Time In The OR

January 8, 2013

DaVinci Robotic Surgery, Maine General Medical Center

DaVinci Robotic Surgery, Maine General Medical Center

One of my recent assignments was to shoot some high-profile photographs for Maine General Medical Center:  the DaVinci robotic surgery system in action in a surgical suite, and a group portrait of the DaVinci surgeons. The DaVinci allows a surgeon to operate sophisticated surgical instruments by remote control through very small incisions with very precise small movements impossible to do by hand. The surgeon views the operation in high-resolution, magnified stereo vision on a separate console, on the right above.

Time Is Everything

Going in to any surgery suite is challenging, fun, exciting – but time is limited. It’s rare to have an OR empty and available, and at any time that availability will change as medical necessity arises. Further, doctors are scheduled so tightly now that having them available together for a group shot is nearly impossible.

It takes time to get photography and lighting gear in place in an OR; my gear travel cases, some of which have literally been around the world and through hundreds of grimy airports and factories, are not clean enough to enter a sterile site. Every piece of equipment I needed had to be unpacked outside the clean areas and every surface wiped with anti-bacterial pads. This included the light banks, umbrellas, stands, tripod, booms, cables, cameras and lenses. My client, my assistant and I had to be suitably gowned and masked, and there are no pockets on typical hospital scrubs! How many pieces of gear could I safely juggle in my (gloved) hands? Deciding what to bring in was an exercise in minimalism.

OR’s are not arranged for photography. Sterile techniques require disposable clear plastic bag covers on much of the equipment, which look messy to the camera. Supplies are stacked on carts. Nurses and surgical techs must approve the moving of any hospital machinery, and staff is scarce if there is no procedure happening. Once a camera set-up is approved, it simply takes time to position and balance my strobe lighting. Time we did not have for this shoot.

There’s a learning curve for photographers in health care shooting, and I’ve invested a good deal of time on it. There’s a client-education learning curve, too; it’s essential for the hospital personnel to be properly briefed about how much time is needed to get in, set up and be ready when the doctors are available. Clear expectations must be communicated in advance. But even then, everything must bend to medical necessity at the time of the shoot; after all, they’re saving lives.

Invest Your Time Wisely

I’ve learned that the time needed to make things look good will be spent either while I’m setting up in the OR, or in post-production afterward. Time spent setting up is an investment that always pays off in better shots. But sometimes every contingency comes out on the wrong side of what I need (remember, medical necessity), but still I must deliver. That’s what happened with this OR shoot for MGMC; prior surgeries ran late and the doctors were almost out the door just as we got access to the surgical suite.

We had one bit of luck in that the DaVinci tech rep was on site and available to move and set up the machinery for us. While he was doing that, my client corralled a few doctors to step into the scene. My assistant became the patient, swaddled under surgical drapes, which of course meant she could not get up to help me with my lights. I scrambled to set up three lights, without a chance to color balance my lighting to match environmental conditions. Then I had to shoot it or lose it.

Those fast-thinking moments are when experience comes into play. I knew I was going to have to add some drama in post, so in my dash to set up I created broad but distinct areas of brightness in the center with lighting fall-off toward the far edges of the room. Control was not as precise as I would have preferred given more time, but workable.

Silos, Then Race The Night

After making the DaVinci shot, we herded the doctors to a side room where I had seamless paper set up for silos. I shot three surgeons individually, having captured four others earlier in the day when they were available. On top of all that, my client and I then raced out the door and twenty-six miles to another location. There, I shot the new MGMC hospital under construction by the twilight of a full moon.

Building It In Post

This was a case where the final vision could only become real in post-production. A chosen frame of the DaVinci surgery was acquired twice in Photoshop:  one white-balanced with the correct exposure and one dark and cool-colored. I stacked the white-balanced version over the darker version, then used hard and soft masks to let only portions of the white-balanced version be visible. The final effect created a layering of light for the key parts of the DaVinci, with the rest of the OR muted into the background.

Two Versions Of The Choice Frame

Slight cropping and local retouching of distracting elements then improved the shot.

For the group surgeons portrait, I re-purposed the left-hand side of the final DaVinci OR shot as the backdrop. The seven individuals shot separately on seamless paper were silhouetted with added shadows and tone balancing to make this composite. For each surgeon, we shot a single frame with the client standing next to them as a reference measure; I then built the group with the correct relative height of each individual. Time, as always, was the essential ingredient.

DaVinci Surgeons, Maine General Medical Center. Group assembled in post.

