Can I Get a Gray Card, Please?

Anyone who has worked with me in the past few years is probably familiar with my assistant, Matt. A while ago, while re-organizing old archives into a Lightroom catalog I got the clever idea to pull out any light-check, stand-in photos featuring Matt and put them together into a photo book as commemorative thank-you. I’m pleased with the results and the book is a fun look back on our work together. The cover worked out especially well. The image is perfect and I was so glad to find a great hand-drawn block font [Cul De Sac].

I don’t have much experience with other on-demand photo book services, but my experience with iPhoto was great. Sure, the template based layout is limited and somewhat inflexible, but the benefit is that I was able to throw this book together pretty quickly. The structure of the iPhoto templates saved me from myself by not letting me noodle around too much with picture boxes and crops, but gave me plenty of options to put together a nice looking layout. Print quality is very good considering that this is an on-demand book. Color and contrast are great and the photos hold up well to all but the closest scrutiny. 

Hey, that looks a lot like...

A while ago I posted details about my iMac workstation. Just yesterday I found the Aero for the iMac by Tethertools.

Here’s a quick photo comparison:

Mine vs. Theirs

I should be clear that I do not accuse or suspect Tethertools of copying my idea. I think this is most likely a clear case of form following function and the Tethertools table is born out of an existing product line.

I have been giving serious thought to updating my tabletop to not look like a hardware store hack and selling it on a limited basis. As a result I am interested to see this product on the market. Not much more to say about this — but I do welcome feedback if anyone is interested.

It's like Cook's Illustrated for Photoshop...

I really enjoy getting Cook’s Illustrated magazine because they describe in detail the process of trial and error that goes into creating a recipe. That insight about how ingredients work or don’t work doesn’t just apply to the related dish, but lends knowledge and insight that informs so many other meals I will prepare. 

Which is why I was so happy to discover Julieanne Kost’s recent, and ongoing series of blog posts about blend modes in Photoshop. Each blog post addresses an individual group of blend modes as they are logically divided in Photoshop’s interface. Without getting too technical, Julieanne does a great job of giving a quick, clear description of what each blend mode is going to do to your pixels — and follows up with a series of images to demonstrate.

I’ve made extensive use of blend modes in the past, but just like a recent Cook’s Illustrated sugar cookie recipe’s description of what baking soda and baking powder each do for a recipe and how they work together will help me far beyond just cookies, Julieanne’s posts will help me work smarter and explore new options down the road.

Good stuff.

Here’s a link to the first post in the series and you can follow Julieanne on Twitter. Be sure to browse the rest of her blog - it’s full of great tips for Photoshop and Lightroom.

Dave Eggers on "selling out" vs. "saying yes"


Extracted from an email written by Dave Eggers over a decade ago:


The thing is, I really like saying yes. I like new things, projects, plans, getting people together and doing something, trying something, even when it’s corny or stupid. I am not good at saying no. And I do not get along with people who say no. When you die, and it really could be this afternoon, under the same bus wheels I’ll stick my head if need be, you will not be happy about having said no. You will be kicking your ass about all the no’s you’ve said. No to that opportunity, or no to that trip to Nova Scotia or no to that night out, or no to that project or no to that person who wants to be naked with you but you worry about what your friends will say.

No is for wimps. No is for pussies. No is to live small and embittered, cherishing the opportunities you missed because they might have sent the wrong message.

What matters is that you do good work. What matters is that you produce things that are true and will stand. What matters is that the Flaming Lips’s new album is ravishing and I’ve listened to it a thousand times already, sometimes for days on end, and it enriches me and makes me want to save people. What matters is that it will stand forever, long after any narrow-hearted curmudgeons have forgotten their appearance on goddamn 90210. What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who’s up and who’s down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

How I work now – the iMac stand

My previous blog post revisited my old computer setup for location photography – the MiniKit. Now, I’d like to show how I’ve been working since the MiniKit was retired. Pictured below is a fairly new 24″ iMac mounted on an Avenger A122 mini low combo stand using a platform I designed and made myself.

In use this setup is surprisingly stable, takes up very little space, and is easy to move around a location. It addresses quite well most of the minikit’s shortcomings. The iMac has the processing and graphics power to handle large files while the stand provides a convenient standing work height and – unlike the clunky metro shelving cart I used to use – it collapses very quickly and is easy to transport.

Now, some details. The first three photos show the top of the work surface and how the iMac is held in place.

Next, here is a look below the platform showing the two struts I made to stabilize the top. The platform is secure without the struts, but they help give it a solid feel.

This photo shows the bag I hang from the back of the platform. Basically the bag contains the end of a three outlet extension cord, the power cord for the iMac, and the power supply for an Epson PictureMate printer. When setting up, I just pull the ends I need out of the front of the bag.

