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Keeping Objects Square Using iPhone Compass App

If you’ve ever photographed a screen, or painting, or any flat surface before, and wanted to keep the camera and subject on the same plane, there’s a pretty straightforward way to measure the angle of the subject then match it on the camera, simply using your iPhone.

The backstory

This is a pretty old shoot, and I meant to post this long ago but never did. At the beginning of the year, I photographed a setup in my studio to put on the front page of I wanted a variety of Mac, iOS, cameras and so-on in the scene, and I wanted to be able to replace the images in the screens easily.

Here’s the basic behind-the scenes setup.

Getting the camera tilted at the same angle as the computer screen was proving to be a little tricky though. In the resulting shot, the screen looks straight on—and that was the point. But I couldn’t shoot the camera straight on because I wanted a slightly angled view on the rest of the setup. So how do you measure the tilt of the screen and camera and make them match? The Compass app!

The digital level is just a swipe away from the built-in Compass app in iOS. I was able to hold the iPhone against the computer screen as you see in the shot above to measure it’s angle, and then lean it against the back of the camera, tilting it until I got the same 6˚ tilt. Cool huh?

Here’s the resulting shot, with and without a red box drawn in Photoshop to show how true the shot was. It wasn’t 100% pixel perfect, but it was very very close, and of course good enough for my needs.

The result

Here’s how the final image came out. This is fully retouched, with images dropped into the screens. Pretty cool trick there, too. The screen images are smart objects, angled (in the case of the iPad screen) with reflections added, etc. to the smart object. I can replace the photo behind it without having to redo any of the “make it look real” work. Neat!

That’s all! Next time you’re trying to align your camera with another object to make your lines true, break out the Compass app and swipe over to the digital level. It could save loads of guesswork, and retouching later!

Self Portrait… Digital Meets Analog

The bio selfie

I’ve been needing to do a new self portrait for a long time now. My current one, which is pretty much everywhere, I shot while on tour with Seal in 2009, in a hotel in Spain somewhere, while killing time. Not that you can tell from the photo of course; it’s just me in a hat with my face covered. That was the trip where I started wearing these hats, too. I’ve always loved hats, or at least the idea of hats, but unfortunately could never find a style I thought looked right on me. Then on that trip I bought a €5 hat in a bar in Madrid with the boys from the band and the style kinda stuck. I still have that Madrid one, actually. Pretty good for €5!

Anyway, I was just messing around, not really intending to do anything long-lasting, but then shortly after the tour I needed a bio photo for something, so used that one… and like the hat style, it just kinda stuck. I’d go do speaking engagements on the other side of the world and people would have to identify me by my hat; no one knew what I looked like! It became “a thing”, and I just went with it. Here’s the 2009 shot…

Although I suppose that one is better than the one that’s on Facebook now…

Recently though, my LUMIX Luminary manager at Panasonic insisted that I get him a new self portrait for the soon-to-launch redesigned LumixLounge site. One that showed my face, and didn’t involve livestock. Go figure.

The idea

I had this idea a long time ago, when I bought a used 4x5 view camera from a photo school graduate. I wanted to photograph the back of the 4x5, with me on the other side of it—so a picture of me through the ground glass. And then, put my hat (gotta have the hat) on top of the camera. Line it up right, and I could be “wearing” the hat through the camera. However, if you’re familiar with view cameras, right away you’ll spot the problem—I’d be upside down. Knowing that, I thought it’d be really clever if I hung upside down for the shoot, so I was right side up in the camera. Great idea, right?!

First off, it took a year before I found a way to do this. Turns out a buddy of mine Chris Briscoe shoots a lot of silk dancers in his studio, so has a rigging to hang a silk from his ceiling. Perfect. We set a date to do the shoot with another photographer friend who uses his studio, Bryon DeVore. We hung the silk, set up lights, and got everything in place.

As we were setting it all up, we started to recognize additional challenges. For one, the light loss through the ground glass is intense (several stops), which meant I had to have a LOT of light exposing my face for it to show up properly exposed on the glass plate. Which in itself isn’t an issue, but since I wanted to see the out-of-focus upside-down me in the background behind the camera, that’d be quite blown out. Ultimately we found an exposure balance that worked, even though the background was very hot, it was going to be OK.

The next notable challenge was focus. First of all, it’s hard to focus a 4x5 to begin with. With so much light loss on the glass, it really helps to have a bright subject and to use a loupe on the glass to know if it’s sharp or not. But we couldn’t put that much light on me; there were no video lights in the studio, and if we opened the skylight, it flooded the set with too much sun. And we couldn’t move the setup, since there’s only one place to hang the silk from! So anyway it just meant that critical focus took some time. Plus, since the depth of field is so shallow on a 4x5 with the lens wide open, it meant the subject (me, hanging upside down like a drunk monkey), needed to be nearly perfectly still. Which, um, introduced the next problem.

