Sony A7R II at the Shedd Aquarium

Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium is a beautiful and relaxing place to visit, and last week I was able to take a camera there to shoot some video. I used a Sony A7R II, two Canon FD lenses–a Vivitar 20mm f3.8 and my Dad’s old 50mm f1.4–and a Rokinon 7.5mm Fisheye lens, all mounted on the camera via Fotodiox adapters. I shot half the video is 24fps and the other half in 60fps for the slow motion effect. I was going to shoot in a flat profile but I really love Sony’s built-in color science so I ended up going with the standard picture profile and layering on a film emulsion LUT in post. Here’s the video I shot:

After shooting with the A7R II for a little over a year now I’m still regularly surprised by how beautiful it can render photos and video. It’s not great in low-light, but if you have a fast lens mounted on it and stick at ISO 800 or lower, its powerful little imaging device. I guess it should be for the price. I’m so thankful that my work lest me borrow it so frequently!

 

Fisheye In The Bog

Bog Boardwalk

I grew up going on hikes with my family at Volo Bog State Natural Area, and it’s still one of my favorite places to visit in Illinois. A bog, especially in the vanilla Midwest, is a magical place, and when you get out in the middle of it, after crossing acres of quaking ground and floating dwarf trees on a narrow boardwalk, you feel like you’re in another world. This January we had an unseasonably warm stretch that felt just like Spring, and one Saturday I couldn’t help but grab a camera and head out to Volo to check up on an old friend.

To keep things simple I generally take just one camera and one lens when I go on a photo walk, and this time I decided to go with an unconventional pairing: my Rokinon 7.5mm Fisheye, which I just recently discovered I could mount on my work’s Sony A7S with the help of a Fotodiox MFT to E-mount lens adapter. Here’s what the camera/lens combo looks like.

My Rokinon 7.5mm is made to cover a Micro Four Thirds sensor, so I had to use the APS-C crop mode on the Sony A7S plus do a little cropping in post to remove the vignette caused by the len’s built-in tulip hood. I love working with wide angle and fisheye lenses because they give me such a unique, dramatic view of the world. Here are some of the photos I captured during my day at the bog.

Big Blue Winter Sky

Dock on Frozen Pond

January Leaf

I also shot video on my walk, and here’s a short film I made with the footage, trying to capture the essence of the day. I had shot footage of other hikers and my own feet walking along different parts of the boardwalk, but I realized that the strongest elements of my footage were shots of the sky and the bog’s relationship to it, so that’s the direction I took with the final edit. You can check out the video below.

Limiting myself to a fisheye lens for an entire day of shooting was a rewarding challenge, and I definitely plan on using this lens on a full frame camera again. Volo Bog is even more beautiful in the Spring and Summer, so I may be heading back to capture more images soon.

Creating a Pumpkin Pinhole Camera Obscura

I wanted to do something special for Halloween last October to help promote my company, and I hit upon the bonkers idea of turning a pumpkin into a pinhole camera obscura. I hollowed out a pumpkin, put a cardboard frame with wax paper attached to it inside, and put a pinhole lens on one side and a hole for shooting through on the other. It turns out that pumpkins aren’t light tight, so I also had to cover the whole thing in black duct tape. The pinhole lens i made wasn’t able to produce the most detailed images, so I focused on creating silhouette images by back lighting the subjects I shot. All of this could have just as easily been done with a cardboard box, but where would the fun be in that? Here are some of the images I created with this bizarre device.

I also made a tutorial video showing how to make a pumpkin pinhole camera obscura that you can watch below.

Exploring Fort Sheridan with an Ultra Wide Angle Lens

This Summer I spent a lot of evenings exploring new places and honing my photography skills. Fort Sheridan is an old military fort about twenty minutes south of where I work, and I found it to be a beautiful and relaxing places to explore and shoot. Here are some photos I captured there with a Sony A7R II, a WonderPana 10-stop ND filter and a beautiful Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8 lens I was able to borrow from work.

Fort Sheridan Cemetary

Grave and Sky

Fort Sheridan Cemetery Sunset

Memorial Horse

Walkway to Nowhere

Fort Sheridan Water Tower

Because I was borrowing gear from work, I was also able to shoot a tie in video for Fotodiox. Here’s the video, where I go into a little more detail about the process I used to capture these image.

