Hello and welcome to my blog. My name is Gary Menten and I'm a photographer. I live and work in Montreal, and I mostly specialize in the photography of women, I was trained and make money shooting all sorts of assignments, plus there's a lot of stuff I mostly do for fun or creative release.

Needless to say, that over the years, I've learned a lot of tricks, used a lot of gear. I own a lot of gear, and I've sold off or gotten rid of a lot of gear over the years, and so my purpose in this blog is to post stuff that is instructive in nature, be it about techniques, equipment, tricks, and just stuff I've learned that isn't necessarily taught in schools or perfectly obvious. No-one is paying me to review any of their gear, and the opinions expressed in this blog are my own and don't necessarily reflect those of others.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Home Photo Studio Part II: Lighting

My first studio lighting kit consisted of two White Lightning monolights and various modifiers, including a softbox, not seen here, and with Pocket Wizard remotes

Choosing the best lighting system for your home studio.
Go into any commercial photography studio and you are likely to see from thousands of dollars worth of lighting gear to tens of thousands, depending on what kind of work the photographer specializes in. Good quality lighting gear, is like everything else in photography, very expensive and unlike digital your camera, which will be obsolete a year after you buy it, your lighting gear won't be and if you select it well, you are likely to hang on to it longer than you will your current camera. Also, unlike your camera, lighting gear is CAN actually improve the look of your photos. It's therefore quite important to give it a lot of thought before purchasing. If you don't, you might end up like me and spending a fair amount of money on gear that was of good quality, but not particularly well-suited to my needs and circumstances and having to sell it off at a loss to purchase gear that suited me better. 

In this post, I will try to touch upon the most common ways you might light your home studio, but have to restrict myself to the systems themselves, and wont talk too much about lighting modifiers, as there are too many of them and that subject merits it's own post.

Generally speaking, the photographer has a choice of four types of system, and one more, battery packs systems, which are primarily intended for location work and won't be discussed here, if for no other reason than I have never used them and have no experience to pass on that would be useful. 

1. Natural light
2. Hot lights
3. Off camera portable flash
4. Electronic flash 

Natural Light

Most photographers will tell you that natural light is the best light and in some respects this is true. The trouble is that it's sometimes very difficult to get enough of it, though in my case, the dining area of my apartment is right next to a large balcony door and on sunny days, all I need to do to get awesome diffused natural light is to place a dollar store shower curtain liner over the doors and tape it into place. Voila! Modern cameras like my D800 deliver wonderful images even fairly high ISO's and relying on natural light when I can is fantastic in that I don't have to clutter my small space with light stands, cables, power packs etc. it also allows the photographer to work much faster, since there isn't a lot of re-positioning of lights to do. A hand held meter here is highly recommended, however. In fact, a hand-held meter is an essential tool for your studio, period. 

A problem that arises with one-hundred percent reliance on natural light is that we don't have any control over the weather and another is that the sun's relative position is constantly moving affecting the direction and strength of the light as it streams in through any given window. It's colour changes also as it gets higher or lower in the sky. Also, the days grow longer or shorter as we approach the solstices and so the light coming in through any given window at 3PM in June will be different from the light coming into the same window at 3PM in October. A well-prepared photographer therefore has to know how the light will look at what time of day any given month of the year. A really well prepared photographer, will have an alternate light source available as a backup. 

This image was shot with diffused natural light and a Lastolite collapsible backdrop in back.

This photo was shot in natural light but required a lot of fill from reflectors to camera left.

Hot Lights

I'm definitely not a fan of hot lights because of the amount of heat they generate and the colour temperature of the lights and so I won't really discuss them here. I don't use them at present though I did use my father's old 60's vintage 650W Colortran lights when I started as a hobbyist and into my first semester of commercial photography training at Dawson College when hot lights were pretty much all we were allowed to use at school. When I moved to my current apartment from my older one which was much larger, I simply threw them out. If you have a set that you inherited from someone, maybe you shouldn't throw them out, but unless you are going to restrict yourself to still life images, I wouldn't waste money on them.

An option that many hobbyists or students go with and a good one for a small home studio, is to use battery powered portable flash systems off-camera. There are numerous options for controlling these small flashes without wires either directly from the camera or using either on camera flash, a dedicated infrared controller or radio remotes such as the Pocket Wizard

Off camera portable flash is increasingly popular for food shots made on-location.

A big advantage to the hobbyist is that he or she might already own one before deciding to build a home studio. Another huge advantage is that because of their light weight, they can be mounted on small stacker stands like the one in the photo above, and these don't take much space on your studio floor. In order to do so, you need an umbrella swivel adapter and while there are several on the market, I use only the Manfrottos, which come which: 

Another simple food shot made with portable flash and cardboard reflectors.

