May 09 2012

I’m Feeling More Glamourous Already

Update: A new session of my favorite Finding and Creating Great Portrait Lighting class was just announced for the weekend of August 11th & 12th. Disney Hall is my all-time favorite urban location that is a perfect laboratory for learning how to see light and make compelling compositions. You will come out as a changed photographer with some great photos.

It’s all because I now have Virginia Postrel as a new Twitter follower and Facebook friend. The glamour rubs off from from Virginia being the Editor-in-Cheif of We met back in 2004 when I was asked to create a portrait of her for a Research Magazine article where she was stressing the economic importance of design on a city. The new Frank Gehry designed Walt Disney Concert Hall had just opened and it seemed like the perfect place to highlight the style of Los Angeles.

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Opening night lighting on the Walt Disney Concert Hall

It was scouting for the portrait session that I learned that much of the grounds and building are considered public property and are open for public use. I now use it as a location to a teach a portrait lighting class through the Julia Dean Photo Workshop. The next meeting of my Finding and Creating Great Portrait Lighting class is coming up soon on the weekend of August 11th & 12th.

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My portrait of the glamourous Virginia Postrel

Unlike basic square buildings that simply have a sunny and shady side, the Gehry building is full of curves and reflections. This makes the background and the lighting formula change every time you walk around the corner. There are also some great views of the city from some of the balconies.

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Actor/model Michael Pierce surveying his city empire

The last time we held the class it actually rained in LA and just like a real photo shoot we improvised by jumping in and out of the building as the weather changed. This allowed us to explore the building interior more and the students ended up shooting some of their best photos of our models in the underground parking garage.

Mark Harmel

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Nov 09 2009

the best iPhone photography app

Much of the talk about using the iPhone camera surrounds additional apps that you can use to tint, crop, zoom or selectively focus your photos. There are titles that bounce around the internet like Must-have apps for iPhone photographersThe Five Best iPhone Apps For Travel Photography and The Best Camera “ecosystem”.

I find some of the apps useful for making it easier to crop, adjust the exposure and upload to a photo sharing site; but I find that most of the tinting and special effects features to be cheap tricks. Most of the time the app will simply transform a bad photo into a bad photo with a blue tint.

To me, the most most important app is the person taking the photo.

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Surfer on the Venice Beach boardwalk

The beauty of the iPhone is that it’s always with you. The camera function is both very easy to use and at the same time very hard because it’s such a simple camera. The camera works great for basic snapshots of friends, but I wanted to see how it would perform in the stress test of the Venice Beach boardwalk.

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Beach visiter taking a cool drink by the iconic wooden umbrella clusters

The boardwalk is both a target rich environment with a collection of colorful characters, and a very challenging place to shoot. The light is harsh and the action is quick.

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The palm reader's sign blocked the sun creating a perfect north light studio

You have to look for the places that either have good light already or find a simple way to control the light. There isn’t an app made yet that will help you identify ways to control light by shooting your subject in front of a backdrop, or moving them in front of the sun.

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I moved the stilt-walker in front of the sun and palm trees

Since we use the iPhone’s screen to preview the photo, shooting into the sun is even harder. Unlike looking through a camera viewfinder, on the iPhone you have the confusion of the reflection on the screen and the glare behind the phone. Half the time it seems like I’m guessing at the composition. The shooting is similar to using the cheap plastic Diana camera where the joy come from the surprises created by the lack of control.

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Catching action is an advanced skill

The other issue with the camera is the shutter lag. Venice Beach is full of action and all good street shooters pride themselves at being able to capture the “decisive moment“, but with the time delay you have to press the shutter button a half second before you think something may happen. (You can control this a bit by being aware that the shutter is actually activated by releasing, instead of pressing the shutter button.)

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Quick movements often produce a warped effect

There is also a odd warping effect that’s created by the iPhone using a rolling shutter. Instead of the exposure being created all at once by the aperture effect you see on the screen, the scene is being quickly scanned. In the shot above, the head section was scanned first and the legs moved to the right by the time the scan made it down to the bottom.

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The light weight of the iPhone makes it easy to shoot down

One of my big shooting surprises is that now I’m often holding the camera straight out and shooting down. Instead of having my face up to the view-finder, the iPhone already starts away from my face and it’s a quick movement to point the iPhone down. Instead of the normal Hail Mary Shot that photojournalists use in a crowd to get the camera higher. I’m finding that I do the same thing shooting down. I simply guess at the framing and swing with the action.

