BTS – Photographing Sandpaper

Over the past few years education has made up an ever-increasing portion of my career. These days it seems like half of my work life is devoted to teaching. I had never really foreseen myself in this position, but I must admit I’m pleasantly surprised. Every day I get to cover new topics and ideas, and the simple act of explaining a photographic process or technique forces me to critically examine the subtleties of my own work.

That said – I’ll be adding to the blog a bit more regularly with one specific goal:

Behind the Scenes and Walkthroughs.


To kick things off  – I’m gonna get gritty. Not “Tarantino-gritty,” but a bit more “hands-on gritty.”

I’m currently teaching a lighting class and a recent assignment focused on texture and the ability to minimize or exaggerate it as the situation required. Since sandpaper is all about that texture, it served as the perfect model.

First thing first: get the placing right. It’s a balance of the main subject and the supporting props. We don’t want to overpower the star, but we also want to avoid a lot of dead space.


A bit of saw dust brings in the feeling of being in a woodshop, while the haphazard placement of wooden shims and used sandpaper helps to draw attention, by comparison, to the clean and shiny packaging of the product.

Next we need to get the lighting right. The first principle to understand is that the relative size and position of the light are essential in showing shadow (which is how we define texture).


Once we understand the basic rules of light, we can begin identifying where we want the light to come from (which will also show us where the shadows will fall).

After we get our primary light source placed, we can begin bringing in additional lights and reflectors to create separation along dark edges, accentuate texture on supporting props, and fill in shadows. It’s also a good opportunity to add additional props and details where need-be.

Now that we’re happy with the lighting, and our composition is set, we identify the small touches that we’ll fix in post-production.

It’s a product shot, so the packaging has to look perfect. We’ll fix the distortion from the lens and remove any blemishes and stray sawdust that has happened to fall on the package.

The finished shot (sharpened and fine-tune tone adjusted for digital display).

Shot specs:

Nikon D300S

TAMRON SP AF 28-75mm F2.8 XR Di LD Aspherical IF Macro A09NII

F9  –  1/6th sec  –  100 ISO

28mm (42mm equivalent)

Lights: 3x Yongnuo YN568EX Speedlights, 1x Yongnuo 300 III LED Light Panel, Window light for ambient fill.


Thanks for checkin’ it out! Feel free to leave comments or setup questions below. Watch for the next behind-the-scenes write-up coming soon!



How to Avoid a Nail to the Eyeball.

That title might seem a wee bit heavy-handed, but bear with me.

Over the summer, I got to work with a new client. Slingshot Tools is an on-line retailer, carrying the safest and most precisely machined construction accessories on the market. I’m not talking jack hammers or drill presses; I’m talking about saw blades, drill bits, safety glasses and the like.

We produced a 6-piece video series about the company and a few of the products they carry. Before I tell you why the project was so fun I have to mention that Mike, their spokesperson and co-owner, was one of the coolest, down-to-earth people I’ve ever worked with.

Easily, the best part of the project was the “Stress Test” for each of the products. In the case of the Edge Safety Glasses, this involved shooting a glasses-clad mannequin head from 2 feet away with a high-powered nail gun.

Check out a little sample from the project


A Great Nor’easter of a Trip

I hadn’t seen the ocean in nearly 20 years.

It’s interesting, that while I’ve spent my entire life with constant access to the Great Lakes, any time we go on a trip, I’m still drawn to water. We went to the Great Smoky Mountains and ended up hiking along rivers. We went to Chicago and always seemed to gravitate away from the city, to the shoreline. Any time we venture into Northern Michigan we go hiking – but we always hike toward the water.

Last fall, we undertook our greatest journey yet: New England and the Atlantic seaboard.

I gotta tell you, the best way to start your first day seeing the ocean in two decades is a seaside breakfast in Rockport, Massachusetts. If you’re out that way, I highly recommend Roy Moore Lobster Co. (My advice – park at the entrance to the warf and walk the rest of the way.) Also, if your girlfriend had a heightened aversion to eating mollusks, be sure to record the event for posterity (example here.)