Probably Okay: The Pie Problem

Here’s the latest video from my sketch comedy YouTube series Probably Okay. My writing partner Michael Golus and I have been stepping up our game lately with more complex ideas and polished cinematography, and it’s helped to elevate the material, which is, as usual, entirely mad. Probably Okay is all about jokes without punchlines, and this video is no exception. When Mike and I write these scripts, with occasional help from the rest of our fluctuating team of actors, we like to play the “what if” game and go as far as we can with it, which ends up generating some pretty bizarre ideas. This alternative humor isn’t for everyone, and I’ve encountered plenty of of people who just scratch their heads when they see our videos, but from those who understand the humor, we’ve been fairly well received. We’ve been making these video for 7 years now and we’ve never really generated a large audience, but for Mike and I it’s never been about the amount of views or the likes. We just enjoy creating funny videos that surprise and hopefully delight the viewer with their unexpectedness, and if we’ve done that for even just a couple of people, we feel like we’ve succeeded.

He is Here!

He is here!
Let us abandon our flocks,
let them run headlong into the sea–
our wealth like pale bread floating,
drowning in the water.

Let us run into this dead night
without coats–without warmth,
dead as frozen corpses–our hearts
dying under the fiery gaze of heaven’s eyes.
He is here! we need no terrestrial life,
no warmth for our twisted bodies.

Let us throw our bodies into joyful contortions,
let us scream his name into the black void of space.
We may freeze on these hills
or melt under a torrent of flaming alien rock,
falling dead from the heavens
in utter, terrored worship.

Let us scream His name across these hills,
running with bleeding feet unto the vast, dead cities.
Let us tell these corpses
rotting in their rotting funeral houses:
“Behold you dead men! The KING OF ALL
is birthed bloody on the hay of a bleak cavern stable!”

His holy heart beats in the throbbing asthmatic chest
of a body already dying–twisted in the body
of a freezing newborn babe, red with fear
and the first feel of frozen air.

He beats the air with fists to pierce,
screams through lips to speak God’s words
to a dead world–to you, dead people!
Wake to this terrible night!
Come out of your graves, tear off your graveclothes,
rip out your silent hearts and set them on fire
and run and scream and gibber with us
through this pitch-black midnight!

We run to pitch-black Bethlehem!
We go to prostrate ourselves before the King of all,
incarnate in a sickly, bloodied babe.

The Similarities Between “The Star Wars” and “Rogue One”

After Watching “Rogue One” multiple times last weekend I was surprised by the similarities between it and George Lucas’s “The Star Wars,” his original draft for what would eventually become “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” I just re-read “The Star Wars,” which you can find here, and I’ve broken down the similarities between it and “Rogue One” chronologically. Obviously there are plenty of spoilers ahead, so reader be warned!

The Whills

One of Lucas’s early drafts mentions the Journal of the Whills, and the film was even subtitled this at one point. In “Rogue One” the protectors of the Jedi temples on the planet Jedha are called the Guardians of the Whills, a nice nod to Lucas and an intriguing bit of world building.

The Opening Scene

Anakin Starkiller, his brother Deak and his father Kane are hiding from the Empire on a small settlement on a barren planet. The Empire sends a Sith Warrior in a lone ship that lands on the outskirts of the settlement and the Sith attacks and kills Deak. This opening of Lucas’s original draft is very similar to the opening of “Rogue One,” in which Orson Krennic and his Death Troopers find Galen Erso and his family hiding on a farm on a similarly barren planet and end up killing Galen’s wife.

Spies and Intelligence

On Alderaan, the capital world of the Empire in “The Star Wars,” Clieg Whitsun, a Rebel spy, meets with Bail Antilles, another Rebel, to get information about the Empire’s movement to attack Aquilae, including news of a new “giant space fortress” as big as a moon that the Empire has constructed. They are then confronted by Imperial troops and Whitsun narrowly escapes. This is closely mirrored in an early scene in “Rogue One” in which Rebel Intelligence agent Cassian Andor meets with another Rebel who has information about the Death Star and then has to flee from Stormtroopers.

Political Debate

On Aquilae, the last bastion of the Rebellion, King Kayos argues with other Rebel leaders about going to war with the Empire, as it is threatening to attack unless they sign a treaty. These scenes of politicians desperately arguing over how to proceed are echoed in “Rogue One.”

The Force of Others

King Kayos, and later others characters say “May the force of others be with you all.” In “Rogue One,” this mantra is repeated by blind Guardian of the Whills Chirrut Imwe.

