Posts Tagged ‘john purlia’

[Updated 4-4-12 with a short note on focusing options]

In our previous post I presented a lot of background information about the process I use to take my photos, and a problem that arose with a recent session where the stage I had constructed exceeded the limits available to my lens to achieve satisfactory focus. To circumvent the problem I decided to experiment with focus stacking, and see if it would be possible to create a single, seamless image from a series of separately focused photographs.

Going in, I had it in my head that I would take 9 separate photos—one at each of the nine auto-focus (AF) points supported by my camera, a Canon XTi. Each of these photos would, therefore, be focused on a different area of the target scene, and (in theory) I’d be able to somehow mask and layer these images in post production to create a single image where every object would be in sharp focus.

Since I shoot my images from a camera mounted on a tripod, and because the objects inside the light tent don’t move (ha! we’ll see about that…) capturing the images would be simple. I used an aperture of f/9 for each photo, set the camera to auto exposure, and carefully reselected nothing more than the AF point from one photo to the next. While I could have chosen a larger aperture to insure even greater sharpness at the point of focus, I decided to go with the much more conservative f/9, as my lens works very nicely at that setting, and—fearful of going too shallow—I wanted a reasonable amount of depth at each AF point, which I theorized would make the post production effort to seamlessly combine the images a little more forgiving.

The image below illustrates the nine AF points as viewed through the camera’s viewfinder. You can click on the image to see a larger view and better distinguish each point of focus.

AF points using a Canon XTi (click for a larger view)

As you can see, focus points fell on:

  • The train in the very back
  • The woman standing at the base of the log cabin
  • The dancing girl on the right
  • The “lizard woman” just below and to the left of the dancing girl
  • The “scorpion woman” emerging from the records at the bottom center
  • The “snake woman” at the left center
  • The middle devil playing the yellow-ish horn
  • The leg of the woman in blue (Tammy Faye!) riding the train
  • The right hand of the girl emerging from the record hole at the center of the composition

Note that two of the 9 AF points fell on the record album, while none fell on any of the objects that were closest to the camera. This was an unfortunate residual effect of the stage construction and the vantage point from which I chose to shoot the photos. The points falling on the record album are on the same plane, farthest from the camera, so I’d only need one when it came time to eventually create my focus stack. The objects in the foreground that fall below the lowest AF point would be slightly more problematic.

The photo above was taken with the AF point set to the top middle, falling on the people sitting inside the train. It is worth zooming in to see how the image is focused at this point relative to other areas of the photo:

Left: Detail at AF point
Right: Detail at foreground, far from AF point

At the point of focus everything is nice and sharp, while in the foreground 14 or 15 inches away from the AF point the image is unacceptably blurry. That’s okay, of course, since in post production the blurry part of the photo will be replaced by in-focus imagery from a completely different photo.

Recall that the objects in the foreground (like that very blurry “spider woman” above) did not have the good fortune of falling within any of the AF points supplied by my camera. We’ll pause momentarily while those of you with superior camera equipment snicker.

::: snicker! :::


Okay, back to my nine measly AF points. To bring the “spider woman” and other foreground objects into focus I took one extra photo with the AF point on the “scorpion woman” at the bottom of the photo, though for this photo I set the aperture to f/18 to get better near focus depth.

Focus on “scorpion woman” at f/18 to bring foreground into focus

Though I’d wanted to keep the aperture constant throughout the stack of photos, I really didn’t have any choice on the foreground image, as f/9 would provide only about an inch and a quarter of acceptable focus in front of the point of focus; roughly from the face of the “scorpion woman” to the right (hidden) side of the “spider woman.” At f/18 I was able to extend the near focus to almost two and a half inches, bringing nearly everything in the foreground into an acceptable range of focus. Yes, by deviating from the aperture used in all the other photos I’d face some other challenges during post production, but I found this to be an acceptable tradeoff.

It was my choice to use each of the nine AF points as the basis for my focus stack, as it suited the composition of this particular photo . You may do just as well choosing to use only two or three points of focus, depending on the conditions of the scene you are shooting. The techniques we’ll discuss in part three will work just as well with a stack of three photos as they will with a stack of 9 or 27. Also (and this did not occur to me at the time), I could have brought the extreme foreground imagery into focus my using the often ignored manual focusing controls of my camera. Tsk, tsk, tsk… I rely too much on auto this and auto that.

