How to create a self-portrait that makes you look much tougher than you are.

I recently undertook a personal project, and I’m thrilled enough with the results that I thought I’d share some what went into making the image.  The photo came about because I wanted something new to use on the contact page on my website, something that would tie in well with a terrible pun.  This was the idea I came up with—a fight club sort of scenario, where I look beat to hell but somehow still victorious.  As though I were some kind of bad-ass.

Step One: Get into shape.
I’ve never worked out in my life.  It’s never been a priority, so while I’ve always been thin (thanks, mom and dad), I’ve never looked like a flight clubber before.  I wasn’t sure what I was in for, how long it would take to accomplish, or even exactly how to do it.  I wasn’t going to join a gym—nuts to that—and I wasn’t going to have a personal trainer.  I decided I could figure it out on my own.  Turns out, it’s super easy!  All I had to do was run nearly every day for about a month and a half, complete thousands of crunches, push-ups, and pull-ups, drink untold gallons of water, and quit alcohol, sugar, and all other foods I hold dear.  Simple.

Step Two: Visualize the photo.
With the hard part out of the way, I just thought about what I wanted the final shot to look like.  When you’re layering images, you need the camera angle, focal length, and lighting between the two photos to match as much as possible.  If they don’t, the photo is going to look fake, so everything has to be mapped out and planned ahead of time.  I decided on backlighting to get some hard rim lights on the crowd and myself, and a lower camera angle for that larger-than-life sort of feel (even muscly I’m still small, so I’d need all the help I can get).  I will often draw up a storyboard, even though I’m rubbish as an artist.  It just helps me understand better what I need for the shoot by way of location, lighting and other equipment, and in this case, models.


Awesome, right?  My career as a sketch artist never took off, but I manage to get ideas on paper.

Step Three: Studio shoot.
I wanted some good makeup—black eye, bloody nose and eyebrow, torn chest, lots of sweat—so I enlisted the help of the terrifically talented Seattle makeup artist Lindsey Watkins.  We talked back and forth and swapped graphic images of brutally beaten people (totally fun in a sort of sick way), and settled on the look below.  I really couldn’t have been happier.  She’s some kind of sorceress, and great to work with.
There are certain post production considerations that enter in when doing this kind of thing.  When you know you’ll be cutting the subject out of a studio shot for compositing purposes, as is the case here, it behooves you (or whoever is doing your post work) to shoot on a background color that will make it—well, maybe not easy, but easier.  In this instance, because the background image would be very dark (in fact black in many parts) and because the rim lights would make my outline so bright and well-defined, I figured shooting on a solid black background would make it easiest when it came time to cut myself out of the picture.  If you’ll take a look at the image below, you’ll see what I mean.
Personally, I don’t think self portraiture is ever particularly easy, but if you shoot tethered to the computer it’s certainly less difficult.  Canon’s shooting software saves a lot of headache, and makes for a much smoother shoot.  You can actually ask the computer to tell the camera to shoot every so often until you have as many frames as you want.  And if you ask it nicely, that’s exactly what it will do.

Step Four: Location shoot.
There are a lot of fences in town.  I wanted a batting cage because I thought it would fit in well with that ultimate fighting, cage match sort of look.  Parks would have had them, but I didn’t want to contend with the public.  Inquisitive bystanders are inevitable, drunks are probable, and there’s no reason to put with distractions like that if you don’t have to.  I was shooting in the evening, so I narrowed my search to schools.  I reasoned they would have such fence-y things and be unattended at night.  After a bit of scouting, I found this perfect spot.

I was giddy.  It had everything I was looking for, including a cage shape, plenty of space behind for models and lights, and a great weathered look.  I very politely asked in the school’s office for permission to use the area—good thing, too, because I was visited during the shoot by a concerned maintenance man—and they very graciously said yes.  There’s nothing more disheartening than to find a great spot to shoot and be told that they don’t let photographers in anymore because that last guy messed stuff up soooo bad.   We photographers actually are denied permission to shoot on property sometimes, so I believe responses in the affirmative are to be appreciated.  In this case, I appreciated them with some homemade apple walnut muffins.
The shoot itself was a lot of fun.  I put out a call for my friends and their friends to come out if at all possible, and promised them pizza for their efforts.  In the end, I had more people than I could reasonably use—always better than the alternative.  I had them jumping and screaming and shouting, all in a residential neighborhood right before the noise ordinances kicked in, and they were able to enjoy the food after just about fifteen minutes in front of the camera.

