Santa In Carbonite


Announcing our 2014 Christmas card - Santa in Carbonite!

At the end of every year we collect all of the cool card ideas that we thought of during the season. I then create a calendar event for the next November, listing out the ideas we thought of. Last year we came up with a Star Wars Christmas card idea with the boys guarding Santa Claus, frozen in carbonite. Call them Imperial Elves.

Building A Set

To create this image I decided to build a miniature set in my studio. It was about 18 inches tall, and I used mostly balsa wood to build it. For the platform lighting I connected some USB led lights and then gelled them orange.

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To get the concrete texture, I used a product by Liquitex called Ceramic Stucco. It’s great at producing a gritty, concrete-like texture to a surface. After applying it, I used a combination of Liquitex Basics paints and airbrushing to get the worn effect.

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With all of the texturing and painting done, I tried out a few angles to see what worked best (you can see one angle with the camera below). Ultimately I decided on a front view, as it provided a nice symmetry to everything.

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For lighting, I looked at stills from the original movie. There were overhead vents that had light spilling through them, raking across the walls, hitting the floor. To accomplish this I created a simple roof with the vents cut out. I placed a 580ex flash overhead with no diffusion, and adjusted the ceiling and light location until I got just the right amount of ‘rake’ across the walls and floor. I placed a flag over the sit to keep the light from the 580 from hitting the rest of the area. I just wanted it to come through the overhead vents. I also had a soft front light to serve as a general fill.

The exposure was long - 3.2 seconds, f/10, ISO 100. This gave me a good balance between the flash light coming in and the glow of the USB lights. Here’s a diagram of the lighting setup.

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Creating Santa

To create our frozen Santa, I found a 3D model online of Han Solo frozen in a block of carbonite. I took that model into Cinema 4D and used its sculpting tools to turn Solo into jolly old St. Nick. I left some of the face details so that it still looked like Han a little bit :)

In Cinema 4D you set up a camera and lights like you do with a real shoot. So, I simply matched everything to how I had lit the set (shot at 35mm). I also added in two glow lights (one at his feet and one to the right side to mimic the light coming from the control panel).

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'Principal Photography'

Photographing the boys was pretty straightforward. I had a soft light for fill. I also ran an overhead strip to simulate the vent light, as well as an orange-gelled floor light to simulate the glow from the platform behind them.

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Once all the elements were photographed and rendered, I took everything into Photoshop for compositing. I did some touch-ups to the walls and platform grates, and I added some smoke from the top. Here's a shot of how the retouch was coming along before I cropped it:

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And here's the back:

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Would J.J. approve? I hope so!

This was just one of the cards I created this year over at Be sure to head over there this week as voting officially begins this Saturday for the coveted 2014 Refrigerator Award trophy!

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Second Star To The Right


How To Shoot The Milky Way

We took a family trip to Sedona, Arizona last month. Of course, you might be thinking "why would you go to Arizona in the middle of the summer?" I thought the same thing. Actually, it wasn't too bad. Yes it was hot in the middle of the day. But it's a dry heat. We spent so much time having fun that the heat didn't really bother us.

There was so much to see there! The big draw is of course the red rocks. They are beautiful and grand in every possible way. The hiking was a ton of fun. You really felt like you accomplished something when you finished one. We also took some day trips to see Flagstaff, Meteor Crater, and more.


Out in Sedona it can get dark. Super dark. So dark that you can see the Milky Way galaxy with your puny little human eyes. With no moon visible during our trip, it was a perfect spot to catch some star shots. Although I was a little rusty on the specifics, a quick text to my friend Ben Sassani got me set up with taking some good photos.

I set up for a 30 second exposure with the lens focused to infinity (there’s a little dial on your lens which marks infinity, so flip the manual focus switch on the lens and then rotate the focus ring until it matches up with the infinity symbol). I set my 16-35 lens to f2.8. The last variable here is ISO, which I bounced around between 1600 and 3200. I also used a tripod, a remote shutter cable and turned on ‘mirror lock up’ on the camera. All of these help keep the camera super-still. 30 seconds was generally a good place to be. If you go much farther, your stars start to turn into star trails. If you shoot for less than 30 seconds, you won’t get a great exposure. I recommend you review each shot and zoom in as far as you can to see if the shot was in focus. I found that infinity focus can be a little fidgety if it’s not set at exactly the right point on the lens.

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This was a ‘cousins’ trip, and one night we were all sitting in an empty parking lot admiring the stars. My brother-in-law brought a pair of night vision goggles. If you’ve never tried on a pair of these on a dark night, I highly recommend it. You can see every star and even see satellites! They move across the sky at a good speed, and once you know what to look for you will see them everywhere.

I decided to take a shot of the family hanging out, watching stars. I left the camera settings the same and added in the light from my iPhone to light-paint everyone. This meant they had to stand pretty still while I hit them with the light. Since the exposure was 30 seconds, I had enough time to run over an light paint everyone. It made for a great shot. Normally, the light-leak from the city in the background would mess up a shot of the Milky Way, but in this case I like it because it helps define the mountain range in the background.

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This trip was a great reminder for me plan ahead and bring what I need to get some good shots. Sometimes, the last thing I want to do is pack camera equipment for a family trip because it’s hard to make time to shoot when you have family activities going on. This time, I’m glad I did!


Herding Cats For Mother's Day

Mother's Day Photo Idea

With my wife out of town for a few days last week, I decided it was the perfect chance to create a fun, memorable photo for Mother’s Day. I wanted something that had our whole family in it, including the crazy pets. I normally steer clear of shots like this for the simple reason that it’s near-impossible to herd the cats. It’s just very love/hate between our three pets, so the only way this was going to work was if I shot a composite.

