Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Travel Blog #1: "Why Mimes Have It All Figured Out"

I'm pretty sure mimes have it all figured out.

They don't talk.

If they don't talk no one can really get annoyed with them. This has been on my mind all day because my wife has been packing. Packing makes her crabby. Exceptionally crabby. Maybe dangerous crabby.

"Just say the word if you want to do this job," my ordinarily mostly pleasant but much better half will snarl. I stand to be corrected, but I think her eye teeth grow a couple of inches and her fingernails lengthen and sharpen all on their own.

Yes. It is a good day to be a mime.

We are sitting together right now. The bags are packed and waiting by the door. We've reserved a taxi driver. I met him the other day: he has an impossible name -- so he told me to just "call me Bob."

We've negotiated a fee for a trip to the airport -- which is going to be a lot more economical because parking there for nearly three weeks will be ghastly expensive as opposed to only mildly unpleasantly expensive.

These past few days have been a blur: getting Brazillian money, working at the company doing a huge payroll for the performers, the last six hundred and seven details that need to be taken care of before we charge off onto our trip.

The snow started this morning and it hasn't stopped. Being basically a pretty anal person, I have checked the flights at the airport. (Okay...Sheree told me to check the flights.) A bunch of them are delayed. Not ours. Yet.

The happy anticipation has given way to a few tendrils of anxiety. I am not sure exactly why. Don't get me wrong -- I am still really excited about the trip -- but there's something about jumping off the high travel diving board (an overly flowery way of saying "boy we are going a long way from home") that usually makes me take a few minutes to pray for safety, great pictures, wonderful encounters with people and splendid travel memories.

We'll be using our Nexus passes for the first time tonight. Nexus, for those of you who don't know, is a way of getting across the US/Canada border more quickly. Applying takes some time, background checks and scans of your eyes -- but the immense satisfaction of taking the fast lane through customs will be worth it. (I am usually the one in the line-up glaring at people like me, muttering "who they think they are? " But tonight I think I'll wave at the person trapped at the end of the line who is REALLY in a hurry. Maybe I'll wish them a cheery "Happy New Year" as I pass them. This should be a relatively safe course of action since there is always ample security at airports.)

So here's where we're going, since you are coming along, okay? We're flying to Toronto. From Toronto, we fly to Fort Lauderdale and from Fort Lauderdale, we get on the cruise ship.

I've checked the documents at least a dozen times. Passport: Yup. Yellow Fever Certificate: Yup. (I am PDG "Pretty Darn Glad" Sheree remembered that certificate since I forgot all about it and you can't get onto the ship without it...which would SERIOUSLY suck) Brazillian visa inside passport: Yup.

Camera, charger, lenses, lens pen, lens wipe, camera manual, flashlight, silica -- yup, yup, yup, yup, ummm yup...yup, yup. iPod, Palm Pilot and laptop? Yup. Power cords for all of the above? Yup.

Since we've flown before, let me suggest you do what I've done. (Okay: what Sheree TOLD me to do.) Pack your toothbrush and all the things that make you feel fresh and acceptable to the world -- along with a clean pair of underwear in your carry-on bag. This way if (God forbid) you get messed up at the airport, you can be a sweet smelling mega stressed out traveller.

Sheree has promised a glass of her world-class egg nog before we go. I'll ask her to make one for you too.

We'll get on the plane a few minutes before midnight and take off about twenty minutes into the New Year. I've led a relatively sheltered life and actually think that's pretty cool.

Now we just need Bob, a couple of planes and a ship.

Monday, December 29, 2008

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...

Yup. It's a holiday classic, isn't it? Andy Williams warbling his way through "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." The song was recorded before I was born and has played every year since.

Let me tell you about the last time I heard it. It was about five days ago. I was in an elf costume about to do a show in a downtown restaurant. There were, of course, two significant things figuring into my particular situation at that moment:

1) A six foot tall guy lugging sound equipment and magic props through downtown streets invariably attracts well as the odd rude comment and/or slack-jawed stare, which is why I make a point of whistling Jingle Bells REAL loud.

2) Since it was -28, I really just wanted to stay in the car. Where it was warm. And strangers don't point and laugh. And a cold wind doesn't freeze the important stuff under my tunic -- which, come to think of it, is a really stupid notion for "clothing to give someone who lives at the North Pole." (I suspect Santa gives his little people tunics to ensure they stay inside.)

But it is being a magician and special events fella at Christmas time that enables my wife and me to hit the TRULY "Most Wonderful Time of the Year." I am speaking specifically about that golden period between Christmas and New Year.

What makes this time of year so special?

It's the time when the work is done and Sheree and I are joyfully getting ready for our Big January Trip. It's what I look forward to throughout the Christmas season. Last year we were off to Australia and New Zealand. It was a classic. We met wonderful people, took great photos and did some serious travelling. (I see a tremendous difference, by the way, between "travel" and "vacation." Vacationers rest. Travel isn't restful. It's an experience that takes you to places you'll never see sleeping in or grazing a buffet. Travel makes you tired...and happy...and, well, awed.)

In two short days, both of us get on a plane to Fort Lauderdale -- and will board a cruise ship bound ultimately for the Amazon River and Manaus -- deep inside Brazil.

THIS is one of the best parts of the trip. This is when we pack up clothes and photography equipment. My wife makes lists. It's when I ask her if everything on the list is really necessary. She just sighs and continues packing.

It's when we buy colorful money from a nation we've never been to, because we are going's when we both feel a joyful anticipation over where we are going and who we will meet, the places we'll see and the food we'll eat.

I LOVE this part. I really do. It's the difference between being a kid and looking in anticipation at the glittering tree and being that same kid on Christmas afternoon, after the presents have been unwrapped and all the mysterious rattles revealed. We are, right now, in that happy travel state of having no idea what's going to happen...with the whole trip before us.

Why am I telling you all this stuff?

Because I'd like you to come along. Here's my proposal: let's take the trip together. I'll take pictures and think hard about how to tell you about the things we see and the people we meet. And I will send you blogs at every possible location...every day if I can.

Yup. It's true that I get to do the fun parts. (Which is only fair since, y'know, I was the guy in the elf suit freezing his bells off to pay for this trip.) But I'd really like to share this with you.

So get out your sun screen and a trashy novel. Reserve a deck chair near the pool and consider yourself invited along on a cruise to ports we've never heard of, down the Amazon River and finishing everything up with a few days poking around Key West, Florida.

How does that sound?

You want to come along? I hope so...because you're invited.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Eve This Year...

When I was a kid the big Christmas Eve event was sitting on my father's lap and having him read "The Night Before Christmas." As the story neared it's conclusion (the same conclusion every year) we'd breathe a little faster because following the story, we'd be allowed to open ONE Christmas gift -- as long as it wasn't the "big one."

That was then. This year, Sheree and I packed up her brand new Canon 50D (which she loves, by the way) and my eVolt and went to a cemetary.

It was freezing outside, with temps below the -26c mark. (You guys know about shooting in cold weather, right? You simply accept that the cold will suck the life out of your battery and make your camera cranky. It's best to keep the camera inside your jacket so it can stay warm.) We did a lot of shooting, ran back to the warm car and then headed out again.

It was a memorable afternoon. I love graveyards, especially when I stop to consider that under each tombstone is something that used to be a person, and that what is on the tombstone is what the people left behind think you should know about them.

Sometimes it's just their last name (which I have always suspected is because that's the least expensive package) and sometimes there are grand displays. Like this angel.

I've seen her in summer under the blistering heat. Here she is in winter, with her fall foliage covered in the dusting of snow we got a few days ago.

I've added the bokeh to the edges to direct the eye to the subject of the shot. I increased the vibrance on the leaves inside Photoshop. Because she came off as "way too grey" -- I first used the Burn Tool to accent her lines. Then I used the nifty new CS4 Vibrance setting.

The shot from behind really worked for me as well. I loved the shell look of the wings, contrasted with the snow coating her head and her wings.

It's the same statue -- just two completely different views of it. See how changing your position can radically change the way your image is presented?

