What’s In My Head!?

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“What’s In My Head” composite; Nikon D810, 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm f/4, 1/60sec, 4x speed lights, RRS tripod and ballhead

 

Wow…I received a lot of feedback about this image, thanks!!  Many of you have asked how it was made, so I’ll attempt to explain it here.  Before going into the nuts and bolts of how I made the image above, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of words about how I came up with the idea.  After a long period of constant left-brained activity (aka, my day job), I needed a few days reprieve to get back in touch with my inner creative. Unfortunately the more I tried to force it, the more frustrated I became and the further I seemed to retreat inside myself.  At one point it got so bad I felt as if I were mentally paralyzed!  Throughout the week I attempted to break out of this self-induced haze by looking for inspiration in some of my past work and other people’s work either in photography books, journals, magazines and websites like 500px.com.  The exercise produced little to no fruit and literally had nothing new in my little journal of ideas by the end of the week.

A spark of clarity occurred one night when I was fiddling around with one of my cameras, somehow thinking that the answer I was seeking lie inside the little black magic box in my hand.  Funny enough, that’s almost exactly what happened.  You see, I was going through the camera’s menu and double-checking my settings when the multiple-exposure option caught my attention.  Hmm….I haven’t done a real multiple exposure since my film days in college, I wonder how I much different it would be with digital? With that thought in mind, I went to bed.

The next morning while waiting for my coffee to brew, the thought of doing a multiple exposure still persisted but I was having a difficult time translating it to an actual image (in my head).  What could I use as a subject?  I was starting off into space (which so happened to be our living room) and out of nowhere it hit me like a ton of bricks…why not do an image that depicted the very issue I had been dealing with all week (my own subconscious impeding my creativity)?  Perfect!!

I immediately went into action.  I grabbed the stylus for the iPad and started to sketch out what I thought the image should look like.  Good coffee has a nice way to putting the creative juices into overdrive!  Since the living room provided my subconscious the extra kick it needed to get into action, it was really the only place in the house I could envision this image taking shape.  I sketched the layout of the room and furniture, and then walked around the room to decide the camera’s point of view.  Finally, I needed to divide the room into “seats” (or positions) and identify some of the big personality blocks that I had been dealing with all week.  I was starting to feel like a kid in a candy store…those creative juices were now starting to flow, and my God did it feel good!!

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Quick Drawing using Procreate iPad App. Note: My original idea had me standing with a bike behind the couch and me on the floor with Rinker (quality time). I did make the image with the bike but used an image of me in my motorcycle riding helmet and jacket…it was more pleasing asthetically.

The first ‘subject’ I wanted to photograph was pretty easy.  I was already sitting in the chair in my pajamas and hoodie, which is typical most mornings during my days off from work. The rest of my ‘subjects’ required a little more thought, but came to me fairly quickly since they were all competing for my time all week long.  It’s funny, I had to narrow it down to just five additional subjects due to the relatively small space of the living room, so I picked the top five of the week and continued with the plan.

Now that I had the overall layout and the subjects identified, I could focus on the technical details to make the image happen.  The first thing was to get the appropriate perspective.  I grabbed the camera and picked the lens that I thought would offer the best coverage for such a small space (relatively speaking).  I finally settled on the ultra-wide angle Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, which is a very specialized lens and can be tricky to deal with when photographing people.  Once I had all of that figured out I grabbed my tripod, mounted the camera and locked it all down.

A lot of times photographers have to work backwards to reach their intended destination…and this was no exception.  Since the room was fairly bright with the windows open and I knew that I had to make at least seven exposures, I quickly ruled out using the multiple exposure function of the camera.  Had I gone down the path of using the multiple-exposure function of the camera, the end result would’ve produced a room that was well-exposed however each of my subjects would’ve appeared somewhat transparent.  While this effect can produce some incredible and ethereal images, my intent was to make it look as my multiple personalities were present at the moment of capture. While there may be several different ways to make this happen, I made the conscious decision to blend the images together in post-production.

Gaffers tape used to prevent inadvertent changes to zoom and focus .

Gaffers tape used to prevent inadvertent changes to zoom and focus .

