Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Moody Self-Portraits

Angela Chih of the 12x12 Vancouver Photo Marathon asked me to be the "mystery super judge" this year, which involved choosing a final winner amongst three nominees for each category. Needless to say, the submissions were impressive and choosing the winner was a difficult task. You can see the theme winners here and the main winners here.

As part of the gig, Angela asked me for a portrait and short bio for the judges page (I should admit that after having read the other judges' bios I felt a little unworthy of the title "mystery super judge"). The only other half-decent portrait I have is from the High Key Potraits post, which was an experiment in lighting and as such, I didn't make an effort to not look like I'm in a psychotic trance. So it's time for a new portrait.

I wanted to do something similar, except with with two reflectors, one on each side of the face. My goal was to have strong light on each side and a black background. My method was to stand with the flash at my feet and holding a pair of reflectors in front of my face, with the camera aiming through the gap between the reflectors. Unfortunately I wasn't able to control the flash beam well enough to prevent overpowering bottom lighting from creating the ghost-story-around-the-campfire effect.

So I gave up on that idea and instead went for a bottom-lit setup by placing a reflector on a table, hovering my face over it and holding the flash out at arms length. After popping off a bunch of shots while adjusting the aim of the flash I ended up with a few worth keeping. The light source is still too small to get decent coverage, so the end result is fairly dark and moody.

Monday, August 20, 2012

12x12 Whistl(Vancouv)er Photo Marathon

Unfortunately for me, this year the 12x12 Vancouver Photo Marathon coincided with a planned vacation in Whistler. The two other times I've participated (2009 and 2011) were tons of fun. The excitement, the challenge, camaraderie, everything. I know from past marathons that others have participated remotely: the inaugural event's winner participated from Europe in 2010, and another marathoner did a brilliant job of working the themes into a day of wedding shots. In my case, I would be spending the day mountain biking in Whistler Valley and taking in some of the Crankworx mountain bike festival action. Angela Chih, 12x12's organizer, was kind enough to send me the themes throughout the day, providing inspiration for a mountain bike themed remote entry.

Since a large part of the day was spent riding, I knew I had to travel light. My kit was as follows:

  • Samsung cell phone (set to B+W mode).
No real photographer worth his or her salt would make any serious attempt at photography with a cell phone. Fortunately for me, I'm neither a real photographer nor making a serious attempt at photography. Enjoy.

Theme 1 - My Entry Number + Colour

Angela gave me a made-up entry number: 71. At the beginning of the day I met my riding mate, Steve, at his accommodations. He was riding a Rocky Mountain Element 70. The "colour" is the missing 1. I just made that up right now.
Theme 1 my entry number + colour. Rocky Mountain Element 70

Theme 2 - Through the Looking Glass

I'm an (overly) analytical person, which tends to result in a fairly literal interpretation of themes. As Steve and I were planning our route, I shot a "rider's eye view" of the trail map through my sunglasses.
through the looking glass whistler mountain bike trail map

Theme 3 - Nude

I received theme 3 from Angela at the base of a "burly" (in Steve's words) 200m climb. I spent the next hour grinding up countless switchbacks in the scorching heat over rough terrain with the word "nude nude nude" repeating in my head. When the trail finally levelled off I got the idea to photograph some bare feet. They're really the only part of the body that needs to be clothed while bike riding.
nude whistler mountain bike feet

Theme 4 - In 20 Years

While descending back into the valley we came across a clearcut in the forest. There is a section of trail that is under construction: the newest addition to the Sea to Sky Trail. In 20 years, the forest should hopefully start to recover and I'm sure the trail will be fantastic.
in 20 years sea to sky trail green lake whistler clearcut

Theme 5 - Old School

Returning to the condo after a leg-numbing four hours of riding, I saw an old (early 90's) Kona mountain bike. In the world of mountain bikes, that is SERIOUSLY old school.
old school kona cinder cone 1993 mountain bike

Theme 6 - Three Times

Hey, that baby has three cars on his shirt! I thought the photo was taken right as he looked into the lens, but alas, he looked away right at the last instant.

