Two things recently came together: I need to raise my exercise (as most Americans do), and I want to improve my ability to see. I like going for walks, so I am taking my camera with me and applying a theme to the walk.

Today’s theme was patterns. First I had to figure out what is a pattern? I decided that a pattern is three or more repetitions of a theme. I decided that three was the minimum; you might have an argument that two is sufficient. I also think that the “theme” part is important—A pattern does not need an identical repetition, as long as the theme is clear.

I also decided that I did not want to futz with the camera, so I simply set it on P so I could focus on the pattern and not the exposure. All I did was ensure that I captured the pattern in the camera. And, I was pleasantly surprised that the camera did a reasonably good job.

In looking at the photos and doing web image searches, I think that a pattern by itself is less interesting, but can give the impression that something repeats forever. When something breaks the pattern, that draws the eye, and this makes the image more interesting to me.

Here are a few of today’s patterns. Are they clear to you? What do you think about the place where the pattern breaks? What would you do differently?

The plant does not place the areolas at exactly regular locations. Does this help or hinder?
I purposely placed the wires diagonally. I think that a hawk on the upper arm would complete the picture, but alas, none were around to assist me.
I find an interesting tension between the two holes. Does it work for you, or do you think one hole is better?
Also, the insulators have their own patterns


I recently shot sexy photos of a friend, both to increase my experience as well as to provide a favor to her. When done, I showed some other photos to her that I was in the process of editing. I also asked if she wanted a dump of camera photos now or to wait for the editing to be done. Having seen the difference between the camera version and the edited version, she chose to wait. She also pointed out that she, as well as many other women would focus on the bad photos and not even see the good ones we captured. Speaking of which, we did get several great photos of her.

Here are a pair of photos (of a different friend) showing the camera version and the edited version:

This is the image straight from the camera
This is what the image looked like when I was done editing.

I adjusted the white balance and exposure, I removed a few skin blemishes, and I removed a couple of minor wrinkles. Note that my camera is recording in RAW mode, so I have a lot of data to work with to produce a good photo. And, I’m expressing a bias here, but it never hurts when the subject is a beautiful young woman.

So, one (of many) lessons I learned from this photo shoot was that I need to edit photos and not just give them out, in spite of doing my best to get it right in the camera in the first place.

Photographing scientists and science in action in the field

One of the three foci of my photography is science in action. Scientists need good photos to convince other scientists that their research is well-done and that the topis is one worthy of study. A well-done photo can make a point much more succinctly than amny words of text (something about 1000 words? :-). Scientists also need photos to convince the public that a scientific site is worth preservation as well as the cost of the study.

As a photographer, I get several benefits:

  1. These photos are often technically challenging. Figuring out how to capture an image that accomplishes both my and the scientist’s goals is a fun challenge and I often learn a lot in the process. The result is that I become a better photographer.
  2. Sometimes the scientist’s work gets picked up by the media. I therefore gain exposure and sometimes income from having the scientist mention my name to the media.
  3. In working with the scientists, my view of the world is enriched. I get to spend time looking at something that I might have previously overlooked, and find wonder in it.
  4. Science photography has taken me to many strange places in the world, such as a cave in Mexico with deadly gasses (hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and others) and a cave in Australia with low oxygen levels. However, not all science trips are to dangerous places. I have taken science photos in the Azores, Hawaii, Australia, and other places.

An example of how my photos have been used is to illustrate the article Extreme Culture by Josie Glausiusz, in Nature, vol. 447, 21 June, 2007.

A researcher swabbing a cave wall for a microbiology project
To convince Bacillus to go into spore form, it is put in a bath of hot water.

In addition, scientists use photos for posters and talks, both to the public as well as to other scientists at meetings. Scientific granting organizations such as the National Science Foundation require that the scientists do communication of their results to the public. For example, this image was used to illustrate the idea that microbes can help produce cave formations. Note the (probably microbial) filament in the water drop.
This image was used in a scientific paper to support the idea that microbes could be involved in cave formation creation.

Scientists at universities need to recruit new students and otherwise “advertise” their lab’s accomplishments. They, reporters, or sometimes I produce media for the general public, such as magazine articles. They use your photos for illustrations and possibly even the magazine cover. My most recent magazine cover was for the scientific Journal Astrobiology.

To conclude this blog entry, taking science and science in action photos has been a good partnership for both the scientists and me. They get good photos to use to illustrate the science. I learn more about photography by solving challenging problems and get to go to interesting places throughout the world to take the photos. If you are a photographer and live near a place where research is done (universities are a great place), you might consider partnering with a scientist. If you are a scientist, you might consider talking to some photographers. In the future, I will write additional material for photographers and scientists about how to do a better job at the photography.

