Portrait 3/52 - Jamie

For this week’s portrait, my lovely wife Jamie volunteered to be my subject. She was very patient while I tried to develop my eye for posing. I think my favorite shot of the bunch is this one where her eyes really catch the light well:

I also liked a more pulled out version of the same pose:

In both the shots above, I didn’t particularly care for the prominent wall corner above Jamie’s head or the texture of the wall. For a shot that doesn’t have those issues, I like this one:

This last one also seems most in keeping with the style of the previous ones, especially Jeff’s. Part of this project is to explore and learn but I also want to end up with a cohesive collection. What that ends up as is definitely part of the exploration.

Technical Details

I set up the lighting in a similar way to Jeff’s portrait, however I neglected to turn on the transmitter for the background flash. So this was a 2 light setup. The main light was a shoot through umbrella with the flash set to 1/2 power. This light was close to on axis with the camera with the bottom of the umbrella just above the view of the lens. The 8x36 gridded strip box at 1/4 power again provided the rim/fill light. It was set up even with Jamie at camera left, but was a bit further away than previous setups. Camera settings were again 1/160s, f8.0, and ISO 100.


With my patient wife as my subject, I felt I was able to gain some valuable insight into the subtle nuances of posing. The slightest adjustment to chin or shoulder position can make a huge difference and I am beginning to understand that better.

As for the lighting, I wish that the background light had been turned on. I ended up doing a lot of dodging to try and brighten up the walls, but it is always better to get it in camera. Also, I think that my rim/fill light could have been turned up a bit since it was a little more distant than before. I occasionally get an inadvertant double shot which inevitably doesn’t include the main light in the second shot. This is useful for determining what the second light is doing and in this case it definitely could have been stronger.


What's in a Concrete Slab?

What’s in a concrete slab? A lot!

A project I’m working on is under construction with an elevated post-tensioned concrete slab pour imminent. There is an amazing amount of infrastructure within a slab of this type so I took my camera last time I went on site and took a few pictures.

There obviously is a lot going on within this slab. We have our standard rebar for reinforcing, with bars up to #9 size (those are over an inch thick!). We have post-tensioning tendons — essentially cables within lubricated sleaves. These cables will be tensioned after the concrete has started curing to improve the structural performance of the slab. There are also stud rails, metal fabrications that help distribute structural loads at columns. As there will be a wood framed structure sitting on this slab, there are also anchor bolts and tie-downs throughout. Then we have all of the plumbing and electrical penetrations. In areas where we have bands of tendons and multiple levels of rebar it gets so you almost can’t see the formwork below:

Looking at all of this infrastructure, I can’t help but marvel at the amount of engineering, coordination, and meticulous placement all of this requires. We often walk on a concrete slab unaware of what goes in it — all of the human ingenuity and craftsmanship that gets covered up when the pump trucks arrive on site. 


Portrait 2/52 - Tracie

For my second official portrait of the year, my sister-in-law Tracie agreed to be my subject. I decided to go for a black background look and got this:


Partway through the shoot, my daughter wandered over and sat on the step down from Tracie. It was a fun moment and turned into one of the more organic expressions from the shot. I like the honesty of expression even if Tracie’s hair is starting to get a bit unruly:


Technical Details

My lighting setup was somewhat similar to my previous shoot with some notable changes. My main light was a 24” square softbox at camera right with the flash set to 1/2 power. I again used my 8x36 gridded stip box at 1/4 power as a rim/fill light about even with Tracie camera left. I had a third bare flash as a hair light set to low power (I think around 1/16) coming from behind and above Tracie at camera left. I started with a shoot through umbrella as the main light but it was throwing too much light into the room behind Tracie so I swapped it out for the soft box. The camera was set to 1/160s, f8.0, and ISO 100. 


After this session I am again impressed that I need to work on several things while shooting. First, I need to develop more confidence both in what I’m doing and with the vision for the shoot. Second, I need to develop a better rapport to help direct the subject into good positions and expressions while keeping them at ease. I think I need to be looser and more confident and that will help subjects remain loose and comfortable. 

Also, I don’t like this set up as much as my previous one for several reasons. First, both lights were coming at a steep angle relative to the skin. While the shadows weren’t too deep, the lighting brough out a lot of texture in the skin. Luckily Tracie has nice skin so it wasn’t a problem but this setup could do some damage with subjects that aren’t quite as youthful. This effect was probably increased as I neglected to use the reflector for fill this time around. Second, there was enough spill on the background that it really added work for me during post to get the background to go to black. Finally, aesthetically I wasn’t thrilled with the overall feeling of the shots and I think that the lighting had a lot to do with that. Of course, that’s one of the main reasons I’m doing this project is to learn what works and what doesn’t.


