Thursday, November 19, 2009

The last 6 months...

It's funny how quickly this journey has gone warp-speed. Back on April 6th I registered for but wasn't approved until April 14th. That same week I received the Cactus V4 trigger/receiver combination and shortly afterwards made another order for 3 more receivers.

My how time flies.

Most of the models that I've shot with have been from That is how I procure the talent that you see on this blog as well as the flickr photostream and also my website ( Scheduling and preparing for a shoot takes a lot of time. That's a lot of the behind the scenes stuff that I never talk about here because it's well... boring and often times simply frustrating because let's face it, models can be very flaky. Sometimes it works out and the model shows up. Sometimes the models flake and cancel last minute. I would say that 1 in 3 scheduled shoots get cancelled. That's a pretty high percentage. One reason is that photographers are (unfortunately for me/us) a dime a dozen and good models are hard to find. With that being said, good photographers are also hard to find and I'm slowly climbing that ladder and trying to establish myself among the best.

In this time so many realizations have occurred. One of which is that technology and equipment most likely trumps our ability to use it. Could I use more dynamic range? Sure. Could I use a better and more accurate focusing system? Sure. Could I use more megapixels? Sure. But 6 months ago when I first started really using my D3, I really couldn't take advantage of those benefits because the D3's capabilities trumped my ability to use it. The D3 with the 24-70mm f/2.8G is a killer combination. Sharp as hell at the right apertures and versatile as hell with fast glass and great low-light capabilities. Is it the perfect combination for what I do? Probably pretty close. It's not worth moving to a P65+ with Phase One 645 (costing $50K or more) to get a few more stops worth of dynamic range.

While on the topic of technology and gear, I would like to see a better trigger in my repertoire. Some of you know I have the Nikon SU-800 infrared commander that controls up to 3 groups of strobes in Nikon CLS TTL mode, but that I never use it because the reliability of infrared outdoors is terrible. The Cactus V4 trigger/receivers I use right now are simply to tie me to 2010 when PocketWizard finally releases their Flex TT5 for the Nikon lineup (thanks for the delay PocketWizard) when I'll upgrade. The V4 work but only at a rate of about 95-97% of the time. Sometimes it's spottier than others but sometimes it works nearly flawlessly. Regardless, I'd like something that always works because the times that it doesn't work, it's extremely frustrating... especially outdoors and on-location when it really needs to work.

Glass-wise I don't have any immediate need for better glass. I love the sharpness and contrast of the lenses that I have. The 85mm f/1.4D is incredible and the 24-70mm f/2.8G is practically glued to my D3. Perhaps down the road I would like to see faster and sharper glass but I'll let Nikon do their thing. In addition to faster glass, I think we're sitting around 9-11 stops of dynamic range whereas the medium format cameras will do 12-15 stops of dynamic range. I could definitely use more dynamic range as can anyone but most displays won't be able to present that range anyway so we're really quite limited to what's useable in the web world. Nonetheless, more dynamic range would provide me with a lot more margin of error in exposure, particularly in hihg-contrast situations like sunlight. So maybe a few more megapixels and a little more dynamic range please in the next iteration of the flagship Nikon camera (the D4)? :)

Speaking of hardware, I'm still waiting on my Eizo CG-243W. It was unveiled in August and silly me, I ordered it less than a month ago and of course it's backordered from Eizo and Adorama doesn't have a clue when they'll get their next batch. I've noticed significant banding in my Dell 2405FPW but what would you expect of a non-wide-gamut display that's 4 years old and made for consumers. It still gives me variances in gamma between the time I turn it on and 30 minutes later. With that said, I enjoy being able to plug CF cards into the side of it as well as charge my iPhone from it.

Retouching has come a long way hasn't it? Gosh, since April we've learned lots from Photoshop ("we" LOL) and read up on several techniques that I use pretty regularly now. After the whole "color accuracy" phase, I was finally able to focus more on the actual pictures themselves. Well actually let's start at the beginning...