Stay tuned for Part Three of the series where we’ll dive headlong into the post production lunacy that is creating a single image from 9 separately shot and edited photos in Aperture.

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I normally start my “work” day in my home office, enjoying a cup of coffee and listening to music while responding to email, browsing a few websites, and checking in on Facebook and Twitter. After that, it’s project time out in the studio where I play with toys and take photos.

Carmen conjures a song of swashbuckling revenge while drying out in Acapulco, 2005

Yesterday started out just like any other time, though my electronic mailbox seemed unusually filled. Surprising, having recently unsubscribed myself from a boatload of daily junk mail. As I scrolled through the list I saw lots of familiar names, and for a moment thought I was having one of those the-final-is-today-and-I-haven’t-been-to-class dreams. Though, in this case it was the post-employment work version of that dream: my-presentation-is-today-and-I-haven’t-prepared-any-slides-and-what-the-hell-is-the-subject-again?

I had this feeling because my mailbox was jam packed with messages from former coworkers, all smart and cultured people who had been listening to the local NPR affiliate on their drives into work and heard me talking about my photography when the radio news program turned an ear to the local San Diego arts scene. Pretty cool!

The radio segment was a companion piece to the feature that ran on the TV side of KPBS a couple of weeks back, though obviously without the visuals, and with some key changes from correspondent Beth Accomando to better fit the audio-only format. So, while you don’t get to see me pop the head off a kewpie doll, you do get to hear me wax poetic on toys, record, books and the ever-popular “how I come up with my ideas.” Oooo! Ahhh!

The piece runs about 5 minutes long, and I especially like the super fun music used in the background throughout the piece!

So, just in case you missed the piece when it aired, click on the little audio widget above and pretend you’re driving into work listening to smart, intelligent public radio. And don’t spill your coffee.

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Financial Freewheeling and the futile pursuit of the American Dream

Head over to the San Diego Union-Tribune’s blog, Sign On San Diego, and check out John’s interview with arts writer and photographer, Will Parson.  He asks some great, perceptive questions that really made John think about his photography in new ways.  Thanks, Will, for giving John the opportunity to share his thoughts and work.

In other news, through the month of November, with every purchase of a limited edition print, you’ll receive our special collector set of postcards for FREE!  It’s pretty rare these days to receive anything special through the mail, so beat the holiday rush and order yours today.

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Sweet Feast at the House of Pink Delights

Yes, it’s a brand new photo!  Sweet Feast at the House of Pink Delights was created for a food themed group show in Los Angeles opening in mid-October.  I had a lot of fun creating this piece, envisioning a delightful restaurant scene where diners are served a very special delicacy — kewpie heads stewed in a savory broth of ice cream, pie and cake.  Mmmmmmmm!!  And your wait staff for the evening?  Why — of course! — the presidents of the United States!  It’s Benihana meets the Oval Office.

On the right side of the photo you see the kewpie pantry.  Fresh, raw, kewpie heads, each the visage of cute, cuddly mischief.  John Adams oversees the pantry, handing off the choicest cuts to his fellow heads of state who march to the bubbling cauldron at the center of the House of Pink Delights, where smiling kewpie heads bob amidst the sweet treats.

On the left, Harry Truman marches a well done entree to a pair of enraptured diners.

How would you like your kewpie head prepared?  Pink?  Red?  Or candy coated Green?

More information about the exhibit and the special framing treatment given to this piece coming soon!

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Saturday night saw the opening reception for And The Beat Goes On, the music-themed group show at New Puppy Gallery in Los Angeles that includes two of my photos, plus a three dimensional installation of records, toys, and scary religious collectibles. The reception was a lot of fun, with DJs on hand to spin very, very cool music, a live band setup inside to rock out the art, and a trio of artists painting live in the middle of the gallery’s main room.

