Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ayn Rand Portrait Bust - How I took this cover of The Objective Standard

Also in this issue:
  • My favorite Android App
  • Ebook updates
  • A tribute to our cat
Ayn Rand's Portrait Bust Photo

This is a portrait bust of Ayn Rand, an American novelist and philosopher best known for her books "The Fountainhead" and “Atlas Shurgged”.  It was sculpted by Sandra Shaw, an incredibly talented artist, scholar and teacher, and I had the honor and privilege of photographing her work, which made the cover of The Objective Standard.  And while it was a fun picture to take, the process of setting up the shot was anything but easy.

Shortly before the shoot, Sandra wrote a quick email to me, saying, “My statue was designed with “Greta Garbo” lighting in mind.  Go study that and make sure you can light Ayn the same way.”
Greta Garbo was a Hollywood movie star back in the 1920’s who not only had her own style (and stylist), but apparently had her own lighting look as well, possibly created by her photographer, Clarence Sinclair Bull.  Instead of having lighting come in from the side, it was high and in front. This look is also known as “north light” because the light is coming from so high above the subject’s head rather than, say, 45 degrees off to the side like standard portrait lighting (often called “Rembrandt lighting”.)  The lighting needs to be lit at a steep angle from overhead: about 25 degrees from the vertical axis of the work.  It also should be photographed from slightly below the center of the work to make the subject have what Sandra calls an overarching expression.  So the steep "north" light and upward direction of the view are the supra-normal aspects of this shoot.
Greta Garbo lighting or not, photographing shiny objects is hard.  Unlike standard portrait lighting for people, with shiny objects you want to illuminate the object without causing reflections.  (Or if there are reflections, you want them to highlight key shapes of the surface rather than have them behave recklessly.  More often than not, reckless reflections can serve to ruin a shot rather than enhance it.)
This shot took us over 2 ½ hours of experimentation until we got the light just right.  I’ll show you the highlights of what we did and how the shot progressed from something yucky to something impressive.
The first thing I did was take my A900, put it on a tripod, and framed the shot so there was lots of room around the bust (especially up on top, where a magazine mast head would go.)  Then I dialed in an f/stop and shutter speed (1/200th at f/11) that cut the ambient light down to zero – so for this shot, any light you see came from the flashes.  Because this was for publication, and because I wasn't sure about the color balance, I shot RAW so I could decide later on.
The backdrop was black, but I was able to make it look graduated grey by putting a flash on the floor and having it point upward:
So I got the background.  Next I tried my standard portrait lighting which looks great on people but looked flat and boring on the statue:
After two shots I abandoned this strategy – instead I tried using a bare 56 flash.  That came out better, but now too little of the bust was being illuminated.  A little playing around with the position of the flash saw a great deal of variation:
Overhead, pointing downward.  Everything below the nose is too dark.
Over to the side.  (She looks considerably older here!)
Okay, dramatic, but the bottom is too dark.  Time to add a flash and reflector underneath.
Getting there!  Now I want to lighten her left side.  I did this by partially raising the black cloth to her left, allowing the brightly-colored wall beneath to provide a little fill.
I think that's got it!  Lighting setup for this appears below.
There were three wireless flashes used for this shot: One on the floor illuminating the backdrop, one in front of the bust pointing forward (providing fill via bouncing back off a large white board, sitting atop a chair in the foreground), and the main light, being held skillfully by Voice Activated Lightstand Greg Bowyer.
So that's how we got the shot.  But in my mind the more interesting story behind this bust is how it was made, and Sandra has created three detailed Youtube videos documenting some of the process.  Just amazing. (I cringed when they knocked a big hole in the back of the sculpture’s head!)  You can see them and read more about the bust and Sandra's other artwork at Sandra's website:  Definitely worth a look!
Sandra Shaw and her portrait bust of Ayn Rand
My Favorite Android App
Well, I should say this is my favorite photography-related Android app.  This app is called Sun Surveyor and it's written by a talented young programmer named Adam Ratana.  Basically it lets you scout out your locations so you can know ahead of time where the sun is going to be later on in the day (or year).  I used it recently to scout out a shot of an iconic building in Mid-Valley City, Malaysia.

