I have always had a fascination with light painting and photography. Some of the images I have seen online simply blow me away. Hopefully after reading this blog and watching the video, you too will be inspired to take a stab at this incredibly creative art form.
Steel wool is cheap, can be found at just about any hardware store, and makes for some incredible light painting images. When purchasing steel wool, make sure you get steel wool with a very fine texture or grade. I get steel wool with a grade of #0000. Although you tend to get more sparks from this grade, experiment around with other grades as they can give you different effects. Find a metal container to hold the steel wool as it melts (burns) away. A metal whisk works out perfectly. I was lucky enough to find metal whisks with a metal loop at the end of the handle. Next, find something to attach to the whisk that will allow you to spin the whisk around. I used a short length of chain and a quick connector. Once you are set up and ready to go, take a pad of steel wool, fluff it out a bit, and place it inside of the whisk. Light the steel wool with a match, lighter, or even a 9 volt battery. After lighting the steel wool, swing it around. The faster you swing it, the further the sparks will fly! A friend of mine swung the steel wool while I manned the camera in the video and images. A word of caution: you are working with molten metal. Keep this in mind. Do this in an area where the risk of setting the surrounding area on fire is minimal. If using a model, be extremely cautious. These sparks can, and will, burn you! And as I learned on this shoot, it’s not a bad idea to have a fire extinguisher handy as well.
Camera settings. All you need is a camera that is capable of long exposures (with bulb mode if possible) and a steady tripod. In this case, we parked the car in front of a small puddle to get a reflection. My camera was set approximately 30 feet in front of the car. Since we did this shoot at night, I used a powerful flashlight to illuminate the model and car enough to be able to lock focus. Once I had focus locked, I switched to manual focus so that the camera did not hunt for focus before each shot (which it probably would have never found). I was using my Tamron 24-70mm on a crop sensor camera (D7100) closer to the 24 mm end of the lens. I set my ISO to its lowest, 100, and set my f-stop to f/9 but feel free to play around with your settings. We had a bright full moon out that night which provided additional light. I set my camera to bulb mode and began the exposure as soon as the sparks started to fly and ended the exposure as soon as they died off. Each shot was different but if I had to guess, the average shutter length was around 15 to 20 seconds long and bulb mode allowed me to start and stop exactly when I wanted.
The first couple of attempts were nice but the car remained in shadow, more or less. In an attempt to light up the front side of the vehicle facing the camera, I placed two flashes on the ground aimed at the model and vehicle. I set the flashes to rear curtain so they went off at the end of the exposure, that way, the person twirling the steel wool and the model knew exactly when the exposure was complete. Both flashes were set to ½ power. If I do a shoot like this again, I will put colored gels over the speed lights to get a better match in color on the car and model as compared to the sparks and the background color in general. I did adjust the hue and color balance on the car slightly in post, but getting it right in camera is always the better practice.
I got this idea from Zach Alan of Zach Alan Photography. The principle is very similar to the steel wool idea (or any light painting idea). You simply paint with fire behind your model. I used a ¾” wooden dowel that was 48” long. I then wrapped cotton around the top foot and a half of the dowel and secured the fabric in place with industrial staples. I also think wrapping the top portion of the dowel with natural fiber rope (like in my firewall tutorial) would work just as well. I then soaked the cotton in Coleman fuel (white gas) and lit on fire. We got decent light from the fire for about one minute then it started to slowly burn off and die out. Simply smother out the remaining fire with a damp towel and re-soak for more images. Make sure the fire and sparks are COMPLETELY out before pouring more gas on it. Since I was the individual light painting with the fire, I had my camera set to a two second exposure and had another individual trigger my camera. Some of the resulting images I had to edit and fix in post either because the camera stopped too soon or too late. In the future I think I will try triggering the shutter with radio triggers so I can precisely control when the camera starts and stops. I think this should be possible even while being the one light painting.
Camera settings – other than bulb mode, the settings were exactly the same. We did not use the flashes for the images with just the model.
Overall I am pleased with the results but would do things a little differently for both ideas should I revisit them in the future (which I most definitely will). Anyway, get out there and try some light painting with steel wool and fire, but be safe! No image is worth a visit by the local fire department or a trip to the emergency room! Well, most images, at least.
