As much as I love gear, and gadgets, at the end of the day, I am not a gearhead. I like the good stuff, I like the bells and whistles, but I appreciate them on a user level, and don’t spend much time dwelling on how it came to be, how to modify it, or what else is out there to make my shooting more sophisticated. Necessity drives the little research I do and have patience for, and nothing more. I would rather use something than read about how to use it.

That said, if anyone is interested, here is a little bit of detail about the technical aspects of how I shoot and what is used.

The current gear:

Camera: Canon 5d Mk ll

Lenses: Canon 50mm 1.4 and a Canon 85mm 1.8

Lights: 2 Canon 580 ex ll speedlites and one 430ex ll speedlite (all of these are modified with softboxes and triggered off camera

Modifiers: one 60” octabox softbox with one 580 ex ll shot through it, and one 16” softbox with a 580 ex ll through it, and one 22” beauty dish with a 430 ex ll through it, though I use this less and less.

All speedlites are fired off-camera using Cowboy Studio transmitter/receivers mounted on the hotshoe (think a poor man’s Pocket Wizard) – the construction of these cheapos is poor, but they never fail to fire.

And that’s it for gear! No reflectors, really. Occasionally I will bounce a key light off a reflector, but rarely. The real mainstay is the giant Octabox – it covers so much of the need, it is almost one-stop shopping. Most of the time, I am shooting sidelight with it, and using the other 580 with the smaller softbox on the other side for fill. I always side light. I love it. Lighting Guru and well-known Photographer Joel Grimes turned me onto using the Speedlites and the giant reflector, and he is a sidelighting master. The one thing I have taken away from his online tutorials and tips, is the larger the light source, and the closer it is to the subject, the softer the falloff across the subject. So, I take my giant Octabox and park it inches away from the model, just out of the frame, or sometimes in, and will angle it just forward of direct side, perhaps 20 degrees of direct side (I am not a good math person, so describing angles is not going well!) – in other words, just forward of the model, angling towards them at a 10 to 20 degree angle. The other fill light is placed wherever it is needed to pick up whatever area I want to fill. I consider the large box somewhat static, and do the modifying with the fill light. Having said that, I will modify the “zoom” and the power output of the lights, depending on exposure needs, but position of the key light is not moved much in the shoot. I would more likely move the model slightly.

I shoot at fairly high F stops (F11 or F12) to simulate the painterly aesthetic (painters didn’t experience shallow depth of field) so that means those speedlites are set to almost maximum output on one, and 1/8 to ½ on the other, depending on the desired fill and placement. Lately I have done some shooting at F1.4 or so, just to vary it up, but again, that depth of field is very photographic in nature, so I tend to shy away from that, at least for now. My sessions are about 3 to 4 hours long, snapping about 500 pics per session, so those lights need batteries and to avoid going broke, I use rechargeables and have a backup set charged up for each of the lights per session.

For all my sessions so far, I have shot my models against medium gray seamless,  9ft roll from ceiling to floor in a gradual curve and I add about 5 ft of floor covering and tape it off. This way I can shoot straight on or above the model, and always have a seamless gray surrounding him or her. The gray makes the compositing so much easier. I shoot either auto WB or in Daylight, knowing I will mess with the WB in Camera Raw anyway, so it really doesn’t matter. That gray can go blue or green or orange pretty easily, so it is acting like a blue screen for me. But I do not cut my models out and place them as a layer. Hairlines make this sloppy looking and problematic. My original shot is the bottom layer of every composition and all elements, even backgrounds are overlaid, and masked off.

About the Camera Raw step:

 After shooting, all Raw images (only shoot in RAW) are looked at and tweaked extensively in Camera Raw. Nothing is left shot as is. White Balance is adjusted, and I tend to favor slightly warming the original, adding a bit more yellow and less magenta, to give it a slight yellow/green cast. This tends to bump up the reds and oranges, so those two hues are slightly desaturated (this tempers the saturation of the skin on the models mainly). I usually shoot one to one stop under exposure (this is all trial and error, since you can’t use ETTL on your speedlites when shooting off-camera), so I usually bump up exposure slightly and bump up fill light quite a bit, depending on the contrast as it was shot and what I am going for. I soften the image by reducing Clarity with the slider, and then go to Sharpen and Noise Reduction and really wreck the image! I sharpen about 50% with a radius of about 1.7 (both sliders around the halfway point) and then go to Noise Reduction, pushing the Color Noise and Luminosity Noise sliders up to the max with the detail sliders for each at about half. Now, my shots don’t have a lot of noise in them, as I never go past 200 ISO (usually shoot at 100), but with all my exposure tweaks and fill light tweaks, this eliminates any resulting noise, but also, and this is my preference and aesthetic, it distorts the details of the shot to look almost like a line drawing or brush strokes. Is this reducing the quality and detail of the image? Absolutely, but again, I am going for a painterly aesthetic, so this is what I am looking for.

