a little experiment

oil and water

a simple set-up: a clear casserole dish raised above some colourful wrapping paper. Add water, and a bit of oil, and start snapping! It's truly addictive.

One of my favourite parts about teaching is how much I end up learning from the process.  In a recent class one of my students mentioned an intriguing idea for a macro shoot.  He shared this video with me, and it seemed too interesting an idea to pass up.  The beauty of this project is in the simplicity.  All you need is a clear glass bowl, some cooking oil, water, and some colourful paper or fabric.  The photographer in the video uses an old hawaiian shirt, but my closet is slightly less exciting, so I used some spaceship wrapping paper.  Simply raise the bowl above the floor using glasses or books or whatever else you have handy, add water and a bit of oil, place the colourful paper/fabric underneath, and start shooting!

Like so many of my projects, this probably would have been much easier with a tripod, but mine is on its last legs (pardon the pun) and could not be trusted to support my camera pointing straight down into a dish of oil and water.  So, hand-holding it was.  Because I was shooting inside instead of outdoors on a bright sunny day, I used a studio flash to give me the light I needed, which meant my shutter speed was nice and fast, even at 100 ISO.  The tricky thing was focus.  Autofocus was having a hard time finding the edges of the shapes, particularly after I stirred the water to break up the oil bubbles, so I switched to manual mode and tried to keep my camera on a level where I had focus just on the surface of the water and oil.  I ended up with a bunch of photos that weren’t quite sharp enough, but I do like the flexibility of being able to aim the camera on the fly instead of relying on whatever composition the camera is pointing at from the tripod.

The possibilities from this simple set-up are really endless, and I definitely plan to explore this in more depth in the future.  My next experiment will most likely involve trying to get nice and close up to those individual bubbles to see what sort of reflection/refraction I can get from the paper below.  Been having so much fun with this year’s experiments so far – can’t wait to try something else new and exciting!

oil and water

experimenting with depth of field to isolate just a few bubbles.


Project:52, pet portraits (week 5)


a simple, window-lit portrait. The contrast between the cool-toned light from the window behind Bug and the warm-toned lamp light beside him add some nice colour to a black kitty.

Because Erin and I are both avid cat-lovers, doing pet portraits for one of our weekly photography challenges this year was pretty much a given.  As we are still in avoiding-outside-as-much-as-possible mode, this seems as good a time as any to do some creative work with our favourite furry subjects.  Being a cat owner and a photographer, I do already have quite the collection of kitty portraits in my photo library.  So while I do love the above portrait, in order to properly challenge myself I decided to try something a little bit different for this project.

One of my favourite things to do with the cats (other than curl up on the couch with one on my lap of course!) is watch them chase a laser pointer.  Both of our cats absolutely go nuts as soon as that little red light appears, and they’ll stalk it for hours if we let them.  For this week’s photo, I wanted to see what sort of images I could capture of them playing.  This concept was complicated slightly by the fact that my tripod is missing the piece that would hold the camera in a vertical position.  Because I imagined a vertical shot with the trail of the laser light visible, I had to prop my camera up on the coffee table (with the lens rested on a book) in order to keep it stable for the longer shutter speeds.

It required a fair bit of trial and error to get the exposure right.  I started shooting on my default setting, AV, with an aperture of f9.  With an ISO of 100, my shutter speed was way too long at 15 seconds.  By opening the aperture to f4.5, the camera was giving me shutter speeds between 2.5 and 4 seconds.  And that variation was the problem:  depending on how dominant the cat was in the frame, the camera re-calculated the shutter speed to compensate for the amount of black cat against the white wall.  So sometimes there would be a nice laser light trail, and other times there would only be a short bit.  Switching to manual mode let me keep my shutter at 2 seconds, which gave me just enough time to record a nice bit of the laser’s light and the cat’s movement as she chased it.  This type of shoot requires a whole lot of patience and practice:  cats aren’t always the most cooperative of models at the best of times so you certainly have to be prepared to shoot a whole lot in order to get a couple of good images, particularly when trying to capture them at play.  Adding the laser into the mix provides another unique variable.  I found I needed to do a fair bit of post-processing to get the laser to stand out the way I wanted.  For this image I decreased the saturation to remove some of the yellow tones in the image, added a curves layer to increase the contrast and applied a Topaz Adjust filter to really bring out the texture in the floor and the cat’s fur (as well as editing the contrast of the laser separately to ensure it stood out.)

If I try this again, I’d love to try drawing shapes or words with the laser – but for now this was quite a fun experiment, and I’m quite pleased with the shots I got.  (Think Meeka definitely enjoyed her modelling stint too!)

Next week’s challenge:  food photography!

Chasing the laser

Aperture f4 at 2.5 seconds.

Project:52, sparkly ice (week 4)

miniature ice landscape

I can't get over how magical and surreal a tiny patch of ice can become with the right perspective, perfect sunlight and a simple close-up filter.

