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Remembering What Finals Week Feels Like

My last post was October, 27. Where the hell did the weeks go?

That's the question in the forefront of my mind as I wrap up the last week of Phase I of Professional Intensive at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. On one hand, it's hard to believe that 15 weeks have gone by so quickly. So much anticipation and excitement had built up since last January when I began learning about the school that to all of a sudden be halfway done the program just doesn't add up. It's like listening to a sports car go flying by at 70 miles an hour while you're standing still. The sound builds, and builds, and builds as it gets closer, and then in a disproportionately short span of time the car flies by you and the sound fades to nothing. This school year is that sports car. But on the other hand, it's equally hard to believe that so many moments, and events, and information was packed into 15 weeks. The minutes plus the memories just don't seem to be able to equal the total time.

But, somehow or another, they do. I'm now looking forward to a few weeks off to step back and take stock of what has changed personally for myself as a photographer as well as all the things I still have yet to do. I want to take a few posts to share some of the work that has happened over the course of Phase I since I've done a pretty lousy job of keeping up with social media.

To start is off... here is the collection of images that comprised my mid-term competency evaluation. Phase I has largely been about the bread and butter skills of photography and understanding our primary subject: light. Not understanding light as a photographer would be like not understanding how to mix colors as a painter. Photographs will end up looking flat and canvases would all be mud colored. So our time has been devoted to learning to work with the light we are given in ambient settings, manipulate light the way we want in studio settings, and mix the two in any given setting. Below are my submitted selections with explanations to the technique and intent behind each photo. Enjoy!

1. Compositing

One of the biggest learning curves in the program has been the world (or should I say deep, dark rabbit hole) of Photoshop. Some of the tools we learned have made me say "Wow! I can't believe you can do that to an image," with excitement as ideas began flooding my head for new photos I could create. Other tools have made me say those same words in a much more shocked and depressed way alongside the realization of "So that's how they make the bodies and skin of models always look so damn perfect." Or, with the realization that almost every photo you see of interior or exterior architecture in a magazine has likely been photoshopped to hell and does not exist in the state that the final image presents. But, all that aside, the skill of compositing is one of those that got the idea gears turning quickly. It opens the door to conceptual photography and the fine art realm where expression and concept is more important that capturing a moment in the time and manner that actually happened. It allows the artist to take the standard photography gloves off and allow creative expression to really start swinging. This image above stemmed from a "What would happen if..." moment and through lots of "edit, undo's" in Photoshop transformed into something I'm pretty happy with. Below are the three original images that were composited together to form the final photo:

They were all taken on a weekend trip to Glacier National Park with a few friends. My classmate Justin ( @mightyspectaculous, by the way, if you are a user of the 'Gram) is an avid outdoorsman that finds his peace in the mountains. I wanted to visually represent that. The concept first began with his profile on a white background and filled in with the landscape image on the right. But it lacked context and environment, so I brought back the original setting in a way that faded out from top to bottom. His legs were still visible all the way down the frame and it felt too grounded; too disconnected from the scenery. I worked to blend the landscape that filled his silhouette into the foreground of the image to create the idea of him being a part of the environment around him. The final touch was adding in the layer of clouds around his body. To be honest, there wasn't a whole lot of creative intent behind that move. The image just felt like it needed something more and moody clouds seemed like they would give a pretty bad-ass effect.

2. High Key Studio Portrait

Learning to work in the studio has been fantastic. While it's not the realm I see myself working in professionally, it's very much something I plan to return to as a creative outlet. It provides the paper on which a photographer can write with light and create something completely from their head. And, with complete control of the lighting, a photographer can shape and sculpt their image to satisfaction. If something isn't coming out quite right, you tweak it and try again.

The assignment in studio for this image was to create a portrait in either high key or low key lighting. The defining characteristic between the two styles comes down to the difference in highlights and shadows; the key and fill lights respectively of a studio set-up. Low key lighting exists when there is more than one "stop" of light difference between the key light (the direct light illuminating the subject) and the fill light (the light used to fill in shadows). A "stop" is a photographic term that refers to an interval of doubling the amount of light. So one stop difference in lighting equates to twice as much, or half as much, light on the subject. High key lighting, on the other hand, takes the relationship in the other way. While shadows can still be created on the subject's face by altering the direction that the light falls, the contrast between highlight and shadows is much more marginal. It creates a far more evenly lit, clean feel to the image. The portrait above falls into the high key category. Set in paramount lighting (the name given for the appearance of the small shadow beneath Lex's nose -- @ltllphotography to see her work), the difference in light across her face is relatively slim.