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There's a whole new world down below

For most people, I suspect the hardest part about doing iPhonetography is using the moderate wide-angle lens. The view is similar to what you would get on a full frame 35mm camera using a 35mm lens. Our minds are very good at zooming into a scene to examine the front wheel pattern above, but we’re less well trained to see the wider view while being aware of all the action that’s shown below.

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Learning to see all the elements in the wide view is an acquired skill

I’m constantly working at striking the balance between simplifying and getting something interesting in the frame. When I first arrived at the beach I noticed a large sailboat on the horizon. But it was too small in the frame by itself, so I chased it down the beach while searching for something to place in the foreground. First there was a volleyball game, then a life-guard stand and finally I spotted a surfer balancing a board on his head to change his shirt.

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A balance between a simple background and a foreground surfer to fill the frame

Years of experience and learning to see like the iPhone camera is the real secret app in iPhonetography.

None of these photos required any special app filters or effects. I did use my normal workflow of opening the photos in Photoshop CS4 Camera Raw (even jpgs from the iPhone can be processed this way) and making some simple exposure adjustments and clean-up.

I took these shots in preparation of teaching an iPhonetograpy class at the Julia Dean Photo Workshops. The class is scheduled for December 6th. I hope to see you there.

Mark Harmel


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Apr 30 2009

highway 395 revisited

Back in the fall I traveled to he Mono Lake area with my friend Eliot Crowley. He is working on his MFA thesis project titled “Highway 395 Revisited” that involves taking portraits of strangers that he meets along the Eastern Sierra road. Eliot is an accomplished commercial photographer who is getting his Masters degree to allow him to teach higher level classes at Brooks Institute.

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Eliot in a grove of Aspens with the Airstream in tow near June Lake

This portrait of him also became a teachable moment for my Photo 1 class I was instructing at the Julia Dean Photo Workshop. I had just scrambled back from the road with Eliot and I used his portrait to demonstrate some of the planning and background knowledge that goes into what looks like a snapshot.

Part of the spontaneous look comes from standing in the middle of an active road with no control over the traffic. I’m using no external lights, but I have the knowledge that fall leaves look better backlit and that the aspens behind me will be a great source of bounce light that will illuminate Eliot’s face as well create a great reflection in the truck and Airstream.

I found a spot where the trees looked great behind he truck as well as showing the highway stripe and the peak in the background. The class saw all the scouting test shots and preparation that led up to this 30 seconds of a planned snapshot.

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The beauty shot of the Airstream

The scouting was for two shots not one. I first looked for this long shot and then repositioned myself for the portrait.

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My "I love Mono Lake" pose - Photo by Eliot Crowley

I was also able to help Eliot with his project by flagging down potential subjects, wrangling with equipment and serving as a test stand-in. All of the activities of a normal photo assistant – except when I was an assistant I was either clueless, or a bored know-it-all. Now when I help friends I’m able pick up on the small nuances of working in a different way with subjects – and on this trip I also learned Eliot’s secret lighting technique.

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My slacker wood-cutter look - Photo by Eliot Crowley

Visit Eliot’s blog and see the real people (my posing will also make more sense) that we found for his portraits and ask him to reveal his secret. It’s really a mixture of a way of thinking about light that is easier with digital capture, blended with the lighting technique in Photoshop. In addition to having a great photo-adventure and camping trip with a friend. I pick-up a new trick that I used on a recent group portrait of a company’s Board of Directors.

Mark Harmel

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Jun 13 2008

how to plan to take great travel photos on your next vacation

I will be teaching a new class on how to plan on being in the right place at the right time to get the great photos you want as your travel souvenirs at the Julia Dean Photo Workshop in Venice on Saturday July 12th.This is a class for other pros and serious amateurs that don’t have the opportunity to do the three month National Geographic assignment, but still want to come back with photos that are worthy for publication in the magazine. From taking my recent trips to South East Asia, London, Egypt, India, Paris and in the USA, I have learned how to use resources on the internet and from reading guidebooks to discover some of the most photogenic places even before I leave home. I will be sharing these tips and advice about how to carve out some shooting time for yourself while you are traveling with friends and family as well. For more writing on this you can read my Shooting Travel Stock feature.  20071030 lon 3613 how to plan to take great travel photos on your next vacation

A Yeomen Warder, or Beefeater leading a tour at the Tower of London

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