Thursday, November 26, 2009

Revealing Form, Texture And Shape

At the end of my photo class last week we finished a session on lighting people, then tried a quick experiment to see how light can be used to create texture.

My students worked with a medium softbox and a reflector and explored ways to reveal an interesting space around three small rings, and to reveal the detail in the rings. One of the keys was to realise how important directionality is as a property of light. We wanted soft light, but we still wanted to create shape and reveal form.

Le Beaujolais Nouveau Est Bon

It pairs well with tofurkey, actually. (Above shot with a 90mm f/2.8 today.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Like The Boomtown Rats Said

It's a venerable tradition: the in-camera edit assignment.

Students in production classes all over the country do it, and it's been assigned for decades. A production team is asked to shoot a subject, but with no post-production: they shoot exactly what they'll show. It forces you to plan ahead, to know your story before charging in, and to get the essential shots.

Today, I was the subject of one of these. I had a reasonably good time. I'm generally a willing subject, and will usually do what the director suggests (unless it goes against my nature or ethics). Someone gives me a cue, I talk. Tell me to, and I walk. Pretend to teach someone here. Okay.

In a way, it was a good reminder how forced and acted documentary can be: I gave the crew what they wanted, I attempted to project my idea of myself, and it went the way it went. Nothing surprising will be revealed, I expect, and nothing outside the plan will emerge.

A good exercise, but a view into what is often the essential problem of documentary work: the mechanism includes a camera or two, a small crew, and an expectation of what will happen. Often, that's really a strange and ineffective tool -- if your goal is to find subtle insights into human nature.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Documentaries In The News

Two fascinating tales of terror. One: the Academy Award short list for feature-length documentaries. Two: an account of a few ... um ... alleged irregularities at the Queens International Film Festival. (Keep in mind, anyone can allege anything. I'm linking to the story as it has been published online -- but you'll definitely want to check out the facts for yourself.)

Ah, what a tangled web we weave, when we try not to deceive. Two somewhat shocking stories....

Oscar Short List of Documentaries Draws Controversy
Pressed for details, Mr. Toback said only that he had experienced something connected with the selections process, “which I put fully in the category of extortion that I did not go along with.” Mr. Toback added that he was “furious” at himself for “having chosen to be passive and quiet in the face of that extortion.”

Film fest head a fraud, many say
A New York filmmaker who served on the advisory board of the first QIFF and has worked with Castaldo on and off for the past several years, said he was conned out of $20,000 this summer. The filmmaker, who wished to remain anonymous as he is negotiating a big movie deal, said Castaldo offered to distribute a film he and his partner had made earlier this year. According to their agreement, the filmmaker allegedly paid Castaldo $20,000, with the understanding that she would take the film to Cannes. “She never went to Cannes,” he said. “It was one total ripoff. ... Everything was phony.” Castaldo allegedly tried to convince him that she had been to Cannes, showing him a website with video footage of her there. The filmmaker said he soon discovered that the footage was doctored. The website offers to Photoshop anyone into Cannes, he said.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nothing To See There

My students are cutting a scene from a cancelled TV show. It's straightforward: a character walks into an office, talks to two other characters, is introduced to a guest, delivers a few key lines. It's shot in "single-camera" style, meaning the camera is generally on one character in one framing while all the characters run the scene. Next framing, repeat.

So the idea is fairly clear: assemble meaning from shots that are generally ready to cut together, but watch out for the inevitable small problems. Then find ways to keep the scene flowing nicely, to have it hit its key emotional points, and -- in this case -- to make the editing essentially invisible.

They seem to be enjoying it.

Above: my students are amused that I photograph banal details, like the floor.

From The Mailbox

Got a pleasant note from the folks at Olympia Film Festival tonight. It said:

Everyone had a ton of fun with Hoop Springs Eternal. Thanks for letting us show it!


Monday, November 16, 2009

Good Work, New York

First, the subway stairwell handrail was broken, then a few days later it was repaired. Great.

See how easy that was? If someone knocks something over, consider putting the exact same thing back up in its place, and fast. Don't wait a decade, have meetings, politicize the process, and leave an open hole. Better yet: go ahead with putting up something significantly better -- but do it fast, like when the Pre-Parthenon was destroyed.

See? Art history has valuable lessons in it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Change and Turnover

I haven't really paid attention to the many people who say the decade is ending. I tend to think that since we start counting with "one" and not "zero" the first year of the millennium was 2001. Meaning 2010 is part of the decade, not the start of the next one.

As 2000 approached, I kept telling people: "Nope. Not the start of the millennium. That will be 2001." I said it a lot. Then I won a photography contest, and the prize was a "Kodak Millennium 2000" camera.