DaVinci Surgeons, Maine General Medical Center.Each surgeon was shot separately and the group was assembled in post.

The Moonlight Shot

The new Maine General Medical Center under construction by moonlight.

Fresh Dawn 2013

January 2, 2013

 

Dawn January 1, 2013, Portland head Light, Fort Williams, Cape Elizabeth, Maine

New Light — Dawn, January 1, 2013 ©Jeffrey Stevensen

New Year’s Day 2013 arrived, cold and promising. Dawn shooting – like life – is an uncertainty, an act of faith and always a surprise. The storms of 2012 are behind us, and light is always purest after a storm. May we face every dawn with clarity, and in this new year refresh our hopes, resolve our purposes, and remember to believe.

Bridge Work

November 16, 2012

The lighted Richmond Hill Avenue bridge over the Mill River, Stamford, Connecticut. Royal Bank of Scotland is in the background.

The lighted Richmond Hill Avenue bridge over the Mill River, Stamford, Connecticut.

A leg of my recent architectural assignment in Connecticut for BL Companies was to shoot the new Richmond Hill Avenue Bridge over the Mill River in Stamford, Connecticut. The bridge is adjacent to the US headquarters of Royal Bank of Scotland, which has a massive trading complex and a striking employee veranda on the eighth floor. RBS graciously allowed me access to the veranda to shoot down on the bridge for some unusual variations.

BL Companies design of Richmond Hill Avenue Bridge over the Mill River in Stamford, Connecticut.

Afternoon sun on the Richmond Hill Avenue Bridge

But my favorite views were at dusk, when the deepening blue sky was in counterpoint to the lighting installed on the bridge railings. The effect makes the bridge glow with a blue radiance at night.

After shooting many daytime variations and scouting the positions, I set up my camera for the prime night shot downstream and waited. As evening descended, a flight of Canada Geese came in to join their flock on the banks of the river for the night. As the geese circled over the bridge, I captured them with a slow shutter speed to blur their passage. Their presence adds a poetic spontaneity to the bridge’s cool beauty.

To make the geese shot, I stood on a cement-like slab of clay extending into the river. When I found this spot in the afternoon the river was barely a foot deep. I was quite high and dry on this perch, and thought I was lucky to find it. I remarked to a security guard for RBS that I was surprised at the low water level in the river. He replied that the river flow “varies.” I assumed he meant seasonally. After making my evening photos, I looked down to step off the slab. The water level had risen at least three inches around me and was enveloping my tripod legs! I jumped pretty quickly for higher ground. Apparently, the river is dam-controlled and increases can come unexpectedly.

After capturing the shot from downstream, I made one last view of the bridge and its lighting. The Royal Bank of Scotland is in the background. Experienced at the car and pedestrian deck, the bridge becomes a lovely night time interlude for those who cross.

The lighted Richmond Hill Avenue bridge over the Mill River, Stamford, Connecticut. Royal Bank of Scotland is in the background.

 

Shooting Challenges Inside & Out

November 16, 2012

BL Companies, headquartered in Meriden, Connecticut, is a client delivering integrated architecture, engineering, environmental and related services. I did a shoot for them this fall, one portion of which was the Fox Run Plaza in Glastonbury, Connecticut, including the Whole Foods Market anchor store.

The Whole Foods Market was a pleasure to shoot. BL Companies created a great design solution in a stimulating environment. The dedicated staff at Whole foods keep the visual appearance in top shape daily.

 

Whole Foods Market Sushi Architecture, Fox Run Plaza, Glastonbury, CT ©Jeff Stevensen

Whole Foods Market Sushi Architecture, Fox Run Plaza, Glastonbury, CT

 

I had a very limited time frame before the store opened, and could not use supplemental lighting. With customers in the store, light stands with cables underfoot would have been too dangerous. The challenge here was to capture an extreme dynamic range from inside to out. I shot an extended bracket, then used exposure layering techniques to put different exposures together in post. This is another example where a limited use of HDR software on its own layer allowed me to hold image detail in key places without the ugly HDR look. You can read more about my take on HDR in this blog post.

The Fox Run Plaza project involved redesign, improvement and expansion of the original building facade. BL Companies accomplished this and more, integrating a cohesive, modern rebranding to the entire plaza.

Photographing the exterior brought me up against an unexpected challenge:  the condition of the pavement. It had not yet been cleaned and resurfaced when I arrived to shoot. A straight representation would inevitably detract from the aesthetic and marketing appeal of the photographs.

