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Heisler Park in Laguna Beach


Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach
Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA
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Ah, finally. The first post of the new year. It's been awhile since I've put up any new pictures or articles, but what can I say? I got caught up with the commotion of the holidays. Now that things have settled down a bit, I'll be back to my old routine (hopefully).

As my first post of 2014, I thought I'd share some photos I took last month at a local stomping ground in Laguna Beach. I was itching to take some shots on this particular Wednesday and the clouds overhead looked promising for a colorful sunset. With my gear loaded up and a few rolls of film in hand, I ventured out to Heisler Park in Laguna Beach to photograph the sunset. Heisler Park is a cliffside park just off Pacific Coast Highway near Las Brisas restaurant that features beautiful views of the Pacific, outdoor sculptures by local artists, and a nice little beach complete with rock formations, tide pools, and stretches of smooth sand.

I've photographed Heisler Park a thousand times before and have brought students there for private lessons and group classes more times than I can count. Sometimes the beach is packed with people, sometimes it's completely empty. This evening it was somewhere in between. But whatever the day of the week, whatever the time of year, there is one thing I always see at Heisler Park beach when I visit at sunset. Every single time I've gone out there, I see a photographer set up with a clean-cut nuclear family wearing white shirts and blue jeans (or the wildly different black shirts and blue jeans) sitting on the sand posed for a portrait to hang over the fireplace. It's always the same attire, always the same Sears-catalog family, and always in the same pose. Oh, and there's occasionally a chocolate lab thrown in to the mix just to complete the Orange County vibe.

The guy taking these pictures, I'm sure, is making bank on these photo shoots. But man that's gotta get old. I often wonder if every once in awhile he just freaks out and goes postal on another client requesting a family photo down at the beach at sunset wearing white shirts and blue jeans. I picture him screaming, "White shirts and blue jeans down at the beach?! SO original! Have you ever worn matching white shirts and blue jeans for a family day of fun down at the beach? Have you ever worn perfectly matching attire at any point in your life? Don't you ever just want some trees or a hillside behind you? What the hell is the matter with you people?!" But maybe I'm being too harsh. He's found a target market and he carved himself out a nice, stable niche. More power to him.

Anyway, I digress. This beach is beautiful and at this time of year (winter), the sun sets more south than it does during the rest of the year. That puts the sunset right over the water, 90-degrees out from the shoreline - right over Catalina Island. And Heisler Park is unique in that the rock formations vary widely from week to week as the sand level rises and drops. I've been there at times when the sand is so high there are practically no rocks to be found above the surface, and other times when the sand is so low that the majority of the beach is rocky terrain. I was pleased to see that I had some rocks to work with on this shoot.

All of the photos you see here were made on medium format film using a Mamiya RZ67 camera. The photo at the top of this post and the first 2 below were made on Fuji Velvia 50 - a high-saturation, high-contrast transparency film. The 2 at the bottom of this post are the same compositions but made on Kodak Ektar print film (negatives). You can see that the Kodak Ektar isn't as contrasty and colorful as the Velvia. I think both looks have their merits, but I tend to gravitate towards the Velvia look more - thanks largely to my admiration of Galen Rowell and his work. I didn't record the specific exposure and filter details for these shots, but I will say that I utilized split ND filters on every one of these photos.

Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach

Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach

Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach

Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach

Black and White Portraits


Black and White Portraits
Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film
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As part of my recent photo shoot with my brother using 35mm and medium format film (see part 1 here and part 2 here), I decided to try something I've never done before: black and white portraits. Okay, so maybe I've converted a few digital color portraits to black and white in the past, but I've never done true black and white portraits using black and white film. I've spent the past year or so getting comfortable with black and white photography so I figured it was high-time to apply my new experience to the world of portraiture.

I think the toughest part about black and white photography is learning to "see in black and white." With our full-color vision of the world, it's difficult to imagine what something will look like with all the color removed. Sometimes, when the color is sucked out, an otherwise gorgeous subject looks terribly bland. For example, early on in my black and white ventures, I decided to photograph a landscape that consisted of a crisp blue sky over a lush rolling green hillside. In color, the scene was gorgeous. But I found out quickly that the tonal brightness of the green grass was nearly identical to the tonal brightness of the sky. That meant that both the grass and sky desaturated to almost exactly the same shade of gray in the resulting b&w photo. There was virtually no separation between the two! Without color contrast, I had to learn to rely entirely on tonal contrast.

But this lack of color contrast is also what makes black and white photography so beautiful. Without the distraction of color, the tones and shadows can pop out and reveal a whole new beauty to the scene. In these black and white portraits, I utilized lighting that created deep, dark shadows and bright, contrasty highlights so as to add more tonal contrast and interest to the image. And when I didn't have the right light source for dark shadows (like in the photos out in the open field under diffused light), I created the necessary contrast using wardrobe. A jet-black coat over a stark white shirt helped create more tonal interest in this flat lighting.

I have a new appreciation for black and white portraits. The look intrigues me and the challenge makes the successes very rewarding.

