Thursday, March 25, 2010

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Leaving Las Vegas

I might be one of the few people in the history of the world to spend a full week in Las Vegas and not drop a dime in the slot machines. It's not that I have anything against gambling (at least in moderation), it's just that I would rather blow my hard-earned money on other things, like photo equipment.

Besides, I wasn't in Las Vegas to party, I was there for the annual Wedding and Portrait Photographers International (WPPI) convention, and I had some serious learning to do about marketing my fledgling wedding photography business. I went with my business partner, a beautiful, single, young woman who did joyously throw herself into Vegas' party scene. Let's just say, she had a much better time than I did, if you don't count the hangovers.

It's not hard to gamble in Vegas, the slots are everywhere. They are there to greet you in the terminal when you step off your plane at the airport, and you have to wade through a mile of slots, crap tables and poker tables to check into your room at most of the hotel-casinos.

Perhaps, what struck me most about Vegas is that it is truly a city that never sleeps. I would wake up at 6 a.m., take the elevator down to the main floor to pick up a cup of coffee and find dozens of people feeding the slots, turning cards at poker tables and tossing dice at crap tables, while tossing down drinks and smoking cigarettes.

Like most big cities, Las Vegas is a town of contrasts, but maybe even more so. It is hard to imagine the amount of money that is being spent there each day. I watched an older Italian gentleman buy $5,000 worth of chips at a crap table one afternoon in the Paris Casino, and wager hundreds of dollars per toss.

Yet every day at the bus stop shelter in front of my hotel, a half dozen or so of some of the most desperate-looking homeless people I had ever seen would hang out most of the day (I am embarrassed to say that I stayed at Hooters Hotel and Casino. Hey, it was cheap and right across the street from the MGM Grand, where the convention was).

The casinos are all glitter and lights, both inside and out, yet every few feet you walk on the Boulevard there is someone snapping a card at you to hire a prostitute. On the Saturday night, I spend exploring Las Vegas Boulevard, the sidewalks were littered with thousands of these cards.

And you have to wonder, how many of the thousands and thousands of people that are feeding the slots or betting on the next Blackjack hand are gambling away this month's rent or mortgage payment. As my friend Mercy says, Vegas wasn't built on winners.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Following your instincts: The long cut home

Driving home from work tonight, I got off the freeway at my usual exit at 8 Mile Road at Whitmore Lake  and headed west and north along my usual maze of winding side roads that would get me home in the quickest manner. The sun was just starting to drop, below a western cloud cover. Through the trees and houses I could see a vibrant orange and yellow horizon.

I was tired and I really just wanted to get home, but I started thinking about where I might get a good view of the sunset and maybe a nice photograph. I decided to cut up north along unpaved Hall Road, which runs along the eastern side of Hamburg Lake. It's a small but pretty lake, with the dirt road running close to the lake and the houses sitting on the other side of the road, leaving a clear view of the western horizon.

As I drove, I looked for something to frame against the beautiful sunset. As soon as I spotted the snow-covered bench next to the huge tree with its drooping limbs, I knew I had found the right spot. I framed the photo so the sun would be captured between the tree limbs which flowed downward toward the bench. I slightly underexposed the shot to better capture the color and drama of the sky through the web of tree limbs.

It's the same lesson I have learned time and time again. Good photos don't find you. You have to find them. And that sometimes that means taking the long way home after a long day at work.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The glorious wonders of natural light

Ask just about any portrait or studio photographer, and they will tell you how wonderful natural light is. We shoot with flashguns and studio lights, trying to imitate what nature often does best. The sun in the early morning or late day casts a beautiful, warming, golden light.

This photo of model Rita Riggs was taken during a shoot in my studio on a overcast Sunday. We had been shooting for a couple of hours, with my studio lights with the venetian blinds shut on the windows, when late in the afternoon the sun broke through a brief hole the clouds. I opened up the blinds, turned off the studio lights, quickly re-adjusted my camera and got off a half-dozen shots or so before the sun disappeared again.

I love this shot for its sensuality, accented by the partially closed eyes, Rita's pursed lips and the way the light falls on her face behind the mosquito netting. It turned out to be one of my favorite shots from a shoot in which I took more than 500 photos.

You can view more photos from my studio session with Rita at

Saturday, January 30, 2010

That cafe thing

Every since the digital age caused me to jump back into photography several years ago, one of my favorite haunting grounds in my street photography quest has been coffee shops. I'm lucky because Ann Arbor has more than its share of coffeehouses and cafes. There are several Starbucks, a couple of Sweetwaters and at least two Expresso Royales, including this one downtown on South Main Street where the photo above was shot.  