The music motif was a perfect match for my photographic creations. Records? Albums? Pop culture? The hard part was picking just two to grace the gallery walls! I went with…

Lorraine leaps upon the red carpet to get her first delicious taste of paparazzi fame at the 1959 Grammys


Backstage pass in the ninth circle of Hell

The gallery ended up using “Backstage pass” as the desktop image on a send-a picture-email-from-the-show gizmo. It worked sort of like a photo booth with a touch screen and a camera, and a friendly voice that counted down to let you know when it was about to snap a picture. I was all prepared to send out photo postcards to all my friends, but went into email amnesia and could only remember my own email address. Sorry friends. Maybe next time…

Crowds were steady all evening and a lot of people dropped in to take in the show. The most exciting part for me was watching the delight in people’s eyes as they walked around my installation looking at the various vignettes I’d staged. Cameras were out in force, and I was happy to see people taking lots of photos; in a sense, having the opportunity to create their very own Wind-up Dreams.

The installation took about 5 hours or so to setup, spread across Friday night and Saturday morning. I covered most of a 6’ by 3’ table with album covers, 45s, toys, books, pennies, candles, booklets, statues, and various familiar yet perplexing objects. It was fun!!

Unfortunately, I — the supposed “professional photographer” — neglected to check the settings on my handy little Canon point’n’shoot, so my photos from the reception are less than impressive. Oh well. Here are a few I salvaged:

A view from the front taken Saturday morning after I’d finished the construction.

Detail view of a vignette on the left side.

Detail of one of the vignettes on the right side.  You’ll notice the return of the “coffee robot” from my 2007 Vinyl Mysteries show.

A view from the back of the installation shortly after the reception had started.

Another view from the back.

Detail on the left side…

Pennies! All hail the sacred kewpie head!

People crowding around and lusting over my toys.

Photo op!

I promise much better photos down the road. I’m planning on reshooting the installation with my dSLR, and taking a movie that travels all around the setup so you can see all of the vignettes.

Thanks for watching!

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Pulling a miracle ending out of the Plastic Playbook

Prepare to be amazed!  Wind-up Dreams & Vinyl Nightmares hereby reveals the fourth of five prophecies from the Plastic Prophet.  In your desire to indulge, I predict you will start the day off right, sing at your local beer hall, dance in the spirit of civil disobedience, and paint the town red. You shall click your way over to Etsy and find the means for such indulgences and add them to your cart with the knowledge that you have fulfilled your destiny.  You shall also return again next month to discover the last Prophecy that I will reveal.  Thus sayeth the Plastic Prophet.  P.S. Check out John’s interview with Andrew Hosner of Sour Harvest blog.  He discusses his awesome art collection and one of his favorite new artists everyone should know about.

Last Call at the Vinyl Alibi Jazz Club

After dinner entertainment at Chateau Von Plastique

Mother puts a little something “extra” in the morning oatmeal to get her family off to a fantastic day 

Dancing the Temperance Two-step on the 18th Amendment

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Dixie’s Diabolical Decision, 2009

The answer to the question is, “No! I did not Photoshop that.”

People frequently confuse my photography with digital collage, which is itself a wonderful medium for art, it’s just not what I do to create the images you see in the gallery and on these web pages. So I thought it was about time I post a “How I Did It” blog entry to satisfy the curious and provide a little insight into the process I use to create a new image.

Case study…the new photo above, Dixie’s Diabolical Decision, which I created a couple of weeks back for a group show coming up at the end of May.

Let’s push aside all that mysterious “creative process” and “inspiration” jazz, and get right down to the business of shooting the photo. First, I need some source material, which — in our three dimensional world — usually involves a foreground and a background. For this photo I chose the cover of April Stevens’ album Teach Me Tiger for the background, and decided that April should be looking up at a floating grinning devil head (isn’t that obvious?), which would be the most prominent object in the foreground.

Original album cover

To the right is a picture of the original album released on Imperial Records in 1959 (my copy of the record isn’t nearly this clean, as you will see in a moment). I’d originally tried to work this album cover into one of the photos for my Plastic Prophets show, but the concept I developed at the time never quite felt right, so I abandoned the photo, but kept the cover in mind for the future. When I was presented the opportunity to contribute a photo to an upcoming group show, I again thought of April and her steady gaze into the void.

