Hollywood Glamour From Start to Finish

Lately I’ve been doing some experimentation in an attempt to recreate some old school Hollywood glamour shots along the lines of George Hurrell or C.S. Bull. The other day I had my friend Yana stop by to do some modeling. She’s perfect for this sort of thing because she has that very classic beauty that was often evident in the bombshell actresses of the day. Keep in mind that this was a practice session in preparation for a real shoot in a few weeks in which we should have some good retro hair and clothing styling.

I asked Yana to come with little makeup; just lipstick and a little eye mascara. From what I’ve read, photographers of the genre preferred their talent to be similarly nearly makeup free. She also brought along a dress to roughly approximate a vintage look. Like I said, a bit later we’ll do the styling right, but this is a practice session for me to begin to get a grasp on the lighting and retouching.

I draped a faux fur spread over a small step ladder and had Yana position herself sitting on the floor and leaning back against it.

For the shot in this post I used a lighting setup like this:

Hollywood glamour lighting setup
Hollywood glamour lighting diagram

I had Yana’s body basically face the camera and her face turned towards the key light which was camera right and pretty high. You can tell that it was high by the prominent “Paramount” light under her nose. The key light is a Xplor 600PRO fitted with a 7″ reflector and a 40 degree grid.

These kinds of shots are not easy for a model because they have to hold a position for quite a while. This is a completely different approach than what a lot of models are used to. Most of them are used to working in a manner in which they are moving a lot, flowing from one pose to another after each click of the shutter. A sort of rhythm. But for this kind of thing it’s much slower paced. It’s not easy holding an exact pose while the photographer moves the light around or directs subtle movements in search of the perfect shadows. I had her assume her pose and then then move her head just slightly until the shadow was just right. I popped off a couple shots to make sure the key light was as needed.

While holding that position, I moved the hair light which is camera left, more or less behind the model almost in line with the key. This light was a Flashpoint Zoom R2 Manual with a Rogue Flashbender rolled into a snoot. I moved it around until it was popping off of her hair. The third light, Also a Flashpoint Zoom R2 Manual was fitted with a Rogue 3 in 1 Grid and pointed at the wall behind the model and just a little right. The idea being to add that dimension you often see in the old Hollywood glamour shots.

I set my camera to 1/100, f8, and ISO 100. For this shot I used the Nikon 85mm 1.8G.

I asked Yana to give me her best Hollywood diva of yesteryear look.

This is what I came up with straight out of camera:

Straight out of camera shot in creating a Hollywood glamour photo.
Hollywood glamour straight out of camera pre post processing.

I don’t know about you, but this is not bad. It took me a bit to get to this point; a few test shots and getting that shadow under the nose just right. I also wanted the light carve out her cheeks a bit, too. I had to adjust the power of the hair light to just start clipping some of the highlights.

At this point, in Lightroom, the only thing I did was bring down the shadows a bit and then sent it over to Photoshop. Now, this is where the real fun begins. Keep in mind that the retouching was easily as important as the lighting for the old school Hollywood shooters. The idea was to create an image that was almost super human. To be honest, my inclination is to keep things pretty natural. But for this exercise, natural is exactly what we don’t want. The first thing that I did was use the Healing Brush tool and the Patch tool to remove every freckle, blemish, mole, etc., that I could find. I also made a cursory attempt at dealing with some fly away hairs, but didn’t pay too much attention to them.

I also added a Curves layer to crush the left side of the image a bit by burning it in. Next I added another layer and used Liquify to reduce some of the puffy fabric on the dress under her left elbow. After that I created a new layer with a soft light and 50 percent gray and burned in the right cheek just a tiny bit.

One thing that bothered me a bit was that the eyes and teeth were a bit obscured. To deal with that I created a layer and then used Nik Software’s Detail Extractor and then painted it in over the eyes and teeth in a Layer mask. I also painted it in to each pearl on the necklace. It’s pretty subtle, but it makes quite a difference.

For the skin, normally I use a form of frequency separation and go pretty light, but since this is Hollywood glamour, I pulled the best tool for overdoing it I could think of; SkinFiner 2. It actually works pretty good for more subtle skin smoothing, but in this instance I was anything but subtle. I left it at its default setting, created a layer mask and painted it in on the skin.

This is the result after all the retouching:

Hollywood glamour retouch
Hollywood glamour after retouch.

As you can see, it’s pretty heavily retouched. It may be difficult to see in this smaller resolution, but it’s way overdone by today’s standards. But not for back in the day.

The next part was the black and white conversion. For this I used Nik Software’s Silver FX Pro2. It’s probably the most awesome tool in the Nik suite. It’s a great black and white conversion tool.

Anyway, in Silver FX, I just started with the Default Neutral and added just a touch of contrast and a tiny bit of brightness. In the Color Filter module I added a Green filter to make that red lipstick a little darker and reduced the strength down to about 75%. Then I went to the Toning module and selected Coffee number 14 to give it that subtle toning that you see in many photos of the Hollywood golden age. I brought the toning strength down to about 30%.