I would like to acknowledge my wife, Diana Northup, who is the scientist I most often work with. It is through her that I have met many of the other scientists I work with.

Black and White Backdrops

Recently I shot Candace Nirvana. This was a chance to try out my new backdrops, fixing problems with my earlier backdrops. The backdrops were commercial ones, purchased from the Backdrop Outlet. I tried both black and white ones.

Both worked far better than the muslin I had tried earlier. I could get the black one to go completely black, and the white to be completely burned out. These were good improvements.

Black background behind a woman in purple dress holding a coffee cup
Candace in front of a black backdrop
The black backdrop really makes your eye go to the lighter parts of the image. In the example here, this is her skin. In general, when an image contains a face, your eyes naturally seek out the eyes. With a black backdrop, this effect seems to be enhanced.

I did have to ensure that I had a hair light from above and behind to make sure that her hair was separated from the backdrop. Dark hair on a light-skinned model makes for more of challenge due to the contrast. Add to this the need to not lose the hair in the background, and the lighting is not trivial.

For this image, there are four lights: The primary lights are a “softbox” created by placing a diffuser in front of a flash that is left and forward of her, and an umbrella forward, right, and above her. The secondary lights are two hair lights above and behind her on the left and right. Each light that is added is one more that has to be balanced with all the others, so the complexity is higher than I would have liked. Also, in spite of all of the lights and softeners, I still had harder shadows than I would have liked. For example, look at her hair shadows on the right side of her face (her right).

Another point I learned was that I really need to be able to mount lights on the crossbar of the backdrop holder. Then, I could have used a single light with a grid as a hair light.

Woman with white shirt in front of a white backdrop
Candace in front of a white backdrop

I also worked with my white backdrop. If I lit it, I could burn it out, creating a solid white background, which makes darker hair easy to work with. However, I was getting a lot of reflected light from the backdrop onto her skin, which was a different challenge. I could have moved her forward, but the backdrop only came so far (I should have invested in the larger one…). For photos like this one, it would have been an acceptable solution, because I was not showing her feet.

A white shirt and a white backdrop makes for a challenge when trying to avoid burning out the shirt while doing just that with the backdrop.

Lighting the backdrop with fewer reflections onto the model would have been easier with barn doors or something similar on the backdrop lights.

One final issue was wrinkles. Both the black and the white backdrops had wrinkles in them from being folded. They did show up in the pictures, which makes more work for me since I want a smooth background. Both of the images on this page had visible wrinkles that I took out. Next time, I’ll try dampening them and putting them in a cool dryer to see if that helps. I guess I could break out a iron as well. Anybody have other ideas?

Soft Light

Soft light comes from a diffuse source. The classic example is an overcast day, where the light comes from everywhere and there are few, if any shadows. Other examples of soft light include studio softboxes, diffusers, and reflected light from a large surface (e.g., a ceiling). All of these need to be near the subject, otherwise they begin to act more like hard light…move an umbrella reflector away from the subject and the light becomes harder.

Shadows on an object lit with soft light have a less-defined edge, and they are not as dark. Because it does not highlight blemishes, scars, and wrinkles, soft light tends to be more flattering for people. For this reason, portraits normally use soft light, as do some glamor shots.

Here is one of my favorite soft-light shots illustrating this type of lighting.

The light on his face is bounced from the rock he is looking at, creating a light source that is effectively as large as the lit area of the rock.

This is the second in a series of blog entries about hard and soft lighting. The previous entry is Hard Light.

Hard Light

I am not the first to write about the distinction between hard and soft light. However, I recently prepared (and gave) a talk for the 2011 National Speleological Society (NSS) convention, and I learned a bit in doing the preparation for the talk. The results for this will be spread across a few blog entries to keep each one tight and on a specific topic. As I finish them, I will link them all together.

First, definitions. Hard light is light that has sharp edges to the shadows. It comes from a small light source or a large one far from the subject. Most speedlite/speedlight flash units are relatively small light sources. The sun is large, but it is far away, so it also is a hard light source, especially near noon.

Hard light is good for showing textures and fine details. This is great for photos like geological features, but few people want every last blemish and wrinkle highlighted in the photo unless it is to show character as in this example.

high-contrast image of cave pearls lit by a single hard light source
Note the texture, sharp shadow lines , and deep shadows in this high-contrast image.

Young people, such as this lovely young woman, can also take hard light because they have great skin.

Her skin is good enough that the hard light is not a problem; she has no blemishes or wrinkles.

Shadows in hard light tend to be dark with few details. The high contrast can create a moody image that can be dramatic. Film noir movies are classic examples of this type of lighting.