With all of that in mind, consistency is key when making multiple images of a subject with the intent of blending them together. To make it as consistent as possible, a spot near the middle of the coffee table was used to focus on (which when stopped down, would provide enough depth of field to keep the subjects on the couch and chair in focus), the lens and camera were switched from autofocus to manual and finally gaffers tape was applied to the zoom and focus rings on the lens to lock it all down.  As an aside, gaffers tape is worth its weight in gold to photographers; here I used it as a little extra insurance policy against Murphy sneaking in and ruining the day.  In order to get the exposure correct, I ensured that the camera was in the Manual mode, took a light reading and underexposed the room by a half a stop to prevent the window blinds from blowing out.  Finally, I double and triple checked the vantage point and marked the floor where the tripod was located using gaffers tape.

Gaffers tape used to mark the location of the tripod...just in case the klutzy side of yours truly appeared

Gaffers tape used to mark the location of the tripod…just in case the klutzy side of yours truly appeared

Click.  Way underexposed.  Hmm…the light outside was changing from minute to minute due to passing clouds outside; which meant that getting consistent results was going to be an issue from an exposure standpoint.  I thought about closing the drapes over the blinds to keep the ambient light tamed, however this was a very silly thought since I needed a fair amount of light to fill the living room.  While I don’t have big, powerful studio strobes, I do have a limited supply of small speedlights that could provide just enough volume of light to fill the room.  I set up a single speedlight with a diffuser on the television stand and tried that…it seemed to do a decent job of filling the room but the light was very harsh and spectral.   I happen to have a couple of Lastolight strip lights designed for small flash and pulled one out to see if that would soften and even the light enough while providing enough spread to cover the area where the subjects were going to be.  The results were better, but even at full power it wasn’t quite getting the job done.  I needed a bigger, softer light with more volume, but I space constraints and light-to-subject distance quickly became a concern.

Answer: white bed sheets.  By tacking up a couple of white bed sheets, I was able to turn the blue wall behind the camera into a giant softbox and reflector.  After a lot of trial and error, I ended up placing two speedlights, pointed up with diffusers, on the television stand behind where the bed sheets draped over the television to provide additional ‘volume’ of light.  I then took the strip light, mounted to a century stand and placed it high enough to bounce the light off of the bed sheets and back into the room.  For the most part, it worked like a charm and I was able to fill the room with enough light that it balanced well with the ambient light outside coming through the closed window blinds (note: the windows are facing west, causing me to increase the power on the flashes to keep the exposure consistent).

Bed sheets on the wall being lit by a strip light (top) and two speed lights astride the television lurking under the bed sheet. Had to use a Century Stand to enable the strip light placement (highly recommend these if you need to put things in obscure places)

Bed sheets on the wall being lit by a strip light (top) and two speed lights astride the television lurking under the bed sheet. Had to use a Century Stand to enable the strip light placement (highly recommend these if you need to put things in obscure places)

While the light was sufficient for the main subjects on the couch, due to the size of the room and where the subject placement was, the ‘lazy’ subject in the chair was uneven by a couple of stops.  I set up the second strip light and feathered the light such to lift the light level on the right side of the image enough to balance with the main light in the living room.  Whew!  Finally, the light was balanced across the entire room…now all I needed to do was to make the image happen (and time was of the essence).

Strip light placed just out of view to help light the 'lazy Bill' in the image and to provide an increase in overall volume of light in the living room (to compete with and even out the natural light coming in from the window)

Strip light placed just out of view to help light the ‘lazy Bill’ in the image and to provide an increase in overall volume of light in the living room (to compete with and even out the natural light coming in from the window)

Since I hadn’t shaved in a few days, I knew that the “lazy” image would be the first one out of the gate.  Already in my PJ’s, I grabbed a beer out of the refrigerator and proceeded to go through a different set of poses in my mind (it was past noon at that point so it’s okay to drink…right!?).  I switched the camera to timer mode, which gave me a whopping ten seconds to push the button, run over to the chair and get ‘in position’ just as the shutter clicked.  Thankfully the distance between the chair and camera was pretty close, so this wasn’t too bad.  However, this quickly pointed out a limitation for the rest of the series.  I was either going to have to rethink my strategy, or figure out a way to trigger the camera without running back and forth.  At that point Andrée had gone out to run errands, so I couldn’t rely on her to be behind the camera to push the shutter.  Thankfully I remembered that I had a couple of cheap radio triggers in my camera case, which proved to be just the ticket!