The shot at the top of this blog was something I set up. Those are my tracks heading off into the distance. I put them into the snow at that angle because I wanted them to head away from the tombstones, apparently going nowhere.

If you take a look at the largest tombstone, you will see why I did it this it an end to Xmas if you like.

Cemetaries are wonderful places to shoot. Your subjects aren't going anywhere and they never ever complain about the cold.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas to All!

It is a quarter to three in the morning as I sit here and start on this blog.

My grandchildren are sleeping soundly as is my wife. Our old lady cat slumbers too, curled up into a contented ball of softly breathing feline.

I am sitting in my favorite chair with my computer on my lap. I've worked up some images, done a little work on my novel and now am sitting up with you in the wee hours of Christmas Eve day.

There's something very powerful about Christmas, isn't there? I hear the music I listened to as a child and I am taken back immediately to the smell of the Christmas tree and the odd scent it had when the hot bulbs had pressed against the needles for too long. I remember the most miraculous tree decoration: it was a keyhole shaped string of lights. These ornaments were lit from within and filled with a liquid and I very clearly remember watching a small bubble slowly rise to the top of the bulb and then work its way down again. There was such mystery and excitement, something breathlessly exotic about a real Christmas tree.

I am thinking about the fact I never really bought the whole Santa Claus thing. I always suspected my father ate the cookies we'd left out. My father, who grew up without a father of his own, loved Christmas more than any of us, I think.

At his insistance, usually on the most frigidly cold night of the year, the entire family would be loaded into a freezing frost encrusted car and we'd go out to a tree lot (sometimes a LOT of tree lots) to pick out our family tree.

My mother would start preparing Christmas dinner before any of us were up and the scent of cooking turkey conjures up Christmas morning memories more powerfully than anything.

Christmas mornings in our house were orderly affairs. We would have been appalled at the very notion of all of us tearing into presents all at once. They were opened one at a time, with the whole family watching. As the ripped paper rose to knee level, my internal countdown started toward the "big" present. There was always one for everyone.

My mother is gone now and my father is lonely without her. I have only the barest of relationships with my three younger brothers. We have all flown off in different directions and have lost touch with each other -- if indeed we were ever in touch.

Christmas has become a very long season of magic shows, late night road trips, setting and tearing out props and so many shows that they all blend together into one blurry memory. It is a season of missing time with my wife and sleepless nights like this one. In a single day I can be an elf, a New York gangster, a road manager, a producer and a tuxedoed magician.

Over this season, I have thought often about Christmas Eve because by Christmas Eve all of the work is done. (It's remarkable to me, by the way, that Christmas Eve never feels like I think it will. Having the work done produces more of a sigh than a triumphant pumping fist. It's not a bad feeling. Come to think of it, it's more an absence of feeling.)

But a few nights ago, I was driving by a Christmas tree lot and the scent of evergreen was in the air like fairy dust. I was listening to Bing Crosby singing White Christmas and for just a moment, I was five again, looking in wonder at a Christmas tree and the whispered promise it represented. In my mind I was wearing a bright red cowboy hat with a natty yellow whistle, my all-time favorite pajamas with brown horses and cowboys battling outlaws, smelling turkey and listening to my mother and father laughing together in the kitchen.

You can't go back, can you? And would we want to? It's been my experience that the way I choose to remember something isn't necessarily the way it was.

So I am here at a quarter after three now, and I am choosing to think about Christmas...the real Christmas...and the very best gift Anyone ever gave anyone. I am choosing to think about a squalling, crying pooping baby delivered by a teenager in a backwater town most people had never even heard of. And I am thinking about this in the truest context of wonder that the arrival of this child brought a light into a dark place -- and hope to a genuinely hopeless world. The reality of what was done on the first Christmas is so vibrant and powerful that I feel a lump form in my throat, and I have a precious and tender desire to get onto my knees and weep.

So Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to YOU. May your heart be filled with joy and hope and true love. May your spirit swell to bursting with creativity. May your imagination be a warming fire compelling you to create!

Thank you for sharing this time with me.

Good night. I think I will go to sleep now.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Everything New is Old Again!

I suppose it was inevitable: as tech gets better and better that digital artists would want, one day, to make new stuff look like old stuff.

The photo to the left is a theater somewhere in rural Montana. It's a bright and vibrant building with colorful signage.

But, like so many things (including me) it seemed out of place, like it had been lifted out of another decade by some giant with a sense of humor and plunked down here.

This image was aged in under three minutes using some plug-ins and Photoshop tech. Here, in broad strokes, is how the image was created:

1) CONVERT IT TO BLACK AND WHITE. CS4 has a fabulous Adjustment Layer for this purpose. You want the B&W image to be sharp, so don't be afraid to us the Smart Sharpen tool from the Filters Menu.

2) Put the image into Sepia using any of a number of options. The fastest way to get a pleasing sepia tone is to go with Image> Adjustments> Photo Filter> Sepia. There's a live preview so you can get the precise amount of Speia you're after.

3) The edges were burned using a great little utility called (understandably enough) "Burnt Edges" from Alien Skin's Xenoflex 2 filter set.

4) The final effect, that pleasing little acid wash, was done with OnOne's Photo Frame Pro. (Which is NOT compatible with CS4 without an upgrade, by the way.)

The great thing, the REALLY great thing, about Plug-ins, is that if you take the time to learn them, they can save you TONS of time and still give you the exact effect you were after.

This shot of the Sydney Opera House was taken from a balcony on a cruise ship. Sheree and I (and about three thousand other people) were docked beside it. Frankly, it was a little disappointing. It was dirty and tired looking and I stood there, snapping shots and wondering if I would get any kind of worthwhile image out of it.

This effect was completed in about three minutes as well.

1) Convert to Black and White with CS4's B&W Adjustment Layer.

2) Use the Rectangular Marquee Tool to define a square and COPY that square onto it's own layer (PC: Control J).

3) Create a Stroke around this slightly smaller layer with the Layer Style options menu (That odd "fx" symbol at the bottom your Layers pallette) and choose a nice dark border (maybe 3 points). I like to add a Drop Shadow from the same menu as well...but that's just showing off.

4) Older Photographs had grain. I took a short cut and added the grain with Alien Skin's Exposure 2 package.

5) I manually added the Vignetting effect around the border of the image using the Burn Tool from the Toolbox.

It's always interesting to take a modern image: a race car, a space ship etc. and age the photo, so it looks like it was taken with a very old style camera. This creates a visual that makes an impact on the viewer because the visual style and the image portrayed don't match.

The effect can be very powerful. Try using in on a portrait. Add some bokeh. Use layers to create sepia and lens barrel effects. Blend the layers. Play around (oops I mean "investigate") the various blending options as you try one layer on top of another.

Have fun! If you come up with anything really cool, feel free to send it to me. I'd love to see it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Photographing Kids: The Picture AFTER the Picture

I am blessed in many ways. I am married to a splendid woman and we travel the world together. I have a world-class cat. I love what I do for a living and...I am blessed with little people in my life who are happy to pose.

This young lady is one of those people. Here are three pictures from dozens taken during a fifteen minute session on our back porch one summer afternoon.

She has known me since birth. We are comfortable together. But she was still only five years old. In working with "little people" there are a lot of things to keep in mind.

First: you need to keep talking. Photographers have a lot to think about: settings, the subject, the light, the composition. We have a tendancy to want to concentrate on taking the shot and ignoring the subject.

This doesn't work with kids.

You need to keep communicating. You need to keep the child engaged in the process. You need to make them laugh, to look in the directions you want them to look. You need to keep your model engaged in the whole process. There has to be a powerful link to the process between the photographer and the subject.

You need to keep shooting. We (as in the royal "photographer we") have a habit of checking the LCD screen and the histograms to see what we got.

Don't do this when you are working with kids. The idea is to have nothing coming between you and the child. The camera has the potential to become one of those things: it's a big mysterious box to little eyes. Ideally, the camera becomes part of the whole adventure and doesn't represent something scary or misunderstood to the child. In order to keep shooting there are a couple of things that make the process smoother:

1) Do all your settings and camera fiddling before you start with the child. That's important because you need to concentrate on just shooting once the session starts.

