Occasional Moments of Brilliance

Photography that is always great, and occasionally brilliant.

Posts tagged ‘quality’

From Dragon to Snake






On a clear, cold Sunday afternoon I made my way to Wentworth Avenue, just south of the Loop in Chicago. I remembered as I walked, the only other time that I’d been to Chinatown. It was years ago. I was breaking in my new to me Mamiya 645AFD and I ended up shooting a couple rolls of Fuji E-6 transparency film. They turned out to be two of the, to date, less than 20 rolls I’ve put through that camera. Today the goal, and my entire perspective was quite different. I was going in to cover the Lunar New Year parade, this time through the lens of my years living in Asia. While in Korea, I often asked my friends about events in Seoul to celebrate the holiday. It turned out that during Seollal as it’s known in Korean, the city turns into a ghost town. There is a mass migration out of the city as families gather in their ancestral homes. It’s a good opportunity to photograph giant subway stations devoid of people, but not much else. This year however, I anticipated an energetic public event.

Known in China as Yuan Tan, Lunar New Year is celebrated on the second new moon after the winter solstice. The parade was part of 15 days of celebration celebrating the beginning of the year of the water snake. The snake represents the12 year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, and water comes from the five year repeating cycle of elements.

The parade itself was a lively event, and the sidewalks were packed. People cheered loudly for the Chinese themed presentations including beautiful two person lion costumes, fireworks and a long dragon, requiring several people to operate. There were also representatives from several local Chinatown cultural organizations, and seeming a bit out of place, local marching bands and of course Ronald MacDonald. After passing beneath the large archway over Wentworth Ave., the lion performers gathered around the marshall’s stage as the observers flowed in behind them for a brief closing ceremony and some fireworks. I was just looking for the parade staging area when I noticed all of the lion costume performers and a group of musicians leading a crowd down the street.

The lion costumes and dance performance comes from a legend in ancient China where a beast called a ‘nian’ would terrorize, and sometimes consume, villagers. The people soon learned that the color red, loud noises and light would frighten the creature away. Red is now seen as a symbol of good luck for the New Year. In modern times, firecrackers are in abundance and red is seen as a symbol of good luck. Gifts of money are often delivered in red envelopes, red lanterns are hung and good luck wishes are written on red paper.

The lion dancers and their accompanying musicians went through the streets performing for many local businesses. Their routine involved three bows outside, with a further performance inside to bring luck and prosperity in the coming year.

By Candlelight





When I heard that Church of the Resurrection was relocating to what used to be a manufacturing facility, I wondered how a factory could work as my new church home.

Last month I volunteered to photograph the Christmas Eve candlelight service at Church of the Resurrection. Founded in West Chicago in 1954, the church eventually relocated to Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn where they held services for years. Last year they were able to purchase a building just west of downtown Wheaton that was formerly belonged to the Alcoa Corporation. Soon after, I learned that the building was a gem of modernist architecture designed by David Haid who was a student of renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Once the remodeling was finished, the first services were held on December 8, and I found out that it was indeed possible to transform an old factory into my church home.

I chatted with Trevor the Communication & Media Arts Manager as I loaded memory cards, adjusted lens hoods and watched people file into the sanctuary. The sun had long since gone down before the 7pm start, so I knew to be ready for an evening of high ISO, low light shooting. Typically while shooting events, I try to be as invisible and unobtrusive as possible so that I don’t detract from the moment. There was a constant mix of intensity and type of light as the main house lights rose and fell throughout the service. I wanted to capture the ministry team and the order of worship in addition to reactions from the congregation that genuinely told the story against the background of the modernist interior. I was excited about incorporating the new cast bronze baptismal font, but it was a challenge to get the sort of surface reflection shots that I was hoping for.

Towards the end of the service, a flame was shared one by one to candles held by each member of the congregation. Somewhere in my mind I registered how beautiful it looked as I hustled to get good coverage of the scene. A father shares a moment with his daughter. The look of wonder on a boys face. A prayerful moment. Wide shot of the overall scene. Most of the shots during this part were ISO 1600, and aperture f4. It would’ve been nice to open up further for a more manageable shutter speed, but I didn’t want to lose the depth of field.

Events are one of the few opportunities outside of my personal creative work where I feel like the 10.5mm fisheye lens is appropriate. I used it for a few shots during the middle of the service to show the overall feel of the new building and again at the end to capture the candles.

A Voice Above the Storm






It was easily the windiest day of the season, and definitely the windiest outdoor portrait session I’ve ever had.

The leaves outside were zipping past the window as we sipped coffee and discussed our shot list on that Sunday afternoon. Her eyes kept going to the window, coming back with questions. Was this really going to work? How many shots could we get in this gale before the inevitable downpour?

Katelyn Beaty had contacted me a few days before about getting an updated headshot to coincide with her recent promotion at Christianity Today. Founded by Billy Graham in 1956, Christianity Today is a leading voice of the evangelical movement and seeks to address real world issues from a biblical perspective. In her new role as Managing Editor, Katelyn is called to comment on Biblical issues in print, online and in speaking engagements. She’s excited about this opportunity to be more involved with their eponymous magazine as well as oversee aspects of their web presence including the women’s site Her.meneutics and the This Is Our City project. Katelyn as been applying her writing and editing talents to Christianity Today since shortly after graduating from Calvin College in 2006.

As we finished talking over a shot list, I told her that I thought we could get some good shots before the rain. I hoped that I was right. We ended up in a brick alley that I’d walked past for years thinking it would make a good portrait location. I set up a flash 10ft. high pointed at one wall as she posed on the opposite wall. This gave me a large diffuse light source that picked up a slightly warm cast as it bounced off the bricks. The alley was only 4ft wide and allowed just enough wind through to give a slightly windblown look…until the rain started. Fortunately we had agreed beforehand on an alternate indoor location, which we made it into just as the deluge began.

As the rain pelted against the windows and I set up the lights, we had a brief conversation about trust. A great portrait requires mutual trust. One of the things I enjoy most about photographing people is creating connections and capturing real, honest moments. It can be intimidating to put the responsibility for creating ones distributable visual identity into the hands of someone else. Sometimes you can see in the eyes, or the pose if the model and photographer haven’t made a connection, if they don’t trust each other. The model needs to trust me to portray them in the desired fashion.

Eye contact is vital to communicating and connecting with others. Often in a portrait session, that connection is broken when one end is replaced with a cold, unblinking lens. If there isn’t a good connection they won’t open up and put their true character and personality into the images. Fortunately this wasn’t the case and we had a successful session in spite of wind, rain and alternate locations.

I decided to use a large softbox as main light source, and translucent umbrella as fill. We tried several different poses and had fun arranging a few pieces of vintage furniture to use as props.

We ended up not only dry, but with a series of images that both of us are happy with.