Friday, March 19, 2010

PP's Photographer in the Spotlight:

Marc Lebryk

One of the most important elements -- if not the most important -- to master in pursuit of superb photography is lighting. The portfolio of this month's "Photographer in the Spolight," Marc Lebryk, reflects as much. He has been using lighting to get the most -- and best -- out his images during his young career.

The Purdue University graduate shoots images for advertising, marketing and custom content at
The Indianapolis Star while indulging other photographic pursuits -- including the fast-action, high-drama sport of roller derby -- when he's not on The Star's dime.

Whether he's pulling out his 60" umbrella to set up a quick portrait or positioning a set of 400-watt strobes to shoot roller derby, Lebryk wants his lighting to be ideal at the moment the image is captured so he doesn't have to spend excessive time adjusting his work in post-processing.

"It's not that I don't know or appreciate Photoshop," he says, "but I'd rather be out shooting than changing colors, removing extension cords or adding missing fill light to an image."

Perhaps because he values the importance of lighting in photography, he frequently offers detailed lighting information about his photos -- including the types, intensities and positioning -- wh
en he discusses the images he shoots and uploads to his blog. It's an approach reminiscent of David Hobby, the man who writes the highly regarded photography lighting blog The Strobist.

As the end of th
e current season draws near for the Naptown Roller Derby teams, for which he serves as an official photograher, Marc kindly stopped to answer some questions about his craft and share some of his images, which you see sprinkled throughout this post.

Marc, my first question is the same I ask all photographers who appear in this "Spotlight" feature: How and when did you get into the craft, and was it a gradual thing, or something you fell into hook, line and sinker?

Strangely enough my grandfather introduced me to photography when I was 10. It got to the point where my family used to call me "flash" at all of the reunions because he would always just hand over his camera until I got one of my own.

The one hardest part was that at that age, I never realized the expense of developing and printing the pictures, so a big thanks to my Grandpa for that back then. I went to Purdue originally with a scholarship for graphic design because of my interest in multimedia in high school. Visual Communication Design was the name of the program. I struggled a little bit, but second semester sophomore year, I took the required Black and White Photography course, and fell in love with it all over again. I enjoyed it so much that I switched majors to a photography concentration full time. I shot sports for the yearbook while managing multiple dining courts for the university and going to school full time. Then about seven months after I graduated, I was picked up here in Indianapolis by The Indianapolis Star for shooting advertising, marketing and custom content.

You maintain a personal Web site, you have a Flickr photostream and feed a photography blog. Which of all those is the most difficult to maintain, and how do you manage the time for it all?

The Flickr photostream isn't as difficult to maintain as you might imagine. I just use Flickr as a vessel for distribution in a lot of cases. I will sign on to check and see what people are looking at, but otherwise it is relatively low maintenance. The Web site itself is the same. Every now and then I sign on to make sure the galleries are working and that my information is correct, but otherwise it's mostly self-sufficient.

The blog is the tough one. I try to force myself to update it at least once a week. I'd rather it be twice a week, but there isn't always time, nor always content that is different than previous posts. Lately I've been trying to split it between photographically heavy material and material for more novice readers. Not everyone that reads it wants to know specific camera data on a shoot, but rather, they are more interested in the story behind the photography. Equally though, there definitely are a lot of people that are interested in that specific camera information, and I try to find things that I do that might be helpful in furthering those readers' knowledge of photography if I can.

The easiest part about the blog is that I'm adventurous when it comes to photography, so I'm always trying something slightly off kilter or something that I may not fully understand.

I came across your work through your association with the Naptown Roller Girls. How did you fall into roller derby as a photo subject, and what is it about the sport that makes photographing it so special?

While at Purdue, I shot most of the women's sporting events for the university for close to two years, including a few months after I graduated. After moving to Indy, I knew not a darn person, which on one side was alright considering I didn't even have a sofa for four months after I moved here.

At the time, a few of my co-workers at the newspaper were skaters for the Tornado Sirens, and one of them found out that I used to shoot sports before my gig shooting advertising and commercial stuff for paper. She asked me if I'd be interested in checking it out ... maybe shooting a few photos for them. Like I said, at the time I knew not a soul here in Indianapolis, and figured it couldn't hurt. Not a day goes by where I'm not glad I did it.

I've met about a billion people (give or take), and it's a heck of a sport to photograph because it's very unpredictable and is in a very close-quarters environment. I consider it to be one of the hardest sports I've ever photographed and feel like only now, after four seasons, am I really getting a grip as to what I need to do while shooting it. As I've explained to a lot of people, though, it's a crime of passion. None of the skaters are paid to play, and a lot of them get injured during the season. I run quite a bit less of a risk getting injured, and I certainly don't get paid by the league, either.