2) Use a Burst or Sports Mode. Kids move very quickly and emotions flicker across their faces like vapor. You need to shoot very quickly so you can catch every nuance of what they do.

3) Keep the atmosphere positive. There should be lots of laughter and lots of positive words spoken. The child needs to feel confident and have the ability to relax in front of the camera.

Take the picture AFTER the picture. This is one of the most valuable things I have learned from watching my wife work with people. She's done a ton of portraits. One day I realized how she got such great candid looking shots.

She would take the shot they expected her to take. Just as they were leaving, she'd engage them in conversation and then she would say something funny. When they responded, she would take the shot and she'd consider that the portrait.

It's a technique I have used (okay copied) many times. It works like a charm.

You will get "real person."

And the "real person" is much more interesting than those unnatural posed shots, which are particularly awful when children are in them.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bokeh in Black and White

When I was brand new to Photoshop, I discovered plug-ins -- also known as "filters." For those of you who are not yet privy to these marvellous things, they are software packages designed to work with Photoshop to create specific effects.

One of the first ones I discovered was by Flaming Pear. It had the unlikely name of "Melancholytron." It created a heavy blur around the bottom of the image and built in a sepia tone. I loved it. Lens blur adds such a wonderful atmosphere to an image, making it moodier. The blur also allows you to draw the viewer's eye to a specific aspect of the image. (I still use Melancholytron on occasion. It's available through Flaming Pear for about twenty bucks.)

But since I started working with Alien Skin's Bokeh plug in ( for $199.00) I haven't looked back. Read the full review a few blogs back.

I started thinking about combining the Bokeh effect with that other great conveyer of emotion and atmosphere: Black and White photography. I've been working with this idea for several days now (or at least as much spare time as a magician at Christmas can muster) and have been delighted with the results.

Have a look at the old couple at the top of this blog. I saw them one afternoon at Coney Island. It's called "A Little Off Center" because this couple seemed just a little out of step with the rest of the world. His arm is draped around his bride and the way they are sitting together watching the world go by makes me smile. But the image is about them...and the relationship they share. Everything else is a distraction.

Come to think of it, the initial image was full of distractions. (You can see the intial "finished picture" here: -- like any image is ever finished.) Using Bokeh, I blurred them out and brought tight focus back onto the subjects. It made a better picture.

Cropping, and the whole processing of any final image, is a lot like writing a story. When you get into the fine tuning, you start cutting everything that doesn't fit smoothly with the tone or the story. There were a lot of people on the beach...and some litter as well. None of this added to my subject. So with the application of the Clone Stamp Tool and some specific blur, I was ready. The LAST step is the application of Bokeh -- so the effect is uniform.

Here's an image taken in July. It went from raw format to finished in less than five minutes. These two sisters were in a playground. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the little sister raced across the playground and ran to her big sister for a hug. Then she went back to playing. I have no idea what pushed the "I need a hug" meter into the red zone. But I find the whole idea of an urgently needed hug very charming.

The post processing was very simple: using CS4's new-and-improved Black and White Adjustment Layer, I was able to create a punchy high contrast Black and White image. I sharpened it a little with Sharpen> Smart Sharpen to bring up the highlights in the younger girl's hair. Then I added a very light Bokeh and a drop shadow frame and the image was finished.

Bokeh isn't for every image. But when it fits, it's perfect.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

When Photographers go Cruising...

I like cruising. You don't have to unpack three times a week, the food you eat will not kill you and there are lots of people nearby to bring you cool drinks and herd you toward the next buffet.

I hate cruising because you just don't get very long in each port (usually about a day), sometimes your formal dinner table companions are just slightly more animated than drying spackle and all of the "extra fee" options you can pick up during those "at sea" days can really make for a nasty surprise when the bill comes due.

But on the balance -- I love cruising. Since Sheree and I will be celebrating New Year's eve by sitting on a runway to start a trip that will ultimately take us down the Amazon, cruising is on my mind. Having braved a number of cruises over the years, I have come to the conclusion that there are FIVE RULES for GETTING GREAT SHOTS ON CRUISES. Here they are:

1) Take a Power Bar. The people who design cruise ship staterooms think one plug-in for two photographers is plenty. It's not. Take a power bar with at least four additional plug-ins so you can power those batteries and laptops. This keeps you from having to make the decision of whether or not to throw your companion overboard so you can definately hit the next port with two charged batteries.

2) Do Your Research. The great thing about taking a cruise is that you know where you're going in advance. The internet is a WEALTH of great information on the places you are going. You will need to be well organized and decide IN ADVANCE where you want to shoot.

Local people can be a great resource. Don't be afraid to take a cab. The fellow in the image above is a cab driver in NZ who gave us a truly wonderful day. His name's Lance and he took us to vineyards and some of the most amazingly beautiful places only locals know about. Cabs are more expensive...but they can be truly wonderful.

3) Dilly Dally at Your Peril. You'll want to be the FIRST off the ship or the first in line for the tender boat. (Sometimes cruise ships need to ferry the passengers off the ship and to shore in tender boats. This results in LONG lines and a ton of wasted photography time.) Get there first, using elbows if necessary, to get off the ship before the aggressive people do. Those extra ten minutes of sleep can cost you BIG when the line up forms.

4) Don't Be Afraid of Excursions. These are extra cost "tours" available when you are in a port. (The image above is from one of the Great Excursions of All Time: a Lord of the Rings tour we took in New Zealand. It's written about elsewhere in this and you may find it, Frodo.) If you buy them from the cruise ship company you can count on two things: they are going to be more expensive, and they will take good care of you. The cruise ship will wait for you if a cruise-line tour runs late. But you'll see a pile of tour operators waiting for you at each port. Some operators are wonderful...some aren't. But if they don't get you back to the ship on time, you will need to borrow a snorkel set from the guide because the ship will be gone.

5) Be Nice. Be nice to your cabin steward, the locals in the ports, the tour guides you use. Be nice to the shop-keepers and the kids selling chicklets to the tourists. Talk to them before you take their picture...and don't be cheap. Give them a couple of bucks for posing. You may even try your hand at speaking their language. Whenever I do, it provides everyone with hours of amusement.

5a) Don't Be Stupid. You are in a foreign land. In many cases you won't speak the language. It probably isn't a good idea to follow that scurvy looking guy down a dark alleyway for a shot. If your gut is telling you "no" don't go. Stay where the people are. You need to be alert and stay alert. This means it's also not a good idea to get loaded when you are in a port. Your pictures will come out blurry and crooked...and you will probably get rolled and/or lost on your way back to the ship.

5b) Don't be a Pansy. You travel to meet people and have an adventure. The idea here is simply not to get stabbed, shot, mugged or sold to white slavers. None of these makes for golden cruise ship memories. Also: don't hang around the tourist traps in ports. Diamonds International etc has all the same crap you get at home. Be reasonable. Have fun. Be smart.

5c) Check on Local Regulations. For the Amazon, Sheree and I needed Yellow Fever shots, a visa from Brazil (which took nearly three weeks) and Malarone, an anti-malaria drug. Usually the cruise ship company will let you in on this stuff, but not always. (We couldn't get into the famous Monte Carlo casino because we didn't know we needed to take our passports with us...) Check into local customs too. For example: there are some places in the mideast where women need to dress a certain way to avoid offending the locals and drawing unwanted attention.
There are a ton of sites filled with helpful advice on local sites, customs and highlights. Just go to Google and input the name of where you're going, and type words like "Customs" and "Tourism" or "Activities." You'll get more information than you could possibly use within seconds.
If you are interested in cruise info try for specifics on the ports and the boats. These are serious cruisers and they can provide tons of useful tips.

Follow these rules, grasshopper, and you will be happy cruisers.

How many sleeps till I go?

Eighteen. But who's counting?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Visual Creativity. Honest.

I don't know of a single writer who hasn't glared at that blinking cursor. It just sits there like an insensitive insect waiting for you to come up with the words while it does nothing except sit there blinking stupidly. It's a tyrant, really.