Once the Raw steps are done, I open in Photoshop, and the rest is all about composition and choices. I have a huge bank of skies I have shot for backgrounds (in case you haven’t noticed, I LOVE cloudy, moody skies!) and several texture overlays I have acquired either online or shot myself for texture of the image, particularly paper and canvas textures, but also rust, scratches, other distresses. A note about skies: This is where the gray seamless really comes in handy: I never add a sky in “Normal” blend mode – it’s usually Soft Light, Overlay, Hard Light, or Vivid Light mode, and this interacts with the gray background really well, marrying to it almost. I usually turn the sky layers black and white, otherwise, your sky plate is coloring your image, and what fun is that?? Once it is in place, I go to my original shot and magic wand select the gray areas around the model. Since gray is generally not in the skin tone, and if you light your model strongly enough, the wand does a decent job of creating a fairly accurate outline of your model, if a bit rough. Once the selection is made, I go to my sky layer, and click ADD MASK. The sky is now overlaid around the model, but of course there are some rough spots. This is dealt with by right clicking on the mask and Refine Mask options. I pull the mask into the model a bit and then feather generously. This bleeds into the extents of the model (arms and legs, for example) but it also makes the hairlines perfect. The bleed into the model can be then painted out and dealt with until all looks as it should.

Didn’t want to get into a tutorial here, but if anyone has any questions please feel free to send me a message!