A. Don't require that you put a piece of tape on the shoe to keep the flash from shorting and firing automatically and:

B. Have no small screws that can be lost, rendering the device useless.
The Manfrottos cost twice as much as any of the other types, but as far as I'm concerned, they are worth it.

 The disadvantages of portable flashes, are as follows:

1. Less power and slow recycle time compared to electronic flash.

2. No  modeling light to indicate how and where the light falls on the subject. 

3. Far fewer light modifiers available for them. 

I used three off-camera portable flash units to create this image. 

White Lightning Monolight with softbox,
This now brings us to Electronic Flash. There are two types; monolights and pack and head systems. Monolights are completely self-contained units with the flash, modeling light, capacitors and controls all built into a single unit. They all contain a flash trigger allowing them to be fired when the sensor detects another nearby flash being fired, though this system is not 100% reliable. They can all be fired by radio control and some newer (and more expensive models) can also have all of their power settings controlled by radio as well. Each monolight requires it's own connection to a power outlet, which means that you have to have outlets in all the correct places. I used to use monolights in my home studio before going over to a Dynalite pack and head system. 
I used two monolights; one with a large softbox to the front and one with a honeycomb grid pointed at the backdrop to create this image.

Here's another photo shot with the same equipment during the same session.

Pack and Head Systems
This tiny Dynalite pack can distribute up to 1000 joules of energy to as many as three heads in either symmetrical or asymmetrical ratios with a high degree of control. It is much tinier and lighter than other makes of power pack in this power range.

Pack and head systems are older than monolights, and because of their cost and weight, usually seen only in the hands of professional photographers. In a pack and head system, a single power pack containing a powerful bank of capacitors is used to control multiple flash heads which are directly connected to it by hard, heavy cables. The pack generally allows for more efficient distribution of power to the individual heads than monolights and sits on the ground making it less susceptible to damage, whereas the flash head, really contains only the flash tube, modeling light and sometimes a cooling fan. 

This photo was shot with my Dynalite pack and head system, with some reflectors and a mirror for fill.

They take more training and practice to understand than monolights, but if you have a good one like my Dynalite kit you'll come to appreciate it for it's versatility. Another of the things I like about them is that since flash heads are generally much lighter than monolights, they are much easier to put on a boom stand and since the pack itself contains the controls and sits on the floor, you don't need climb up on top of something to adjust the settings as you do with most monolights. Another advantage is that if you knock over a light stand or drop a flash head, it is much less likely to suffer expensive-to-repair damage than a much heavier moonlight with all its circuitry and capacitors.

Still another thing I love is that all the heads are connected to the power pack by a solid cable and so then never misfire. With monolights, you either have to have one radio remote connected to each light OR position each light in such a way as its built-in optical sensor-trigger detects the flash from the other lights in order to fire. With a pack, one remote fires every single head controlled by that pack.

Another image shot with my pack and head system.  Many accessories and lighting modifiers are available for both pack systems and monolights.
And yet another photo shot with my Dynalite kit.

One downside of packs versus monolights is that that if you have say three monolights and one fails in the middle of a shoot or needs repair, you just go on working with two instead. If you own only one pack and it fails, none of your heads will work, so pros who depend on them, usually own more than one. They also have a longer flash duration than monolights or portable flash and not very good for flash  freezing high-speed motion. Monolights will do a better job of this, so again, many pros will have both types of lights in their studios or on location.

So what is the best system for you and your home studio? Ultimately, you have to make that choice, but remember the following; 

1. It has to fit your needs. Don't by cheap, Chinese-made crap. You will regret it if you do. You'll find it's impossible to fit them to standard grids or softbox connectors, and some are so crappy that the modeling lamp will overheat and melt the cheap plastic housing of the the monolight if left on when any modifier is in use. To fit your needs, it has to work reliably and stand up to the rigors of the job. If you can't afford better for now, save your money until you can buy something decent.

2. It has to fit your budget. If it's too expensive, forget about it and try to think of a way to do the same thing with a less expensive system. My portfolio adviser at Dawson College, who is a full-time fashion photographer started her career with one second-and Speedotron pack and two flash heads, with no modifiers whatsoever. She figured out ways to get the lighting she wanted with this very basic setup until she could afford to expand it.

3. It has to fit into your space. It doesn't matter how great your lighting system is if it takes up so much space in your studio you can't move without tripping over it.
I hope this has proved instructive in some what. Feel free to comment and ask questions. I will be happy to reply to them. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Home Photo Studio Part I: The Space.