The next step was to again go to Nik Software. This time I added another layer and then used Color FX Pro 4, specifically Glamour Glow. I pretty much left it at default, but reduced it a bit to about 25%. This creates an almost perfect representation of that kind of soft gauzy thing many images had going on back then. I then created a Layer Mask and painted the effect out of the eyes. I’m sorry, I love my sharp eyes.

After that I did a 1 px High Pass sharpening over just the retinas in the eyes and called it good.

This is the end result:

Completed Hollywood glamour.
Hollywood glamour final result.

I think that it generally looks pretty good and in many ways is decently representative of the style of Old Hollywood glamour. No, it’s not perfect by any means. The right hand is a bit bothersome, the hair styling isn’t quite there, but it’s all a good start. And I learned a lot by doing this little project. Also, Yana, the model, is just amazing. She really does have that classic Hollywood beauty.

After doing this little test/practice shoot I’m pretty excited to do a full blown Hollywood glamour shoot with some great vintage styling.

Here are some other shots from the session. Each one has a bit different toning:

Hollywood glamour session.
A bit different toning.
Hollywood glamour photo session
Circa 1940

Hollywood Glamour Photography

Lately I’ve been doing some research into a specific genre of photography known as Hollywood glamour. Typically, when one thinks of Hollywood Glamour it’s a given that we’re talking about publicity photos from the so called Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s a very unique style of photography that was pioneered by photographers like George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull. Though there were others these two really exemplify the style of Hollywood glamour of the Golden Age. Arguably, George Hurrell  is the defacto Hollywood glamour photographer that set the standard to which all others are compared.

One thing that is interesting to me is that although both Hurrell and Bull were both tasked with creating publicity photos and they were aesthetically similar at first glance, in reality they were actually quite different in some ways. Generally, although Bull could be as noir and contrasty as any of them, he tended to produce works that were less so; more open shadows than Hurrell. I have the feeling that Bull’s work is probably more aesthetically in line with today’s eye. That’s just a guess, though.

I will admit that, personally, I generally prefer Hurrell’s work over Bull’s, but they were both just amazing at what they did.

Hedy Lamarr by Clarence Sinclair Bull

The shot above of Hedy Lamarr by Bull is quite representative of his work.

The one below of Jane Russell by Hurrell is, I believe, quite representative of his work:

Jane Russell by George Hurrell

You’ll notice that Hurrell’s pic of Russell really hits the contrast. He wasn’t afraid of shadows in the least. Now, of course, there are plenty of shots by either that are practically indistinguishable. But I think that these two are example of how they did differ.

Something that I find interesting is that I bet if Hurrell and Bull were alive today, not famous, and posted these exact same images on a portrait critique forum, they would be heavily criticized for all kinds of reasons; too hard of light, over processed skin, wonky cropping, etc.

Another thing that is apparent that is almost anathema for modern portraiture is the often missing catchlights in the eyes. Yes, there were often catchlights, but there were often no catchlights, too. Whatever the criticisms may be, there is just no denying that these two gentlemen created amazing works. Though they both were different from each other, they both managed to create almost otherworldly beings; something that was required by the Hollywood studios of the day. Their goal was to represent their talent as beyond and above the average person.  And, boy, did they succeed in doing that.

Completely unrealistic, but oh so amazing.

Which brings me to the issue of post processing. Today a common refrain is the over use of post production. It’s often blamed on Photoshop or other post processing software; as if it’s a new phenomenon. We talk about the over use of Instagram filters and bemoan the lack of reality in today’s glamour portraiture. But the reality is that it’s nothing new at all. It’s just done in a different way.  Both Hurrell and Bull relied extensively on post production. They spent hours in the dark room dodging and burning, shaping arms, cheeks, and bodies, and smoothing skin; all in an attempt to create a sort of perfection beyond the reality. In fact the movie studios employed many more retouchers than photographers.

When it comes to gear they used mostly 8×10 portrait boxes and repurposed film studio lights. Looking at the photos, generally, there seemed to be a key light, a hair light, and a background light to light up the background adding a more dimensional quality. A big limitation of the gear that they used was the fact that they typically had to rely on long exposure times, perhaps up to a couple of seconds. This is one of the reasons you see most of the poses like they are; seductively lounging, reclining, resting their heads on hands, etc. Yes, these kinds of poses tend to appear sensual, but they served a purpose, too. They are the kinds of poses that are easier to hold for long periods. So, when you look at the photo of Jane Russell above, lying back with a “I’m waiting” demeanor, there was more to it than that. It’s the perfect pose to exude sensuality and hold for a long exposure time.

When it comes to closely replicating the look of Golden Age Hollywood glamour it can certainly be done with modern cameras and lighting gear. Some would have you think that it just can’t be done without a spot and a Fresnel lens, but that just isn’t so. For example, Robert Harrington shows how it can be done using nothing more than speed lights in this video:

Is it exactly like a George Hurrell photo? Maybe not, but it certainly is very close to the style. The key, really, is to use a three light setup and choking down the light. Harrington uses snoots on both his key and hair light, and a grid on the background light. In the old days they used Fresnel lamp lenses to focus and concentrate the light, and barn doors as well as flags. Today it can be accomplished using grids and snoots along with flags if needed. Yes you could use barn doors and Fresnel lenses, too, but it’s not really necessary.