Step Five: Photoshop.
The most significant Photoshop work done to the image was the darkening of the faces in the crowd.  I wanted their features to be only very barely visible, and not at all distracting.  I also removed the small sign in the center of the fence (you can see it in the photo above), and did a little dodging and burning where I thought it was necessary.  The studio shot, as you can see, was left pretty much as shot.  I was careful to keep all the hair as I stripped away the background (Photoshop CS5′s “Refine Mask” tool is a hell of a thing), but aside from the extraction, I mostly left the image alone.  If you compare the shot above to the final image, you’ll see I did a little dodging and burning here and there, but nothing major.  After dropping the self portrait onto the location shot and positioning and sizing it appropriately, I processed the whole image overall in a way that I liked.  Done and done.

The final image.  I have since enjoyed a lot of pie.

So long, 619 Western, and thank you.

Yesterday the last furniture was removed and the last considerable dust bunnies were swept away from my studio space in the 619 Western building in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square district.  It was a sad day for me, and knowing it was coming didn’t help very much.  I didn’t expect to be there forever, I suppose, but who ever wants to leave a place they love only because there’s no other choice?  The city of Seattle and the Washington State DOT made that decision for me, and the scores of other artists in the building.  October 1st, 2011, that’s it.  Out.  If you missed the story and are at all curious as to why everyone was evicted, you can read about it here.

How can I tell you how I feel about the building?  Now more than a century old, 619 Western is all cement and wood and there’s not an ornate element to be found, but more than a hundred artists made that building their home away from home.  It was a vibrant and exciting community for artists of all kinds—painters, dancers, musicians, sculptors, woodworkers, clothing designers, and of course photographers—to say nothing of the city’s many artgoers.  An arts building since 1979 (the year I was born, coincidentally), it was also one of the largest art studio enclaves on the west coast.  It was, in fact, so magnificent in so many respects that it frankly made no difference to any of us that it was crumbling (I often likened it to a scone).  619 was an incredibly special place, and I can’t really express how fortunate I feel to have been a part of it for the last five years of its life.  I suspect Seattle’s art community will be feeling its loss for quite some time.  I know I will.

I’ll get to photos in just a minute, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the thing I’ll likely miss most about 619 Western.  On the first Thursday of each month, anyone and everyone could come out and enjoy work displayed in galleries and studios throughout downtown.  Other buildings were open those nights (and will continue to be), but 619 was absolutely, no question, hands down the place to be.  The monthly event was called ArtWalk, and 619′s stairs, hallways, and studios were always packed with people there to enjoy art.  You know, to be honest, given all the fire codes no doubt broken every time, I’m surprised the city never shut it down (seriously, if there had been an electrical short—not outside the realm of possibility at all—those that didn’t die in the fire would’ve certainly perished in the inevitable stampede on the only available set of stairs).
Artwork, music, wine, great friends, strangers, laughter, conversation, connection—I’ve never been in the middle of anything like it.  I will miss it terribly, and I’ll always have a warm place for it in my heart, right between thunderstorms and The Princess Bride.

Okay, photos.

This used to be my home away from home.  A lot of really wonderful things happened here.

A century of wear from a century of feet.

This crack in the cement is four or five inches wide.  Through it you can see into the north half of the building.  It’s not the only one—in fact, these cracks are so common throughout 619 that they were incorporated into the building’s logo (see above).  Unsafe, schmunsafe.

I always loved the back entrance.

Moments from an ArtWalk night.  Not the busiest we’ve ever had, but this was the night I set up the camera.

So long, 619 Western, and thank you.

lucienknuteson.com (v3.0)

What a great way to kick off a new year.  New work, new website.  If you haven’t already seen it—if you didn’t come here from the main site—have a gander.  It’s a pretty smart design, and I’m very glad to say you’re able to view the images much larger than was possible before (up to full screen size, if you click that little doohickey in the lower right).  I hope you’ll have a look, and that you’ll like it as much as I do.  As always, feel free to let me know what you think.

lucienknuteson.com is dead.
Long live lucienknuteson.com!

I wonder if David LaChapelle’s work sounds like a Lady Gaga album.

Ever wonder what a photograph sounds like?  If so, you can feed it through Photosounder, a program that (among many other things) lets you create new sounds using photographs or fractals.  Kind of cool.  I wonder if Joel-Peter Witkin‘s photos sound like the fruitless screams, gnashing teeth, and searing flesh of a million tortured souls…

(For those who aren’t familiar, Witkin is kind of a controversial figure.  You probably won’t want to click his name up there if you’re at all disturbed by photographs of cadavers, disembodied human parts—including heads—and physically deformed people.  Personally, I really don’t care for his work, but feel free to see how you feel about it.  Ya been warned.)