For the past year or so, I’ve staged each of my photos inside a lighting tent with big, bad, 500 watt photo floods blazing away on the outside, which fills the inside with nice even lighting. I spend a lot of time constructing the scene inside the tent — building a stage from records, setting up characters and nudging things around, until I get the composition that feels right for the photo I’m shooting.

Here’s what the stage inside the lighting tent looked like after I’d finished arranging the characters and was finally ready to start snapping photos.

Notice how the devil head is sort of suspended in space hanging above the records with a stick coming out the back of his neck? Well — duh! — how else am I going to make it appear as if the devil head is floating?

To get the devil head to stay in place I stuck putty to the inside of his nose, crammed a wooden coffee stirrer into the putty, and secured his neck to the stirrer with another glop of putty. We’ll deal with that mess in a little while. Putty and toothpicks are also used to suspend the kewpie head above April’s right ear, but that construction will be well outside the camera’s viewfinder.

Notice the reflection of the records onto the record cover? This is one of the hazards of using glossy album covers as backdrops for my photos. I spend a lot of time adjusting the lights, changing the camera angle, and placing black sheets of cardboard around the inside of the tent to minimize (but not eliminate, unfortunately) glare and reflections.

Okay, so that’s what the photo looks like from outside of the tent…but what does it look like through the viewfinder? Let’s snap the shutter and see!


There. That’s the picture. Not very exciting, is it?

The setting now shifts from the photo studio to my iMac, where the initial RAW image above will undergo all kinds of adjustments. This isn’t so different than the development process used for film photography — though I’m fine tuning pixels on a screen, rather than applying chemicals to a piece of paper.

The first adjustment is to straighten the image. After all, the wooden floor in my studio is 80 years old and my tripod cost 19 bucks, and remember how I said I choose the camera angle to minimize glare.

There. That looks straight. It wasn’t a big adjustment, but you can see how April’s body is on a horizontal plane.

Normally, I crop my photos to whatever dimensions best suit the characters and objects I’ve placed upon the stage, regardless of some fixed aspect ratio like 8 x 10” or 20 x 30”. This photo was a bit of an exception, since it was shot for a group show where all the pieces are to be 12 x 12″ squares. I chose to crop the image with the devil head floating down from the upper right corner, and with the kewpie head coming into the frame from the left. Here’s the change after cropping:

Now to adjust the image so that the elements of the photo I want to be most prominent will stand out and have a lively three dimensional quality. The image above is anything but lively. In fact, it’s kind of flat and muted.  Criticizing my talents as a photographer even more…the kewpie is overexposed, April’s dress — which should be pink — is washed out, the devil head isn’t very scary, and the foreground figures lack impact. Most importantly, I want it to seem as if the figures are all coming out of a vast blackness, as if the entire picture has popped from the subconscious mind. To accomplish this, I have to reduce any glare, make the blacks that much blacker, and accentuate all of the light tones. Basically, I have to do a lot of knob twiddling. Exposure, brightness, black point, vibrancy, definition, and other geeky photo things.

Let’s see how the image looks after I’ve complete my tweaking.

Better! But not yet quite done…I still want April to look a little “hotter” (in the photographic technical sense, as opposed to what you were thinking…and, honestly, could April be any hotter?!?!). I want both devil figures to take on a truer red hue, whereas they are both a bit too orange. Likewise, I want to bring out the pink in April’s dress, and in the cheeks of the kewpie head. Finally, I want the pocket Buddhas to take on a neon quality against the black vinyl records.

The software I use to process photos allows me to individually adjust saturation, hue and luminosity for any color I choose. Post color adjustments, here’s what we get.

What’s left? Well, remember the stick and putty that suspends the devil head above the stage construction?  Gotta get rid of that. I certainly don’t want the words “April Stevens” in the photo, and there’s an annoying reflection from the kewpie head right above April. There’s also this problem….

And this problem….

Basically, my copy of Teach Me Tiger wasn’t “mint” and was suffering from a lot of record wear. So, in addition to brushing out the text and carefully retouching the kewpie reflection, I repaired approximately 150 wear marks across the background, on April’s dress, her arms, shoulder and face.