It’s not enough for me to “just do my part;” it’s up to me to deliver working solutions for my clients. I’ve accumulated many years of digital experience since the year 2000, when I adopted digital tools. I knew I needed to retouch the detracting problems to make the photographs useful. Here are the original and retouched versions of one my photographs:

 

Fox Run Plaza, Glastonbury, Connecticut, no retouching.

Fox Run Plaza, Glastonbury, Connecticut, no retouching.

Fox Run Plaza, Glastonbury, Connecticut, retouched.

Fox Run Plaza, Glastonbury, Connecticut, retouched.

 

Substantial time was involved in eliminating stains to the concrete, broken curb edging, stains on the pavement, paint over-striping, adding some greenery, etc., but the improvement is striking.

 

The Humble Farmer

November 15, 2012

The Humble Farmer portrait.

Robert Skoglund, The Humble Farmer, St. George, Maine. “I see the quality of my audiences is improving.”

Robert Skoglund, The humble farmer, lives in St. George, Maine. I knew of The humble farmer and enjoyed listening to his radio program of old time jazz and dry humor on Maine Public Broadcasting radio. The show, much to everyone’s loss, is no longer on MPBN.

In 2008, I met Robert on Monhegan Island. He had traveled there to conduct an auction of a donated Jamie Wyeth print for the benefit of the Monhegan schoolhouse. My wife and I were with friends visiting from California, and he extended to us an open invitation to drop by his house, which is also a B&B. We took him up on his offer for a few hours the next day, and had great fun being driven around in his 1919 Model T truck, listening to him talk quite knowledgeably and in depth about artists, politics and life in Maine.

Dory Kulwin, The Humble Farmer and Dana Trattner driving the 1919 Model T from the barn.

Dory Kulwin and Dana Trattner with the humble farmer driving from the barn.

Dory Kulwin, The Humble Farmer and Dana Trattner in the 1919 Model T.

Dory Kulwin, the humble farmer and Dana Trattner in the 1919 Model T.

Off and on since then, while driving down the St. George peninsula to Port Clyde, I would think of the humble farmer and mutter a vow to myself to make a portrait of him. In late summer, I finally acted on that impulse and asked him for some of his time.

My wife, Dana, accompanied me. We were treated to the usual, extraordinary hospitality of Robert and his wife Marsha, The Almost Perfect Woman. They served us a delightful luncheon — that’s the only word for it, it was really much more than “lunch.” You can see information about their B&B at http://thehumblefarmer.com/BaB.html. It’s a very entertaining site, a little corny and a lot of fun.

You really must experience humble in person, or buy one of his many recordings, to get the full flavor of his wit and personality. He says things like “You can learn a lot about a man by going into his bathroom and seeing how many extra holes he had to drill in the wall to put up his towel racks.” He asked about my family background and got me talking about my grandfather. Then he asked, “What about your other grandfather? Everyone has two grandfathers, except for some people in Port Clyde.” He goes along quite slyly, and suddenly it dawns on you that you’re going to work very hard to keep up with him.

Over the years Robert has had any number of fine artists and photographers make portraits of him, including humorous send-ups of famous art such as Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” When I arrived I had a rough idea of shooting him outside with some of the pastured animals in the background. I set up my lighting and he shooed the animals around, but the shot would be just a technical exercise if humble hadn’t unleashed the full force of his personality onto the concept. Thank you, humble farmer, for the smiles.

Chasing The Rainbow

June 22, 2012

Rainbow over Spring Point Ledge Light, South Portland, Maine.

A big thunderstorm opened summer a little early, rolling over Portland on June 8th. It was late afternoon and there was a lot of lightning, with some torrential rain bursts. I’d had a frustrating week in the office with dull phone and computer tasks, so I determined to chase the storm — I wanted to capture lightning bursts. The storm was moving fast, so without much time to spare I drove to Fort Allen Park at the Eastern Prom.

Chasing storms always makes me feel like I’m forever behind the forces of nature; really dark clouds were moving fast away from me, east over the ship channel, the bulk of the storm already passed. In the foreground the Fore River and Casco Bay were already brighter than the ship channel, though light rain still fell. While setting up my tripod I saw some lightning flashes over Spring Point Light and a tanker docked at the pipeline oil terminal; too late, I wasn’t ready! Ok, set up and ready, the flashes stopped. I made some ordinary photos and waited a bit.

 

Casco Bay Ferry heading out to the Diamond Islands.

Follow your instincts; I decided I needed to go with a long lens to frame Spring Point Ledge Light and the ship channel. While changing lenses, again dramatic lightening flashed over the distant channel – missed again! Wrong instinct. OK, with long lens in place, again I wait.

