Brian DeMint Program at SMNPPA

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Our local professional photographers group, Southern Minnesota Professional Photographers Association, meets monthly with various programs, usually 2-3 hours. This month, we brought in Brian DeMint (see his work here) from Missouri. Brian brings a background of painting to his photography, shooting rather ingenious looks and adding his artistic interpretation in post.

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We had a full day of presentations and shooting with two fabulous Minnesota models, Molly Olimb and Brittany Bueckers. Brian’s wife, Dena, provides the hair and make-up. The event was at the studio of Sonja Miedtke, a country home with beautiful grounds, buildings, and various props perfect for portrait photography.

Molly Olimb

When there are lots of photographers shooting a model, one needs to try to find something a bit different. I tend to be drawn to faces – I gravitate toward closer, more intimate shots. I also played with a technique I learned at Photoshop World in Atlanta. Model shoots like this are a perfect place to play with new ideas.

Brittany Bueckers

Brittany Bueckers

Once I had found a few photos I liked, I pushed a little more in post than I’d typically do. If you’ve seen my personal projects, you know I have no problem opening Photoshop and letting its tools fly. But my general portrait work tends to be more subtle. But with a nod to Brian, I let these images speak to me and guide me onward.

Molly Olimb

Molly Olimb

I was rather surprised to find a couple photos, one of each of our models, that just wanted – or, maybe, had – to be monochrome. In fact, the photo of Molly above was the first photo I really put any effort into, and it just said monochrome. The treatment I used actually left a smidge of color, but I think the processing fits the mood of the photograph.

Others just wanted color and lots of it. The red dress was fabulous, and it was amazing against the greenery.

Brittany Bueckers

Brittany Bueckers

It was a terrific day full of ideas and inspiration. And mosquitos. But, hey, this is Minnesota, so there will be mosquitos!

God of Carnage at Summerset Theatre

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There are so many plays that take place in a single set – often a room. Occasionally, there will be side areas representing one or two other locations, but it isn’t uncommon for there to be one location.

God of Carnage takes this even further, as it takes place not just in one location but in one uninterrupted time. I don’t know how it’s represented in the script, but it is basically one long scene. Within that scene, we see the entire story laid out with four actors playing characters who develop interesting relationships to one another during that span of time.

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I shot the show this past Monday during the final dress rehearsal. The description of the play sounded familiar, and it wasn’t long before I realized I had indeed seen this show once before.

As was the case for a couple other recent shows I’ve shot, this play had pretty consistent and reasonably good lighting. And the box set provides one basic layout and palette from which to work. Two couples interact – one couple’s son hit the other couple’s son in the face with a stick. As it begins, everyone is trying to get along, you might say, acting like adults. They sit fairly quietly discussing the events.

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Meanwhile, there isn’t a lot to photograph! Four people sitting quietly does not make for impactful photos! But that soon changes with bursts of action and lots of movement with some face-to-face confrontations.

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The gloves metaphorically come off as the show progresses. The attempts to be diplomatic give way to expressions of the characters’ true feelings and thoughts, somewhat spurred on by the rum that is eventually consumed.

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I had plenty to photograph as you might expect. It’s fun to manage to capture certain key moments like a cell phone, having been dunked in the tulip water, being retrieved and sending water drops all over. Other physical interplay provided similar moments to be grabbed.

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I spend my time moving from one side to the other, looking for the best angle for grabbing a particular shot. Often, all four are there and spread out, each talking to all of the other three. There’s a possible wide shot of the group, but those photos tend to be less compelling and serve more to just document that moment. I work to isolate to one or two when I can, or to encompass three or four in a way that provides a good composition. But not every shot ends up as a keeper.

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The cast of four did great. I love watching and shooting expressions that are honest and give the characters life.

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Summerset Theatre in Austin does a great job providing a diverse set of three shows during the summer. This was a huge departure from Fiddler last month, and the next show will be The Odd Couple at the end of July. A big musical, a drama, and a Neil Simon comedy. And each of them gives me different challenges to photograph!