When I first began retouching in April, I was still very enamored with the Dave Hill and Jill Greenberg effects and their treatment of highlights and shadows. I indiscriminately brightened highlights and darkened shadows. Timeline-wise I was in Taiwan from April to May and it wasn't until late May that I first shot Stephanie Reading from MM. This was also before I really understood how to light people and faces.

From the time I finally started shooting models until about July, I retouched all my pictures roughly the same way with a little too much contrast and a little too much harshness in highlight-to-shadow transition. It was all a little too much Dave Hill, a little too much LucisArt, and a little too much clarity in Lr. In mid-July I became fanatically obsessed with cheekbones and began drawing in cheekbones where they didn't even exist. I was under the influence of
Warren Seren and his simplistic style of retouching, from which I drew many lessons. One thing that you'll notice about my styles is that inevitably I push too hard too far in any one direction from which I later have to withdraw.

From the Seren influence I later went through a short social commentary phase with recycling and tree huggers, but that didn't last long because the sets were too complicated to create and my focus has always been simplicity. I went back into the studio and then focused on creating more B&W and dramatic pictures from solid backgrounds and contrast lighting as always. It was around August that I took facial retouching and particular pore-by-pore retouching a little too far. I wound up with plastic looking skin like the first pictures of
Sophie (in this shot you also see some of my color accuracy issues). From over-retouching the pores I quickly snapped back and started creating much more natural looking retouches. Jessica Just's pictures were a marked improvement over the unreal skin that I took too far in August. Here's some more Jessica...

In fact September/October marked several phases and turning points in my shooting and retouching style. First I went through a short B&W phase where I was keen on making sure the tonal range in the skin was well represented by the B&W. Prior B&W pictures I retouched were too flat. Second, I created a masterpiece with
Elle Masterpiece where I spent 10 hours retouching pores on Elle's face. Then I flipped out and realized that it was much too long for any retouch and so I did some research on skin treatment in Photoshop. I found a new technique and then tried that out on Mladenka's Colors which became my new masterpiece, one that didn't take 1/2 as long! With Mladenka's 3rd shoot, I realized I was tired of shooting just faces and retouching just faces and started shooting bodies and putting more emphasis on sex appeal. All of this really did happen in a blink of an eye and suddenly models were wearing less and pulling more poses.

October also marked the point where I found
Kesler Tran's work who has had an amazing influence on my retouches. Interestingly I only found Kesler's work 40 days ago! My recent retouches have crispness and sharpness that I'm trying to emulate. What's funny is that I think I took the skin smoothing techniques a little too far at first in early October. Since then I've really dialed it back to create once again more natural looking retouches. I think around that time I just started to do some sharpening with my pictures which was a marked improvement over the blurriness of the past.

It's now November. I've been caught up with sharpness, output sharpening, output resolution, and getting that sharpness and crispness in the final state of my pictures. I think I've pushed the sharpening a little too far and it needs to be dialed back just a little. I've been applying a lot of gradient maps to my images and I've also kept a log of screenshots of my retouches for almost a month now. I can say without a doubt in my mind that my pictures from this past month are easily the best pictures I've created. I am sometimes still bugged by the inconsistency of final products though. Some of the final retouches just come out so much better than others. I still can't explain why exactly
Kenna... is so incredibly sharp that it practically leaps off the display... There's nothing special about the frame, it's D3/24-70mm f/2.8G @55mm, 1/200th, f/7.1 ISO200. I mean, is it because Kenna's head takes up almost 20% of the frame? Is it because I put noise back into the image? Whatever it is, I haven't had many or any images nearly as incredible as that one. I'll need to look into it some more...

Onto the models themselves. I've been shooting a lot of blondes lately. Kenna, Kimmy, Ashley, Tricia Jo, I don't know why. I don't know how. It just happened. It's not by design but there's definitely a lot more fill lighting of the face when you shoot a blonde. That light colored hair reflects light back onto the face so well, I sometimes want to stick a black flag right up in there between the hair and the face. Just kidding. I never really notice that they're blonde other than the fact that often the images lack the kind of contrast I'm used to with brunettes. Personally I like brunettes better. Dunno why, just wired that way.