Portrait 1.5/52

The combination of illness and football conspired to prevent me from taking my second portrait of the year, so this week I just have a few additional shots from my first shoot. I will make up this week’s missing shot soon as I want to end the year with 52, but I also didn’t want to miss the post this week.

First up, a picture of my Dad. I still had everything set up from shooting Jeff, so he stepped in for a few frames and we got this:


Like last week’s, I played with the background color to get to something a bit more pleasing. I like the shot, but I have some thoughts for what I really want to do when I shoot my Dad for real so I’m not counting it as one of the 52.

I also wanted to post an update to the shot of Jeff from last week. I got to playing with it a little and found a slightly different processing that I think works better. It is better defined with better detail:


Unfortunately, that is all I have this week. I was hoping to make it a little further into the year before having to take a mulligan, but life is unpredictable. I should have something new for next week!


Portrait 1/52 - Jeff

For my first portrait of my 52 Portraits project, I coerced my brother Jeff, who was visiting for the weekend from Southern California, to be my first subject. We didn’t have a lot of time, so we took only about 10 shots in one setup that I had worked out before he arrived. 

My favorite shot is this one where he was trying to give me a serious look but couldn’t help himself from smirking just a little:


I also liked these two in color:


In the last one I decided to expirement with the background color a little and settled on a nice muted green to tie in with his shirt.

Technical Details

The setup consisted of three lights with the subject (Jeff) sitting on a stool in front of a tan painted wall. For the main light, just above and slightly camera right to the camera, I had a flash and white shoot-through umbrella with the flash set at 1/2 power. The second light was a rim/hair light slightly behind the subject at camera left. It was an 8x36 gridded strip box with the flash set at 1/4 power. Finally I had a bare flash just behind the subject on the stool for the background light. It was set at 1/2 power. To help fill in the shadows on the face just a bit, I had Jeff hold a reflector just under the camera’s view. The camera was set at ISO 100, f7.1, and 1/160.

I started with the camera set to the maximum sync shutter speed, 1/200, but was having trouble getting rid of a pesky dark area on one side of the frame. No matter what I changed with the lighting, I always ended up with a dark bar. I finally figured out that my triggers must introduce just enough delay to not allow a fully exposed frame at 1/200. I dropped the shutter speed down to 1/160 and everything was suddenly fine.


For my first attempt, I’m pretty pleased with the results. I liked the lighting setup pretty well but I intend to keep experimenting with the technical details. However, my biggest area of improvement is probably the social part — working with the subject, getting good expressions/poses, and the myriad of other non-technical things that make a portrait great. I’m hoping that the experience of the following 51 weeks will help with that!

Part of this project is soliciting feedback. So if you have any thoughts or suggestions, leave them in the comments. I’d love the hear them.


52 Portraits

As I mentioned previously, I am embarking on the ambitious goal of shooting, editing, and posting a collection of 52 portraits in 2014 – one every week for the entire year. While the parameters of the project may morph as the year progresses, I thought it would be good to describe what I’m hoping to achieve in more detail here:

  1. The most important criteria is this is a portrait project. That means people — not animals, not inanimate objects. I envision this project to focus mostly on images of individuals but the scope could expand to include couples or pairs.
  2. I am hoping to not include any duplicate subjects. That is, this won’t be a collection of 52 images of my children. My goal is to end the year with 52 portraits of 52 different people.
  3. This is not a collection of snapshots. I want this to be a project filled with carefully considered and well executed photographs not the images of happy coincidences.
  4. I want these images to tell something of their subjects. While technical quality is something I highly value, I want these portraits to convey the character of the person within. How this ineffable quality is captured will likely vary quite a bit — from the subtlety of expression and lighting to the obviousness of props and locations. This is not an easy goal to achieve so I hope to stretch and grow a lot as I strive to find the essence of the people I photograph.

As I wrote at the top, I am not overly tied to these parameters. If the project starts taking me down a different path, I am interested in following it. The most important aspect, in my opinion, is that I add weekly to a related collection of images that will work as a cohesive whole at the end of the year.