Black and White Ilford HP5+

Silver Lake Bridge

I shot another couple rolls of black and white film recently with my old Canon F1. I’ve been trying a variety of different film types – fast, slow, Kodak, and Ilford. I shot the faster films first. These were shot on Ilford HP5 Plus, a 400 ISO film. It can be pushed to higher speeds, but I used it and processed it for its standard 400.

Peace Plaza

One interesting aspect of shooting various black and white films is studying the grain. Anyone who shot film seriously back in the day knows that as we push to higher speeds, the grain becomes more prominent. It’s loosely akin to the digital noise we see today, but the reason and mechanism is quite different.

In front of the Mayo Gonda building

In front of the Mayo Gonda building

Once I moved into SLR cameras, I actually shot very little black and white. I loved color and settled into shooting slides – some Ektachrome and a lot of Kodachrome. The grain behavior of those films seemed to be quite different from what I’m seeing in these black and white films. I don’t know how much effect the scanning process has, but I remember BW prints looking pretty much like what I’m seeing now, so I think the scanner is doing reasonably well.

In front of the Mayo Gonda building

In front of the Mayo Gonda building

Kodachrome was wonderful film, but it was relatively slow including the beautiful Kodachrome 25. I never shot a lot of that – it was just too slow for most of my needs. But grain was just not very apparent. On BW film, it tends to be front and center. Now that I’m into faster, 400 speed film, it’s rather hard to miss.

Downtown Rochester

It’s also something of the allure of these films. It produces an image that has character. We now use various postprocessing filters to add in some grain to help de-industrialize our digital images. Add in this character. Done well, it works. Part of my reason for shooting these rolls of film is to study the characteristics to help me use such filters with a better eye.

Bulldozer

For a few of the shots here, I’ve toned them either cool or warm. In the past, toning would be done to the prints. Now we can do it on the computer. I generally like the effect, and it’s good to match the temperature of the toning to the subject of the photo. While I tend to lean toward warm colors, some of the metal objects I photographed tell me they need a cool treatment. It works.

Bulldozer

When you shoot black and white, whether using black and white film or using a DSLR with the intent of creating a black and white image, it’s best if you can wrap your mind around that and try to see in black and white. That means looking for textures, contrast, lines, patterns. Bright colors become irrelevant, and you must see past them. As humans, color can overwhelm us.

Geese

While I sometimes look at an image and think, this would look good as black and white, those that are planned as BW from the start as I held the viewfinder to my eye usually have an edge. I really do love color, but there are moments that just need the simplicity of black and white. If the color doesn’t help to tell the story – even more importantly, if the color distracts from the story – a monochromatic image may be just what is needed.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor

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The final show at Rochester Civic Theatre this season was Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor. The final performance was yesterday afternoon – I’ve been a bit slow to write up a blog post about it!

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The show is a wild comedy in the Neil Simon tradition which he wrote as a fictionalized retelling of his time as a staff writer on Sid Caeser’s Your Show of Shows in the 1950s. It was an early time in television when TV was finding its footing. Simon’s co-writers included Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner. I’ve been watching some old Dick Van Dyke Show episodes on Netflix where Rob’s job was a similar variety show comedy writer. Most of the episodes were written by Carl Reiner and the similarity of the office interplay is amazing.

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RCT’s cast for the show was terrific, topped off by Greg Miller, the artistic director at the Civic. Quoting a line from the show spoken about Max Prince (the fictional center of the show, and Greg’s role), “He does comedy.” We see Greg on stage occasionally, sometimes doing improv, and his skills are top-notch. Greg directed the show as well, and he surrounded himself with a cast who all know and perform comedy at a superb level.

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On opening night, there were some prop issues – really, I guess you’d have to call them set decoration issues. Watching this cast deal with the unexpected, all in character, all reacting almost exactly together, it couldn’t have been scripted any better.

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The show was great, but what about the photo-taking? I shot almost all of these during the final dress rehearsal before preview. Typical box set – the writers’ office – and pretty typical box set lighting with a few moments of lighting variation. So, the technical part of the shooting was not as challenging as, say, Les Mis. But we had nearly the whole cast on stage nearly all the time and all spread out. So finding a good angle and capturing the many interactions among the players on opposite sides was the challenge of the day.

