A Musician’s Shoot


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My wife plays the harp professionally. Earlier in the year we had done a shoot of her with her big pedal-harp in a formal setting to promote her wedding business, but now she suddenly needed something different. She has been offered a gig at a local Renaissance Fair and they wanted publicity photos of her for some advertising, so this was to be outdoors with costume and Celtic harps (she has 5 or 6 instruments – or is it up to 7 now). Fortunately our own backyard and garden work pretty well for stuff like this, so that is where we did it. I would add that this is not supposed to be “art”, it is supposed to be “marketing”, and the techniques and objectives of these styles of photography are different (IMHO). I was rather pleased with the results here though, so I thought that I would post some and talk about what I did (not that anyone should listen to a simple amateur like me).

Based on my own self-taught experience, I think that there are several “tricks” to getting really good outdoor portraits. Obviously, as is true with any photograph, you have to be aware of your background. I see so many pictures that are ruined because the photographer just didn’t “see” what they were putting behind their subject. You may not be able to move houses and telephone-lines, but you can move your subject to avoid them. The top photo was taken with my subject sitting on an old barbeque that was built with our house around 1960.  The tight cropping makes this a little less obvious, which is important because this is a portrait of the musician not a snapshot of someone perched on a barbeque. I think that the texture of the wood and stone adds some interest however and it “works” for the medieval ambiance of the Ren-Fair.

The next trick is lighting. The blazing noon-day sun is a really lousy time to take pictures of people outside. The shadows are harsh and the searing light makes people squint. The best outdoor light is “bright overcast”, which is what this day happened to be for the most part. I also deliberately waited until later in the afternoon when the sun was a bit lower and the light a little more subdued and the colors a little warmer and more pleasant. My third trick – and this is what really helps make an outdoor portrait look “professional” – is to use a fill-flash. What I do is set the camera to expose the ambient light at about -1ev, which darkens the background a bit, and then I set the flash-exposure for 0ev or even a little more. This way the flash illuminates the subject nicely and makes her “pop” while the background stays – well – in the background. Again, this isn’t a portrait of a garden with a human form in the middle, it is a portrait of the person. If you can’t help what the sun is doing, then at least turn your subject so that they are not looking directly into the sun and the fill flash should take care of the worst of the dark shadows. The second shot here was taken when the sun happened to peak out from the clouds, but the “dark-side” of my subject’s face is well-lit with the fill-flash and therefore the shadows are not too obnoxious.


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Now, you really don’t need a lot of fancy and expensive equipment for this kind of flash work, but I do use an independent flash unit. A built-in flash might be OK for this kind of light-duty fill work, but I strongly recommend a decent independent flash because they are much better than built-in flash for the long-run. In this case I just didn’t feel like hauling out my light-stands and umbrellas and all that jazz though, so I used the flash direct, with a grid and an off-camera cord. This allows me to put the camera on a tripod and then just hold the flash up and away from the camera by a couple of feet so that the light from the flash is not near the lens axis. What makes a lot of flash pictures really ugly is when the flash is almost – but not quite – on the lens axis and you get a hard little halo shadow around the subject. This is typical of built-in flash and it ruins a lot of pictures.


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All of these photos also had a decent dose of processing too. This might be most obvious in the first one. In addition to basic cropping and Photoshop cleanup, I used NIK “Color Efex Pro” to add a little vignette darkening and vignette blur. This creates a bit of a surreal atmosphere, but also makes the subject really stand out.  In my opinion the key here is “less is more”. You don’t want to slap people in the face with your processing, just add a subtle touch of je ne sais quoi. Although it may be a little less obvious in the other two, I did some darkening and de-saturation of the background and boosted the subject a little to make her stand out. This has the same objective as underexposing the ambient and using the fill-flash, but having the camera work and the processing “pulling in the same direction” is (in my opinion) better than trying to make one or the other do it all. Oh, and as one other “trick” here; I was using a polarizing filter on these shots too. The point of the polarizing filter (in addition to polarizing the light) is that it reduces the light that reaches the sensor by about 1.5ev. The reason I did this was because my camera has a relatively slow sync-speed (max 1/200-sec) and I didn’t want too much sharpness in the background – which is what a small aperture would do at that speed. The polarizer also helps darken the foliage.

In case you are interested, all shots were with a Canon 5DmkIII and 24-105 f4L-IS lens with B+W circular polarizing filter and Canon 580EX flash with Canon off-camera flash cord and tripod.