The last picture shows the printer strapped to the side of the platform. The PictureMate’s handle makes it a perfect fit for this application. I use this printer to provide small prints for the clients’ reference. Using Lightroom, I can add customized job-specific information and print on the fly without much extra effort.

A Look Back at the Minikit

A few years ago an already old gallery of my computer kit – a Mac Mini and 20-inch Apple Cinema Display mounted in a Pelican case – caught the interest of several Mac and photo blogs. I quickly saw several hundred thousand hits in a few days and still see regular traffic each month. The minikit was retired a few months later, but I have a lot of fond nostalgia for that system and often look back at it to see if I can capture some of that old magic for my next system revision. Because of the apparent continued interest in the minikit, and to provide some insight on how I approach my gear, I’m reposting the images from that gallery here on my blog.  Later I’ll post details about my current system; a much different approach than what you see here, but still somewhat unique.

Keep in mind that this kit was originally put together back in 2004-2005. It started as a way to conveniently and safely carry a cinema display that was driven by a 12″ Powerbook. I worked that way for several months until Apple announced the Mini at Macworld in January 2005. I knew it would be a perfect fit and ordered mine minutes after the keynote ended. Despite its limitations the system served me well for a couple of years. Although the need for more power eventually led me to move on, I still miss seeing the ways people would react when they first saw the minikit in action.

Old Brass Lens Project - First Test on Mamiya

It’s not very pretty, but I have mounted the old brass lens on my Mamiya 645AFD (to view my introductory post on this project, click here). With a little luck I found a rubber pipe fitting that is just the right size to grab the back of the lens. I then cut a large hole in a body front cap and used a liberal amount of epoxy putty to fasten a piece of PVC pipe to the cap. The pipe fitting and lens can slide on the PVC pipe to allow a decent focus range. As you can see below, it’s not very pretty but it does get the job done…

Early tests are interesting. First, it is difficult to handle. I haven’t figured out its aperture yet, but the view through the camera’s eyepiece is quite dark and lacks contrast. The image never really appears to be in focus. I find it’s best to slide the lens to get as close a possible and then move slightly forward or back until I think I’ve got it. Technically I should be working on a tripod, but honestly I’m not using this lens to get technically perfect images — which brings me to the following point.

The way to get nice images from this lens is to push its flaws. Specifically, it will flare when presented with bright specular highlights - or better still, just let the sun shine straight in. The RAW file will be horribly washed out, but in the digital age, a flat image is an image with a lot of detail. Plenty there to work with to render the scene nicely.

I took the camera out in our mid-atlantic winter wonderland yesterday evening and early this morning and was able to capture some nice samples. Click any of the images below to open a larger version in a new window.

Old Brass Lens Project - Introductory thoughts


I’ve had this old brass lens sitting around for years and I’m curious to see what kind of image it will make. Just how to put it to good use is a bit of a puzzle. The lens is very simple. Just two elements bookend a fairly rudimentary but clever aperture system. There are three tabs (of which you can see two in the photo above) sticking out of the lens barrel. These tabs each pivot a different sized stop into the central opening. The tabs are numbered (3, 5, 7), but obviously don’t correlate to familiar f-stop values (the numbers get larger as the size increases).

Otherwise, that’s it. No shutter or focusing mechanism.

The most natural fit for this lens is on a 4x5 camera. Mounting would be as easy as crafting a simple lens board - there’s no way this lens will require precision alignment. However, the lack of shutter means I would have to use some kind of lens-cap-as-shutter trick. Quite feasible if my exposures can be kept in the several second range.

My other option would be to rig a mount for my Mamiya. This would be a challenge as I’d have to create a way to move the lens for focusing (and while I’m at it maybe swings and tilts). The benefit to all this work would be that once set up, shooting would be easy using the camera body’s metering system and focal plane shutter. Plus, digital capture would allow immediate results and lots of freedom to play.

There are pros and cons to both paths but in my mind the correct answer is clear.

Do both.

My first step will be to get the lens on a workbench. There I’ll figure out the approximate focal length an get a sense of how large an image it projects. I can also translate the aperture measurements to f-stop values and get a sense of what my exposure times might be on the 4x5. I’ll document this process and post more in the next few days.

Silver Medal for Tripod Placement

This picture nicely demonstrates a silver medal winning tripod placement. As you can see, each of the three legs rests on a different plane, none of which is the ground, floor, or decking. Obviously, had the three legs also landed on different materials (like stone, wood, dirt, etc.) we’d probably be looking at a gold medal winner. Difficulty points were awarded for leg extension, but anyone familiar with these monster Gitzos knows that there’s still almost two sections in that left leg.