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When I return home and upload the photos onto the computer, I always wonder what I’ll find and if I’ll like what I did. Doesn’t matter how many of these shows I photograph. But I was pleased. I have a good number that I think capture the essence.

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There were, however, a couple moments I just missed and wished I had caught. Usually, that’s just the way it goes. But, this time, I was able to attend the final performance, sit up close (third row) on the end and pull out the camera to grab a couple shots. One was Jim Preiss as Milt scrambling out the door holding all the coats that had been on the coat rack as he attempts to cover his white suit (which Max hates). I’m really happy with the one I grabbed, shown here. Milt’s face and expression, the looks from the other writers, all seems to work.

Another season done. Lots of summer fun will be happening at the theatre until the 2014-15 season begins in September. Most Fridays, we’ll be there listening to the free music and sipping some wine!

 

Sample prints

Baustin by the Plummer House Tower

I like to have some sample prints on hand to show clients. There are many different printing materials available these days. Canvases are popular and the lab I use produces great canvas prints. There are, of course, traditional photographic paper prints and some newer photographic papers that have a metallic look. There are also acrylic prints that are pretty cool now, and I’ve dabbled a bit with those.  And there is a wide variety of art papers available for giclée prints made using pigment-based inks and an inkjet process. And there are metal prints made right on aluminum.

I usually steer my clients toward canvas, standard photo paper, or art papers (I particularly like those without optical brighteners which provide an overall warm feeling) for portraits. Metallic paper and metal prints are best with more contrast and detail like landscapes and city-scapes.

But during one high school senior session, I shot my subject using an HDR technique. It just seemed to fit the situation, and I’ve been playing a bit with HDR portraits. I thought it would be fun and interesting and different for a senior photo. I’ve been looking at it and decided this might really make a cool metal print. And besides, I’ve been wanting a sample to show with this wedge-type stand-out frame.

Today, when I returned home from a shoot, my print had arrived. I have to say I really like it. The look works well on metal and these frames are fantastic for metal prints. I decided to show it off and do a selfie with it hanging in my office! (BTW, I do like my new RF remote control that I’m holding just out of view!)

Amazon’s Lighting Patent – my take

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Before I discuss this patent, let me mention my credentials. I’m not a lawyer nor a patent agent. However, in my long engineering career, I filed and received more than a few patents (all assigned to my employer). I spent many years on an invention review board, I mentored new inventors, and I was awarded a title of Master Inventor. So, I’m speaking with at least some knowledge of this stuff!

Okay – so let’s first talk about what one needs in order to obtain a patent. The invention has to meet three requirements. It must be useful, which really means it has to be something you can make work (which prevents patenting a perpetual motion machine). It must be novel, something not done or described before. And it must be unobvious to someone of normal skill in the art, which is many times the most difficult one to determine.

What does it mean to be novel? Well, it can still build upon other things. So, you can’t patent a telephone, but you can patent a particular improvement to a telephone as long as the improvement meets the three requirements.

The obviousness criterion is tricky. It has to be unobvious to someone of normal skill in the art. If it seems obvious to you, you have to ask yourself am I of normal or above normal skill? The patent office will often cite literature which the examiner says “teaches” the method you’re trying to patent, or something so close that the leap to your method is straightforward.

Being on the receiving end of these (they are called office actions), they sometimes show the examiner just didn’t understand what the invention is. So, it’s a bit subjective, and there’s some wiggle room. And sometimes the examiner is just out of his or her league. Looking at a patent like this one, we wonder what prior art did the examiner look for and find. Patents often cite many other prior patents in the same general area. This one cites no issued patents (there is one patent application from 2003 cited which is strange in that this application resulted in an issued patent, so why cite the application and not the issued patent?). It cites no other prior art – no papers or books.