You can also soften hard light by using a second (and possibly more) light source. If you have no modification devices that soften the light, this approach alone might be sufficient. Position the extra light(s) so they fill the deep shadows. I normally set the second light to be about a stop darker than the primary light, but the exact ratio depends on the situation.

Cave formations lit by two light sources, the second filling in the shadows of the first
The primary light is a hard light to the upper left. A second light to the right fills in most of the shadows with a lower light level.

To summarize this blog entry, hard light comes from a small light source and produces high-contrast images with dark, well-defined shadows. Sometimes, it is exactly what you need to set the mood of an image.

The importance of getting it right in the camera

I have been in India the last several weeks on non-photography business. When I did get out to take photos, I was yet again shown the importance of spending more time when taking the image to save much more post-processing time later. Here are a pair of images (you can click on them to see a larger version):

The one on the left is the one I took. I was so focused on the woman’s face that I missed the very distracting motorcycle parked behind her. And, I had the camera set at a higher aperture to give reasonable depth-of-field, making the problem worse. The second image is what I wish I had taken. I’m not completely happy with my post-processing of the motorcycle out, so before I would really use the image, I’d need to re-do it. Overall, the result is spending much more time than it would have taken to stop, think about the picture I wanted to capture, and then getting it right in the camera. To get it right would have taken maybe five minutes. To post-process reasonably well will require an hour or few. Multiply this by several such photos, and these photos are a real time sink to make any use of.

So, the lesson is a repeat of what has been said several times before by several other photographers: Create an image, do not take a picture. The difference is the difference between a snapshot and a good photograph.

The Dolphin (ice formation)

Woman looking at an ice formation in a cave
A caver looks at "The Dolphin" in a cave in California

Lest you think I only talk about weddings, here’s a recent cave shot. I wanted a unique way to look at the ice formation.  I put a medium grid on my flash, a Canon 580 EX II fired by a Pocket Wizard radio slave.  An assistant is aiming it right down the formation, and the light on her face is the little spill from the fact that the grid is a medium one and light is also exiting the formation at various places.  This was only the second place I had used a grid on the flash; I’ve not had it more than a few months.  I have been experimenting with various light-modification devices, and, so far, they seem to be worth the weight and volume to carry them.  They allow me to light the subject(s) with more control than just a flash by itself.

Caves are challenging places to take photos.  On the hard side, you (and your helpers!) have to carry all of the light.  On the other hand, you never have to wait for the “golden hours” of the day (just after sunrise and before sunset), because all of the light is completely under your control.  Add in that they are beautiful (and, in this case, really cold!), and they are one of my favorite places to take photos.

Note added 2011-07-25: This photo received “Best in Show” at the 2011 national Speleological Society print salon and a blue ribbon (Merit Award) in the photo salon.

The importance of the rehearsal

Bridesmaid, flower girls and ring bearers
Bridesmaid, flower girls and ring bearers processing down the aisle at the rehearsal

When I shot the wedding recently, the family said that they did not need photos of the rehearsal. I considered not going, but decided to attend, and I was really glad I went.

While the rehearsal is for the wedding party to know what will be happening when, for me, it was a chance to experiment with lighting options—churches are large, and, even with the lights all on, it was not well-lit. Luckily, the priest allowed me to use flash at any time during the ceremony, so I could figure out what settings and locations for me and the off-camera flash worked best for the various parts of the ceremony. There is no time for experimenting during the ceremony!

Another benefit of being there for the rehearsal, I saw who was going to be where when. This meant that I was prepared for shots on the wedding day.

I got few good shots in the rehearsal; one is attached to this post. This is the bridesmaid, flower girls, and ring bearers as they process down the aisle (they all went together, not separately as in other weddings I have been to).

Wedding photography

A little girl behind lacing ribbon
Recently, I shot my first wedding as a professional photographer. I have shot a few others before just as a favor to friends, but this was a real job, in more ways than one. I can say that the photographers who charge $1000 to $3000 for shooting a wedding earn this price.

This wedding was non-stop shooting from 9:30 in the morning till we left after 8pm at night. We managed only a five-minute lunch between running between various venues, and dinner was inhaled at the reception, in between getting photos of the various reception events.

I will write more about the things I learned in separate posts. Also, if you want to learn more about shooting weddings, a quick web search will quickly give you more advice than you have time to read. Some of this advice was very useful, and combined with the fact I had attended a friend’s wedding about a week before, I was more-or-less ready for the chaos.

To see example wedding photos from this and other weddings, you can check out the gallery of my portfolio.  The bride and her mother said that they were happy with their photos.