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Category Archives: Pontifications on the Practice of Picture Preparation

I was trolling through some film resources online a month or two ago, and I came across a mention of Caffenol as a developer. Wait a minute thought I, what’s this Caffenol about? That doesn’t sound like a commercial developer…

How right I was! Caffenol is actually a completely home-made film developer, which uses instant coffee as its active ingredient. As soon as I read the description, I had to try it. I dashed off a roll of Ilford HP-5+ 400 ISO 35mm film that I wouldn’t be sad to lose to a bad process, and finally tonight I put together the ingredients, and developed my disposable roll.

The process of mixing Caffenol (I tried for the Caffenol-C-H recipe, though I used insufficient salt after mistakenly thinking it was iodized) is straightforward, and anyone who can afford a cheap digital scale ($10-15 online) and the raw ingredients can put it together. Using it is a bit odd: I’m so used to developer being clear that it felt wrong to pour this pitch-black liquid into the tank. I used the recommended 15 minutes with agitation, though I washed the film a couple times in water before pouring the stop bath in (not wanting it to come out with coffee color, since I reuse my stop bath).

Other than your development process smelling like bad coffee, it was exactly like developing with the XTOL I’m used to.

As a point of comparison, here’s a light table photo of the negatives I developed tonight:

And here is a set of negatives from earlier in the year, developed in XTOL (both pictures shot with the same exposure):

As you can see, the base fog (darkness of the unexposed film stock) is pretty pronounced with Caffenol, but I also used half the amount of table salt I was supposed to (which is specifically to control base fog), so I don’t take this as anything more than a mistake on my part. The shadow detail looks pretty good, and the highlights look very solid.

The scanner has no problem with the film, and the scanned result looks reasonably good. Grain is present, but not substantially worse than XTOL-developed film (I see I also need to work on scanner focus, but that’s a separate issue). I’ve inset a 100% crop from the flowers in the sculpture to show the detail. This was scanned at 6400 DPI, though it has been resized for reasonable web use:

Overall, an interesting experience. Worth a bit more work to see what happens.

If you’ve ever processed sheet film in open trays, you’ve likely come across the same problem I had: negatives get scratched if you try to process more than one at a time (I’ve read that it’s possible to do, but I’ve never been successful). The temptation was always there, though, because processing one negative at a time is deadly slow. With my one water bath (the bathroom sink), I couldn’t presoak negatives at the same time I was washing processed negatives, for fear of contaminating the unprocessed film with fixer. Processing a sheet of film was taking about 30 minutes — now multiply that by a reasonable 5-15 shots from a day’s shoot, and processing film became a very daunting prospect, to the point that I still have some film in holders from more than two years ago that needs to be processed.

Looking into alternatives, I had read about the BTZS tube processing system, but it seemed expensive, and like more of a commitment than I was willing to make given how infrequently I process large format film. However, I came across another idea recently, and decided to give it a try: open-tube processing. The idea is not that you enclose the film and chemistry inside the tube for daylight processing, but rather that the tube is just there to keep the sheets of film from rubbing up against each other and scratching the emulsion as they’re processed in a darkroom. I acquired a piece of 2″ PVC drain pipe (about $8 at the hardware store), and cut it into four 7.5″ long pieces (with lots left over), drilling a few holes around the perimeter of each tube to see if I could avoid the water mark reported in the article where I’d first read about doing this. The holes are almost certainly superfluous, but they’re there, and they’re not hurting anything.

In any case, I recently processed ten sheets from Thanksgiving. It only took about two hours, which is a huge improvement. Processing is exactly like normal open-tray processing, but you fit the film into the tubes (emulsion facing inward) before the presoak, and I found that trays intended for 8×10 processing (actually about 12×10) are big enough to fit four tubes at a time. The tubes are transferred between trays like you’d expect, though I now use 100% agitation, rolling tubes against each other, to ensure even chemistry coverage. The only trick beyond the actual using of tubes that I’ve discovered is to shift each piece of film around inside its tube while in the water bath, so that there’s a thin film of water between the sheet and tube; this avoids the water mark. Once the film slides easily in its tube, you’re golden.

Of course, this speedy processing of film means that I can discover much more quickly just how much I have to learn about shooting with the 5×7 camera — I tried some fancy focal plane shifting tricks for these shots, and only some of them worked. The pictures were exposed and developed perfectly, but the focus… ugh. Some are better than others, but suffice to say that shooting large format is sufficiently different from shooting with an SLR or rangefinder that I can’t consider myself proficient yet. With everything zeroed and flat, I’m fine, but using swings and shifts? Lots to learn.

