Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sixty Strangers

Sutherland Family Renata

Street photography can be a challenge for a number of reasons - busy pedestrian traffic, changing light conditions, and the fear of approaching strangers and asking to take their picture. Now chuck in the added complication of trying to do it with off-camera flash, and setting yourself a goal of sixty strangers in a morning.


That was the aim of my latest expedition. It's an example of the latest fad in photography called Street Strobism. Not easy to do on your own, so I've joined up with some other guys to form The Light Brigade, an informal photographic project group. "Sixty Strangers" was our first project together and as usual with my photography, it involved a steep learning curve and mixed results!


I actually enjoyed approaching people the most. Nearly everyone was happy to participate. I think we'll do it all again some time. Now that I've got the basics, it'd be nice to finesse the picture details - more creative exposure, backgrounds and posing strangers quickly.


Stay tuned for more Light Brigade projects!

Friday, June 26, 2009

My Kind Of Bubbles

I decided to experiment with a high-key shot today. I found an unsuspecting subject having a bubble bath and used my Orbis Ring Flash to get that nice even light. I removed the colour, whacked up the exposure a bit in photoshop and voila: My Kind of Bubbles.


Note to self: The less darks in the subject, the better. Have a nice light background that you can blast away with exposure, and overexpose in camera. Finally, little girls don't like B&W very much.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Donated to Science

This week I decided to start some portraits of my friend Dr Paul Trotman (aka Dr. Know). Paul's a Dr who makes film and TV. He's just finished putting together his film Donated To Science, which I did some stills shooting for. Much of the film was shot in the dissecting room at Otago University's Dunedin Med School, and despite the ick factor that may elicit, I think its a great little documentary. Now it's time to wind up the publicity machine, and that means some publicity pictures!

Dr Know

Paul has been cutting his film at home. The backdrop was a little busy with all those books, but I needed to expose for the ambient light level, so that the editing screens behind him would be visible. Film-maker in front of edit gear... it's such a cliche, but you have to cover the bases, These pictures were just a start, I'm looking forward to shooting him in more... anatomical surroundings soon.

The deadline has closed for Strobist Boot Camp II assignment 1, and the standard of entries is pretty high. I'll be happy enough if my shot of Boog doesn't get rejected, since it's quite a bit looser than the traditional head shot the assignment called for. I can't wait to see who's picture was judged the best - and of course what assignment 2 is going to be.

I've also been involved in a new project with some fellow Dunedin photographers. Not a lot more to say about that yet, except that the group is called The Light Brigade.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

He Tangata

He aha te mea nui?
He tangata.
He tangata.
He tangata.

Half  Boog

So far I've been a lot more comfortable shooting landscapes than people. So I knew Strobist Boot Camp II's first exercise - a head shot, was going to be a challenge that would do me a lot of good. As the week has gone by though, I've been stressing more and more about the whole thing. I've accumulated enough gear to attempt many styles, and have been practising as much as I can with it all - learning to balance flash with ambient light; lighting from multiple angles; hard and soft light sources, coloured gels... Last night though, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all.

I knew I wanted Boog as my model, and I wanted to capture his Kai Tahu side rather than the muso in him, but I really couldn't think of a suitable background. I was thinking about dark rooms or bare brick. Thank goodness I went on a recce this morning, and found the ideal backdrop: A copy of the Treaty of Waitangi on display at the Otago Early Settlers Museum. They had no problem letting us shoot there, and Boog showed up with a great prop and half moko. Once I'd settled on the light I wanted, the stress dropped away. I chose hard light with bare strobes - just a little CTO gel on the flash at camera left just behind Boog's shoulder. I also did a few shots with the umbrella on my key light, just for a little variety.

Pukana 2 Pukana 1 Warrior Look Left

I'm happy that I pulled off something that pushed the limits of my present ability and more importantly, have discovered that taking pictures of people is fun. Next week I'm planning some street photography. It's just like the Maori proverb goes:

What is the most important thing?
It's people
It's people
It's people.

