Saturday, August 20, 2011

[un] happy anniversary portraits

My wife always complains.

Now that wasn't such a pleasant intro, now was it? Let me begin again.

My wife always complains that we don't have any photographs of us. We have plenty of pictures of her but I seem to be the one that is never in the photo. Why? Obviously, the reason would be that I'm the one typically behind the lens making the image. Hit the "read more" jump to find out the logistics and reasoning behind this photograph of my wife and yours truly.

Not sure why I'm calling this section analysis but it seemed to be the only word I could think of to explain the ugly truth about photography. I may be going a bit far to say ugly but stay with me. There's an adage or two that can help me easily explain what it is I'm trying to say. The adages I speak of are one in the same with different professions used in its place.

1. Mechanics always have crappy cars.

2. Plumbers always have the worst plumbing.

Need I add a third? These statements aren't specific to these two professions, they are simply generalizations of an ugly truth about people in general. We are always so busy with our work that we have little time to attend to projects of our own. 

The wife and I recently celebrated our third anniversary. I decided that it would be the day that I made a portrait of us, together, in one frame. I decided that I would put my other work aside and focus on us. Before I go any further, let me state that I am no fan of self portraits and this particular one was even more laborious than I had anticipated. 

let the day begin

Stefanie, my wife, decided that for our anniversary, she would like to enjoy a day at the Jersey Shore. I had no objections to this destination. I'm a huge fan of any time I spend at or near the beach. 

The weather was awful. Thunderstorms warnings were announced for the entire day, in the entire tristate area. Being the adventurous couple that we are, we didn't let some bad weather dampen our plans. I told her, in advance, that along with our day, I would like to make a portrait. She happily consented to my idea. I loaded every single piece of gear into our SUV and hit the road. 

We decided to head to one of our favorite towns, historic Somers Point, New Jersey. Only about an hour's ride from Philly. Somers Point is an old fisherman's town. Not only does it have its fair share of vacationers, it also has plenty of permanent residents. The town sits on the mainland just before entering the island of Ocean City. After a slow ride down the Atlantic City Expressway, due to the stormy weather, we finally arrived at our destination. 

It was lunch time and we both wanted something to eat. Rather than go to one of the more fancier establishments, we decided to go where all of the locals hang, Smitty's Clam Bar. Smitty's, is the local slang for the building named Smith's Marina. This place is a must go to if anyone is ever in Somers Point. The building has got to be as old as the town itself. It sits on the bay facing east towards Ocean City. There is a small dining room but we, and most others, sat at the bar, which surrounds the kitchen. The place was mobbed. We were lucky to get two stools, regardless of the torrential rain. That was a good sign. The wait staff mingled with the cooks, each doing their part while helping the other. It was a chaotic scene but that just added to the authenticity of the restaurant. 

The food smelled awesome. I couldn't help but notice the gigantic vats of soups that were being shoveled into bowls, varieties of chowder if I had to guess. Jeez, am I sounding like a food critic? Sorry, my mouth is watering from the thoughts of that place. 

Ok, without the colorful details, Stefanie had a cup of New England clam chowder along with a soft shelled crab sandwich. I, on the other hand, decided to have a pork roll sandwich. I'm just strange like that. The meal was great and the price, well, unbeatable. 

After paying the bill, the rain continued to be relentless. I was getting a bit down, thinking our day and shoot would be a wash. Shooting locations were dwindling by the second. My mind was now thinking of finding a place indoors to shoot. Stefanie kept my hopes up and we got back on the road to scout out some outdoor, yet dry, locations. 

Before anything, I knew I had to get some protection for my equipment, photography equipment that it is. We found the nearest supermarket and I ran in to buy some Ziplock bags, rubber bands and an ice cream scoop (explain later). 

Back on the road, still raining, we went to a few fishing piers. The local piers all seem to be gazebo styled, allowing fishermen to work their craft in any weather. This would be ideal to keep my gear dry while still shooting outdoors. One problem, every fishing pier we arrived at was packed with people trying to stay out of the rain. I wasn't about to fight through a small space and set up light stands, hoping someone wouldn't knock a strobe into the bay. That wouldn't make me a happy camper. I had to think. I remembered a pier that a good friend of mine always spoke of, in a not so nice way. It was a pier, off the beaten path, that was known for some cultural inappropriateness to occur. I won't go any further than that. It was midday and pouring, I was sure that if those tales were true that we would be checking it out at a safe time. We arrived at this pier hidden under the Somers Point - Longport bridge. The pier was condemned for some reason. Totally gated off. This wasn't going to stop me. Stefanie and I were about to climb the fence when we both noticed the awesomeness of the bridge. We headed back to the vehicle and headed for the marshes. I threw the truck into 4WD and took it off road. That was just awesome in itself. We pulled up under the bridge and I began to search for the perfect spot.

the shoot

The highlight area on the map was the exact location of the shoot.

The bridges platform had to be 100 feet overhead but managed to keep us somewhat dry. I hiked thru the mud with my camera to see what type of backgrounds and exposures I was working with. I had all of my strobes packed but decided that two would suffice. I would work the dreary ambient into the scene as well. 