Theme 7 - Top

After a quick swim in Alta Lake and a shower, the Joyride jump competition, undeniably THE feature event of the Crankworx festival, was underway. This is possibly the only moment when I wished my kit contained a zoom lens (and, obviously, an actual camera on which to mount it).
redbull joyride crankworx top

Theme 8 - Hide

I hid some beers in my camera bag. No clanking bottles; no grounds for search, right officer?
hide beer minolta autocord

Theme 9 - Clever

The Brewhaus in Whistler has a train running in a circuit suspended above the dining room floor. Sounds clever to me. What's extra clever is that they sell advertising space on it. What's not so clever is including half an exit sign at the edge of your photo. My excuse is that I rushed to take this photo because otherwise I would have to wait 10 minutes for the train to make another lap of the restaurant.
clever whistler brewhaus train

Theme 10 - Float

Not too much to say here. This photo does have a certain mysteriousness to it.
float bottle

Theme 11 - Background Story

The rings at the Olympic Plaza in Whistler are an extremely popular spot to pose for photos. I took a shot from the background of a family posing for a photographer on the other side. This is the only case where I took more than one photograph to achieve a result I was satisfied with (all of the others were singular shots).
background story olympic rings

Theme 12 - (D)evolved

By the time theme 12 came in I was feeling pretty weary. Possibly from the epic ride, possibly from all of the Crankworx excitement, or more likely from the contents of my camera bag; I felt the need to retire to my accommodations. I'll call this non-photo the result of the evening's evolution.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Went for a ride on Mt. Seymour today, and decided I'd bring the camera and try a group portrait.  I'd recently seen some outdoor portraits using off camera flash to highlight the subject while leaving the background in the mid to lowlights.  Thought I'd give that a try.

(click for the original)

For this shot, my SB-600 was set on the ground at camera right, tuned to full pop and wide angle.  I used a 50mm lens and shot from about 4m back.  The shots didn't look great on my camera's LCD screen.  In particular, I was worried that the flash throw wasn't large enough to get the full group, and that the lighting was uneven.  Since it was lightly raining and these guys were waiting to start their ride, I didn't take much time to experiment with settings, or to play with the composition and subject position.

Once I opened it in photoshop I was able to do a half-decent job with it though.  I brought up the exposure 2 stops and did a little bit of localized exposure adjustment to normalize the faces.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Last week I visited TRIUMF, Canada's nuclear and particle physics research laboratory and the world's largest cyclotron particle accelerator.  This was part of Photoclub Vancouver's participation in TRIUMFs Artists in Residence program.

The tour went to 3 locations, stopping for 30 minutes at each.  It was like I had imagined, but way cooler: lots of really complicated looking equipment with exposed wires and metal.  I spent most of my time shooting details with a telephoto lens.  In the end, most of my favourite shots were not details.  Probably because I was running around like an idiot and didn't have the patience to experiment with composition (especially considering how awkward and time consuming it is with a tripod.)  I played around a bit with coloured flash, but found it impossible to use more than one colour: there was so much ambient light that the longest exposure I could muster was 2" (f/22).  Unfortunately, there weren't many people around.  I was expecting to get one or two shots of a guy in a white lab coat with exploding grey hair scurring about, but no such characters materialized.

Here's a sample (a more comprehensive set can be found on Flickr)

This is a tank being filled with liquid nitrogen.  I almost discarded it initially because it was significantly overexposed.  Turns out that after adjusting the exposure, it contains some lovely steam details.  Other shots of this tank render the steam as a fuzzy textureless gray mass.

This is a shot of someone working in a clean room.  I focused on the clear vinyl wall separating the room from the outside, which results in a neat texture.

Here's a hollywood shot of some shiny pipes.  I thought I would get many more like this.
Lastly, a detail shot of a frosty spigot.  This one was the result of a bit more persistence.  My first few shots weren't very interesting.  Eventually I noticed a tall blue concrete pylon in the background, and positioned myself so it would appear behind the spigot.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Hollywood Flash

It's been a while.

Tomorrow I am visiting TRIUMF (a nuclear and particle physics lab) for the purpose of taking photographs.  And I haven't been practicing lately, let alone made any formal preparations for this particular task.

I have a few ideas though, and one of them is to snap some cool looking stainless scientific equipment using, in Joe McNally's terms "Hollywood Lighting".  I.e. colourful light.