Must be time to go shoot some more 5×7, and get some learning done!

I had the opportunity recently to photograph and composite press shots for the Annex Theatre production of Is She Dead Yet?, a new show by Brandon J. Simmons. It’s a “white comedy” about the death of the last black person on Earth, based off the Euripedes show Alcestis.

For these shots, I worked closely with Evelyn deHais (Annex’s marketing director) who came up with the concepts, and did some light retouching on the images before they went out to press. Evelyn’s concept was that we wanted to call to mind the perfect-looking, bright cheery world you typically see in sitcom press photos. The images would show Aretha, the subject of the show’s title, in various situations, waiting while people around her are having a good time, getting on with their lives. The image that we both ended up liking best was the one we called “Cake,” which calls forward to the pink cake as an element of the play.

Here’s the picture, as I finished it:

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What I find really cool about this picture is the way that it’s made: this is a composite of eight different pictures. Look at it again. That’s eight different photos, layered together.

The photos are, in no particular order:

* The background shot: table, walls, etc.
* Yesenia, in the red dress, center
* Shane, far left, with water in his wine glass
* Evelyn, behind Shane, with the cell phone
* The cake, a lemon-yellow frosted cake
* Soren, in the blue shirt, with water in his wine glass
* Paige, far right, with water in her wine glass
* The tablecloth, behind Paige and Shane’s legs

All photos, fortunately, could be shot in the exact same light (heavily diffused west-facing windows, in the afternoon sun), which makes the compositing effort much easier. I was also able to set up the camera on a tripod for many of the shots, which ensures that the camera’s point of perspective doesn’t shift in weird ways.

Because of people’s schedules, we had to shoot Yesenia (woman in the red dress) first, then everyone else a week later, and the cake and table follow-up shots after that. Fortunately, we had the four models around the table at the same time, so shadows and lighting are very realistic without having to go to extraordinary lengths.

Each person was then cut out to separate them from the background, using a layer mask in Photoshop. If you’re following along at home, the new trick I learned in this process is a way to deal with hair and masking: select the subject, getting the edges as good as possible, but don’t stress too much about the hair. Just get the hair close. Then, hit the Refine Edge button. At least for me, it always comes up in a mode where I get a brush pointer out over the image — use this brush to tell Photoshop where it should be doing Edge Detection. That is, brush around the hair areas, where you want to see background through the hair. Like magic, Photoshop just selects the hair and leaves the background cut out. Click OK then hit the Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel, and you’ve got a really good layer mask.

In any case, each person was cut out of their individual photo and layered on top of the background image. The front tablecloth picture and the cake were layered on last. The tablecloth picture allowed the entire room to be in focus, as well as the front edge of the tablecloth — photos like this are frequently shot and assembled in such a way that absolutely everything is in focus, so that was an element I concentrated on preserving.

One of the problems was that the cake needed to be pink, but I couldn’t find a pink cake at the store (we needed to keep costs down and the schedule was tight, so no fancy bespoke cakes for us). Instead I found a yellow one that was about the right kind of simple-and-elegant, so I shot it and modified the color with the Photo Filter adjustment layer. I did the same thing to the water in the wine glasses, giving them approximately the color of white wine.

Because these photos were all shot in the same light, this was also one of the easiest photos to put together. We did six total press shots, and my lack of compositing experience definitely came to the forefront in the more extreme ones — I tried faking “daylight” in the studio with a softbox and a reflector, but really didn’t get it right. Photos which use studio shots look distinctly more fake than the Cake photo, although they do accomplish the goal of looking like heavily composited photos. I also made the mistake of shooting my models against black, thinking I could use a blending mode to blend them into the scene. Instead I needed to cut them out from the background, and it would have been much easier with a white or green background.

The other thing that occurred to me is that I would ideally have two photo shoots: one to get the approximate shots done, without too much concern for costume or makeup, but focusing as carefully as possible on positioning models and matching the lighting I need. I would then attempt to composite mock-ups of the photos we wanted to do, using the real backgrounds. This would make abundantly clear where I’d gotten lighting or positioning wrong, and then in the second shoot we could concentrate on making those right, as well as getting costume and make-up spot-on. It feels like a school exercise, and I’m sure experienced composite photographers do the first step in their head before they even start (or would only do the double shoot in bizarrely ideal circumstances, due to time or budget constraints).