Your NRG images at your Flickr photostream reflect some wonderful lighting for the bouts. Is the ambient lighting very good at the venue where you shoot? If not, is it because your camera sensors -- and the fast lenses you must use -- are of such high quality that they give you a strong edge to get available light for those shots?

First I'd like to thank you for the compliment, but I have to confess not all of them are actually ambient light. In the Pepsi Coliseum I actually bring in a set of 400 watt strobes that I use to freeze the action. This is the first season I've used lights inside of our venue. I made the jump this year because as one of the official NRG photographers I wanted something better for the fans in terms of posters, banners and such. Some people think that you need a lot of light to light something like this, though, and that isn't the case. When I travel with the team I don't take the large lights in favor of the smaller speedlight system. When I use the Speedlights I use them at an exceedingly low power (1/16th, or 1/32nd power normally) because the primary function of the lights is to stop the action. What a lot of people don't realize is that sometimes you just need that "killer flick of light."

Shooting action with strobes can actually be harder than shooting in natural light. I say this because with strobes you have to try to predict action as you often don't get more than one shot within a one to two second time frame due to the necessary (battery) recycling.

The nice part about ambient is that you can use your motor drive to make sure you have the shot. When it comes to low-light ambient shooting, the glass is more important than the camera itself. Yes, my D3 is pretty awesome in ambient light, but a fast f/2.8 aperture makes for quicker auto focus. You could easily shoot something with an f/5.6 lens on the D3, but the auto focus is only as fast as the widest aperture on the lens, making f/2.8 aperture lenses your fastest in almost all cases. I used to shoot derby with an older Nikon D2x. Anyone familiar with the D2x knows that mixing low ambient light with the D2x was like mixing Cheetos and peanut butter: not always a good idea. However, I definitely pulled some very clean images out of it at 1600 ISO on occasion. Fast lenses are much more important than the camera body that you have.

Talk a bit about the interval timer video you compiled and posted at your blog to illustrate what goes into preparing and staging a roller derby match. Was it taken at the Pepsi Coliseum? Your blog said the video reflected the stringing together of 3,691 images over the course of how many hours? But also ... what gave you the idea to do this? Had you done anything line this -- at least to this degree -- before, and is there a lot of work involved compiling the images?

Well, first off I suppose it's important to mention that if there is an area I'm probably not supposed to go into without special permission, or if there is some place off the beaten path in a venue, I'll probably end up there at some point, permission or not. It was first noticed on a trip to Minnesota with the roller derby team where I'd arranged with security before the bout to go up into the catwalks 90 feet above the arena to take photos during part of the second half. The photos were an incredible hit and ended up being placed on the NRG season tickets last year. Not to mention the fact that the Minnesota girls were terribly excited as apparently no one had ever gone into the rafters to shoot during a bout before.

The interval timer video was something that was thought up very early this season ... before the first bout, even. Originally it was suggested as a "wouldn't it be neat just for the assembly of the floor" kind of thing. But I decided that I wanted to do it for the entirety of a bout, and from up very high. I had been privy to being around for the first assembly of the floor, as before this season we hadn't had the deployable sport court. The systematic progression of the floor installation process plus the cool new venue all but dictated the shoot. I had seen other things done like this, but I had never done something like it myself.

What a lot of people don't know is that the video displayed was my second attempt. The first try was during a doubleheader, and the camera died about halfway through the day. I feared it would happen, but I had tested the camera in my living room to work for 12 hours and 4,400 shots the day before. What I hadn't taken into account was that the Coliseum's upper rafters were about 30 degrees cooler than my living room, and that's what got me. The second time, though, I arrived at 11:30 a.m. and had the camera up there and running until approximately 10:30 p.m. The files were taken with a Nikon D2Xs with a 12-24mm lens set to fire a shot every 10 seconds using an MC-36 remote-release cable. The camera itself was set to shutter priority mode at 800 ISO so that the camera would adjust as the ambient light outside went down with the sun. I had a 32 gigabyte Sandisk memory card to ensure that I had enough space for the images, not knowing that the D2Xs couldn't accept cards over 16 gigabytes. In the end I had to settle for using an 8 gigabyte card set to medium jpeg mode at 7.9 megapixels instead of the camera's native 12.4 megapixels.

Compiling the images wasn't as bad as you might imagine. I used Photo Mechanic to sort the images by time captured, which is recorded in the EXIF data of any images made by a digital camera of any kind. I then renamed them to ensure they would remain in order when I imported them into Final Cut, where I spaced them to make the video an appropriate, watchable length.

