Flowers

Orchids, Toronto, April 2020

IF THIS THING KEEPS GOING INTO THE SUMMER, the best thing I can hope for is that at least I’ll have some things I can shoot growing in the garden. My next post will give you some idea of how desperate I’ve been to find subjects for my still life kitchen studio. When the lockdown started all I had was a vase of already dried-out flowers from Valentine’s Day. They were great, patient subjects but I finally had to admit that I’d squeezed everything I could out of them. Here’s a little Instagram tribute to those wilted blossoms:

Thankfully, a friend generously dropped off a bunch of surplus bouquets – roses, orchids and tulips. I hadn’t photographed newly cut flowers since last year; the best comparison I can make is doing portraits of young people versus older people. There’s a freshness and even beauty with youth that seems to make getting a flattering picture easier, but it doesn’t take long before you realize that the results can be a little generic. Real character emerges when the bloom starts getting overripe, and by the time the petals are brittle and wrinkled every flower head has its own personality.

Rose, Toronto, April 2020
Tulips, Toronto, April 2020
Rose, Toronto, April 2020

This was my first time shooting orchids, which are both proof and exception to this rule. They’re a lush, striking flower – it’s hard to find a bad angle on either a single orchid or a thick bunch like these ones. The petals are meaty but the interior of the blossom has the look of a predator insect or an alien pilot. They do most of the work for you, so I felt obliged to feature a single wilted bloom on a thick stalk of flowers, just to provide some contrast.

Orchids, Toronto, April 2020

Very much like tulips, orchids live only as long as their blooms are fresh, and their demise is both quick and total. Roses remain my favorite flower, though – the buds are demure, even coy, but as the petals open and then begin to subtly curl and discolour at the edges they become more interesting, with more surfaces to catch light. The sepals, with their serrated edges, curl and pull away from the petals they protected.

Rose, Toronto, April 2020

I’m shooting as much as possible with my new Kamlan 50mm f1.1 lens, both to get used to it for portrait work, and because it has a character of its own as a close-up optic, especially when wide open. I’ve noticed the glowing penumbra it produces when out-of-focus highlights contrast against a darker background, but something about these shots, seen through the viewfinder, stirred a memory that made it easier to decide to press the shutter.

Roses, Toronto, April 2020

It took me a while to realize that the colour palette in these shots came straight off the cover of Todd Rundgren’s classic 1972 double album Something/Anything?, which was once one of my favorite records to play during long overnight darkroom sessions in my old Parkdale studio.

After about a week the orchids were dropping flowers and the tulips were just past their peak. Tulips are fairly generic when we find them for sale in florist’s shops, tight buds distinguishable only by colour and varieties of petal shapes in fancy varieties. In front of my camera, they always appeared at their most vegetal at this stage (look at the photo near the top of this post.) It’s easy to see that they’re from the same family as garlic and onions, with their thick stalks and meaty leaves.

Tulips, Toronto, April 2020

Now overripe and wilting, this is my favorite time to photograph tulips, but it only lasts about a day. A week previous they’d been a huddle of buds standing alert; in the shot above they look more like a selfie taken at a raucous party.

Tulip, Toronto, April 2020

Hours away from dropping their petals, tulips finally become really expressive and much more graphically interesting. A single line thrusting upward gives way to curves in several different directions, and the anthers, stigma and ovary are fully exposed.

Aoi Yamaguchi, “Kun-puh”

This is a kind of photo I’ve been trying to take for years now – since (like so many other people) I became interested in Japanese art in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and in particular shodo calligraphic art. Back when I was looking for a way to clean up and simplify my compositions, I found inspiration in these kanji characters, quickly and economically rendered with brushes and even mops. I’m always looking for a way to reduce a photo to just a few, or perhaps even just one, simple line.

Rose, Toronto, April 2020

Finally, I thought it was time to start experimenting with colour. I began with red and green gels on LED lights aimed in a crossfire – a classic setup that used to be big back in the days of pre-grunge indie rock and cross-processed film. On a red rose, however, this is hardly a complex lighting equation – the petals absorb the red light while the green only renders on highlights before it plunges into black in the shadows. I might need to play around with other colour combinations – or get my hands on other colours of flowers.

Roses, Toronto, April 2020

In the meantime, the roses are drying out, in anticipation of at least a couple more weeks in lockdown and their next moment in the spotlight in the kitchen studio.