I think when most people start off in photography, they tend to point their camera at simple everyday objects and that’s completely fine. Over time, some people become quite skilled at still life photography, landscape photography, wildlife photography, etc. For some, there comes a point when they consider the idea of pointing their camera at a person. Believe it or not, portrait photography can be very intimidating. For those of you out there that enjoy photography and have considered taking people pics but just haven’t, for a myriad of reasons, let me attempt to help you get past some common fears and stumbling blocks and hopefully get you engaged in the wonderful world of portrait photography! But I have to warn you, once you start, you’ll probably find it very addictive.
Concern 1: I Don't Think I Will Be Able To Find Willing Models.
Finding models is easier than most people think. For more ideas on cultivating a list of go-to models, head over to my other blog which has some great ideas for finding models. In short, start off simple. Ask family members and close friends. The more practice you can get with those you are comfortable with, the more that will help build up your confidence to start photographing friends of friends and complete strangers. If you’re anything like me, after a while you’ll simply start asking strangers if they have any interest in modeling for you. If you do it long enough and get your work out there, people will start contacting you for portraits. I now have a decent sized list of individuals I bug from time to time for my ideas. Just work on getting your first model!
Concern 2: I Fear If I Ask Someone To Model For Me, They Might Say No.
Some will, guaranteed! Or just plain ignore you. Don’t take this as a personal attack on you. Some people are so extremely nervous about being in front of a camera that the idea alone is enough for them to turn down any possibility of being photographed; even by a family member or friend. In fact, the more you get rejected, the less of a big deal it becomes. Simply move on and ask someone else. However, I think you’ll find most people are willing to be photographed. A little trick I found that works more often than not is to ask friends that tend to take and post a lot of selfies. If you’re lucky, you’ll find someone that loves being in front of the camera and is always willing to model for you. If you find someone like this, practice with them as much as you can. I was very fortunate to find a model that enjoyed modeling just as much as I liked photography and we did tons of ideas.
Concern 3: I Fear If I Ask Someone To Model For Me, They Might Say Yes!
As an introvert, this was truly my biggest fear. When you first start asking people to model for you, there can be a sense of relief when they say ‘no’. You’re simply back at square one and at least you can say you tried. But what do you do when you get that first ‘yes’ or two? Now the balls in your court again and it all falls back on you. That’s okay! If you’re just starting out, let them know that. Let them know you want to get some simple pictures of them in the park or some other setting that you think might make for some decent images. Research images online and find some ideas that appeal to you then try and see if you can duplicate the look. Don’t start out with some grandiose idea that will take hours to setup and shoot. Maybe have the first session be fairly brief, 15 minutes or so, or more if they are willing. Start simple. In all honesty, I still get nervous before each and every portrait shoot regardless if I’ve worked with the model before or not. It’s that adrenaline rush that can make this hobby addictive. Add to that getting one or two amazing images, and you’ll probably be hooked for life!
Concern 4: I'm Afraid My Images Won't Be Any Good.
No one is a pro the first go around. I look back now at some of my first portrait images and I cringe. The funny thing is, I thought a few of them were fairly decent back then. In all honesty, I still think the vast majority of my images are not good but that's okay. That's what keeps me picking up my camera. Like anything in life, practice makes perfect. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. If you’re expecting a stunning image that will go viral as soon as you post it, think again. Photography is a continuous learning process with no real ‘end goal’ – at least for me. Generally speaking, the image you take next should be better than the image you just took. Just keep shooting. Don’t get discouraged if the resulting images aren’t perfect but also don’t over criticize yourself either. We all tend to be our own worse critics so allow yourself some slack. You learn more from your failures than you do your successes. The images will get better over time as long as you continue to try, I guarantee! Nothing beats a failure but a try!
Concern 5: I Have No Idea How To Pose A Model.
Then don’t! Simply have the model sit or stand and do whatever comes naturally to them. If you have researched some ideas that you like, have a copy of the image on your phone or printed out and simply show them. They will see how the person is posed and will attempt to duplicate that for you. If you want to get better at posing your models, there are several online tutorials that cover that very topic. I tend to pose my models very little with most of my shoots. For the shoots where I desire a lot of very specific poses, I will either show the model an example or simply take the time to talk them through my idea. Most models will want to make sure you are getting the images you want so if they’re not quite in the right pose, work with them until they are in the right pose. Posing models takes practice. If you are not working with a professional model, telling someone to turn just a bit to their left will usually result in them turning way too much to their left. That’s okay. Simple tell them ‘that was too much’ or ‘turn back just a bit’. Don’t start out trying to pose your model too much. Unless that’s the look you’re after, some images look over-posed and can take away from what would otherwise have been a great image. Simple natural poses are a great place to start. You will also find that if you shoot with the same individual repeatedly, they will tend to become more comfortable in front of the camera and will start posing on their own. Run with it! Just like you, the more they practice it, the better they become as well.