And that was it! The final version….

If you look closely you’ll see that I left in just a little glare on the otherwise totally black background. There’s a red glare/reflection just below the devil head, which I chose to leave because it added a sense of “heat” to the floating head. There’s also a streak of glare just below the kewpie head, which again I chose to keep in the final photo, as it appears (to my eyes anyway) as the breath/voice of the kewpie speaking to April — who I renamed as Dixie once the photo was titled.

I ended up using a pearl finish for the final printed photo, which gave all of the characters a shimmering three dimensional quality — exactly what I was looking for!

Hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek at my process!

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Follow Me on Twitter

We’re excited to announce another way you can keep up to date on all of the latest news and happenings at Wind-up Dreams & Vinyl Nightmares.  Follow me on Twitter and hear about new record and toy purchases, photos I’m currently working on, gallery exhibits, and lots of other fun stuff.  Haven’t caught on to the Twitter craze yet?  It’s a free service that allows you to write brief updates (140 characters or less, to be exact) and post them online for others to read.  If you already use Facebook, then imagine a site consisting of just Status Updates.  It’s become a major force in social networking and several high-profile celebrities (ever heard of Oprah?) have joined recently to raise funds for charity.  We have to admit it’s highly addictive.  Won’t you join us?  Tweet!  Tweet!

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Idol Worship of the Worshipped Idols, 2008

With two weeks remaining before Plastic Prophets of Vinyl Redemption opens at Distinction Gallery, I’ve been busily making final preparations for what I hope to be a spectacular show. Fourteen of the 22 photos that will be on display are now back from the framer and everything looks really great! Above is one of the pieces you’ll see in the show, Idol Worship of the Worshipped Idols, which is framed in a vintage Federal frame that I had restored with a black finish and gold metal leaf. Every photo in this exhibit features the presidents of the United States, from George Washington through JFK, who appears in this piece nestled into a bed of rubies. The frame was an eBay find, and it captures the presidential theme of the exhibit perfectly.

In addition to the art on the walls, I’m going to have a couple of small installations on display, some video animations playing on the gallery’s computer, limited edition flip books, and a one-of-a-kind hard cover book that shows all of the behind-the-scenes work that’s gone into preparing for the exhibit. Here’s a sample spread from the book:

There’s only going to be one copy of the book on hand, so enjoy it — but treat it gently!

Images from the show will be posted in another week or two, so check back often!

(Update: Now available for purchase through iTunes for only $3.99!)

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For the past couple of weeks I’ve been wanting to post an image of the photo that will be on display at the Project 57 exhibit at Distinction Gallery from August 9 through September 6, but I’d been holding off until I had the frame complete. I actually took the above photo, Casting mischief from the soul of the Illegitimate Interfaith Love Child, in late May… and, finally, my new photo is ready for public view!

First, a little about the exhibit…

Project 57, as the name implies, presents work from dozens and dozens of artists on 5×7” wood panels. The logistics went something like this:

  • The gallery sends out plain, unfinished panels
  • The artist does something creative, which in most cases means that he or she paints something really cool on the panel. Yay! Art!
  • The artist packs up their work of art and sends it back to the gallery

Notice that second step… paint. Hmmm… I don’t paint, I take photographs, which are usually framed and protected by UV safe plexiglass, so I was a little mystified about what I’d do with my panel. Do I glue the photo onto the panel? Decoupage it? Apply some kind of space age heat transfer to adhere it to the wood?

I used… paint!

Well, that’s only half true. I still wanted to protect the surface of the photo, and I found a 5×7” acrylic “box” frame that fit perfectly over the wood panel. All I needed to do is drop in the photo, slide the panel into the box, and… voila!  While this would protect the photo, the sides of the panel would still be unfinished wood, so I painted the sides of the panel black, and — to tie it into the theme of my photo a little better — I painted a light gray circle in the middle of each side and applied a “creeping devil” stamp, like so:

How very devilish!

Here are a couple of photos of the finished product.

First, from above…

And a more traditional product shot.

I’ll have more detailed views of the photo in a later post, along with some behind-the-scenes analysis.  For now, enjoy my demon baby!

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