Stefanie enjoyed the view of the rain landing in the bay, dry in the truck, while I got down and dirty. I first had to prepare my gear for the inclement weather. No way was I about to set up such pricey equipment in this muddy, marshy and rainy location. That's where the Ziplock bags came in. I placed each one around each leg of each light stand and tripod. I then rubber banded them tightly on. I then ran out and set each stand in a desirable location. I was now mud deep up to my ankles. I made it back to the truck and grabbed the strobes and Pocketwizards. Before setting those atop the stands, I put those in Ziplock bags as well. I was getting close to being ready. 

I fired a few test shots to see how I would need to adjust the speedlights. I was pretty happy with what I was getting, considering the elements. I needed only to add one modifier, to the key light. I went with the Calumet 45 inch, shoot through brolly. This brings me back to the ice cream scooper. I had forgotten to bring weights for the light stands. The weather, even on a clear day, down the shore is usually pretty windy. The storm added to the mess. I needed to improvise and create my own sandbags. Rather than find a camera shop and pay fifty buck for some manufactured sandbag, I used what I had available. Back at the supermarket, when I bought the protection, the checkout person asked the typical question. Paper or plastic? I knew in advance that I would be loading bags up with mother earth so the answer was a no brainer. Yep, I filled those bags with the marshy, sandy soil, with the ice cream scooper and hung them from my stands. Brilliant? Not so much, just some common sense. 

I was dialed in. I test fired everything once again, just to be sure all was in working order. I threw a final Ziplock bag over the top of camera's Pocketwizard (I heart you Pocketwizard!). It was time to do the impossible. The torture of the self portrait, amplified exponentially by the slippery, slimy terrain and wind fueled rain, was about to begin.

I placed Stefanie at the mark at which I thought would be spectacular. She stood for some test shots, with bags over her shoes, while I tweaked my lights and exposure. Finally, it was time for the real thing. I didn't want to use my wireless remote to trip the shutter since it is infrared based and would need a direct line of sight. Instead, I upped the ante of the obstacles by throwing the DSLR into timer mode. This gave me about ten seconds from time of shutter release, until I could trot through the marsh and pose, naturally, for the frame. I just want to say that those ten seconds felt a hell of a lot faster in reality. 

Frustration was kicking in as the sweat started to mix with the raindrops on my face. Each trigger getting more difficult than the last. I was shooting blind in a sense. Great for skill honing but better practiced on a sunnier day. The problem that I couldn't see in the viewfinder was just that of posing. I wouldn't know how to fix the models, us, until I would go back to chimp the LCD. Trial and error was the name of this game. After approximately fifty frames or so, I called it quits. Fifty frames on a normal shoot would have taken me about five minutes. The fifty under the bridge took what seemed like an eternity. I knew I had some workable frames, so I wasn't too worried. I was excited to get to the digital darkroom, to see what I could pull off.

back at base

We arrived back in Philadelphia in the early evening. The shooting coupled with the hours behind the wheel had me a bit exhausted. Regardless, I still wanted to get some post processing done.

Stefanie assured me that she wasn't thrilled with the shoot. I promised her that there were some great ones. I wouldn't let her look at a single RAW file until I had a finished edit. I found a couple that I loved and filtered down to the one you see at the post's beginning. It was time to get busy, again.

You may look at the photo and think that there was tons of post processing when that wasn't quite the case. It just goes to show what some awesome lighting can do for a photograph. I'll give you the rundown of the post processing workflow but it's going to be short and sweet. My carpal tunnel is setting in and that's my two minute warning that I've written enough for one day.

I started in Adobe Camera RAW editor to make some very very minor adjustments. I tweaked the light balance, exposure and clarity settings only. From there I open the file in Photoshop, where I get to zero in on the details. First I clean up any color casting. I now do that using Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0, plugin suite. After I correct, I then do some Curves and Levels adjustments. Once complete, I add a hint of sharpness using the High Pass filter. After those layer masks are all flattened, I then go for any specialty editing that is necessary. For this image I created a new layer and added some cooling to the entire image. I then added a mask and removed the cooling from the subjects, wife and I. To add a bit more pop, I gave us a warming filter. That was achieved by another adjustment layer and masked in over the subjects only. The opacity of those layers were taken down to the 25% range and finally flattened. I then went back into the Nik plugin to bump up the tonal contrast. For a final process, I added a vignette, which draws the viewers eye in towards the subjects. That was done by creating yet another layer, multiplied and edges refined and feathered. Once completed I saved the image and called the wife in to take a look. 

She was thrilled, to say the least. And in case you were wondering. Yes, that is mud all over my toes and pants. 

Happy Anniversary Baby!

duh, i forgot

while doing my Craig Laban impersonation earlier, I forgot to give you some technical details. You already know that I had used ambient light working together with two strobes. The rest is as follows:

Focal length: 18mm
ISO: 100
Shutter: 1/320
Aperture: f/5.6
Brolly strobe: 1/4
Back strobe: 1/2

Enjoy and until next time...