Shooting Spiders at Natural History Museum, Los Angeles

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My most recent shoot with the Natural History Museum of LA was capturing images of spiders, specifically the orb-weaver and jumping spiders. The concept was to pull them outside of their environment, presenting them against an intense, simply-colored background to create a pop-art feel to the piece.

Our makeshift studio was in one of the NHM labs where an abundant collection of taxidermy kept us company during the shoot, deer, ram, antelope and armadillo peering over us from the walls and surrounding tables.

Cat Urban, the museum’s spider specialist, had prepared for us a beautiful web spun by an orb-weaver, and we sprayed a fine mist upon it to bring the full resplendence of its artistry to light. We were captivated by the spider’s bold, alien-like symmetry against the jewel-like shimmer of its handiwork, and used the deep magenta backdrop to best showcase that sharp contrast.

Thankfully, our jumping spider specimen was not living up to its name that day and was happy to just sit there, regarding us with a somewhat questioning gaze while striking a few engaging poses. Perhaps it was as intrigued by us as you’ll be by the museum. Go visit.

Thank you Cat Urban & Lydia Gotcher for wrangling the spiders, William Hausler for making the web glisten, Michael Kirchoff for your assistance and behind the scenes images, Nancy Batlin & Emily Carlson for all the great projects!

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A chocolate lover’s shoot

Sometimes projects can take an unexpected 180­degree turn right before a shoot. But with an open mind and a desire to explore (and an understanding that projects are actually a collaborative effort), you can come up with something really different and really good from what you had originally planned. A recent project with Guittard Chocolate was one such shoot.

During a conference call four days prior to the shoot, the client expressed a concern that they were not 100% comfortable that all the options had been explored regarding the visual concepts. Fortunately the call was on a Friday, so I took the opportunity of the weekend to do some exploration myself.

I had my assistant drip, dribble, pour, splatter, toss and whip chocolate around on a Saturday and by Monday, after presenting the test imagery to the Agency, we had new concepts to present to the client.

Garry Guittard, the owner of Guittard Chocolate and a man very passionate about his chocolate, liked the direction of one of the images: a single beater whipping chocolate around against a stark white background. The one thing lacking was the right tools to use. This is where Garry’s input was helpful. He talked about the tools that an Artisan chocolate maker would use and suggested working with those types of tools.

The day of the shoot, Garry walked in with some very old artisan tools to add to our collection of more commercially appropriate tools. We placed them into our rig that would spin the tools dipped in chocolate around and came up with the following imagery.

[I just love it when a last minute plan comes together]

Behind the Scenes: The making of Perfect Ruin Book Cover, by Lauren DeStefano

A recent project for the Natural History Museum in LA, shooting butterflies. Nice to see it out in the world.

Shooting Big and Small

I post many images to Facebook about my wife’s and my weekend hikes around the San Francisco Bay area and beyond. For my wife, these 8 - 12mile jaunts are her power hikes, but for me, they are something more. They are my chance to search for some small piece of nature that has fallen to the ground in the process of decay.

In comparison to the quick, wide-angle landscapes I snap with the iPhone and post on Instagram, these objects are artfully crafted, ascertaining the best side and capturing that with the Phase One equipment and a macro lens. It is a process far more careful and deliberate, more intimate, than the casual point and shoot approach of my Instagram imagery.

Rather than applying one of the 20 general-purpose filters on a landscape shot as I do for Instagram, these pampered images are put through a meticulous retouching process in Photoshop, carefully inspected at 100% resolution, test printed and critiqued before I gingerly release them to the world.

If you put the starting and ending images sidebyside, the high level of processing becomes clear. But it doesn’t matter how much manipulation I do, all my images share a common thread: my passion to find the beauty in whatever is in front of me, with whatever tools I have in my hand.

During an average rainy season, the tree stumps should be at least 20 feet under water. Here is an outtake from a morning up at the continuing shrinking Folsom Lake.

Photographing James Cameron’s Deepsea Challange

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Last year I had the wonderful opportunity to photograph the “Deepsea Challenge”, the vessel that James Cameron used to explore the Mariana Trench.  While the assignment was simply about documenting the vessel sitting in storage in a warehouse, I was drawn to another section of the building: a walk-in refrigerator that housed the Pilot Sphere– a chamber made of 2.5 of steel with an internal diameter of only 43 (custom made for a 6-2 human to just barely fit).

My two older brothers, who served on cramped nuclear submarines during the final years of the Cold War and who have been scuba divers for over 30 years, would no doubt have been fascinated with the internals of this underwater explorer’s dream car.

But for me, looking at the sphere brought back the memory of two haunting moments in my life.  The first was when I was accidentally locked in a steamer trunk with the key in my pocket for a few minutes, at around the age of 7.  The second was my first (and last!) scuba dive, where I sucked up 45 minutes worth of air in 20 minutes.  Clearly, a pirate’s life is not for me.

As a photographer, I have a deep understanding of the perceptive effects of the camera lens.  But the lens of the human psyche, twisted by childhood fears, that’s another story.  While my brain knows this sphere was a piece of submergible genius sitting still, bathed in bright fluorescent lighting, the image on the printed page has become its darker and more threatening alter-ego.

Finding the commonality in a Soccer Ball and Cypress Seed Pod

The movement of water while washing a bowl

One aspect of photography that I have always enjoyed is the balance between the technical and creative. Over the past couple of months, in between commercial projects, I have been having fun capturing high-speed imagery of exploding beer bottles, light bulbs and condiment packets.

I collaborated with Ian Jones, a fellow photographer and gun owner to help me figure out how small of a projectile I needed to make a beer bottle explode.  Fortunately we only needed pellets and BBs.

Before shooting the beer and lightbulbs (gun and camera!), we developed some safety precautions: we placed a sheet of plexiglass to protect Ian from shrapnel while he stood less than 4 feet away from the subject, and we surrounded the set on all 4 sides with a thick 10’ x 10’  plastic tarp. We cut a small hole through the tarp for the camera lens to peek through into the set. The tests we did on the beer made shooting the squirting ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and hot sauce a cinch.

To capture the moment, we used a microphone attached to a device that would set off the strobes when the gun went off.  This device enabled us to delay the triggering of the strobes by increments of 1/1000 of a second so we could dial in the exact moment of the explosion we wanted to capture.

Creatively, I took a different approach with the condiments. The beer and light bulb explosions were a bit more literal.  For the condiments, I took the liberty to be a little more esoteric with these images, making playful alterations to the color palette.

Who knows what will be next. Exploding watermelons?