Staycation Part 2: Photography Class and Photos For Class (And Not For Class)

**I’ve taken some PTO lately in an attempt to eat it up before the end of the year. No real agenda for the week but over the next few days I’m going to share little bits of what I’ve gotten into. Dig it.

We’ve covered this before but I’ve been going to a non-credit photography class at Pellissippi State Community College for the last month or so. It’s been a pretty cool experience, meeting only one night per week.

There are 11 people enrolled in the class but in the nights we’ve met thus far I don’t believe everyone has been there all at once. It’s also been pretty interesting to see the wide variety of other people taking the class. While I’m not the youngest person in there, there’s only one person younger than me, which was expected. Most everyone else are older but their reasoning for pursuing the hobby vary from wanting to take photos of grandkids to being retired and being told by their spouse they “can’t just fish all the time.” The only thing most everyone has in common, with the exception of about three people, me included, is no one has any experience to speak of.

And I don’t say that to be ugly – in fact, it’s been a pretty awesome thing. Personally all I know about photography I’ve learned from working in videography for years (teaching myself and learning from peers) and reading countless articles on the subject – hardly anything formal. The class covers very basic photography starting with the exposure triangle and “how do I use my camera?” For the most part, I already knew everything we’ve gone over in the class but I’ve never been taught the material so it’s been very helpful having someone that knows what they’re doing actually telling me what these theories and techniques are, how to execute them, and why they work the way they do, often in full-on dummy terms.

While I’ve not learned anything earth shattering, one way this class has helped me is in how it has pushed me to have my camera with me always and take more photos. A couple of weeks ago our assignment was to take photos of our favorite subject and I shared some of those last week, but last Sunday Erin and I went for a ride out to Kingston and found a small park where we fed some ducks and I snapped several pretty nice photos of her:

This past Thursday’s class we went on a “field trip” around campus just trying to find interesting things to shoot. I strayed away from the class and shot a lot of stuff – leaves, trees, lights, spider webs, the pond – anything I found interesting while messing around (and learning) my camera’s advanced settings in various outdoor light. I ended up capturing some pretty sweet textures:

Finally, these aren’t really for the class but I do intend to present some of them this week. Aside from my wife, two of my favorite subjects to photograph are my dogs. It may seem like I take more photos of the Beest and that may be true but only slightly so. The truth is that Trudy just hates getting her photo made – she moves around a lot, won’t look at you when you have a camera or if she does she’s usually pissed about it so your photos of her look ferocious when she’s anything but. Anyway, here’s some pups:

As usual, if you want to see these in high-res as well as anything else I’ve shot in the past, check out My Flickr Stream or you can Follow me on Instagram.

We had a great Halloween and day-after Halloween but I have a ton of stuff to process for that post. Brace yourself for that hopefully tomorrow in Part 3…

PVC Pipe DIY Photo Backdrop Skeleton

Despite giving it a shot, owning a lot of the proper equipment, studying it off and on for several years and even doing it professionally, I’m still hesitant to refer to myself as a photographer. For me, the title comes with assumptions: A photographer has an extensive portfolio because they’ve been doing it a long time. A photographer sometimes has loads of equipment and even if they don’t they still know to use it. All of it. A photographer lacks the ability to use any form of auto mode on their camera of choice. Ultimately a photographer knows what they’re doing.

In a nut shell: Having a DSLR and a Facebook page does not a photographer make.

Amateur is a generous term to describe my photography skill level. I’m learning, though, and with learning comes the desire to take on new projects and new levels of study. A while back I found this post online about how to build your own portrait photography backdrop stand on the cheap. Thinking it was something I’d like to do, I bookmarked it…

…and bookmarked it stayed. Like a lot of other projects I intend to take on, this one also took a back seat.

Until today.

