Still Life Breakdown: Corn in Virginia

Still Life Breakdown: Corn in Virginia

This past weekend I was privileged to hang out with a bunch of photographers in Virginia. It was not a workshop, it was a hangout-and-shoot-your-ass-off weekend. Stephen and Michele were the gracious hosts who put it all together, and we had a blast.

Saturday had us shooting a wide variety of talent they had booked, and we shot in a very nice little studio in downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia. The weather cooperated and we had a couple of lovely days to shoot outside and in the studio.

More of those images on this Sunday’s dispatch “In The Frame” which you can sign up for free right over there on the right. We don’t spam you and we let you know if there is something for sale. Most of the time it is just a lot of fun, and stuff you will not find on this site.

One of the attendees, Bob Knill, wanted to step up his game in the still life / food arena, so he came prepared with two fresh ears of corn snapped up at the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market. (If you live near Fredericksburg, you really should check it out – Saturday mornings near downtown.)

We are going to take a look at this image from a different perspective… we are going to deconstruct it from finished to start. Instead of starting with the corn and adding in what we did, we will look at what happens when we take things away.

(I should mention that these are straight out of the camera with zero adjustments or modifications. They were processed from Raw in LR5, and exported to PS for JPEG.)

First let’s set the stage:


You can see all the major players here.

  • The main lighting is the scrim placed just above the set. That is lit by a small softbox about 4 inches from the scrim to make the light have shape. Backing it off fills the scrim, but moving it in close creates a hot spot on the scrim and lets Bob focus the main part of his light wherever he wants.
  • The second light is an unmodified speedlight on the left, passing through a glass block placed very close to the set.
  • Notice the glass block has a black card on the speedlight side and one on the corn side. Those small cards are helping to shape the light as it comes through the glass block. It also keeps unwanted light from spilling around the edges.
  • There are two small white cards propped up in front of the corn. They are adding a bit of fill, and something for the glistening corn to reflect on the shadow side.
  • Bob is shooting tethered here so he can see the nuances of his lighting.

The set is quite small – less than the coffee table we were shooting on. He set his shutter and aperture on a setting that assured no extraneous light would be added by the ambient.

ISO 200, f4.5, 1/60th of a second with a 50MM lens were the chosen tools and settings.

The first shot is with all the gear set as in the BTS above. Click on the images for a much larger experience.

Notice the smooth light, with delicate fill all around the corn. That is the combination of small speedlight and diffuser providing a nice ambient feel. The speedlight to camera right coming through the glass block gives the image some depth and interest, as well as shaping the top ear of corn with light and shadow. Notice how subtle the light is from the left.


In this shot we removed the black cards that were on the glass block. The light is less nuanced, but still interesting. It is your shot – make it your way. With the cards no longer shaping the light, the fill cards in front are now brighter and providing more fill than when they were not receiving so much of the speedlight from the left.


Now we remove the cards from in front of the corn and it goes much darker in front of the corn.



This shot is with the light to camera right shut off. Now the only light is from the diffuser and the small softbox above the corn. This has a very soft, natural light look to it as well.


On this shot we removed the scrim and just used the speedlight in the small softbox. You can see the entire feel of the ambient is now gone. This has a very point-source feel to it.


Interestingly enough, you may like any one of these for your work. There is no one way or right way to do this stuff. Experiment and have fun creating your own versions of how you want to light.

Bob spent a couple of hours on this, working out exactly what he wanted to do, and doing some cool variations. I hope he shares those on his blog when he is ready.

This shot shows how the little shelf blocked some light behind the set so it would create a shadow and some fall off for the background.

Paying attention to the smallest details is what this type of photography is all about.

BTW, it is a blast to work with subjects and light like this. Try a couple ears of corn or a head of broccoli or whatever you like. Blend the light, make the light do what you want it to do and don’t give up at the first shot. Keep working it till you get what you want.


Another shot of the set.


Sort of a ‘spy-cam’ feel, eh?

OK – see you next time.

BTW, if you would like to see more posts like this, please let me know. I am happy to do them.


On the Sun Times Firings… One Month Later

On the Sun Times Firings… One Month Later

(NOTE: I do not get any newspapers, nor am I at all interested in newspapers as they are printed… If I want yesterday’s news, I can listen to it on the radio. Newspapers are desperately trying to find a way to keep going without changing what they do. It is not possible, but they will continue to be surprised by every new trend that comes along until they shutter the doors, and sell off the furniture. Not if, but when. That is my personal opinion and of course may shade what I write.)