Concern 6: I Don't Have Expensive Portrait Equipment.
Nonsense! All you need is a camera. Now you may find photographers out there yammering on and on about the best lenses and camera bodies for portrait photography but don’t believe for a second that you can’t get great images with a basic camera. Sure, some lenses may be better suited than others, but I have literally worn out my kit lens, one of the cheaper lenses in my manufacturer’s lineup, and have achieved some amazing images with it. I would challenge anyone to tell me which images came from my kit lens and which ones came from a more expensive ‘portrait’ lens. You don’t need expensive lights, stands, umbrellas, soft boxes, etc., to do great portrait photography either. The sun is your friend, especially at sunrise and sunset. There is a reason they are referred to as the golden hours. Even if you can only shoot midday under direct sunlight, find an area with decent shading. If you’re shooting inside, simply move your model to a window or to a few bright lights and that is generally enough to start getting great images. Lack of expensive equipment should NEVER prevent you from experimenting with photography, portraiture included.
Most beginning photographers are intimidated by portrait photography. I was one of those photographers. It wasn’t until a dear friend challenged me that I decided I would give it a shot. The more portraits I take, the more I like taking them. And yes, I also do prefer more unconventional portrait shoot ideas that tend to take a little more work but I didn’t start out that way. I do not consider myself a portrait photographer any more than I consider myself an astrophotographer. I love all kinds of photography and I am rather proud that my portfolio is all over the place. If you’re a photographer that hasn’t done much portrait work but would like to, hopefully this information will help you take a step in the direction of at least giving it a chance. In addition to challenging yourself and stepping outside of your comfort zone, you will invariable meet and work with some amazing people that will touch you in ways you never could have anticipated. That, for me, is the true joy of portrait photography – the amazingly wonderful people I have met!
I have always loved brightly colored shoots that are unique and different. I’ve often wondered if my fascination with colorful shoots is tied in some way to my colorblindness. Anyway, I digress. When I first saw images of the Holi Spring Festival several years ago, I was blown away - so many bright and vivid colors. I researched images and found a few photographers that took the idea into the studio creating colorful powder/flour shoots with models. Obviously this idea was RIGHT UP MY ALLEY and I had to give it a shot. But where does one find colored powder in bulk for such a shoot?
The easiest way to do a colored powder shoot is to illuminate plain white flour with colored gels covering off camera flashes. Another method is to color the powder first and just use a regular flash to illuminate the powder and subject. A cool side effect of coloring the powder is that the vibrant colors will be visible on skin and clothing, especially white clothing. You can purchase Holi powder online but it is not cheap and for a large shoot you would need quite a bit of it. The last time I checked, a five pound bag of a single color was around $24 dollars, so roughly $5 a pound. I wanted to find a cheaper way to produce colored powder in large quantities. More research led to several online tutorials and recipes for do-it-yourself colored powder or Holi powder. I tried a recipe that involves regular flour and coloring but found it didn’t produce nearly the texture you get when using cornstarch. Although flour is cheaper, the cornstarch recipe produces a better powder that is still cheaper than the online Holi powder. I have seen corn starch as low as $2 a pound. So how do you make it? Read on!
If you are going to do this for a shoot, start making the powder several days in advance, if not a week. First, buy some cheap cornstarch. It does not need to be a fancy name brand. Next, pour the cornstarch into a large bowl and slowly add water until you get oobleck. If you don’t know what this is, watch a video or two on this fun-to-play-with substance. Try not to add too much water because eventually you are going to dry the mixture out. Don’t fret, you cannot mess up by adding too much water, it will just require more time to dry. After you have the non-Newtonian mixture made, add color to it. You can use food coloring to color the mixture as much or as little as you wish. I personally use Wilton cake decorating colors because they tend to be more saturated and I have access to it for next to nothing. For photo shoots, I suggest more saturated colors overall so use more coloring than you think you’ll need but keep in mind this is completely a personal preference. When the powder is dispersed in the air, the color tends to appear less saturated simply because it is not as condensed. Put on some gloves and mix the color thoroughly into the mixture. It will take some time and effort as the substance is a little difficult to mix.