So that is my part. Now comes the part where you can help me out. Portraits necessarily need people for subjects and I need volunteers. If you live in the Sacramento/Placerville region of Northern California and are interested in having me take your picture, please get in touch. I’m hoping that the shooting only takes up to an hour of your time, most likely on the weekend. As I mentioned above, I’m interested in individuals but could expand to pairs or even small groups. Also, if you have a concept you are interested in, get in touch. I’ll be sharing full resolution files with those who help me out for whatever personal use might be desired. So perhaps you want a cool Facebook profile picture. Or a new shot for your resume. Or maybe just want to have a nice picture that reflects you. If you are interested, I’d really appreciate the help and I’m confident we can make something great together.

I’m very excited and a little nervous to embark on this project. I know that the time demands will sometimes be difficult to meet but I’m confident that the end result will be worth the investment. Wish me luck, volunteer to be the subject, and check back here to see the weekly update!


A New Year

As January 1 inexorably approaches, one tends to contemplate the year ahead. This inevitably leads to setting goals and defining expectations for what the new year will bring – goals and ambitions that often turn out to be unreasonably ambitious. I am not immune to these tendencies and so I have begun to reflect on what the new year has in store for me.

As I consider what I may accomplish in 2014, I find the common thread to be one of growth and experimentation. I hope that my 2014 is filled with new things learned, new experiences had, and new challenges overcome. I have many specific goals – some that will be fulfilled and others that will fall prey to the inevitable combination of procrastination, lack of time, and maybe a touch of laziness. Of my many goals for next year, two are relevant here.

First, I plan on doing a better job of keeping up with posting fresh content here. This may entail a subtle shift in focus from the historical context of my posts. I haven’t entirely figured out what that means but I plan to let things organically develop. While I have tended to mostly post thoughts on crafting a humane human habitat, I feel that my future posts will be much more broad and personal. I would expect future Studio Stoop posts to encompass a wide range of creative endeavors – design at all scales, photography, typography, graphic design, music, and more.

Related to the expanded context of The Studio Stoop and my renewed committment to keeping up with updates, my second goal for the new year is to embark on a photographic project: 52 Portraits. This is one portrait a week, every week, for the entirety of 2014. I’m working through what that actually entails and will devote a post to fully exploring the details soon.

As I look toward the new year, I am optimistic that 2014 will be a good year, maybe even a great year. It will be a busy year for me – my list of professional and personal goals is perhaps the longest it has ever been. But I feel energized and confident. I’m looking forward to the great things 2014 has to offer and I wish for a happy and successful new year for all.


Reverse Engineering Vermeer's Magic

Kurt Andersen, writing for Vanity Fair, on reverse engineering Vermeer’s secret tool:

David Hockney and others have speculated—controversially—that a camera obscura could have helped the Dutch painter Vermeer achieve his photo-realistic effects in the 1600s. But no one understood exactly how such a device might actually have been used to paint masterpieces. An inventor in Texas—the subject of a new documentary by the magicians Penn & Teller—may have solved the riddle.

What a fascinating story at the intersection of technology, art, and just a bit of magic.



As is the norm this time of year, most of us are contemplating the many ways we are blessed. And we are blessed. In the grand scheme of the human experience, most of us have it pretty good. We have roofs over our heads, gas in our furnaces, food in our refrigerators, and hot water in our showers. As the common internet meme goes, our problems are “first world problems”. So it is appropriate during this Thanksgiving time to truly reflect upon the privileged lives we so often take for granted.

However, despite our many blessings, sometimes there is a deep yearning for more. Not more money or stuff. Not even more time. If we truly evaluate our deepest desires we find that we long not for more material things but for the immaterial, the intangible. We search for meaning in a life that, while privileged, sometimes seems devoid of meaning. And so, in frustration with a life of seemingly meaningless toil, we contemplate the big change. Winning the lotto. Quitting a job. Pursuing the vocation of our dreams. Withdrawing from the rat race and living off the land. Maybe some of us even fantasize about becoming a real life Walter White, a man who escaped his seemingly pathetic life to build an illicit empire before it all came crashing down around him. While the big change is exciting to fantasize about, it isn’t necessarily the only, or even best, way to enhance our lives.