No more flashes were appearing, the rain was easing, and people were getting back into their cars. A fellow who was watching me came over during the lull and asked me what I was doing. I chatted briefly, showed him a few previews, and then looked at the cloud cover clearing behind me to the west. I mentioned we had a good chance for a rainbow because the late afternoon sun was going to pop out soon, and it would be at the perfect angle. A few people overheard the remark and walked back from their cars to watch the bay. As I stood there thinking about it, I decided to change lenses yet again, to capture the full arc of any rainbow that appeared. In a few minutes, the sun suddenly blazed out from behind us, putting brilliant storm light over Casco Bay.

Storm light and rainbow over Casco Bay from Fort Allen Park, Portland, Maine.

A huge rainbow appeared, seemingly anchored on Spring Point Ledge Light. Quickly I changed back to the long lens before the rainbow could fade. I got the shot and even had time for variations as the rainbow lingered!

Rainbow over Spring Point Ledge Light and tanker anchored at the pipeline terminal, South Portland, Maine.

Capturing this event reminded me of my chase two summers ago of a rainbow over Portland Head Light. Under similar conditions, rain still falling, the sun came out as I shot from Fort Preble in South Portland. I caught these two shots:

Rainbow over Casco Bay and Fort Preble, South Portland, Maine.

Rainbow over Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

Serious thunderstorms are not too frequent here in Maine. I envy the storm chasers in the midwest and west. Good luck with your own rainbow chasing!

Going To The Chapel

June 22, 2012

The Village Baptist Church in Kennebunkport, Maine, is a charming wooden church built in 1838. Having survived the threats of lightning and fire, the church’s steeple nevertheless succombed  to time and weather. The congregation removed the steeple after it had become too weak and unstable to support its bell. They started a fund to raise money for the steeple’s restoration (click here for their website) and asked me to shoot some photographs that showed the church in its charm and need.

Village Baptist Church, Kennebunkport, Maine.

Shooting the exterior in hard sunlight shows its lines and the missing steeple, but I wanted something with more excitement, an emotional hook. The interior is beautiful in the daytime, but I felt the exterior really needed to be shot at dusk at magic hour, to capture the right emotional feel.

Stained glass window and pews, Village Baptist Church, Kennebunkport, Maine.

The interior is classic and much unchanged, except for the addition of some amplification for the Pastor. The wood work is simple but not stark, the influence of the local ship carpenters who built it showing in the details.

Village Baptist Church pews, Kennebunkport, Maine.

Village Baptist Church pipe organ, Kennebunkport, Maine.

Light from a stained glass window, Village Baptist Church, Kennebunkport, Maine.

Altar, Village Baptist Church, Kennebunkport, Maine

The church is on a very busy road. Shooting the exterior, I was constantly waiting for clear intervals between traffic. Intervals got tougher to find as the evening wore on and the exposures crept up to 6, 8, ad 12 seconds. But I knew I was also capturing some interesting car headlight affects on the foreground fence, something I’d counted on when composing.

Like any magic hour shot, it’s a matter of “shooting through” the window of dusk. Start about ten minutes after sunset and keep shooting bracketed variations every five to ten minutes or so until final darkness in the sky, usually fifty to sixty minutes after sunset. You then can choose from the progression as the dwindling natural light falls into balance with artificial lighting. The goal is to have the interior lights brighter than the dusk outside, with the deep blue complementing the interior warmth.

Dusk, Village Baptist Church, Kennebunkport, Maine

We turned on all the interior lights we could, except for some fluorescents in back that would throw too much green contamination. The front entrance lights had their balance point early in the evening. The side and the upper front windows were quite dim, so balance for them came very late in the evening. I knew the long exposure later in the evening for the interior lights would blow out all detail in the the front entrance lights.

In film days, I’d do a complex exposure with my assistant in the building taking my instructions by walkie talkie, turning the front lights on and off for precise exposure timing. Digital technology makes it much easier; the solution is exposure stacking. The base Photoshop layer has an exposure chosen for the balance “just right” for the dusk and the front lights. A second PS layer from later in the evening to brighten the windows is in lighten blending mode with a mask to confine the lightening to the windows. A third layer put in detail in the sky and right-hand tree from earlier in the evening. Finally, a layer chosen for the way car headlights struck the foreground fence was put in, again in “lighten” mode.

The final result feels natural to the human eye, though it is subtly enhanced.

HDR: The Web’s Loudness War?

