Saturday, January 30, 2010

That cafe thing

Every since the digital age caused me to jump back into photography several years ago, one of my favorite haunting grounds in my street photography quest has been coffee shops. I'm lucky because Ann Arbor has more than its share of coffeehouses and cafes. There are several Starbucks, a couple of Sweetwaters and at least two Expresso Royales, including this one downtown on South Main Street where the photo above was shot.  

I dropped in there the other day at lunch for a cup of coffee and a muffin. It is one of those marvelously lit places, with strategically placed overhead spots and even lamps at some of the tables. As I sat there watching this guy sort through his mail and bills, I knew I had to try to sneak a shot. The key was to get him when the light from the lamp was hitting his face.  Because of the low lighting, I snapped my 50 mm F1.4 lens on my Canon 7d and cranked up the ISO to 400. This shot was exposed at F 1.8. The 50 mm is a beautifully fast lens, but it is a fixed focal length so I couldn't "zoom in" on the subject. Instead, I ended up doing about a 50 percent overall crop on the photo, but the 18 megapixel 7D left me plenty of room to do that and still have a nice size print.

Shooting in cafes is a bit awkward and, I suppose some people might think, intrusive. It calls for discretion or, at the opposite extreme, straightout boldness. I prefer stealth, but I have been know to be bold. One of my favorites from my own photos has long been a shot I took of a bunch several old couples sitting around a table at the Manistee Bakery & Deli in Manistee, Michigan. The light was golden, the mood and setting perfect. As I sat there at another table watching them from another table, I knew this would be a missed opportunity if I didn't act. So I quietly stood up, put my camera to my face and took a photo, like it was the most natural thing in the world to do. My only regret is I did not share the photo with this group of friends. It I had to do it all over again, I would have walked over, shown them the photo on the camera's LCD and asked them if they wanted me to email them a copy. 

That's what I did when I shot yet another favorite photo of mine, of a girl in a hat doing her homework at the Sweetwater Cafe on West Washington Street in downtown Ann Arbor. I had just been out shooting an anti-war march through town and stopped in for a cup of coffee. She was sitting a couple of tables over, right next to a window that was casting the late afternoon light on her. I couldn't resist. I managed to fire off several frames without her seemingly knowing it, then walked over, introduced myself and showed her the photos. Of course, I was worried that she would think I was some old pervert, but I explained how the light was coming in on her and how much I loved her wonderful hat. She seemed flattered. 

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Starlight, star bright ...

A lot of people who know me might be surprised to find out I when I was 18 years old, I completely tore apart and reassembled a 289 cubic inch Ford engine from a 1966 Mustang I bought from a friend. I did this over several weeks in my friend Doug Gordon's parents' garage. I already owned a 1965 Mustang 2+2 fastback (pictured below at right), and I don't recall why I bought this car or why I tore the engine apart. Back then cars and girls ruled my world and I for some crazy, unexplainable reason wanted to be a mechanic. Auto shop was about the only class I didn't skip in high school. Thankfully reason finally took over, and I decided I didn't want to spend the rest of my life with banged knuckles and a rim of grease under my fingernails. OK, reason didn't complete prevail because I became a journalist instead.

Nowadays, I much more prefer taking photos of nice cars than working on them. One of the benefits of living in the Metro Detroit area is that it is the home of the annual North American International Car Show. While the show has lost a little of its luster since the days when the Big 3 ruled the world, it is still a pretty significant event that attracts nearly three-quarters of a million visitors and news media from around the world to view the latest and greatest from the car makers.

As a photographer, it is an event I look forward to each year. It is a wonderful setting of machines and people. And the lighting is spectacular. A lot of thought goes into how the cars are lit with an emphasis on the dramatic.

This year's show gave me a chance to try out my new Canon 7d, plus I decided to bring along a star filter. The filter adds a starlight reflection to lights and specular highlights along surfaces such as the reflective body of a car. The photo above is of a Subaru concept car called the Hybrid Tourer (yeah, I know, really innovative name for a fancy futuristic car). The car was the centerpiece of the Subaru display, posed on a revolving platform with one of its gull-wing doors open. The interior was lit with pink lights and its silverly exterior was aglow from strategically placed spotlights. It was a perfect setup to use the starlight filter.

(For you photo buffs, I used a Cokin P 056 star filter. I had it in a filter holder but did not mount it to the lens. Instead, whenever I wanted to use it, I would just hold it up against the front of the lens.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Admiring Avedon

A couple of my owns shots from Sorrento, Italy (top and below right)

As a photographer, I find it hard not to feel a little envious of the life Earl Steinbicker has led. He had his own New York studio and later went on to become a travel writer. But more importantly, he spent 10 years working with iconic fashion photographer Richard Avedon, first as an 17-year-old assistant and later as his studio manager.