New Friends Are Silver, Old Friends Are Phallic

I tend to snap away with the iPhone. Anything on the ground or wall is fair game. Sometimes, however, I'm not sure what to do with these images. Today, a pairing: an image in gold found on a Manhattan wall, an image in silver from The Bronx.

Soap Opera Ending

Above, an iPhone snapshot from The Bronx.

Hoop Springs Eternal

Hoop Springs Eternal is now available to watch free, online at SnagFilms. The film follows professional hula hoopers Loren Bidner and Jenny McGowan. There's more about the film on Be sure and give it a vote on Snag or IMDB.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Further Persistent Idiocy

The concept of "persistence of vision" was discredited decades ago. People who write about it are dumb. So, in the interest of public service I call people out on it.

To understand how long this has been discredited as an idea read THE MYTH OF PERSISTENCE OF VISION REVISITED from 1993 (a followup to a 1978 paper) which points out the idea has been proven wrong SINCE 1912.

So, who's "teaching" about the importance of "persistence of vision" today?

Filmsite by Tim Dirks

This ridiculous page cites the discredited idea five times to start its history of film. Is that surprising? No. Because if you randomly check ANY of the facts Tim Dirks publishes under his name, you'll find the level of research scholarship here isn't acceptable for a sixth-grade book report. Let's try a couple....

Hmmm. Right here on that same page he says "1860 The zoetrope, another animation toy, was invented by French inventor Pierre Desvignes."

Huh. Interesting. Let's check that. Oh, it was actually invented in 1834 by William George Horner, according to reputable sources.

Wait ... doesn't it also say that just above the 1860 entry? Strange. Confusing. Unclear.

Pick any other page. You'll find errors, misunderstandings, and generally an emphasis on the wrong things (for example, Dirks pushes an attempt to understand film history through a decade-by-decade approach, which is extremely ineffective). How do I know this? Because my students, despite my best warnings, often resort to searching Google for "film history" and Dirks' site shows up. So for years I've been correcting papers based on his "facts" -- and you'd be surprised how much I've learned from doing the fact-checking he can't be bothered with.

So, take care, people, and do some factchecking -- Tim Dirks isn't going to do that for you.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Advanced Seriously Fun Photography, Week 2

In last night's Advanced Seriously Fun Photography class our main goal was to really tune in and see light. We looked at the qualities of light, then tried to apply that to how the camera sees light. A few ideas became obvious right away: because the eye opens up when it looks at dark areas and closes down when it looks at bright areas, usually the camera records a more contrasty version of a scene than our eye sees. Dark tones become darker, falling into solid black, and light areas may burn out in a photograph even though our eye can preserve detail in the same scene.

We started our exploration by making a purposefully "bad" shot -- taking a person into tricky or unflattering light and trying a photograph there. We noticed where light falls on the human face, and it creates a shape (for better or worse). We then followed that up by trying to "repair" the light in that spot. We added a reflector to fill in shadow areas, or used fill flash to try to better light the subject.

Fill flash can be tough, and we struggled with it. That's not a problem: it's tough for photographers at every level. We again practiced methods of balancing ambient light and on-camera flash, and we looked at what happens when we're able to bounce light off a ceiling or wall. We also tried bouncing off a reflector or using a reflector as diffusion material.

We attempted to understand the qualities of light: hard light versus soft light, the directionality of light, the color of light, and then tried an experiment in seeing how we could "short" light a person's face. Our basic technique here was to put the subject in a position where they turned slightly to the right or left. We then looked at which cheek was "leading" (toward the camera) and experimented in giving that cheek more light or deemphasizing it by letting shadow fall on it. This clearly changed the shape of the face as read in the photograph.

We also looked a bit at how focal length effects the face: we compared the same framing of a face at medium and telephoto focal lengths and realizing that longer focal lengths appear to compress or flatten the features.

We also tried to put all these elements together for a casual portrait, trying to train our eyes to see the light, while still choosing a good framing, appropriate focal length and maintaining a relationship with our portrait subject.

In the end, however, our goal was to stop projecting our expectations of what we'd see and really see the light present. As well, this was a lead in to next week, when we will be using studio lighting and trying to really see and control light.

Our homework was to shoot one portrait of this type, using natural light or adding flash as needed.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Watch, Vote, Comment

Follow the above video to SnagFilms, if you're in the mood. You're votes and comments are appreciated.

Hoop Springs Eternal

Above, a doc produced in five days. Watch it, give it a vote.