The one thing that I might do differently than Harrington would be to use studio strobes rather than speed lights, at least for the key. I think a modeling light would come in very handy in finding just the right shadow.

Something else that I notice is how the talent performed. Typically when shooting models they tend to get in a flow. By that I mean they sort of sync with the photographer and are moving a lot. The flash pops and they switch to a different pose. Flash pops, switch it up. It’s easy to bang off a lot of shots and then comb through them for the keepers.

Obviously the nature of digital more easily allows for that. However, in the day of Hurrell and Bull, each shot was almost a production in and of itself. They could take several minutes creating a single shot. They would have the talent assume a pose and hold it. They would then move lights around to create just the right shadows. Sharon Stone has talked about doing a shoot with Hurrell in which she was lying on a bed with a tea service, in her pose. Hurrell moved some lights around, looked at the scene and then went up to Stone and adjusted one of her fingers just so. He then finally took the shot.

Anyway, I think the whole thing is extremely interesting. And I think that there is a lot to be taken away from these masters of the Hollywood glamour shot; something that perhaps has been washed away a bit by technology and the ease in which photos can be taken in today’s world.

 

Vintage Sunset Traveler Photo Project

Early this summer I had an idea of a photo project I wanted to do. First I wanted to do something with a vintage flavor to it; pseudo vintage, really. Beyond that I didn’t really know exactly where I wanted to go other than I wanted it to be a sunset portrait shot.

As the summer progressed my wife and were wandering through a little antique shop in a tiny town in central Idaho, New Meadows. It’s the kind of place that has a lot of things from the old ranches all over the valley and estate sales. We came across an old 50’s era suitcase and right away my wife said she wanted to incorporate it into some kind of shoot. That’s when my idea began to really take shape; a vintage style shot of a woman with the suitcase on a roadside.

No, not exactly original, but still fun sounding.

My wife was all on board with the idea so we bought the suitcase.

We spent the next few weeks trying to think of some kind of wardrobe. It definitely had to be a vintage style, but where to get something like that?

I did a search for local vintage clothing shops and found a great little place here locally called Retro Betty, a shop that specializes in vintage style clothing, mainly spanning what appears to be the 40s and 50s. Apparently vintage style clothing is a thing.  Anyway, we managed to find a couple of cool looking dresses. I told the owner of the shop what our plans were and she was pretty excited. I told her I would tag Retro Betty on Instagram when I got them done.

The next step was finding a good location. What I had in mind was a remote straight road. Paved? Unpaved? Who knows? I did want whatever stretch of road I used to run east and west so that I could fully utilize a setting sun like I envisioned, but that was about it.

Also, for what I had in mind, I was going to have to use off camera flash. Shooting a portrait directly into the setting sun was definitely going to require a good powerful flash to do it right. I also wanted to shoot with a fairly open aperture which meant that I would also either need to use a ND filter or HSS. Since I had just picked up a Flashpoint XPLOR 600 PRO, it seemed a bit like a no brainer.

So one day we loaded up the truck with the XPLOR, a heavy C-stand, and a 38″ deep parabolic softbox and headed to the west desert in Utah. Just as it was getting time to either shoot photos or go home we finally found a perfect location; a dirt road running east and west and the sun setting towards distant mountains. I set it all up and we took a number of shots:

Sunset Traveler
Sunset Traveler–Model Anna, ISO 100, 85mm, f2.0, 1/1250

This is my personal favorite. I think because it seems to convey a bit of a story beyond a pretty woman standing on the side of a road. What is the story? I don’t know, but something.

This one is kind of an odd shot in that it goes against so many conventions; cropped off feet, flower in the foreground, that kind of thing. But I still like it because it kind of has  a cinematic vibe going on. The model is caught in mid-motion looking down the road. Waiting for someone? Who knows?

Road Side Attraction
Road Side Attraction Model: Anna ISO 100, 85mm, f2.0, 1/1600

Keeping with the roadside theme:

Circa 1957
Circa 1957 Model: Anna ISO 100, 85mm, f2.0, 1/1250

This one is the favorite of the vintage boutique shop owner from which I got the wardrobe. Again, a very cinematic vibe going on. A few technical nits aside these shots are almost exactly what I had in mind. I love the colors produced by the sunset; the yellows, reds and vague pastels, the desert location, etc.

We purchased a couple different dresses from the boutique shop. This one is more late 50’s while the other one is more mid 40’s. I’m going to do a shot with it as well, but I’m thinking I want it to be indoors in a vintage interior setting. I haven’t quite got that one figured out yet.

But I’m working on it.

I think doing these kinds of projects is not only fun but they are great learning tools. To have a vision in mind and then take the steps needed to see it through offers a lot of learning opportunities.

What are some photo projects you’ve done? What are some that you have in mind and plan to do? I’d be real interested in hearing.