We had just gotten the first snow storm of the year back in October; it came as a bit of a flash freeze. Sunny and sixty all of a sudden turned to snowy and sub-zero feeling. With a studio shoot coming up, I decided to go with a winter theme in honor of the frosty temps outside. My favorite image from the shoot was actually a different one where my photo assistant (Mikayla Schmidt -- @mikaylaschmidtphoto) did a killer job of sprinkling fake snow down in front of Lex to help give the appearance of being outside. But, having already submitted that image in the past, I wanted to find something else and this photo had always stood as a close second!

3. Natural Light Portrait

Doing a complete 180 from the studio world, we were tasked throughout the phase to shoot our subjects in natural light. While the studio can be intimidating with the amount of control you have over the light, it at least affords you that control. Outside, you have far less. The sun isn't going anywhere you tell it, so you in turn have to move yourself as the photographer or your subject into the position that works best. Arguably more frustrating than taking the time to dial in power settings on strobes...

I do not lay any claim to being a portrait photographer. It's an incredibly difficult skill, so be sure to really appreciate those photographers that take great ones. But when I was standing in this alley with classmate Josh Vanderhaar (who captures some fantastic landscapes -- @joshvanderhaar) I was really intrigued by the shape of his shadow caused by the back light cast from the sun. There was far too much dynamic range difference between our shadowed location in the alley and the bright daylight spilling over the walls, so I opted to bring him out directly into the light and intentionally over-expose the highlight areas of the photo to turn them white. The perks to back lighting are nice even and soft shadows across your subject's face and in the end, I was pretty happy with the result!

4. Product on White ("Drop and Pop")

We now turn to the exciting world of.... (drum rolllllllllll).... product photography!! As my instructor said often, it might not be the most inspiring or glamorous field of the photo world, but it can certainly pay the bills; often, quite well. Think of all the online shopping that exists in the world today. Every clothing site, every outdoor gear site, every product advertisement that Facebook incessantly throws in your face -- all of those things have to be photographed. Consumerism is going absolutely nowhere, so in terms of job security, and supply and demand, it really is a good field.

The assignment required us to find an opaque, non-reflective object (shooting metal and glass came at a later date) that one might find online, and light it in a pleasing way against a pure white seamless piece of paper. Photoshop work followed in the form of retouching the object for any imperfections and blemishes (this was done to a certain extent... it's a little hard to remove sweat stains and wear marks from rock rings like this), mask that object onto a white background, and then bring any shadows back in for a final image. The result? Voila! Not something to hang on the wall at home, but definitely a bread and butter skill that was good to learn for all of its potential applications.

5. Documentary

I was given the opportunity to shoot photos from the sidelines of a University of Montana football game. It's a blog post I've been meaning to write but long story told very short: it was incredible. The energy from the fans was palpable. I've only sat through a few football games before, but it is a completely different environment to be down there on the field.

My intent for the game was to shoot with a documentary style in mind. The hero moments of football games are incredible. As I remarked to my brother on the phone, I had never felt so pathetically nonathletic as when I was standing on the field watching players warm up. To see a body built like a brick shit house leap and spin in the air for a one handed catch and land gracefully in stride is pretty dang nuts. But for my own personal interest and shooting style, I was really curious about the in-between moments of a game -- the less seen perspectives. This lead to getting some really fun shots from high up in the stands as the afternoon sun cast long shadows on the field. It was just as much fun to watch the shadows run and dodge around each other as it was the players. But this shot stood out to me as I was culling through my images. All eyes are typically on the player who scored the touchdown when points go up on the scoreboard, but to capture all these individual moments of celebration in one frame was the kind of photo I was hoping for.

6. Sports

Sports was an elective genre we could submit for the competency evaluation. I have a hard time calling myself a sports photographer, but mountain biking in particular is one of my absolute favorite things to photograph. Might even be the favorite..

I had the awesome opportunity to shoot photos for the Missoula Mammoths this fall. The Mammoths are a brand new cross country mountain biking team that competes within the National Interscholastic Cycling Association -- the parent league for middle school and high school competition across the country. As a quick sidebar: Montana's chapter, in its first year of running, has one of the highest levels of female participation in the entire country. Hell yeah, Montana.

This shot was from a race at Copper City in Three Forks, Montana (Haven't heard of it? Not surprising...) and is a favorite shot from the two races I attended. I stayed posted up at this corner of the track for quite a while -- long enough to watch multiple age groups ride by at least once. Of everyone I watched (high school and middle school) this middle schooler got some of the largest air off the little roller in the mid-ground. A lot of riders pumped the feature (the technique of allowing your bike to move with the terrain and come up to your body rather than pushing against the ground, compressing the suspension, and popping off the top of the feature), but this kid came in with blistering speed and full-on sent it. It was awesome. The expression on his face said it all, too. He meant business, and was there to pedal hard and haul ass.

7. Studio Head Shot

Another example of work that might not feed the soul but will feed the family. From a hipster start-up company to a stuffy law firm, many businesses want photos of their employees to share with the public. That's where studio head shots come in.

