The 21st-Century Geographer

The 21st-Century Geographer

My son John is into maps these days. Really into maps. As in, he’ll spend all day wandering around the world on Apple Maps if I let him. Not that I object, mind you; I have loved playing with maps ever since I can remember, and I have benefited greatly from it. John even got an atlas and a globe for his birthday this year, and a co-worker gave me a couple maps of central Germany that the boys have enjoyed trying to unfold and re-fold. When I needed an idea for John’s birthday portrait, all this mappery got me thinking about Jan Vermeer’s masterpiece from 1669, The Geographer. Let’s look at it, shall we?

The Geographer, by Jan Vermeer

If I’m doing a homage to Vermeer, I need to start with broad window light, and the window must at least be indicated in the frame. Vermeer has more shadow control than I do; he can selectively dodge or burn shadows by choosing where he paints detail. I want my shadows reasonably legible, so I’m going to put a fill light opposite the window, with a gel for a bit of warmth, as if an incandescent lamp were on somewhere across the room.

I decided to go McNally for the key light and tape a queen-size sheet to the outside of the window. Given the size of the light source, I wanted to use two strobes for even illumination, which failed when I found that I didn’t have the right kind of cords to connect all the synchronization terminals together. Some PocketWizards would have been real handy at this juncture, but alas, I didn’t have them.

My next solution was to put my SB-800 in SU-4 mode, which turns the IR receiver into a simple optical slave. I then set up my 60″ Photek Softlighter outside the window, umbrella only (no front scrim), and set the SB-800 to fire into the umbrella, which would then reflect through the window. It provided lovely quality at the expense of quantity; I had to put the SB-800 on full power and bump my camera’s ISO up.

The SB-800 would be triggered by my fill light, an SB-600 attached via sync cords to my camera, shooting at the window through an umbrella. I was working through the noon hour, and everything was fine until about 12:10, when the angle of the sun was just right to interfere with the SB-800’s IR receivers. About 20 minutes later, clouds covered the sun for 30 seconds or so, during which I shot madly and got my photograph. I then shot a second frame with more exposure for the iPad screen and composited the two in post.

Vermeer’s composition emphasizes the face of the central figure, whose expression suggests a sudden flash of insight, something so astounding that he has to grab the book in his left hand to steady himself. I suppose my composition is commentary on all the different ways we can now represent our world: the light-up globe, the iPad, the mass-produced student atlas. John holds a pair of dividers he can use on the map spread out in front of him, but the little smirk on his face asks: with all these other tools, does he really need them?

I wouldn’t say this was a fun picture to take, with all the technical glitches, but it was rewarding.

Abe Lincoln Slept Here

When she was a teenager, my wife and her family would regularly drive past a sign on Illinois 47 south of Mahomet which indicated an historical marker down a country road to the west. A few weeks ago she decided she wanted to go find it, and of course I brought the camera with me.

Abe Lincoln Slept Here

As it turns out, there’s much more to this marker than there may at first appear. It’s one of a series that was was erected in 1922 and 1923 by the Daughters of the American Revolution on the border between each county that once comprised the Eighth Judicial Circuit, following a reconstruction of the route that Abraham Lincoln and his fellow lawyers would have traveled from courthouse to courthouse. A corresponding series of markers was placed at each courthouse, or on the site where Lincoln’s courthouse once stood. (I have found the marker at the Urbana courthouse but I don’t have a picture yet.)

An article containing much more history and maps locating the markers is available and supplies all the deficiencies in this blog post. 🙂

Custard Moon

Custard Moon

The owners of Jarling’s Custard Cup are looking to retire after more than 35 years of making yummy treats. They want the business to continue and are actively seeking a successor, which I fervently hope they find. Just in case, we’ve been sure to take the kids over when we can this year, and I got this image of the building while doing so earlier this summer.



Because my wife is an organist, and thus works on Sunday mornings, it’s not often we get to go to Divine Liturgy at Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church when we are visiting my parents. This makes my kids sad, because they love the extra pageantry and awesomeness of the Byzantine liturgy. Fortunately, my wife found a sub for our last trip, and we were able to go. I snagged this shot before we had to go home.


My son’s school schedules fall parent-teacher conferences in early November, and they give the students the nearest Friday off from school. Last year we used that day for a train trip to Chicago, and we thought it was so much fun that we did it again this year. Rather than take Amtrak from Champaign, which would put us in the Loop far away from the museums, we drove to the south suburbs and took the Metra Electric commuter train, which stops at all the major Lakefront attractions.

We wanted to see the Museum of Science and Industry this time, and I decided to take Portra for the outside and my X100 for the inside. Portra was a great choice, as this shot against the sun holds a little pale blue in the sky while sporting stylish lens flare:


The colors in the other direction aren’t bad either:

Tower and Transport

The X100 did what I wanted it to do inside the museum; I chose not to post any of those shots, as they’re of interest to the family album only. When we came out it was cloudy, and again Portra came through with the museum’s bicycle rack:


And best of all, or so my kids think, I got a shot I like of a Metra Electric train:


I’m not going to sell off my digital bodies and go film-only, but I’m enjoying the way the constraints of film concentrate my mind. If I have few exposures and no preview, I really have to make every shot count.

Portra 400 – People

I chose Portra 400 for the first roll through my new-to-me F100. I wanted to start with something that has a bit of latitude, and I had read good reports about rating it at 320, or even 200, for more density in the shadows.

Since the literature claims “spectacular skin tones,” I thought I’d test that first off, with my son John in window light:

Johnny Lisa

Those look like pretty darn good skin tones to me, as well as lovely rendering of light and shadow from that window. I should have had John turn his head more towards his right, but he didn’t want to stand still very long. Portra also did a great job with Joey in a relatively dark vehicle interior:

Chorus Boy

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the patience to save a few frames for flash portraits; that’s something I’m going to have to try with the next roll, using my digital body to proof. (Just like peeling a Polaroid, except entirely different.)

Of course, Portra isn’t only good for pictures of people, but that’s a topic for our next post.

Shooting on Velvet

It’s been a little while since I wrote about portraits, and wouldn’t you know, I have a couple recent ones.


I make at least one portrait of my children every year, as close to their birthdays as possible. “As close as possible” was almost three weeks afterward this year for my older son, pictured above, because of paternal inertia. The delay had its benefits, though; I was able to mentally discard several unnecessarily complex ideas in favor of something simple and attractive. A secondary goal was to create something that would look good both in monochrome and color.

We have here a variation on my favorite two-light setup, with a large soft key (the 60″ Photek Softlighter) balanced by a harder separation light, with a pure black background. The separation light is warmed both with a 1/4 CTS gel and by setting flash white balance rather than daylight. The key light’s color is unmodified.

Normally, I use a bare speedlight for separation, but this time I wanted a slightly softer edge to the separation transfer, so I strapped a LumiQuest SoftBox III to the front of my strobe. I’m extremely pleased with the result; so pleased, in fact, that I’m inclined to use the SoftBox in preference to a bare strobe from here on out, unless I absolutely need the harder edge.

Really, Now

My younger son wanted in on the action too, of course. I made things easier for both of them by using gaffer’s tape to mark where they should stand on the floor, something which I’ve never done before but should have been doing all along.

The background is a piece of black velvet curtain which I bought from a local hobby store, attached to and draped over a tall bookshelf. Since it’s supposed to be pure, textureless black, I was able to push the contrast a little harder in these images than I would have otherwise, resulting in a palette of tones I really like. I haven’t shared the monochrome versions in deference to my mother, who prefers color portraits of her grandsons, but the B&W conversion is every bit as pretty as the originals.