So I dug around the house and found a blue plastic bag and a semi-translucent red pencil case to use as flash gels.  My test subject is a pewter sculpture of a cyclist.  My aim was to get one shot with a mix of blue and ambient light, and one shot with both blue and red.

First up, the blue.  I quickly tossed the idea of mixing ambient light and went all flash.  The ambient light dilutes the blue, and I find the mix of blue light and hard shadow (as opposed to blue light, and less blue light) to be much more interesting.  This, in my own fantasies, is how a nuclear and particle physics piece of scientific equipment should look.

Nothing fancy here.  Shot at f/10 and 1/400s, with flash about 1/4 (IIRC) so as to overpower the ambient light.  The flash spills onto the background and makes it all blue.  After opening it up on the computer it dawned on me that this could have easily been done with an un-gelled flash, by adding a blue tint digitally.  So, a waste of time.

The red/blue mix was both more difficult and looks way cooler.  Since I only have 1 speedlight, I used a 6-second exposure, which gave me enough time to flash it blue at camera right, scurry to the other side of the table, and flash it red.  f/18 was used to minimize ambient light.  I tried to aim the flash so that the blue would hit the backdrop too, although it doesn't look like I was very successful.  Hopefully I can pull something off during the real deal tomorrow.

Monday, January 25, 2010

DIY Light Tent

For some time I've been meaning to photograph Jen's engagement ring. Recently, I came across a blog posting on how to create a cheap light tent, and after discovering some discarded tissue paper in the recycling last night, it was a great opportunity to give it a go.

Here's a photo of my setup. I won't duplicate the instructions from the original post, although I will note that I used the box from a case of beer, which is significantly smaller than the recommended 12x12 box.

I photographed 4 things: Jen's ring, a stuffed cat toy (I think it's a pig), a beer (having drank the other 11), and a camera lens. I experimented quite a bit with flash location, direction, and diffusion/zoom setting.

One observation is that it is a major, major pain in the ass to get the right flash power setting, and it's so sensitive to location, direction, zoom and subject. Make one tiny change, and the flash power might need to be halved, or doubled. I used flash settings anywhere from 1/32 to 1/4+0.3. On the plus side, the tent nullifies the effects of the flash diffuser, zoom position, and flash distance, removing 3 variables from the equation. It is sensitive to where on the tent the flash is aimed, depending on the subject.

First up, the ring. For this shot (and all others), I used a 200mm lens at 1/1000s and f/18, ISO 200. I chose the 200mm over a reverse 50mm psuedo-macro because it's just way easier. With the reverse 50mm, I need to hold the camera in one hand, the lens in the other (as separate pieces), and get about 4 cm from my subject. Depth of field sucks, focus is uber sensitive, and working a tripod at those distances is just awkward. 200mm, crop it, save time and frustration.
The shot above is one of the better onces, but the photo below shows that the opening at the front of the box creates some unattractive lowlights at a lower camera position. A fix might be to cover the opening with some white paper, leaving enough room for the camera to peek through to the subject.

Next up, the fuzzy pig. This was the most difficult subject to light evenly. I suspect a larger box may have helped. In the end, the best results were achieved by moving the subject to the rear of the box, and aiming the flash near the front edge.

The beer was a great subject. The embossed logo on the bottle just barely registers when lit from the left (first photo). From the top, we get a much smaller catch light and partially visible embossing (second photo), and a black background (last) makes it more 3 dimensional (while bringing out the imperfections.)

The lens was by far the easiest. I didn't have to frig around at all. Snap, snap, snap, snap, done. I think that's due to the smooth matte black finish and regular shape. The light falls smoothly and happily over it without flaring up.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

12x12 Vancouver Photo Marathon

Last night was the opening of "Raw Talent", an exhibit showcasing the entrants' photos from the 12x12 Vancouver Photo Marathon. So, I finally got to see the rest of my photos, which are now publicly available on the 12x12 Flickr group's collection entitled Raw Talent. And now it's time for me to reflect on my photos and see what I've learned.

All photos are taken with a Nikon FE2, 50mm f/1.8 lens, on Kodak Ultramax 400.

