The Photography Puzzle…

Photography is an art form.

We can all agree on that.

Sometimes photography is about being in the right place at the right time, and being a little bit lucky.

But sometimes it’s like solving a puzzle. You have to know how light works, how shadows work, angles, timing, geometry, positioning, sometimes even weather patterns. You don’t just take a photograph. You painstakingly work to set it up.

If done properly, you can see a complicated photo and NOT see all of the work and thought that went into it.

Recently, I was given the job of photographing the rooms for the Rogers House Bed and Breakfast Inn in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The photos currently on their web site are old and, frankly, don’t really show off the true beauty of the rooms.

I don’t normally do architecture photography, but I’m not unfamiliar with it. I do know that it’s not as simple as merely going in and taking a photo.

The problem is that how our eyes perceive a room is not necessarily how our cameras perceive it. Our eyes are able to not only adapt to different levels of light and contrast, but even the TYPES of light. Incandescent lightbulbs, for example, have a different color temperature than sunlight.

Our eyes are sophisticated enough to compensate for this. When we’re in a room with windows, all of the light looks the same.

But with our digital cameras, the sensor can only accommodate one temperature of light. Mixed lighting can create all sorts of problems, such as parts of a room appearing way too yellow or way too blue.

Even with one consistent source, many camera sensors still don’t automatically get it right. Indoor photography often skews toward yellow if the color temperature isn’t properly set.

So I knew that in order to properly do justice to the Rogers House rooms, I was going to have to approach this as a puzzle to be solved. How to properly light the rooms, make all of the colors accurate, show drama and intimacy, yet still maintain a realistic impression of the rooms?

Let’s start with that last one. Because really, that’s the toughest.

One popular “trick” in the world of photography is a technique called HDR. High Dynamic Range photography. HDR involves taking multiple exposures. Some exposures will be optimized for the brightest areas, some will be optimized for the darkest shadows, and some for the middle range.

Special software combines these exposures and brings out detail across the entire dynamic range of the scene. So, for example, in a dark room you might see all of the details in the shadows, but outside the window you’ll also still see all of the details from the bright, noon sun.

The problem with HDR is that it’s very difficult to do well. Even when carefully processed, it tends to create an almost artificial look. An image can appear almost like a painting, or it can simply look “too” perfect. Like a computer rendering, where the shadows and highlights aren’t quite right, but you’re not sure why.


HDR can be a cool and fun technique, but can also very easily look too unreal and “dreamy.” Not at all appropriate for this job.

HDR was not the route I wanted to go.

My goal for each room was to make an image that was dramatic, but represented, as much as possible, the actual lighting in the room. But to do this, I need to, paradoxically, create light.

The first thing I did in each room was consider where the sources of light were, including the windows. Then I looked at where the light was hitting around the room and where the shadows were. I didn’t want to eliminate shadows, because the contrast of light and shadow creates drama.

Another important thing was to consider what purpose these photos were going to serve. Not only is it important to properly represent the rooms in terms of colors, but to also try to enhance the drama and intimacy of the rooms. The “feel” of the Rogers House is rich and lush. So for these photos, it wouldn’t be out of place to slightly exaggerate the contrast of the rooms to make the photos feel more like the experience of actually being in the room.

Here’s an example. First up is one of the original room shots:


The original photo as it currently appears on the Rogers House site.

Immediately I can see that something is off with the colors. There is natural sunlight coming in from the left, artificial light throughout the rest of the room.

And yet, the color balance isn’t right for either. The entire image skews very pink.

Color problems aside, the framing of the photo makes the room look a bit cramped. Even with the room door open, it the room comes off feeling smaller than it actually is.

So, first I knew that I needed a better angle. Here’s my initial shot:


My initial photo: A better angle, but the colors are still off.

By getting a little lower, and back into the corner, I can show off more space. Even with the door closed, the room appears larger, and yet still a cozy size.

But… there are a lot of problems with the light.

I have an excellent source of white in the room, the bed, which is a great way to calibrate the color temperature.

But the problem is that all the different sources of light are making that white bed spread skewed to all sorts of different colors, from blues to pinks to yellows.

And the entire back half of the room is way to yellow. That’s NOT how it looks to my eyes.

One solution would be to play with the individual colors and tone down the yellow:


Better, but still not ideal…

This is giving me more accurate colors on the back wall, but at the expense of warmth. I lose all of that great yellow glow off of the lamps. I still want that, just not the entire back of the room to be yellow.

While I could use some layer masking to bring back the warmth of the lamps, another problem is just the overall lack of contrast. The color is better in the back half of the room, but it just looks kind of bland.

So my solution was to take many frames, but using a flash to “paint” better light where I needed it.

All in all, I used 6 different frames, each with slightly different lighting enhanced by a small flash:


6 shots, painting with light around the room.

After bringing these into Photoshop, I was able to mask out different parts of each photo to create a final image that not only show more accurate colors, but also retains the warm glow of the lamps, and adds some drama in the form of contrast:


The final shot. Colors are accurate to the room, and the colors are rich and inviting.

And below are a few more before and after samples, each using this same technique to “paint” with light.


The Hillsdale Room, as it currently appears on the Rogers House site.


New photo of the Hillsdale Room.


The original Garrett Suite photo.


New photo of the Garrett Suite.



The Bankers Suite, original photo.


New photo of the Bankers Suite.

Photography isn’t just about pushing buttons and hoping for the best.

Quite often, the best photography is about having a plan and having the knowledge to be able to carry out that plan.

These new photos don’t look like snapshots. They are dramatic and convey some of the amazing experience of being in these rooms. When they are implemented into the Rogers House website, potential guests will have a much better feel for their experience in the Inn. All because I took this job with a clear plan for what I wanted to accomplish and how to accomplish it.