Brand Aid

I just wanted to give a quick shout-out to my friend and colleague Michael Clinard, who has been working hard at retooling his brand and website this past year.  Check out the results at his new site and blog, and when you’re through there, have a look at some of the attention he’s been getting in the blogosphere of Chase Jarvis and Rob Haggart.  Kudos to you, Mike, and keep up the good work.

Hey, Let Me Shill Something Really Quick…*

I’ve mentioned a couple times now Paul Buff and his Alien Bees.  For those who don’t know, Mr. Buff is the brains behind the Nashville-based company Paul C. Buff, Inc., which has spawned not only the Alien Bees but also the White Lightning flash units, both of which are quite popular lines of monolights.  All equipment is sold factory direct, so if you’ve never heard of them, perhaps that is why.

When I first started to amass photo equipment a few years ago, the Alien Bees were recommended to me by a friend and colleague.  I dutifully visited the website, and was immediately confused.  The price was right, but…why was the website decorated with cartoon aliens, stars, and planets?  Why did the lights have the same cartoon aliens on the sides?  Why did Paul Buff, owner of the company, refer to himself on the site as the alien King Luap?  What was this, Fisher Price’s My First Strobe Kit?  Was this a joke?  Was I being punk’d?

A quick Google search proved that the company was not a joke at all.  In fact, I honestly could not find a single case of anyone with anything unkind or derisive to say about the stuff (except perhaps the occasional snide remark about the cartoons).  On the contrary, the consensus was that the equipment was reliable, durable, versatile, and easy to use, and that customer service was excellent (factory direct, remember).  What more could one ask for?

Well, two things.  First, being monolights, one could ask for the ability to adjust the light’s power output remotely, from one spot.  Perhaps the biggest advantage pack systems have over monolights is that they provide a single bank from which the power for each light can be altered.  With monolights, the power is set on each head, so to adjust each light in a particular setup can be a bit of a chore, especially if a light is on a boom or otherwise out of reach.  Second, it would be nice to have no noticeable color shift in the light as you reduce its power output.

But now it looks as though Mr. Buff has struck upon elegant technological solutions for both of these problems.  Available today is the Cyber Commander, an on-camera transmitter much like a Pocket Wizard (but nuts to Pocket Wizards, right?) that allows the photographer to power up or down as many as sixteen lights in a single setup.  I won’t go into all the bells and whistles here.  If you want to learn more, you can check out the details on the website.  And Paul C. Buff, Inc. is also set to release a new line of lights that promises to solve the color temperature issue, delivering a constant 5600°K light by incorporating an insulated gate bipolar transistor shutoff of the flash tube in conjunction with a digital correction of the capacitor voltage.  Now, I’m not exactly sure what the latter half of that last sentence means, but if you’re in the market for some lighting, these might be some strobes to think about.

*There’s nothing in it for me to say any of this.  Oh, how I wish there was.

Time Enough For Love

This past Thursday was the first Thursday of December, and as it happens every month, the many studios and galleries in Seattle’s downtown and Pioneer Square neighborhoods were alive and spilling over with people.  If you’re unfamiliar with ArtWalk, please click here to view my previous entry…and come on out next time!  My studio was open, as it almost always is, and it was quite crowded all night.  I showed a number of pieces, and two of the prints purchased were of this photo (click for a larger version):


Canon EOS 5D
f/10 @ 1/100, ISO 100

It’s titled “Time Enough For Love” because I like the phrase and it seemed appropriately arbitrary, and because one doesn’t generally associate love with unreasonable amounts of toilet paper (unless you’re me, I guess).  The idea for the shot came, of course, from the painting by Rene Magritte called The Son Of Man.  If you are unfamiliar with Magritte’s work, you really owe it to yourself to correct that problem.  It’s absolutely brilliant.  I don’t own nearly as many books as I’d like (lack of space), but I do have two collections of his work and I look through them quite often.  There’s a font of inspiration there.

Harry Potter and the Pocket Wizards That Quit Working But Will Not Be Replaced On Principle Because They Sell For Way, Way More Than Is Reasonable For Such Simple Little Things And I Refuse To Be Gouged So Egregiously

When I started this blog, it really wasn’t my intention to ever use it as a forum to publicly complain about anything.  To complain is unappealing and most times people just don’t want to listen to folks blather on about the things that make them upset.  That said, I’ll be doing it anyway.  Please accept my apologies in advance.  It’s only because I think it might be of interest.  Truly.

This year, two Pocket Wizards just up and quit on me.  The second one went about a week ago.  Now, I take perhaps unreasonably good care with my equipment, so I promise you these deaths were not by my hands.  Cheap products just stop working sometimes, and there they are now—two dead little plastic husks not even heavy enough to serve as paper weights.