Trexlertown Applebee’s


A few years ago, 2008 to be exact, I was casting about for an interesting photo-op. I had recently purchased my Canon 1DmkIII camera and I was looking for an excuse to use it. We are not far from a place called Trexlertown in Pennsylvania, and Trexlertown is known for having a velodrome – a place where they race bicycles. One weekend, after doing a little research so I knew that there would be some activity, I went up there with my camera gear. I’m not entirely sure what was going on because I am not into bicycle racing, but there were some races, although very few spectators, and they were not charging admission (it may have been “trials” or qualifying runs of some sort). I wandered around the whole day shooting up a storm, although it was high-summer and very hot and very bright.


I have had these pictures posted in my Flickr account since 2008 and although I went back occasionally to admire my handiwork, and they would occasionally get “hits” from others searching for “Trexlertown”, I didn’t think much of it. About a week ago I got an e-mail from a representative of a graphic arts company saying that they were putting together the décor for a new Applebee’s restaurant opening in Trexlertown and they wanted to know if they could use my images, since they like the decorations to reflect the locale. The person said that they were willing to provide attribution and even pay a modest amount. I wrote back and said that they were welcome to use my pictures for this purpose free-of-charge, since I consider myself a strict amateur and I am proud of that status. I did specifically mention that I have no release-forms, but I am sure that the Applebee’s lawyers know how to deal with that (the business holds the legal liability, not the photographer). I have to say that in spite of the payment offer, I have no respect for the faux-tographer “semi-professionals”. You are either good enough to make your living with a camera, or you are an amateur and you shouldn’t take people’s money for something that any-old yutz can do.


It is my habit to shoot RAW and to keep all of my RAW originals. During my processing workflow I often create intermediate TIF files on the way to a JPG final version, but since those TIF are so huge, I often delete them shortly afterward. Because I keep the original unmodified RAW files however, I can (as I did here) go back and reprocess the images using my current software and processing techniques. I find that my photo processing evolves rather rapidly, and I am now capable of producing much better output than I was 5-years ago.


I will have to keep my eye on the Applebee’s web site and when they open that restaurant I’ll have to take a ride up there to see if they really did hang any of my stuff.


A Weekend Excursion

One of the major ways my wife has to pry me out of the house is to promise that I can bring a camera (or two) and take pictures. She recently used this device to get me to travel to North Carolina for a long 3-day weekend to hear a couple of harpers perform. These were Patrick Ball, an internationally known Celtic harper of the wire-strung instrument, and Shira Kammen, who is not only a well-known harper and early-musician of many talents, but also a personal friend of my wife.

My wife (right) and her friend, Shira Kammen (left)  Fujifilm X100

My wife (right) and her friend, Shira Kammen (left)
Fujifilm X100

The show was a dramatic presentation of the story of Tristan and Iseult with Patrick Ball as the narrator and Shira Kammen on musical accompaniment. The venue was a place call “The Music House”, which is owned by a professor of music at Eastern Carolina University there in town.

The Music House; Greenville, NC  Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

The Music House; Greenville, NC
Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

They said that the house was built around 1900 and the interior is beautiful. We owned a house of this vintage for a while, but we had neither the money nor the vision to do what these folks have done. In addition to living there and collecting musical instruments, the owners also present these small chamber-concerts in what may once have been a formal dining room.

The Music House; Greenville, NC Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

The Music House; Greenville, NC
Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

I brought my small Fuji X100 camera and my Canon 5D along with 3 or 4 lenses. When we went to the concert however, I didn’t want to lug a whole pile of stuff, so I just put on an EF 16-35mm f2.8L lens and used that. Patrick Ball didn’t want photographs during the show, so I snapped some around the house and then a few afterward. The setting made some “antique” processing seemed appropriate, and this was done in NIK Color-Efex Pro-4.

The Music House; Greenville, NC Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

The Music House; Greenville, NC
Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

My wife and Patrick Ball after the show. It was Patrick Ball and his wire-strung Celtic harp that helped inspire my wife to take up the harp too.

Patrick Ball Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L

Patrick Ball
Canon 5D mkIII; EF 16-35mm f2.8L


This gallery contains 1 photo.

I really like that style of still-life photography that looks like an old Dutch-school painting with soft, warm, low-key directional lighting.  One of my holiday-break projects was to experiment with this, and here is my first attempt. I actually worked on this all day, and I came to a profound realization in the middle of… Read more.


This gallery contains 1 photo.

I shot a late-stage dress-rehearsal of this show Tuesday evening, and started to process them this morning. The schedule in this theater is that Thursday is “Opening Night” for the public, and Wednesday is a by-invitation “preview” for friends, family and selected critics as an audience. Because there is an actual viewing audience on Wednesday… Read more.