Saturday, May 13, 2017

Philly and The Human Muse

Among the variety of things I've been up to over the last couple months, I made a trip up to Philadelphia to spend time with an old friend who moved to Colorado some years back. Otter, I'll call him. We did quite a bit of urban exploration in my more active years, and since he moved out west I've missed him dearly. Having just two days to wander the streets aimlessly and without care was a wonderful treat.

Much as we were always apt to do, once my car was parked we quite literally just wandered, not knowing what we'd walk into. By virtue of where our walk started, we passed through Dilworth Park, enamored by the commotion and ever entertaining spray of the plaza's fountain setup. It was cloudy, so a great day for strong, contrast heavy black and white images.

Approaching the new Comcast high rise, a monster of a tower still under construction, we came across a pair of skateboarders grinding rather brazenly in an alley along a rail that led right into the street.

Naturally, it did not take us long to wander into the ghosts of days past, rail yards and destitute infrastructure.

We stopped in the Amtrak station for a quick drink and to go over mobile photo editing paradigms. Something that seems to be in common among all my photography enthusiast friends is the migration to mobile workflows. Quite simply, for those of us with any history in the trade, we're tired of desktop processing, ultimate image quality be damned. When exercised as an experiential pursuit, a hobby to be lost in, we'd rather craft art in the moment than see our work succumb to the inevitable hard disk graveyard.

We ended up playing poker and pool and the startup office of a friend of his, eating into the night with scotch and general merriment.

And after an artfully crafted coffee after some enormously invigorating sleep, we parted ways once again.

Till next time, dear Otter. I miss you already.

Pixelstick Studio Work

It may also be worth mentioning that I actually put that earlier mentioned Pixelstick concept into play over Fur the 'More for the Photo Suite. It worked out, more or less, exactly as envisioned, with the caveat that there are a few technical elements I could do better with next time around (and I'm likely going to be doing this again for next year's convention).

Unfortunately, there were some shortcomings using Olympus' live composite shooting mode with the Pixelstick, but the end results looked great printed on a Canon Selphy that I picked up to pump out prints exchanged for donations to Friskie's Animal Sanctuary. Raised $600 in about 2 hours, so I'm rather proud of that.

If I remember to revisit this post when next year's event comes around, improvements would be:

  • Use Live Time instead of Live Composite, just stop the camera down further (maybe f/11)
  • Dial down the brightness on the Pixelstick so the light doesn't clip so aggressively on overlapping patterns
  • Now that it exists, try using the Profoto monolight system for more reliable wireless flash triggering and shorter recycle times to keep things moving fluidly (had a couple technical interruptions on account of slow flash recycles when one set of batteries was dying while the other was still running strong)
I also have a fun vaporwave-inspired concept in mind using colored gels on flash/strobes with a white background. Or at least it was sort of inspired by one shot I got that had a very vaporwave feel to it with a mix of purple silhouetted light against some mint green and white patterns.

That's a whole other concept to prove out some time, though. Not completely sure I know how I'd reliably cast colored shadows to develop such hard shaped outlines while still keeping the subject in their original color structure. I'm sure I'll get a chance to set up the white backdrop and play that out, though - I have the equipment, it's just a matter of proving out the concept prior to employing it.

In the end, people are happy with their photos from the Pixelstick experiment, though. The most common thing I've heard is "How are you going to upstage yourself after this one", which is always a nice thing to hear when you already know where your flaws are and how to improve upon them.

Looking forward to doing this again, maybe even sooner rather than a year later.

More Album Covers

In keeping with the fun of mobile editing, and the mass of marketing work I've been engaged in lately, I dipped my toes into minimalist album covers again. These things are always quite fun to create given the reckless abandonment of ultimate image fidelity they inspire. No worries about degradation when there's text to distract attention.