8AM: "Your Entry Number"

My entry number was 32, and I decided to take the paneling off of an old PC and photograph the processor (being a 32 bit version, like most machines.) Geeky? Yes. Imaginative? Undoubtedly so. As it turns out, I screwed up loading the film and this frame was destroyed before I released the shutter. I discovered my problem: the camera manual recommends winding the film back slightly after engaging the lead tab, to take up the slack. I probably over did it, winding exposed film back into the canister. Given that there was enough room at the end of the roll for 2 more shots, I should have just played it safe and started on the second frame. Live and learn. Because of this mistake, I was out of the running for best series.

9AM: "High Hope"

f/4, 1/60s

My aim was to visit the new hockey arena at UBC, hoping they would have the olympic logo on the ice which I would photograph (symbolizing high hopes for our olympic hockey teams.) I was pleased to find that a youth hockey practice was in progress. This guy was waiting for his practice to start. As I was framing, he turned around and noticed me, and backed up to get out of my way. I assured him that he was OK standing there, and when he returned, I quickly took the shot. Given my haste, I'm happy at how well it turned out (my notebook expresses some concern.) On the left you can see the burned edge of my destroyed first frame. I haven't yet decided whether this adds to the photo or takes away from it.

This photo was 1 of 4 grand prize winners, and is printed on a 90cm x 60cm piece of gallery quality canvas, courtesy of Opus. It will be displayed along with the other 3 winners in the Vancouver Lookout beginning in March. Go check it out.

10AM: "Nosy"

f/1.8 1/125s

Like other contestants, I decided to take a photo peering through some foreground elements at some unaware subject (in actuality, it is Jen, and she knows I'm there.) I had my flash with wireless trigger stashed in the living room to highlight the subject. After several successful "test fires", the flash failed to fire on the real shot. I think my batteries were low and the recycle time was lengthening from the repeated firing. Lesson 1: always have fully charged batteries when it matters. Lesson 2: one test fire is enough!

Even if the flash did go off, I don't think it would be a very attractive photo. Too much clutter and a big ugly white rectangle at the top. I should have worked harder to find a closer peering location, and involved more out of focus foreground foliage to cover up the unimportant background elements.

11AM: "Blank"

f/8, 1/125s

Returning to Blenz in Yaletown for the next theme announcement: "Blank". This is a photo of my drawing a blank, while jotting down theme ideas in my notebook. In other words, my concept is a lack of a concept. I had originally set the notebook on one of the white marble tables outside of Blenz, before moving to a location with a darker table to provide some contrast. I wouldn't have thought of doing that without the constraint that I only get one chance at the shot. Digital photography spoils us that way. There's no cost per shot, and we can turf the ones we don't like: so just snap away and eventually some keepers will fall out. Think long and hard about your photo before pressing the shutter and good things will happen. It was my epiphany of the day.

12PM: "Loud"

f/22 1/8s, tripod, polarizer.

The idea for this photo is courtesy of Jen. I had written down "loud colours", "bell or whistle or some noisemaking device", "traffic, hustle and bustle", "somebody screaming". Jen suggested "Canada Corner": a humongeous scaffolding cover printed with the Canadian Flag, on the Hotel Georgia at the corner of Howe and Georgia. The idea being loud national pride.

This one was difficult to compose. I walked up and down both sides of the street, near and far, crouched, stood on top of mailboxes, all the time cursing my inability to change focal length. There was just too much distracting stuff around (lamp poles, pedestrians, trees, other buildings), and looking straight up from a close position wasn't an attractive option (in my opinion.) I decided to force the flag to share some of its attention with the Olympic countdown clock in front of the art gallery. I was there for quite a long time experimenting with positioning until I found just the right spot that hid the buildings and the trees and overlapped things nicely. I used a small aperture to get adequate depth of field, and at the last minute put on a polarizer to minimize the glare in the front of the clock. Metering was tricky, as I'm not very used to my camera's centre weighted meter. As you can see, the sky fooled me into underexposing the photo.

1PM: "Wild Goose Chase"

1/8, 1/8s, monopod

My interpretation of "Wild Goose Chase" was of holiday shoppers (several other participants had the same idea.) I wanted a slightly elevated view point, to get a good perspective of the crowds (oh, and there were crowds.) After some wandering around Pacific Centre mall, I ended up taking this shot while riding down the escalator. I used my tripod with the legs folded in, to help steady the camera at 1/8s, so I could capture the motion of the shoppers. I took the photo just in the nick of time, as immediately after I took the shot (while still on the escalator), I had a security guard tap me on the shoulder and request my credentials. He was fair enough, and after I explained what I was doing he said I would still have to sign in at the security desk, but allowed me to leave given that my objective was satisfied.