Visual artists have the same issues. We sit there with our hands in our laps looking at the computer screen. Sometimes we have a germ of an idea that can be developed. Sometimes (okay rarely) we know exactly what to do. But most of the time there's this tickle of a concept at the back of our brains that runs away like an arm-flapping idiot each time we try to trap it.

Peter J, from New York, wrote in to ask if I had any ideas on how to be creative. Later this morning I was on the NAPP board and the same topic came up again.

"How do you learn how to be creative?" asks the Photoshop newbie. "There must be a course somewhere."

Nope. There are courses about creative techniques. Oodles of them. And there are books about getting in touch with your imagination. I mean you could dance naked in the woods and pound on drums for a few days -- but I seriously doubt that you will find yourself with a perfectly formed notion for how to break that creative block. All you may wind up with is a nasty rash.

There are even courses on how you can take an idea and develop it into a striking visual. (Check out "Photoshop for the Creative Soul" at for our course on this. Hint. Hint.)

But if someone tells you they can teach you how to BE creative, they're lying.

You can be taught how to copy someone else's method. There are tons of Photoshop books that teach this stuff. You can look at an artist like Ben Willmore ( and see what he's been up to. I really respect the guy -- and the quality of his work is unreal.

But, personally, I don't want to be Ben Willmore. Why would I want to copy his work? I'm happy to sit and listen as he teaches me stuff -- but only so I can apply said "stuff" to my work.

Why's that?

Because true creativity isn't the result of inspired copying of someone else. You can learn stunning technique this way...but you only learn how to be creative by pouring all that knowledge through the filter of YOU.

True creativity is the direct application of 24 carat, 100% YOU to an idea. Think of it as a one of a kind Photoshop filter: There's only one you. That means there's only one person who can apply imagination and execution to an image that is the direct outgrowth of who you are.

The only way I can suggest for getting creative isn't to take a course. It's to roll up your sleeves, stick your hands into the muck and start pushing stuff around. It's going to be messy. And you are going to have disasters. You will have moments when you want to throw the computer through the window and then follow it (given that you're far enough away from the ground) because NOTHING is turning out right.

I 100% guarantee there will be dismal awful images if you do it this way. You'll delete them, you'll flush with embarassment whenever you think of them. You'll pray that no one you ever showed them to kept a copy...and you'll start putting a little money aside each week in case they DID keep a copy and want to blackmail you with it later.

Being creative and turning that "creative switch" on inside your brain and spirit would be pretty easy if you knew where it was. I often can't find mine...particularly when deadlines are looming. So I have to thrust my hand into a lot of dark holes and smelly caverns as I look for it.

And the real pain in the butt? That damn "creative switch" often disappears minutes later and you have to start looking for it all over again. That's when you think to yourself "Gee...I thought I had a great idea. Where was I going with this again?" Now you have a name for it: Switch Slip.

See the image above? I spent four hours on this one day many moons ago. I'd just discovered Photoshop and had a hankering to do..."something." I entered it in a contest and it placed in the bottom third. How come? It's not creative. It's a mess, really. What it lacks in creativity it makes up for in pseudo-artsyness. It has vague ideas about money and fighting on top of it and women.

Yup. It's one of those "I can't believe I posted it ANYWHERE" images. It's pretentious crap. There. I admit I can stop paying off that guy in Germany who keeps getting those installments in small unmarked bills.

What's the upside of this whole creativity thing?

Once in a while...sometimes for a really long feel your spirit soar and your heart beat faster. You feel the blending of mind, spirit and body pouring itself into the project. Your hands blur over the keys or the controls and the sensation is better than a triple fudge sundae.

And less fattening.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Bokeh is Here

"I am absolutely not buying any more filters or plug ins," I told myself as I looked in relative wonder at Alien Skin's latest contribution to the Photoshop universe.

It's called "Bokeh" and is a very easy to use simulation of the effect photographers spend a ton of money on specialized lenses and years of careful study to achieve.

Simply put, it's the selective blurring of portions of the image. This allows the artist to gently draw your attention to the precise area of the image he wants you to see.

Photographers are all a-flutter about bokeh technique because it also has the potential to add atmosphere and mood , create professional looking images and make you look way more skilled than you actually are. (I'm all for that.) It also hints that you have cash to burn, since actually shooting bokeh requires some pretty expensive lenses.

"Can't hurt to download the demo," I told myself with an innocent shrug. "It's only a demo. I'll use it for the thirty days and then I'll delete it. If tempted, I shall simply apply my iron will and remind myself this is simply a learning opportunity." I would have patted me on the back at this point if I could have reached back that far. I settled for squaring my jaw and looking sternly into the computer screen.

"Who's gonna spend two hundred bucks on a lens blur?" I said to myself. Again. I think I may have sputtered just a little in indignation at the very thought. But when I started using this plug-in my reserve started to waver and my iron will developed immediate rust. Bokeh by Alien Skin simulates the effect you'd get using some very specialized glass and it does it so easily that it's hard not to fall in love with it.

I still wasn't going to buy it, you understand. After all, I just upgraded to Photoshop CS4 and bought HDR software. In these times of economic uncertainty, you'd have to be crazy to drop another pile of cash on software, right?

With Bokeh, you can create a "Focus Region" using an oval selector or a planar. Make it big or little. Define the precise amount of blur you want. Set the precise areas of focus. (This is very precise stuff.)

The basic process takes about thirty seconds.

My mind started turning to some of the uses for Bokeh -- on the very off chance I would even consider buying it...not that this was an option I was actually considering, you understand.

Portraits could be softened in an instant. Streetscapes could be created that would allow me to highlight the exact elements I want the viewer to see. Clutter is blurred away. Bokeh would add a whole new dimension to statue and building photography. I could even do campy things like make hearts in the blur area. (Okay. Probably not that.)

At this point I really started to investigate the options. Hugely expensive lenses are simulated flawlessly (I am "using" a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2LII @ f/2 here, which creates a 20% blur).

Use your imagination and pretend that you can source all the lenses in a camera store, pretend you understand precisely how to use them and that you've spent nine years on a mountaintop somewhere with a guru learning the disciplines and techniques of Bokeh. Okay?

Now pretend that you have the ability to take precisely the same shot with each of these lenses and that you know exactly what you're doing to create the bokeh effect you want. Yup. That's a lot of pretending, right?

Like let's pretend that I decided to take the exact same image again but this time I really wanted to highlight my subject...and created a 50% blur with some slight vignetting on the fringes which is the image just above.

Alien Skin's Bokeh starts falling into the "way cool" category pretty quickly.

Two hundred bucks suddenly didn't seem all that expensive. When you've stacked a little pile of money against the many thousands of dollars it would cost to outfit myself with all the necessary cameras, glass, classes and books I'd need to get these shots, two hundred bucks didn't seem too bad at all.

A bargain!

Why I would be insane to pass something like this up! Moreso, it was clearly my duty as a graphic artist to add this software package to my arsenal of visual options. In fact I owe it to the whole freaking world to pick it up!

I emailed Alien Skin, asked if they gave a discount to NAPP members and they took 10% off. Okay. So it's still $179. But I have to say that I am seriously thrilled with the package. Thrilled. I have been working with it for hours and I just keep getting "thrilled-er."

As with all Alien Skin software, the initial use is very simple (which is good because I am a very simple guy) but there are a ton of options and settings that will allow the artist to get the precise effect he is looking for. I haven't even really scratched the surface of what this software will do. But I wanted to tell you about it right away because it's something I really suggest you take a look at.

Download a fully functioning Bokeh demo from and tell yourself that it's only for 30 days and there's no way you will ever buy it.

Yeah. Sure.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Passionate Images...

It is nearly the end of another working day. For a special events company, this is "high season," when better than 40% of our year's income will be made. There are many things that should be foremost in my attention.

But I am thinking of our "enchanted forest" instead. You see a faint glimmer of what we (my grandchildren, my wife and me) have seen in the image above. It's a place of twisted trees and mysterious valleys. It's a place where light plays odd tricks on your eye and you are better than 50% positive that a fairy disappeared from view on the very edges of your vision.