Olympian Effort

Our short film Hoop Springs Eternal will screen tonight at Olympia Film Festival. (It's made with Chris Corradino, Linda Goldman, and Maya Mumma, featuring Loren Bidner and Jenny McGowan.)

I think it's scheduled after Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth and before Sissyboy -- about 9:45 p.m. or so -- but there's no love for us on a schedule listing, however. Maybe they figure it's so good it should remain secret, thereby avoiding a stampede for tickets.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How About No?

I find that people project their own ideas on me all the time. Perhaps I make that easy: they figure I want whatever it is that they want. Generally I don't.

Above: an overhead mirror at Hunter on Monday.

Connecting A Sony To Studio Lighting

Studio lighting is generally triggered by a cable that has a "PC" connector on one end -- the end that connects to your camera -- and a guitar-plug connector on the other that connects to a monolight or the power pack for a studio lighting kit. At one time, that "PC" connector was fairly universal, provided on even entry-level SLR cameras.

In the era of digital cameras, the PC connector -- not anything to do with personal computers, just an older electrical connector used for decades in camera equipment -- has become a "pro" feature and is not usually available on entry-level DSLR cameras, and not even on some of the midline cameras.

You can compensate by putting a radio trigger on your camera's hotshoe, or triggering the studio lights by using your on-camera flash in a way that hits the lighting kits sensor.

It's best, however, to get an adaptor that will let you work directly with the PC cable. And it isn't expensive. For Sony DSLR's the way to go is the Seagull SC-5 Hot Shoe Flash Adapter to PC and Standard Hot Shoes for Sony Alpha / Minolta Maxxum Cameras. You slide it onto your flash hot shoe, and it has a PC connector on the side. Plug in the PC cable there and you can use studio strobes anywhere.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Me, Me, Me, And Then Stuff About Me

There's a lot going on, but in overly self-important news, read Part One and Part Two of an interview on doc production. Featuring me. Based on Actual Events.

More significant news soon.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Words, Words, Words

Here are two links about the documentary process. Also something or other about me in there as well. (You can read it as a drinking game, if you like: every time I go on too long about a point, take a drink. When I say something overserious about the documentary process, take a drink.)

What goes into making a documentary?

Honesty and documentary film making

That's Not Lake Minnetonka

A little interview on What goes into making a documentary? in which I detail some of the process involved in our short documentaries. Part two tomorrow.

Just what you need, more words from me.

Prose On Park Avenue Purple Post

A long while back I was walking to a meeting on Park Avenue when I ended up behind a nice couple. The woman had purple hair, so out of reflex I snapped a photo with my iPhone. There wasn't much to it, just a snap.

Today, again on Park, I found myself behind the same couple. "No need to take a picture," I thought. "I've already got one."

That's when a woman walked toward us, also with purple hair.

So I whipped my phone up near eye level and took the shot.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Advanced Photography, Week One

Last night I taught the first session of Advanced Seriously Fun Photography.

We started by developing our goals for the class. I tailor the class to the people taking it, so we have some freedom with choosing topics and how we learn those. After some review of technical basics (I'll put that at the end of this post) we explored a range of possibilities using shutter speed. We worked at figuring out the correct exposure in our dimly lit classroom, and then realized that for a still life we could overcome that by using longer shutter speeds. Of course, below 1/60th of a second we found that handheld shots can soften or blur, so we started using a tripod. By using slower shutter speeds, we were able to shoot a still life even at f/16 or f/22.

Then we explored how much blur a pen falling off a desk would have at various slow shutter speeds. We then figured out how fast we could push the shutter speed to freeze the pen -- under the existing available light conditions. In our dark classroom, we found the limit on one of our cameras was an exposure of 1/500th of a second at f/5.6 and ISO 3200.

We then learned that this control over shutter speed was very helpful if we were going to try to balance on-camera flash with an exposure for the background. So we went through a process of determining a good manual exposure for a background, then adding flash to a shot to light our subject. After a bit, we were able to control both: we could make our ambient exposure one stop dark and adjust flash compensation, and that gave us good control over both our subject and the ambient background.

We later tried "dragging the flash" -- holding the exposure lock button in a dim situation and letting the camera use a slower shutter speed. This helped us to quickly get a balance between the background exposure and our subject.

Next we explored the amount of blurring that shutter speeds allow. We started with exploring someone walking as we tried 1/30th of a second and 1/15th of a second. We then added flash to this and discovered how a trail was created, and then how we could control where the trail was by using second-curtain or rear-curtain sync.

Then we spun umbrellas at varying speeds and explored slower shutter speeds in relation to the amount of blur. We also explored using fill flash on a person to fill-in areas where ambient lighting was leaving heavy shadows.

