Blog

Here you'll find various things relating to photo shoots. Behind the scenes pictures, video, and some commentary. 

New Video, Retouch Time Lapse

      Getting back into making some videos after saying I would and then kind of forgetting about it for months.. Here is a quickie of me retouching a simple portrait, sped up to about 10x real time. I don't give detailed descriptions of the process but there are little notes during various parts of the video that mention kind of what is going on. Hopefully I'll stay motivated and come up with some more cool tutorial videos soon. 

iPhone gets the job done: Foggy Garden Portraits

Shooting with my iPhone. I'll explain this below.. 

Shooting with my iPhone. I'll explain this below.. 

     Recently I've had a few ideas for some shoots but they weren't getting done so I decided to ask a friend of mine, Jade, to come over and we would just come up with something. I have various supplies lying around and for this shoot we used some flowers and the fog machine to make some simple, atmospheric portraits. 

     For a bit of a story before I talk some more about the shoot: A few weeks ago I was at a shoot with a portrait client at a lighthouse down at the beach and needed to put my camera down for a moment to adjust the light. There was a spot near the rocks that appeared to have been fairly dry for a while so I set my camera there and just as I turned away a massive wave crashed over the area. I looked over to my camera and it was totally dowsed. I am normally someone who is very careful with his tech so I'm pretty surprised that I let that happen. Needless to say, the camera doesn't shoot anymore. It was my 5D Mark ii with a 24-105mm mounted. The lens is weather sealed but the camera isn't. I've since tested the lens and it (other than some sometimes ominous scraping noises from sand that got in) seems to be fine. The camera is giving me error codes and will need to be fixed.  

     Anyway, although I was pretty bummed about my 5D2, I still had my original 5D in my bag so I could at least use that for a while. Well that is what I was thinking until this shoot when I go to start taking pictures and look through the viewfinder and find it obstructed. There was no cap on the lens so I was pretty puzzled but taking off the lens revealed the mirror had fallen out. 

Oh no! Not a happy sight.. 

Oh no! Not a happy sight.. 

     I'd read before that this mirror issue is not uncommon with earlier production 5Ds but since it hasn't happened until now, I had mostly disregarded it. Its a near 10 year old model by now and I bought it used in 2009 so although I'm disappointed that its broken, I'm still happy with all the use I've gotten out of it. Just considering the problem, it doesn't seem like too hard a fix. I could attempt a superglue job myself but I don't know if that would be too imprecise. I don't know if it would worth spending whatever Canon would charge for factory service since its such an old camera. 

     So now I don't have any working cameras. (I have an old Rebel but the shutter button is jacked up) Until I can get together some funds to get them fixed, I suppose I can borrow cameras or something. Even if/when I get the 5D2 fixed, I'm still weary. I don't really trust a camera that has suffered a salt water intrusion. Hopefully I'll be able to get at least a 6D or possibly a 5D3 (or in my dreams, a 5DS..) some time this year. We'll see.. 

     So with Jade and Alison over for a shoot and everything set up, I just shot with the camera I had that wasn't broken. My iPhone. 

If you showed this photo to me a few years ago, I probably wouldn't be able to immediately tell it wasn't taken with one of my DSLRs. Of course it would be obvious on closer inspection but I'm pretty happy with what I got from the iPhone here. 

If you showed this photo to me a few years ago, I probably wouldn't be able to immediately tell it wasn't taken with one of my DSLRs. Of course it would be obvious on closer inspection but I'm pretty happy with what I got from the iPhone here. 

     Using the Camera+ app, I could manually set the camera and was able to get some pretty cool shots. Keeping the ISO down at like 32 or 40 was necessary since these little sensors aren't so good with higher sensitivities. Luckily it was a nice cloudy day and I had the modeling light from my flash to augment it. Since it was just a personal shoot, I wasn't that freaked out about using a super high quality camera and it became a sort of fun challenge to try and work through the limitations of using an iPhone at a shoot. 

A bit of a challenge using the iPhone's 29mm (equivalent) lens to frame portraits. 

A bit of a challenge using the iPhone's 29mm (equivalent) lens to frame portraits. 

     I was originally planning to shoot with a wide aperture and a medium/wide (35-50mm) lens for some painterly rendering of the background but since that was off the table, the photos ended up having a different look. The depth of the field on these cameras is massive. In most cases, essentially everything is in focus unless the subject is very close to the lens. In a way its kind of cool to see that because I so rarely go for an entirely sharp look. Its different. 