April 25, 2012

Abandoned Tinsel Factory, Windsor Locks, Connecticut

 

Surely you’ve seen HDR photographs by now. HDR is an acronym for high dynamic range imaging. It’s a post-production technique in which one combines several different exposures of a subject into one final photo; the final photo has more detail in extreme highlights and extreme shadows than a conventional, single exposure can capture.

HDR can be a lot of fun and initially exciting. Unfortunately, the most common “look” people are using with HDR is somewhere between surreal and cartoonish. Colors are screamingly over-saturated; dark “contrast clouds” surround areas of smooth tone. Textural detail is exaggerated to the point of being “crunchy.” The overall effect is a kind of LSD eye candy.

 

Railroad Bridge, Enfield, an example of HDR artifacting.

Exciting At First

When I first saw HDR photos I was fascinated and entranced. I had to know right away how this strange effect was created. I acquired the special software, read up on the technique and began experimenting. I hadn’t been this hypnotized since I had discovered color infrared film in college.

One month into my HDR crush I had an appointment with an art director of experience and distinction. No, I didn’t bring any HDR prints with me. We got onto discussing trends in digital photography and as I was about to bring up my excitement about HDR he blurted out how he was “sick and tired of all that HDR crap.” I recovered nicely, and didn’t let on that I had started using it. I was a bit perplexed by his attitude; wasn’t this new and exciting?

“New” is relative. He’d already seen his fill.

 

Coast Guard Fog Horn Station at Dyer Cove, Cape Elizabeth, Maine

My Excitement Dims

Within a relatively short time I could see his point of view. My flame of infatuation had dimmed, and I was chafing at the artificial boundaries HDR was drawing around the implied space of my vision. In short, it seemed more and more to me to be simply a gimmick.

There are people doing HDR well, and I enjoy looking at their work. Take a look at Trey Ratcliff or Ken Kaminesky or Captain Kimeo. For me, a little goes a long way, like cotton candy. I just can’t push HDR as hard as they do.

After my HDR crush began fading, I had occasion to shoot some commercial interiors that were “fast and loose.” The budget allowed only minimal supplemental lighting. Since I was shooting these interiors on a tripod with bracketed exposures, I decided to process an HDR variant of my image strictly for contrast control in key highlight areas. I then layered the HDR version with a “normal” version and combined them into a final image that looked extended and clean, without the artificial tell-tales of HDR. The results excited me again. HDR suddenly became a tool to extend my imaging, not as an end in itself.

A New Tool

I now use HDR “in the background” with confidence on personal landscape work and a fair amount of architectural jobs holding window detail. It’s a powerful tool to add to all my others, both lighting on-set and in post processing. High dynamic range capture can extend the tonal response of the camera to more reflect the extreme contrast range of the human eye — or even to exceed it.

 

Strawberry Fields, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, combining "straight" processing with an HDR layer subtly combined for foreground texture enhancement. You still need great light.

 

Twilight, Kettle Cove, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, combining "straight" processing with an HDR layer for subtle foreground texture enhancement

 

The software has improved rapidly and now offers alternative subtle, more realistic ways to convert your high-bit visual information into usable form. I vastly prefer to take this approach, often layering an HDR image with a “straight” one, primarily to add a little more separation in three-quarter tone detail. The trick is to avoid the knee-jerk, cartoonish tone-mapping done in post.

Don’t Use The Defaults!

What is tone-mapping? HDR utilizes high bit-depth color spaces, typically 32 bit, for billions of steps of tonal separation. Having captured this high bit tonal information, you must figure out how to get it into a form you can actually see and use on your computer. Because there are no high-bit monitors on the market, 256 values of separation are the most you will be able to see on the monitor. (A print may have a contrast range of only 50:1.)

Your choices are to compress the extended HDR range, like squeezing a sponge and jamming it into a shot glass; or to choose selectively from throughout the vast range of information, weighting your choices for either highlight detail, shadow detail, or some compromise. This is where the specialized software, such as Photomatix or Photoshop, enter the picture. You use this specialized software to merge (map) the tonal information together into (ultimately) an 8-bit visual range.

It has been reliably and consistently established through scientific and medical research that the range of human visual response for the cones in our eyes (color vision) is just about 100:1. We have marvelous sensitivity to move this range of response across huge levels of illumination, but for a given illumination level our contrast range is 100:1 for color sensitivity.