Finding Models to Photograph

Finding models to photograph can be a real challenge at first. Sometimes it’s all about meeting the right person at the right time. But it’s doubtful that you’re going to meet them unless you’re doing things that one does that leads to meeting people. It sounds simple enough, but trust me, it’s not always that simple.

As I’ve progressed down this photographic path I’ve noticed that my interests have really been solidifying into photographing people. I’ve dabbled in street photography and it’s OK, but not really my cup of tea. I’ve photographed family members and that has worked out pretty well. Fortunately my wife, for example, is generally game for my photographic ideas. And even more fortunately she is particularly qualified; she’s tall and athletic. I love taking photos of my wife. Some of my favorites are here, here, here, and here. But the fact of the matter is that she’s not exactly enthusiastic about it. She doesn’t mind it, she can take it or leave it, but there are times when she is definitely indulging me.

Bless her heart.

I’ve often thought that I would love to shoot other people just to mix it up. I’ve even dabbled a bit in Model Mayhem, but it hasn’t been fruitful at all. I’ve gotten a lot of people there that say, yeah, I’m all in, but then you don’t hear from them.

Oh, well. It is what it is. And then I’m back to the conundrum of finding models to photograph. But what to do?

A while back I started doing the 100 Strangers Project for the simple reason of forcing myself to approach people and to get a decent shot in a quick and impromptu situation. It’s a whole other skill set that I’ve noticed adapts well to photography in general. My project is, at this time, currently on number 9. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m so going to finish it. In fact it’s probably something that I’m going to continue indefinitely.

So, you may be wondering what this has to do with finding models to photograph. Well, my wife, being the awesome supportive wife she is has been totally on board with the 100 Stranger thing. Often times when we’re out and about she’ll point out a particular face and say, “Man, you should try to get a shot of them.” That kind of thing. That’s how this Stranger shot came to be. Every weekend we go to Costco and do our weekly food shopping. One of the people that works there, like my wife, is a fellow emigre from Ukraine. Because of this shared background they have talked a few times. A few weeks ago they were chatting and I had my camera with me in case I had a Stranger opportunity. A few times I had thought about asking Yana for a Stranger pic, but every time that I’ve seen her in Costco she was so busy that it just wasn’t a possibility. During this time, however, she looked at my camera and asked, “Are you a photographer?” Right away my wife jumped in, “Yes, he is. You should have him take pictures of you, you’re beautiful.”

Right away Yana said, “Yes, I’d love to do that. Do you have a card or something?”

Of course I always carry a card with me. Note, always have a business card on you. Even if like me you’re not a “pro.”

A couple of weeks later using the email address on the card, Yana reached out to me to see if we could get together.

Awesome.

We set up a time to meet at a local park on a weekend. As we communicated via email Yana let me know that she had never done anything like this before, but she was game.

My wife and I met her at the park and we took a few shots. My goal was to get one for my Stranger Project. At this time I still considered Yana a “stranger.” It also gave me an opportunity to mess around with my reflector.

She was a bit nervous, as was I; not quite sure how to approach it. I just treated it like a normal Stranger session and asked her to just look right into the camera. We came away with this shot:

9 of 100 Yana
9 of 100 Yana

Technically it’s not a great shot. I could have done a lot better. I’ve got some blown highlights, a bit of upward lighting going on (messing with the reflector), but one thing is certain. The only reason that this photo is even remotely usable is because Yana is just so amazingly photogenic. She naturally engages the camera and just rocks.

After we took a few shots we decided to get together for an actual photo shoot; one in which we actually plan a little and spend a bit of time. So we planned to meet at the same park and go from there. This time I took some off camera flash gear; a simple speed light and umbrella. I had a particular place in mind, but after we met in the park I decided to get a shot there in a place that the lighting was particularly good. I’m not experienced at all with directing people to pose and Yana is not experienced at modeling. But we came up with this shot; the first real shot:

Yana ISO 100, 85mm, f1.8, 1/800

I like this shot. A lot. For me, it goes way beyond a simple photograph of an attractive person. It conveys something. Exactly what I don’t know, but it’s something. 

A couple of weeks after that first real session we got together again. This time at a local place that is popular for people taking Instagram shots. It’s called the Cents of Style Wall. You’ll notice looking at their page that most everything is pretty Instagramy for lack of a better word. But it’s cool in that there are ready painted walls to stand against. I wanted to do something a bit different than what most people are doing with this wall, though.

This is what resulted:

Yana Cents of Style Wall
Yana ISO 100, 85mm, f2.0, 1/1000

Yana just exudes awesomeness in this pic. The way she engages the camera is, in my opinion, what separates a picture of a pretty woman from, damn, girl, you look like a freakin’ model.

Again, she was a bit nervous; a bunch of people standing around, trying to take direction, posing. 

Here is another from that session:

Portrait of Yana by Daniel Medley
Yana ISO 100, 85mm, f1.8, 1/640

Again, the engagement is just great.

After a few more weeks we got together again. This time in my little home studio. My wife and I invited Yana over to visit and do some pics. Since both my wife and Yana are from Ukraine they talked a bit about, well, Ukraine and drank a bit of tea.

