Party All-Stars at UOP

Let me be the first to say dental students at the University of the Pacific know how to have a good time.  Maybe it's the grueling class schedules, or the pressure of years of high expectations from friends and familiy.  Whatever the case, when we brought the Work It! Mobile Photo Studio to the so-called "Over the Hump" Party at Ana Mandara in San Francisco on January 28, was a good chance to celebrate how far they've come, and how much further they have to go.  They are young, beautiful, vivacious, with very bright futures.  Congrats to all.

p.s. if this is how you party at mid-year, we can't wait to see what graduation is like!



My Perfect Sunday

You know that feeling you get when a beautiful person walks into a room?  I have a theory that sunsets have the same effect.  People who are outside playing as the sun disappears below the horizon undergo a subtle, euphoric giddiness.  I figure it’s just what happens when you’re in the presence of beauty.

Last Sunday, my dear old friend Vicky Nguyen and I went out for some pregnancy portraits.  Since I don’t get to spend a lot of time with my own kids during the week, I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing the whole family on assignment with me.

I’ve known Vicky for 13 years; I’ve known Monita (above, with the bike) since 5th grade.  And there we all were, on an unusually warm winter evening, at Rancho San Antonio, playing in the shadow of a giant bay tree against a backdrop of pink and orange.  The kids AND adults were being extra silly.  Who knew back then that we'd all be growing old and raising our kids together?  Maybe it was the sunset working its magic again.  But as a photographer, dad, and nature lover, to be in the presence of so many things and people I love, it was heavenly.


A Green Screen Christmas


As a photographer, let me tell you, it’s easy to become complacent.  Same locations, same poses, same techniques.  Why reinvent the wheel, right?  Growth and development takes time, money, energy, and brain cells…all things I could use more of these days.

Which is why when I get the call every December from my dear old friend Vicky Nguyen about a family Christmas card photo, I stress.  I lose sleep, and spend way too much time thinking about it.  But as Tony Horton would say, “I love it, but I hate it.”  That’s because Vicky is a Type-A client.  She knows exactly what she wants, has very high standards, and does not settle.  I think every creative professional should have a Vicky Nguyen or two in their life to keep that fire burning.  Me?  I’m good with just one.  (Love you, girlfriend!)  Don't believe me?  Check out last year’s Christmas card photo.

So the concept was simple: giant toddler, shrunken parents, shrunken dogs.  The only way to do this was to embrace something I have been resisting for years, the use of a green screen.  But I finally caved, and bought this one at San Jose Camera and Video for $50.  It’s 9 feet wide and would have been incredibly expensive to ship.  So just buy one at your camera local store and save yourself the heartache.


Luckily, I have a crossbeam in the garage where I can mount and leave it without annoying the wife too badly.  $5 worth of PVC pipes and hooks, and voila, DIY green screen.

I put my son Lucas through the workflow to test out the kinks.  I learned:

a.       Light the background as evenly as possible to avoid problems in Photoshop later. 

b.      Get the subject as far away from the green screen as possible, or else the green will create a color cast, and give you problems later.  (See the green tint under his right foot in the polar bear composite image)

c.       Toddlers hate itchy wool hats.

When it came time to shoot, I chose to do 2-year-old Emmy first.  It made sense, because her head, arm and body position will dictate what everyone else will need to do.  (Note to self: write blog post titled “5 Most Common Techniques for Posing Kids:  Politeness, Bribery, Threats, Begging, and Shame”).  The giant oversized ornament came from Michael’s.  And thank goodness it was made out of plastic.

After that, it was  “easy” shooting the rest of the family.  Vicky had to pretend like she was off balance, all while pregnant and wearing heels.  Her husband had to hang from the crossbeam with one hand, at an awkward angle.

Treats work great for pets, but hangers work even better.  It also was consistent with the concept of dangling ornaments.

Despite what it looks like below, I'm happy to report the green screen survived, clean and unscathed.

Next came the background.  I used a shoot through umbrella directly above with a Nikon SB-800 at 1/64th power.  Camera settings:  ISO 160, f22, 22 seconds.  This provided for the right amount of sharpness and brightness from the lights.  I shot the tree from the same angle as all the subjects in front of the green screen to maintain consistency and "believeability".

 I had to reshoot the ornament, because in the original shot with Emmy, there was too much reflection.  This turned out to be quite a hassle because the round surface reflected everything.  So I had to cover everything in the room with a black cloth.  The lights were placed to the extreme left and right of the ornament.

Since this was my first green screen, I needed lessons in image extraction.  This tutorial helped out a lot.

After about 15 hours of post-production, here is the final result.  If you look at the right side of dad's shirt, or the dogs, you'll see the closest Christmas light actually "bleeds" color onto the subject.  It's a subtle touch that helps blend the composite and make you believe in giant toddlers. Can't wait 'til next year!


Nathan & Jill Wedding: Treasure Island

They are the quintessential Silicon Valley power couple.  He’s a startup guy, she’s a corporate lawyer.  And together, they put on a well-planned, thoughtful, and beautiful wedding on Treasure Island in San Francisco at Pavilion By The Bay.  I knew there were going to be some amazing moments to capture when the tears were already flowing during the rehearsal!  Throw in some charismatic friends and relatives, good food, an open bar, and the Work It! Mobile Photo Studio, and you have something special.  Something that reminds you, at the end of the day, what’s most important in life.

Check out their engagement photos, too.


Life Just Got Easier

I'm a firm believer that photography equipment should be viewed as tools that allow you to do the job quickly and painlessly, while still maintaing quality.  I have no patience for people who covet and baby their gear, walk around with their lens caps on because they are afraid of scratches, and brag about their megapixels and frame rates.  At the end of the day, it's all about the photo.

That said, I think my life just got easier.  Below, the Vagabond Mini Lithium is paired with the Einstein E640 from Paul C Buff, Inc., with a simple white, shoot-thru umbrella.  My brother-in-law Derek Wong is my assistant for the moment.  He's also married to a bác ky Vietnamese woman.  But that's a blog post for another day.  One more thing, Derek is also the same guy riding the bike in the title banner.

The Einstein has a total output of 640Ws.  To compare, Nikon speedlights are 60Ws.  So roughly, you are walking around with the power of about 10 flashes.  Since 2004, I've been shooting portraits on-location with at most two flashes, in a cumbersome, frustrating setup.  But the Einstein has changed all that.  With a cheaper rig that weighs only a few more pounds than a two-speedlight combo, the Einstein has opened up a whole new range of possibilities.  Since you'll be shooting at much lower power, your frame rates go up significantly.  It's a huge help when trying to catch people during key moments or when shooting kids.  It truly has the potential to be a real game changer.  

Here are the resulting photos.  ISO 320, 1/250s, f8, Einstein power at 1/16.  Location:  San Jose Camp, near Yosemite, CA.