     The biggest problem I thought I would have was using my flash. You can't (as far as I have seen) trigger a pocket wizard/sync cable with an iPhone so the only light I could use was the ambient light and the modeling light of my flash. (which is equivalent to something like a 100 watt standard bulb). Getting a balance between the week modeling lamp and the afternoon light was iffy at first but as the sun went down, it became easier to control. 

     I think the coolest thing about this shoot was the affirmation for me that I can still make some cool looking photos with much more limited equipment. These photos pretty much look like they are done in my style but were taken with an iPhone instead of a DSLR and a bare modeling light bulb in place of a more powerful flash and diffuser. 

I love using the fog machine to add atmosphere to images. 

I love using the fog machine to add atmosphere to images. 

     Overall I'm pretty impressed with the iPhone 6 camera. It can't compete at all with a decent dedicated camera but for a phone, its pretty good. Maybe I'll continue doing some low tech shoots for fun. 

     Here are a few more behind the scenes photos taken by Alison who was with us that day to hang out and assist: 

     I'm happy with the photos from this shoot and I'm curious to see what they might look like in print compared to my usual files so I ordered a few 12x16" reproductions to see if they hold up. I think they will. Recently Apple has been printing building size billboard ads that were shot on iPhone 6 so if they can do that, I think my little portraits will look good in print too. 

     I considered just using iPhone apps to retouch the photos but the comforts of using Photoshop on my Mac won out. There wasn't a whole lot done to them. Mostly refining the color and a bit of general retouching. Having the fog machine there in real life really makes that kind of atmospheric look really convenient to achieve. Its possible to create something similar in Photoshop but there is something about the look of real smoke/fog that I prefer. I guess if you are really proficient in a 3D modeling app you could reconstruct the scene in 3D and render the smoke you want around it with an alpha channel and then layer that in over the photo so it would look pretty real but that seems like a much larger effort than a $20 smoke machine and a gentle breeze.

     Here are a few more of the final images:

I love how you can take an ordinary location (front yard of a house) and through selective framing (and maybe a bit of Photoshop work) make it look like it could be anywhere. I know where it was taken and what was immediately around it but anyone who isn't familiar with the location is left to imagine the area for themselves. Fun fact: the blue flowers were found at the dollar store. Its great what you can do with $20 of cheap fake flowers in the right context. 

I love how you can take an ordinary location (front yard of a house) and through selective framing (and maybe a bit of Photoshop work) make it look like it could be anywhere. I know where it was taken and what was immediately around it but anyone who isn't familiar with the location is left to imagine the area for themselves. Fun fact: the blue flowers were found at the dollar store. Its great what you can do with $20 of cheap fake flowers in the right context. 

Since this shoot was pretty free form, I hadn't considered all of the elements in too much detail. I like how the ruffle edge of the dress on her shoulder echoes the flowers in the background. 

Since this shoot was pretty free form, I hadn't considered all of the elements in too much detail. I like how the ruffle edge of the dress on her shoulder echoes the flowers in the background. 

I love the depth that fog creates when you can see the density build up through plants or trees. The light on her wasn't quite as optimal as I'd usual have it but it is still close to my usual look. Colors are a bit different in this once compared with the others from this shoot. Less red in the shadows. I guess I just feel like this one works being primarily cold cyans. 

I love the depth that fog creates when you can see the density build up through plants or trees. The light on her wasn't quite as optimal as I'd usual have it but it is still close to my usual look. Colors are a bit different in this once compared with the others from this shoot. Less red in the shadows. I guess I just feel like this one works being primarily cold cyans. 

     So that is that. Fun shoot. I hope to do some more spontaneous creative shoots like this. I need to shoot more and I find that sometimes it can be good to just make something happen even if the ideas aren't fully formed. 

Feb/March issue of Santa Cruz Waves - Fashion

     As had become usual, last December, I shot some more photos for publication in the Feb/March issue of Santa Cruz Waves Magazine. Our crew was largely similar to past shoots with Christa Martin of The Penny Rose producing, beauty by Salon on the Square, Beau Gillette assisting, and myself, Nick Chao, photographing and retouching.  For this shoot we worked with a new model, Heather Chase. She was awesome and we hope to work with her again. Since most of the team was familiar with each other, we know that we work well together and it was a pretty smooth shoot. 