When we first brought our grandchildren here, we (my wife and I) were playing a "mixed up story." What's that, you ask? It's a story where the children are on an adventure. It's sort of Dungeons and Dragons for the 'wee folk.' I created this series with the cold-blooded intention of instilling in them the same ache that exists in me: the longing to see the fantastic emerging from the mundane. The "real world" has so very often inspired a sigh in my soul with a longing for something more. I prefer to see something fantastic emerge from the mundane.

That's where the "mixed up stories" come from. The kids take actions...and the actions they take effect the plot.

Does that sound silly to you? Think for a moment about creating a world where invincible skeletons paddle through an acid sea, looking for invaders. It is so very important to me that these kids have the ability to dream! Reality has been a completely unacceptable alternative to me since I was a kid.

We returned to our "Enchanted Forest" at the insistance of our grandchildren. They remembered being here from years ago. We arrived there as the sun was going down. That's when I took the picture that starts this blog.

I became an ogre, searching for "tender young humans" to eat. My grandchildren giggled and ran up a tree. I searched for them stomping through the Enchanted Forest. Finally, seeing them, I launched into my "fee fo fum" rhyme.

They were so very happy in that instant, that it made a lump form in my throat. Our enchanted forest had been so seriously reduced over the years. ("They" are building a subdivision, you see.) Even as I growled after them...I ached for the notion of a place where old trees were NOT torn down to make way for duplexes, where an Enchanted Forest was allowed to stand forever for the kids to play in...and flee from flesh eating ogres.

Part of me grieved for that forest. Once it was populated by twisted trees and valleys. Now it is so very stark and broken and still defiantly glowing.

I think it will glow until the last tree is ripped out by a bulldozer.

At least I hope so.

I truly do. With all my heart.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Eyes Have it

I loved this image the instant I took it. In the first place, this face is very dear to me. In the second place, it's an arresting image. You just want to look at it. Okay…I want to look at it.
There are two versions of this shot. Have a look at them.
It's NOT the same image, is it?
Take a few seconds and look from one to the other and try to decide which one seems more alive to you. Which one do you prefer?
I suspect nine out of ten dentists would prefer the one with the twinkle in it.
Keep in mind that, except for the eyes, this is the same image. One has had a minor eye operation -- and the other hasn't.
That twinkle in the eye is called a "catch light." Really, it's just a reflection of light bouncing off the eyeball. But look at what a HUGE difference it makes to the overall image! Those two little white dots bring the whole picture to life.

Making the transition is easy in Photoshop. The trick is NOT to try to put something there that didn't exist in the first place. If you've ever tried to put a catchlight into an eye you know what I mean. It just winds up looking goofy and way too artificial.
The idea is to take the catchlight that was already there and make it stronger. Here's how to do it in five easy steps:
1) Zoom in on the eye. Photoshop will go to 1600%. This means that you will have a HUGE eye on your screen.
2) Reduce your BRUSH tool to ONE pixel. If this seems extreme to you...please consider you are doing some EYE SURGERY here.
3) Sample the color from the brightest part of the existing catchlight. This is the most effective way to build a bigger catchlight, since you are enhancing what's there naturally. The position is important. Wherever the catchlight was where you are putting the "new and improved" catchlight.
4) Carefully paint ONE PIXEL AT A TIME outward from the center of the catchlight. Remember that you really only need to increase the size of the catchlight a little to effect the transformation.
5) Go to View> Fit on Screen and take a hard look at your image. Does it look better? If so, save under another name (since writing over your original is punishable by severe flogging in Photoshop-aware states and never ever a good idea) and you're done.

While you're working in the eye, you may also want to remove anything there that isn't the catchlight or the pupil. Often subjects will have bloodshot eyes closest to the nose. Use a very light touch with the Clone or Healing tool to wipe them away.

The whole process took me under five minutes on this image. "Eye" think it was time well spent. (sorry...)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Taking Great Candid People Shots

In old English folklore, they said that fairies were the most elusive of mythical creatures. Apparently you could only see them out of the corner of your eye and they would disappear like smoke if you actually looked at them full on.
Great candid people shots are like that. When you head out to the street with your camera in tow, you need to be looking in front of you, behind you and beside you. All your Spidey senses need to be wide awake.
The shot heading this blog is one of my all-time favorites. I took it on a warm summer afternoon at Coney Island in New York City. A minute after I took the shot, they got up and left. So, like the fairies, the shot presented itself for scant seconds.
It's called "A Little Off Center" because these two people seemed completely at odds with the hustle and bustle of the boardwalk. All around them there were guys working out, people swimming, rides twirling -- and yet in the midst of all of this, these two old people just sat together. The man has his arm draped around the shoulder of his bride, his ankles are crossed and there's this wonderful permanent feel that the two of them have. I like the negative space on the bench because it says to me that these two WANT to be sitting close.
Since I tend to consider stuff like this, I wonder if one day he went to war and they've been together ever since he got back. Or maybe they both had lost spouses...or he'd retired after many years in business and maybe they come to this bench every day to sit and watch the people together.
Great people shots are like that, for me anyway. They encourage speculation about the subjects. This image was turned into Black and White because it suited the theme well...and my couple is just a little off center because it worked better visually that way.

This shot happened just a few minutes later. The wind picked up and most of the sunbathers vanished. There was just this older man walking on the beach by himself. I like this shot as well because it has so very many things going on: the vast ocean, the single man, a deserted beach. I like that he uses a walking stick.
Mostly this image speaks to me about isolation and solitude. Here's a guy who is "no doubt about it" taking a walk. There's one bird on hand for company.
What is it about Black and White that creates such a powerful atmosphere? You won't have the same powerful sense about these people if the image is in full color. B&W carries a wonderful moody quality to it. In the case of the second image, I actually added grain. I wanted it to look gritty and liked the texture the extra grain brings to the overall feel of the image.
The other huge advantage of going with Black and White is, of course, the VASTLY improved Black and White adjustment layer in Photoshop CS3 and CS4. This gives you the adaptability to get the exact effect you're looking for.
There are three keys to taking good people shots:
1) Be Present: You need to be alert every instant for your shot. When it comes, don't hesitate. Shoot. If the shot doesn't work out, you can delete it. Relax. It's digital.
2) Consider a telephoto: It's the nature of these shots that some are far away. You won't have time, in many instances, to jog across the street. The telephoto gives you the ability to shoot as soon as you see your picture. It is, obviously, not so great if your subject is close. But they would have to be within just a few feet of you to mess up the focus. It's waaaay easier to step back a few feet than it is to race across a street.
3) These shots can easily be taken without faces. Both of these are stock images. I can and do sell them through agencies. Since the people cannot be recognized, I have no need for model releases or fees paid out. Beyond this, I actually prefer "faceless" images. They invite your audience to put their own spin on the image.
You'll find great people shots everywhere: shopping malls, beaches, parks -- any place people come together.
Give it a try. You never know what kind of gems you'll walk away with. And be attentive. You never know when or where the fairies will turn up.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Picture I Wish I'd Never Taken

Imagine inviting yourself over at someone's house -- someone you don't even know -- eating their food and then complaining about the way it was served. Now try to see yourself making snide comments about their home, the way they dress, what they do for a living. Think about being a real jerk and calling down their whole lifestyle.

Most of us wouldn't even consider being that rude, right? I mean -- it's unthinkable to behave so badly when you're a guest in someone's house.

A tourist is just someone visiting strangers in a really big house.

Take a close look at the image above. This is a street family in South America. The girl with the flowered top sells little boxes of Chicklets to the thousands of tourists who pour off the cruise ships. Mostly she stands on the dock, with a cardboard box raised and a shy smile frozen on her face. Most people walk past her without even looking her way.

Once in a while, someone stops and gives her a dollar for two pieces of gum. Sometimes someone shakes their finger in her face and lectures her about "begging" in a language she doesn't understand, although I suspect their message comes through loud and clear. But mostly, she is ignored.