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Pinhole

High Park, Toronto, April 2020

THIS SUNDAY IS WORLDWIDE PINHOLE PHOTOGRAPH DAY. It’s not an event I would have noticed or taken part in until this year, mostly because I didn’t even own a pinhole camera of any kind until about a month and a half ago. I didn’t go to school for photography, or even have any interest in taking photos until around the time I dropped out of college, so I never built a shoebox pinhole camera for fun or learned about basic optical theory – camera obscuras and near- and far-field diffraction – as part of a foundation course.

In the days of film, building a pinhole camera seemed like a lot of bother, and perhaps (shudder) a bit of math. Even when simple pinhole “lenses” (and yes, I know, a pinhole doesn’t have any glass in it so it’s not really a lens) became available for digital cameras I barely noticed. I suppose it was only in the last year or so, when my interest in getting something more (or, really, less) than a technically correct, “sharp” image returned again after twenty years, did I start shopping around for options to create “technically incorrect” photos.

Skull #4, Toronto, April 2020
Skull & onions #2, Toronto, April 2020

Late last summer I saw a Facebook ad for a pinhole zoom “lens” on Kickstarter. Made by Thingyfy in China, it seemed novel and a bit more flexible than other pinholes – basically just body caps with holes – so I pledged my money and waited. And waited. It finally arrived after spending months in transit and just in time for the coronavirus lockdown. I sat and stared at it for a week or so and finally pressed it into service while shooting several still lifes in my ad hoc kitchen studio.

Roses, Toronto, April 2020

The raw images were a bit daunting – very, very soft and marked with many small concentric circles: marks from dust on either the UV filter you have to use with pinholes or on the camera’s image sensor. (I had been warned about this – nobody’s camera is perfectly dust-free, and with an aperture of roughly f165 the technical focus extends from infinity to the film plane.) After some work put into spotting the images in Photoshop – nothing I wasn’t used to doing with old scanned film negatives for years – I had to contend with the peculiar nature of pinhole images: While not technically out of focus, they’re nowhere near what you could call “sharp.” A friend and fellow photographer compared them to certain old, uncoated film lenses. But worse.

Roses, Toronto, April 2020

Now, the look of old, uncoated lenses is something that interests me, but a lot of work had to be done both during and after pressing the shutter to get these images close to what I had in my mind. The first thing that was obvious was that contrast – often harsh, close to blown-out contrast – was going to be my friend, as the lack of glass to focus light on any spectrum meant an extremely diffused image. I needed a way to get deep blacks to take hold somewhere in the frame, since they were the only thing that was going to give the illusion of detail.

Orchids, Toronto, April 2020

It took three or four still life sessions to start producing frames like the one above – still holding detail in the middle of the tone spectrum, enough to create a sense of something sharp floating amidst all the ethereal softness native to the pinhole image. This also demanded a lot of work in Photoshop, using layers and the Unsharp mask to pull that detail out of the clouds and mud. I’d panicked a bit when I saw those first raw images, but after a couple of weeks of solid work – a gift that came with all the time and lack of distraction in lockdown – I began to find a formula that edged close to the peculiar “technically incorrect” goal that inspired all this effort.

High Park, Toronto, April 2020

This milestone reached, I decided to take my digital pinhole out into nature – the place where most pinhole photographers seem to use theirs, as bright daylight is pretty much the only place you might be able to take a shot at less than half a second exposure – perhaps even handheld if you push the ISO high enough. My original goal was Mount Pleasant, the city’s most picturesque cemetery within hiking distance of home. But complaints about violations of social distancing saw management padlock the gates, as well as those of Prospect Cemetery, conveniently right next to our house.

My fallback was Mount Hope, the midtown Catholic cemetery where my grandparents are buried, but that also got shut down, so I was obliged to return to High Park again, just a few months after I’d hiked it with my Holga plastic camera shooting an assignment for the Shacklands Camera Club. The park was also supposed to be closed to the public, but with 400 unfenced acres, that’s not really possible, and when I arrived there on a bright Saturday it was hardly empty, though the hikers, bikers and dog walkers were largely masked and responsibly apart from each other.

