My favorite group photo - how I shot it

I made this photograph for an ad appearing in the January/February 2019 edition of Arlington Magazine. It’s one of my all-time favorite group photos. Why? First, the folks at Dodini Behavioral Health were some of the happiest people I’ve ever photographed - and happy people make good, relaxed subjects. Second, all the compositional and lighting elements came together perfectly.

Dodini group.jpg

Let’s break it down.

1 - Positioning

You’ve seen the typical group photo: two or three uniform rows of people, shorter folks in front, tallest person centered in the back, everyone lined up in the same direction. I try to avoid “formation posing” when I can. Instead, I group people in “clumps” of 3 or 4 and turn their bodies so that individuals in each clump seem to be interacting with each other. In the image below, you can see how I’ve grouped 10 people into three clumps.

Dodini clumps 2.jpg

I also hate arranging people so there’s a predictable ramp in height. Instead, I like to create an “Alpine mountain range,” with peaks and valleys scattered across the entire width of the image.

Dodini heights.jpg

The result is that the viewer’s eye dances across the page, never settling on a center point but moving up and down and jumping from face to face. Each person’s pose, i.e. direction of the body and hand position, also contributes to the dynamic feel of the image.

2 - Lighting

Though it appears simple, lighting this image was quite challenging. The biggest issue was the room itself: roughly 15 feet from camera to wall (short for a group this size), the space filled with large pieces of furniture, and not a lot of room for light stands, reflectors, or softboxes.

The key light was relatively easy: one strobe through a white umbrella, positioned to camera left and just above head level. This would cast a soft shadow behind each person and create shape and definition on each face.

I knew I would need plenty of fill light to even out overall brightness and to prevent harsh shadows on faces. I didn’t have enough space to use umbrellas or softboxes and I was forced to bounce strobes off walls and the ceiling. Because the walls were gray, I had to use several strobes at full power and aim them carefully to prevent hotspots.

Diagram via the Online Lighting Diagram Creator

Diagram via the Online Lighting Diagram Creator

The resulting image required a bit of post-processing to even out brightness and to correct for color, but otherwise was quite good straight out of the camera.

3 - Pose and expression

Everyone was relaxed through the entire session and you can see that with their natural smiles. And lucky me - no one blinked. (I often have to Photoshop faces from one image into another.)

Final thoughts

The session took just under two hours from start to finish, including moving furniture, shooting at an alternate location outside the building, and shooting a headshot. Big thanks to my subjects for being such a cooperative bunch!

Creating an impactful image

I was asked by Arlington Magazine to create an ad for Virginia Hypnosis to be published in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue. Jason Linett and I were in constant communication the week before the shoot. Jason’s practice focuses on smoking cessation, and he wanted to illustrate this with lots of cigarettes.

We first tried some static poses with cigarettes piled high on a table. After brainstorming a bit, I suggested a more dynamic setup which would feature Jason dropping cigarettes into a trash can. I also wanted this image to be bright and positive, reflecting Jason’s clothes and personality.

The lighting setup is shown below. The key light is a speedlight positioned at camera left and fairly high. The fill light is another speedlight to camera right, softened by a shoot-through umbrella. The background is a wall in Jason’s conference room. I carefully played with the position of the lights and Jason’s distance from the wall so that his shadow would fall just right. After that, it was a matter of shooting until we got the best combination of pose, expression, and action.

Diagram via the Online Lighting Diagram Creator

Touring the Big Easy

Last week I visited New Orleans - unbelievably, it was my very first trip there. Naturally, I spent a lot of time walking around the French Quarter, but I made sure to visit other parts of the city as well. I stayed in the Bywater, bordering Faubourg Marigny, and it was fun being in a real “neighborhood.” The core of the city is pretty compact, so walking was easy. I also discovered bikeshare, which allowed me to quickly explore other areas as well: St. Roch, Treme-Lafite, CBD, Garden District, Algiers Point. The jazz clubs along Frenchmen Street were a 15-minute walk from my abode and I heard some fabulous performers. Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, I loved it: the food, the sights, the music, the people. Enjoy these vacation snaps from my week in the Big Easy (click on the thumbnails to open a larger image).