Using my phone's built-in GPS, compass, and camera, Sun Surveyor creates an augmented reality image to show you where the sun is going to be relative to where your phone is pointing so you can virtually compose your future shot.  (It provides an animation of the moon, too!)  Very cool indeed.  Using the information it provided me I knew when to come back so I could have the sun behind the building.  (Too bad it was a lousy sunset - I guess these apps can't control everything.)

Now if only someone would come out with a photography app that had NO latency between when you pressed the shutter button and when the camera took the picture!!!  
(And to pre-empt the inevitable "What's your favorite non-photography Android App?" question, it's a tie between Google maps / Navigation and "Talk to Me" voice translator.  You speak to it in one language, it speaks the translation to you in another.  These phones are a miracle of science and technology!)
Book Updates
We're done with the seminars this year.  And just after finishing the update to my NEX 3 and 5 ebooks to include the NEX 3C and 5N that I got my hands on the A77 and am putting it through its paces.  Pretty impressive machine.  The first day I had it I took this shot using the new 16-50 f/2.8 "kit" lens:

In case you want to pixel-peep (a meaningless way to evaluate image quality, although I must say this and the next image hold up to such meaningless scrutiny quite well!), you can download the image here.  Go ahead, count the eyelashes!
And here's a 2nd image taken with my trusty Minolta 80-200 f/2.8 G lens:
 and you can download the original image from here.

The new A77 ebook will be done in the A900 book style, meaning it will be a reference book rather than a text book, and it should be done by January 2012.  After that I start on the NEX 7 book (once I get my hands on one, that is... hopefully there will be no more earthquakes, tsunamis, or floods affecting Sony's supply or distribution chain.)  If you'd like to be notified when either of these ebooks are available, just send an email to Gary at FriedmanArchives dot com and let me know which book!

And speaking of books, let me take this opportunity to plug a children's book, "Creature in the Patch", written by a friend of mine.  I really enjoyed it!  This is a delightful children's mystery which not only combines other-worldly trolls and fairies (and crystals!  Don't forget crystals!), but also reaffirms the values of independent thinking, gardening and cooking, and that each of us has our own energies which make us unique. I'm not exactly 8 years old (I'm a half-centurian if you must know) but I found myself wanting to keep reading ahead just to see what happens next - the hallmark of a well-told story. A twist and a plot revelation at every turn. Well done, Mr. Levine! You can get a printed or a Kindle version here

One more thing...

Our cat Hermione (named after the Harry Potter character) died last night.  The vet estimates that she was about 18 years old.  Although I've always considered myself a dog person,  I've had cats before, and let me tell you this one was exceptional. She was the most people-friendly cat I've ever met. Kind of like a perfect hybrid between a cat and a dog. She adopted Carol about 10 years ago, and has been a permanent fixture in our lives. We will both miss her terribly.  I've assembled a small collection of photos of her over the years here.

Until next time... 
Yours Truly, Gary Friedman


  1. thank you , Gary. My sympathies for the loss of your beloved Hermione. I know the house is so empty without her.

  2. Thanks for sharing your cat pictures. I know how you feel about her.

  3. Terribly sorry to hear about your cat.

  4. Gary. Thank you for another newsletter but very sad to read about your loss of Hermione. We know how you feel. Our Bengals, Yogi and Miss Lulu Guinness, are very much a part of our lives and they tell the tale of when we lost our Mr Bojangles on their blog(!!):

  5. if you want an android phone that has zero shutter lag, check out the new Samsung galexy nexus! comes out November 10th.... or thats when they think it will come out!

  6. A friend recently gave us a little fridge magnet plaque when our cat of many years passed away: A house without a cat is not a home. Our condolences. On a brighter note, great blog (as usual).

  7. So Sorry for the loss of Hermione.
    She looks a lot like our cat Mitzi (photo:
    It sounds like Hermione had a similar personality to Mitzi. We got Mitzi from the shelter,on death row; we've decided she's "Ragdoll"

  8. Gary,
    Great blog on the bust shoot. One question - How did you have the flashes set up, ie were you shooting TTL, manual or a combination of both?

  9. Thank you all so much for your condolences for our cat!

    @Robin, after taking so much time to set up the shot, it doesn't make sense to leave anything to chance. The flashes were all set to manual mode.



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