After you have the color you’re after, spread the mixture into a large shallow pan that allows the mixture to spread out as thin as possible. The thinner you can get it, the quicker it will dry out. On hot summer days, I simply leave the pan out in the sun until it dries. If the weather is bad or particularly humid, you can place the pan in an oven at a low temperature to dry it out as well. Periodically break up and crumble the mixture during the drying period. If you dry the mixture on a countertop or outside, it may take several days to completely dry depending on the size of your batch and the pan used for drying. If you find that the mixture clumps together when you attempt to periodically break it up, it is still too wet. After the mixture is completely dry, place small portions in a blender to further reduce the mixture into a fine powder. After you have your powder, bag it up in air tight (moisture proof) bags or containers until the shoot!
Please keep in mind that the color in the powder can stain! Make your model aware of this prior to the shoot so they can get appropriate clothing. Or as the photographer, purchase something for them to wear at a thrift store you don’t mind possibly ruining. As long as the model doesn’t get wet, or sweat too much, you can fairly easily blow the dust off of them. As soon as the powder gets wet, you do run the risk of it temporarily staining the skin or clothing. Frankly, we didn’t have that much of an issue with skin staining but it is something to consider. If at all possible, do the shoot outside or in an area you don’t mind getting powder all over the place. As you can image, cleanup can be a hassle. I have two powder shoots coming up, one with colored lights and one with colored powder. I will hopefully follow up with a tutorial on the actual shoots themselves discussing setup, camera settings, positioning of lighting, etc. Stay tuned!
Christmas is right around the corner and cameras can make a great gift. So be prepared for a new wave of ‘professional’ photographers. If you have a camera, any kind of camera, and you snap away taking pictures, you could consider yourself a photographer. But what is a ‘professional’ photographer? There are definitions all over the place attempting to define ‘professional photographer’. I have seen definitions that state if you earn money off of your photography, you are a professional. Others state that you have to earn at least 50% of your total income from photography to be considered a professional. Even others state your work has to be peer reviewed and published at least a time or two. There are no official requirements to identify and advertise one’s self as a professional photographer. There is no specific education, testing, or certification required. This is why the graphic above is so true, and to some degree troubling.
Technology, as it always does, has changed the landscape of photography drastically. It used to be if you wanted decent wedding images or senior pictures, you would contact a local photographer or company. Back in the day in my area, Olan Mills was the big go-to name for photography needs. “Old school’ photographers were typically trained in the art of photography through both schooling and apprenticing. The equipment was expensive (as is true for some equipment today) and the average citizen couldn’t afford a decent camera and the continued expense of film and developing. Sure, there were consumer level cameras and equipment available, but the ‘professionals’ had the ‘real’ equipment. The first few digital cameras were far more expensive than their film counterpart but over time, innovations in technology began to drop the price of the digital cameras while at the same time increasing their functionality and features. Film cameras are now more of a nostalgic hobby than anything else. It was this shift in technology that allowed the ordinary person to experiment with photography and at a much cheaper cost than previously. Add to that the ability to see your images immediately without the need to develop film and photography changed forever.
It’s not hard to imagine how the more ‘classically’ trained photographers might despise those individuals that start calling themselves 'professionals' overnight simply because they visited a local electronics store with a few bucks (or got a camera as a gift at Christmas). These untrained amateurs are sometimes seen as a legitimate threat to the ‘classically’ trained photographers’ livelihood. Traditionally trained photographers start losing business to these individuals who will do the same job for less, or no cost at all – and sometimes produced better images - sometimes. With the supply of photographers seemingly increasing exponentially, many larger companies, like the one I mentioned above, simply couldn’t continue to stay in business. Even today you see fewer and fewer portrait studios in malls and shopping centers. Although they still have some locations here in Colorado, Olan Mills has permanently closed several locations.
So what does this all mean? Are all self-taught photographers hacks who are stealing food off of the table of true photographers? Does the word “professional” in front of a photographers tag mean anything? Can I even objectively consider the merits of this argument since I am apparently one of those self-taught hacks? To the last question, yes, I can! Photography is an art, and more to the point, a service and product based industry. That being said, demand controls who makes it and who doesn’t. If people like your end product, I highly doubt they will care one bit how or where you were trained. When a photographer attempts to get new work or clients, they typically present their portfolio, or examples of previous work, not their scholastic transcripts.
