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.

Testing models and equipment

Outdoors on a cold, wintry day with the fabulous Sarah Moore. It was windy and freezing in Old Town, Alexandria VA and Sarah was nursing a cold, but she wanted to try this outfit. What a pro - she gutted it out and never complained.

Old Town is overflowing with brick buildings and other interesting facades. There are some warehouses just around the corner from Chadwicks, and that is where we found this especially nice shade of green.

Equipment notes: Fujifilm X-Pro1 with 35 mm f/1.4 lens. Beautiful lens, beautiful colors, but focusing speed is a tad leisurely. But that's not necessarily a bad thing: it slows down the pace and makes the process much more deliberate.

Construction of Hyatt Place Arlington

Thanks to Schupp Companies, which is developing the new Hyatt Place Arlington at Courthouse in Arlington, VA, I was able to tour the construction site and take some interesting photos. As an ex-electrical engineer, I love to look "under the hood" when given the opportunity.

"The best camera ...

... is the one you have with you."

You can't take a photo without a camera. Phones have cameras. Is there anything more convenient than a phone? You always have one with you, so in theory it is the best camera.

But I've not been quite satisfied with my iPhone camera. It's there, but I always wish I had something sharper, something with better color, something that handles like a proper camera. So lately I've been carrying this little number around:

Now don't dismiss it because it looks like something Ashton Kutcher would tote around. It's really quite a fine instrument.

MAGFest snaps

MAGFest - Music and Gaming Festival, formerly known as the Mid-Atlantic Gaming Festival - runs through this weekend. Twenty years ago I might have hung out and played a lot of video games. Now I'm just here for the photo ops. Here are some characters I snapped last night.

Just press the shutter? Hardly ...

The human eye is remarkably forgiving. Walk into a typical building and your vision (1) automatically adjusts from the bright outdoors to a much dimmer interior and (2) compensates for the vastly different color and quality of light.

A camera isn't quite so smart, so we photographers have to work to make it mimic what we see.

In my assignment to photograph the Arlington Mill Residences for Washington Workplace, I knew that the lobby area would be especially challenging. Here's what my Nikon saw when I first walked into the lobby.

work-DSC_0091.jpg

The overhead lights are warmer than daylight. Luckily they're reasonably consistent with each other. But their brightness is a problem. If I set the proper exposure for the furniture, the overheads are totally blown out and have no detail.

Turning 180 degrees, here's the view towards the entrance. As you can see, it's glass, and lets in daylight. Fortunately the daylight wasn't too strong, and even though it was a different color temperature than the room lights, it would be relatively weak.

I set up 2 strobes behind the camera, facing into the little corners formed by the foyer. I needed a broad swath of light, as diffuse as possible; ideally I would have liked to have an entire wall, instead of just the little corners, so I spent quite a bit of time varying the height, distance, and angle of the strobes. Here's a photo where I got it wrong:

Eventually, it all worked out. Nice, even light across the lobby. Balance camera exposure and strobe brightness so that the overhead lights look like they're on, and you can still see detail in the lighting fixtures. Here's the final photo:

Not bad. Given more time and budget, I would have cleaned up the reflections in the glass doors by shooting more images with the lights in different positions, then compositing in Photoshop. But the client was happy, and so was I.

Covering a technology conference

Photographing a conference is a lot like street photography: you have to be unobtrusive, and you're constantly hunting for interesting expressions. Even with 400 people intently focused on a single speaker, there's plenty of subject matter to capture. My main challenge was lighting - a messy mix of fluorescent, video, and LED - and darkness (as conferences tend to be). Despite the funky colors thrown off by the projection screens, I shot the available light, with not too unpleasing results.

See more of my photos from the Gasification Technologies Council's annual conference on their site.