My wife and I saw her walk back to her mother and little sister. They all sat against a stone wall together. I went over with my camera. I saw a picture I wanted to take: a street family with three clearly defined personalities and I began shooting. I had no second thoughts, no greeting. I just started taking their picture.

The mother buried her face in her youngest child's hair, while the middle child reached for her sister's arm, with this strangely impassive look on her face. In retrospect, what were they supposed to do? I'd like to think I left some money behind once I was done. I honestly don't remember.

But I should never ever have taken the picture. At least I shouldn't have taken it the way I did. Each time I look at the image of these people now, I wonder what they must have been feeling when this tourist from a country far away, pointed a camera at them and started taking their picture, like they were particularly interesting fire hydrants or buildings. There's a little pang of guilt each time I see it. Okay. A BIG pang of guilt.

In North America, we are the world's blessed people. We don't depend on selling a few mini boxes of Chicklets to survive. For most of us food and shelter have ceased to be issues. That's why we have the income to travel like we do. We consider poverty not being able to afford a new car or a plasma screen television. There are people -- many of them really small people -- who are literally just trying to get get enough to eat.

It was some years later when I came across this image that I started thinking about what I had done. I'd treated three people like "un-people." I'd been an Ugly Tourist. Yikes! That's a hard thing to admit to myself, let alone publish in the blog.

Since then, I have developed Five Rules For Visiting Other Places Without Being A Jerk.

1) If You Wouldn't Say It in Front of Your Host at Home, Don't Say It. Tourists often think that people in foreign countries can't understand what they are talking about. I've seen people say very nasty things about the place they're in, the food they're served or the behaviour of the "locals." Trust me. These people know. They spend their lives watching tourists. They know who you are. Be nice.

2) Try to Speak the Language. My Italian is horrid. I clearly remember being urged by my wife to ask a complete stranger on a train where our hotel was. I spoke in my halting Italian and watched as a very kind light came into her eyes. She at least knew I was trying. (She answered my question in near perfect English, by the way.) But I'd shown some respect for where I was visiting and that meant something to her.

3) Enjoy The Ride. Why do we travel? We want to see different places and different people, right? Don't get bent out of shape when things don't go your way. If it rains, it rains. If the taxi breaks down -- yelling at the driver accomplishes nothing. I've seen tourists rag on tour guides because the weather sucks, or there are too many bugs or the line-ups are too long. What must they think of us? My wife and I will often look at each other, smile and shrug and say something like "It's travel." So relax. It's all part of the trip.

4) Pay a Couple of Bucks For The Picture, Okay? Two or three dollars might not be much to us. It can be a whole lot more for third world families. Stop and smile. Raise your camera and ask if with your eyes if it's okay to take their picture. Give them a little money. You'll be amazed at what good models they can be. It's a great trade-off. You get a memorable image, they get some cash. I would be able to look at this image with pride if I'd done that...and I probably would have met some cool people. (A little further back in this blog I've written about one of those life-transforming experiences involving me trying to photograph a street person.)

5) Buy the Freaking Chicklets. I don't think I will ever see that kid again. But I won't pass the Chicklet vendors by again. There is, of course, a small risk here. Once the other kids see a tourist passing out money -- you run the risk of getting swamped. That's why I will have a couple of singles in my pocket, ready to go. I can very quietly give the money to one child and move on. I read recently about another traveler who gives out small toys and pencils to the kids. This is a great idea...except that you can't eat a pencil.

I keep thinking: "What must we look like to them?" Wave after wave of bloated tourists roll off the cruise ships waving Visa cards like swords and finding fault with everything around them.

On my first day in Jamaica, I asked the bartender for bottled water. I thought that was what we were supposed to do and frankly I didn't mean any insult. I remember the snapping anger in his eyes. It was there for just a moment and then he masked it by polishing the glasses in front of him. He muttered that there was nothing wrong with Jamaican water...but he gave me a bottle all the same.

It's about being a gracious guest. When you visit someone for dinner, you take a bottle of wine, right? Maybe some flowers...or a dessert. I've been on enough trips now where I am really starting to view myself as a guest in the country I'm visiting.

Try it.

You'll get better pictures, your travel experiences will be much richer and you will never look with shame upon the picture you should never have taken.

Our power is the money we bring. And we have this power because they are poor. But we are going to their homes. And I'd really rather be a welcome guest instead of a jerk.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thinking About the Big Easy

This morning I wrote an article on "The Difference in New Orleans after Katrina." Since this blog is about travel, photography AND Photoshop, I want to share it with you.

The sun is warm on my skin and the air is ripe with the exotic scents of the Big Easy: green growing things, cigarette smoke and spilled beer.

We are in the French Quarter, watching the sun come up. I am seized by the notion that the atmosphere surrounding me is an odd blend of things manufactured for the tourists who choke these streets every night and a very real thing, an etherial "something" that is so uniquely and perfectly New Orleans. That mystical atmosphere is all around us, coiling around our spirits like an affable snake.

My wife and I have been here before. Ordinarily we avoid the Quarter. It has an ugly wild side. One evening there during our only Mardi Gras was more than enough. But mornings here are different. There's a lazy feeling in the Quarter, and it feels like watching a cat take a long stretch after a nap in a sliver of sunlight.

I nod to a man standing idly by a convenience store, smoking and drinking. I wonder if he has been out all night. He barely moves his head in response but I feel his red eyes on me.

"Morning," I say.

He takes a long draw on his drink.

"Morning," he says finally. The voice is deep, created with whiskey and smoke as much as genetics, I decide. There's suspicion in his eyes and a distant hostility there too. He turns and walks away from us, his steps uncertain. He is carrying himself with as much dignity as a man at the tail end of an all-nighter can muster.

I watch him walk away feeling every inch a tourist with my camera around my neck and my clean clothes. I will think back on this brief encounter many times over the next few days because that man personified the feeling I get as visit New Oreans for the first time since the storm came calling. This time, there's an attitude of waiting, a faint resentment and an underlying sense of betrayal from the people.

Later that day, we have scheduled a bus tour of the areas of New Orleans ravaged by Katrina.

We file onto the bus with the other tourists, cameras poised, and listen as our guide mirrors the same attitude as the man outside the convenience store.

"You been to the Quarter?" he asks. "How many you been to the Quarter?"

Everyone puts up their hand.

"When Katrina came, it barely touched the Quarter. We gonna see the places it DID touch."

The bus winds its way into a different New Orleans. The highway is something like a time machine because we leave the lights and siren songs of the tourist areas and head into devastation. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of houses are ripped open like fruit dropped from a great height.

Debris lies in oddly indifferent looking piles on either side of the street. Street lights are gone and I have the sensation of going into a third world country were half naked children will sell you Chicklets as their mothers look on with hungry eyes from a distance.

There are odd markings on many of the houses, numbers spray painted inside the frame of an "x."

"This tell the rescuers how many people in the house," says the guide. "Sometime it tell them how many died in there. Sometime it tell them what houses gotta be torn down."

The guide's attitude is reserved. I keep getting the idea that he is showing us something very private and he is conflicted about it.

He tells us about how many people ignored the warnings that devastation was rumbling their way because they got warnings all the time. He tells us about people who drowned in their own attics because they failed to take something with which to cut a hole in their roofs when the water came for them. He tells us about the levees in which they had trusted that fell like tinker toys before the fury of the storm.

Finally he tells us about how they had believed in a government that would come and help in times of great need...and how they were still waiting.

What's the difference between pre and post Katrina? It's not the horror of the destroyed buildings. Nor is it the devastating death toll. It's the people.

Katrina ripped into the collective heart of New Orleans and turned a genuine "glad to see you" smile into something much darker, jaded and distantly desperate.

For the balance of my time there, I really sense a different New Orleans. Something seems forced, like a willful denial that life there can never be the same again. It feels to me, with an inward twinge, as though I am no longer in the "City that Care Forgot." I think deep inside, that the carefree city was sucked into a vortex of indifference and death and will never ever be seen again.

Of couse I hope I am wrong.