The snap above was taken lackadaisically at Fort Armstead while compatriot Rob was shooting a time lapse. There's always a number of fishermen and "tourists" wandering the area, but this car happened to remain isolated from the main group and had a great view straight out to old Sparrow's Point, site of the abandoned/being demolished Bethlehem Steel plant. With knowledge of the context, it works well as a sort of post-manufacturer's echo.

This one, however, is just generally silly. I've been photographing the pigeons and starlings around my apartment building quite a bit as of late, and this fellow was more determined than the rest to remain in place despite human interaction (i.e. me walking up to it clunky and clumsily). A fantasy routine played in my head wherein he attacked my face and shat on my head for good measure.

Then there's this fellow. This one struck home a bit in various ways. In fact, there's a bit of a story behind him I may as well share while internal narratives are venturing quite fluidly through my fingers. First, the original image (or at least without the intense processing):

Walking to my car a couple Friday mornings ago, I noticed a small gaggle of starlings pecking about at something laying behind my car, figuring it was trashed food, maybe something in a wrapper they were struggling to unravel. Stepping closer, they of course scattered, and leaning down I quickly identified the subject of their aggression as this juvenile bird. Not sure of the species, possibly another starling. Not an infant, but certainly not developed to the point of flight just yet. Quite possibly, it fell out of the nest and was deemed easy prey.

Its neck had been expertly torn open, blood soaking the pavement in vivid crimson. A sad sight, much akin to every bit of roadkill passed by on the road, but with the available time to study and analyze the more brutal side of nature. As one with photographic proclivities is wont to do, I grabbed my camera to photograph the poor thing, and whilst framing low for this shot its mouth began to move and a shallow gurgle like a drowned cry sputtered forth, more from its neck than beak. It was not yet dead, but certainly working toward the end. A slow death, laying alone on the pavement behind my car on a rainy Friday morning.

I grabbed a small wad of tissues from my car, something soft with which to pick up and cover the poor bird while it tried to simply die. Delicately, I carried it to the front of my car, still trying to keep it out of the battering patter of rain, and tucked him in a concrete corner where he could pass without the continued agitation of the ravenous starlings. I kept my hand over his body to feel his struggling lungs, waiting for them to cease movement, bright red soaking through the tissues the whole time. After perhaps 15 minutes, assured that his transition to nothing was complete, I carried him out of the garage and set his body under a tree, preferring that he not rot on the asphalt and instead decompose more naturally, consumed by insects and otherwise decomposing where the nutrients of his carcass might feed the tree in a more dignified sort of fashion. I checked on the process of his decomposition over the next week to ensure no interruption, and today I am satisfied that he is, more or less, a part of that tree I cheerily study each morning (often on the hunt for "morning birds" to photograph before my trip into the office).

To a degree it sounds silly. I have no shortage of experience with the dead or dying, and most critically my experience "hunting" a bird certainly impacted me with more trauma. This is the way of nature, and it is not to be interrupted. Perhaps it was a symptom of "morning brain", not quite awake and rather influenced more heavily by emotional sways while the hard logic centers still kick back into gear to rationalize the experiences of the day. Regardless, my morning coddling this juvenile bird in his dying moments felt and continues to feel relevant, and its memory continues to hold influence on my day-to-day. Not relevant by virtue of consequence, but certainly a brief experience I don't suspect will soon be ejected from the litany of daily thoughts that cycle my conscious before bed each night.

Rest well, small bird friend.

Old Words (Still Relevant)

Note: I wrote the majority of this some time ago. It still resonates, but a large mass of the body text was lost and I can't remember for the life of me what it was that constituted the last bit of introspective pontification. Regardless, I'm posting this because it's been too long since publishing words.

Some days I don't know what I'm actually focused on.