Tips and advice for setting up a functional photo studio in small space.

However much location photography you do, there are some sorts of photos that are simply best shot in some sort of studio where the photographer has a great deal more control of the elements.  A commercial studio is usually a cavernous thing with high ceilings, lots of room to work and set up lights and backdrops, make-up chairs, equipment storage, and so on.  But unless you live in an industrial loft-type condo or something like that, the chances are that you can’t set up this sort of studio in your home.  The question then becomes, do you really need to? 

The answer is, that it depends very much on the sort of photos you want to take, but you might be surprised just how much you can accomplish in a small space, even a non-permanent space.  For much of my work, I use a non-permanent home studio in a small, one bedroom apartment. In this post, I’ll be discussing the following topics;

1.       Backdrop support systems

2.       Types of backdrops

3.       Floor drops

I'll tackle studio lighting in Part II as volumes can be written about the subject.

My dining area is where the backdrop and set are set up when using my home as a studio.
I’ll start off by saying that the my living room and dining room  occupy an area roughly 23 feet long and 12 feet wide and has a standard 8ft ceiling. Excepting for the ceiling, were this area completely empty it would be a pretty good small studio space to begin with, but it is far from being completely empty. The living room portion contains a 7ft long sofa, TV and TV/Audio cabinet, a file cabinet, a mini-bar, an iMac computer, scanner and two Epson R3000 printers, all arranged along the walls, leaving a hollow space in the middle.  The dining area contains a moderate sized Ikea table and four chairs. These all get moved out of the way, usually into the kitchen when I need to set up a shoot.

The backdrop support systems. There are essentially three ways of suspending a crossbar to support a backdrop. The first is to bolt hooks directly to the wall or suspend them from the ceiling. The second is to use large light stands and the third is to use spring-poles like the Manfrotto autopoles.  In my case, there was no place really to bold them to the wall, and I didn’t much care to suspend the hooks from the ceiling in this apartment, though I did in my previous one. The use of light stands was ruled out as they take up too much floor space in an already crowded area.  This left the autopoles, which provided the best solution. Because they take up so little floor space, I could leave them up permanently, and unlike wall or ceiling hooks, could move them around, forwards, backwards, left or right to accommodate different sizes and types of backdrops. When used with cloth backdrops, there is the further advantage that the backdrop can be stretched horizontally and the edges clamped to the pole.  They don’t cost any more than heavy duty light stands, though if you need to store them, they can be a bit awkward since they don’t collapse down as much. 

Manfrotto Autopole with Super Clamp and hooks from my local Canadian Tire store. The Popcorn ceiling doesn't help, however.

 In my case, I topped each one with a Manfrotto Super-Clamp, and then using some of the hardware supplied with the clamps, attached a pair of wall hooks bought from Canadian tire, though photo stores will have the proper Manfrotto hooks for people willing to spend three times the price.  The crossbar is suspended from the hooks and kept from moving too much in either direction by a Canadian-Tire spring clamp on either end.

Autopoles are spring-loaded and adjustable for height.

I want to emphasize here that this is not necessarily the best set-up for you and Manfrotto in particular offers a wide range of parts and accessories for backdrop support systems, but I did find it was the one that best suited my own needs.
Yellow seamless backdrop. There is nothing in this photo that would lead one to suppose it was shot in my dining room.
Thunder gray backdrop by Savage.

Yellow seamless background from Savage
Backdrops.  In my first home studio, I exclusively used seamless paper backdrops.  In my current one I have both seamless rolls and a couple of cloth backdrops, such as the mottled Lastolite backdrop seen in these pictures. I have also started using Lastolite Urban Collapsible backgrounds for my shoots, and have been very happy to with the results.

To tell the truth, I don’t use the mottled backdrop very much, though the quality is definitely good.  One reason is that it just doesn’t fit in all that well with my pin-up style photos. The other is that it wrinkles in storage and these wrinkles have to be taken out by steaming and stretching every time it’s set up. I get a good deal more use out of a black faux velour
The black velvet background
backdrop which is perfectly light absorbent and creates the illusion of infinite depth even when the subject is very close to it. It is a perfect solution for small tight spaces, as long as you don’t mind all your photos having a black backdrop. I also have a few seamless rolls by Savage. These nine foot rolls were fine in my last apartment, but because of the differently layout of the current one, too wide to use in my current one until I cut about 18” off the ends of each, which I accomplished with a small hand held scroll saw and a bit of careful preparation to ensure a straight cut. This left me with rolls about 7.5ft wide, which though far from ideal for full-length shots were nonetheless useable and fit in my tight space. 