After clarifying the techniques available to us changing shutter speed, and a few basics on adding flash, as a last technical experiment, we lined everyone up in the hallway and explored how we could use aperture to control depth-of-field, taking a range of shots from f/5.6 to f/22.

The homework for this week is to explore that ambient / flash balance. You can hear Ted talking about this subject here: Ted explaining matching flash and ambient lighting.

Also, try out your own version of our Depth-of-Field experiment.

The photographers to research this week are Mary Ellen Mark and Elliott Erwitt.


We learned that to control exposure, we need to work with three related elements: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and Sensitivity.

The f/stops to memorize are f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22. If you forget these, make two columns, and at the top of the left one write 1.4 and at the top of the right one write 2.0. Now double each number as you go down the column (rounding off when needed). Changing one stop lets in twice as much light (or half as much, depending on which direction you go. f/2 lets in a lot of light, f/22 lets in very little light. So if you took a picture using f/8 and it seemed a little too dark, you would switch to f/5.6. If you took a picture using f/8 and it seemed a little too bright, you'd switch to f/11.

Shutter Speed:
The common shutter speeds are:
1/1000th of a second
1 second.

-- As a rule of thumb, if you are moving and you're subject is moving, you'll want to be shooting at 1/1000th of a second to get a sharp picture.

-- If you are still but the subject is moving along, it would be good to be at 1/250th or faster.

-- If you and the subject are both relatively still, you can probably handhold the camera as slow as 1/60th, but slower than that and you'll get a soft picture because of camera shake caused by pressing the shutter.

-- At speeds that are slower, you'll need a tripod to steady the camera, and probably want to trigger it using the self-timer or a release.

-- Many decent cameras have higher shutter speeds, and these are very useful for action or sports.

Notice that the relationship of these shutter speed settings is also doubling (or halving) the amount of light that hits your sensor.

This is the ISO "speed" of a digital sensor or of film. ISO 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and 3200 are available on many cameras (but not all), and you should take some test shots with yours to find out if the higher ISO settings are usable or not. Figure out the fastest ISO speed you find produces acceptable shots on your camera -- you'll need to switch to it sooner or later. Notice that each ISO speed is twice as sensitive (or half as sensitive) as the next.

Then we decided to start applying our general knowledge about the relationship between apertures and depth of field. While we start to get the idea when we say "f/2 -- shallow depth of field and f/22 - deep depth of field" actually trying this out in with some real world shots is always a good experiment.

So we set up an experiment that can be repeated at home: set your camera on a table or a tripod, and in front of it arrange people or objects in a receding line. Put the first person or thing just 3 feet away from the lens, and have the furthest be at least 12 feet away. Now set the widest aperture you can -- I use a lens that goes to f/1.4 for this -- and focus on the closest person or object. You'll probably find that the people / objects behind that are out of focus. Now run through the whole series of aperture settings you have available (you'll probably want to be in "aperture priority mode" so that the camera sets the corresponding shutter speed for an acceptable exposure. Or you can set that yourself). Try this and compare each shot -- more and more will be in focus until you should be able to get everyone in focus.

Now, keep in mind there's one other factor here -- the focal length you shoot with. Usually the effect of getting a main subject in focus and the background out of focus is much easier to achieve if you use a lens of at least 50mm or set as zoom to 50mm focal length or a more telephoto setting.

Many photographers think that "telephoto lenses have shallow depth of field and wide angle lenses have deep depth of field" -- it turns out that isn't exactly true, but for pragmatic purposes it isn't a bad way to think. If the goal is a sharp subject and a blurry background -- grab a 90mm or set your zoom lens about there.

(For a discussion on why the wide focal lens = deep depth of field idea isn't precisely true, read Do wide-angle lenses give you greater depth of field than long lenses?.)

Another thing that comes up at this point: some lenses allow your camera to reach to f/1.4 or f/2 or f/2.8, but many times the "kit lens" zoom that comes with a DSLR or the zoom lens built into a compact camera will not go to that wide-open an aperture. And to further add to the confusion: many common lenses that go from 18mm to 55mm (or 70mm) let you go to f/3.5 when using the widest focal length (18mm) but only to f/5.6 when you are using the long end of the lens (55mm or 70mm). That's just how those lenses are built.

Now, once we know a technique to control depth of field -- go towards f/2 to get a sharp person, blurry background or toward f/22 to get subject and background both focuses -- we want to think about why we would do it. Well, it's that kind of control that lets us emphasize or deemphasize what a viewer sees in a photograph, so we want to master it so we can control our images. Need to photograph a person against a cluttered, distracting background? Use selective focus. Need to show that a person has kids but keep the emphasis on the person? Use selective focus to make the kids visible but de-emphasized.