After school last week, we loaded everyone up in the car and headed to my studio to take the shot. I set up an overhead camera rig about 8 feet off the ground, shooting wide at 16mm. For lighting, there’s a bare bulb flash in the upper middle and lower left of the frame. I also added an extra bare flash in the lower right to kill some of the c-stand shadows that were showing up. We used 5 photographs to create the final image.

The dust wasn’t dust at all, but rather a couple of passes with an airbrush using Corel Painter. I also added a chalkboard texture to give some nice additional contrast.

Loading up the pets for the ride:

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Here’s the shot of the boys:

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Here’s Queso (the dog). Note that I put down a pencil and a hairbrush to serve as simple markers of the feet location from the myself and the boys. The hairbrush works great for this because, sadly, it doesn’t get much use in my house anymore.

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Lisa loved the shot, and we all laughed at how huge the cats have become.

Great Scott! The 2012 Christmas Card!

Some of you know that each year I do fun Christmas cards for clients over at While working on those client's cards, I have to squeeze in a shoot for our family too. This year there was much deliberation over what to do. We usually have some sort of a running list of ideas that we keep from year to year. I have misplaced said list. In the end, we decided on doing a Back To The Future themed card. It's a pretty good movie. Ok I'm kidding - it's the GREATEST of ALL TIME. You will not find a bigger fan than me. We knew instantly that Trevor had to be Biff. It just fits his personality. He probably could take Biff right now in a MMA cage fight. That meant Brandon had to be Marty, so we scored him a Coast Guard Youth Auxiliary life preserver. The car is an interesting story. Originally I tried to track down one of those fan cars that are all decked out to look like the film. When that didn't work out, I went to my backup - an 8-inch long toy DeLorean.

There's a power line running from the car to the tree. We'll leave it up to you whether the car is powering the tree or vice versa. The mall is Barton Creek Mall here in Austin - always a pleasure to shoot at late at night while wearing a dark hoodie.

Here's the front and back. Click the first image for a larger version:

Back To The Future Card #1 Back To The Future Card #2

2011 Christmas Card

I have a deep affection for fun holiday cards. In fact, I'm usually pretty busy this time of year creating holiday images for my clients. I love the whole process - discussing ideas, doing the shoot, and the post work. My goal every year is to create something that will stay on the refrigerator past New Year's day. This year, we went with a CSI theme. Specifically, CSI: Miami. That show is so over-the-top. Extra credit goes to Horatio Caine (played by David Caruso), as he somehow manages to open each show with a ridiculous one-liner. This video on YouTube, showing over 7 minutes of his poetic dialogue, will probably have you in stitches. It inspired us this year. Here's the front of the card:

Some people might not get the CSI reference right away, so we included an image/tag line on the back:

We had a great time producing this year's card, and are already thinking of ideas for next year. In the meantime, I've posted new work that I've done for my holiday clients at

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and an incredible New Year!


Italy, Part One: Places

I'm back! We recently returned from an incredible trip to Italy, and this is the first post (of at least 3) about it. Both my wife and I have relatives there (mine are in Sicily, and hers are in a small town a few hours from Rome). I think we started planning this trip last year, and for the most part everything went very smoothly! Besides our family, my wife's sister-in-law and her 2 daughters came along. And, before I go any further, a big thanks to my wife and sister-in-law for all of the hard work they did planning! My oldest son turned 6 during the trip which was way cool. My 3 year old was fun too, considering that we had several long days of sightseeing.

We flew into Rome and stayed for a night, and then headed to Sicily, followed by Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri, Venice, Fabriano, Assisi, Orvieto, and finally Rome again for one night before we flew home. I also drove in Sicily and from Venice through the end of the trip, which was insane! In parts of Italy, things like traffic lights and stop signs are more recommendations than requirements.

I travelled with a very minimal kit - just a camera body, a 580 ex flash, a 50mm lens, and a 16-35mm lens (which I hardly ever used, especially once something startled to rattle on the inside of it). I ended up shooting about 2,000 images, which worked out to about 35 GB (I was shooting plenty of images at 21 MP for a project I want to do later). I probably could have shot more, but it's the classic tradeoff between shooting and seeing things with the family. I had a couple 'I am going to shoot for an hour' opportunities though, so it worked out well. I didn't have a laptop, so I backed up everything to an Epson portable drive.

Let's start off with a few Rome shots:

In Sicily, we visited my relatives plus got a chance to drive halfway up Mt. Etna. It's a cool volcano - still having eruptions every now and then. Here you can see some older lava flows:

After Sicily, we took an overnight ferry to Sorrento. Here's a shot from the hotel:

You can see Mt. Vesuvius here:

Capri is an incredible island off the coast of Italy. Besides having a lot of cool stores and restaurants on the island itself, you can have a lot of fun around the island, checking out the rock formations, the fabulous colored grottos, and more:

They have a cable car that goes to the very top which is awesome! The view is incredible and peaceful:

Here is the famous Blue Grotto, which is a cave on the outside of the island. To get in, you literally have to lay down in a boat while the boat driver maneuvers into a little hole. Once inside, the water glows blue because light is coming underneath the entrance:

After Capri/Sorrento, we headed up to Venice:

I got lost quite a few times walking around there. Thankfully, a cool navigation app saved me (more on that in a later post).

Leaving Venice, we drove down to the Fabriano region (where my wife's relatives are). We came across this cool castle museum that had an incredible view out the front door:

Who wouldn't want to walk out to that everyday?

Our last stop was in Orvieto, which has an absolutely incredible church. It's also massive. Here's a shot looking at the entrance:

So there you go - the first post on the big trip. Next up, I'll show you some of the fun times we had (including an incredible birthday party for Brandon), and later on I'll post some iPhone pictures.