The portraiture work displayed in the gallery at your Web site reflects an emphasis on the unconventional -- angular orientations, lighting and color contrasts, nighttime shots, narrow-spot lighting with pitch-black surroundings, distortion (e.g., the three roller derby team members) and the horizontal shot of the guy wedged between two long sofa pieces. Are these concepts something you pitch to clients? Do your clients often have some or any of these in mind when they come calling? Or is it a combo of them seeking something "different" and the shooter and client then brainstorming and/or experimenting with ideas?

One of the greatest things shooting for the Indy Star newspaper is that it taught me to be resourceful, because more often than not I didn't have any assistance or instruction while going out to a shoot. Yet despite those factors, I was still required to produce images with high enough resolution for glossy reproduction.

I've been told that one of my greatest assets is my on-location shooting and lighting ability. That renders me very humbled as I feel it is a great compliment. To that point, I once had a photographer hire me to shoot his wedding under the stipulation that I didn't touch the images. They paid my regular price but knew that the images I produced would be high enough quality that they would have more than enough to work with after the fact for their own editing and styling. In the end, I find that on-location shooting is much more dynamic than constructing something on a white background or in the computer.

I also find that less is more when it comes to lighting. Using natural elements inside of an image can truly lead to a more dynamic image than lighting something evenly. I shoot commercially for a global company whose American headquarters are here in Indianapolis. They manufacture tanning beds, and they needed a photo of their general manager for online use. We easily could have done a head shot on white, but I said I wanted to incorporate the tanning beds into the shot. I used a single snooted SB-900 with a warming gel and a white balance around 3200 Kelvin to give the tanning beds (above) an extra blue glow, all the time playing off of the contrast created by the blue and orange.

Another shoot that comes to mind was an Indy warehouse photo workshop of a lovely girl (below) on the roof of a building. What a lot of people didn't realize even at the time is that the green behind her is the snow on the building being lit up by a mercury vapor street light. She was lit by only a single Speedlight through an umbrella with a warming gel. White balance can be your friend or your enemy; you just have to decide. I'm of the somewhat old-school mentality that it's much better to accomplish as much as you can in-camera rather than spend countless hours laboring in Photoshop. It's not that I don't know or appreciate Photoshop, but I'd rather be out shooting than changing colors, removing extension cords or adding missing fill light to an image.

On the other side, though, one of my favorite roller derby portraits wasn't done straight out of camera as much as I'd like to claim. Post-processing can be a wonderful tool to give your photos that extra pop. A lot of times clients I have will brainstorm ideas with me. That is always a must when doing something for pay. However, you never know what you'll come up with when you get to a location. That roller derby portrait (left) for example was something that I pitched to the league for the programs one year. I worked up only a couple images like that, and we ended up not using it. However, the girl in the shot has been asked dozens of times if it's available for sale. That's one of the things that I love about this business: The fact that in an instant, everything can change, and you can unintentionally make an image that you'll absolutely love.

I've gone through a few months' worth of your photo blog. I like your "Strobist" kind of instructional approach in posts involving complicated lighting in that you provide not only information on the equipment and camera settings you used, but also explain the kinds of lighting you used, where you positioned the lights and the various intensities of lighting used. That must entail a bit of time to document. Do you record that data at the time you set it, knowing you'll need to refer to it for your blog, or do you have one of those beautiful minds that easily commits it all to memory?

I'd like to say thanks real quick here. It's always great to get positive feedback on the blog. In terms of remembering or writing down things for the "Strobist Info," it depends. The lights are very important. Digital cameras keep what is called EXIF data on every image they take. This contains copyright information and camera information including shutter speed, lens selection, focal length, aperture etc.

With the lights I generally start out using the same formula for my lighting and then adapt it to the situation at hand. Usually that formula consists of the lights at 1/4th power through whatever modifiers I need to use to create the effect that I want (or more often than not, what modifiers I think I need to use, then quickly changing them multiple times after). Not that there is anything magical about the 1/4th power setting, but you have to start somewhere, and I find that 1/4th power gives me a bit of latitude in either direction as opposed to if I started out at full power and couldn't go anywhere but down.

For a lot of things, I tend to remember more the failures associated with the shoot's lighting if it's within a certain time frame. In other cases, I'll make reference of any complicated details for use in the future or if I think I might like to write about the shoot. I find for several setups of the same shot, once you get the lights dialed in you don't always need to change them. So for some commercial shoots the lights may be the same settings through most of the shoot depending on the shot you are trying to make.