Okay, fine, so maybe Pocket Wizards aren’t as reliable as they should be.  Maybe they’re even garbage, and to be honest, even that wouldn’t be the most extraordinary thing in the world.  How many things are actually built to last?  What really bothers me, though, is that they’re the industry standard and they’re such expensive garbage.  Pocket Wizards, in a fair and just world, would cost twenty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents.  Maybe even just ten bucks and a jaunty song and dance.  But a hundred and seventy?  Are you kidding us with this?  It’s plastic and a circuit board—we’re not even talking a dollar to make one of these things.  Does a more flagrant highway robbery exist in the entire realm of photographic equipment?  I really don’t think so.  And that, by the way, is quite a charge.

So no, I won’t be replacing my fallen receiver.  Instead, I’ll be selling off my remaining Pocket Wizards and buying into the Alien Bees wireless system by Paul Buff.  They do the same job, and if one of these new remotes decides not to show up for work one day, two would be available for the cost of one Pocket Wizard (you know, so the first one will have the other to play with).  When you think about it, it’s what I should have done in the first place.

Okay.  Whew.  It’s over.  Thanks for reading, and for letting me rant.

The Swallows of Chattanooga

Much like the swallows of Capistrano, I travel with my two brothers and my parents to a warmer climate each year.  Difference is, we converge on Chattanooga, Tennessee instead of South America.  And we’re only there for a few days, not a few months.  And we don’t subsist on insects caught in flight, because we’re not swallows.

The reason my family goes to Chattanooga is not because that’s where the Waffle House is.  The Waffle House being there—that’s just icing (or syrup, as the case may be).  No, we actually go to Chattanooga because that’s where my grandmother lives.  The six of us are scattered across the country so the holidays are really the only time we can all get together, and when you’re my grandmother’s age, one of the perks is that everyone else will come to you.  My grandma was born in 1910.  She just had her birthday a couple weeks ago, and that means she’s 99 years old.  That’s amazing.  She’s amazing.

Here is a photo we made together yesterday, on Thanksgiving day.  I know it won’t be as meaningful to you as it is to me, but I hope you will appreciate it nonetheless.  And I hope your holiday was as lovely as mine.

Canon EOS 5D
f/5.6 @ 1/8, ISO 200

The Man Who Wasn't There

Here is a photo I made yesterday while in Wisconsin.  The idea came from “Antigonish“, a wonderful poem that was itself inspired by reports of the ghost of a man wandering the stairs of a house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.  I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe it’s a good poem, and a nice photo.

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

-Hughes Mearns, 1899


Canon EOS 5D
f/11 @ 1/25, ISO 100

Post processing consisted of converting the file to black and white, removing the person from the image, and employing Photoshop’s diffuse glow filter.  There were a couple other minor tweaks, like slightly darkening the shadow, but nothing significant.  As ever, you’re free to click on it to view it larger.  I really hope you like it.

Love and San Francisco

I visited San Francisco last weekend, and as the man says, I did in fact leave my heart there.  It was lost somewhere just outside the Rockridge BART station, and despite a desperate search, I was unable to find it before I had to leave for my plane.  I miss it very much, and if you find yourself there and you happen to see it, please, please get in touch.  You’ll find my number on my website.

Last Saturday, in less than an hour’s time and a radius of less than a mile, I saw not one, not two, but three wedding parties and their photographers.  Apparently, in the middle of November in San Francisco, brides just come out of the woodwork and you just about can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one of them.  Two appeared at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor (quite a name for a place), and the third was just down the hill on a beach at South Bay.  Now, I have remarkably little interest in shooting weddings, but I do enjoy watching wedding photographers when I see them.  In this case, I noticed one was using a reflector to light her happy couple, another had a yellow Alien Bee (not the color I’d've chosen, but certainly festive) with a big ol’ umbrella on it (outside?!), and the third appeared to be going au naturel—no equipment besides the camera that I could see.  Nice—three different people, and as many ways of working.  Here are a couple quick snaps of them.

The Diptych Game, Part I

Here’s something fun for the kids.  It’s a game, wherein the player—that’s you—tries to guess the word or phrase depicted by the two photos below.  Once you think you know it and want to see for sure, hover your cursor over either photo and the answer should appear.  Oh, and you can click on it to view it larger too, if you’d like.

I’ll be posting more of these in the future—they’re just entertaining little projects I like to do to keep my brain from atrophying.   I hope you enjoy them too.

Assault and Battery

Hint:  It’s a legal term.