Straight-line compression into human visual response range makes for low contrast, flat images. So the software employs sophisticated algorithms and user-directed sliders to add enhancements to different parts of the picture. These enhancements go far beyond simply merging the data. Fine detail enhancement makes the picture “crunchy.” Dark “contrast clouds” surround broad areas of tone, such as sky and clouds, giving a brooding look. And saturation can go through the roof. This creates the most common HDR default “look,” a tonal mash both compacted and exaggerated, with sizzling, LSD-like colors.

 

Spurwink Marsh, Scarborough, Maine, with heavy HDR processing artifacts.

 

In the 1960’s, record companies began over-driving the levels at which they cut 45 RPM records. These overdriven levels trashed the high frequency response for people with good equipment, but most people were listening to their records with cheap home record players, or on jukeboxes. The overdriven sound made the record sound “louder,” and people responded by buying more of those records. Soon, all the record companies began to overdrive their 45 RPM records to be “louder.” And they did their best to “out-loud” their competitors. The harsh sound became the standard, even though it was of lower quality.

In pop music today, the loudness wars have taken sophisticated form, due to the use of software tools which were unavailable to recording engineers back in the 1960s. Dynamic range is compressed in the mix and or mastering stage (or both), jamming the music signal up toward the maximum digital sound level (0 dBFS – decibels relative to full scale). Sometimes it will be pushed past 0 dBFS, totally flattening the once rounded peaks of the audio waveform, producing gross digital distortion. Then the sound goes through another stage of data compression to reduce the file size into an mp3 for your ipod, etc. This “lossy” type of compression discards or reduces further the fine details and shadings of the music.  Young people now actually prefer this lower quality/lower dynamic range than that of a CD or LP; it’s the new music norm. (Thank you Bill Pauluh for clarifying the technical description in this paragraph.)

The Web Is In A Loudness War

The web today is engaged in a visual “loudness war.” You’ve the barest fraction of a second to catch a page surfer’s interest and keep him from clicking away. More contrast! Pump up the color! Grunge it! Make the detail pop! Hold that viewer a fraction of a second longer.

I don’t think a processing technique should call attention to itself as the end product of a photograph, and that’s what most HDR or other effects-driven photos are about. Neither HDR nor any other filter can make an inherently boring picture into an interesting one. It can, however, make an inherently boring photograph into one marginally intriguing for a half-second or so — until, like my art director friend, you’ve simply had enough. Then you tune it out with the other hype.

If HDR’s pedal-to-the-metal look is a kind of digital photography futurism, apps like Instagram or Hipstamatic (“digital photography never looked so analog”) are its retro-rendering alternative. Amanda Petrucich has a post on Buzzfeed in which she describes these trends as “manufactured nostalgia” and “pining for old-timey, nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship, even if they’ve never experienced it firsthand and aren’t prepared for all the work it takes to actually achieve.” The second part is certainly true. Good art is hard work, and most people who actually had to work within the frustrating confines of 1960′s color photography most certainly do not miss it. “Effects” are people’s tacit acknowledgement of the absence of a compelling personal vision. See my post on film and digital vision.

Take heart that all this casting about for something to make your photographs “better” is just one stage in a long personal journey. One day in my junior year at Syracuse University (BS Photojournalism, 1974), I was mounting a color photograph to an art board for display. One of the grad students sauntered over, studied it for a moment and summed it up. “A reticulated, infrared fisheye shot. Man, that’s got every gimmick in the book.”

Remember that 99.99% of the great photographs of all time were taken without use of HDR or other effects processing. But will the HDR “loudness” become the new visual norm?

Recommended reading: The Artists Eyes, Vision And The History Of Art, by Michael F. Marmor and James G Ravin, Abrams, New York 2009. The authors, ophthamologists, cover in great detail the nature of human vision and how art over the centuries has been created through the medium of biological vision.

Photographing Technology

November 10, 2011

A technician holds a flask of cell medium at the Bioprocessing, Inc., production lab in Portland, Maine.

 

The precision of technology and medical science seems almost indistinguishable from magic. Yet this amazing world is often invisible, hidden away in bland offices and industrial parks. Much of what happens is beyond the range of unaided human senses; the manufacturing operations in a semiconductor fab are measured in billionths of a meter. Biotechnology firms work at the level of individual cells in culture mediums, or with fragments of DNA. Certain processes unfold only under specific wavelengths of light. It’s magnificently precise and the concepts must be made visible in the ordinary macro world we inhabit.

My challenge is to charge these wonders with visual imagination. Sometimes that means inhabiting a world of unusual color, and other times gleaming whites and stainless steel. Always, my photographs are a journey into the marvel of these people, their work and their stories.

