Homemade Photo Gear

About a month ago Dirk Fletcher asked me to speak to his Modern Alternative Processes photo class at Harrington College of Design in Chicago.  I taught there as an adjunct for five years, and the comfort of familiar surroundings was balanced by the excitement of seeing a bunch of new faces eager to learn.  Below is what I shared and tried to impart, along with an explanation of the Scheimpflug Principle.

For the most part, everyone willing to invest a little bit of capital has access to the same gear, which tends to create a proliferation of similar images.  Thus, the distinguishing factor from one photographer to the next is of course the way they see and use their brain, but also perhaps the equipment they use.  So why would anyone want to use the same gear that everyone else uses?  Ever since I saw Keith Carter’s funky lens on his Hasselblad, I’ve been inspired to hack together my own gear including lenses, lights, and cameras, all with the goal of trying to make unique images.  Others have inspired me as well, including Mark Tucker and his Plunger Cam, Frank Ockenfels, John Huet, and Jack Spencer. And a brief visit with a few other students to Matt Mahurin’s New York City penthouse studio was particularly inspiring.  I’ll never forget the things he was drawing, scanning, photographing, and manipulating in Photoshop.

Which brings me to another point.  The goal is of course to make compelling images, and not to use visual gimmicks to lure in the casual viewer, although what constitutes a gimmick is certainly debatable.  For example, one might say the use of color itself is a gimmick, or the Scheimpflug Principle (I could go on and on).  Basically, just trust your instincts, and this is what will set you apart and make you and your images unique.

Some images I’ve made incorporating at least one hacked together piece of gear:

Some of the gear:

Lights from Ikea with 5000K fluorescent tubes

Dog Bowl Ring Flash inspired by Greg Shapps

Old lens glued to thin plexi and mounted on body cap

Lens made from a loupe and some stuff from Home Depot

Kodak lens cut from an old Brownie and painted with liquid rubber

Polaroid 150 Rangefinder Land Camera 4x5 conversion with an office clip and rubber band

Ikea light fixture attached to Profoto speed ring

Flash Duration

Back when I taught college photography classes, I would force my students to do some practical flash duration comparisons.  Why?  Because flash duration is a very important thing to consider when choosing the right lights to make images.  If the assignment requires moving fashion models, jumping athletes, or any other action, then the best choice for capturing sharp images are units that have short flash duration.  Simply put, flash duration is the amount of time that the flash is on, typically between 1/200th and 1/3,000th of a second, but these vary widely with the amount of power output and type of flash unit.  So please compare the flash durations at full power when shopping for or renting strobes.  Shorter flash duration is the best choice for freezing motion.

The image below was lit with some old Elinchroms, one 250R (flash duration at 250 watt seconds = 1/6200th) and one 500r (flash duration at 500 ws = 1/4000th).  Its nice and sharp!  Here is another action shot I shared in a prior post: Pizza Guy.

Stryker Annual Report

On a very cold and white late winter day in Kalamazoo Michigan, I shot some portraits for the Stryker 2010 annual report, as well as images for other needs.  The CEO, Stephen MacMillan, was very cool, as was everybody I met.  Also, I love working with the design gurus at VSA Partners.

Stryker CEO Stephen MacMillan

LuckyPix Interview

My friends at LuckyPix asked me a few questions to share on their site.

Holiday Inn Stay You Campaign

The kind people at McCann Erickson New York tapped me to shoot the new Holiday Inn Stay You web campaign.  We had a fabulous time shooting portraits for a few days at the decked out Industria Superstudio in the West Village.  A big shout and thank you to all the Industria staff for being so nice and helping make our shoot go smoothly!

Here’s a few samples of how the images were used.  To see several of them animated, please visit the “motion” section of my site.

Joshua Cody Shoot

Two weeks ago, over a few wonderfully poured Guinness in the preferred TriBeCa watering hole, Joshua Cody and I got to talking, and after a comfortable Midwest bred exchange that ranged from girls to tennis to Gerhard Richter, we had a friendship.  A few days later I made some portraits of Joshua at my home away from home in SoHo (thanks Mark and Bonnie).  The only idea I had going into the session was to project a movie on his face.  Everything else was spontaneous, and therefore probably worked better.  Joshua is a gifted writer and director, and in fact he just signed with William Morris Endeavor, the best literary agency in the world.

We shot for about an hour:

My Grandfather’s Pictures

With a certain curiosity and reverence, I started scanning my grandfather’s negatives awhile back and I’m delighted to share a few of them now.  I’d always known that my father’s family struggled quite a bit while living on the South side of Chicago in the 1920′s and 30′s, but through a long overdue conversation with my father, I learned that my grandfather, Lawrence Hensil Godman, always managed to keep a job, even through the depression years.  He worked in the parts department of Ford Motor Company at 12600 S Torrence Avenue in Chicago (which surprisingly is still a Ford assembly plant) and then during the war, built aircraft engines for the B-29 in the Dodge plant at 7401 S Cicero Ave, which was the largest free span factory in the United States, and was later used by Preston Tucker to build his infamous Tucker ’48.

My grandfather started making pictures for the same reason most people do, to document family, friends, and daily life, and thankfully the activity was passed on to my father and then me.  When I look at these images I feel a strong sense of wonder and kinship for someone I never knew.  A kinship not just as family, but also knowing that nearly a century ago my grandfather was making photographs as I do now:  observing, chasing light, arranging people, hurried before an opportunity escapes, fiddling with the camera, and maybe even forgetting the lens cap was on for a few exposures.  And at times, surely with a windswept brow and dangerously cold hands in a brutal Chicago winter.  I hope you enjoy my grandfather’s pictures.

South Side Beach, Chicago circa 1923

From the train, circa 1921

The Wrigley Building, North Michigan Ave., Chicago circa 1921

Esther in Jackson Park, Chicago 1920

Unknown boy, 1926

Michigan, August 21, 1928

My Great Grandmother Parks, 1930

The Big Snow, Jackson Park, Chicago

Unknown subjects