Overall, I’m pleased with how they came out, given my nearly complete lack of experience going in. I don’t think I’ll be offering to do commercial compositing shots any time soon, but I’m glad to dip my toe in.

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I won’t tell you how long it’s been since I last developed 5×7 film, because the number of (ahem) months is frankly a bit embarrassing. This is what I get for having no deadlines.

Regardless, tonight was productive: 8 of 12 exposed negatives processed. Once they’re dry, I can start scanning.

In case you’re interested, one of these negatives produces a scan of 12195 × 17073 pixels (roughly: the size changes depending on how closely you crop; those numbers are from a sample scan I did last year) at 2400 DPI. The scanner I have, an Epson V700, is capable of much greater resolution, but I kind of figure a 208 megapixel image is good enough to start with. Practically speaking, a 5×7 negative represents about 400 megapixels of data, depending on your film and development process.

So, you know, if you need all the megapixels, large-format is a good choice.

In my path to becoming a well-rounded photographer, I decided I needed to have a little bit of product photography under my belt. The next step on this path was to tackle a difficult subject: metal.

Photographing metallic objects is hard because the light is comparatively difficult to get right. It’s easy enough to throw up some light and end up with a picture. However, that picture will be flat and uninteresting, and probably won’t look much like metal. We’ve got a visual vocabulary for metallic objects now, after a hundred and fifty years of photography, and thousands of years of painting. You expect to see the metal object show a range of tones from near black to near white. Color doesn’t really look right, unless it’s a very lightly tinged blue color. You typically want to see a curving line, if you see a line at all, where light and dark meet on a smooth surface. Here’s an example of not doing it right:

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There are too many bright tones, and no real dark tones to speak of. The left side is showing a distinct orangey color from the wall and the shades. I also didn’t realize how dirty my product was until after I reviewed the first batch of photos. It still looks like metal, but it doesn’t look very good. This was with two lights, and was the first shot I took of this object.

I went through a series of photos after this, moving lights, removing umbrellas, moving again, shifting camera angles, cleaning my subject, eventually adding lights until I had every strobe I own trained on the thing. I finally had a result I was pretty happy with (although ideally I would clean more of the wax off of it):

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It looks like metal. It has a bit of a highlight on the otherwise-dark side. It’s cleaner.

And the inspiration for this whole post? The crazy-looking setup it took to get here:

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Although I’ve been focusing on people for most of my photography career, I also find myself occasionally tripping past other types of photography and looking in as I go by. One of those is product photography.

Product photography is an interesting area, since it looks so simple from the outside, and can be challenging to really get right. It’s not hard to take a picture of a widget. It’s much more demanding to take a picture of a widget and make it look both correct and appealing. Lighting has to be very particularly set up, and the needs of the customer can radically change the shot — is this a catalog shot? A marketing shot? What is the goal of the marketing campaign? The look for a bottle of hair product may or may not be utterly different from the look for a handgun. It’s hard to imagine lumping those products together, but I could easily imagine a lighting and background setup that would accommodate either.

My first attempt at a product shot demonstrated just how hard it is. I borrowed a decorative toy bird from a friend, since I wanted something whimsical, and my own possessions didn’t yield anything I’d want to call a portfolio shot of a whimsical thing. I shot it against a brightly colored background (boring), and against a colored background with glittering faux jewels strewn around (more interesting, but definitely not right). The lighting was ok, but the setting was just kind of bleh.

Then one morning I awoke to an inch or two of snow, and immediately knew the solution to my dilemma. I grabbed the bird, and perched him on a handy railing. Instantly, an interesting, evocative shot. Snow underneath, trees forming the out-of-focus backdrop; it was ideal.

Are those rockers or skis?

Next up, I was approached about taking pictures for an Amazon web store. Amazon allows resellers to list their stuff through the Amazon site, as you probably know. But the product photography isn’t included, and the quality of images ranges from professional to abysmal. This request was for a nursery which sells bulbs that grow into lovely flowers, and we had some fresh-sprouted flowers to photograph. I had a camera with me, and the light was pretty nice, so I took some photos of the flowers in-place.

Boekee's Nursery

That’s a great picture, but it’s not really appropriate for selling a bulb on Amazon. That is to say, it would be a good marketing photo (where the message is, “Our flowers will add beauty to your home,” more or less). It’s not a good catalog photo. For a good catalog photo, you just want to see the product, without any distractions. It should allow the viewer to mentally swap in their own house or flowerbed with the minimum of work. The standard vocabulary for this is to have a white background.