Before I go on, here is an awesome little behind the scenes video shot by Deva Anderson for The Penny Rose. Always fun to see what goes on around the lens: 

     Location for this shoot was the San Lorenzo Garden Center in Santa Cruz CA. Since the photos were going to be in the early Spring issue of the print Magazine, we wanted to have a location that reflected that. We had looked for a more natural, garden sort of location but weren't able to find/get access to one in time so we decided to use the Garden Center. I think it worked out pretty well since Spring is the time many people start getting back into their gardens. It gives a bit of a narrative to the woman in the photographs. (Funny though, since we shot this in December before Christmas, there were many Christmas flowers around the place. We just accepted that and shot with them anyway.) 

     Prior to the shoot, I hadn't been to that place in quite a few years but Christa had gone and taken some photos of what it looked like. After seeing those I could tell it would work for what we wanted so we went ahead with the shoot. Upon arrival, while the others were setting up and getting situated, I took a quick run around the place to see what little spots would work best. The place that stood out the most to me was a greenhouse area that held many shelves of colorful plants. The light within was pretty ideal to work with since it was super diffused by the semi-opaque window panes and the naturally low angle of the sun at the time. That made it pretty easy to dial in an exposure for the background and then turn up my key light until it looked good. The light inside was actually low enough for me to need a pretty slow shutter speed and since I just happened to have accidentally left the stabilization off on my lens, a fair number of the shots ended up having a little camera shake in the backgrounds. Enough of them turned out well that it was fine but its definitely something I'll try not to let happen again. 

     Here are a few behind the scenes shots of while we were shooting in the greenhouse:      

Beau holding the light in position (Alien Bees B800 with a 60" Photek Softlighter powered with a Vagabond Mini and triggered with  Pocket Wizards) while Deva touches up the model. One thing about shooting in a room made of windows is the inevitable reflection issues. In many angles, the large umbrella would reflect and show up in the photos so it required careful framing and some retouching.

Beau holding the light in position (Alien Bees B800 with a 60" Photek Softlighter powered with a Vagabond Mini and triggered with  Pocket Wizards) while Deva touches up the model. One thing about shooting in a room made of windows is the inevitable reflection issues. In many angles, the large umbrella would reflect and show up in the photos so it required careful framing and some retouching.

Deva, Christa, and Heather. Deva setting up to record the behind the scenes video for The Penny Rose

Deva, Christa, and Heather. Deva setting up to record the behind the scenes video for The Penny Rose

     Below you can see a couple pictures that show the difference between the photos with just natural light and when I add my flash to the mix. Every situation is different and if I was really shooting just natural light I would probably use a wide aperture and just blow out the background to make sure the model looked good. For this shoot at least, I wanted my usual mix of flash and ambient so thats what I worked towards. 

     And here are some final retouched images from that location:

     Sometimes for my shoots for Santa Cruz Waves we would just shoot one look but for this shoot we had two different outfits for her so she got changed and we headed to some other locations. We continued to shoot outside amongst the rows of plants and then went underneath the sheltered area they have for the shade plants. 

     Here are some shots of the 2nd little location:

     Getting a good mix of strobe and ambient was a little more challenging for me out here. The background also, while interesting, required some thought. The final image from here is decent but not one of my favorites: 

I couldn't find a way to make the background look as good as I wanted it to with it brighter than this so the photo overall ended up looking kind of dark. (sometimes easier to just knock down a background than try and fight for the perfect balance). Also, for some reason the skin tone looks a bit punchier than I remember making it but I guess thats alright. They ended up printing this one in the magazine so I'm happy that they liked it. 

I couldn't find a way to make the background look as good as I wanted it to with it brighter than this so the photo overall ended up looking kind of dark. (sometimes easier to just knock down a background than try and fight for the perfect balance). Also, for some reason the skin tone looks a bit punchier than I remember making it but I guess thats alright. They ended up printing this one in the magazine so I'm happy that they liked it. 

     Continuing in the same look, we walked a few feet to a little alleyway location and shot some more:

     And some of the final images: 

     I didn't really get any behind the scenes picture of it but we went to one more little location and shot a bit more. Here is the last image: 

I like the range of color in this one. The cool blues outside and the warm colors around her. I actually have a "Cool Down Shadows" Photoshop action that I made and use all the time to add cool tones to various parts of my photos. Maybe I'll share it here some time. 

I like the range of color in this one. The cool blues outside and the warm colors around her. I actually have a "Cool Down Shadows" Photoshop action that I made and use all the time to add cool tones to various parts of my photos. Maybe I'll share it here some time. 