So, from a technical standpoint, as we approach any photo situation we'll want to decide on an ISO setting, a shutter speed and an aperture. The three are interrelated and all use a doubling / halving system so it is easy to calculate how to change them when needed.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Wiseman's "La Danse"

I've mentioned Frederick Wiseman as an influence a few times previously. I was fortunate enough to see him speak in 2006, and I think his body of work is monumental.

Great short article on his latest in today's NYT:

Creating Dialogue From Body Language
In “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet,” his 36th documentary in more than 40 years, Frederick Wiseman takes his camera into the stately and elegant Palais Garnier in Paris, observing rehearsals, staff meetings and, finally, performances of seven dances, including classics like “The Nutcracker” and spiky new work by younger choreographers. To say that the film, sumptuous in its length and graceful in its rhythm, is a feast for ballet lovers is to state the obvious and also to sell Mr. Wiseman’s achievement a bit short. Yes, this is one of the finest dance films ever made, but there’s more to it than that.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

News Flash

Our short film Hoop Springs Eternal will be screening at Olympia Film Festival on Thursday, November 12th, sometime around 9:45 p.m.

And I've just learned our documentary short Blind Faith: A Film About Seeing will screen at Picture This Film Festival in February 2010 in Calgary. Apparently the film won Honourable Mention in the Documentary under 10 minutes category.

Any good news is appreciated these days.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Last Call, 6-Week Advanced Photo Class

Sorry to be all commercial-like, but this is probably the last chance to register for my Advanced Seriously Fun Photography class at Hunter Continuing Education. It's scheduled to start November 5th, and held at 94th Street and Park Avenue, fairly close to the 6 train.

The way to see the listing and register is to go to this interface and type "photography" into the search box.
Ready to stretch your creativity, and master the techniques you need for your photography? In this advanced photography class, we will address three topic areas of intermediate / advanced photography technique -- chosen by the students during our first session -- and we will have three special class photography sessions. (These sessions may include a class photo shoot, a museum / gallery / auction house visit, and a studio lighting shoot.) Students will also prepare a small portfolio project over the six weeks of the course, with a critique session in our last week.

Course/Section: SERFUNII/1 6 Session(s) 12 Hour(s) Tuition: $250.00
Day(s) Meet: Thursday Date: 11/05/09-12/17/09 Time: 06:00PM-08:00PM
Location: CS, 71 E 94 ST./
Instructor(s): FISHER, TED

In A World Something Something, One Man Stands Alone

Today I'm giving a lecture on editing structure in film trailers. There's more to it than the text below, with lots of examples and ideas and such, but here are the basic background notes. For what they're worth.

Editing Film Trailers

A film trailer combines storytelling with persuasion.

Editing a film is about story structure.

There's a beginning, that brings us into a new world. It usually starts with a hook -- a short, very interesting part, like a well-told joke, that sets the tone for the film and shows us it will be good. Then we meet the characters, and learn about this world and begin to care about it. The beginning usually ends by revealing a big problem.

The middle usually involves the characters trying to solve this problem. Usually their struggles pull us into greater complications -- and usually raise the stakes or lead to even more critical problems.

The end is usually a showdown: we move toward the moment when a character's struggle -- internal or external -- reaches a major test or confrontation or decision. Usually there's some resolution after this, as the world settles after all the upset.

A trailer, however, has a different goal and different rules. The goal is to get people to buy a ticket to a film (or buy the DVD, or order the film on-demand) so we can't use "pure" story structure -- that would give away the ending -- and we have to use persuasion techniques to “sell” the film to the audience.

Persuasion techniques go back thousands of years. Aristotle identified three basic persuasion techniques:

  • Appeal based on authority.
  • Appeal based on reason.
  • Appeal based on emotion.

There are others that work -- and you've seen all types of them in commercials. These three are still the main persuasive appeals, though, and show up in film trailers.

When you see elements that tell us who the actors, director or producers are -- this is persuasion based on the authority of the filmmakers.

When you see lists of awards a film has won, or quotes from great reviews, that's an appeal to your reason.

When the trailer itself makes you feel a certain way, that's a persuasive appeal.

A typical trailer structure:

  • A hook - gets our interest, reveals the style of the film.
  • Reveal a new world. Now show us the big problem.
  • Show us the characters -- and the problem gets deeper.
  • 60 percent in, there’s a big reveal, often character motivation.
  • Then we drive toward a big showdown.
  • We end on a “final note.”