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography
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Continuing my previous post showcasing the photo shoot I did with my brother, here I wanted to share some more details on the lighting I used to create some of these portraits. I opted for a style of lighting called "Rembrandt Lighting" because I've always loved the deep, soft-edged shadows it creates. When used in the right way, Rembrandt lighting makes for some excellent depth and drama in portrait photography. Granted, this light probably isn't ideal for the fun family portrait to hang over the fireplace, but in these shots, it worked quite well.

Rembrandt lighting gets its name from the works of the 17th-century painter Rembrandt. His painted portraits often utilized a light that appears to originate from a large source - like a big window - at the extreme side of the model. The light was soft and the shadows dark with little to no fill-light on the shadowed side. The trademark look of Rembrandt lighting is when the shadow of the nose and cheek creates a little upside-down triangle of light on the model's cheek opposite the light source.

Take a look at the picture below. Notice that triangle of light on the model's left cheek (your right). That's Rembrandt lighting.

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

So how to do you find Rembrandt lighting? Simple. You just need a big light source to one side of your model and a dark, unlit room or shadow to the opposite side. Put someone next to a sliding glass door in an otherwise darkened room, then photograph them with the door to their right or left. All of the sunlight outside bouncing off the landscape will pour in through the door as a big, soft glow. You don't want sunlight shooting directly in through the door, just let the light bounce off the trees and sidewalk and grass and sky and everything else beyond the door. But the photos you see here were not taken next to a sliding glass door, so let me dissect the light on this series of shots.

For the photos you see here with the concrete background and floor, we were in the shade of a storm drain. No joke. Just a dirty old storm drain. It was one of those rectangular drainage tunnels about as tall and wide as a 2-car garage. You could easily drive 2 cars down it side-by-side. We went right to the edge of the storm drain where the ceiling of it terminated and opened up to daylight. This is where I found Rembrandt lighting - under the shadow of this dark tunnel, but just at the edge of it where sunlight bouncing off the environment poured a few yards in to the cavernous space.

This is where you find good light: the edge of shadow. What I mean by that is you put your model in a shadow, but get right up to the edge of the shadow where it just starts to meet the sunlight. The sunlight bouncing off the environment outside the shadow will pour light into the shadow itself as a beautiful gentle glow.

When you think of a shadow, you probably think of a lack of light. But shadows are not a lack of light. There must be light in a shadow, otherwise we wouldn't be able to see anything in a shadow. The light in shadow is coming from light bouncing off of buildings and trees and clouds and sidewalks and the sky itself. So when you're in full shadow, like we were under the shelter of this storm drain, the light source is actually the environment out there in the sunlight. Standing indoors next to a sliding glass door or a big window achieves a similar effect. The environment itself illuminates with the sunlight and that light bounces into the shadow.

When it comes to light, the bigger the light source is, the softer the light is and the fuzzier the edges are on the resulting shadows. When the whole environment to your left (in this case) is the light source, you have a huge light source to work with. Thus the light is soft and, for portraits like this, very flattering.

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

For the photos in this series below done out in the open where you can see the sky, I used the setting sun to illuminate my subject. The sun itself is not small but relative to us it's no bigger than a quarter held at arm's length. That makes it a small light source which, accordingly, creates harder-edged shadows. But you'll notice in these photos that the shadows are nearly nonexistent, which indicates that the light source is very large. Well, if you wait long enough, the sun will drop so low on the horizon that its intensity about evens out with the sky around it. Basically, the air stretching out to the sides of the sun and a little bit above it illuminate like fog in headlights. When this band of air illuminates under the light of the setting sun, it creates what is called the "twilight arch." This illuminated air - this twilight arch - acts as a light source in and of itself, making the shadows just a bit softer than in the middle of the day when the twilight arch is absent and the source of light is much smaller.

If you wait until the sun is below the horizon, the light source becomes the sky itself. This light source is huge, and so the shadows virtually disappear after sunset. In fact, if you look at the series of shots below, you'll see that the first photo shows some relatively sharp shadows on my brother's face. This is because the sun wasn't that low on the horizon yet, and thus the light source was relatively small. Then, as the sun dropped lower for the next 4 photos, the twilight arch started to glow, creating a bigger, softer light source, bringing with it the attendant softer-edged shadows.

So size does matter...at least when it comes to good lighting for portraits.

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

All of the photos featured here were made on Kodak Portra 160 film using a 6x7 medium format camera (Mamiya RZ67 with a 110mm f/2.8 lens). I was switching back and forth between medium format film and 35mm film using a Canon 50mm f/1.2L lens throughout this shoot because I wanted to compare the shooting technique and the overall look between the two formats. Upon reviewing the shots, I quickly came to the conclusion that I prefer the medium format. The resolution is unreal and the 110mm lens at f/2.8 created the perfect depth of field and compression. I also enjoyed shooting with this camera a lot more. Since I had far fewer frames to burn, I was much more careful and deliberate with my shots. I hate feeling sloppy, and that I wasn't on the medium format.