     All in all, a nice shoot. Other than my forgetting to switch on my lens stabilization which would've helped retain some sharpness in some of the scenes, most of the photos worked out pretty well. Its a nice little challenge to walk around a location and work on finding a good way to balance my light with the light that is already there.

     And of course, here are a couple of before/after retouching comparisons: (original on top, final on bottom)

Did a lot of color work with this and finessed the light on the model. I usually shoot with light that is pretty close to what I want and then retouch the image later into what I envisioned it to look like. You can see in the unretouched photo the reflection of the light behind her and how all the windows in the original have different looks. I evened them all out with a sort of aquatic blue color that I think went well with the greens and tied in with her clothes. I realize that her foot got cut off so that isn't good but everything else about it was good enough to me that it was worth working on. 

Did a lot of color work with this and finessed the light on the model. I usually shoot with light that is pretty close to what I want and then retouch the image later into what I envisioned it to look like. You can see in the unretouched photo the reflection of the light behind her and how all the windows in the original have different looks. I evened them all out with a sort of aquatic blue color that I think went well with the greens and tied in with her clothes. I realize that her foot got cut off so that isn't good but everything else about it was good enough to me that it was worth working on. 

Mostly just basic retouching work on this one and a decent amount contrast added in different ways. 

Mostly just basic retouching work on this one and a decent amount contrast added in different ways. 

     As always, thanks for reading! I actually have a few new creative shoots planned that I want to execute soon so hopefully I can share those before too long. 

Fashion for Santa Cruz Waves Magazine Dec/Jan Issue

     Some months ago I shot some more photos for Santa Cruz Waves Magazine. They have a couple-page fashion section that features clothing sourced from local stores and designers. I do these shoots in collaboration with a great team of people including beauty by Salon on the Square and production by Christa Martin of thepennyrose.com. I was also thankful to have my friend Beau assisting. Another set of hands always alleviates some of the scrambling to make sure nothing gets left behind and the equipment stays in the right place. 

     Because of the lead times of shooting for the printed magazine, we shot these in October for the December/January issue. We weren't sure where to shoot this time because we originally wanted something kind of different from the previous SCW shoot we did at the cliffs/beach but we ended up shoot at Natural Bridges since after scouting, it seemed like it would be interesting enough. To me, these images ended up coming across more as "fall" than the winter season they were for but they still look good so I don't think it was an issue. When Christa and I scouted it out, it was a dark overcast day which gave the beach and the surrounding area a nice sense of damp wintriness that would have been perfect but alas, the sun came out on the day of the shoot. Thankfully though, the sun ended up being pretty low by the time we started shooting so I didn't have to fight with it too much to get the light to work. 

The first little location that we shot at above the beach. Took some retouching to balance out all of the tones but I am happy with this one. 

The first little location that we shot at above the beach. Took some retouching to balance out all of the tones but I am happy with this one. 

     The look of the photo above, with the mix of artificial and natural light, is a style that I use a lot and I think it has kind of become a trademark of some of my best work. Or at least, my most stylistically consistent. I usually approach something like this as two or three subjects (Background, Model, Clothing/Product) in one. The background itself is a landscape shot that needs to look good, needs to look interesting, without being too distracting from the subject. In a wide shot like this, a considerable amount of work goes into balancing all of the tones in the background to look rich and tonal without displaying too much uncontrolled/distracting contrast. Next of course, is the subject themself. I most always bring along my battery and light system and light them separately form the background. That is to say, the flash is what has the most influence on how they look as opposed to the natural light. It may not result in a completely natural look but I am generally fine with that as long as it ends up looking good in the end. A large, soft light from a high angle is used here as is usual for me. You can see the setup here:

     I always enjoy being able to show a few photos of what the scene looks like from a few steps back. People who aren't familiar with this kind of portrait photography aren't always aware of what the light setup looks like (and how large a light umbrella can be).

     We wanted to shoot in multiple little areas at the location to provide for some variety for the client so we moved on to the path that leads over and down to the beach. The sun was getting lower and provided for some great flare:

Although it may not show the clothing as well as some of the other photos, I'm a sucker for dramatic light and I like how it looks here. 

Although it may not show the clothing as well as some of the other photos, I'm a sucker for dramatic light and I like how it looks here. 