Yesterday morning it was cold.  Cold enough to cancel my regularly scheduled morning walk with a friend, cold enough that the snow makes hard crunchy noises underfoot and your breath makes huge clouds around your face, cold enough for most normal people to avoid the outdoors whenever possible.  So why is it, when I looked out the window that morning that I bundled on extra layers of clothing and ran outside into the parking lot?  Well, clearly, because I am a photographer.  (You could probably safely substitute ‘crazy’ for ‘photographer’ in a multitude of cases … this one included!)

But honestly, how could I resist?  The morning sun was just coming up over the rooftops, and that extra-cold snow sparkled all kinds of awesome when the light hit it.  Since Erin and I decided that our weekly photo challenge this week was to bring some sparkle to the snow, I figured that this was the perfect opportunity and not to be missed!  Such are the trials of a photographer really.  We’re always chasing moments, and trying to capture the perfect light.  So who am I to stay cozy inside when that perfect light is sparkling just outside my window?

In fact on this very chilly morning, I actually had to make 2 trips outside to satisfy the photographer bug in me.  When I first saw that gorgeous golden sun kissing the snow, I was just a bit too slow pulling on my winter gear and made it outside just as the sun faded behind a thin layer of clouds.  I was able to get a couple decent shots before my extremities began to chill, but nothing truly sparkly and epic.  Of course, not 15 minutes after I was back inside, the sun broke out of the clouds again … so back out I went.  This time, I noticed the lovely little patch of ice next to our walkway.  Frozen drips from the last warm day had left a bubbly impression on the surrounding snow, and the light was hitting it just perfectly.  What’s a photographer to do but lie down on the concrete and start shooting?  I had one of my close-up filters screwed onto my 50mm 1.4 lens in order to get nice and close to the tiny hills of ice.  Usually I like to keep the lens wide open to blur the background, but with the close-up filter I needed to give myself a bit of extra depth of field in order to capture the sparkly bokeh as the sun reflected off the ice and snow, so I opted for an aperture of 3.5.

Because I was back and forth between inside and out, my white balance inadvertently got left on tungsten.  However, when I checked my screen after the first couple of shots, I really liked the look, so I didn’t bother to switch it to a more accurate setting.  One of the bonuses of shooting files in RAW is that I can always change it back to ‘normal’ later while editing, and I did test it, but in the end the blue was just too cool.  As far as post-processing goes, there was really very little to do:  I increased the contrast with a curves adjustment, de-saturated the blue just a touch, and removed a couple tiny flecks of black seeds that were caught in the ice.  The final image reminds me of some amazing bug photography here … I almost wish I had a teeny figure to include in the scene.  Alas, this morning’s snow has hidden that ice world from view – I’ll have to see if I can get myself a teeny tiny little model (of the non-bug variety, preferably!) before I find the next frozen miniature landscape.


Project:52, shadows (week 3)

this will become part of an ongoing series of 'portraits' of this doll. I haven't worked with her in a while, and I've really missed her! this project was also the perfect excuse to use her little teddy, which I haven't had occasion to do before.

Ok, maybe you noticed … I’m a tad bit behind in this whole ‘Project:52’ thing. Only 2 complete projects so far, and it is now the beginning of February! Oops. Funny how time just slips away on you. With 3 new photography classes starting up this past week, my month has been fairly busy with prep work. But hopefully, now that the classes have all gotten underway, life will allow a little more leeway for photo adventures! These weekly projects definitely are a great excuse to stretch the creative muscles.

Our third photo ‘assignment’ was shadows. As soon as we set the project, I knew I wanted to do a shoot with my little doll – in fact I had the final image pretty solidly envisioned in my mind. This is often a lot trickier than going into a shoot with an open mind because it can be rather difficult (and sometimes impossible) to create that perfect image from in your head.  But with some patience and trial and error, I managed to get almost exactly what I was imagining.  My original vision included the shadow of a hand reaching down towards her, but that proved logistically tricky:  attempting to place the hand close enough to the subject or wall so that the shadow is clearly defined as a hand, but far enough away so it’s not in the shot was more of a riddle than I could solve.  Looking through the images, including that extra shadow complicated the image more than I liked, so I’m quite happy with the simplicity of the spotlight.

One of the clear advantages of this weekly project is that already I’m considering light in a new way.  As a primarily natural light photographer, being forced to use light to freeze the action of falling fruit or perfectly frame a tiny doll is a wonderful challenge!

my fancy homemade studio

to get the spotlight effect I wanted, I used a desk lamp shot through a small hole in a piece of construction paper. I set a piece of frosted glass just to the right of the frame to bounce a little light back into the shadows on the subject.

In case you’re slightly curious about this doll, you’ll probably see a fair bit more of her as this project progresses.  She is actually a re-purposed McDonald’s Happy Meal toy that I took apart and remade as a part of an independent study in my final year at NBCCD.  The project (for class) ended with a series of photographs of the doll in various locations around the city.  But I’ve kept her with me ever since, just living in my camera bag, and take her out whenever a location inspires me.  I’m hoping to fine-tune this series and start posting a gallery sometime soon(ish) which will include more details about my process and why I’m mildly obsessed with this tiny little plaything.