Today’s photographer interview is with one of my favorite Chicago photographers, Christopher Foltz. Christopher specializes in dramatic shots of Chicago. He has a unique and powerful post-processing technique and he shares some of his secrets here today.
Hi Christopher. Thanks for joining us on OutofChicago.com.
Q. Give us a little info about your background in photography.
A. I got into photography from traveling with my now wife about 2 years ago. It was actually two days before going to Costa Rica and my point and shoot died. Not wanting to spend a lot I bought a cheap on sale point and shoot and hated it the whole trip, it did not work well at all. So I decided I wanted to get a DSLR and bought the only one I could afford at that point. From there since I ‘paid so much’ for the camera I would learn how to use it correctly, spent many days reading articles on different styles. I was always a sucker for night shots as you can tell from my flickr, now I am more and more getting into portraiture.
Q. Share some of your favorite photos with us and the story behind them.
This was shot on a Saturday Night and I was trying to get everything in one shot, the watertower, Hancock Building and Light Trails. It was not till after the shot did I notice the clouds making a trail down the center and that on my standard exposure shot I caught the motorcycle right in the corner of my frame, talk about good luck.
This is one of my favorite shots and it is from my favorite spot in Chicago. It was hazy out this night and I was hoping it would pass before sunset which it did not, but it did pass shortly after. The sky due to the rain that had just passed left a purple glow in the sky. I decided I would try a panoramic of the scene and get the cloud movement. It just worked out beautifully. The colors, the shadowy reflections, the sky, wonderful. It was the first shot of mine that I ever went, wow, that is what I am talking about. No HDR, just a quick stitch in Photoshop and light levels change and that was it.
Q. What are your favorite locations to shoot in Chicago? If a photographer friend had one day in Chicago, where would you tell them to go?
A. My favorite spot to shoot in Chicago is Olive Park next to Navy Pier. My wife and I got some of out engagement photos done there and I have a lot of photographs that I have taken there. Other than that I love anywhere on the riverwalk, there are so many options and views from along the river.
Q. What places are on your Chicago bucket list to shoot?
A. From a helicopter would be my ultimate. Other than that, I have yet to shoot from up in the Sears (Willis) Tower.
Q. Winter is just about to set in on us. Are there any Chicago locations that you especially like in the winter?
A. Down in the loop, between Christkindlmarket and all the lights on the trees lining the streets, it provides great fun to shoot from Bokeh using the Christmas Lights to get street photography.
Q. What’s in your camera bag right now?
As of now I have a Nikon D3000, Nikkor 18-200mm f4-5.6, Nikkor 35mm f1.8, Nikkor 85mm f1.4, Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6 (favorite lens). Also I have an SB700, SU800, a Lumiquest Softbox III, batteries, memory cards, a few ND filters.
Q. What is one piece of photo gear, besides camera, tripod, and lenses that you couldn’t live without?
A. Right now it would be my speedlight, since getting that it really has added a whole new depth and perspective on things. It is really amazing what you can do with these small things, looking to pick up another one soon.
Q. Explain how you shot the opening shot of you writing in your notebook with the city in the background.
A. This was shot on a rainy night, I went out hoping the rain had quit and it downpoured. Luckily it stopped for about 30 minutes to allow me to go out on the breakwater. The wind was still whipping across the Lake, I am glad for my aluminum tripod. This shot was really inspired by my love for Joe McNally’s work. He is amazing with light (especially speedlights) and I have learned a lot from reading his blog and books. So I thought what could I do with my speedlight that would look cool. I loved the texture and graffiti on the light and wanted to get that in the shot. So I framed a shot without anything or one in it and made sure I could get the city as well, also to set the correct exposure. The only way to do this was using my ultra wide, usually a no-no for anything portrait related, but if you keep them towards the center of the frame, you will distort them, too bad. I threw on my SU-800 on top of my camera and set the flash in remote, making sure it was in rear curtain (with only an Fstop of 4 I knew it would be a decent length exposure). Dialed it down to a -2.0 ev so it would not blow out my face. I placed the speedlight between my legs, using them to prop it up towards my face. It took three shots to dial in the camera EV and get the flash to position right. I did not have anything in my hands at that point and it looked weird, so I went through my camera bag and all I could find is my notebook and so I was actually jotting down the shot settings while taking it!
Q. Give us a photo tip for shooting Chicago
A. Get up high, my favorite shots and some of my most popular were shot from up in parking garages, buildings, anything you can.
Q. I am super impressed with your post-processing techniques. You have a distinct style that I really enjoy and I know from the thumbnail image on Flickr that it’s one of yours. What’s your secret?
A. Trying to keep it simple, for my HDR which is what a lot of my shots are is simple 3 shot bracket (mostly -2, 0, +2). I use Photomatix, and really there it is just a feel of what I think the shot should look like, I have no presets, no starting points, I just try to bring out what I want from the scene. From there in Photoshop it is just a quick adjustment of levels and some masking out of blown highlights.
Q. Do you think that you do something different than most people when you process your HDR images?
A. I think I keep it more realistic than most. I mean we all have seen Trey Ratliff’s work and we all have watched his tutorial, I like to try to make it how I saw it, not these painted shots, which means doing more smoothing than most, more noise reduction.
Q. Can you give us a quick rundown of your post-process workflow.
A. I start by using Bridge to organize my folders, than import the shots into Lightroom. From there I process my Raws in Lightroom and export them into Photomatix (if doing an HDR). From there it is back into Lightroom stacking it with the originals. Then into Photoshop where I use the Noiseware plugin and then finish off any other edits. Then back into Lightroom to keep the photos organized.
Q. How do you get such vibrant and detailed buildings without making the skies look funky?
A. Amazing I do not mask the sky’s unless something really gets blown out, I know Trey says to but I do not feel you have to. Like I said before I use a lot more smoothing than most and really watching the sky while processing the HDR. It is also about when you are taking the shots, I always head out just before blue hour and make sure I get the best shot during that period.
Q. As with any photographer on Flickr, you can see how your photographic skills have improved as you move through your Flickr Stream.
A. Are there any moments that you can look back at as the moment that you really “got it” in terms of processing or shooting? I never really think I got it since we are always evolving, there are photographs I think that I nailed, but others that are just like what was I thinking. Styles change and photography like anything is always a learning experience, if you think you have perfected it and can’t get any better than you must not be trying hard enough.
Q. Most of your shots are not taken during the middle of the day. If you could only shoot at sunrise or sunset for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
A. Sunrise, less people and I like the morning unlike most.
Q. Do you have any tips for someone just starting to experiment with HDR?
A. Take your time and really experiment, there are a lot of creative things you can do, but it is very easy to go overboard.
Q. Do you have any interesting stories related to your photo adventures in Chicago?
A. Nothing too interesting, been asked a to leave a few spots, get stared at like I am a tourist everytime I go out, been rained on, splashed, and almost hit be several vehicles. But the best thing is when someone stops turns and looks at what I am shooting and goes, “You know I walk by this everyday on my commute and never really stop and look.” It is always nice to give a ‘local’ a new perspective of how beautiful this city of ours really is.
Q. Give us two photographers that we should go check out.
Q. Tell us all of the places that we can follow your photo adventures.
A. Website: www.christopherfphotography.com (blog is there as well)
Hey Christopher, thanks for taking the time to share so much of what you do with us. A lot of what you shared is eye-opening for me and will be for our readers too.
If you enjoyed this interview, let us know in the comments, and head to Christopher’s links given above to see more of his work.