High Park, Toronto, April 2020

By this point I realized that hoping for shadow detail with the pinhole was mostly wishful thinking, especially when rich, black shadows were the only way to make sure you created any defining image detail at all. So I arrived at High Park (a 14km hike there and back from our house) with my tripod and camera prepared to look for striking silhouettes; another lesson you learn quickly with a pinhole is that composition matters more than ever.

I know the park pretty well; I’ve been going there since I was a child, and it’s a reliable source of inspiration. But even on this bright spring day most of the best images I got (apart from the one at the top of this post) were decidedly crepuscular; almost “day for night” in look, the afternoon sunlight transformed into moonlight, and surprisingly like the old storybook illustrations I’d been trying to take in the park for literally decades.

Lavender Creek Trail, Toronto, April 2020 (click to enlarge)

This was enormously satisfying. I’ve said for years that I’m basically a graphic artist hiding behind a photographer. (The sad part, of course, is that I’m actually a late 19th century graphic artist hiding behind a 1950s photographer. Try living with that identity crisis.) Finally, after several false starts when the sun and clouds refused to cooperate, I returned to a spot I’d noted on a hike a few weeks ago where I suspected there’d be a nice sunset.

So far the experiment with the pinhole – pushed along by an unexpected gift of time and motivation – has been pretty successful. I’m not sure if this “lens” will become a permanent fixture in my camera bag, but it certainly expanded the palette of potential pictures I might take in either personal or commercial situations. I still need to see how useful it is for portraits, and that’s an experiment that’s going to have to wait until “normal” – whatever that might be – returns.

Lavender Creek Trail, Toronto, April 2020
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Roses

Rose, Toronto, March 2020

PRETTY SURE MOST OF US DIDN’T SEE THIS COMING. By which I mean being voluntarily locked down at home, testing the technical limitations of telecommuting and the strength of the emotional tether connecting us to our loved ones. We had to cancel a family trip to NYC at the last minute and go to earth with everyone else. I am not, by temperament, a people person, so the emotional hardships have been marginal for me. The challenge, of course, is staying creatively occupied.

Which for me means still life photography. If I could have predicted self-quarantining lasting weeks, even months, I might have laid in a supply of subjects for the duration – a quick trip to a florist, or to the bone and taxidermy shop downtown. In any case, there was a vase of roses drying on a shelf in the kitchen – the Valentine’s Day bouquet for my wife, ready and waiting to become the focus of so much pent-up energy.

Roses, Toronto, March 2020

Before the social distancing got serious I managed a trip to the craft store for black foamcore and Home Depot for plywood and hinges. The foamcore was intended to build a selection of light baffles; since the kitchen table had to become my studio, I needed walls and bounce panels and modifiers to shape the rather broad light coming from my Westcott LED heads. I’d had an idea for an adjustable baffle for months, sketched on a desk notepad – time to build the thing.

With all my previous kitchen floral still life sessions, I’d been working up the complexity of my lighting – from natural light, to single soft sources to spotlighting with LED flashlights. At this point I’m treating each dried flower like a portrait subject, working to find that point where their best side meets the nicest light. In a portrait session that means manipulating light and shade and backdrops over a whole room; at home it’s a matter of moving panels on a tabletop a few inches, and shifting my light behind a thin slit cut into a board until it falls on the right bit.

Roses, Toronto, March 2020

I spread these shots over two separate sessions a week apart. At the end of the second session I ran upstairs to grab a new toy – a Thingyfy Pinhole Pro X that I ordered from Kickstarter last year and only received in the mail from China a couple of weeks before the lockdown hit. I fitted it to my Fuji X-T2, pulled the light in as close as possible to the rose I had on the table and calculated an exposure of about 30 seconds.

The results are … intriguing. Not what anyone would call sharp, but technically in focus, which is the peculiar quality of pinhole photography as I understand it. I never went to photo school, so I didn’t get to build a shoebox pinhole film camera in first year or any of those elementary exercises. Thirty-five years later I get to play with the most basic kind of camera of all, and I have all the time in the world to see where this leads.

Rose, Toronto, March 2020
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Flowers

Rose, Feb. 2020

THESE ARE THE SAME FLOWERS as the ones I was shooting two months ago, even drier and more sun-bleached. Valentine’s Day is coming up so I needed to clear out the vase for the next bouquet. It’s winter – I’d rather do this than shiver on some hiking trail by the bluffs or windswept street down by the harbour. And frankly a day will doubtless come when I’d rather do this than anything else. Stay tuned.