Pukana BW

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Black and White and White and White

Snow has struck the city today. Schools are closed and most people are stuck at home because of a layer of ice under the snow, making roads treacherous. It's a family day if ever there was one, so not a lot of opportunity to make pictures other than family snaps, but I did get this:

Snow Angel

After several months taking photos, I'm finally starting to enjoy black and white. I think what's working for me here are the curves Georgia is making in the snow, the upright of her trunk and the diagonals her arms make. Colour didn't really have much to add, especially since her ski suit is largely grey.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Many Moods of Marcus

My much-anticipated shoot-through umbrella and stand arrived yesterday and I didn't hesitate to put it to use in part II of my portrait shoot with Marcus Turner (Shots from the first shoot here). So here's "Accordion now for benefit of proletariat"

Comrade Accordion

The shoot-through makes for a nice big soft light source, and I'm looking forward to using it for some more portraits. I love the idea of balancing flash with the background ambient light, and when I saw the view of Otago Harbour from Marcus's living room, I really wanted to get a few shots with the view as his background. Some of the other shots in this series were better in terms of light - a little more shadow, but I like Marcus's pose best in this one. He reminds me of a Stalinist propaganda hero. I quickly moved onto a few shots with the Orbis ring flash:

High Angle Marcus

Then I moved on to try a more moody setup,with a high-placed flash aimed down through a gridspot to constrict the light path, and another coming from the side.


Music is a lonely business

Mood 4 BW

Painting with light. I think I'm starting to get it now. This pretty much completes the little portrait job Marcus asked me to do. It's been a lot of fun and a great learning experience. Hope you like 'em Marcus!

Everythng I've learned about lighting so far has come from David Hobby's Strobist Blog. It's an amazing resource, and if you go there now (the link is on the right), you can join up for David's Strobist Boot Camp II. I intend to be part of it!

Now, do me a favour and leave a comment, or sign up to receive regular updates when there's something new to look at here!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Do you like welding? I like welding. My Dad was a fitter and welder who worked on big hydro projects around the world... Spain, Rhodesia, New Zealand, so it's got herioc connotations for me. Arc welding is a challenge to photograph. The arc is a dramatic source of hard light on the welder and the sparks add colour and action.

To get the spark streaks, you've got to have a nice slow shutter speed. I got this at 1/30 sec at f/8. The problem is that the arc can be so bright, either that part of the image is all burned out, or your welder can be way underexposed. If you're trying to get the arc in shot like this you may also have some serious lens flare to deal with.


I was pretty pleased to have gotten this on my first try. I have to confess to a little digital buggery to get some detail in those arc highlights, but nothing major.

There are also risks to this kind of photography. Those beautiful little sparks can seriously damage your lens or filter, and looking into this light for even a little while can give you a nasty UV burn that feels like sandpaper on your eyeballs. I remember my Dad would occasionally suffer that, and he was so inured to little burns that they seldom bothered him. Ah, the age of heroes.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Blow Wind, Blow

Yesterday (like today actually) was bitterly cold and windy. Windy like a bare-knuckle fist fight with God. The sky was clear though, so I decided to combine my daily exercise with a little photography by walking up the peninsula road before sunset. Walking without being beaten to the canvas was an ordeal, but I made it up to a cool boulder field near the Fallen Soldiers Memorial and the light was great.

Pine and Saddle

The wind did make holding the camera steady a real challenge... so I had to use a faster shutter speed... which meant I had to open up the aperture... meaning my depth of field was kind of narrow. The result was I couldn't have the foreground boulders and the background in sharp focus at the same time. Damn. Maybe next time. The boulders are a remnant of the Dunedin shield volcano that once dominated the area. I do love these rocks. They wear the mark of time, something I like to have in my photos. Pity you can't see the wind in my shots, but apart from a few flax belts and cabbage trees, anything able to flap or flow in the peninsula gales was torn to shreds or blown away a long time ago.