Rep. Scott White Stands Up for the Homeless

I recently had the opportunity (and the pleasure) to photograph Washington State Representative Scott White, a democrat from Seattle’s 46th district serving his first term.  The photo accompanies an article about his effort to pass legislation that would qualify violence against the homeless as a “bias-motivated” attack, or hate crime.  According to a report from The National Coalition For The Homeless with data spanning the past decade, fatal bias-motivated attacks in the United States against the homeless outnumber (by more than a factor of two, he told me) similar attacks motivated by ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion combined.  I wish Rep. White the best of luck with his proposal.

We made this photo beneath the I-5 overpass at 65th in Seattle, the site of the fatal stabbing of a homeless man named David Ballenger in August of 1999.  For the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s excellent article about David’s life and death, please click here.  For more information about Rep. White and his work, you can follow this link.  And to view a larger version of the photo, please click anywhere on it.

Scott White

How to Build a Photo of a Robot (Part II)

And now, the exciting conclusion…

In the first part of this entry, I wrote a little bit about the lighting of the photo you see below (as always, you can click on it to view it larger).  As I said I would, this time I’ll share everything that occurs to me about each of the seven individual shots that went into the image—why they were necessary, how they were done, and/or what I think they add to the overall photo.

Those shots are:
1.  Female model (Lindsey) on the workbench and the workshop itself.
2.  Male model (Alan) and the electronic parts on the table.
3.  Lindsey’s right hand.
4.  Lindsey’s leg, in the background on the left edge of the frame.
5.  The wires coming out of the leg.
6.  The grass and trees visible through the window.
7.  The robot’s insides.

Robot

Canon EOS 5D Mk II
f/9 @ 1/160, ISO 100

Shots 1, 2, and 3:  So, first of all, look at the photo and try to imagine the rest of Lindsey’s body—hips and legs in sweatpants, carrying on past the left edge of the frame.  If I had only shot her with Alan, and didn’t get any shots of Alan by himself, I’d have had a pretty significant problem in post.  Lindsey’s lower half covered up Alan’s waist and forearm, which meant there’d be quite the hole in the photo once I turned her into a torso.  So Alan had to be captured in a different frame and dropped in later.  It’s the same problem with Lindsey’s right hand.  It’s out of sight when her whole body is there, but once she’s a torso, you expect it to be right there opposite her left hand, and it would look very strange (yes, “strange” is relative) if you didn’t see it.  So I had to shoot it separately and add it later.

Shots 4 and 5:  The leg was shot with Lindsey sitting on the workbench.  The bouquet of wires was photographed in my studio after the principal shoot, lit and Gaussian blurred in Photoshop to match the rest of the scene.  Personally, I think the leg is a nice touch.  It reinforces the idea that the robot is a work in progress, and that development of different body parts is happening concurrently.  Where possible, I really try to add little details to photos that might go unnoticed at first glance, because I think those are the things that make people want to keep looking.

Wires and Leg

Shot 6:  As I said in the previous entry, the workshop was on the third floor of the building.  The view out the window was of the concrete framework of Seattle’s Alaskan Way viaduct—unattractive, distracting, and not even really discernible.  So after the principal shoot, I took a stroll through one of Seattle’s many parks and found an area of grass with a treeline I liked very much.  Again, I think it’s a nice touch.  The wooded background suggests of a rural location and implies remoteness, maybe even suggests loneliness as the motivation for building the robot.  It’s a relatively small detail, but I think it explains a lot about the image and as I just said, I do love details.

Trees and Grass

Shot 7:  Constructing the insides of the robot was really the most challenging problem of the entire shoot.  I decided the best approach would be to build a little wall shaped like the cross-section of a human torso, and then attach little robotic-looking things to it.  The trouble is, you really have to make the wall exactly the size of the cross-section of your model’s torso—width, height, and shape.  All the pieces you attach to the thing have to fit within the walls of the robot’s body.  If they extended out, I would’ve had to cut them off in post, and odds are that would look…odd.  But how do you know you’re making the wall the right size and shape to correspond to your model’s torso at the point you’re cutting her in half?
Well, the first thing to do is figure out where that end point for her torso would be.  I thought it should be right at the start of her hips, where her waist widens and her lower back would meet the table.  Look at the photo again and imagine her top half were cut off any higher—say, just below her bellybutton.  Her back wouldn’t be touching the table at the point, and wouldn’t that look weird with a levitating stomach?
Once I decided on how much of her body to use in the photo, I met with her to build a cast of her body, out of plaster, from upper back to the cutoff point.  At art supply stores you can buy inexpensive rolls of mesh fabric coated in plaster (Rigid Wrap, it’s called).  Just cut a length of it, wet it, and apply it—easy, easy, lemon squeezy.  Then, once I had a cast, I could see exactly the size and shape of the space I had to fill with robot parts, and I could build a wall that would fit inside.
I made the wall out of silver paper mounted onto foamcore.  The silver paper looks like a sheet of metal, especially when viewing the image at full size.  The robot parts are from a couple $3 VCRs from Goodwill.  I liked the idea of using recognizable parts—the kinds of things your average person might have on hand and make use of.  I’m particularly in love with the shiny rotating head in the center, and its resemblance to a spinal column.  Details!
When it came time to shoot, after Lindsey had left, I photographed the wall of robot parts sitting at the base of the plaster cast, which had been placed (as best I could tell) in the same spot she had been lying.  It wasn’t exact, of course, but it was close enough that the Photoshop work was a breeze.