My tabletop studio was mostly built from old clothespins and about twenty-five bucks worth of foamcore and construction paper from Michael’s. That’s the dirty secret of still life work – unless your subject is a car you can do it for pennies. The light sources were also low budget – a pair of LED flashlights. Work is slow right now so I’m experimenting on a very modest scale; let’s see where this leads.

Rose, Feb. 2020
Baby’s breath, Feb. 2020
Rose, Feb. 2020
Carnation, Feb. 2020
Rose, Feb. 2020
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Flowers

Rose, Toronto, Dec. 2019

WINTER’S ARRIVED EARLY SO I’M NOT LEAVING THE HOUSE MUCH. Which is perfectly fine – as long as there’s a vase of flowers in whatever state of freshness I’ll have something to put in front of my camera. This particular mix of roses and carnations was left over from my wife’s birthday – sitting on a shelf in the sun, they were finally ready to become still life subjects.

At work in the kitchen

This was also a chance to test out my new toy – a Kamlan 50mm f1.1 Mk.2 I’d bought on Kickstarter as a portrait lens. Fitted with my macro ring, it turned out to work very nicely for close-up shooting, though I never opened it up to its lowest f-stop and unleashed the “Bokeh monster” that Kamlan dubbed it for the campaign. I’m feeling inspired, but Valentine’s Day is nearly two months away, so it looks like I’ll need an excuse for more flowers.

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Roses

Rose, March 2019

I HATE WINTER. Which means that, from December to March, I’ll do pretty much anything to avoid leaving the house unless it’s strictly necessary. That means mining inspiration from my hermit-like existence, and that means still life work.

I am also a creature of habit. This year, like last year, I bought my wife roses for Valentine’s Day, and just like last year I asked if we could let them sit and dry out in their vase to provide me, once again, with a subject for some still life shooting.

At work, Feb. 22, 2019.

A week or so after Valentine’s Day I decided to take my first shot at my wife’s roses, which had just started to dry out at the edges of their petals and drop their leaves, though the hearts of each flower retained some moisture and colour. I set up in the kitchen again, only this time I had new pieces of gear I didn’t have last year – a macro ring for my Fuji X-T2, a cable release and a lightweight travel tripod with a ball head.

Roses, Feb. 2019

Locked off and holding my breath, I was able to shoot at much lower ISO speeds than I had a year previous. It took a while to get used to the macro ring; the autofocus on the Fuji needed to be disabled to find the sweet spot on each flower, and I had to pace myself to let the camera and the flower stop moving after I composed and focused, breathing in and out before I triggered the cable release. As the afternoon light in the kitchen started to dim, I pulled out a pair of LED mag lights and used those as hard light sources.

At work again, March 7, 2019.

Two weeks later, after the buds in the vase had dried out even further, I got back to work with a black backdrop instead of the white. By this point the pink roses had faded while the red ones had darkened considerably. I started earlier in the afternoon to use as much natural light as I could, which meant that by the time I probably should have pulled out the mag lights, I had been at it for a couple of hours and felt inspiration waning.

I know I’ll be at it again, same time next year no doubt, though earlier if my wife gets roses for her birthday. One day, God willing, I’ll be doing this work in the studio I long to build out back in the garage. It’s hard to describe how immensely satisfying shooting this work feels.

Roses, March 2019.
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Roses

Roses.03.2018_02_web
Rose, March 2018

IT WAS THE LONG THIRD MONTH OF WINTER AND I WAS GROUNDED FROM TRAVELING and I needed a subject. My wife said it was about time to throw out the roses I’d given her for Valentine’s Day, which had dried up in their vase. I had a long afternoon with nothing else to do and the cold winter sun was coming through the kitchen window, so…

Roses.03.2018_08_web

The buds were so dry that moving them from the big vase to the bud vase left petals all over the kitchen table. I could have set up my strobes or LED lights but I decided to just use the light from the kitchen windows. (Note to self: Use a tripod.) It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon; I’d be perfectly happy doing this sort of thing every day.

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Roses.03.2018_05_web
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Roses.03.2018_06_web
Roses.03.2018_04_web
Roses, March 2018

There was even a little left over for Instagram.


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