I truly do.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Funeral Images...

Photography and Photoshop are wonderful ways to reach out to other people and touch lives you never know about. Sometimes the projects they inspire bring completely unexpected news.

Take the image to the left. I took it two summers ago. The man was a conductor on a streetcar we were riding with our grandchildren. He oozed life. He teased the kids and laughed out loud and made the brief trip so very memorable that I wanted to say thank you in a very direct way.

I used the image and worked on it using several layerings: Snap Art from Alien Skin, Virtual Artist and some brush techniques. I used a filter from Auto FX to design the lettering and still another filter to create the stamp effect.

I sent the image off to the people who host the historical streetcar...and never heard a word. Inwardly I shrugged, because this happens a lot. But you don't give a gift in the expectation of a thank you, right?

About a year later I got an email from a name I didn't recognize. Since most of these turn out to be spam from people who think I am unhappy with my body, performance or weight, my finger hovered over the "delete" button. But it was from the son in law of the man in the photo.

Briefly here's the story: the man in the image had died. His daughter found this image all over his computer. It made her very emotional because she said it depicted him at in a place near the end of his life where he was genuinely happy. They took the image and used it as the cover of the funeral service brochure. They had no idea where it came from until they found my email to him. They wrote with apologies and thanks and in the sincere hope that it was okay that they used the image.

Of course it was.

I was thinking that I fired some artwork off into the abyss that is the Internet, heard nothing, and yet it had a real impact on lives I never knew about. I am just naive enough to think that's cool.

Some of you have emailed to ask about the Biker Image in the previous blog. The client had taken some pictures of this guy a few days before his death...but she didn't have anything that was really working for her.

This was tough because I didn't know the guy at all. But she really wanted an image that made who he had been into a powerful statement. I took the shot of the biker riding away, selected the bike and turned the rest of the image (except for the highway markings) black and white. Obviously, I wanted the color of the leading lines to go to the biker.

The sky in the intial image was very bland, so I combined several filters (Glitterato from Flaming Pear and Fuzzy Clouds from Alien Skin), changed the opacity and made that soft kind of etherial sky backdrop. I added a slight glow to the horizon to give it a more dreamlike feel.

Finally, I took another image of his face smiling, and blended it into the clouds using the "Overlay" blend. (If you haven't played around with blending options -- found at the top of the Layers menu -- you're ignoring a wonderful option from the Photoshop world).

And presto! Another image graces a funeral program. It was really a strange feeling, both times, to have done a visual representation of someone I've never known. It's also strange to think that these images are tucked away and forgotten in drawers and on the hard drives of people I will never meet. There's a pithy metaphor tucked away inside this somewhere.

I think about it sometimes: an idea sparks into life inside imagination, the idea transforms into an image on a computer screen -- and the image speaks to a group of people several worlds away from mine. At what point does the image take on a life of its own...and start its own hundreds of tiny journeys. Who sees it? How does it make them feel? Do they live in distant countries?

We live in a world where art and ideas, concepts and dreams, enjoy a global trajectory with just a nanosecond between the publishing of the art and the eyes of the audience.

I think that's PDC. (Pretty Damn Cool.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"Where have you BEEN?"

This image is for the funeral for a biker I never knew. It was commissioned by a student of my wife, who actually took the pictures. I just did the post processing. But I am pleased with the way it turned out. This was the cover to the funeral service. Cool, huh?

I look at the blog and I think: what should we cover today?

All conventional blog wisdom says that you really need to post something every day so that you develop committed readers that come back over and over again. This makes sense. I need to encourage you folks to subscribe so you get updates each time the muse moves me to write something down so you KNOW the very instant these pearls of wisdom drip from my lips – or more appropriately – this laptop.

But if I wrote something every day, two things would have to be different:

1) I’d have to be making money at this. Since I am self employed, I need to make the things that take my time make money. This blog may one day do that, either by selling the courses at or with advertising.

2) I’d have to have something to say every day. And I don’t. So if I wrote all the time, I’d wind up talking about things that don’t interest me much and that would result in a great steaming pile of cyberpoop delivered fresh to the reader every day.

I can state with certainty that I have wanted to write every single blog so far. It may have been a new photography technique or something cool I learned in Photoshop. Sometimes it had to do with a place I had been and really wanted to tell you about. But I’ve never written a blog “just because.” I respect both your time and mine too much to clog it with junk.

Having said all that, you should know that I am always thinking about you guys. When I am on a trip, I think of what aspects I’d really like to share with you. I want it to be like you are standing right beside me, looking at these wonderful people, sharing the travel experience with me. Isn’t that what real writing is all about? When I am working in Photoshop or behind a camera, I am usually wondering if I have learned something useful enough to do a blog on it.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the emails from you folks wondering what’s happening. I do. It reminds me that I am not talking to myself. Keep in mind that I am still running the special events company, doing magic shows and doing a great heaping bunch of my own writing and photography projects.

There’s some very cool stuff in the future: Sheree and I have planned two wonderful trips for 2009.

We’re leaving New Year’s Eve for a trip down the Amazon. I am trying very hard not to count the sleeps, but this promises to be a fabulous adventure into South America, Devil’s Island and all points in between and beyond. I may be able to talk Sheree into taking a side trip to a place I’ve only been to once, but has elevated itself into legendary status in my mind: Key West. We’ll see.

In April, we’re taking a trans Atlantic crossing (which sounds just too cool to NOT get all excited about.) We’re winding up in Southampton, England and will visit some friends we’ve made on flickr. We’ll also visit the countries that make up a little over half of me: Ireland and England. And Paris. (Did you just hear me sigh? I did.) I am literally aching to travel and see more of this great world and the people who live in it. I am dying to photograph them and bring it home to you…whoever and wherever you may be.

So I will be around. And if I see something I’d like to tell you about, or a flickr artist or a Photoshop technique, I will be posting here. But we are coming up on high season, so I don’t know how much spare time I will have.

Let me suggest that you SUBSCRIBE to this blog. You’ll find the button up top in the upper right hand corner. That way you’ll know when I’ve got something new for you.

Until then – be well, take lots of pictures and relax: it’s only a digital world.



Monday, October 27, 2008

Wander Lust, Photoshop CS4 and Some Excellent Bloggers

When my grandson lived with us, we packed him along on many of the trips we made. I still have this crystal clear image: this little three year old body waddling up to me, pulling on my pant leg until he had my complete attention, and then pointing off to the side.

“I think we should go havealook,” he’d say making very direct eye contact.

That’s not a typo, by the way. “Havealook” was all one word to Perrin. It meant: “There’s something over there I think we should see. Let’s go exploring. C’mon…let’s go havealook.”

The phrase stuck with Sheree and me. When are preparing for a trip and are going about the happy business of packing up the cameras and joyfully speculating about the things we’ll need to take and the challenges we might encounter, we’ll often tell each other we are going to “havealook.”

The word conjures up the kind of warm memories that make us smile.

I am just about dying to go havealook. It’s been nearly two months since we went somewhere and, while that may sound odd to you, I am suffering from travel withdrawal. It isn’t pretty. I gaze at images I took in Rome and New York and Hawaii and New Orleans and…and all those places…and I sigh.

Our next trip, which will take us down the Amazon River, doesn’t begin until New Year’s eve. Yup. While others are ringing in 2009, Sheree and I will be on a tarmac, waiting to take off. There’s something I really like about that. It fits who we are perfectly.

But for now, I am looking down the barrel of yet another Christmas season, fighting my way through the snow, performing show after show as I watch the days tick down one by one. Don’t get me wrong. I am happy doing magic shows but, you see, I have these progressively itchier feet. And they want to take me to places where I can make photographs and meet new people and be somewhere utterly new to me. Who am I to argue with my feet?

One of my favorite writers is Bill Bryson. In his classic book “Neither Here Nor There,” he writes with great passion about the joy of being in a place where they don’t speak your language, where their customs are completely different, where simply crossing the street is an adventure. That passage really speaks to my heart. There’s a wonder-lust that travels hand in hand with a travel lifestyle that creates a deep ache to explore this big wonderful world.