Parts and Plaster
(Like Steve Buscemi, it may not look like much, but it performs wonderfully.)

Now, there are a number of things I could say about the post work itself—about layer masks and selections, blending modes and healing brushes—but I’m not sure how interesting that would be to read.  So before I close, I’ll just mention a few last post production items I think might be of interest:

· It’s absolutely necessary to get your shadows right.  If the lighting looks off, you’ve really screwed the pooch, and it’s common to have to massage the photo a bit when you’re doing composites.  For example, I had to add shadows to the right hand (cast by the torso) as well as the table (cast by the robot).  It might take a couple tries, but the time spent is a small price to pay for getting it right.
· The lip of the shell housing the robot parts was made by darkening a thin selection of Lindsey’s skin.  The inside of the robot’s shell was made by copying parts of Lindsey’s stomach.
· I made Lindsey’s skin incredibly smooth in Photoshop.  There was a fair amount of cloning and healing brush use, as well as dodging and burning.  Now hold on—before you get excited and call me a hypocrite given my previous blog entry about unnecessary post work, let me just say that no, there was absolutely nothing wrong with her appearance at the outset.  But for this to work, she really needed to look as though she were plastic, fresh out of the box.
· I barely did a thing to retouch Alan’s face.  His expression, to me, is absolutely perfect (caring, proud, and content all at the same time), and I couldn’t have been happier with the way the lighting picks up the lines in his face when smiles.  It’s very real, very genuine, and I didn’t mess with that at all.
· There’s a lot of composite work, yes, and I did plasticate (that should be a word) Lindsey, but otherwise, the photo is pretty much as it was shot.  I made minor global corrections to adjust contrast, gave the photo a very slight overall glow, and tweaked a couple colors a little.  Not much, really.

Notes from the Road (Or rather: Notes of the Road, From Home)

I was on the road this past week, photographing people and sleeping wherever I could, and I didn’t write about any of it.  I am a bad blogger.  So there, now you know.

I suppose it’s just as well—I was kept pretty busy with enjoying myself—but now I’m home already, so I completely blew my chance to keep you updated on my wanderings as I wandered.  Ah well, I’ll set off again soon for another short trip, and it will be different.  I can do better.  I will do better.  In the meantime, though, accept these random anecdotes, which I would have shared this past week if only I had taken the time.

In Missoula, I met and photographed a very kind, trusting, and just plain wonderful 47-year-old mother of three named Tina, who to my mind embodies everything that’s good about getting out of town every once in a while.  When I spoke with her over the phone to set up the shoot (part of a personal project) the night before, she invited me to sleep in her spare room (a much better alternative to camping in 35-degree weather) and told me I’d be welcome to stay as long as I liked the next day, if I would only be sure to lock up the house when I left.  When I did leave, she even sent me off with a jar of homemade pear sauce, which I have not yet opened but feel sure will taste like candy.  It was a refreshing twelve hours.  On my drive back to Seattle I reflected on Tina and her generosity, and I was reminded of the moment in Twin Peaks when Special Agent Cooper says to Sheriff Harry Truman, “That’s what you do in a town where a yellow light still means ‘slow down’, not ‘speed up’.”  Are such giving people and such hospitality to be found in larger cities?  Almost certainly, but I rather suspect it’s considerably more rare.  Thank you, Tina.

I also photographed a young woman named Rachelle for a couple really fun hours in the afternoon on Tuesday.  I was photographing her nude as part of my personal project, which was enjoyable if for no other reason than the welcome change of pace (I don’t typically photograph nudes).  We shot a little bit at her place before heading up a very nearly car-less mountain route to do some more shooting outdoors.  The road was gravel and offered a spectacular view of mountains, trees, and sky.  That the road was gravel was the most important thing, though, as it served to let us know when a car was coming before it rounded the corner.  Only once did that happen, and Rachelle leapt to the road like a jungle cat and threw on her long coat as a young-ish guy and his big black dog rolled by.  Both could be seen smiling quite widely inside.