Basalt Boulders

I also went to my first meeting of the Dunedin Photographic Society last night, along with Mike from the Dunedin Flickr Meetups group. Links to both are on the left. The folks at DPS were very welcoming and there was a great talk from Jane Trotter on her abstract making process for the portfolio she presented to apply for Associateship of the Photographic Society of New Zealand. Beautiful images, made from household objects, a macro lens, and a powerful imagination.

Today is the start of Strobist Boot Camp II, something I'm joining up for. The whole Strobist thing is about learning how to light with off-camera flash. There's a link to the Strobist Blog on the left too. More on that later.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Primary Industry

Today I caught up with my friend Mark Orton to talk cameras. We both have the Canon 450 D and so we had something interesting to point them at, I suggested we meet halfway down Sandymount road on the Otago Peninsula. It was a cold day, the track to our destination was pretty boggy and we had more than a few spectators.

sheep1 Sheep2 Sheep 3

Our destination, an old lime kiln, is a bookmark to Dunedin's turbulent geological and industrial history. Much of the local rock is the basalt remnants of an old shield volcano, but a strip of limestone cuts across the peninsula and harbour floor. The rocks around and above the kiln show the distinctive fluting of exposed limestone, and there are even a few cave entrances to be found.

Kiln and Rock Fluted Forms


Three kilns were built in the 1860's, directly below the quarries that supplied them. The limestone rock was calcined or burned to drive off the CO2 and leave pure lime. It was mainly used as fertiliser, helping to release soil nutrients but it was also used to manufacture cement at a factory higher up on Sandymount Road. The lime was difficult to transport away from the peninsula, and the operations closed after it became clear that the planned peninsula railway would not be built. Further south the Milburn quarry became the major local source of limestone. Only one of old peninsula kilns remains intact, but it's a beautiful remnant of Otago's early quarrying industry.

Lime Kiln

Here's an excerpt from the Otago Witness of 9 April 1870, an account of a visit to the limeworks via Portobello:
"A smart walk of about a couple of miles along a fine road, and the vicinity of the lime was reached, and after a little search found on the side of a picturesque gully. There is a good deal of clearing going on on both sides of the road at this point, and the beautiful bush is fast disappearing, to be laid down in grass or cereals. The lime crops out from the side of a bluff or spur coming down from the high ground to the south, and the bed is of considerable thickness. The stone is had, dense, and of a greyish blue colour, containing very few fossils — an occasional mussel or oyster, of large size, being met with. However, in a stratum of stone of a slaty texture, which underlies the lime, fossil shells are frequently got. The kiln was charged, and men were busy at work breaking out stone from the quarry. This has to be done by blasting in the usual way, and then the stone is broken small enough by hammers, so as to assist the process of calcining. The enterprising proprietor. Mr McDonald, was present, and he obligingly showed all the operations, and explained the action of the kiln, which has some peculiarities about it. The kiln is about 30 feet in height, and seven feet in diameter at the upper end, built of limestone, but lined throughout with firebrick. It answers its purpose thoroughly, being able to turn out 150 bags a day, or even double that if necessary. There is a peculiar arrangement of shoots at the bottom of the kiln, by which the draught is very easily regulated, and the stone can be drawn from any part of it that may be necessary. Instead of the mouth of the kiln being exposed to the air it is covered in by a substantial house, which serves as a store for the lime, and also preserves it from the weather. There is abundance of firewood close to the works, and with a good road to Dunedin, Mr McDonald ought to be able to supply very readily all the demands of the trade."

Kiln High ShotKiln Detail 1Fireplace

Lit Kiln2Lit kiln1

Further down the track, you can find a ruined farmhouse. All of this land was bought by the DCC in recent years. It's a great place to explore and take pictures.

Ruined Cottage

Shed Ruin Shacklock Stove

Shed Ruin 2

Derelict buildings like this are great to practice one of my favourite techniques: setting off a strobe inside, balanced with the ambient light, to give it a kind of life force within. More on strobes and strobism in another post.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Let There Be Rock

As a bit of a blues muso, I really love live music. My favourite bands and musicians aren't always the slickest or most professional.

I like musicians with passion and a sense of showmanship. Soon after I got my DSLR, I went to take some shots of one of my favourite local bands, The Boogiemen, but was limited by the low light conditions.