2PM: "Wild Things"

1/4, 1/125s

I was about to head home to photograph the cats when I remembered there's an off leash dog area in Yaletown. Luckily, there was a group of 5 or so small dogs playing. I obtained their owners' permission, squatted down, and waited...

This was going to be tough. Manual focus, dogs running everywhere, grouping, disbanding, coming near, going far. Only one chance to get that decisive moment. One dog was trying to hump another dog, and I missed it. Eventually, 5 dogs played in a group. I took the shot, but was a bit late and ended up releasing the shutter as 3 of the dogs fled off to my right, while two of my subjects stood there looking very un-wild. Damn. I missed.

Perhaps I should have had a bit more patience. Looking at the result, I also think I should have tried to get closer.

3PM: "Tie"

f/2.8, 1/125s

Losing steam, I went home to help Jen with some gift wrapping. I think this picture was a bit of a cop-out, and am not particularly excited about it. It looks decent enough, but had I tried a bit harder I might have come up with something better.

I used an incandescent upright lamp for some nice warm light, and a wide aperature for shallow depth of field and softness. I'm not sure why it's so foggy though. The black looks dull and grey. I look at this photo and think it's from the 70's. I'm OK with that, but a bit puzzled as to what is the cause.

4PM: "Perform"

1/4, 1/15s, tripod

I was at first thinking theatre, or car. Then I remembered there are some music shops down by Broaway and Blanca, so out I went to Rufus' Guitar Shop, where the owner was kind enough to let me take a photo.

It didn't turn out like I hoped. Dull and foggy, like the previous photo. The wall of guitars as I remembered it was dimly lit, but lively, sparkling with the store's small halogen track lights reflecting off of the chrome fittings and varnished surfaces. None of that shows up in this picture. Perhaps I just don't remember it correctly, and I only imagine that the scene was lively and beautiful.

5PM: "Flash"

f/2.8, 1/15s. SB-600: 1/8, 50mm.

Amazingly, this photo turned out just as I had planned it, better even. I wanted to include the flash in the frame, and get a nice starburst out of it. So I thought up a scene with a strange figure (me) walking through a dark alley. This took some major guesstimation. I found this spot behind my apartment with an empty parking stall, dumpster, and dim light on a brick wall. Perfect. Now to set it up. Made a guess at the flash power setting, and probably overdid it by 2 stops. The starburst turned out nicely though. I knew that the shiny new dumpster would give me some glare, and perhaps I should have pulled out some cardboard and covered part of the dumpster surface. Flash gels would have helped too, so I could have matched my flash colour with the wall light. This photo was the winner for its theme.

6PM: "Nickel and Dime"

f/8, 1/60s. tripod. lens reversed hand held. desk lamp.

This was also a bit of a cop-out. Dig out some nickels and dimes from the change bin and take a macro shot, theme done. While I think the resulting photo looks nice, I could have been a bit more imaginative. Although I don't feel so bad because several other participants did the same thing.

I did the ol' reverse lens trick for this one. I should really get a reverse adapter, so I don't have to hand hold my lens for macros. For metering, I metered with the lens on (forwards), at f/1.8, and then dropped the shutter time by 4 stops for the actual photo at f/8. I'm not sure if this is technically correct (due to the difference in focal length when the lens is reversed), but it apparently worked in this instance. Whew.

7PM: "Panhandle"

f/2.8, 1/60s, tripod, desk lamp

Turns out I wasn't the only one to take a photo of pan handles for this theme. Many participants took pictures of chefs at work through order windows, many went to the kitchen section of department stores, and I set up another psuedo-studio shot on my dining room table with the desk lamp. Credit to Jen again for the setup.

I suppose I should make some overall concluding remark here. I can't think of much for now (as I'm in a rush). The photo marathon was awesome and I'd definitely do it again, although I would try and spend more time at home base (and not at home) so as to more fully engage in the social aspect of things.