I’m not 12 anymore

Do you have any idea how hard it is to hang upside down… steady yourself… not have your face turn beet red… and hang there virtually frozen long enough for someone to focus a view camera, adjust any final positioning (because you’re never in the same place twice), and fire a shot? If you’re 12 years old, a ballerina, or a professional silk dancer, then I’m sure this is nothing. But me? Not so much.

I’ll cut to the chase… after all this setup, this just was NOT going to happen.

Change of plans

There was no way I was going to comp this in Photoshop. No, I was committed to doing this in-camera. But clearly there was no way I was gonna hang upside down, either. Change of plans… how about I just pose right-side-up, and try a variety of poses; coming in from the side, bending over to “invert” my head, and so on? Yeah, let’s try that.

Yeah… no. Anything other than relatively straight on just wasn’t cutting it. And I realized that my head was this tiny thing in the frame, compared to the hat. Plus being upside down really wasn’t what I wanted. This wasn’t working, and frankly we were running out of time. I called it, and we broke set so I could rethink the process.

That night at home, playing with the images on my iPad, I did come up with the idea of simply inverting the image. It actually worked quite well… and I almost went with this. However the upside down hat seemed odd, and I figured few people other than old school photographers would “get it”. Most would scratch their heads in wonder of what the heck this was all about.

Let’s shoot again

This did, at least, put me in the frame of mind that it’d be OK to invert the file. But the hat would have to go, and since I really wanted a hat in the photo, that meant it would have to go back on my head. Fine. So I enlisted the help of another friend, Sean Nipper of Reel House Films, to assist with this one. 

With no need to hang from the rafters, I was able to shoot in my own studio. I also have video lights, which as you can see above were being used to light me enough to focus. Bonus!

I shot this on the LUMIX GH4, taking advantage of one of my favorite features… the ability to connect to the iPad and look “through the lens” from the iPad screen. This allowed me to play with positioning without firing a thousand test shots, running back to the camera, then trying to get into the same position again. Plus I was able to fire the trigger myself, truly making it a selfie, and not have to worry about copyright belonging to the someone else (he who pushes the button holds the circle-C)

Lighting setup

A quick note on the lighting setup… the two octa video lights on me were just for focus. There’s a Profoto in a beauty dish on me, with a spot grid to really focus the light. The big black board is a gobo (black foam core), between the beauty dish and the 4x5, blocking light spilling from the dish to the camera. (Actually we put that there when we pulled the grid off the dish and got tons of spill, but then decided to put the grid back on. That gobo could have been removed; it wasn’t doing anything at that point.) There’s a tiny strobe on a stand, way up high, to add a kiss of light to the hat. And then there’s a Profoto in a large octa soft box, also gridded, and further diffused through a big diffusion panel, to light the back of the 4x5 camera. 

It’s all about the hat

I started with the brown hat again, as you can see in some of the photos above. But it just wasn’t showing well enough. I added a light to fill the top of the hat, but it still wasn’t enough. Through the ground glass, it was just a dark shadow that didn’t seem to make sense.

Fortunately I have a variety of hats, and Sean brilliantly suggested trying the white one. Yeah! That’s the ticket, the white hat!

Flip that file, a little curves adjustment brushed into the image on the glass, and a little retouching to clean things up a bit…

What do you think? Good selfie for bio images? I realized later that this would have to be cropped in infinite ways… which may not work. But I do like it. Do you?

Pulling 8 MP Stills from 4K Video on the Sonoma Raceway

Last weekend I had the privilege of shooting at the Sonoma Raceway during the GoPro Grand Prix. I was actually there to shoot another race happening the same weekend, the Pirelli World Challenge. These are essentially street cars (Ferrari, Chevy, Kia) that are, um, slightly modified. The team I was there with is The Racers Group (TRG) with Aston Martin Racing, and I was specifically shooting for the driver of car 09, Derek DeBoer, who’s a native from my home of Ashland, Oregon.

I was also shooting an assignment for Panasonic, as a Lumix Luminary, specifically to shoot 4K video to extract still frames from. On the Lumix GH4, 4K can be either 3840×2160 (16:9 ratio) at 29.97 or 23.98fps, or if you switch the camera to Cinema mode, you can shoot 4096×2160 at 24p. That’s 8.29 and 8.85 megapixels, respectively. Think about that from a stills perspective… you can shoot 30 frames per second at eight megapixels. That’s… a lot. And it’s easy to extract a single frame from the video and export as a still. In fact, you can do it in camera, which I did on the track, then sent the frame to my iPhone over WiFi, and shared it from there.

Here’s a video sample. The video clips are unedited, and not color graded at all. The video will pause on a few still frames, two of which you will see the original, then a graded shot. The latitude of the GH4 file is impressive. Notice in shot at the top of this post, I was able to pull up some detail in the grill on the front of the car. Pretty impressive.

The first clip is on YouTube, which supports 4K. The second is on Vimeo, which doesn’t support 4K, but will look better if you’re viewing this on an iPad.

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