film formats - I surely wasn't going to become another family photographer creating photographs of cute kids.  A funny thing happened, though, when I got a few rolls of Kodachrome to shoot before it went the way of the Dodo.  I was inspired to shoot it after seeing my grandfather's old slides and how awesome the colors were (even the 60 year old ones!), especially when photographing people - the skin tones were true, but somehow better (at least different).  That's my late grandmother from about 1949 in Nova Scotia below.

By December, I had one roll of Kodachrome left, when a family friend asked for a 'New Mexico / desert-y' type family portrait.  The lab that processed the film (the only one left in the world) was closing at the end of the year.  I knew enough to know that I didn't know much of anything about photographing people...but at least I knew of a scenic landscape that I could place them in, and figured that Kodachrome would make a great fit for the subject.  So, I waited for the sun to get low, right in their eyes so they got nice and 'squinty' - pretty plain-jane, nothing-to-see here kind of shot.

But, I was now hooked.  I had a blast with the session.  I did get a little nervous that I missed the exposure, didn't capture any good expressions, or everyone was going to be simultaneously blinking.  When the slides came back though, I knew what I would be concentrating on over the next year.  Yeah, the posing isn't the best...something I'm still working on, but the smile of their little kid was contagious.

If nothing else, I knew I'd be dedicating myself to learning off-camera lighting via David Hobby's Strobist blog.  I also knew that if I was going to start to focus on portraits, and learning how to light, that it was finally time to go digital.  In essence, I saw digital as a means to decrease the feedback loop required for learning a new skill.

So, what would I do differently today with that shot above?  I would have had an umbrella up, camera right, and waited for the sun to go down to a point where my subject was in the shadow, but the ridge was being illuminated by the last rays of the sun.  By casting light from an off-camera strobe, I would be able to place the subject a stop or two higher than the background.  In essence, it would have created better separation, and I would have been able to open the aperture up a bit to soften that background.  That, and I would have put a little more 'life' into that pose!

If you're starting out in photography, I can't recommend getting an old film SLR and learning manual operation enough.  That uneasy feeling that you missed the exposure is an excellent thing to makes you even more attentive to exposure the next time you're out.  Always strive to get it right 'in-camera.'  It pays dividends later on in post-processing (...and yes, you can post-process film digitally, as I did with this example - with an Epson V500 Photo flatbed scanner).  And once achieving proper exposure becomes second nature, you're more free to focus on other pose, composition, and that 'fleeting reality' that Bresson speaks of:
"To photograph is to hold one's breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It's at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy." - Henri Cartier-Bresson
Digital is awesome, but it is just a tool.  It helped me learn how to light really quickly, whereas film forced me to slow down, and consider my exposure and composition.

So, that's how 2011 started out for me...taking what I had learned with film and now applying it to family and children portraiture through digital photography and off-camera lighting.  The next post will highlight my first attempts.

Until next time...