Keeping in line with my arbitrary commitment to "self care" as this new year's resolution, I treated myself to something of a vanity item for my birthday (the big 3-0). Olympus' Pen-F, potentially the most hipster-attuned digital camera to come out since Fuji's original X100. Having been in the market for about a year, Olympus finally had some refurbished units at a decent enough discount to supercede my otherwise frugal gear-buying habits (well, perhaps less "frugal" and more "utilitarian"). It is no more and no less than exactly what I expected it to be - As comparable an imager as any current Micro Four-Thirds camera, with the subtle twist of a very fluid (and JPG centric) workflow. Essentially, it's exactly what the more spiritual side of the underlying artist in me needed, needs, and would do best not to forget.

I'm not going to deep dive into specifics or quantifiable analysis of the camera. Having fiddled about with so many different cameras by so many different manufacturers, they're all just goofy little boxes with expensive bits inside. While the Pen-F is just fine to hold, the E-M1 still fits my hands better. The differentiation comes back, as it always does, to abstracts of typical use cases, the "feeling" of the camera. I'll never be able to escape the emotional assignment of the E-M1 to work. The Pen-F is just the right amount of different in that regard. And with the fine controls available with the creative mode dial on the front of the camera body, it's a camera I want to shoot in JPG and never give a second thought to loading up RAW files in Lightroom. This is a camera that compels me to relax. To just do things absent elaborate considerations. In its use, I've felt closer than I ever have before to the mysterious zen state of legendary street photographers (primarily noted by a marked lack of giving a shit, so long as it felt right to take the photo... perfect hedonism).

With a smaller body back in play, I'm back to running around with a couple small primes once again, namely the 12mm f/2.0 (which is still soft in the corners after servicing), 17mm f/1.8, and 45mm f/1.8. Rob loaned me his Lumix 20mm f/1.7 II pancake, which is fun given my history I have using the original variant of that lens on the Panasonic GF1 back in 2011. Curiously, I've been heavily considering a mid-grade zoom such as the M. Zuiko 14-150mm f/4-5.6. As I type this, there's an M. Zuiko 40-150mm f/4-5.6 in my bag. Honestly, I don't much give a crap about ultimate lens sharpness or perfect optical corrections right now. I just want to enjoy taking pictures without fighting focal lengths juggling primes. It's certainly not like I'm preserving ultimate image quality after butchering an image in Lightroom or Snapseed as it is, so what's the damn point in all that crazy glass anyway?

I'm still doing photo work, the paid stuff. The business is actually on track to cross the $100K threshold this year, which is pretty good for 5 years invested part-time (at best). I'm just not going after things aggressively, chasing down leads and new clients. So long as I satisfy my current contracts and keep up good relationships with those repeat clients I already have... that's good enough for me right now. And I'm sure this is a valid ebb in the flow of creative work. Creativity, artistic expression, they aren't measurable resources that can be reliably, consistently, or constantly, extracted as applies to business use. Something so dearly tied to the emotional and spiritual epicenters of our individual being absolutely merits time to rest, recharge, and rebuild. Success can't be sustained in perpetual burnout. One can't will a car to win the race if it runs out of gas in the middle of the track.

So, in general, I don't entirely know for sure what I'm focused on right now, but that is rather the point. After 5 years of conditioning myself to be in a constant state of growth, this clouded frame of mind could be called withdrawal from rigidly enforced goals. This is a time for soul searching, personal redefinition, and gazing past the horizon as I figure out where I'd like to go next. It may turn out this road I'm on is just fine, but it's always important to survey.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Modern Narrative (Resistance)

Never in my wildest imaginings did I anticipate entering into an established sense of adulthood during a period so tumultuous as these times we live in today.


This is the Modern Narrative. That of myself, of an entire generation of young people. Having grown and matured in one of the most economically and intellectually fruitful periods of modern history, having attained a state of self-awareness not unilaterally shared amongst our peers and elders, we are trapped, consigned to a perpetual state of both inward and outward conflict as we protest the conservative inclinations and social regress both natural and typical of generational divides throughout history. Which is not a statement with intent to diminish the validity of that stalwart stand for social progress - Such endeavors have historically been, and will continue to be, critical to the betterment of our species.