Now let’s discuss the parts of a patent. There’s the intro stuff: names, prior art, etc. There’s an abstract giving a brief overview. There are figures (three in this case). There is a description of the preferred embodiment. Let me explain that a bit. The reason we have patents (and they are laid out in the constitution) is in many ways to further the transfer of knowledge and techniques to the public. In exchange for doing so – telling the world how you do something – you gain the ability to prevent others from using that for some period of time (20 years from filing for utility patents). This gives people an incentive to not hold onto such things as trade secrets. That’s the idea, at least. In today’s technology world, 20 years might seem excessive.

So, one of the things you must do is describe the best way to do or make your patent. It has to be described in terms that someone of normal skill in the art can understand and replicate. That’s the preferred embodiment.

Finally, there are the claims. This is the meat of the patent from a legal point of view. You claim your invention or inventions, laid out in a way someone could test against for infringement. If it’s not covered by the claims, there is no infringement. There’s again some legal wiggle room that a judge or jury might have to decide. Within the claims section, there are two kinds of claims, independent and dependent. The value of a patent is directly related to the breadth of the claims. That is, if you’re patenting a telephone, and you claim “a device into which one speaks and a second device from which the sound of that speech emanates” it’s better (more valuable) than a claim that includes all the details of converting sound to electricity, using wires, and so on, because it potentially covers a lot more ground. So, radio devices might be covered, or two cans and a string.

The problem with broad claims is it’s more difficult to get your patent. You’re trying to cover more territory and there are more possibilities someone has done something similar already. On the other hand, if you make your claims very narrow, you make it much easier to pass the patent office since no one might have described exactly the detailed method you’re using. (Although, here the obviousness might be a factor.) Anyway, you want all your claims to be valid, but if one gets thrown out, another claim which adds more details (narrows it) might still be valid. So, there are broader independent claims and narrowing dependent claims.

I know that’s a lot to absorb, but the general public doesn’t understand any of this and tend to jump to conclusions like, “Amazon patented shooting against a white background!” Well, no, not exactly. So I got a copy of the patent from Google’s patent search, and I read it.

Asking the question, what problem were they trying to solve? They lay that out in the description. They want the subject to appear floating against an all-white background with a reflection below and want it to be done with no postproduction, either photographs or video. They state that prior art solutions “often involve some type of image retouching, post processing, ‘green screen’ techniques, or other special effects…”

They go on to describe a studio and lighting setup to achieve their goal. It’s pretty specific and their preferred embodiment involves around 50 kilowatts of lighting! Is there anything there that I haven’t seen before? Not much. But let’s look at the claims.

There are 27 claims. If I read them right, there are three independent claims and 24 dependent claims. Claim 1 is the first independent claims, and it’s pretty specific. It has no dependent claims. It’s the one I’ve seen mentioned in other blogs and includes things like ISO of about 320 and f-stop of about 5.6 among other things. It would seem to be pretty easy to avoid violating that claim.

Claim 2 is the next independent claim. It’s broader, but still has some specifics like the use of a cyclorama (we usually just call it a “cyc”), a front light, at least two rear lights, at least one shield (a gobo!). Most of the rest of the claims are dependent on this and add various details.

Claim 25 is the last independent claim describing a “method” rather than the studio arrangement itself. It covers putting the subject on a platform, activating the lights, and turning on the camera. It seems weird to me to have a method claim for this, but what do I know. (I know patent lawyers are sometimes paid by the number of claims, or so I’ve heard!)

So what’s the takeaway? I am surprised this patent was issued even with so many specifics and rather narrow claims. I’d have a hard time arguing this isn’t obvious to any professional photographer who routinely works in a studio with a cyc or does any regular product photography work. But, it’s been issued and Amazon now has the right to defend it using their large resources. Would it stand up to a jury? Who knows.

The other question is why did Amazon bother with this? It could be for protection – in other words, it prevents someone from filing a similar patent and then claiming Amazon is infringing. But they could probably achieve the same thing by publishing the method and making it public and, therefore, prior art preventing a patent.

It’s not the strangest patent I’ve read. But I must admit, I never expected to be seeing patents covering photographic lighting! I did think it might be an interesting one to discuss here, though. Hope it wasn’t too overwhelming!

 

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