In the most recent episode of On Taking Pictures [1] , Jeffery Saddoris mentioned the idea that finding meaning in one’s life is not a matter of swinging the pendulum but of twisting the kaleidoscope. Swinging the pendulum is the big change — the lifestyle U-turn, the upstanding teacher turned drug kingpin, the mega-millions win. Twisting the kaleidoscope is the small change — the minor adjustments that completely change the way we see the world and our lives within it. This isn’t to say that our happiness and fulfillment is all in our mind. While an attitude change may be all that is warranted in pursuit of a more fulfilled life, some of us could benefit from real, concrete change. But that change doesn’t necessarily need to be a wholesale shift from our current trajectory. There is a big difference between a U-turn and a subtle course correction.

So this Thanksgiving season, I am grateful for the enormous privilege I enjoy. I am grateful to have a wonderful family and a job that supports us. I am grateful that I live in a relatively large house that is well heated and filled with amazing technology that was science fiction only a few decades ago. I am grateful for the food in my refrigerator and the ability to go out if nothing in the refrigerator appeals to me. I am grateful for my first world problems. And while I am reflecting on all that I have to be thankful for, I will also be contemplating what little shifts could make my life even better — more fulfilled, more meaningful. How can I twist the kaleidoscope of my life to leave a more lasting mark on the world making this a better place? Perhaps I need to twist just a little. Perhaps I need to twist 180 degrees. Either way, I am grateful for where I am and I am excited for what comes next. After all, part of the joy of the kaleidoscope is the surprise that comes when you give it a twist.

  1. Since discovering On Taking Pictures several months ago, it has quickly become my favorite photography podcast. Jeffery Saddoris and co-host Bill Wadman aren’t afraid to delve into the deeper issues of what makes art great and how the process of creating art makes for a meaningful life. This isn’t the superficial gear centric podcast you might be used to — and it is better for it.  ↩


The Worst of Both Worlds - Suburban Apartments

If I could permanently cause one building typology to cease to exist, it would have to be the suburban “garden apartment”.[1] These apartment “communities” usually consist of 2–3 story buildings (open stairs — no elevators) arranged somewhat haphazardly within a multitude of parking options such that there are no clear fronts or backs and there is no discernible relationship to the street.[2] There are numerous reasons why I don’t like this type of building but my most basic critique of the suburban walkup apartment typology is that it just doesn’t adequately solve any problem effectively. They are a strange amalgamation of urban and suburban that exhibit the worst of both worlds — density without connectivity, auto dependence without private space. This, to me, is the fatal flaw.

Even the most ardent urbanist will admit that density has its downsides. Shared walls/floors/ceilings are certainly not a recipe for acoustic isolation and cramming more people into less space is a definite net-negative for privacy. However, in traditional development patterns (natural towns and cities), the downsides of density are offset by the positives — better connectivity with services and amenities within walking distance, transportation options often including a functioning transit system due to achieving the requisite critical mass to achieve it, more active lifestyle, and many more. Suburban apartments have all of the downsides of density without actually enjoying any of those benefits.

On the flip side, suburban apartments retain the auto dependence characteristics of sprawl without getting any private outdoor space. The basic underlying principle of post war suburbia is that every person gets their own slice of land but the suburban apartment does not deliver on that promise. Yet, despite not enjoying the most basic tenet of our sprawling development, the apartment dweller must still deal with all of the negative effects suburbia brings — traffic, congestion, lack of connectivity, mandatory car ownership/maintenance, more sedentary lifestyle, and more. As with the density side of this two headed monster, suburban apartments have all of the downsides of sprawl without enjoying the primary benefit — private space.

Suburban apartments exist because they are cheap — cheap to design, cheap to build, and cheap to rent. They are a way to bring density and lower cost to the suburbs but, to me, they aren’t worth the tradeoffs. I believe that there should be higher density options, of course. I just think that these options should be afforded the benefits that such density can afford, which is a roundabout way of saying that density should always be done in a fundamentally urban way. To trap someone in both density and auto dependence just seems downright wrong, particularly as the lower income brackets that often occupy these apartments are those that are least able to afford the high transportation costs associated with living in sprawl.

Since suburban apartments offer the worst of both worlds without giving anything valuable in return, I think we should just eliminate them from our lexicon of building typologies. When density is warranted, it should be done in an urban manner.

  1. Of course, “garden apartment” is just a euphemism for cookie-cutter buildings scattered in the less desirable areas of the suburban landscape with a bountiful crop of carports, garages, and surface parking mixed in with the occasional landscaping.  ↩

  2. These “communities” are often fenced so that even if the buildings did manage to have a relationship to the street they are functionally cut off from participating in the life of the street.  ↩

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