There’s much more I could write about, of course—the truly beautiful sights from the road, for example, or maybe renting* fleece blankets at Target because I underestimated the cold (or perhaps because I overestimated the effectiveness of the fleece blanket I already had)—but this is meant to be a blog about me as a photographer, not a road-tripping vagabond.  So I will close this entry with a photograph, a self-portrait from the roadside, somewhere west of Seattle.  You can click on it if you’d like to see it larger.  Enjoy, and have a good night.

Self Portrait, 2009

*By “renting” I really mean “buying and returning”.  As any stylist knows, Target’s return policy is excellent.

Don't Panic

A few years ago I read an article about the plenoptic camera, developed at Stanford, which would allow the person using it to determine the point of focus after a photograph is taken.  Nifty.  Now, the Frankencamera is a new development from the folks at Stanford, designed essentially to make possible in-camera HDR.  Also nifty.  HDR has been available for a long time, but it’s always been necessary to use Photoshop.  Some compact digital cameras (I’m aware of Nikons in particular) have been offering an in-camera shadow-boosting option for a while, but that only works on a single capture by adjusting its shadow tones.  So this is the first time true HDR has been brought to the capture stage—the Frankencamera takes rapid multiple frames at varying exposure settings and then blends them together for the best overall exposure.

As technology continues to make the ability to create good images more accessible to weekend photographers, some professionals panic and feel they’ll no longer be able to compete.  I’ve heard this a bunch of times from a number of people, and who knows?  Maybe they’re right.  Maybe it’s cause for legitimate concern.  Who am I, Kreskin?  I can’t see the future, but while these advances are important and certainly worth following, it seems to me the truth is that the most important aspects of photography aren’t rooted in the technology.  The camera doesn’t light the scene, it doesn’t decide where it goes or what lens it wears, it can’t style or pose the subject, and it can’t decide what to include in the frame.  The camera is the paper and pen, not the storyteller—it can’t express an idea.  And perhaps most importantly, the camera doesn’t have the ability to forge a meaningful relationship with a client.  And aren’t these the things that actually get us hired?

The Escape from the Occasional Drunk

A drunk man is shouting to no one in particular outside my window.  The time is 2:53 on a Sunday afternoon.  No joke.  He’s upset about something.  I can’t tell what.

I live in Seattle, the Capitol Hill neighborhood specifically, and given its central location, it’s perfect for a young fellow such as myself.  It’s easy to get anywhere I need to be, whether by foot, bus, or car, and there’s always plenty to do in the neighborhood—bars, restaurants, stores, theaters, and parks are all just a short stroll away.  Kickball leagues, gourmet ice cream, live music, stage reenactments of classic Twilight Zone episodes and many more things are always going on—for crying out loud, I just walked in the door after returning from the weekly boardgame session at the local game store.  (This week’s game was Race For The Galaxy—not my favorite, to be honest, but a fun afternoon nonetheless.)  This is what I love about Capitol Hill and, in fact, Seattle.  The trade-off is that on occasion, yes, you have to put up with the drunk guy on the street below you.

That drunk guy, though—whoever he happens to be from day to day or week to week (because it’s never the same guy, you know)—does grow tiring, I have to admit.  Sometimes you just have to get out of town, drive around, meet some new people and see some new things.  To that end, I’m excited to take a little road trip.  It’s coming up soon, and I’m looking forward to it.  The plan is to photograph a lot just for myself, not for work, which I don’t do enough.  People, places, things that interest me.  Like this thing, a roadside sculpture I happened upon a couple years ago (click it to see it bigger):

Dino

Nutty, right?  In my opinion, life doesn’t get much better than it does on a road trip, and for me, it’s been too long.

How to Build a Photo of a Robot (Part I)

After a number of requests from some very nice people, I’ve finally been persuaded that it might interest my average blog visitor if I were to walk through the execution of one of my photos, namely the one in which a kindly-looking inventor builds a beautiful female robot in his shop.  Like skinning cats, there are probably a number of different ways to do this kind of thing, none necessarily better than any other.  This entry just concerns the way I do it over here at Lucien Knuteson Photography.

Now, partly because I’m not up to writing an epic blog entry at the moment and partly because I don’t think anyone would have the attention span to read it even if I did (but mostly because the thought of getting some blog mileage from this topic is an appealing one), I’ll cover the photo over the course of a couple of entries.  In this first part, I’ll talk about the lighting.  In part two I’ll talk about the seven individual photos that make up the image as well as why each of them were necessary, and in a couple cases, what they add to the shot and how they were done.