Not only did I get to see and smell the ocean, I also managed to cross five new states off my bucket list (Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York).

A few interesting things I learned:

The tide – it exists. Yes, yes. I know that everyone knows that, but if you’ve never really spent an entire day on the ocean coast line, it’s rather off putting the first time you see it. It’s kind of like going hiking in the mountains for the first time. You probably know the air is thinner at altitude, but you don’t really know what the experience is like until you’re there. That being said…

As I mentioned, I have a strong familiarity with the Great Lakes. For many practical purposes, they’re an ocean: you can’t see across them, they support their own commerce and travel, they create weather, etc.  A couple fairly important differences: The ocean is salt water (yes – duh again), but that means it affects all types of photographic gear differently (meaning it leaves salt all over and inside EVERYTHING.) Let’s go back to the tide: Want that one shot of that section? Well you better not plan to get it at golden hour, because it’s gonna look totally different. You want waves? Well, you got ‘em. How far can the wind travel and build up waves on the Great Lakes? About 100 miles? Well the ocean Atlantic has roughly 5,000 miles to get those waves movin’.

Considering the culinary adventures of the New England, you’ve probably heard they like their lobster. Nope. Incorrect. The LOVE that stuff. If you live in Metro Detroit, you probably fancy a Coney Island pretty regularly. Now imagine each and every Coney Island was suddenly a lobster shack. That’s about what it’s like. If you’re in Wiscasset, Maine and fancy a crustacean, Red’s Eats is the name of the game. (Just don’t plan on a “quick lunch.” It’s about a 40 minutes wait.)

I also got to take my fun new Rhino Camera Slider for the trip. Check it out!

  • Jon

The Man with the Accordion

I’ll set the scene:

In a meeting with a prospective client for a totally unrelated job.

Client: (realization crosses face) “You know, I have a project I’m working on. You might be a good match. We need a video that promotes this guy I know – something that we can use to get him featured in (local magazine).”

Me: “Sounds good. What kind of video are we talking about.”

Client: “Well, I’ve known him for a couple years. He’s actually a professional…”

Me: (intrigued) “…”

Client: “…”

Me: (Internally) A professional what? Chef, beekeeper, astronaut?

Client: “… Accordion player.”

Me: “… That… was not how I expected that sentence to end. I’m in.”

So I shot an interview of a professional accordionist. The first time I met him, it was to shoot B-Roll while he played for the International Food Festival at Nino Salvagio’s.

He was the guy in a tux with an accordion.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet James Rand.

Adventures at the Dearborn Animal Shelter

Didja know October is “Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month?”  Did you also know I love animals?

… yeah, you probably knew that. FFDAS Logo

The Friends for the Dearborn Animal Shelter is a pretty awesome organization of people down in Dearborn, a couple miles from the Henry Ford Museum. Over the years, they’ve rescued tens of thousands of dogs and cats throughout Southeastern Michigan. They’ve also played a role in the rescue and relocation of anything from goats and gators to coyotes and…   lynxs… lynxen… I don’t know how to pluralize lynx.

Anyway. They dropped me a line a few weeks ago and were looking for a video to showcase at their annual black tie event. The fun part? Shoot, edit, and deliver in a week. Since I just upgraded my video gear, it was perfect timing.

Challenge accepted.

The conversation went kinda like this:

Me – “So… we’re not gonna do the… Sarah Mclachlan thing are we…?

Them – “Oh good grief no.

Me – “Perfect.

My thought on the whole “depressed animals making your feel like crap for being able to watch TV and eat a Stouffers lasagna” thing is this: Which is gonna give a pet a happier life? Adopting them because they’re charming and you want to, or adopting them because you feel guilty for not adopting them? Who’s gonna donate to a shelter? The people you try to guilt into it (assuming they don’t change the channel) or the people that see where the money’s actually going (a quality environment for the animals with staff and volunteers that actually care about them)?

