Archive for the ‘Techniques’ Category

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Back to a Favorite Spot

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

We’ve all got favorite places; places that for whatever reason we keep coming back to, whether it’s because they’re pretty, they’re comfortable, there are good people there who we enjoy spending time with, whatever.

The weather has been beautiful in Boston for the last couple of days (with the exception of that earthquake yesterday! Does that count as weather?), and I had some free time last night so I decided to go back to one of my favorite places in Boston for shooting at night.

The Longfellow Bridge connects Cambridge and Boston across the Charles river, and looks out on the part of the river known as the Sailing Basin, because as the widest, most open part of the river, the MIT, Harvard and other university sailing teams, as well as the public all use it as a great spot for sailing small boats. On any given afternoon there are dozens of sailboats on the water here.

This spot on the bridge is a favorite of mine because in addition to the great view of the river, from this vantage point there is also a great view of the Prudential building and the Hancock Tower, Boston’s two tallest skyscrapers, and the bridge faces southwest, meaning it is wonderful for shooting landscape photos at dusk.

"Charles River Basin": Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM @ f/8, 17mm, 3.2 sec., ISO 160. ©Chris Conti Photography

For this image, because I knew I wanted both the natural light in the sky as well as the artificial lights inside the buildings to be visible with a nice balance between the two, it was important to wait for just the right light. I knew that would mean in this case that would mean a little bit after sunset, when the sky had dimmed sufficiently to not overpower the artificial lights (sunset photos can be gorgeous, but I’ve found that often the best light is actually after sunset, such as here). With the camera on the tripod and using a wide-angle lens (my trusty Canon 5D Mark II with the superb EF 17-40mm f/4L lens), I stopped the lens down to f/8 because shutter speed wasn’t going to be an issue (thank you, tripod) and I wanted the little bit of extra sharpness that comes with a smaller aperture. Using a remote cable release to fire the camera to avoid shake I fired a few frames to test exposure (the camera’s internal light meter here is a decent starting point but only a starting point) and play with a few different angles. Since I wasn’t using a tilt/shift lens and the camera needed to be angled up to get the framing I wanted, I had to do a bit of digital alteration in post (Photoshop’s “Lens Correction” function) to remove the distortion and make the buildings straight.

The result is what I think is a nice image, somewhat different than ones I’ve taken here before. It is by no means perfect though (if in fact an image can ever be), so I’m sure that I’ll be back to this spot again some time.

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Tips for Taking Pictures of Fireworks

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Ah, it’s that time of year. In a couple of days, towns and cities all over the country are going to be having fireworks displays, and I have to say, cooking out on the grill with friends & family then sitting in the grass watching fireworks is one of my favorite things. Fireworks are beautiful and make for beautiful, striking and colorful photographs, but they’re also technically challenging to photograph well, primarily because there isn’t a whole lot of light.

If you’re planning to take pictures of fireworks this weekend, there are a few things you can do to make your pictures much better.

“Fireworks, Portland Maine”: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM @ f/22, 100mm, 25 sec., ISO 400. ©Chris Conti Photography

#1: Camera Support. Because it’s nighttime and there’s very little light, the camera is going to need a very slow shutter speed (ie, a long exposure) to get enough light to properly expose the photo, and therefore needs to be held very still to prevent the picture from being blurry. It is very difficult to hold the camera steady enough in your hand, so you need to use something else to keep the camera from moving during the exposure. The most common kind of camera support is a tripod: if you’ve got one and are able to carry it with you, great. That’s your best option. If not though, there are other things you can do to steady the camera: anything you can rest the camera on can be used to steady it – this could be a backpack you put on the ground and then the camera on top of; a jacket you ball up, or even a fence rail, window sill or other fixed structure that the camera can sit on.

#2: The longest exposure you can manage! In the photo above, there are at least a half a dozen individual fireworks exploding. They didn’t all go off at the same time! By keeping the camera exposure as long as you can, you can pull off a trick: since the fireworks are so bright against the night sky, one going off after another after another will have the effect of “layering” the explosions on top of each other, and the single photo will end up having lots of explosions that happened at different times. The photo above was exposed for 25 seconds, so all of the explosions that happened during that whole 25 seconds show up in the photo. The flip side of this trick though, is that the camera needs to be help absolutely still for the whole time, or else the photo will be blurry, so the camera support above is that much more important.

In cameras that have full manual controls (SLR cameras and other high-end ones), setting a long exposure is easy (with an SLR camera you should also use a small aperture [high f-stop #] to gain a deeper depth of field and allow a longer exposure!). In other cameras like “point & shoot” types that can fit in your pocket, it can be trickier or impossible to set longer exposures (on some models, the “exposure compensation” can be turned all the way up to force the camera to take a longer exposure).