Steinbicker, now in his 70s, is in the process of writing a book about Avedon. In the meantime, he has shared many of his stories from his years with Avedon on a couple of blogs he maintains at Life's Little Adventures; The Avedon Years and at I stumbled across the first blog several months ago and found myself mesmerized by Steinbicker's tales of working with Avedon as he  photographed some of the biggest stars of the 20th century, including Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and Jimmy Durante. A favorite tale was the trip they took to England to photograph the Beatles and watching Avedon engage in a drinking contest with Ringo Starr that ended with both men passed out in the studio,

I have been increasingly fascinated with Avedon for a couple of years now. I think it probably started with my trip in May 2007 to Italy, which reinvigorated my cultural interests. In November, I had the opportunity to see an exhibit of Avedon's work at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I was so in awe of what I saw that I was at Borders Books the next week, buying a $100 book "Avedon Fashion 1944-2000," containing the work that was part of that exhibit.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Here today, gone tomorrow

On days when I am especially stressed or, at the opposite extreme, especially mellow, I like to take the back roads home. It gives me time to myself and allows me to enjoy the countryside. I normally battle it out on my 23-mile drive home on US-23, north from Ann Arbor. One of the alternate routes is along Whitmore Lake Road, aka Old US-23.

Not too far outside of the Ann Arbor city limits, the scenery quickly turns to big open farm fields, old barns and farmhouses. One of my favorite sights was this old barn that was collapsing on itself and become intertwined in scrub trees and vines. It was as if nature was reaching up and reclaiming the land by slowing pulling the old barn into the ground. Each year, there was more trees and less barn it seemed. For most of the dozen years I have worked in Ann Arbor, it was a sight I could always count on. I don't know how many times I stopped and took photos of it - in spring, summer, fall and winter (including the photo above from a January 2006 ice storm and the photo at right, taken in the spring of that same year).

Then suddenly this past summer, it wasn't there any more. The first time I drove by, I did a double-take. Where did it go? I must have already driven by it, I thought. But then I noticed the towering pile of limbs and other debris not far from where I remembered the old barn standing in the midst of the farm field. I wanted to believe that I was mistaken, that I was in the wrong spot. But I knew in my heart this was right spot and it made me sad, knowing the old barn was gone forever.

Now there was just a flat farm field that holds no real interest for me. Yet I still always look when I drive by that spot and wonder why they bulldozed the barn down. It wasn't hurting anything and certainly doesn't add much plantable ground. But I suppose to the landowers, it was just an old, collapsing eyesore, best gotten rid of.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Hats off to these kids

About a month ago, I got the opportunity to photograph a couple of my friend Mercy's children. The shoot was at her home, so I brought along a suitcase full of equipment and a big black plastic trash bag stuffed with hats and other items. I wanted it to be fun. I've photographed her children before as an assignment for a studio photography class I was taking at Washtenaw Community College, so I knew they were photogenic and I knew they could be prompted into silliness. Both of the kids are cute, but in different ways. Justice has a face and ears that reminds me of an English lad. LIllian has a beautiful round face and wonderful silvery eyes that look blue. As it turned out, Lillian was a much more willing model than Justice, allowing several different series of shots. 

For the lighting set up, I used three Alien Bees B800s. I placed the mainlight with a 24x36 inch softbox at camera right. The fill light with a 36-inch umbrella was placed camera left and a rimlight was placed in the rear, camera right, with a silver reflector. A  10x16 black muslin was used for the background.

It was one of those shoots where you have a hard time narrowing down the best shots because there are so many good ones. The photo above was the best of the brother-sister shots and a great candidate for stock photo sales. My personal favorite though was the the following photo. The lighting was spot on and Lillian's beautiful eyes and personality seemed to sparkle under the man's fedora hat.

You can see more photos from this session at

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Photographing ZIngerman's Deli

One of my favorite buildings to photograph in Ann Arbor has always been Zingerman's Deli on Detroit Street in the Kerrytown area. It is an odd shaped building with a lot of character, made special by the famous deli it houses.  I especially love the way it looks at night, when the neon signs in the window, the lit up deli cases and the interior lights cast a warm glow that invites you inside.

We were getting hit by a snow storm and traffic was horrendous in downtown Ann Arbor after I got off of work tonight. As I inched along in traffic on the slushy streets at dusk, it occurred to me that it would be a good night to photograph Zingerman's with the fresh falling snow. Plus it would help me destress a little. It is that constant nagging thing about trying to be a good photographer - you can't just think about it, you have to do it. So I cut over and backtracked a couple of blocks to Detroit Street and waded out into the snow. I was glad I did.

You can view more of my Zingerman's photos at You can buy prints by contacting me at

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

It's a small world

In November I went with my friend Mercy to the Richard Avedon exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts. At the end, we went into the gift shop area for the exhibit and a woman in a motorized scooter asked my friend Mercy to pose for her using a hand mirror. The woman said it was part of a photo project she was doing. Mercy is a good sport and agreed.  

I pretty much forgot about it until a couple of weeks ago when I was looking at one of my lists of favorite PBase artists and spotted a photo of my friend Mercy posing with a mirror . Of course, I clicked on it and was surprised to find the photographer was Patricia Lay-Dorsey, a fellow Pbase artist with whom I had corresponded a couple of years ago when we talked about having a PBase artist meetup.  

I remember back then being impressed with Patricia's photo project "Facing up to my face." She was 65 at the time, and taking a honest (and beautiful) look at what age does to us all by photographing the wrinkles on her face. Since then, Patricia has documented, again through self-portraits, her life with MS, a disease she was diagnosed with when she was 45. Her photos are honest and inspiring and sometimes simply amazing. Her work even caught the attention of NY Times photo blogger James Estrin. I urge you to take a look at her work on PBase and on her web site at