     While the light looks fairly natural and motivated by the angle of the setting sun, I of course, used my flash to illuminate her. Motivating the angle of your light in accordance with the direction of a natural or ambient light source in the background can be a great way to make your light look kind of effortless. That light on her may not be all natural but you look at the photo and want to believe it was. 

Augmenting the natural light with my flash. Here, Beau leans it nearly as close as it will go to her once she is standing and in position resulting in soft light with dramatic fall off.

Augmenting the natural light with my flash. Here, Beau leans it nearly as close as it will go to her once she is standing and in position resulting in soft light with dramatic fall off.

     We then moved down to the sand as the sun began to set in earnest. I generally provide some shots that are framed a bit closer than full length so we tackled those next. There wasn't an outfit change during this shoot so most of the styling fixes were for things like hair or just the position of the coat/scarf. 

Very happy with how the light worked out for this one. The sky was originally a clear grey-blue but after lighting her with that really soft light, the addition of a cloudy sky works better, I think. While it doesn't necessarily motivate the angle of the light on her, the cloudy sky motivates the soft quality of it which makes for less of a disconnect that there would be had I left a clear sky with the very soft light from my flash. Clear skies tend to imply hard light form an uncovered sun. 

Very happy with how the light worked out for this one. The sky was originally a clear grey-blue but after lighting her with that really soft light, the addition of a cloudy sky works better, I think. While it doesn't necessarily motivate the angle of the light on her, the cloudy sky motivates the soft quality of it which makes for less of a disconnect that there would be had I left a clear sky with the very soft light from my flash. Clear skies tend to imply hard light form an uncovered sun. 

See what I mean by unmotivated light? While I think this is a beautiful picture of her, the light looks a little too 'easy' for my taste. I don't want to sound snobbish but this reminds me of some of the work I've seen when people first start using off camera flash and photos become the land of a million suns. I would know, I've been there (and I often still am 'guilty' of lighting my subjects without much regard to compatibility between natural and ambient light). This look isn't bad, I just prefer the look of photos like the one above this where things tend to come together a bit more seamlessly. Pretty happy with how my camera handled the dynamic range of this one. Sun didn't blow out too badly and the shadows didn't block up in a problematic way so that was nice. 

See what I mean by unmotivated light? While I think this is a beautiful picture of her, the light looks a little too 'easy' for my taste. I don't want to sound snobbish but this reminds me of some of the work I've seen when people first start using off camera flash and photos become the land of a million suns. I would know, I've been there (and I often still am 'guilty' of lighting my subjects without much regard to compatibility between natural and ambient light). This look isn't bad, I just prefer the look of photos like the one above this where things tend to come together a bit more seamlessly. Pretty happy with how my camera handled the dynamic range of this one. Sun didn't blow out too badly and the shadows didn't block up in a problematic way so that was nice. 

     As the sun had mostly set, we walked back up above the sand and got a few more shots with more of the beach in the background. At this point the light was pretty low and I felt that we had mostly gotten the photos we needed but there wasn't any harm in trying for one more good shot. 

To be honest, I am not a big fan of this one. Partly due to a bit of sloppy retouching that I am noticing now and also because I just don't think it turned out as interesting as it should have. I don't hate it or anything and this one of the ones they ended up printing so I'm glad they liked it but I think my relationship with the photo is different because I associate it with many failed frames (due to the frustrating lack of light and various other shoot time factors) and a file that was not of the quality that I like to provide. Not as sharp as the others with some weird highlights and shadows. 

To be honest, I am not a big fan of this one. Partly due to a bit of sloppy retouching that I am noticing now and also because I just don't think it turned out as interesting as it should have. I don't hate it or anything and this one of the ones they ended up printing so I'm glad they liked it but I think my relationship with the photo is different because I associate it with many failed frames (due to the frustrating lack of light and various other shoot time factors) and a file that was not of the quality that I like to provide. Not as sharp as the others with some weird highlights and shadows. 

     Even though it might not be my favorite photo from the shoot, I still have some cool behind the scenes shots of when we were shooting it: 

     Overall it was a fun and laid back shoot with a team of people I am comfortable with and had worked with many times previously so that was great. I'm pretty happy with some of the images and happy that I remembered to zoom out and grab a few behind the scenes shots for everyone to see here. You can check out Christa's post on The Penny Rose for more information about the clothing in the photos and find the print edition of Santa Cruz Waves in many places here locally in Santa Cruz. 

     I've already shot another series of images for their Feb/March issue so I'll share those once they have been published later this month!