An Edwardian photo shoot

Photo workshops are a great way to try different styles, techniques, and subjects without a huge investment in time. I've shot with the Manassas Photgraphy Workshops a few times before, and Rose, the organizer, does a great job with props and costumes.

This shoot's theme was Edwardian - specifically Edwardian postcard girls. The Edwardian era covered, naturally, the reign of Edward VII from 1901 to 1910. The author Samuel Hynes described the era as a "leisurely time when women wore picture hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun really never set on the British flag." Women's fashion moved from the heavy, ankle-length, and dark gowns of the Victorians to lighter and slimmer dresses, sometimes with lots of lace and scandalously lower necklines.

The picture postcard arrived in Britain in 1894 and was the Instagram of its day. Publishers sought to put all kinds of images on their postcards, from scenic landscapes to urban views to beautiful celebrities. And yes, lots of cats. Postcards were so popular that the Postmaster General estimated that 6 billion postcards were sent between 1902-1910 - about 200 postcards for every person in the UK during that period!

I had a lot of fun with this photoshoot. I tried to recreate the look and feel of vintage photographs by paying attention to lighting, pose, and software effects. In two of the images, I was inspired by John Singer Sargent's beautiful glowing portraits.

Click on each image to enlarge it. What do you think? It's certainly different from my usual corporate head shot!

Fujifilm fun

I got a Fujifilm X-Pro1 camera several years ago and I immediately fell in love with it. Its rangefinder styling and physical controls reminded me of the film cameras that I grew up with. More importantly, the X-Pro1 was fun to shoot: I felt as if I was using a finely-crafted tool instead of an impersonal electronic device. I believed the X-Pro1 actually helped me take better pictures.

The X-Pro1 is far from perfect. I am most frustrated with its lack of speed: it's slow to focus and takes forever to write RAW files to the SD card. It's a bit too small for my hands - I keep hitting the Q button by mistake. Its battery life is abysmal.

And yet, those images, when everything goes well ...

I photographed a couple of models in the streets of Georgetown, Washington DC, with the X-Pro1 and the by-now ancient 35 mm f/1.4 XF R lens. I shot JPG only, using the Pro-Neg S color profile, with sharpness and highlights turned down one or two notches. I used this lens mostly around f/2-2.8; the resulting high shutter speed meant that I could not use any flash, only available light. As expected, the images were lovely.

I also mounted an old Helios 44-3 58 mm f/2 and took some portraits. Using the X-Pro1's EVF, I had little trouble focusing. I was less happy with the images, however. Sharpness on-center was acceptable, but move a bit off-center and highlights get smeared. Not a great effect for what I wanted to do that day.

Two weeks later I had another test shoot and the historic Chapman Mill in Manassas, Virginia, and for that session I rented a Fujifilm X-T2 and the 18-55 mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS lens. First, the X-T2 is so much faster. Focusing seems instantaneous, the controls are much better laid out, and battery life is at least 50% better than the X-Pro1. I loved using the EVF; it's almost better than an optical viewfinder, especially for my aging eyes. I hear the EVF has some very useful tools when focusing manually, which would come in handy with adapted lenses.

The 18-55 mm lens redeemed itself very well. Far from being an ordinary "kit" lens, it was sharp, focused accurately, and rendered colors beautifully. I even prefer it to the Fujifilm 16-55 mm f/2.8 lens; the 18-55 gives up the wide f/2.8 aperture and 2 mm of focal length, but its image stabilization is very effective. Ultimately, I had an easier time achieving sharp photos with the 18-55 versus the 16-55.

Bottom line: two thumbs up for the X-T2, and even the 18-55 mm zoom. It's more than enough to make me give up my Nikon DSLR setup!

Vintage car races with the Sony RX10 III

I am quite the car nut, so when I had the chance to watch vintage car racing at Watkins Glen race track in upstate New York, I cleared out my calendar. Naturally, I would bring a camera - but I did not make the obvious choice of a pro-level DSLR with a gaggle of lenses. Instead, I chose the decidedly consumer-level Sony Cyber-shot RX10 III, an all-in-one superzoom camera.