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You can hook me up, can’t you?

We have been trained to hope for or even expect discounts for some products and services, but not others.

No one tries to negotiate the price of gas at the pump. Or a shirt at a mall.

But walk onto a car lot and it’s time to crack your knuckles and get to work.

For some reason, wedding photography is viewed as one of those “negotiable” services. This probably has to do with the fact that it’s pretty difficult to put a standard on the price, and art is subjective. What’s of value artistically to one person may not hold the same value for another.

There have been many articles written that attempt to justify the cost of wedding photography. They start off by listing the cost of their gear. How much they have to pay for gas. Their mortgage. The more desperate ones might even throw their kids’ dental costs at you.

I disagree with every one of these articles.

The fact is, I believe that I offer a service of value, and I want to market myself to people who share that belief. I do my best to provide the best work I possibly can for my clients and to give them a part of my artistic vision. This is what I’m selling.

This is also how I make my living.

So when I offer discounts for my services, I cannot do it arbitrarily. I have to put thought into the reason I’m willing to put a lower price on what I consider to be my art. What do I hope to gain from it? Why should I give a discount?

Sometimes it can be a celebration. For example, when Nebraska passed its marriage equality law, I decided to offer a discount to anyone who booked with me that month as a show of support. I’m a wedding photographer. Of course I want the opportunity for more people to get married. And it’s an issue I also happen to agree with.

My birthday is in April, which is traditionally a very slow booking month for me. Offering a “birthday” discount is a way to potentially gain some new business that might otherwise not have come my way. Were my birthday in January or February, normally high booking months, I probably wouldn’t be able to offer the discount.

Because my discounts aren’t arbitrary, because each must be carefully considered, traditionally they are very time limited.

Now I’m going to change that.

For the first time in almost 10 years of business, Studio Orange is going to start offering a permanent discount for clients.

But there’s a catch.

This discount will be offered to anyone who also books with Event Design to help plan their wedding.

The answer to the “why” of this is actually pretty simple.

I’ve photographed a number of weddings that Shelly at Event Design has organized. Without exception, they have been some of the smoothest events I’ve had the pleasure of working. I have been fortunate that I’ve never experienced a complete disaster of a wedding, but I have had situations come up that could have used someone like Shelly to manage things. She also makes my job easier by keeping people on schedule and making sure they get where they need to be.

I can focus on taking great photos, instead of, say, trying to track down those two groomsmen who snuck off to listen to the game.

The bottom line is that not only will Shelly make your day easier, but she’ll make mine easier, too.

And because of that, I’m willing to pass a savings on to you so we can both benefit.

Hire Event Design for your wedding and you can take 10% off of my most popular photography package, the Tangerine. Furthermore, Shelly will also give you a discount for working with Studio Orange.

You could save up to $600 off of your weddings costs.

And you don’t even have to negotiate.

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Creating Magic

One of the things I love about photography is that it can be used as a tool to freeze reality in fresh and interesting ways. There are a lot of tricks that can be used to push the boundaries of traditional imagery. I love discovering and exploring them all.

Several years ago, New York based wedding photographer Ryan Brenizer was interested in trying to replicate the feel of large format images, but with a 35mm digital sensor. Because of the imaging properties of the super large negative (or sensor), a large format camera using a wide angle lens can retain an incredible shallow depth of field. You know, the cool blurry backgrounds.

With a wide angle lens on a 35mm camera, it’s difficult to get a nice, blurry background unless the subject is very close to the lens.

What Brenizer did was to use the concept of panoramic stitching, but with a longer focal length lens. By shooting at a long focal length, and with the aperture wide open, he was able to get super blurry backgrounds. When taking a number of photos of a subject, as one would with a traditional panorama, and stitching them together, the resulting image mimics the wide angle look, crazy in-focus detail, and super blurry backgrounds of large format.

This became popularly known as the Brenizer Method.

And it’s one of my favorite techniques. I’ll show you why.

Here is a traditionally photographed image from the wedding of Sara and Derek, way back in 2012 in Omaha, Nebraska:

Sara and Derek | August 4, 2012 | Omaha, Nebraska

Sara and Derek | August 4, 2012 | Omaha, Nebraska

It was taken with my 35mm lens at f/2 — meaning the aperture was as wide open as possible.

There are some people in the background, but since this was just a test shot, I wasn’t worried about that.

All in all, it isn’t a bad image. If I waited for the background to clear, I’d be perfectly OK with delivering a shot like this to a client.

It’s good.

But it isn’t magical.

And I like to do what I can to deliver something special to my clients.

So time to break out one of my favorite lenses. My 135mm. Standing roughly in the same spot as the above photo, I was able to take this:

Sara and Derek | August 4, 2012 | Omaha, Nebraska

Sara and Derek | August 4, 2012 | Omaha, Nebraska

From just this, you can see how much more blurry the background is.

This image was just one of 94 total shots I took, moving the camera as I would a landscape panorama in order to capture a wider field of view.

This did require Sara and Derek to hold their pose for a minute while I got all of the shots I needed. They were completely game. It helped that I used this trick for their engagement session, too. So even if they thought I was a little crazy then, they saw the results.

Then after some Photoshop stitching magic, I wind up with the following:

Sara and Derek | August 4, 2012 | Omaha, Nebraska

Sara and Derek | August 4, 2012 | Omaha, Nebraska

Check out how the background now just melts away.

The focus is 100% on Sara and Derek. As it should be.

The field of view of this image is almost exactly the same 35mm as the first image in this post. But using a little fancy math I was able to determine that the effective aperture is f/0.45 — basically an impossible aperture.

You might say, a magical aperture.

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