I wanted to experiment with some very contrasty lighting using just a single speed light through an ExpoImaging Rogue 3-in-1 Flash Grid. It resulted in a very concentrated narrow beam of light. I placed the light camera left and we came with this:

Portrait of Yana by Daniel Medley
Yana Noir: ISO 100, 50mm, f5.6, 1/200

This is a radically different look. Some may not like the heavy contrast, but I love it. And, again, Yana does an amazing job.

The point of this whole thing is that finding models to photograph is a challenge; especially when you’re just some schmo like me who would not exactly qualify as a “pro.” Just getting out there and jumping in and asking people, though certainly not easy, is really the only approach. I think finding someone new with whom you can experiment and grow together is quite fortunate. I’m always learning and growing as a photographer. Yana, here, has definitely progressed as a model. I think it’s apparent when looking at our very first Stranger shot and comparing it to the most recent shot above. Doing the Stranger Project is simply a way of forcing me to reach out to people and asking them if I can take their picture. That’s the big step. The next step of asking them if they would like to set up a more formal shoot is a tiny step.

Especially if you create something that they like.

The Hat

The Hat, or rather, this hat isn’t really a hat. It’s a prop. A prop to be used in various photos.

Last summer my wife and I were perusing the Central California coast taking in some sun, surf and the occasional winery for some tasting. We stopped at a gas n go in Cambria and I cam across this hat among all the other stuff you find in such places. We both looked at the hat and simultaneously expressed how we absolutely needed to buy it. Not to actually wear, mind you. But as a photo prop. So I coughed up the $10.99 for the hat and away we went. As you can see, The Hat is truly awesome in the kitschy way that is unique to road side gas n go’s throughout various slices of Americana.

ISO 100, 50mm, f9.0, 1/200

The photo above was done using a Yongnuo YN560-III Speedlite with an ExpoImaging Rogue 3-in-1 Flash Grid camera right. Yeah, yeah it’s a hat; The Hat, but I really dig this hat. I like the photo too. The Rogue Grid is one of those modifiers that aren’t really very versatile, but it’s way cool when you want that look; that hard light, heavy contrast look.

Anyway, after we bought The Hat we continued south with the hopes of finding some seaside location in which to shoot some pics with our newly acquired prop. We finally found a place just north of Cayucos. It required a short hike through a grassy area down to a small rocky beach. I took one of the Yongnuos and a stand with me. The mid-day, bright harsh sun–which a lot of photographers hate–was perfect for what I had in mind. Trust me, don’t be afraid of harsh mid-day sun.

As it turned out I couldn’t use my stand because of how windy it was, plus our location had some serious surf rolling in. So I had my son hold the light. I also used a 3 stop ND filter. Even then I still closed down the lens to f10 in order to push the background down to what I was wanting to do. My wife, being the trouper she is held on to The Hat and stood in the water and dealt with the stiff wind. Did I mention that the wind was pretty cold?

Yeah, there’s that.

We fired off a bunch of different shots; enough to where I had to let the little Yongnuo cool down for a bit. At first I was trying to get some full body shots, but the bare speedlight just wasn’t the right tool for that job, so I opted to get in close and use the light to fill in the shadows under the hat yet still retain the heavily contrasty hard light.

This is my favorite shot of the bunch:

ISO 100, 50mm, f10, 1/200

This shot is almost exactly what I was trying for.

Of course I also took some shots without the hat during the same session. With this one I took some post processing funkiness liberties:

ISO 100, 50mm, f10, 1/200

I was trying to catch a shot with some flying birds in the background and had my son running around with the light while I was positioning myself. If I remember correctly my wife wasn’t really in take a photo mode. She was just hanging out. The lighting is definitely wacky, but I like it OK. More importantly, I got my flying birds.

We’ve since employed The Hat in other shoots. This shot is in Idaho at a place called Crystal Mountain just outside of McCall. It’s much along the lines of the seaside hat pic above. This, too, was using the little speedlight camera right, but through a shoot through umbrella:

 

ISO 100, 50mm, f2.5, 1/200

This one was shot with the D750 and I used a 3 stop ND filter so that I could open up to f2.5 for background separation. I particularly like this shot.

After this pic we headed down the mountain and ended up on the Salmon River. This one I did not use the ND filter. The canyon was socked in with smoke cutting a lot of the sun out. I did use the speedlight, though. Again it was shot through a white umbrella:

ISO 100, 50mm, f4.0, 1/200

I think that The Hat works great here with the rustic nature of the surroundings.

This last pic is another hard light pic, shooting into a sunset. You guessed it, I used the speedlight again, but this time it was bare thus the hard light and contrasts:

ISO 100, 50mm, f3.2, 1/100

I really like this shot. A lot of people wouldn’t, but I do this for myself. It looks like a country singer’s album. I will say that in hindsight I think that using a shoot through umbrella would have been better.

