Week Notes 013, 014, 015 — W/E 2, 9, and 16 July 2023

Flash on camera picture of two blonde women on right of frame laughing and hugging. There is another woman laughing at the left hand edge of frame
  • I shot at the Serpentine summer do. It vies with the V&A for the coolest June art party, and for my money has the edge. Great guest list and nice flat, bright light. Lots of good combos and funny interactions (turns out that Paul Smith and Orlando Bloom are BFFs). Fun evening all around: I took some nice pictures, caught up with a few friends and talked to a pop star about kombucha. Great music later on too.
  • Craig Mod’s pop-up newsletter Basie! Bop! Jamaica! blew me away. He travelled to 16+ jazz kissas in Japan’s smaller cities, then wrote a multi-thousand word essay about each venue and released them day by day on the trip. Oh, and he also documented every one of them with stills, video and audio recordings… It would be a staggering feat of creative endurance regardless, but to top it off the writing is excellent. He captures the personalities of the owners, talks about the history of jazz in Japan and American, the qualities of the music and performers, nerds out over the sound systems, and finally weaves it all together with personal experience and socio-political commentary on contemporary culture. It’s an improv masterpiece.
  • Off the back of Craig Mod’s series I’ve been listening to a lot of the jazz albums that came up, like Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and Ryo Fukui’s Scenery, along with some old favourites of mine: A Love Supreme, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, The Köln Concert, Kind of Blue and more.
  • I’ve been experimenting with Imagen AI to speed up the process of grading selects from large documentary or event shoots. When I’m in control of the light and using manual settings for e.g. a portrait, it’s easy to copy and paste styles across batches of images. However, on reportage-style shoots, the lighting conditions are unique to each image, so that approach doesn’t work. Often I’m using aperture priority and riding the exposure compensations dial, so the settings are inconsistent shot-to-shot. That means I have to tweak the brightness, contrast, and colour individually on 250–500 selects. And that is before I make use masks to make local corrections. I’ve sped up with practice, and can finesse about a picture a minute, but that still adds up to hours of computer time. I’ve used Imagen to create a custom AI profile trained on 3000+ of my pictures. I finish my edit, select the Lightroom catalogue within Imagen, choose the correct filters to bring up my edit and then upload them to the service. The magic grading pixies work their magic, they send me a notification when they’re done, and then I download my edits. They aren’t good enough to release — but I’d say that they get me 80-90% there depending on the image. I need to tweak every second or third pic for brightness or white balance and apply any masks that I want to shape the light. I estimate that it’s saving me at least two to three hours on every grade, which is a huge quality of life improvement. I particularly like that you re-upload your final edits to refine the model’s understanding of your preferences. I’ve nearly uploaded 6000 images, at which point they fine-tune your model, which according to Reddit is when it noticeably increases in power and usefulness. I’ll see how my profile changes post fine-tuning and assess how the cost adds up, but I think it’s likely to become a full time part of my process. They are releasing a beta version of a tool that is supposed to help with culling which I will play with, but I have had very mixed results with similar AI tools in the past. Generally they are great at identifying blinks or missed focussed, but bad at distinguishing between subtle facial expressions or gestures that mark out a great picture from a good one.
black and white picture of a plant next to a window. Most of the plant is dark and two leaves are lit up. There is a round mirror in the background
  • Messed around with Pi AI. It’s an AI powered chatbot that you can talk to with a dedicated app, or in WhatsApp, Facebook, or Instagram DMs. It’s interesting, in that it seems to parse meaning well and reply with useful information. Apart from the slightly formulaic responses, it does feel a lot like talking to a person. I asked it questions about creative programming for generative art and got a nice steer on a good language for beginners and resources to get me started. It also gave me some good jumping off points for exploring the tracker music production workflow with a Dirtywave M8. Judging from the Discord, a lot of people are using it as a sounding board for creative ideas, to talk about philosophy and other ‘big questions’ or as a journalling / talk therapy aid. I can imagine that it would be good to talk you down if you are spinning out as it has a very calming and friendly conversational style. Over the summer, I want to go deeper on the newly available AI tools to see how I can use them to aid my creative practice.
  • Started The Man from The Future, a book about John von Neumann. I listened to a brilliant podcast with the author which made me want to delve deeper into the life of this seemingly extraordinary man. It was a while ago, but I think that it was this one. In honesty, I hadn’t heard of him until a few years ago, when a physicist on a podcast declared that von Neumann was far and away the smartest person he had ever meet. Learning that this physicist also used to know Einstein made me really sit up and take notice. Who was this man whose genius outshone one of the most famous brains in history? Most impressive is the sheer breadth of his contributions: game theory, mathematics, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, ballistics, cellular automata, early computing, and much more. A lot of his discoveries laid the groundwork for the most important technologies shaping the present. Here’s another interesting podcast with the author that I listened to this week.
  • I also started Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark, after a recommendation in Robin Sloan’s excellent newsletter. I’m only ~50 pages in and it’s great — pragmatic, concise and non-dogmatic. I’ve found the quotes are particularly helpful — the writing is brilliant, and from writers with diverse styles, working across fiction, non-fiction and journalism. It’s a good book to dip in and out of and will likely find a place next to my desk.