This assignment was one of our initial exposures to playing with high and low key lighting, as well as using Photoshop to do facial retouching. Facial retouching, to me, is one example of where Photoshop can head into a grey area of what's ethical and unethical. The general rule given to us was: do not remove anything that is not a temporary/impermanent feature. A scratch, or acne, or stray hair on the face is not a part of a person's actual likeness and can be removed. A scar, or birthmark, etc., is not to be removed without direction to do so. And that was the catch-all rule: when in doubt, ask your subject what they want.

Noah was pretty easy to work with (@thenoahsp for hockey, horses, and other outdoorsy things!). Clone stamping the white background around the outer edge of his beard allowed me to clean up the edges, pulling stubble along the cheek-side of his beard gave more of a clean-shaven look, and a tiny bit of redness was pulled out of one eye (because late night editing sessions in photography school definitely caused some redness in all of our eyes!!).

8. A Photo Series

Back in October, some friends and I did an evening trip to the Goldbug Hot Springs that are just over the border in Idaho. Sitting up in a rocky ravine, a creek has filled up natural pools of water heated by thermal activity below ground. Sitting there in the hot water, the quiet atmosphere, and with this view, it was one of the coolest experiences in nature I have ever had. Nothing much else to say about it other than it was a day well spent with friends in an absolutely beautiful location.

9. Propped Product/Tabletop

The idea of a propped product, or a tabletop scene, is to give an item context and an environment to live in where the message of the photo is supported by other objects in the scene. It's used a lot in advertising work. Instead of just doing a drop and pop image of ski goggles, you have the ski goggles at the top of an open duffel bag where the boots, pants, helmet, etc. are visible. Maybe there's also a thermos of coffee and car keys sitting next to the bag on the table. The context is someone who is about to head out the door and have an awesome day of skiing; the intended message is something along the lines of "Buy these goggles so that you can go out and have an awesome day of skiing."

I diverted from the advertising realm on this assignment and ventured down the creative still life path. This was one of my first times trying to create a scene completely from my mind. It was a challenge to say the least. There's a reason why I enjoy journalism/non-fiction writing. The story already exists -- you, the author, just have to piece the events together and retell it. Fiction writing, on the other hand, requires such immense amounts of raw creativity and vision. You have to create every detail from nothing. So it goes in photography. It's relatively easy to show up to an event and capture what's happening. The scene is set for you, you just have to press the shutter button. But when you start a photo in a studio, there's nothing. It's empty, open space. And even when things are set-up, the actual vision your eye sees is more often than not nothing like what the photo will show. Right outside the frame for this image, there are lights, and scrims, and C-stands, and GOBOs -- the object holding the jacket up is actually a plain piece of plywood. So it was very much an iterative process to start with nothing and create something. Piece by piece, the set got built up, objects got moved around, lights got altered, the camera perspective shifted, everything changed. The final piece to the puzzle was my instructor throwing his hands into the scene to add a little action to the moment.

Just for context, this is what I started with...

10. Ambient Light With Flash

This photo comes from the most recent shoot we did to learn how to mix ambient light with controlled flash. The shoot was done on location at a brewery in Philipsburg, MT, which was an awesome opportunity. Getting to walk in somewhere, set-up lights, and shoot tethered to a computer just added a new level of realness to the assignment.

My initial concept for the shot is not what you see here. The final image is close, but the original vision I had was to shoot more to the right so that Sam, the model, (@samkerssengriep) would be in profile and the lines of the bar would lead the subject to the drink, and eventually to him. The lighting was also supposed to be a direct grid spot (a focused beam) on the drink to draw emphasis while Sam would remain illuminated by the ambient light coming in through the windows. It all sounded great in my head; executing it was a little more challenging. I was having a really hard time illuminating the drink like I wanted to, and it lacked that dark and moody feel. There were a few frames I was relatively happy with, but none of them cause that "YESSSS" reaction. That is until my instructor, Jeff, swung by to offer some assistance. He asked if he could make some suggestions, to which I said "Please!". He quickly pulled the strobe off the stand, walked behind the bar into the corner, pointed the light at Sam and said "Okay, now crack off a shot." Shutter clicks, flash fires, I look at the computer screen and go "YESSSSS!" Back lighting Sam put that beautiful rim light on the brim of his hat and around his nose helping to define his silhouette while simultaneously illuminating the drink into an awesome rich color. Attempting to cut down some of the ambient light helped to black out the background a little more and really isolate the two subjects. Haven't received graded feedback yet, but I'm happy with it!

When grades are taken away as a standard of success, one of the most satisfying feelings is to look back at work you have done and be able to say "I could not have done that 'x amount of time' ago." That is where I am happily at now. It's easy to get lost in a busy work-flow and lose track of what has been accomplished. But to look back at these images is a little bit humbling and definitely rewarding. I have learned new things; I have improved; and I have had fun doing so. That's what school should always be about.

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