Michael Bilotta

There was, once upon a time, a guy who was a musician, who studied at music college, and became a singer-songwriter. He wrote songs of a personal nature, and put a lot of imagery into his lyrics. Then he picked up his first digital point and shoot and re-ignited a boyhood desire to be a visual artist. After discovering Photoshop, he was hooked. As he learned more about the technical aspects of photography, and met his partner, who was also a photographer, he spent the next few years overly concerned with shutter speeds and ISO settings and depth of field. He forgot or never considered photography could be "about" something, and considered it a creative endeavor, but not artistic or expressive, not like songwriting.
He then discovered the work of a young woman named Brooke Shaden, a fine art photographer from California by way of Pennsylvania. Her bold visual style and surrealist approach, as well as an aesthetic that bordered on oil paintings, in short, blew him away, and awakened a dormant need to create something artistic and personal. Her portfolio and her timeless images made him want to ditch the occasional portrait sessions he was getting, and stop looking for clients that ultimately frustrate him, and focus on making images for himself.
In short, she was a wakeup call for my aspirations in visual art. And that was it. I mean, yes, like anyone exploring a medium, be it music, an instrument, a singer, a painter, a writer, you make some first steps by emulating your influences. Yes, I totally get that. I did three images that were very Brooke. One was a levitation shot (she sort of made that visual effect a staple), one used green apples, because, well, they looked awesome when she used them. Another was a woman in a giant birds nest, because, well, it was cool looking when she did it, and I had an abandoned birds nest in my backyard. And, again, that was it. I had a dim sense of satisfaction in copping a technique, in figuring it out for myself, in approximating something I liked when I saw it. But this did not satisfy me, because it was not my voice, it was not my vision. It was hers.
The only thing I have chosen to adopt from her toolbox, the only thing, was the square format. I really liked and appreciated her reasons why she chose the square aspect, and I am 100% in agreement of the WHY. I am not doing it to be like her. If you are interested in the "why," it's to pull it away from the aspect ratio of a photograph, to make it more of a painterly image. There is also a personal reason I prefer the square: I am a symmetry junkie, and I love my squares all nice and neat! Other things in her arsenal - heavy Photoshop manipulation, texture overlays, I had been doing for over 10 years now, well before I first found her work. I am not going to claim total originality, that would be ignorant and laughable - no one is free of influence and muses, especially artists, but there is a difference between subconsciously letting those influences bubble up naturally and making a lookalike image that borders on plagiarism. The key, I suspect, in doing the former, and not the latter, is maturity, in knowing who you are and from where you come from. In other words, if you have something to say, and it is coming from a place of honesty, it will surface, in time, when the technical aspects recede into reflex, and you stop trying to emulate, and dare to create.
Okay, so much for the musings on all things philosophical. Now to the point:
What is with all the Brookalikes??
Seriously, spend time like I do on sites that I frequent, and ferret out all conceptual or fine art photographers, and you will see dozens upon dozens of people, mainly young women, all copying their heroine with reckless abandon. There are now literally hundreds and hundreds of images of prairie dressed women floating in a field, floating in the woods, looking gothically distressed running from something, or nothing, and it is becoming laughable, frankly. There are thousands of images of dress extension shots - a woman in a brightly colored dress with cloned fabric billowing out for yards and yards all around. There are swarms of flora and fauna interacting with humans. These are or were all Brooke Shaden staples. These copycats are even getting into galleries, into magazines. One of them has even drafted an "artist statement" just like Brooke did, and hers claims "levitation is my passion." It's your PASSION?? A floating human is a passion?
I realize this comes off as highly judgmental, I do. But what is the point of a blog that is not honest, or pulls its punches? This is a little phenomenon that baffles me. I do understand the desire to emulate something cool. I totally get it. I have done it - not so much in photography, but in music. In the 80s, when U2 exploded in stardom, everyone including me bought delay pedals for their guitars to sound like the Edge. It was a great, fresh thing, and yeah, I wanted to sound just like it. But if there is one thing that I learned in becoming a songwriter, it's this: No matter what style you try to impose on your own art, no matter what groove you want to hear in a song you write, who and what you are, your honest true self, if you listen to it, will NOT take something inorganic imposed upon it. It will, if you listen to it and allow it, take you where you need to go, and that is the ONLY place where originality can exist or spring from. You need to get out of the airspace of your heroes, and learn to become what you are. Levitating humans is a definite cool thing. But what is that person levitating for? What is the story or the metaphor there? You don't need to have a story; a photo can just be a coolness endeavor, but if you claim to be a conceptual or fine art photographer, you damn well have to have something to say, and try to say it in your own voice. I say this in the afterglow of completing a round of images that definitely pay homage to Magritte, a definite influence on me. There is an earlier blog entry that talks about these images, called "chasing balloons." But rather than just put an apple in front of someone's face because Magritte did, I was playing in his playground, while telling my own tales in it. And it wasn't every image, it was a few, and there were personal reasons for all the objects and choices in those photos. In other words, you can do homage, or you can do mimicry, and the difference is honesty, intent, and artistic maturity.
What I find most odd about this hero worship, this Hydrox cookie wanting to be an Oreo, is how the Oreo advocates and publicly supports these knockoff cookies, and in doing so, elevates their profiles, their viewership, and validates what they are doing. Perhaps it is ego driven, perhaps it is safe to do so because when you are the genetic forefather of these photocopies, you know no one will have your resolution or status in this strange little world of conceptual photography.
I feel very far away from these Brookalikes, and I am glad to be. Not because I don't like the images themselves, necessarily, but because it is a hollow pursuit. It is quickly descending into caricature. It will never be the lightning in a bottle that Brooke's works were. I have found my own voice, but it really wasn't a long journey to get there, it was really resuming the same voice I forged in songwriting and lyrics. There are chords and melody choices I gravitate to in music, and so it is in photography, or any medium I take up. These Brookalikes may have some technical skill, but they are echoes of a voice, they are generic brands, they are incomplete artists, as they are not yet showing who they are. It's one thing to want to have a person float in the air, it's quite another to find a reason for it and imbue it with some story that means something, if not to anyone else, at least to you. If there is a good case for that person floating, if there is a point to a dress with miles of fabric, if there is a shred of personal meaning in having birds or lizards climbing over a model's head, the viewer will see it.
Otherwise, you are just painting by numbers.
The preceding blog was in no way meant to nor should be interpreted as a negative commentary on Ms. Shaden and her work. I have enjoyed her boldness, her imagery, her strong identity, and have met her while attending one of her workshops. She is a lovely person, and very open and giving to those that attend to her workshops.
Michael Bilotta
Oct 23rd, 2012