Tuesday, July 15, 2014

happy birthday!

Today I won't drag your mojo down with a bevy of memoirs that would put a tweaker to sleep.

However, I'd like to go over a few yesterdays, todays and tomorrows. The stuff it took, takes and will take to grow in a super competitive world of creativity that is professional photography.


It's the blog's 4th Birthday!

Hence today's photograph that will be discussed later in the fourth anniversary post.

If you have become attached at the hip with your camera and people besides your mommy are starting to notice your works and are contemplating making a buck with that chunk of glass, then this post is for you.

If you need a Bruce Lee roundhouse kick in the ass for some inspiration and motivation, then this post is for you.

If you want to learn how I made this photograph, then this post is for you.

If you think the following words will be all you need to get you out of your prosaic, pathetic 9 to 5, then I think your better off going back to Facebook to waste more of your precious time stalking your ex-girlfriend.

It's really hard to believe it was on this day, four years ago, that I stared at the monitor, nervously pondering the very first words to type. But here we are, 170 posts later. Holy shit.

[Before I go any further, let me say that I'm not here to shamelessly self promote myself by linking back to the posts I may speak of. Not today anyway. I'm usually a whore for the marketing tricks but today it's about getting real people. It's about you. If you feel the need to find the aforementioned posts, there is a search bar to the upper right of your screen, above the Blogroll and under the photo of my ugly mug on the beach.]

Shave and a Haircut

Today, I had to venture over to Domenick's on 20th and Manning, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. My hair resembling Shaggy's from Scooby Doo. The wife digs when I grow the locks out but I just don't have the patience to maintain such a mane. I opt for short and simple, one step longer than a military High and Tight. Long enough to style but short enough not to worry about it. I digress.

Entering the retro fashioned barber shop, I see my buddy and barber Rob Mcauly. I've been going to Domenick's for over a decade and for the last couple years, Rob has been my go to guy.

I think we spend more time talking then we do getting my hair cut. Often, such as today, we get into the conversations of business, marketing and how to succeed in this world full of noise. How do we get that signal through?

I decided to school him on my technique, how I went from a dude with a camera, not knowing his ass from an aperture to the brand I have built myself today, MICHAEL ANTHONY MURPHY :: PHOTOGRAPHER. You really thought I wouldn't put a single link to my works? Ha.

Draping the cape over my torso to protect me from any stray hair bombs, I began to reflect.

While Rob prepped his station, positioning the necessary tools, like a surgeon, precisely placing each newly sharpened set of scissors, brushing the teeth of the clippers, he opened his ears as I was about to let loose. . .

Prior to the blog's inception, I had been called for photographic jobs on a VERY intermittent basis. Few and far between I would get a small gig. It felt so strange to take payment for this thing that I loved. At the same time it made a light bulb light up over my head.

I thought about the cool blogs that I followed such as David Hobby's Strobist and Chase Jarvis. Joe Mcnally and other pros that I so worshiped (and still do). Is this what it took in this day and age?


Social networking was on the upsurge. The adage goes that a rising tide floats all boats. I used to totally fight the social sites, claiming they would all die as did MySpace. A few very very close people in my life convinced me otherwise.

Go Big or Go Home

Although I wasn't a huge advocate of social, I was still a participant. I knew this wasn't enough. Hell, I was barely posting anything. Like most, I was just lurking around, seeing what the hype was about.

This wasn't enough. I wanted to get to the masses, the entire planet, with my words and more importantly, my photography.

I searched the resources around the internets; which blog host, what design, what to call it?

Rather quickly I decided on all of those irrelevant variables. The most important? The big matzah ball hanging out there?


Sure, I knew it would be photography inspired but what on earth could I say to the world, enough so that I could post, week after week, month after month and now, year after year?

It took some deep soul searching. I needed a plan. Most of all, I needed a big set of balls.

As Mcauly was swapping out a #2 for a #4 on his big brilliant clippers, he mentioned how he would like to follow a route such as mine, heavy on social, but had little computer knowledge to do so.

How did I reply?

"Rob, I didn't know a damn thing about blogging or about social networking but you know what? I did it. . .  JUST FU*KING DO IT!"