  • We needed to shoot Baby T’s passport photo, so of course I made a palaver of it. Most of our friends resorted to laying their babies on a sheet, but had to live with creases galore. I scoured the flat for a suitable white background and then realised I had the perfect solution — the large, minimally branded box for my Apple Studio Display. I placed baby over the branding, et voilà, studio quality white background… For simplicity’s sake I bounced a speed light off a white wall (plus a little of the ceiling), with the monitor box perpendicular to the wall. Was a nice soft light, if in retrospect a little too ‘toppy’. I should have moved the box further from the wall and aimed the light at where the wall meets the ceiling. It was much improved by my wife holding some silver card to lift the shadows and provide a second catchlight.
Woman sitting on a green sofa with her left arm held up. There is a line of spots of light running up her arm from gaps in the blinds. A baby's legs are sticking into frame from the bottom left corner. The woman is looking down at the baby
  • Shot at Wimbledon at an editorial x commercial crossover. Small group of VIPs so not much to cover. It was raining throughout, but the balcony had a large roof over it which shaped the light nicely. The roof blocked the top light, which prevented the ‘panda-eyes’ look you get on an overcast day, resulting in beautiful soft light that wrapped around the subjects. Shot some nice safety portraits first, then made the best of the spotlights in the hospitality suite. When the key group disappeared in the middle of the day to watch the action, I started in on the edit and had most of the first pass finished before they returned.
  • Shot a set of lifestyle marketing images for a startup. Their office was the uninspiring first location, but with a little light, some plant rearrangement and judicious use of shallow depth of field, we transformed a small corner of it into an aspirational apartment. We also squeezed a studio set-up and a ‘gallery’ out of the same end of the room. I hired in a few of the more powerful Aputure COB LED lights so that I could try before I potentially buy. We used the 1600D Pro and the 600D Pro, alongside my 300D II and smaller Zhiyun lights. I hired the 1600D to test a higher powered COB fixture, but as we were blending our lights with indirect daylight, we used it below 15% power all day. If the location at been close enough to street level to put it through the window, it would have been a different story: I’d have unleashed some fake sun onto the fake plants. The 1600D Pro and soon to be released Electro Storm XT26 are the embodiment of my dream lights from a decade ago. Lights that run cold, are nearly equivalent to 2.5k and 4k HMIs in output, and are a fraction of the weight, cost and power draw. I think that there is probably a 600D Pro in my future, or maybe a 600X for ease of blending with artificial light. The RGBWW versions look interesting, but I recently learned from a Youtube video that you get more colour information when you gel a daylight lamp, than if you use an RGBWW fixture to create the same colour directly. That means that I’m more likely to invest in daylight-balanced or bi-colour lights for maximum power output and gel them as required.
  • Aside from the geeky specifics mentioned above, it was really nice to shoot something where I had the time (and an excellent assistant) to light each scene properly. It’s fun to nerd out about subtle nuances of bounced light, fake daylight and optimal shadows. Normally, I might only have three to five minutes with a portrait subject, ten max, so the focus is on making sure that the lighting is functional, flattering and reliable. Often I use a medium soft source (umbrella or bounced light) near the camera or available light for speed and simplicity. It’s a case of getting the shot in the bag, not lighting the shot as beautifully as possible, with all the subtleties that would require.
  • I discovered the Gaffer and Gear Youtube channel when looking for reviews of the Aperture lights and have been obsessively watched older videos. The reviews have everything that you need to know — precise measurements, real world use-cases and comparisons to similar products. However, that’s not why I am watching them. Cumulatively the videos are a masterclass on lighting and rigging from an experienced gaffer. Every review contains at least one ‘ah-ha’ moment, little tip, or unconventional idea that I can’t wait to implement. Also, if you are watching to learn rather than shop, you can just watch the discussion on the first half of the video and skip all the technical measurements that make up the second half. In particular, I loved this cut from the archive: Best Advice I Ever Got. Yet again, Youtube turns out to be the best university in the world…
  • I was gifted an Ooni pizza oven a couple of birthday’s ago, but as I’m in a flat with only a small balcony, we couldn’t use it without smoking out our neighbours or burning our block of flats to the ground. Recently we gave it to my wife’s sister and husband on long term loan and were (appropriately) invited around for the inaugural firing. It’s amazing. Nicely designed, easy to use, and most importantly, turns out perfectly scorched circles of heaven, pizza after pizza. We frazzled a few early attempts as it cooks so quickly, but got the hang of it soon enough. Can’t wait to use it again — I guess I better get my head down and try to cobble together the funds for the forever house & garden combo.
  • A running theme of the last month is that balancing parenting with working is incredibly hard. Who knew?!

To Read

To Watch

To Listen

Andy Matuschak on The Lunar Society — on self-directed learning, the power of memorization, and the balance of freedom and discipline in education. Huberman Lab — Science-Supported Tools to Accelerate Your Fitness Goals — brilliant selection of tips and techniques

A monstera sitting on a yellow round side table by a window, with metal blinds in the foreground. The image is mostly dark apart from the light illuminating the plant and table.