A good example of this would be a shot out of the 2010 NRG calendar (above) for which we used a 1929 Ford V8 Hot Rod. It was a five-light shoot, mixing large 400 watt studio strobes and three Nikon Speedlights. Once I got the lights dialed in, moving the girls around wasn't difficult as most of the scene was lit the way I wanted. It was just very minor adjustments to lights that I had illuminating just the girls' faces. I've found that lot of times it's just having the vision and the drive to try until you get it the way you want it.

Artificial lighting -- mastering the sundry forms (strobes, softboxes, flash, ring lights), the master-slave relationships, the associated equipment (light stands, snoots, barn doors, off-camera brackets, umbrellas, reflectors, muslins, etc.) and knowing where to position it all -- is intimidating to beginner and intermediate photographers. To some, myself included, it seems like a whole separate craft, one requiring extensive coursework to absorb it all, or at least properly. How easy or hard was it to you to understand it and become comfortable with it? Is there a trick to grasping it easily and quickly that you could share with other photographers?

Lighting is the most important part of photography, and I learned that early on. Eventually, despite technology and how clean newer cameras are at high ISOs, you'll need to learn to light something, as a lot of times the images are just more dynamic that way.

I personally learned to light things out of necessity. I think I mentioned earlier that the camera I owned before my D3 was a Nikon D2x. Anyone who has any experience with the D2x knows that anything above 400 ISO was almost always worthless. At 100 ISO, it was the Mecca of cameras, but if you were out and about you either had to learn to light on location or you were in trouble. On that note, I started looking for research online, and I found a few photographers whom I now consider my idols -- Joe McNally, Chase Jarvis, Zack Arias and David Hobby are some.

Whenever someone expresses the desire to learn basic lighting technique, I point them to Zack. His theory is that you need to learn to light with a single light and a 60" umbrella before you should do anything else. Once you learn to effectively light with that one light and umbrella, it's just adding flair to your shots after that. Effect lights, barn doors, snoots ... all of it. You can use your umbrella to get a safe shot, and you can play after that. Use the umbrella for fill, then use a snooted light to put a bit of definition on the other side of someone's head. To this day, I still carry around a 60" umbrella, and it's my go-to for a quick portrait.

Another challenging aspect of lighting is learning to set up your lights where other people would chicken out. By that I mean if you are someone who is striving to shoot professionally, you shouldn't be afraid to do what a professional would. I don't mean setting lights up to do a portrait of your kids in the aisle at the local convenience store. If the manager of the local mini-mart needs a photo of himself in the produce aisle, a little simple, supplementary lighting will add that certain something ... and will probably get you called back. It is definitely a finesse thing though, and you have to find what is comfortable for you.

Eventually you never know what you'll end up lighting with as you'll find yourself in places that umbrellas and softboxes don't fit. I carry two full-size bedsheets (photo above) in the back of my car because I know that hanging one over a window will immediately create a giant natural light softbox in a living room, and hanging one over a doorway will give me a great natural softbox that I can shoot lights through. This not to mention the other applications you might come up with involving bedsheets.

I noticed from the information you provide with many of your pictures in your blog posts that you own (or use) two full-frame camera bodies, and from different makers -- the Canon 1D, Mark II and Nikon D3. Can you explain why you use different makes (which would require separate complements of lenses, right)? Is it possibly because of the D3's newer and higher-quality ISO sensitivity that make you go for it even though you already owned a Canon body? Do you own or use any other cameras for any of your work?

That's a loaded question for sure. I have been very lucky with my photography to this point in my life. Working with The Indianapolis Star has given me access to some incredibly nice Canon camera bodies, including the 5D Mark II and 1D Mark II, as well as to prototypes of bodies released in the past. We had a 1D Mark IV at the paper to play with shortly after the announcement (of its release to the market) at the end of last year.

On top of all that, I own my own Nikon equipment from before the newspaper and have kept updating it while I shoot things outside of the newspaper. In terms of the Nikon equipment I have a D3 and a D700 as well as various lenses and Speedlights to go with them. Between the two systems, I can't tell you which is better than the other because they are all just tools. There are definitely things that I like the Canon equipment for, and there are definitely things that I prefer the Nikon equipment for. My personal preference would be the Nikon equipment, though, just because I feel as though it allows me to make the photos I envision more easily than the Canon equipment. An example of this is the Nikon flash system. The TTL in the Nikon flash system is worlds ahead of the Canon flash system.

Recently I was asked to shoot some photos inside Howl at the Moon (right) in downtown Indianapolis. The Nikon cameras performed flawlessly, allowing me to capture some beautiful shots of the event, as well as the bonus of some portraits of the staff while I was at it, all without missing a beat. Not that I haven't taken many a photo with the Canon gear; I just prefer the way the Nikons produce the images on the fly and how the images handle in post-processing. That's even despite the fact that the (Canon) 5D Mark II ranges in at almost twice the resolution of my D3.