Is there any indication in this photo that the model was just two fee from the background?

The latest addition to my backdrops is a collapsible one from Lastolite. It is from their urban grunge series and features print patterns depicting dirty metal plating on one side and rusty corrugated metal on the other. I primarily use the side with the metal plating and rivets because I find it fits very well with my dieselpunk style images. These are practical for people working in small spaces or on location, as they are only 5 x 7” when set up and about 3ft in diameter when collapsed. This places limits on what you can shoot with them; they are best for shots no wider than ¾ length and they are quite pricey to boot. Still, I’m very happy with mine and hope to get more in the future. 
Dieselpunk image shot with Lastolite Urban Collapsible background.

Floor drops. The next topic I’ll discuss here are floor drops. Savage and a number of other companies manufacture these, and if your photo retailer doesn’t carry them, they are available online from B&H Photo and Adorama in New York, though I think only B&H keeps any in stock at the moment and only a selection of the available ones. Other manufacturers such as Denny Manufacturing make drop-dead gorgeous floor drops, but these cost far more than the Savage drops and there it takes something like 4 weeks to ship one.  I have one by Savage, and will probably get more as time goes by. 

Early test shot of a Savage floor drop with Savage seamless for a wall.
The floor drop essentially, is a fake floor- although some of them are made to resemble brick walls instead and generally intended to be suspended.  In fact any of them can be suspended, though I have yet to try this and have my reservations. The notion is to replace your existing floor, which may not be very attractive or have the look you want with a fake one that rolls up when not in use. When combined with a seamless roll that has been suspended reversed, that is to say with the curl at the bottom of the roll on the side of the paper not facing the camera and a piece of molding purchased from the local hardware depot, combined they create the illusion of a different room.A lot more can be written about these than space here allows, but I'll try to make another post entirely dedicated to floor drops later on as I acquire more of them.

In conclusion, every single photo presented in this post was shot in my little home studio, demonstrating that you can achieve professional results in a small space despite the limitations. To be certain, I would rather have a lot more space but imagination and organization are your best friends when confronting this issue. In Part II, I will attempt to tackle lighting for a small studio.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Nude Models: Finding and Hiring.

I've worked with this lovely lady several times. Getting good models is much easier than many beginners think.

NOTE: This article is written for serious photographers looking to hire models, not horny guys looking to hook up with hot women. If you are looking for sex, try an online dating site or single's bar. You won't need to spend thousands of dollars in equipment or pretend to know anything about photography.

There comes a time when many a budding photographer decides to try shooting nude images; be they fine art type, glamour style, pin-ups etc.  One of questions to come up however, is where to get the model(s)? Where indeed?  Don’t worry, it happened to me too. Basically it boils down to two choices;

a.       Asking or hiring someone you know, i.e. a friend, girlfriend, spouse etc.

b.      Hiring a stranger.

Of these two, I have always resorted to hiring strangers, though if you know someone willing to pose  nude for you it might be worth your while to consider that. However you might find most people you know are not willing to pose nude and, unless you are already on pretty intimate terms with this person, it might feel just a bit awkward. 
So what's the best place to get models online? 
Th little secret here is that nude models are very easy to find if you live in a sizable city, have an internet connection and are willing to put a reasonable amount of money on the table. I primarily get them from a site called Model Mayhem. There are others, but I have found over the years that MM is my favorite. A basic membership is free and you can post up to 30 images free in your online portfolio. Managing your images is easy, and even with a free membership, you can post a certain number of casting calls per week. 

Always be respectful and 100% professional with models, ESPECIALLY when they are posing nude.

That's how I usually get models incidentally. Rather than search through all the models in my area, weed out the ones who pose nude, and send them messages and hope they answer, I simply post a casting call with all the details of the shoot and what it pays and I wait for people to answer. Serious models seeking money search these gigs out, and the ones that are interested will generally answer. 
When posting a casting call online. 
1.       Give a clear, concise description of the project and clear, concise description of what the qualifications you are looking for in the model. When answering model inquiries, make certain that they understand what you are looking for. If you don't want tattoos for instance, make it clear; "NO TATTOOS." (incidentally, it's getting harder and harder to find female models without tattoos.)

2.       Put money on the table and be clear about the terms of payment. Cash right after the shoot is best for any small amounts of money.

3.       Be clear that you hold to professional standards (even if you are not a pro.) Then make sure you do when you shoot. Very seriously, models, especially the experienced ones you want to work with if at all possible, are very appreciative of photographer professionalism and courtesy and will generally speak well of you to other models if they have a good experience working with you. YOUR REPUTATION MATTERS A LOT when doing this sort of photography.