Excuse my language but I get so passionate about the topic.

So that's what I did, I went all in, balls deep. Go big or go home.

Four years ago to this day, I sat at my then, Mac mini and began to type. The photograph? A water droplet, perfect for the very first post, the birth of of new brand, a new resource of creativity for all to learn from, enjoy and share.

I explained to my barber that starting the blog would help me achieve three things. First, it would force me to create new photographic works to share on the blog. No photos and there's nothing to write about. Next, the commitments would in turn help me build and continue to build a BETTER body of works. 10,000 hours people. Finally, if my published content would be of relevance, eyeballs would make their way to the posts and that, if all goes well, would convert; more clients.

The blog was free. I didn't have a website. This was my online calling card. It had to be awesome. Sure, I knew a full blown portfolio website would be needed but the blog would be the living organism, the resource that would drive people to the gallery of works.

Before going further, let me tell you my friends, it takes hard work, commitment, dedication, creativity and any other cliche descriptor that you deem appropriate.

If you think you can post some dribble here some decent words there then you are going to dig yourself a hole. As a photographer, I'm sometimes chaotic but when it comes to this stuff, there's no messing around. Have a plan. Work the plan. I'm a right brained creative for the most part. The photos, the words, that is all right brained. The plan is all left brained. Obsessively left brained for that matter.


Four years and 170 posts later, the blog has grown legs. There are posts that are referenced thousands and thousands of times. Posts about portraiture, headshots, food photography, you name it and there are people, as I type, reading, learning how to improver their photographic skill set.

Pretty awesome.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not sitting here patting myself on the back. I got plenty of shitty posts out there. Some with horrible photographs but great writing. Some with amazing photographs but crap stories. Hell, some have both bad photos and bad words.

You know what? The best way to improve is to fall flat on your face . . . as long as you get back up.

And so it goes.

These days, I integrate any and all means possible, to get followers, readers, leads and clients to the blog and portfolio. Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and others are daily tools used to share links.  A full time job in and of itself, yes, but all very necessary.

Going Forward

While Rob began to clean up my neck with those mini clippers, I uttered one little phrase to him ::

"Signal to noise."

That phrase has become my mantra going forward. The internet in all its awesomeness, is littered with a whole lotta' noise. Useless, if not, inaccurate information. People have no idea where to turn for good information. There are a billion blogs and a bazillion photographs out there. Why on earth would anyone want to try and compete with those figures?

Cajones. Big cajones.

You'll also have to absolutely love the challenge as do I. I'm the "bring it on" type of person. I will not stop until I rise to the top. That's just un innate trait needed to succeed on any level.

Most importantly? Signal to Noise. Going forward, if I don't have a great photograph to discuss or a great story to tell, I simply won't tell it. In the past I used to sit every single week to be sure the content was out there. I still try to keep this schedule but if I don't have a good photograph or a good story, I don't lose sleep if a post is missed.

As Rob, my barber, brushed the last hairs from my face, I began to pull out my wallet, reiterating ::


The truth sometimes hurts.

Speaking of Photography

Really? After all that you think I'm going to give some super detailed account of how I created the cake photo? Noooo way. My fingers are way too tired.

You'll get the short and sweet baby.

Ok, as short as can be without leaving out any details.

The cake shot, an homage to a David Hobby, has a few decisive technical elements that were executed for the exact desired outcome.

Notice the cool blue background, the burning candle, the attention to detail and the light; all variables that were decided upon, nothing accidental.

By viewing the diagram, you will see the key elements of the shot.

First, the coconut cake with the candle burning. Obvious. Bought the cake at a random bodega on Front street in Kensington. Near Berks Station. The cake was $5 and the candle an even buck. I bought two candles in case one was burned too long during the shoot. Backups, of anything, are always good ideas. Total cost for shoot? $7.00 (USD).

Next, is the background, translucent sheers in the windows. You know, those that hang behind your curtains. I'm no interior designer so I'm not sure what to call them. Basically, you close those and open the heavy drapes to allow for soft sunlight to illuminate a room. This shot was taken in my bedroom.