 Semiconductor Manufacturing

For the uninitiated, the semiconductor fab is a visually disorienting place. The air is filtered and constantlly moving. Everyone is gowned in baggy “bunny suit” coveralls with hoods, face masks, gloves and glasses. The outfits are to protect the machinery from the people and their clothing, whose otherwise benign dust can ruin the manufacturing process. Amazingly, despite everyone appearing like homogenous lumps in these outfits, the people who work in the fab learn to identify each other by subtle differences in appearance inscrutable to the casual observer.

 

National Semiconductor Wafer Fabrication Plant

The semiconductor Fab is a busy place, with everything taking place under yellow photo-safe lights.

 

The lights are yellow because blue light, just like in a traditional photo darkroom, will fog the light-sensitive photo resist used in the wafer etching process. All the blue is removed by filters or by use of special phosphors in the fluorescent tubes themselves.

Silicon wafers are etched so finely they act like diffraction gratings, shimmering in vibrant hues as they catch white light.

 

Semiconductor wafers manufactured on circular silicon blanks.

Semiconductor wafers are so finely etched they shimmer with a rainbow of colors.

 

You can read more about how semiconductors are made here or watch a YouTube video here.

Group Portrait Of 184 People

One interesting challenge was to photograph a group portrait of all the workers in the National Semiconductor Fab plant in South Portland, Maine, more than 184 people. I scouted the various angles in the Fab and chose an elevated position at the intersection of two main corridors. The group shot was possible only for a brief window of opportunity; for one week manufacturing was suspended because of large-scale equipment upgrades. Since protocol was interrupted and a final cleanup of the whole Fab necessary anyway, for this one photo the workers were allowed to remove their hoods and masks.

 

National Semiconductor Fab Crew Group Portrait.

 

There was no way to light the entire group. Strobe lights were too problematic; under normal conditions the blue light of the strobe can ruin tens of thousands of dollars worth of wafer production. Even worse, strobes could set off an optical fire sensor and trigger halon gas and fire containment systems, for damage potentially in the millions. I had to shoot with the existing lighting, which is strong yellow to the human eye and the camera. No amount of blue on-camera filtering can restore a balance that doesn’t exist; on my digital camera, the blue channel was completely black!

The question was how to restore color as we would see it in white light? We couldn’t have all yellow faces. My solution was to rebuild the blue channel in post-production by a series of channel blends; the green and red channels were blended into the blue channel in different modes and in varying amounts. The Fab is filled with stainless steel, so I initially targeted those surfaces to a neutral balance; other Photoshop tools let me fine tune from there. The final result was made into a mural-size print.

 Healthcare

Maine Medical Center Emergency Department

Rapid patient care at the Maine Medical Center Emergency Department.

 

Healthcare subjects involve real-world caregivers in working environments, and there is one overarching value:  patient care comes first. I keep my equipment footprint small and controlled. At any moment, I may have to get out of the way. Patient privacy requires the utmost discretion; shooting stops when people pass through the foreground or background. All schedules are subject to change at the last minute. So when creating an ad featuring Maine Medical Center’s new Emergency Department, these boundaries were especially in mind. Working with Garrand Marketing, we scheduled the shoot for a nominally “quiet” time early in the morning. We chose a room away from the central hub of activity, but still had to move the camera twice for ED activity. My strobes were gelled to match the ambient fluorescent lighting, allowing me to mix blurred motion with a narrow plane of sharpness. Fast, responsive patient-centered attention was the message.

To see more of my tech and healthcare photos you can go to my web site by the link in the header or by clicking here.

Film or Digital: Different, But Does It Matter?

November 2, 2011

In film days — with film now — the photographer must learn to see the world the way film sees, to previsualize. One looks at the world normally and, simultaneously, overlays in the imagination how the scene would be rendered on film. Each film, subject to some personal modification, has a particular look to learn. The differences are profound and the learning curve is long. You learn from your failures, from studying a long string of photographic disappointments. It takes years. “How did the pictures come out?” They never seem to “come out” the way the casual shooter sees the scene. And lighting, different lenses, angles of view, exposure, basic mechanical operation of the cameras, chemical processing and many other variables have to be learned on top of and as part of film vision.

Occasional lucky breaks make us look good and can inspire whole fields of exploration, but generally one must develop one’s personal vision before developing significant photographs. With film vision you look at the world with what Edward Weston called “the flame of recognition.”