I dropped in there the other day at lunch for a cup of coffee and a muffin. It is one of those marvelously lit places, with strategically placed overhead spots and even lamps at some of the tables. As I sat there watching this guy sort through his mail and bills, I knew I had to try to sneak a shot. The key was to get him when the light from the lamp was hitting his face.  Because of the low lighting, I snapped my 50 mm F1.4 lens on my Canon 7d and cranked up the ISO to 400. This shot was exposed at F 1.8. The 50 mm is a beautifully fast lens, but it is a fixed focal length so I couldn't "zoom in" on the subject. Instead, I ended up doing about a 50 percent overall crop on the photo, but the 18 megapixel 7D left me plenty of room to do that and still have a nice size print.

Shooting in cafes is a bit awkward and, I suppose some people might think, intrusive. It calls for discretion or, at the opposite extreme, straightout boldness. I prefer stealth, but I have been know to be bold. One of my favorites from my own photos has long been a shot I took of a bunch several old couples sitting around a table at the Manistee Bakery & Deli in Manistee, Michigan. The light was golden, the mood and setting perfect. As I sat there at another table watching them from another table, I knew this would be a missed opportunity if I didn't act. So I quietly stood up, put my camera to my face and took a photo, like it was the most natural thing in the world to do. My only regret is I did not share the photo with this group of friends. It I had to do it all over again, I would have walked over, shown them the photo on the camera's LCD and asked them if they wanted me to email them a copy. 

That's what I did when I shot yet another favorite photo of mine, of a girl in a hat doing her homework at the Sweetwater Cafe on West Washington Street in downtown Ann Arbor. I had just been out shooting an anti-war march through town and stopped in for a cup of coffee. She was sitting a couple of tables over, right next to a window that was casting the late afternoon light on her. I couldn't resist. I managed to fire off several frames without her seemingly knowing it, then walked over, introduced myself and showed her the photos. Of course, I was worried that she would think I was some old pervert, but I explained how the light was coming in on her and how much I loved her wonderful hat. She seemed flattered. 

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Starlight, star bright ...

A lot of people who know me might be surprised to find out I when I was 18 years old, I completely tore apart and reassembled a 289 cubic inch Ford engine from a 1966 Mustang I bought from a friend. I did this over several weeks in my friend Doug Gordon's parents' garage. I already owned a 1965 Mustang 2+2 fastback (pictured below at right), and I don't recall why I bought this car or why I tore the engine apart. Back then cars and girls ruled my world and I for some crazy, unexplainable reason wanted to be a mechanic. Auto shop was about the only class I didn't skip in high school. Thankfully reason finally took over, and I decided I didn't want to spend the rest of my life with banged knuckles and a rim of grease under my fingernails. OK, reason didn't complete prevail because I became a journalist instead.

Nowadays, I much more prefer taking photos of nice cars than working on them. One of the benefits of living in the Metro Detroit area is that it is the home of the annual North American International Car Show. While the show has lost a little of its luster since the days when the Big 3 ruled the world, it is still a pretty significant event that attracts nearly three-quarters of a million visitors and news media from around the world to view the latest and greatest from the car makers.

As a photographer, it is an event I look forward to each year. It is a wonderful setting of machines and people. And the lighting is spectacular. A lot of thought goes into how the cars are lit with an emphasis on the dramatic.

This year's show gave me a chance to try out my new Canon 7d, plus I decided to bring along a star filter. The filter adds a starlight reflection to lights and specular highlights along surfaces such as the reflective body of a car. The photo above is of a Subaru concept car called the Hybrid Tourer (yeah, I know, really innovative name for a fancy futuristic car). The car was the centerpiece of the Subaru display, posed on a revolving platform with one of its gull-wing doors open. The interior was lit with pink lights and its silverly exterior was aglow from strategically placed spotlights. It was a perfect setup to use the starlight filter.

(For you photo buffs, I used a Cokin P 056 star filter. I had it in a filter holder but did not mount it to the lens. Instead, whenever I wanted to use it, I would just hold it up against the front of the lens.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Admiring Avedon

A couple of my owns shots from Sorrento, Italy (top and below right)

As a photographer, I find it hard not to feel a little envious of the life Earl Steinbicker has led. He had his own New York studio and later went on to become a travel writer. But more importantly, he spent 10 years working with iconic fashion photographer Richard Avedon, first as an 17-year-old assistant and later as his studio manager.

Steinbicker, now in his 70s, is in the process of writing a book about Avedon. In the meantime, he has shared many of his stories from his years with Avedon on a couple of blogs he maintains at Life's Little Adventures; The Avedon Years and at I stumbled across the first blog several months ago and found myself mesmerized by Steinbicker's tales of working with Avedon as he  photographed some of the biggest stars of the 20th century, including Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and Jimmy Durante. A favorite tale was the trip they took to England to photograph the Beatles and watching Avedon engage in a drinking contest with Ringo Starr that ended with both men passed out in the studio,

I have been increasingly fascinated with Avedon for a couple of years now. I think it probably started with my trip in May 2007 to Italy, which reinvigorated my cultural interests. In November, I had the opportunity to see an exhibit of Avedon's work at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I was so in awe of what I saw that I was at Borders Books the next week, buying a $100 book "Avedon Fashion 1944-2000," containing the work that was part of that exhibit.