Before I go on, so we all know what we’re talking about, here is the photo.  Please click on it if you’d like to see it larger.

Robot

Canon EOS 5D Mk II
f/9 @ 1/160, ISO 100

So.  First of all, if a composite shot (which this obviously is) is to be successful—and by “successful” I mean “convincing”—it requires consistency of lighting.  That means one has to control the lighting as much as possible to preserve continuity from shot to shot.  Otherwise, you run into problems (say you’re trying to put someone with a shadowy face into a brightly lit room—whoops) when you go to stitch the photos together in Photoshop.  To that end, if you can light your scene using strobes only and no ambient light (when I say “ambient” in this case I really just mean “light from the sun”, which is problematic for its tendency to change angle and color temperature over the course of a shoot), well, it really behooves you to do that.  So, after scouting the location ahead of time, I decided it would be smartest to shoot in the late morning, before the sun came around the corner of the building and stuck its big bright middle finger in through the windows.  Without direct sunlight, the exposure I chose meant that it was possible to cut out the ambient light entirely*, and light the shot exclusively with my strobe heads.

This next part probably goes without saying, but before I go into the specifics of this particular setup, I’m going to say it anyway.  Lighting has a great deal to do with the way a photo is perceived, because often times the subject matter is, well, subjective.  Sometimes it’s a cue like lighting that helps the viewer understand how to interpret a photograph.  There were a number of reasons I lit this shot the way I did.  It needed to be bright and open because a) this really is meant to be a happy image, after all, b) if it were darkly lit, the photo would probably take on a tone that could be read as lecherous, creepy, disturbing or gross, and c) I thought the brightness would contrast well with the weirdness of a half-nude female robot.  I wanted a kind of bizarro Norman Rockwell feeling to the photo, so bright, natural, and happy lighting—definitely the way to go.

To that end, my intention was to make the whole scene appear lit by indirect sunlight from the windows at the right of the frame. The woodshop was on the third floor of the building, so to affect this effect (homonyms!), Krystal (my assistant) and I put a four-foot octabank (a large, octagonal softbox) on a boom arm, and carefully guided it out the window.  (We used the third window on the wall, almost exactly in line with the female model’s body.)  We sandbagged the hell out of the arm and angled the light so that the brunt of it went to the back wall of the shop to light the tools.  A second light just inside that window, outfitted with a softbox and affixed to a C-stand arm, rather high and just out of frame to the right, provided the key light for the models.  A third light just right of camera was aimed away from the scene and into a large satin umbrella, providing a very diffuse bounced light to soften shadows not only on the models, but through the entire room.  The highlight on the right side of the male model’s face comes from another light wearing a small softbox with a fabric grid, which is why the light falls off so nicely as you follow his head down to his elbow.  One last head was used as an accent, with just a 7″ reflector and a 30° grid spot, to light the robot innards when that exposure was taken.

Other random notes, not all to do with lighting:
· I shot at f/9 because I wanted the background to go a little soft, and it was was the largest aperture at which I could get both models and the table in focus.
· The light on the boom outside the window never plummeted to the sidewalk below, never injured or killed anyone or anyone’s pet.  I was relieved.
· Umbrellas get a bad rap.  It seems to me that some photographers look down on them because they’re very basic and don’t offer any control.  But if you can get past the stigma, they’re worth having in the toolkit.  Sometimes they’re just what you need.
· I read somewhere a quote from a photographer (and I can’t remember who) who said that much of photography is moving furniture.  This is true.  A fair amount of setup time for this shot was spent moving the woodpile in the corner of the shop, and rearranging the tools on the workbench.
· The camera was tethered to a computer for this shoot.  If it were practical, I’d do that more often.
· When you’re doing a composite shoot, it’s absolutely necessary to keep the camera on a tripod or camera stand.  Anchored.  To the.  Ground.  You’d think that would go without saying.  Here, though, are a couple things that might not occur to everyone:  To minimize camera movement even when it’s on a tripod, it’s helpful to use a remote to trip the shutter, or trigger the camera from your computer if you’re shooting tethered.  Some cameras will let you shoot with the mirror locked up—if yours does, do that.  Always set your white balance manually—you don’t want to be on the automatic setting, because the color temperature can and probably will vary from frame to frame, and you’ll have to color correct each shot to match every other shot that winds up in the composite.  Ditto the exposure—manually set it.

*Almost.  What you see out the window—the grass, the trees, the sky—is a photo I took in a Seattle park (but more on that in Part II).  It was lit, of course, with the sun.