Side note, this pic was taken near the Snake River and it was a muggy buggy bastard. Mosquitos were so thick that I thought we would be carried away by the hungry little monsters. Trying to catch a shot between swatting them was a challenge.

Anyway, from the Central California coast to the Idaho wilderness to my basement studio, The Hat served me well last summer. This upcoming summer we have some more road trips on the docket and I have big plans for The Hat.

Travel Photography VS Photography While Traveling

Travel Photography vs Photography While Traveling. What is it that you do? Well, for me, it’s photography while traveling. I’m no “travel photographer.” I’m just a guy that likes to take photos and I especially love to do it while traveling with my family. I’m not talking about pulling out my phone and snapping off shots nearly indiscriminately. I like to put a little thought into it. I don’t mean creating some elaborate plan and setup, but just a little thought.

Travel photography is a discipline in and of itself and good travel photographers are an amazing lot; talented, observant and dedicated.

But you don’t have to adopt the approach of a dedicated travel photographer to make images while traveling that are taken to the next level beyond snapping pics of the family, Mt. Rushmore or whatever. Just put a little thought into it and, preferably, get those with whom you are traveling to get on board; especially if it’s family, and you can make pics that are a bit beyond “snapshots.”

In August of this summer we traveled to central Idaho where I was born and raised. We love going there to visit family and to take in the amazing scenery. One day we took one of our favorite drives going through the rugged wild country of the Salmon River. We drove through McCall, over the mountains and down onto the main Salmon River and finally to a little town called Riggins. Amazing, wild country. After driving over the mountains and landing on the river we wanted to find a spot on the river to soak our feet, eat a picnic and just hang out. Of course, me always traveling with a rudimentary lighting setup: a couple of speed lights, stand and umbrella, I set up a bare speed light on a stand got my wife to hold still for a bit.

Anna On The River: ISO 100, 50mm, f2.8, 1/200 sec

I threw on a 3 stop neutral density filter so I could stop up to get some blurry background, popped off the flash to fill in the shadows a bit and got this. I love this shot because it really captures the whole day, the wild country and, well my wife. There’s always that.

A couple of weeks earlier we were in driving around on the central California coast; perusing the Pacific Coast Highway. We visited a wine tasting establishment in Cambria, California and met some amazing people and had a great visit. Think about it, driving around, hitting the wine tasting joints, meeting new and amazing people.

Because I almost always have my camera with me, I got this shot:

Wine People: ISO 800, 50mm, f1.8, 1/160 sec

No, this isn’t some awesome composition. It’s noisy and not technically perfect. So what. It tells a story and captures a really great memory for me. I like it because it shows my wife and son having a great time. But for someone looking at who wasn’t even there, it still shows story which takes it to a level beyond a snap shot.

This photo, from the same trip is from the Sand Dunes near Pismo Beach, California.

Travel Photography VS Photography While Traveling Beautiful woman standing in sand dunes
Dunes: ISO 640, 50mm, f3.5, 1/2500 sec

Again, this isn’t technically perfect as I forgot to check my camera and needlessly shot it at ISO 640. But I definitely feel that this is a far better shot than just taking pics of this awesome place. Keep in mind that I’m talking travel/vacation pics. A good landscape photographer would have a hay day at this place. But for family travel, this is the kind of shot I’m talking about. I just asked my wife to “stand there, look there,” snap a pic and call it good.

The point in all of this is that just the most minimal of effort and forethought can, I think, lead to travel/vacation photos that are a bit above and beyond.

Exposure Triangle

Not much brings out pedantic dickheads like a discussion regarding the so called exposure triangle. Wait, did I use the term “dickheads”? Yes, I did. And I mean it. For an example of what I’m talking about go read this at PetaPixel. It’s a great article that explains the exposure triangle and how it’s a tool to demonstrate three aspects of exposure in digital photography; shutter speed, aperture size and, yes, ISO.

After reading the article, if you peruse through the comments, you’ll begin to see what I’m talking about with comments like:

There is a very good reason to hate the triangle. It not only confuses people but its pure nonsense. ISO is not part of exposure. ISO is only applied after the exposure.

Increasing ISO reduces noise in most cases

No. Changing ISO does not change sensitivity.

This guy is actually saying that ISO plays no part of exposure.

That’s just simply incorrect.

Tony Northrup chimed in as well with:

Came here to say this. Great article, but I hate the triangle metaphor. It only confuses people.

Tony Northrup sort of has a point with regards to how this guy presents the exposure triangle, but generally speaking, for people just starting with digital photography, the exposure triangle is a rock solid way of understanding how exposure works vis a vis digital photography. By the way, if you’re starting out, perusing his site would be advisable. He and his wife Chelsea do a very good job of presenting helpful information.

You can visit just about any photography forum and when the subject of ISO and exposure comes up; especially when incorporating the exposure triangle, the dickheads come out en mass to bray that ISO has NOTHING to do with exposure.

Bullshit. If you hear someone say that, disregard them. They are incorrect. They are wrong. They are being pedantic dickheads.