On the topic of models, the ones that I shoot these days tend to have more experience and are more well-versed with their poses and modeling talents overall. That's good for me because I'm tired of shooting models that I need to pose. I've said this before but when every frame is exactly the same as the last, it's a waste of disk space... and most importantly it's not interesting. I refuse to shoot with newbie models these days. Models like Kimmy and Jessica with their unlimited "dynamic range" are the holy grail of modeling talent. I hope to work with more models like them...

There are so many nuances that I've completely overlooked over the last 6 months. This post was not meant to really highlight any particular nuance but instead take a look at the road behind me and reflect quickly upon the progress made in the short duration in which I've been doings this. I mean, back in April I was still asking my brother for lessons on PS and now, I know volumes more than he does and how to apply that to retouching people, particularly women.

Truth is, I don't know where this journey will take me. All I know is that I've enjoyed my time here so far and hopefully the next 6 months will prove to be every bit as exciting. I will be taking a break from shooting models from Thanksgiving to Christmas as a result of traveling to Asia. I still plan to shoot but will not have the luxury of my equipment or my studio or the models on Model Mayhem.

For those of you that have stuck around to follow this journey I hope I have much more to share soon...


  1. i actually switched from Nikon to Canon because of the D3X. it was a disappointment to me directionally speaking. i also am interested in convergence -- being able to take video is important to me as i want to grow beyond stills as well... thougths on the D3X to save your lense investment? waiting for the D4?

    from a trigger perspective. i have PW IIs that i am selling, i've moved to RadioPoppers PX. i think you should have a look at this diagram (third page):

    there's capability here not only for your flashes, but for you Alien Bees as well. i only have strobes, but for me removing line of sight, wanting to have something on axis for light fill, and wanting to do E-TTL and high-speed sync.

    high-speed sync was the big draw (not sure you can do that with Flex TT5)... i can shoot 1/8000 with flash, or without. using the shutter to control the ambient background is what i'm hoping to master!

    that's just my two cents. remember, i'm about one step above a GWC, and not pro.

  2. oh, and safe travels! your posts will be missed!!

  3. Hi Greg,

    I plan to post just as much if not more from abroad, it's just that the content will likely be different. It really depends if I'm able to get a secondary display to retouch on the road... :)

    As far as the D3X, I understand it has slightly better dynamic range than the D3. and there is nothing wrong with the D3X it's just that I can't see the need for 2x the megapixels at this point. I will definitely stay with Nikon as I feel that they're moving in the right direction with making the most of the megapixels rather than just trying to provide more megapixels... for example, I really like the battle in the low-light category, and I'm eager to see which is better, the 1DS Mark IV (with it's semi-cropped sensor) OR the D3S which is the first to unveil 6 digit ISO. Honestly no one has any real-world tests on either units so only time will tell, I simply feel that this is the right direction as far as creating better bodies is concerned... oh and of course DYNAMIC RANGE!!!

    I'm looking forward to adding video to my work as well but until I get a body that does that I'm stuck with the measly D3 ;P

    Very interesting with the RadioPoppers... that it retains the signals and essentially translates it into radio vs. IR (which is useless outdoors). I never knew this about RadioPoppers although I'm sure if I read more diligently I'd have known this LOL... I wonder how fast I'd be able to operate my AB800's with the RadioPoppers though... I'm guessing I'm still stuck with the 1/250th full power sync speed of the D3 :( But you're right, sometimes you need the ETTL or CLS (Nikon) system to do the calculations for you especially for high-speed sync lighting... but the AlienBees don't do FP (focal plane high-speed sync) anyway, so I guess I just answered my own question. But now and then I do think about using the SB-800 for their FP capabilities.

    Indoors in my experience, I don't see a need for radio poppers. The reason is because with my Nikon SU-800 I can still trigger strobes even in my softboxes (no line of sight)! Yup, indoors the IR signal bounces everywhere making the strobes extremely reliable. It was only because I needed outdoor reliability that I ever went with radio signal triggers. Regardless, I will have to look into it some more!

    The fact that you read and understand all the stuff that I talk about puts you well above GWC. :) Learning and experimenting is what separates us from GWC :)

    Glad to have you aboard Greg :)