Dream Time

A big part of learning to see with film is what I call “dream time.” Often, film will not be processed or proofed for days, weeks, or months after exposure. In that time, one carries the image in the mind’s eye, imagining and anticipating, dreaming the image. Time only adds to the strength of the dreamed image, distilling it into its essence. When the film is processed, particularly with negatives, there is still nothing final. One then works to shape the photo into the image dreamed, by printing or other means. You must see past interim versions of the photo to the final vision, until you produce physically the image that existed only in your mind at start.

With transparencies, the chemical processing is the finality. Did you see the photo correctly? Your transparencies would either confirm your vision dreamed or show all aesthetic and technical errors mercilessly.

You’re forced to learn to see photographically because you are constantly comparing the images you actually made with the ones you thought you were making when you dreamed the image. Eventually, you learn to see and dream the film image with accuracy. You see the photo in the mind first. You have film vision.

Instant Gratification Kills Dream Time

With digital cameras, there is a new dynamic. Digital cameras have a look that aligns much more closely, on average, with the way everyday people see. Right away these cameras provide a pretty clean and clear view of the photo just taken, rendered in color that’s snappy and rich. This instant feedback accelerates the learning curve and lets people fix some errors of pre-visualization right away, before it’s too late (mostly). This creates the ever-growing illusion that being a photographer is easy, that anyone can do it. And, indeed, anyone can now easily take a photo that is minimally worth looking at for a half-second or so. But if used in your marketing, that amateur photograph can blow a giant hole through your carefully crafted brand identity.

The ease of immediate digital gratification obscures the challenge to forge a personal vision first, to learn to dream images. That preview on the back of the camera pops up right away and is a pretty good “straight” rendering of the scene. Before you have formed an image in your minds eye, before you can lock your own vision, the camera defaults present you with one fully formed. That camera rendering can immediately “overwrite” your visual expectations. It’s hard to ignore; you have to have powerful imaginative skill to resist this easy seduction and hold on to your own idea of the image. Dreaming images in your minds eye is as essential as ever, but the necessity to practice this skill has changed, become vestigial like an appendix. Film vision skills directly translate to making a digital photographer better.

There’s No Creativity In Post-Processing

You must have a vision in your mind for your photographs. Otherwise, instead of flailing around in the darkroom you’ll flail around in post-processing with Photoshop. The approach seems to be, “If my photographs aren’t good enough, I must not be using the right filters in Photoshop.” More and more people are trying to find a personal vision in stylized post-processing. This has produced an avalanche of photos using the same filter effects applied haphazardly, desperate attempts to bludgeon creativity into ordinary photographs. (I’m convinced that part of the popularity of Photoshop over the darkroom is that you can do Photoshop sitting down.) But if you aspire to any level of art (or just artfulness) in your photographs, you must see the image in your mind first, arrange for it, light for it, expose for it and capture it with the end vision in mind.

See First, Then Capture

This is not to gloss over the fantastic controls in Photoshop or the marvels of desktop printing, tools profoundly important to me in my commercial and personal work, tools whose mastery has been an investment of countless hours, tools I use every day. I’m very grateful for the digital media available to me as an artist. Having and expressing a personal vision with digital photography is as important as it ever was with film. The essential challenge is the same:  see first, then capture.

Film And The Commercial Market

When film was the only option in commercial photography, art directors, art buyers, and creative directors needed to hire professional photographers with demonstrated and consistent film vision. It was an essential qualification, one inexplicable to the bean counters. So sometimes, having quoted a job with real numbers, I would be told sheepishly by my friendly local art director or art buyer at an ad agency some variation upon this line: “Your numbers are good, but money’s tight. The CEO’s nephew has a Nikon and he’s going to shoot the job.”

I would nod sympathetically, acknowledge the the call with a thanks, say keep the lines open, I appreciate the opportunity to quote, let me know anytime if I can help, etc. Then, about three or four weeks later, I would get the call:  the pictures the nephew took are no good, terrible, can’t be used, there’s no way to fix them. Could I still shoot the job for the numbers quoted? And could I do it tomorrow? If somebody was too proud to admit the error, some other photographer would get the job. Occasionally, the nephew’s photos would go to press and create a dreadful mess.

Today, the CEO’s nephew has a shiny digital Canon, Nikon or point-and-shoot. When he shoots the job, his pictures are still terrible. But today, the advertising agencies have people on staff with computers and photoshop skills dedicated to massaging something minimally useful out of the dreadful digital photos that come in over the transom. Add in the accelerating volume of virtually free digital stock photography by people with day jobs who are thrilled just to be published, and the downward pressures on professional photography rates are easy to understand.