For the table, I wanted a specular surface. Perfect, was the chic, modern, stainless steel nightstand by the bed. This was cleaned off and moved into position.

The cake tray was total DIY. I couldn't find where the wife stored a real one so I made my own. A dinner plate atop an inverted serving bowl. If I didn't say anything, you'd never have known.

Now on to the exposure.

I first got a -2 EV on the room. The working, underexposed ambient was ISO 50, 1/140, f/8.0. I wanted to work f/8.0 for a nice deep DOF (depth of field) getting the entire cake in focus. This slightly underexposed environment would be dramatic as I added my own strobes to light the cake. Notice how the cake pops from the background?

The color was all created by the WB (white balance) and gels. To go cool blue, I dropped the working WB to the incandescent or tungsten setting. That turned the entire ambient blue. To bring up the cake to a normal color temperature, I gelled the key light with a full CTO (color temperature  orange) Rosco Strobist gel. A cool trick to have up your sleeve.

Back to the exposure decisions, you may be wondering why the shutter was slowed to 1/40. At a super low ISO 50 I was still able to keep the ambient down but at the same time allow for the candle flame to be burned onto the sensor. Remember. Aperture controls flash and shutter controls ambient, always and forever. I'm not going to get into those physics or we will never leave here today. Just trust me on that fact.

Now for the off camera lighting. The good stuff.

I went with two mods, the key being a 430EX ii stuffed into a Gadget Infinity ring flash modifier. This Hong Kong hunk-o-junk was $25 bucks with a zero return policy. Um, red flag? This baby eats up more light than a black hole. Just Sayin. This rig was positioned hard camera right, perpendicular to the cake.

So why the light sucking ring flash modifier? Texture baby, texture. Although I had to crank the 430 to full nuclear power to get f/8.0, the detail it brought up as it raked across the coconut shavings was second to none.

The fill was brought in by the uber useful Westcott 40" 5-in-1 Reflector kit. $50 well spent. This was positioned hard camera left, perpendicular to the cake with the silver side for a more powerful reach. in hindsight, I should have used the gold side for a warmer, more neutral fill. Hey, live and learn.

The gear?

Body was that of the beautiful Betsy as usual, the workhorse, the Nikon D4.

Glass was the Nikon Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G. In the tight space it was a great choice to compress the background as much as possible, keeping other bedroom elements out of frame.

Betsy was outfitted with a nice sexy set of legs; Feisol carbon fiber tripod system with ball head and center column. I freaking love that tripod. For about a G, it would be the first and last pro tripod you ever need to invest in. Cheap sticks will need to be replaced. I promise. A good set will last longer than any other gear you own.

Triggering the 430EX ii was a set of Pocketwizard Plus ii transceivers. The industry standard. Again, much more expensive than a set of Ebay triggers but you can guarantee peace of mind and reliability. Think about it. If you're shooting a big client, would you be confident that your cheap Chinese triggers will work, every time?

Since this was a "studio" environment, static shot setup, I decided to work tethered. Ethernet cable linked Betsy to the MacBook Pro. In this fashion I could see on a large monitor, the results from each frame fired. Beats the back of a three inch LCD any day of the week. Give it a shot.

Last but not least, post production. For this image, I scaled it up quite a bit, filling the frame more appropriately with the cake. When opened in Adobe Bridge, I felt that the blue was a bit too blue so I decided to bump the WB up a tad while bringing down the blues with in the hue/saturation module.

After the normal ACR (Adobe Camera RAW) adjustments, I opened in Photoshop for some fine tuning. To get some more detail pop from the coconut shavings, I used the Nik Color Efex Pro plugin and added some tonal contrast. Once the layer was added, the opacity was dropped to a meager 10%.

Boom, export to jpeg and wrap it up.



So what lies ahead? More awesomeness as usual. Lots of signal and the avoidance of noise as much as possible.

Last but not least, I want to thank you, the readers, for making this possible. Had you guys not been here, there would be no good reason to continue. I am humbled that you have landed here and stayed. I want to deliver, to you, a blog that will continue to be not only educational but adventurous and entertaining at the same time.


Until next time...