Hell, even Nikon’s website says otherwise:

Aperture + Shutter Speed + ISO = Exposure

The three variables that make up a photographic exposure are shutter speed (how much time it takes to make the exposure), aperture (how big the hole is that lets light through the lens, and into the camera) and ISO (how sensitive the digital image sensor or film is to light).

Now, technically speaking, ISO may not be exposure. A lot of the pedantic dickheads will point out that exposure is the amount of time and light that is allowed to make contact with the sensor. So what. For all practical purposes, in the real world, exposure results in how the image will look; darker or brighter. That is determined by aperture size, shutter speed and ISO. Period. End. Of. Story. Don’t believe me? Try the following.

Get out your camera and set it on a tripod. Adjust the settings for optimal exposure. First set your ISO for, say 400. Perhaps your optimal exposure is then 1/250 f4.5 and the ISO has been set to 400. Take the pic. Look at it. It’s probably pretty close to optimal if your in camera meter shows the little mark at 0. Now, leave everything the same, but this time drop the ISO down to 100. Look at the camera’s internal meter. You’ll see that it is now left of 0; optimal exposure. Take a pic and look at it. You’ll notice that it’s underexposed compared to the first one. Now, do the same thing, but this time bump up the ISO to, say, 1600. You’ll see that the internal meter will show the little dot way to the right, and the resulting picture will be much brighter.

Furthermore, if you set it back to optimal, you can then increase the shutter speed and you’ll notice that the little meter dot is displaying an underexposed setting. You can then bump up your ISO to get the little dot back to 0. You can even take a pic if you like and verify it. You can do the same thing with the aperture as well.

The bottom line is that exposure is comprised of three variables: Shutter speed, aperture size AND ISO in every practical sense. This is why the “triangle” is such a good way to present it. If you make an adjustment to one you HAVE to make an adjustment to one of the other two (if your goal is to be close to optimal exposure). When some pedantic dickhead brays that ISO has NOTHING to do with exposure, then don’t believe your lying eyes. Do the steps above and you’ll see otherwise.

To address the pedantic nonsense that “technically” speaking, exposure is only the amount of time and amount of light coming in contact with the sensor, lets use this metaphor:

Many decades ago, in the US, we stopped using the gold standard. What this means is that our paper and minted money is no longer backed by gold. It used to be that gold was the thing of value that the paper and minted money represented. Without it, it was just paper and metal. Since the paper and metal is no longer backed by gold, technically speaking that crisp $20 bill in my wallet has no real value. It’s simply just paper, cloth and ink. Technically speaking it has no real value.

Except it does. If I can use it to purchase goods of value it has value even if technically it’s nothing more than paper, cloth and ink.

The same applies to ISO. It absolutely plays a part in how bright or dark (among other things) your image is. For all practical purposes, that is going to be interpreted as exposure.

So, who are you going to believe, some pedantic dickhead or your lying eyes and what every digital camera manufacture says?

The exposure triangle. Learn it, know it and embrace it.

ISO Invariance

ISO invariance. What is it? Since I’m just barely beginning to scratch the surface of the whole concept of ISO invariance, I don’t feel qualified to tell go into details as to what it is. To begin to get an understanding I recommend going here. In a nutshell, ISO invariance is the concept that the quality of today’s camera sensors are beginning to approach the point in which ISO is not as important as it once was. Basically, in many cameras, you can keep it at the base ISO, under expose, and then in post bump up the exposure or shadows as needed and you won’t take a hit with noise any more than had you used the “proper” ISO to begin with.

OK, so then why does this make ISO invariance something cool? There are a couple of reasons that come to my mind: Preserving highlights and selectively brightening photos in post to effectively increase dynamic range far beyond what your camera’s sensor can do on its own while still maintaining relative control over the noise that’s introduced which pushing shadows and/or exposure. Again, I’m far, far from being an expert in ISO invariance. Hell, at this point I’ve barely got a rudimentary understanding. I’d recommend checking out the link above for sure.

What I can do is show you an example of what I’m talking about. Keep in mind that my current camera, a Nikon D5200 is only somewhat ISO invariant. If you’d like to find out how ISO invariant your camera is, this is a good place to look at. Just go there and select your camera from the list on the right. The more level the line the more ISO invariant the camera is. For example, the Nikon D5200 is fairly ISO invariant; closely on par with the D610, not as much as the D7200, and it completely smokes the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. But the Mark III smokes it in native ISO performance for sure. But that’s another topic.

Way underexposed. ISO 100, 18mm, f22, 1/60 sec

Anyway, in this photo, it was taken substantially underexposed. -2EV to be precise. I’m not sure why I did that, but I did. It makes a good photo to test ISO invariance, though:
You can see that this photo is quite underexposed. For the sky it’s not so bad because those clouds are awesome and it’s nice to keep the details without blowing out the highlights. But, if you brought up the exposure to get the sky just right, you’re still going to be pretty off in the rest of the photo; especially the shadows. So, what I did with this in Lightroom was brought up the exposure by 1 stop. That was perfect for the sky and clouds. But the rest of the pic. To address that I used the Mask tool in Lightroom to selectively bump up the exposure of the foreground by another stop; painting it in. After that, I pushed the shadows a bit–actually quite a bit. +71. The highlights I pulled -70. I then tweaked the blacks and whites to just below the clipping level.