Wait a minute ... am I claiming that a consumer-level "bridge" camera can compare against a DSLR? I'll post some images at the bottom of this article, but consider the biggest reason for choosing the Sony:

Sony vs Nikon.jpg

The Sony, on the left, weighs 2.2 lbs. The Nikon kit, comprising a prosumer-level D7200 body, 16-80 mm lens, and 80-400 mm lens, weighs over 6 lbs. The big zoom alone is 3.5 lbs. (Had I chosen a full-frame camera, the weight difference would have been even greater.) Plus - and this is a big factor, in my opinion - I can access the Sony's entire zoom range by toggling one switch, instead of having to swap lenses.

(By the way, I don't own any of this stuff. I rent cameras and lenses from

So how did the RX10 III stack up? Pretty decently, I'd say.

Image quality was surprisingly good. I shot JPGs, no RAWs, and was happy with the colors. I set exposure compensation to -1/3 or -2/3 EV and also used zebra to monitor my exposure. (More cameras should offer zebra in their live view. Hello, Fujifilm?) I set ISO and white balance to Auto. Otherwise, the images are straight out of the camera other than slight boosts to brightness in Lightroom.

Autofocus could not quite keep with the fast-moving cars. I tried a few AF modes, but had the best luck with single-shot mode using a center focus point. On continuous focus, the RX10 III has an annoying habit of racking out to the near distances instead of infinity when it loses focus. I didn't have time to experiment with tracking or other AF features.

I've used other Sony cameras before and am aware of their quirky menus. The RX10 III is no different. Things like EVF settings are scattered across different pages in a haphazard way. I changed a few settings, like assigning the custom buttons (ISO mapped to C1 and drive mode to C2), and that was enough for me.

Bottom line: no, I would not choose the RX10 III for a sport-specific assignment. But for pleasure, the Sony did quite well and I'm happy with the pictures. Here's the Flickr gallery, complete with camera metadata for all your viewing pleasure.

Postscript: Wouldn't you know it - Sony just announced the Cyber-shot RX10 IV, with improvements to the AF. Can't wait to try this out.

SVRA Watkins Glen 2017

Creative blocks and blahs

Everyone has experienced writer's block. You know the signs: an imminent deadline, a thousand words on a subject you're vaguely interested in, and ... no inspiration. Photographers (and probably all creatives) get these blocks as well. And it's doubly-frustrating when you're a self-employed creative.

So what do I do when I encounter a creative block? Well, my tendency is to sink further into my self-created abyss. I've tried various strategies over the years, and I've found that coping with creative block basically comes down to these simple tactics:

1. Don't check Facebook. Or Twitter or Instagram. Or news websites. These are all distractions that do nothing to stir the creative juices.

2. Step away. Of course, I'm going to (somewhat) contradict what I wrote in point #1. Sometimes you need a break; in my case, I'm often on my computer editing photos, doing accounting, responding to emails, creating my marketing campaigns. It's vital to step away and do something completely different - but I argue that the "something different" should not besocial media and its immediate but short-lived high. Instead, I find that washing my car (!) or pulling weeds (!!) are the kinds of distractions that can promote mindfulness.

3. Try something new. In corporate photography it's all too easy to fall into a routine. I like to mix it up by testing new equipment or techniques - whether it's a black-and-white film noir shoot or taking travel photos with a modest point-and-shoot camera.

4. Just do the work. I often find myself thinking of the outcome of my work rather than the work itself, and perversely, this prevents me from actually doing any work. It's "paralysis by analysis." An essayist who goes by the name of "Sketch Guy" recently wrote about this in the New York Times. He observed that a writer's block can be overcome by lowering one's standards: "Correction, I do my best to not have any standards at all. I abandon my standards. I urge myself to write badly, and once I do that my fingers begin to fly, and the inner critic is powerless.” Sage advice.


Fun in the sun - photograms

Summer is here and with the harsh, bright sun it's time again to work on photograms!

What's a photogram? It's a light image, created by placing objects directly on light-sensitive paper and exposing to the sun. After several minutes, the paper is developed by submerging it in a tray of plain water. Magically, an image will appear, a silhouette of whatever objects you placed on the paper, and after several hours of drying the image darkens into a deep, royal blue.