This may not win me any friends, but I have somethings to say about the Sun firings that I gotta get out. A comment on another thread got me thinking about it like this:

The Sun-Times fired all their staff photographers.

They were indeed the first to do this en-mass, but do remember that the NYT and LAT and SF Chronicle made massive cuts a few years ago. Also add ESPN and a few weekly magazines to the list. I think I read something about Sports Illustrated as well, but not sure if it was the entire staff.

The Sun may be the first newspaper to fire the entire crew, but they won’t be the last. Not by a long shot. Many other papers are down to only a small handful, and whether they fire them or let them retire will be a matter for the owners. (I have no doubt they will NOT do the honorable thing, most of newspaper owners are assholes. While that is not a scientific acknowledgement, I believe it to be true.)

Some say it is all about the bottom line, but I think in this case the bottom line is change.

Spot news has changed. The people on the scene now have technology that can record both video and photographs, and – they are there NOW. A PJ must be dispatched, sent across town, awakened… whatever, but they are usually NOT on the ground when the spot news is breaking.

Most people do not have any discerning taste regarding spot or hard news shots. Just watch the incredibly lame and terrible video that passes for local news any evening. Kids in garages could (and do) make better. How many people call the newspaper to complain about the tonal range or excessive sharpening of that shot of the car accident on Main? Sure, G+ photographers do, but who else?

As to the ‘beat’ photographer… the guy or gal who checks in at the local cop station and hangs around waiting for a grab shot or two… no one cares anymore. That was of interest to the public at an earlier time, it is not anymore.

A quick snap of an iPhone of the mayor giving a press conference is fine for most dailies. Think of the shots where the PJ’s are all lined up with cameras in the air shooting a talking head giving a press briefer… do we really need Pro’s for that anymore? The shots are generally tepid to boring.

Photo from this article which you should read as well.

iPhones in the hands of reporters can make tepid, boring photographs just fine. Add one of them cool camera phone filters and – wow. But I digress…

In this PP article, they show cover/cover comparisons of the Trib and the Sun side by side. And while the Stanley Cup covers can be held up as a “see we told you so” moment, the rest of the comparisons seem to be not so harshly decided. The Sun continues with the same sort of stuff it had before.

Is that surprising? It is disappointing?

Do YOU have a subscription to the Sun-Times?

Just asking…

I do not pretend to like this new trend, but I do recognize that it is a trend that will not be reversing any time soon. Every major story in the past 3 years has been covered by folks on the scene with camera phones and P&S’s, the PJ’s coming last to the scene.

The plane in the Hudson didn’t wait to sink till the PJ’s got there from Midtown, nor were any PJ’s on the scene in Boston when Muslim terrorists blew up innocent people. Riots in the streets of Cairo, to shootings in the streets of Washington DC, the people there have it… stills, video, the whole shebang. By the time the PJ gets there, they body is covered and the cops are taking statements.

That was enough then, it isn’t now. It won’t be going back to the old ways.

The world has changed… and PJ’s better change along with it.

Or risk being the subject of nostalgic documentaries made by those who did.

Project 52 PRO’s: Summer to Summer

Project 52 PRO’s: Summer to Summer

We are starting a new class for Project 52 PRO – Summer to Summer…

And at this point we have 5 openings left. You can sign up or get more information at the Project 52 site.

I thought I may share these images with you. A recent assignment from the current Project 52 PROS. The assignment was to shoot something to fit this catalog page. The page was furnished, along with information on the products we were needing. As you can see, the photographers stepped up pretty well.

This is not the usual “shoot something pretty” online photo class. We give you real world assignments, and expect only the highest quality images be submitted for our weekly critiques.

Some of these photographers had never shot to a layout before, nor had ever been given a ‘brief’ for shooting a photograph to specific requirements before Project 52.

It is hard to break into this business, and many of the old ‘mentored through assisting’ paths are not easily available. Project 52 tries to fill a bit of that gap by working with assignments that are similar to the type of work a commercial photographer may get in the course of a year.

We are also mixing in a lot of business information… again this is reality based client work, and not silly marketing tactics.

We shoot people, product, location, catalog, still life, food and more. A taste of it all with real world learning in each assignment.