It is an exhausting state of being, whether willing or unwilling. A configuration of daily existence I fear will prove untenable over a long enough timeline as we wither as people, submit to cynicism and lazy generalization as we tire. Yet we have no choice but to engage with it every day, exercising hyper-vigilance in defense of the social progress that has only ever made us the more free as a people. To engage with the (to us) antiquated human impulse to seek out an "Other", an artificial sub-being upon which we might elevate ourselves mere inches to complete foolish fantasies of being among giants.

I fear that all of us caught in the undertow of this age will pass far too early for wont of our collective stress. An entire generation, doomed to aneurysms as a consequence of the period to which they were born. Our lot in life was only ever doomed to perpetual decline... Yet we will still struggle against it, for hope those generations coming after may leapfrog us to an enviable state of Higher Being.

May our backs be a strong foundation upon which better people will stand.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Faux Album Covers

I never futzed about with the text tool in Snapseed before, never really considered it a value add in my mobile photography exploits before. While killing time between shoots this weekend, I ended up wandering around the Naval Yard neighborhood that has been an up and coming project of the north of of DC's southeast waterfront, snapping at random just to occupy time. None of these photos above are particularly compelling on their own, but exploring the application of text to make faux album covers, the took on a new sort of life that I'm quite the fan of. Seems like the kind of thing I'd like to continue exploring in the future, simply for sake of being tickled by the subtle application of design logic to still images. Takes me back to my early web design days.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Sticky Reminder for a Good Idea

I'm writing this out as a sort of personal reminder of an awesome idea that I really don't want to lose sight of in the next couple months.

Every year for the last 3 years I've worked the photo studio and/or video for the Fur the More convention in the DMV. It's always a blast, barring my bias as a lover of the furry fandom in general (as a friend this weekend phrased it, I "orbit" the furry-verse). The last couple years my setup for the photo suite has been super simple, a plain white backdrop with a pair of YN-560s fired into it (to clip it out to full white), and a combo of YN-560s fired either into umbrellas or softboxes to expose the subject. It works out great, and is arguably the "easy" way to do it, but I want to do something special this year because... well, reasons? I dunno, why the hell not?

I tend to run the photo suite like a party room, so the first little thing would be to pick up a nice speaker with built-in party light (I've seen a few). The lights in the suite would be dim to allow the patterns projected by the party light to catch attention (if a litany of chiptunes and speedcore don't achieve that alone). The point of the fun multicolored light show is to set the scene for what the shots from the studio would be like. A black 10' x 20' muslin would be sufficient for the backdrop, all I'd need is a one-stop focus of the subject. I'd keep the lens stopped down hard to f/8 or maybe even f/11, something to ensure the dimness of the backdrop in case the ambient light tries to illuminate it. I'd trigger the shutter on bulb with my phone so as to have control over the exposure time for the next step. Using a Pixel Stick (those nifty programmable light wands that first spiked in popularity a year or two back) run behind the subject and draw some fun color patterns, maybe even do a couple programmable pictures for funzies. Once done with the background light play, the last step would be to trigger a couple YN-560s acting as subject main and key lights, probably a naked flash firing down behind the subject for rim lighting and a softbox to the front and slightly to the side of the subject for contrasty main lighting. The end result should be a solid freeze frame of the subject with some wild light jazz going on in an otherwise black background.

I'm not sure how the concept would fare in actual practice, the party atmosphere of my studio suites historically has typically lead to a machine gun beat of poses and fun frames. But I want to try something more considered and deliberate this year, and definitely something that stands out from the typical marbled muslin backdrops I frequently see deployed for other furry convention photo studios. It's an expensive venture by comparison, and a bit more time consuming, but I think it would work out well. Assuming I'll have access to a printer this year, I'd love to print these frames out and offer them as gifts to those who donate to the charity fund. With such unique art pieces, it should be pretty awesome, and I'm hella excited to try it out!