Boekee's Nursery

The distinction between marketing and catalog shots is actually an interesting one, and one that I hadn’t really considered until taking these last two images. Both are good photos, but the difference between them is quite clear to me now that I’ve given it the thought.

Anyway, this is an interesting direction, and one I’d like to see happening more. There’s a temptation to say that this is a good way to generate revenue through photography, but I have a feeling that it’s also an interesting form of artistic expression in its own right, which I’ve only dipped a toe into so far.

My friend John Ulman wrote this fantastic top-10 list that you might enjoy:

10 Tips for a Great Headshot, by John Ulman

Share and enjoy!

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I was wandering through Value Village the other day, and spotted this big, pro-looking SLR in the display case. I took a closer look, and noted the model number. Next time I hit a computer, I looked it up, and it looked interesting. And Value Village was asking $60 for it, which was roughly on par with what KEH was asking (if they’d had any in VG condition, which they didn’t). Plus it had the accessory vertical grip. What the hell, thought I. So I bought a Canon EOS A2e 35mm film camera.

I just got back from my first brief session with a 35mm film camera in years. I only took 10 pictures, which is a shocking change from my digital habits. Thinking of that $5 roll of film in the camera dramatically changes my priority. It’s very interesting to work within that limitation again. I grew up shooting film, so this habit is nothing new. It’s just that I’ve been utterly spoiled by digital cameras, where even shooting RAW, I’m able to take many hundreds of photos before I have to think about storage space.

So now of course I’ve got thoughts of setting up my full darkroom again (I held onto all the equipment, figuring I might get interested again), and like some kind of gateway drug, it’s now ok in my brain to go troll through Ebay looking at crusty 35mm rangefinders and funky old cameras I never would have considered even a few days ago. It’s like a kind of madness.

Time to go home, mix up a fresh batch of XTOL, and see what I’ve got. It’s odd, disconcerting, and surprisingly calming to be back.

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It’s long been a preferred method of mine to use available light when possible. At first, this was because I was cheap — available light is already there, and you don’t have to buy any expensive flashes or lighting gear to use it. You just take pictures.

Most cameras include a flash built in. The problem with that flash is that it produces a very flat, uniform, familiar lighting pattern; on top of being ubiquitous, it’s really boring looking. It’s better than having a too-dark picture in many cases, but the appearance of it screams snapshot. You can’t see any shadows, so everything looks like it’s 2D.

The trick to using available lighting (at least indoors) is having camera gear that can actually work without a flash. You need a fast lens, or a relatively noise-free sensor (or, in the film era, fast film), and a steady hand. Outdoor shots with available light just make sense, and don’t require anything more than “a camera,” since there’s usually an abundance of light to work with. It’s those indoor shots that are tricky.

A picture like the one above, however, uses a trick that bridges between indoor and outdoor light, and takes advantage of both. I simply asked the woman to stand by the window. It was daytime, and overcast (because Seattle!), making for the world’s biggest softbox. If you look at the full size image, and look carefully at her right eye, you can actually see a reflection of the window frame.

It’s fun to use tricks like this to reduce the load (available light now means no heavy lighting gear to cart around), and you can also get some really good photos out of it.

I have been amazingly well-blessed in the photographic opportunities department, and the Team of Heroes is no small contributor.

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I’ve been working with the Team of Heroes shows since they started, about four years ago. I’ve done a variety of things for the shows, including building special effects, preparing graphics, and other general Technical Director duties. But the thing that keeps coming back to me is the photography. For this third and final show, Team of Heroes: No More Heroes, I talked to the director about possibly using my Shadow Series aesthetic for the marketing photos. She thought it over, and decided she liked it, so we ran with it.

I took a couple dozen photos of each actor, ending up with a good selection of various poses. Some of those were chosen for postcards, or the poster, or SLOG ads, all of which were designed by other people. I was given the task of building the “cover photo” image for Facebook. Whether I like it or not, Facebook is now a primary marketing medium, and having an easily shared and compelling cover photo is important.

This is actually the first time I’ve done this particular type of “movie style” compositing. I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. It looks blatantly false, but in a way that we’ve come to expect. I’ve received lots of good feedback from actors, and then from other people who saw it, once it was released on the 15th.