If you are interested in this sort of continuous learning, check out the Project 52 page – and remember that we have a free version as well.

Images from a recent assignment at Project 52 PRO. The layout was furnished in a layered PSD, and the photographers had to choose from a small selection of subject genres.

Pricing to the Value of the Work

Pricing to the Value of the Work

I heard a very talented photographer say she charges less than others because she is new to the business and doesn’t think she should charge as much as the older, more established photographers.

I think she is completely and totally wrong. The value of the image to the client is neither less nor more depending on her time in business.

If the image is good enough for the client to use to sell more of his custom colored, whizbang widgets, it is good enough to charge rate for. If it is not, the photographer is wrong to be charging anything at all and the client is an idiot for running an image that will not help him sell his widgets.

The viewer of the ad has no idea the age of the photographer, nor should that even enter into the discussion of the value of the image… that value is intrinsic in whether or not it works to convince, convert, entertain, mystify or indulge.

My thinking is this;

If the work is good enough to charge anything for, then it should be regarded as an item that has the value of being priced in the current rate climate.

If I show you a photograph, and you love it, do you love it less when i tell you the photographer was only 16, or that the photographer had been shooting less than 2 years?

If I show you a photograph and you hate it, do you like it better if when I tell you that the photographer is an experienced, well respected photographer, or that the same piece is hanging in a local museum.

To me it makes no difference… If I like it I like it and if I don’t… well…

In other words the work created has no relationship to the creator’s status unless it is attached by the creator themselves. There is no intrinsic ‘beginner’ value to the image, nor is there something automatically inherent in an image shot by an old timer.

When we create images for people they can only fall into two camps in my opinion. Good or bad, and should considered that way for our clients and ourselves.

To provide a less than excellent product is in my mind a bad way to build presence, create a fan base or even grow into an artist. The reason is that since the artwork doesn’t carry any intrinsic information as to why it is less than stellar, the viewer sees it as representative of the work of the artist. The print doesn’t have a disclaimer “Well, I was just starting out.”

This is not to ignore the fact that artists grow and work that was acceptable before becomes less interesting as the artist matures. That is a different situation though. The artist still held that work in high esteem when it was created.

I know that it seems like I am rather pedantic on this, but I think it is important and can be quite a challenge when one is trying to establish a price that doesn’t make one look like a dork.

(Yes, I used pedantic and dork in the same sentence.)

And remember that when one begins pricing, all other prices are based on that model… so if you start low, it can be seen by your clients and fans as a challenge or “issue” to raise your rates. If you start high, it is seen as a value when you ‘discount’ or ‘gift’ lower rates. The value of your work stays high, but you can always bequeath a lower rate for any reason you want.

A $25 shoot fee is a bargain when your normal rate is $100.
A $25 shoot fee is a steep rise when your normal rate was $10.

Same shoot, different paradigm based on where you started your pricing.

The photograph is loved, used, published, viewed, and scaled to the users wishes… no matter how much you charged or how long you have been in business. The image now lives as its own entity, with no ties to anything but its own value.

So stop tying things that have no relationship to the finished image into your pricing. If it is a good image, it is worth as much as you say it is… and hopefully you will say it is worth much more than the amount of time it took to make it and print it.

Say it is priceless… but you will make them a deal – yeah – do that.

Are You Making YOUR Photographs?

Are You Making YOUR Photographs?

Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.”

– Clark Terry, Jazz Trumpet Legend

Always a concern for beginning and emerging artists. Where do we draw the line between inspiration and appropriation (stealing)?

In our examination of what makes an image portfolio worthy, we begin to look for authenticity, and not merely a ‘me too’ approach to the art.

Jan Klier, a friend and photographer in NY sent this to me after last weeks newsletter:

“The question of whether it’s worthy to be in your portfolio is harder. You may put the 24 images that best describe you in your book, or more precisely the 24 images that best describe your sensibilities to the particular audience you’re showing this particular book to on that day. But for an image to be worthy it actually not only has to be describe your sensibilities, but it also has to be in the 1% of your best work, and you have to be convinced that you pushed yourself to create it, that you couldn’t have done it better at the time. I think we all have images that have a rightful spot in our book, but not all of them are actually worthy to be there, and they be booted as soon as something better has been shot.”