The people there care about the animals… a lot. When I was laying out the storyboard and how the end of the video would be one of the dogs getting adopted and going home, a couple of the staff started getting all misty. It was adorable.

Fun facts about the video:

  • That cat at the beginning with that little kid: he got adopted. That kid, his siblings, and all their pets are named after super heroes.
  • That fluffy cat in the middle with the girl in the blue hoodie: He got adopted. His name is Rico
  • The first dog in the video – the big mean brute in the kennel (also that dude in the video thumbnail down there) : He never went anywhere without a stuffed animal, he is the cuddliest dog in the world, and his name… is Mr. Jingles.
  • That little brown dog that ran across the red plastic bridge: He cuddles like a cat – no bones. He’s got a hilarious underbite, just like the Phteven Dog. If you look at him straight on, he looks like Dobby the house elf. His name is Bacon.
  • “Porkchop,” the office security dog is a svelte 150 pounds. If you come up to the front counter and you don’t give him a cookie, he stares at you like you offended his ancestors. He also looks dashing in a bowtie and top hat.
  • The last dog – the one with the heterochromia: There’s a reason he’s so excited. For being such a good sport he went to McDonald’s and got French fries.

Check out the video, say “aww” a bunch, stop on down there. You might just find your new best friend.

A super-giant thank you goes out to Rob and Rebecca (the couple at the beginning) for helping out and playing with puppies all day! Rob’s also a kickin’ photographer – check out some of his awesome wedding work at

Thanks! Enjoy the show!

  • Jon

Art For The Sake of It.

I shoot people for fun.

Eugh… as a photographer, I know how cliché that statement is… Ah! I shoot people on the street as a hobby.

No – not getting any better…

I’ve tried to write this post 3 times now. Each time I wanted to wax on the importance of personal projects, but in each iteration I get hung up on the fact that when I talk about what I photograph purely for the sake of enjoyment, it turns into a diatribe on one of the oldest and most clichéd forms of photography. But the more I think about it, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

When left to my own devices, I find myself capturing candid images of interesting people in whatever environment they happen to be in.

I’m not looking to “capture the soul of humanity” with my imagery. I simply find it intriguing that each person inadvertently creates their own character. Whether it’s the way they carry themselves, an action they happen to be performing, the way they’re dressed, or just the environment they’re in, you could look at them and have enough information to create a story.

The way I see it, the reason for “candid street portraiture” is pretty much divided into 2 groups. The first is the desire to capture the spirit of a culture, or region, or a particular slice of society by crafting images that – in the eye of the photographer – exemplify the essence of that distinct subject matter. I feel the general populace (non-photographers) see this as the standard photographic process. It’s a bit stereotypical and references the heyday of 20th century art – what with the beret, wistful demeanors, and long debates on the nature of man, held on a city street outside a coffee shop.

I ascribe to the second group. The older one that dates back to the early days of photography – around the turn of the 19th century. The technology had been around for a rough 60 years and photographers had already begun crafting scenes of their own design. But with advancements in equipment, it was now possible to pick up a camera and, somewhat easily, walk down the street with it. Thus began the movement of “capturing the moment.” The earliest stages of candid photography: it seemed bodies of work weren’t focused too much on the overall theme and content, but more on the individual moments and people they captured.

Some years ago, someone asked me what I wanted to photograph for a living, if I had the choice to pick only one thing. I didn’t even hesitate: “movie posters.” The concept of being able to create a story about someone with a single image has always interested me. And hey – maybe I actually succeed in that on occasion.

But at the end of the day, there’s no hidden motive. I shoot stuff for fun because that’s exactly what it is. If I want to sit here and pull apart my portfolio to find the soul of my work… Well, I’ll need a turtleneck beret for that.

Look at some pictures!

– Jon