I am not talking about vacations. Nope. I am talking about TRAVEL: getting up with the sun, and watching dawn come up on an exotic place. I am talking about sipping your morning coffee made in a completely different way, the looks the locals give you when they realize you are valiantly trying to speak their language and the warm smiles they offer. I am talking about new smells and different art and architecture and history and people.

I am talking specifically about trying to think of how to convey that travel experience with a picture and going back to the hotel ONLY after it’s become too dark to take pictures…ignoring throbbing feet because you can hardly wait to see the images of the day…and (in my case anyway) share them with your partner.

I blame my wife for this, by the way. Sheree has infected me with a real desire to see the world and a very genuine ache to peek around the next bend in the world to havealook. I was a perfectly well mannered little hobbit who never had any nasty adventures at all before I met her.



CS4 Is Here!

I have been happily playing with Photoshop CS4 for about a week now. Ooops. Did I say “playing?” I actually meant, “Making a very serious and evaluative examination of this new digital editing software.”

It’s much faster than CS3 and it’s easier to use. That alone is worth the price of an upgrade, which is just a hair under two hundred bucks. There’s not a LOT of new stuff. It seems to me as though Adobe was looking to clear up many of the annoying things that made CS3 a wee bit of a pain to use.

I am especially taken with the Vibrance Adjustment Mask. If you own this software, or are playing with one of those nifty 30 day trials offered by Adobe, I think you’ll enjoy it too.

Here are two images. (It's an air traffic control tower we went to in Mexico. You can go to the top for one American Dollar...but don't get me started on that whole travel thing again) One has been treated with the Vibrance Mask…the other hasn't.
If you can't tell which is which, check your pulse. The differences are subtle but at least a 9 on the "Way Cool" scale.

Adobe didn’t make the one change I have been praying for. The most wonderful thing about Lightroom, to my mind, is that the Crop Tool features a changing Rule of Thirds grid, so you can get precise crops and really use your Dynamic Points. There are Photoshop plug-ins that sort of simulate it…and you COULD go from LR to Photoshop (which is the idea anyway) but every time a new edition of PS comes out, this is the first thing I look for.

Ah well.

Most of the rest of the changes are subtle but quite wonderful. Photoshoppers are in a tizzy of delight about CS4. In my humble opinion, it’s CS3 only way better.

Several of you have emailed and asked if I recommend upgrading. If you’re using CS2 or earlier…and you haven’t upgraded yet, you really need to give your head a shake. CS3 was a HUGE improvement on CS2. If you’re happy with CS3 being just a little clunky to use, wait for the next upgrade.

I only read three blogs on a regular basis. They all have to do with Photography or Photoshop.
The first is by Sheree. She blogs for Picajet. If you’re interested in travel and travel photography, let me strongly suggest that you check her work out. I’d read it even if I wasn’t married to her.

The second that is becoming a HUGE favorite is by a friend of mine in Ireland. He’s Stephen Power and he’s been running a fascinating series on street photography as well as the nuts and bolts of being a professional photographer. You’ll find him intelligent and concise with a delightful writing style.

The superstar of Photoshop is Scott Kelby. Most of the things I have learned about Photoshop, I learned from his books. His blog is outstanding. He also runs NAPP – the National Association of Photoshop Professionals. I’ve been a member for years. It’s a fabulous resource for graphic artists of ALL skill levels. Membership is the best money you'll ever invest.

They are all well worth a read. The links to ALL are in the upper right hand corner of this blog. I’ve put them there instead of here, so you will always be able to find them.

See how I look out for you guys?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Making Junk Into Beautiful "Junque"

We were driving down a back road in Spruce Grove on an impromptu "photo safari" when my wife spun around and made an undignified squawking sound. This usually signals the fact that we have just driven by something that will make an awesome picture.

I was looking the other way, as is my custom.

“Did you see that?” she exclaimed.

“Ummm…” I began.

“There was a metal castle over there!”

“Were there flying monkeys circling the turrets?” I asked.

She didn’t respond to this extremely witty comment, but flipped the car around and drove back down the road. Sure enough, just inside a junk yard was this huge metal castle. I stifled my own squawking sound and grabbed my camera. The sun was just setting and there were ribbons of color in the sky, but the light was fading.

I started taking pictures: an abandoned bus out front of the junk yard, the weather-beaten signage and, of course, the metal castle. A big machine started rolling my way. In the cab was a little old guy who looked like he just might be the elf that lived in the castle.

I was half-right.

“Do you like my castle?” he asked, swinging down from the seat. He’s a genial guy who introduces himself as “Frank. Just Frank.”

I nod, taking a few more photographs just in case he's getting ready to kick me off his land.

“I made it,” he said. “I made that castle from scrap metal.”

His voice has a heavy Slavic accent but he regards the metal structure with a fondness I recognize as coming from someone who has built something that is seriously cool.

My eyes scan the area behind him. Cars in various stages of getting ripped up, junk metal, appliances and even a coffin are arranged in relatively neat piles on the grounds behind me.

"I found that coffin along the highway," he says.

"Was it...empty?" I ask.

He nods. "Yeah. Yeah. Found another one too. Empty. Very good quality."

I am speculating as to how empty coffins wind up littering Alberta highways when Frank nods his head in the direction of a “pick me up” truck and I follow. He shows me a picture of a much bigger castle. “I used to live in this,” he says. “But I gave it to my wife and when she divorced me, she sold it.”

I nod in sympathy as though I hear a story about "castle selling ex-wives" every other day. He shrugs and we both gaze silently at the picture again. This is an interesting castle-building-coffin-finding-artist kinda guy, I think.

“I got twenty Cadillacs too,” he volunteers suddenly. “From 1959 and on up. I rebuild ‘em. I don’t sell ‘em. I just keep them.”

I ask him a couple of times in a couple of different ways why he has twenty Caddys. He explains back a couple of different times, that he just likes to rebuild them and keep them.


Frank makes a jerking movement with his head and I follow him into a lean-to where a large white cloth covers a car.

He lifts the corner of the cloth and shows me a white caddy. Reluctantly, he poses for a picture with his latest project…and I ask him finally if it’s okay for Sheree and me take a few photos.

He looks at me for a long moment and then shrugs and says it’s okay with him if we’re careful.

We are kids in a candy store, trying to shoot as much as humanly possible as the light fades.

Everywhere we look are images begging to be captured. Old cars, for example, really interest me. It’s not because I am a “car guy.” I’m not. But I look at these crushed piles of metal and twisted struts and invariably think: “Yeah. Someone somewhere drove each one of these off the lot when they were brand new. Someone was proud to own them. Someone made a pile of payments on them. And now they’re here. Scrap metal.”

I am still experimenting with HDR (see the previous blog) and other than the single shot of Frank by the car, these are HDR images – all the more challenging to take because my ISO was cranked to 800 to combat the creeping darkness…and I was handholding the camera.

Everywhere we looked was an amazing photo.

Is there a junkyard near you? Here are my Five Top Tips For Photographing Junk:

1) Spend a little time with the owner. You’ll meet someone interesting…and you’ll make them inclined to let you make some photographs of their stuff. (This means also going back there to drop off some of the pictures you took…these guys can be fabulous contacts.)

2) You need dramatic light to make it work. Sunrise is good. So is sunset.

3) Take TONS of images. Don’t be afraid to bracket or try wild varieties of settings. While it is true that most of it will suck, some of it won’t. And some of it will be wonderful! Delete what doesn’t work. Relax: it’s digital. (If your camera has a SUNSET setting, this will accent all those wonderful rich colors. Try using it and see what happens.)

4) Walk around your subject and think about the angles you might want to shoot. Remember that in a junk yard there are TONS of distractions that will show up in your image as clutter. Keep a very tight mental focus on the subject of your image – and ensure that whatever else you add to the graphic has a reason for being there.

5) Rust is beautiful. When you’re doing post-production in Photoshop, you will find that the Brightness/Contrast slider in Image> Adjustments can be your best friend. You will get some fabulous contrasts and colors.