It's a great activity for kids and adults. You can find "sun paper" at some crafts stores or through Amazon. Here are some of my photograms using household objects.

Shooting old Hollywood / film noir styles

Got to do something fun this past weekend - a photoshoot styled after classic Hollywood and film noir photos. Our fabulous organizer, Rose, wrangled five models, costumes, and props into Richmond's historic train station. Thank goodness we shot indoors - it was a torrid 90 degrees outside, too hot and humid for late April.

Lighting was, on the surface, dead simple: just one flash, half of the time with a snoot. But like all things in life, the devil is in the details. This kind of hard, direct light is unforgiving; half an inch either way made all the difference in how shadows fell over the models' faces. i would have loved to use the huge Fresnel spotlights found in the old film studios, but that requires equally huge applications of electricity and manpower!

Color, psychology, and branding

In my last blog post, I discussed how color can affect how photographs are perceived. Most of that discussion assumed that photos are viewed in isolation. In my commercial and editorial work, however, that is rarely the case. Photographs are used to support a brand, or to accompany words. Ideally, the use of color in photographs should match the direction of the brand or story.

Companies, naturally, care about their identity. Brands are more than a clever name and logo; they are a kind of shorthand for all kinds of emotional qualities. The best brands spend a lot of time ensuring that their identities appeal to their audiences. The choice of color, type, image, and consistency of usage are paramount.

This article is a great primer on the psychology of color in branding and marketing.

Let's pick one of those brands and examine some of the photography that surrounds the product:

These are images from Fanta's European campaign. Note the subtle hints of orange: the back of the bench in the first image, the headband in the second image. All 4 images incorporate blue, which is a complementary color to orange, and thus provides the greatest visual contrast. Note the blue sunglasses in the first photo; I can almost guarantee that those were Photoshopped into the image.

When I work with clients, I like to sit down and discuss their creative direction, look at accompanying marketing or editorial materials, and consider how the photos are going to be used. This informs how and what I shoot, and how I post-process the images. As you can see in my last blog post, even subtle shifts in color can elicit opposite emotions for the same image.

Color and emotion

As a photographer, I spend a lot of time studying color. Color, of course, is a key element of many images. Color theory is a broad subject that can literally span an entire bookcase, but today I want to touch on just one aspect: the relationship of color and emotion.

You're probably familiar with some of these associations: red stands for passion and aggression; yellow can be friendly, but also a warning; green is natural and stable; blue is serene and trustworthy. black is sophisticated and edgy.

Sometimes, the use of color is explicit and obvious:

What do you feel? Is the subject light and approachable? Do you sense any danger at all?

For this studio shot of a bottle of Glamorene upholstery cleaner, I chose a light blue background to match the blues in the label, and also to make the reds really pop. The 1950's graphics are happy and playful; sky blue makes the bottle and its contents almost ethereal. 

At other times, the use of color is more subtle. Consider the following two images:

The left picture accurately portrays the brick wall as a very dark brown-black. For the image on the right, I gave the darker tones a bluish hue. Immediately this changes the mood of the photo: the suit's pinstripes are more prominent and the image becomes more sophisticated, almost detached. Blue tones also make the subject's flesh tones stand out more.

This process is known as "color grading" and is common in motion pictures. Next time you watch a movie, see if you can spot common color grading combos of blue/orange or green/brown in the shadows/highlights. Here's a nice article explaining the use of color grading in some well-known films and TV ads.

Next up: a discussion of color and branding.

Model, lens, and lighting test

For this shoot, I rented Fujifilm's 56 mm f/1.2 lens. This lens has gathered quite a reputation: it's supposedly endowed with an unbeatable combination of build quality, sharpness, and sublime creaminess in the out-of-focus areas. I just had to find out for myself.