 

Fireworks, Somerville Massachusetts: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM @ f/16, 17mm, 30 sec., ISO 100. ©Chris Conti Photography

 

#3 Avoid the smoke. When fireworks go off they make a lot of smoke, and if the air is humid or there isn’t much wind, the smoke can hang around and obscure a clear view of the fireworks going off. If you can, try to pick a spot up-wind from where the fireworks are going to go off, so that the smoke gets blown away from you, instead of in your face. Photos look a lot better without a ton of smoke in them.

#4 Avoid extraneous light sources when you can (or at least figure out how to keep them from being distracting)! Extraneous light sources can be distracting in an image, especially since they’re going to be magnified many times in brightness by the long exposures you’re going to be using. In the image above, there were a bunch of light sources (street lights) that just couldn’t be avoided without really screwing up the framing of the image. I did work though to keep a really, really bright light that was facing straight at me out of the frame to the left. Even so though, you can see the light and lens flare that came from that light.

Good luck, and have fun!

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Somerville Fireworks (& The Boston Globe)

Friday, July 1st, 2011

So I walked over to my town’s local fireworks display last night (right around the corner from my house), and just for fun, I carried along a camera and tripod (of course… it’s just who I am). It was crazy – a much bigger production than I’d assumed: all of the streets were blocked off, there were thousands of people in the streets, food trucks, etc etc.:

The crowd for the Somerville fireworks display: iPhone photo ©Chris Conti Photography

No sooner than I had set up my tripod I was approached by a woman who introduced herself as writer for the Boston Globe, asking me who I was there shooting for (in other words, if I worked for another news organization). When I replied that I’m a self-employed photographer and was just there shooting photos for my own amusement, she asked if she could use one of my photos for her Globe article – apparently the Globe “didn’t have budget” to send one of their own photographers to cover the event.

Everyone knows that times are very tough for print media organizations – since everyone is getting their news online, newspapers’ subscriber bases are evaporating and with them go the newspapers’ revenue, which has resulted in terrible staff cuts at just about every paper. But it is a sad state of affairs indeed when a leading regional newspaper “doesn’t have budget” to pay a photojournalist to cover an event on which they plan to publish a story, and this was an example of why I am very, very glad that I am not a photojournalist.

In any case, I was there shooting photos anyway, and since they’d already decided they weren’t going to pay for photography of the event (that much was clear) I told the writer that provided I was given proper credit for the photo, I’d give the Globe one to run with their story*. The writer took my email address, and several hours later via email I sent her a few photos I captured from the evening.

For the Globe’s article, they picked one of the photos I sent, and the writer actually quoted me as well (which I didn’t know she was going to do! If I’d known I was going to be quoted, I’d have paid attention to my grammar!). The article can be seen here: http://www.boston.com/yourtown/news/somerville/2011/07/somerville_fireworks_light_up.html

Here are a few of the photos I shot that night (it really was a great display, and as Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone was sure to point out, the fireworks didn’t cost taxpayers a dime, since they were funded in full through private donations).

Fireworks, Somerville Massachusetts: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM @ f/16, 17mm, 30 sec., ISO 100. ©Chris Conti Photography

Fireworks, Somerville Massachusetts: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM @ f/16, 17mm, 30 sec., ISO 100. ©Chris Conti Photography

Fireworks, Somerville Massachusetts: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM @ f/16, 17mm, 30 sec., ISO 100. ©Chris Conti Photography

*: I understand this issue may anger some professionals in the industry who rely on paying editorial work. The debate about shooting for pay vs. shooting solely for a credit is not an insignificant one, and it is truly embarrassing for the Globe  that they have cut back so dramatically on paying editorial work that they didn’t send a staff photographer or editorial freelancer to shoot something that they thought was important enough to warrant a story. It is a bad time to be an editorial photographer or photojournalist indeed.

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An Unusual Request

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Take a look at this photo – does anything seem wrong here?

5-final

After shooting a portrait for a client the other day, the subject emailed me with an unusual request. Now, in editing portraits in Photoshop, I often trim a few inches off the waists of subjects, remove skin blemishes, etc. This client’s request though, was a new one for me: he wanted me to give him a thicker beard.