More Machine Than Man

Kane Starkiller, one of the last of the Jedi Bendu and a bitter enemy of the Empire, reveals that he is more machine than man–his chest and limbs are mostly mechanical. He then sacrifices his life to provide the Rebels with a means of escape. This character is very reminiscent of “Rogue One’s” Saw Gerrera, a militant rebel who is part machine and chooses to stay on Jedha to die when the Empire partially destroys the planet.

Re-purposed Imperial Droids

R2-D2 and C3PO were originally imperial robots on the Empire’s Death Star space fortress who deserted to join the Rebels. Aside from the fact that R2 speaks English, they’re pretty much identical to the R2 and 3PO found in the actual film, but their Imperial origins remind me of “Rogue One”’s K2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial Strategy droid who works for the Rebels.

Stolen Imperial Vessels

In “The Star Wars,” our heroes travel in a stolen Imperial ship, similar to the stolen Imperial freighter in “Rogue One.”

Violence and a Darker Tone

“The Star Wars” is way more violent than “A New Hope” and has a grittier, darker tone to it. The Rebel stronghold on Aquilae is filled with political traitors, one of whom is cut in two when he is found out. A family is found dead hanging upside down, the Sith torture the civilians and General Skywalker slices people in two and “from chin to groin.” The violence is similarly more brutal in “Rogue One,” as is the tone, which has a sense of cynicism, fear and despair to it, though ending on a hopeful note.

Air Tanks

The Imperial soldiers use air tanks in battle, similar to the one used by the imperials in “Rogue One” on Jeddah

Child in Hiding

Biggs, a little boy and one of the princes of Aquilae, has to hide under a trap door from stormtroopers who are searching for him, similar to how Jyn has to hide from the Death Troopers.

Imperial Defectors

Valorum, a First Knight of the Sith and basically a sympathetic version of Darth Vader, defects to the Rebels and helps them defeat the Empire at the end of “The Star Wars.” He’s driven by a deep code of honor, and though he’s not very similar to the Imperial defector Bodhi Rook in “Rogue One,” a lowly pilot who defects out of moral outrage, both characters are instrumental in leading the Rebel heroes to victory.

I’m not sure how many of these similarities were intentionally inspired by Lucas’s early drafts of Star Wars, but I’d like to think that at least some of them were. “The Star Wars” is actually a pretty good script and an engaging read, filled to the brim with exciting sci-fi adventure plus concepts and  plot points that Lucas would later use in “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi” and even his Star Wars prequel trilogy. I recommend reading it if you’re a fan of the series. May the force of others be with you!

Chicago, Ice and Holga Lenses

Frozen Michigan and Figures

Even though I generally shoot with Full Frame Sony cameras now, there’s just something about lo-fi video. One of my favorite lo-fi digital setups is my trusty Canon Rebel T2i paired with my Holga EOS mount lens and Holga Wide Angle adapter. The images this lens/camera combo creates are dreamy and lo-fi filmic, reminiscent of the Super 8 home video look, and I find they work well for short video essays like this one.

This setup also works well for strange/experimental shorts like this, which we shot on the same day as the video above.

I keep telling myself that one day I’m going to actually take the plunge and shoot a feature short with this kind of lo-fi digital setup. For now, it’s a great way to play around visually.

Star Wars Holiday Special 2: My Homage to the Strange Side of Star Wars

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What I loved about Star Wars as a kid was the vastness of it’s universe. I read the Thrawn trilogy and all of the encyclopedias, concept art and source books I could get my hands on when I was 13, and then proceeded to dive into the dizzying array of Star Wars comics, cartoons, toys and video games thereafter. It felt like such a big place to explore, and what I liked most was the weird stuff: the off kilter design elements on the edges of the frames in the movies, the weird characters and creatures from the cheapo 80’s cartoons and Ewok movies, and all the ditched concept art and strange pixelated video game characters and locations. To this day I still love to try to find new details in old Star Wars Playstation and N64 games, read old drafts of scripts and even books on the designs of such bizarre Star Wars detours as Shadows of the Empire and the much maligned Star wars Holiday Special.

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This short film is my love letter to the strangeness of Star Wars: the most terrible homemade sequel I could possibly conceive to the original Star Wars Holiday Special, a DVD bootleg copy of which I foist on my family every December and end up watching alone after they’ve all managed to escape. Gary Fraptious, a recurring character on my comedy sketch channel Probably Okay played by my friend Scott McElroy, was the best character to star in this film due to his joyfully incoherent madness. We envisioned the sequel that Gary would create to be a chaotic fan fiction mess, filled with ships and characters played by my vintage Star Wars toys and music and visual effects lifted from classic Star Wars video games. We also included a cameo for our friend Rebecca, who plays a recurring character in our other Gary Fraptious shorts.