I then moved it over to Photoshop and did some color grading with curve adjustment layers, did some noise suppression with Dfine 2 and added some contrast and detail with Topaz Clarity because, well, clouds. All of this a pretty light though. There wasn’t much noise to contend with. I also brought down the global saturation a bit as well.

This is what I came up with:

There was a ton of detail hidden in those shadows that was completely recoverable. Granted, I’m dealing with the D5200. It ain’t no Sony ar7ii or Nikon D750, but for this little crop sensor entry level camera, it’s not bad at all.

One thing that I’ll point out, though, is that even with as little noise as there is here, I think that there would be even less had I exposed ETTR, peaking the highlights and bringing it down. Sort of an opposite approach. But I suspect that there is a real risk of clipping some highlights in the clouds to the point of not being recoverable. Whereas this approach has no risk of clipped highlights. The slight noise is an acceptable trade off in my opinion.

Cinematic Looking Photos

Cinematic looking photos that look as if they’re a still from an actual film are pretty cool. Kitschy? Yeah, a tad, but still cool.

If you’ve paid attention to movies you’ll notice that they seem to have a pretty unique color grading scheme; usually a kind of teal and orange pallette. In fact if you haven’t noticed it before, now that I’ve brought it to your attention, you’ll notice it enough to where it might drive you a little nuts. There are all kinds of ideas as to why films predominantly use a teal and orange color grading.

The ones that I think seem to make the most sense is that:

1) colors in the yellow/orange/red spectrum contrast nicely with colors that are in the blue/green spectrum. In my observation this is true. Complementary colors contrast nicely and add a vividness without hashing the saturation. You’ll notice that often times movies tend to be a bit desaturated yet still pop. I think it’s because of the use of complementary colors. I say often times; keep in mind that if you’re watching a Michael Bay flick, all bets are off. Everything, including the color grading seems to be turned up to 10. Anyway, human beings no matter their ethnicity tend to have skin that falls into that yellow/orange spectrum. The orange teal grading makes actors stand out.

2) this is, I think, a biggy. The orange and teal pallette tends to replicate so called golden hour lighting quite nicely and golden hour lighting pretty much rocks.

Here is a photo that I’ve sort of given the “cinematic” treatment.

Anna With A Rifle
Anna With A Rifle ISO 100, 35mm, f16, 1/125 sec

Granted, it’s not full on “cinematic” in that I’ve kept it a bit brighter than you might usually see. Actual movies tend to have the blacks and shadows crushed a bit more than my attempt. Also, perhaps the skin could have been just a touch more orange. The reason I chose this image is because I think it looks intriguing from the get-go. It looks like a slice of a bigger story; perfect for a faux movie still. By the way, this photo was taken using off camera flash; 300ws strobe camera left with a 22″ beauty dish.

For more information regarding giving your photos a full blown cinematic treatment I recommend first checking this tutorial out. It’s a great tutorial that even if you don’t want to do the cinematic thing it’s full of great information regarding curves and general color grading. Then, to add that extra cinema touch, this tutorial goes into adding the black bars to the image, and explains the aspect ratios of movies. I mean, if you’re going to go cinema, you may as well do it right.

Bonneville Salt Flats Photo Shoot Daylight Off Camera Flash

Bonneville Salt Flats Photo Shoot With Daylight Off Camera Flash
Girl In A Skirt At The Bonneville Salt Flats ISO: 100, 50mm, f16, 1/200 sec

I’ve dabbled in off camera flash for the better part of a year now and as I progress I can say that it’s completely changed how I approach photography; even when I don’t use flash, my way of thinking has completely changed. It has helped me to become more aware of light and how it affects a photo. Yeah, that seems almost rudimentary. Light is always important, but trust me, wrapping your head around off camera flash will reroute some synapses in your brain vis a vis lighting and it will be a good thing. Even when you think you don’t need to use flash (and yes, you may not NEED it) it’s beneficial.

In the photo above, taken at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah you can see that it certainly didn’t need flash, but it really added something to the shot. The sun was hitting the subject from behind at about a 35 degree angle. for the off camera flash I set up a 300ws strobe with just the 8″ reflector at camera right more or less perpendicular to the sun; just out of frame. In fact I had to clone some of the stand out. It helped immensely to lift the shadows under the hat and add a bit of a pop to the model overall. I’m happy with the shot.

My camera’s max sync speed is 1/200 second which makes it very difficult to bring down the ambient, hence the f16 aperture setting to help bring down the sky a little. Since I don’t have a neutral density filter or high speed sync capability my goal is a portrait/model/landscape shot because, well, I don’t have any choice. Since my DOF is miles deep I may as well incorporate the background into the shot. The Bonneville Salt Flats is perfect for that.

Eventually I do want to do some outdoor flash with shallow DOF so you can bet your sweet tukis that I’m going to invest in a neutral density filter. Also, I see a HSS setup in my not too distant future as well.