While this is very true, and should be regarded as excellent advice, we first must get to that point where the images in the 1% Jan describes do more than emulate what is already out there, but begin to define us as photographers in our own right.

I have heard the questions “what is my style”, and “how do I find my style” from beginning photographers and full time professionals as well. The answer is simple… look at your photos and tell me which ones you love (not like, love) and then tell me what makes them so loved?

Wait… I did say it was simple, didn’t I?

Yeah… I lied. It is not simple or easy, it is a complex decision making process that combines what we know with what we feel and adds in a bit of whimsically applied aesthetics along the way.

Finding the good images is one thing (as we discussed last week) but finding the authentic ones are a bit more challenging. While it may be a good technical photograph, the goal is to achieve something more than mere technical competence.

We want to make images that look as though they came from us. This doesn’t mean that our images are totally unique to the entire world of imagery, but instead that they are uniformly identifiable as ours. They belong to us, and are a part of how we see and present the world through photography.

And while that is a noble and excellent goal for our work, we are now challenged with how to get there.

As the quote above by Clark Terry says, imitate, assimilate, innovate – and that means that now we have a path to follow. A road map for creativity. A plan.

Imitate: In jazz it is important to gain the ‘chops’ to be able to play some licks or patterns that our heroes play. We learn to do a cool fill like Elvin, or a blues change like Trane. We are copying them not from a point of stealing their music, but from the experiential learning method so important for all forms of art. In order to understand,we do what they did.

In photography, the goal is to learn the exposure qualities, what ratios look like, and make images that look like others have made them – others that we admire. That doesn’t teach us to steal the work, but to imitate the technique, and get better with our tools.

Assimilate: Just again as in jazz, we learn so well that the techniques become second nature to us. We can hit that riff just right, and play the turnarounds just like Monk, but with the beginnings of our own flare.

We have assimilated the techniques. We are no longer stymied by exposure, or how to get ‘that look’ or where to put the umbrella. We have imitated to the point of assimilation. The techniques are a part of us, and are called into service without much ‘thinking’ about them.

Unfortunately the first two are the easiest. They require practice and faithful study of something that is currently out there to be studied. The model exists, so we have the base upon which to build. But this is not where we quit. Assimilation is not the goal.

Innovate: Innovation is the goal.

We take the techniques that are now second nature to us and we begin to build our own sound, our own riffs, our own blues turnarounds. And we make the images that are ours, fully and completely ours.

Yes, the homage may be present. Yes, there may always be some areas of crossover, but the images are more “us” than the ones we studied. They are authentically ours. We have broken through the limitations of mere assimilation, and created something unique and ultimately much more powerful. We have innovated.

Innovation comes hard. It requires more study and more practice than the first two levels did, and the payoff may not be visible so quickly. This is where we get to words like ‘vision’ and ‘style’ and ‘personal work’.

The previous LE post discussed making sure the images were portfolio worthy, this one is asking ‘if they are worthy, that’s good. If they are YOURS that is even more good. Gooder, so to speak.

The method we discussed about looking at your work is the first process, now we have to dig deeper into your vision and see the work that is presented as a group. A ‘body’ of work. More than a collection of ‘good’ images, this body of work is a collection of related images that show an authentic connection to the photographer.

Photography can be quite a challenge when you get to the ‘innovate’ part, but it is so rewarding when you do. To create something uniquely yours is very cool, and very much a confidence builder.

Look at your body of work. Lay prints out on a table… the best of the best. Do you see a style emerging? Is there a unique way of looking and seeing the world that connects the images somehow?

Can you say with confidence that someone looking at the group would state… “yeah, those are all yours?” That is the goal we are looking for. That point where we stop making images that look like ‘theirs’ and make images that are ‘ours’.

And remember that your style doesn’t mean a unique to the world style, it means it is YOUR style. It is also not how you process your images, or what lens you use, or how off angle the horizon is. While a little of all three can be involved, your style is more about how you see than the gear/actions/presets you use.

Where are you on this path? Are you still imitating to find the technical control you need? Or are you in the assimilation section, having the skills and using them to make images that look like everyone else’s? Have you begun to innovate – to create something that flows from you as a personal extension instead of looking outward for validation of your work?

And, BTW, here is Clark Terry teaching a master class.

And a younger Terry cooking along with a big band from a little TV show that was on late nights. The man could certainly play that trumpet.