I shot the entire video on a low-fi digital camera–the Digital Harinezumi–in Scott’s garage to get the homemade VHS look and sound I wanted. We used a a small pop-up green screen and a single light, and the resulting footage was blown out and almost impossible to key–perfect. The footage still looked and sounded too good, so I added some damaged VHS tracking overlay and that distinct VHS hum in post. It’s still not the most convincing looking VHS effect but at least it’s reminiscent of the medium. If I ever do a project like this again I’ll either use this app or shoot with an actual VHS camera and tape.

Here’s the finished product in all it’s lo-fi incoherent glory. Happy Space Christmas everyone!

Autumn Leaves, Close Up

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I love autumn! Its colors, sounds and smells have always appealed to me on such a basic level, and a lot of my art tends to be inspired and often centered around the season. This November for work I had the great pleasure of shooting some macro photos and video of autumn leaves, and here are some of my results.

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I also made a how-to video for Fotodiox, taking a look at the gear I used to capture these photos and the video. You can watch it below.

I’m sad to see autumn go, but of course I love winter and the holidays too! The swede in me just can’t get enough of the dark and cold I guess. Happy last days of autumn everyone!

Fast and Cheap 4×5 Film Photography

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In college I was required to shoot black and white 4×5 film as part of a photography class for my Cinema and Video Production degree. Back then I wanted nothing to do with photography–I was a movie maker gosh darn it!–and I did as little as I possibly could to scrape by. I was so uninterested in film photography that I threw away my negatives and prints after I graduated! Fast forward almost a decade and I’m now a film photography junkie. I collect and shoot with every retro camera I can get my hands on and I’ve shot almost every format, from 110, instant and medium format to Super8 and 16mm motion picture film. The one format I haven’t shot on since college though is large format 4×5 film. I could kick myself now, remembering the amazing large format cameras and darkroom gear I had access to back then. These days I don’t have space for a darkroom or the cash to buy an expensive large format camera, but I did finally find a way to shoot 4×5.

A couple years ago I kickstarted a 4×5 camera called the Travelwide 4×5. The company that designed it had a lot of issues with production and the camera was delayed for years. By the time I finally received it in the mail I had given up on trying to collect all the extra parts I needed to make it work, and so the camera gathered dust in a corner of my room. That is, until a month, when I found a large format lens at the bottom of a drawer at work–an Ilex-Calumet Field Caltar 90mm f/8 to be precise. After a little research online I came to find out that the lens was compatible with the Travelwide. My work lets me borrow gear, so I was suddenly closer than ever to having a functioning 4×5 camera. I ordered a couple used 4×5 film holders and New55’s Atomic-X ISO 100 4×5 Panchromatic Sheet Film online and I was ready to start shooting.

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The Travelwide 4×5 comes with a ground glass that’s so dim its really only useful for getting the focus right with the help of a loupe magnifier. My friend let me borrow a finder from one of his old film cameras that luckily happens to be just about as wide as the 90mm len’s field of view and gives a general approximation of the composition. Setting up the shot without a true ground glass is a little like flying blind, but I found that it works okay.

After setting up the shot and focusing I use a light meter app on my phone to get a reading and set the lens’s aperture and shutter speed. I then slide in the film holder, pull out the dark slide, cock the shutter and use a shutter release cable borrowed from one of my other vintage cameras to take the shot.

Developing is a bit tricky because I don’t have a darkroom. I do however have a film changing bag and after a bit of experimenting I found that I could warm up the R5 Monobath to 75 degrees, slide the developing tray directly into the changing bag, put the 4×5 film holder in it too, and then remove the film and develop it in the tray directly in the changing bag. It’s a bit messy but it works, and after rinsing off the negative in the sink, here’s the finished negative hanging up to dry in my bathroom.

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After scanning and some dust and negative aberration removal in post–the R5 Monobath is a bit primitive–here’s my final image.

Kenosha Harbor 4x5

Shooting 4×5 is a dream come true for me and I’m glad how easy and cheap it is. My next move is to invest in some more professional development chemicals as well as a 4×5 developing tank. Look for more of my 4×5 work soon!