If you are trying to make photography a full time career, which I think is incredibly hard to do in today’s day and age, your work will be compared to a flood of images that exists almost everywhere, especially online and with social media. Finding a way to separate your work from everybody else’s is the key. Even though there are far more cameras out there than ever before, that doesn’t mean the images from all those additional cameras are any more creative, interesting, or superb. In fact, most casual photographers will tend to take the same pictures as everyone else. Finding a way to be the one photographer that takes that same view in front of them to create a more interesting image than all of the others that came before them is key. This has been my goal from day one – to try and create images that make me, and others as well, pause just a tad longer before swiping to the next of a thousand images on their phone, laptop, or desktop.
I doubt photography will ever account for more than 50% of my income, and I’m not sure I want it to. Although there is the old adage of ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’, there’s also the concern that making a hobby a job will strip it of its pleasure making it an ‘I have to do it’ instead of an ‘I want to do it.’ Given everything mention above, I do wholeheartedly consider myself a professional photographer; not because I occasionally get paid, or have been published, or because I think my images are any better than anyone else’s (which couldn’t be further from the truth), but because I pour myself into the craft with everything I have. I continually educate myself, stretch my boundaries and step outside my comfort zones, and critique my work far more than anyone else ever could. I approach the art of photography with a dedication and passion that can only be defined as professional (or maybe just clinically obsessive). As for me not being ‘classically’ trained, blame it on YouTube tutorials!
Whether you are a professional model, an aspiring model, or just someone I singled out to be a model for one of my many ideas, there are 3 things I look for, and greatly appreciate, in a model.
Looks matter, there’s no beating around the bush on this topic. However, it’s probably not what you’re thinking. When I say ‘looks’, I don’t necessarily mean some drop-dead gorgeous individual that could easily be on the front cover of some fashion magazine. When I have an idea in my head for a possible shoot, I will invariably have an idea of what I want the model to look like and I will attempt to get a model that is very close to my idea. Examples of specific looks I’m interested in for some of my shoot ideas include: people with a lot of tattoos, people with wild hair and makeup, people with tons of freckles, people with dark hair, etc. Those are the type of things I’m on the hunt for when I mean ‘looks’. The other way I use ‘looks’ is by evaluating an individual who wants to work with me and then coming up with ideas that I think best suits their ‘look’. For individuals I tend to shoot with a lot, it simply means that I think they have a very versatile look that works for a lot of different ideas. Now don’t get me wrong, if I’m after a very specific glamour type look that could be used on the front of some fashion magazine, I will look for an individual that I think has that look – and frankly, not everyone does.
So many things fall into this category. The best way to describe this trait is someone that is fun, outgoing, adventurous, and interested in getting the best images possible. One reason I will use the same individuals over and over again for several different shoots is because they have such great attitudes. I love working with people that are excited about the experience and are invested in the final product. Some professional models may look fantastic and know how to properly pose, but if they are there just to get paid or just to add another name to the photographers they have worked with, I’d prefer working with someone else. Not only do models need to have the right attitude about the shoot itself, but the right attitude about themselves. There is nothing worse than working with someone that is overly self-conscious about how they look. It comes across in the final images, trust me. All things being equal, I’ll take attitude over looks any day! For me, portrait photography is about having fun while creating great images at the same time.
I learned very early on that not everyone is as invested in my photography as I am. Hell, I doubt anyone is as invested, or ever could be as invested, as I am. Even though most of my shoots are for fun, they still require a fair amount of work and preparation. Everyone’s time is valuable, even mine. It’s just wrong to bail out on a scheduled shoot without notice. I’ve only had this happen to me on two occasions, but that was enough that I will not allow it to happen again. Now I know life happens and things come up, but it’s never ok to miss a pre-arranged appointment with anyone, photography or not. I have a friend that is also into portrait photography and the amount of ‘no-shows’ he gets is appalling – and this even includes models he is going to pay for their time. I honestly don’t know how he puts up with it. We have often joked about starting a site where we can post the names of models that are not reliable. Who knows, maybe it will go from joke to reality. If I start to get signals someone is going to flake out at the last minute, I’m done working with them, no matter their looks or attitude. It’s just a simple matter of respect.
So give me a model that has the look I’m after, has a great attitude, and who shows up on time, and I couldn’t be happier. Models that I prefer to work with multiple times, have all of these traits in spades! It doesn’t matter if they are a professional model or a friend of a friend, give me these three traits and I guarantee we will make some amazing images.
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.