After a series of ‘lazy’ images, content that I had a few that I could use in the final image I quickly showered, shaved and changed for the next series of poses.  Next, I did a series of poses as the ‘photographer,’ making sure to keep within a specific physical space which could’ve created all kinds of havoc during post-production.  Of note when doing a image like this, one has to keep in mind the old physics adage that two objects cannot occupy the same physical space.  Once I was done with the photographer series, it was followed by a change of clothes and then a series of me being confused…and so on and so on. After it was all said and done and I was content that I had a couple of workable images in each pose, it was time to deconstruct the makeshift studio and start putting the images together in post.

To be very frank, post-production is a self-identified ‘weak spot’ within my workflow and I knew that I was going to have to step out of my comfort zone and use a layering-based program to blend the images together.  To be honest, this is the first time I’ve used a layer-based program (Photoshop, On1 Layers, etc.) to enhance/create an image since college; generally my workflow involves just tweaking a few things here and there in Lightroom and/or On1 Effects and then calling it a day.

Knowing full well that I was diving into unknown (unpracticed) territory, I sucked it up and pressed forward.  For this image I figured that I would work backwards from how I took the images, thinking that blending in shadows, folds on the couch and whatnot would be easier if I handled the layers that had dominant features first.  The last image/pose I took was of me in my motorcycle jacket and helmet; I used this image as my base layer, all of the other subjects would be blended onto that one.  Using On1 Layers (I don’t own Photo-chop), I slowly added in the best representation of each ‘personality’ onto the base layer.  Besides trying to get comfortable with the different tools in the tool palate, the actual exercise of blending in the different personalities went rather quick.  The final result was saved as a master file and I made my usual tweaks to exposure, contrast, saturation, color temp and added a vignette in Lightroom.  The end result is the image at the top of the page.

Whew…that was a lot of work for one image, but I’m pretty happy with the result.  I think it tells the story that I was trying to tell.  One of my frustrations throughout the week was that I really didn’t want to go out and take “pretty pictures;” I really wanted to create images that were an expression of my inner voice, something I haven’t been able to translate in a long time.

So to recap how this image was made:

Camera: Manual Mode (set f-stop & shutter speed, then leave alone)

Lens: Find the focus point and tape down focus/zoom rings

Autofocus: Manual

Tripod: Mark location and don’t adjust/touch it!

Shutter Release: Use the camera’s timer function or remote (if you have one).  All else fails, have an assistant handy

Post Production: use a layers-based program (or equivalent) to blend the images together

…and most importantly, HAVE FUN!!

Until next time…

 

It’s Been a While…Part Deux!

Life…it has a tendency to naturally ebb and flow.  Obviously I’m not breaking any new ground with that statement, but there was a lot of ebb between my last blog post and where I find myself now…on the cusp of some flow.  It’s taken over two years before I could bring myself to write a blog post, let alone about the winter of ’13 and the personal tradgedies that occurred…

….so here goes:

Without going into too many details, I lost my mother and father to their fight with cancer in November and December ’13 respectively.  Although I know that my father would’ve eventually succumb to the effects of cancer, I firmly believe that he died of a broken heart and the sudden loss of his high school sweetheart and soulmate.  The only time the two of them were apart was when my father served two tours in Vietnam.  My relationship with both of them was very, very close and their loss has had a tremendous impact on my life (obviously)…there isn’t a day that’s gone by that I haven’t wished for just one more day, minute, laugh, phone call or to just hear their voices one more time.  One day…but not yet.

The spring and summer of ’14 was a blur of events, from taking care of my mother and father’s estates, trading the coast of California for the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and learning a whole new job in the military.  The new position at work was a firehose of information, followed by a year of seemingly never-ending series of crew shifts.  Making new friends, spending time with old ones and just enjoying the area proved to be very challenging, but alas my obligation as a full-time ‘crew dog’ has (thankfully) been reduced to a few shifts per month…which pulls the door open a little more for me to enjoy some of my neglected passions.

Since this blog is supposed to be focused (mostly) on my photographic journey, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a few additions to my kit, including the Nikon D810 and a lens I’ve lusted after since it’s announcement in ’05, the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 AF-S VR.  I’m pulling together a bunch of ideas that I think will be very interesting, inspiring and fulfilling  (to me).

I’ll leave you with these parting words…never take your friends or family for granted, leave words unspoken or miss an opportunity to make the most of each day.  Be careful of the “one day…” promises, you never know if that day will ever come.  Hold on to life and love with all of your being…

Keep watching this space…more to come!