Paired with my old but trusty Fujifilm X-Pro1 camera, I shot three models in a studio. I used a 3-light setup. The key light was set above the model and was either pointed directly at the model's face or bounced off a white umbrella. The hair light was set slightly behind the model, gelled blue, and flagged so as to not shine into the lens. The background was painted white, and I lit it with a red-gelled strobe. Finally, I set a silver bounce at the model's waist level to fill in the shadows under her chin. Exposure was around f/5.6 at ISO 200. I shot JPGs, and set white balance off my X-Rite ColorChecker Passport.

These are straight JPGs from the camera, with no more than a 1/3-stop adjustment to exposure. All i can say is "Wow!" The images from this camera/lens combo are simply divine, and I'm very tempted to make this lens a permanent part of my toolkit.

Four headshots, two moods

I do a lot of headshots. On the surface, it's a pretty simple thing: frontal view, flattering lighting, simple background. But like haiku, there's still a lot of variation possible within its restricted form. Should the lighting emphasize facial features or hide age lines? Is the person's left or right eye dominant? What color shall the background be? Open or closed smile?

Hyatt Place Arlington artist reception

Covering an event such as the artist reception at the Hyatt Place Arlington / Courthouse Plaza is always fun because of the people and the energy. (Not to mention the tasty hors d'oeuvres!) But there are also special challenges, and the biggest challenge is lighting. I like a natural look, but indoor lighting is often too dim and not flattering to skin tones. My go-to setup these days is a camera, zoom lens, and flash all mounted on a Stroboframe bracket. This bracket elevates the flash a good distance away from the lens; with a little bounce card, it produces decent lighting on people's faces. The bracket also allows me to flip the camera between portrait and landscape orientations without changing the position of the flash. It's not a small setup, but it really holds people's attention ... in a good way!

Author David Grinspoon

In this business I get to meet some interesting people. One of those people is Dr. David Grinspoon, astrobiologist and author. For his new book, "Earth in Human Hands," David commissioned me to take a portrait for the book jacket.

The brief was pretty simple: David wanted something casual that would portray him as an approachable person. I met him at a cafe in Washington DC, chatted over coffee, then photographed him indoors and outdoors, with window light and in open shade. David loves hats and brought a few to model.

Matching a style

For these headshots of executives from Monday Properties, I was asked to match images that had been taken by another photographer. This is trickier than it sounds. Without the ability to actually talk to that photographer and discuss lighting and background, I had to guess at his or her setup. Surprisingly, it was the color of background that gave me the most trouble, as I couldn't quite get the new photos to match the older ones. In the end, I simply cut out my background in Photoshop and replaced it with the correct color.

Try this game: go to the team page on Monday Properties website. There are 16 executive photos, of which 9 are mine. Correctly identify the 9 and I will send you a gift!

Neighborhood business

Michael Garcia should be a familiar face to anyone who attends an Arlington Chamber of Commerce event. I don't think he's ever missed one! Michael asked me to photograph his insurance agency in Arlington, Virginia. As a small business with a retail storefront on busy Columbia Pike, it's important to be visually connected to the neighborhood.

We were lucky that the day was slightly overcast, at least long enough for us to take some outdoor photos. Then it was indoors for group and individual pictures. Michael's team even coordinated with State Farm red tops!

Exploring the invisible spectrum of infrared photography

Our eyes perceive only a tiny slice of the electromagnetic spectrum, but digital cameras can "see" well beyond the color red. It's a strange world out in the near-infrared, where living plants glow and water appears black. "Color" has no meaning in this Twilight Zone. Processed as black-and-white images, skies become dramatically dark while clouds turn bright white. As color images, our normal conventions no longer apply; photographers are free to make plants yellow, pink, or purple.

Model test: Gurpreet Sarin

Gurpreet is an unconventional model with a richly-hued wardrobe. We had coffee and kicked around Bethesda MD for a couple of hours and took these photos. Once you're done with these images, head over here to view Gurpreet's audition for American Idol.

Note on equipment: I again used my Fujifilm X-Pro1, this time paired with the 23 mm f/1.4 lens. This gives an equivalent angle-of-view of a 35 mm for a full-frame or film camera, and it's a perspective that I greatly enjoy. I shot in JPG exclusively - RAW is painfully slow with this camera - and the JPGs that the X-Pro1 produces are so beautiful, you can pretty much use them straight out of the camera.