4.       Always be polite when answering models, even if it’s clear they’re dingbats who didn’t read the casting call correctly. If you don't like what you see in the portfolio (some of them are horrible) just say something polite like "I'll keep you in mind," or "You don't have the right look for this shoot."

5.       Be clear about your policy on escorts. As a rule, I allow models to come escorted (though few do) but I ask that they don’t bring their alpha-male boyfriends to the shoot. I usually suggest they bring a girlfriend if possible.

6.       I always make it clear that the casting call is for serious people only; i.e. if nudity is not your cup of tea, please don’t bother answering. At the same time, I make it clear that I am willing to answer any questions about the shoot, the concept, whatever the prospective model wants to know. 

 7.    Take a very critical look at the portfolio of anyone who answers. Look to see if the photos in it look as though they were professionally shot or not. Look for models who have worked with many different photographers. If the model portfolio contains 20 images from the same shoot with the same photographer, she probably isn't very experienced, which doesn't mean you shouldn't hire her; just bear it in mind when making your offer. 

8.    Don't jump on the first candidate to answer your casting call. Issue the casting call well in advance of the shoot and wait for replied to come in. Answer everyone who qualifies and who read the casting call correctly, but make it clear that you will make the final selection later. Answer even people who you don't think are correct for the shoot; its polite and you might want to use them for another project down the line someday. 

9.    Don’t bullshit and don’t pretend to be anything you aren’t. Don’t go telling prospective models this is for a magazine shoot if it isn’t. If this is your first time shooting nudes, don’t be afraid to admit it.

Always be crystal clear about your concept and what is expected from the model when making your casting call.
When choosing a model
Establish good communication either through email or messaging and try to establish a good rapport with the model beforehand. This is especially important for male photographers hoping to hire female models. Experienced models are quite expert at weeding out creepy photographers or "guy's with camera's" (GWC's) from the serious and dedicated professionally minded photographers and when recruiting for models, there is nothing more important than establishing trust.  Keep things 100% professional and you will never regret it.

If you don't see any recent photos in that model's portfolio, It's probably best to walk away, though you can ask to see more recent ones. The same goes if you don't see any nudes. This might be indicative they have never posed nude, which should not be a disqualifier; everyone needs to start someplace, but it's not bad to see in advance what this model looks like without his/her clothes on.

Be as flexible as you can on conditions without breaking your bank or compromising your concept. If you are offering $100.00 compensation for the shoot but the model is asking $150.00 let’s say, don’t disqualify her immediately. Look at her portfolio again, and maybe you’ll find she is worth what she’s asking for.

I’ve come to prefer traveling models from out of town over local ones when I can get them. The reason is that these women are usually earning their living posing for photos and are more professional and reliable than the ones doing it for a bit of extra cash. If one of them contacts you to let you know she’ll be in town on such and such a date and to inquire if you’d like to do a shoot, then my advice is to take a good look at her portfolio and rates.
Insist on punctuality. I am very firm on this. When I book a model for a given day and place at a given time, when that time comes around, I am set up, 100% ready to go.  You have to understand that someone could get lost on the way if it’s their first time coming to your home or studio, or that they could get stuck in traffic, and that there may be a small delay and you should always account this into your planning, but gross tardiness is rude, unprofessional and unacceptable, particularly if you have a makeup artist also standing by to do a makeup job when the model was supposed to arrive. 

Never accept ridiculous conditions. Some models insist that they must see and approve of any photo you shoot before you use it. I find this ridiculous because I make the conditions very clear and concept very clear beforehand and pay the model after the shoot and after she signs a release. I've encountered this once or twice, and while I could come back and say "Okay, so tell you what: I'll pay you only for the photos you approve of," I just forget about this one and move on to the next model.  

Stay away from drama queens. Trust me on this one. If you get the slightest hint that you are dealing with one or with a flake, just walk away and look for someone else. 

Walk away from clowns trying to sell you lists of models in your area. Very seriously, there used to be a clown named Ted here in Montreal who called photographers trying to sell them lists of models and called models trying to sell them lists of photographers. These lists are worthless; the information is out there and free. 

The majority of models, indeed the majority of people will not pose nude. That's just a fact. There is no point furthermore, in trying to get someone who does not want to pose nude to do so. Just forget about this. But there are models out there who will, and they are more affordable than you think. The more money you put on the table, the more people you will have answer your casting calls. They won't all be the same quality, but it's nice to have a lot of different models to choose from.