Apparently, he had given up shaving a week or so before the portrait was shot, and therefore had several days’ growth of stubble, but wanted a fuller beard for his portrait. In fact, the subject’s beard was pretty stubbly. Here is the original image:

1-original

I emailed the subject back that this kind of digital Rogaine would be tricky to do without it looking fake, but nonetheless he asked me to do what I could. I generally don’t like manipulating photographs to such a degree that it crosses the line in my mind from simple retouching (correcting skin blemishes, for example) into outright fakery (which this clearly did), but at the end of the day, my job is to make the client happy. So I proceeded. After my standard, basic Photoshop tweaks (slight Curves, Hue & Saturation and Color Balance adjustments in the form of Adjustment Layers), the image looked like this:

2-curves-hs-cb

To give the impression of a fuller, heavier beard though, I was going to have to get creative… I decided that in order to achieve a realistic look I would need the texture of actual fibers and strands of hair. So, I identified the thickest part of the subject’s facial hair (which looked to be an area under his nose, highlighted in yellow below), selected it and Identified it as a pattern for the Pattern Stamp tool. Essentially, I was going to use the subject’s own hair to clone in additional hair.

3 patterns

I then used the Pattern Stamp tool to “paint on” the additional hair into a separate layer, varying the opacity from 90% where the appearance would be heaviest around the subject’s mouth, to 10% (in 10% increments) where it would be the lightest, on the sides of his face. The “mask” created by this process is represented below as a Quick Mask, showing the varying degrees of opacity. This process got me close, but didn’t give me quite the look I wanted, so I repeated the procedure using another pattern, this time taken from the subject’s head (highlighted above in green), rotating the selection such that the strands of hair flowed the correct directions. Again, I used the graduated-opacity mask shown below.

4 mask

The end result came out pretty well – I was able to significantly thicken the subject’s beard, but don’t think a typical viewer would look at the photo and think anything had been altered. Placed side by side with the original, however, the difference is substantial:

before-after

As I said above, I don’t like altering photographs to an extent that constitutes fakery (the distinction of which of course is a completely subjective judgement, but which in my mind means going beyond simply erasing an unattractive pimple here and there)… I find it distasteful. But as a corporate headshot, the purpose of this photo is to make the subject look good (this isn’t a documentary or photojournalistic shot), and the job of the photographer is always to make the client happy. With this little bit of Photoshop creativity, I think I succeeded.

(By the way, this portrait was shot on my new Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro prime lens using my Canon 5D Mark II body. This was the first time I used the lens for client work, and it is fantastic! The lens is so good I think I’m going to have to write another blog post about it when I get the time! For now though, great lens, highly recommended!)

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CD Cover Project

Monday, December 21st, 2009

This was a fun little personal project. A friend of mine is a very talented musician, and recently asked a favor for assistance with a project he was working on. Brian is a big Beatles fan, and he had an idea that for Christmas presents for his family and friends he would record a CD of his cover versions of a number of his favorite Beatles songs (no small task, as Brian played all of the parts [lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums and vocals] himself!). Brian asked me to create the front and back covers for the CD.

Brian’s idea was that we would recreate one of his favorite Beatles album covers, and do a take-off on it. He decided to use the cover from the Beatles’ first U.S. album released in 1963, With the Beatles, which looks like this:

WITH THE BEATLES cover

Cover of the Beatles' 1963 album With the Beatles

The idea was that we would substitute Brian’s face for those of John, Paul, George & Ringo. If I could get him in a studio in front of a black background with studio lighting this would be easy. Unfortunately Brian currently lives in Chicago, so not only couldn’t I get him in a studio, I couldn’t even shoot his headshots myself. Instead, I instructed him to set up his Point & Shoot camera zoomed all the way in to match the flattened look of the Beatles’ faces, with a single light on to his left, to light the left side of his face as the subjects on the real cover were lit. With the help of his wife Katie, he took those shots and emailed them to me. They looked like this:

brian

A good start, but they needed a lot of work in order to make them look authentic to the original. In Photoshop, I outlined Brian’s head and shoulders, removed the background and replaced it with a solid black background. I then converted the image to black & white using various adjustment layers and masks to achieve the high-contrast lighting of the originals. I arrived at something that was pretty close.

bribw

I used a gradient to blend his shoulders to black to make them disappear, then used this file to create a composite image of four different Brians, laid out like the original image. For the four Brians, I layered the images one on top of another with their shoulders slightly overlapping to give the appearance of four people standing one in front of another, slightly decreasing the size and softening the focus each time to create the illusion of depth of field. After a few minutes in Adobe Illustrator to recreate the Parlophone logo and typeset a title bar, I then used Photoshop’s filters to add some noise and texture patterns to the image, to give it the look and feel of an aged, grainy, textured paper, instead of a 21-st century glossy digital print! The result:

cd front

I think it is pretty faithful to the original…

comparison

I also quickly laid out the back cover / track list using Adobe Illustrator, in the same style as the original:

Basic CMYK

All in all, a fun project.

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