I didn't want to use the on-camera flash while the boys were playing, so I took some shots of them in their breaks, dragging the shutter to add some creative blur effects. I got some shots, but wanted something better.

I decided to get myself a "nifty fifty", a 50mm f/1.8 lens, that would let me shoot in the pub's low light conditions without the need for flash. I was pleased with the results and so I think, were the Boogiemen.

Jack gets it Drummer Dooley

Boog The Boogieman's Belly

Don't ask me what the gaffer tape on the nipples is all about.

I'm looking forward to shooting more bands, at live gigs and set-ups. Since the Boogiemen shoot, I've got some lighting gear and have done some portrait work for another musician friend, but that's another story...

Friday, June 5, 2009

Let's Go Back

So here's where this journey really begins. Among other things, I make TV shows for a living. I'm a story man, but I was more a writer than a director, never a picture guy. So one day in 2007, I'm field-producing a shark attack doco for the hugely talented writer and producer Thomas Quinn. One of my jobs was to take the publicity stills. On a busy shoot this is an inconvenient chore, and one I used to loathe. Given the pressures of filming and my lack of skill as a photographer, I've often come back from trips with a bunch of pretty lacklustre snapshots. The only thing I knew about composition was the law of thirds, and when it came to the laws of photography, I was a repeat offender.

This shoot was different though. We were recreating grisly shark attacks up in the waters off Tutukaka, so we had a gripping subject. Without the pressure of directing the action and shooting, I was free to concentrate on getting stills of it all. One day we were filming this action moment when our actor was being pulled into a boat, rigged with blood packs to splatter as he landed on deck. I had one thing in mind about my previous work: As well as the bad focus and poor lighting, lots of my pictures were of objects that were too small in frame. I needed to work on filling the frame with my subject. That was what I was concentrating on. I was in a good position, ready for the shot. When it all happened, the whole crew knew we'd gotten a great moment on tape. I got this:

Abalone Diver meets Shark

(You can click on the picture to go to my flickr stream and see more)

I wasn't sure if it was any good, but I knew I liked it. A lot. With my confidence boosted, and a new digital camera that I could afford to make lots of mistakes on, I shot a lot more pictures. They may not have been great pictures, but they were vastly better than anything I'd done before.

After the shoot I began to read about photography and figure out what I'd gotten right or wrong. The easy answer was that I had a strong subject and filled the frame with it for a change. But I discovered from later reading that other factors were at work. Firstly, it was a picture that told a story, and got the viewer to ask questions. A diver with some horrendous injury and blood loss. Who is it? How did this happen? What's going to happen next? All that gets a big tick in this writer's book. Next, there were the simple primary colours - red blue and yellow against the white of the deck. Then the nice graphic shapes - the triangles of the legs and fins, the curves of the air hose. And finally those little details - the blood spatter pattern, the wounded hand, the mouthpiece.

That was it. I began my journey to understand what makes a good picture, and hopefully, to start taking some.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


"The camera is a tool for learning how to see".

I don't remember where I read this. I thought it was Henri Cartier-Bresson but now I'm not sure who said it or even if it's a reliable quote, I've read so much about photography lately. What I do know is that it rings true for me. Since I picked up a camera six months ago, I've been learning how to see... the beauty and mystery in the world us, the potential picture in front of me. I'm learning how to see. It's a trip, and I'm going to share my journey here.
I'm starting with a picture I took a few months back at Taieri Mouth, Otago. It was one of those beautiful late summer mornings, still and quiet. I expected the boats to be going out at this time, but the fishermen had to wait for the high tide so they could clear the bar of the river mouth, so I had plenty of time to look for nice pictures. The challenges of the light meant I had to do a little manipulation with this, combining 3 exposures to get a High Dynamic Range image, and tone mapping it to create the final picture. That all sounds complicated, but with an application like Photomatix, its fairly easy. That said, I still had to do a little fixing of the hot spots near the "God Rays". But there you have it, one of the first big steps on my journey.