In terms of the high ISO, I don't shoot a lot of things above 400 ISO usually, but when I do, these cameras are all pretty awesomely clean as compared to film. Most of things above that would be sports or events that I don't shoot as much of as a lot of other photographers. Not that I don't enjoy events, but a lot of my clients appreciate my ability to light things on location or to light shots so that they don't look lit but can be reproduced at poster size.

Among the listed photography services you offer at your Web site -- commercial, portraiture, events, fine art -- do you like or prefer one type of photography? How much do you ever shoot for strictly personal enjoyment?

I've started to enjoy shooting portraiture, as I've recently delved more into color contrasting images. Sometimes learning photography will come in waves, and sometimes it trickles in. Only within the last few months have I really started playing with large amounts of added color in my images, and I truly enjoy it. In terms of shooting for personal enjoyment, I try to do so a little bit every day. I mentioned earlier how much I admire Chase Jarvis out of Seattle. He put out a book last year titled "The Best Camera is the One That's With You." It's a book dedicated to nothing but iPhone photos he has taken, and it's a great concept. I take several photos a day using my cell phone. When I do, I take because it made me laugh, or because it's something that I just find interesting. Chase also has a theory that within 10 feet of you are 10 photos that are waiting to be taken. If you take the time to look around and get into it, you'll see that he's right.

Could you talk a bit about your food images in your commercial gallery at the Web site, especially the lighting involved and the thought (or necessities) involved with setting up the lighting so the food looks the way it does?

Shooting food is never easy, whether you do it truly commercially where you have someone come in to cook a hundred hamburgers just to pick the one paragon of pickled perfect on a bun, or you are shooting a dining guide at the paper where someone will probably eat what you're about to shoot ... hopefully not until you're finished with it.

A lot of times the trouble with food is that pasta starts looking the same at every restaurant, so you start getting kooky with the lighting. A lot of times just like anything else, less is more. Many photos can be taken while using only one light, and a little bit of white reflecting paper. Sometimes that paper can be napkins, sometimes it can be the menu, sometimes it's just a white tablecloth on the chair across the table. Not all food is equal though, just like light. Pad Thai may be an awesome dish to eat, but a pile of noodles looks like a pile of noodles no matter where you are. Sometimes food is the best place to take risks when learning lighting.

I think one of the coolest things to shoot are drinks. The neat part about drinks is that sometimes they illuminate themselves with only a small amount of light. I once was contracted to shoot photos for a drink menu, of which they had a pink beverage (whose name escapes me at the moment) in honor of the Sex in the City movie that was pending release. The shot itself (left) was lit by a single light from one side, no diffusion at all. It took me a long time to realize it, but sometimes hard light can be just as visually dynamic as trying to make soft light.

How much of your work has been published, and have you ever had a public (or private) art gallery display of any of your work? Re the latter ... If not, would you like to?

Unfortunately, working for the newspaper, I know only that a lot of my work has made it into the hands, eyes and brains of unsuspecting victims. As for how much of it though, I have no idea. It is very similar with the roller derby photos that I've taken. I am contacted regularly by leagues outside of Indiana that NRG has faced to put some of the shots in programs or for use as trading cards for their girls. Some of those things I may never see, unless I specifically ask for them to be sent here.

There are plenty of other things that I have shot and haven't seen again for months or have never seen again. I do tend to look for things after they get shot, but in doing the custom content aspect of things for the paper, I don't always know where things are going to go after they are taken. I have mailed prints (framed and unframed) to various places across the United States, and when I do get a request of such, I'm incredibly flattered, honored and humbled that someone likes my work enough to purchase it for display in their home or office.

One of the images that I know I have most distributed for private sale is a photo I took of Downtown Chicago from a high rise (the image at the top of this post). The shot is actually 13 photos stitched together off of a friend's balcony. I was there shooting modeling portfolio photos for her, and that evening I just couldn't resist the sunset over Navy Pier. I was completely unprepared for the shot, and despite the fact that it's not one of the most recognizable parts of downtown Chicago, it has turned out as one of my favorites. I even enjoy it so much that I have it hanging in my office. It graces the upper corner of my invoices and is the avatar for my Facebook photography page. I am currently conceptualizing an artistic personal project to potentially take to a gallery, but it's still in the very early stages of development. I am, however, very excited about it and hope that sometime next year I'll be able to display the project somewhere.

To check out more of Marc's work, follow these links:

Marc's professional Web site

Marc's flickr photostream

Marc's blog

Marc's photography page on Facebook

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