It’s been a wild couple of weeks at the office and I was in need of something to get my mind off of stuff at home. I’ve been wanting to get in the garage and work on some hands-on projects for a while and what better place to start than working on this cheap, simple DIY project that I can use to further my knowledge of the art of photography? I read through the post mentioned above and decided that I was going to use this plan but modify it slightly, of course, because the author was taking photos of children, mostly, and kids just aren’t allowed at my house. Here are the plans I had laid out:

If you notice in my plans I was assuming I would be buying 10′ PVC pipe so I broke down what cuts I would need the store to make for me so I could get them home easiest. After a quick run this morning I went to Lowe’s and found that they had 10′ PVC but also 5′ PVC which was the maximum length I needed anyway so I modified my calculations and picked up the following items:

  • (10) 5′ pieces of 1″, schedule 40 PVC pipe (My drawings called for 40′ total but I got 50′, or 10 pieces, thinking if I screwed a piece of it up I would be okay. Ultimately I ended up with 3 pieces of pipe leftover so the total amount actually used was 7 pieces, or 35′ total.)
  • (2) 90 degree connectors* I usually call “Ls” but some people call them “Elbows.”
  • (8) end caps*
  • (8) T connectors*

*Since I used 1″ PVC pipe I was sure to choose 1″ connectors. It’s very important to pay attention to this detail unless you just want to go back to Lowe’s later. I didn’t want to go back. SMART.

Also, there’s a few things you may need to pick up if you don’t already have them at home. I also used (but already had):

  • A hack saw**
  • A vice or some grips for steadying your pipe while you cut.
  • A sturdy workbench, or what I used, a set of saw horses.

**My hack saw is a baby-sized saw. I mean it’s tiny. I was able to make all of my cuts but ended up warping my blade by the time I was finished. So, you CAN do it with a small hacksaw but I’d recommend a bigger, better quality one. I also occasionally used the Dremel to even up some cuts that I didn’t make as cleanly as I would’ve liked.

Once I gathered all of my equipment and had my garage set up I made a list of the pipe lengths I would end up needing:

  • (2) 5′ pieces
  • (2) 4′ pieces
  • (2) 3′ pieces
  • (4) 18″ pieces
  • (8) 6″ pieces

My two 5′ pieces were simple since that’s how long these cuts were anyway, though I did cut off about a half-inch of one because it had been cut too long to begin with. I then took another 5′ piece and measured 4′ of it, marked it and cut. I did this twice, reserving the two remaining 12″ pieces to turn into four 6″ pieces.

Next I took the next two 5′ pieces, measured 3′ and cut both, leaving 2′ remaining on each. Of these pieces I measured 18″ and made cuts, taking care of two of my 18″ pieces and two more 6″ pieces.

Finally, I used one more 5′ piece, measured & marked the 18″ mark, the 3′ mark, the 3’6″ mark and finally the 4′ mark, making cuts at each. This yielded the final two 18″ pieces, the final two 6″ pieces and 12″ left over.


Now it’s time to assemble. This part is easy. I began by building my “feet” by using two 18″ pieces, four 6″ pieces, four end caps and three T connectors for each foot. You can see how this went together below:


Repeat for the second foot and:


Finally I brought the two feet together by moving vertically with 4′ pieces going into the T connectors that form the mid-point of each foot. A T connector on the other side of each 4′ piece is connected by a 5′ piece across the middle. Continuing the ascent, the 3′ pieces go in the remaining T connector slot and are both topped with the two L connectors, which then come together with the final piece: the remaining 5′ pipe.


Not too shabby, I have to say. This seems sturdy enough to handle a session but is quickly disassembled and stored if need be. Depending on your backdrop of choice you may want to invest in some nice strong clamps to hold the curtain, fabric or whatever in place while you worry about taking pictures of pretty people. Seeking a quick back drop I chose to go with the ugly blue tarp that was folded up in the corner of the basement to use as a test and it worked great.

I’m not looking to carry this massive thing with me place but anything is possible. As it is right now, I’m going to be doing portraits of my in-house models and probably anyone that visits. That threat alone is enough to keep us from having to entertain anytime soon, I’m sure of it!

If you decide to build one of your own please feel free to use my awful drawings and instructions but I take zero credit for the building blocks I used to make this happen. Please visit Dandelions On the Wall if you want to show some love for the project!

On 31 Day Projects

Day 6 - Jell-o, Kitchen

I mentioned a while back a 31 day project I had planned to kick off my 2014. 31 days of self portraits that allowed me to a) do something creative every day b) get to know my camera a little better c) take at least one photo every single day, therefore learning photography a little more and d) allow me to reflect on a single month of the new year. To even my own surprise I was able to get through 31 days of consistently snapping photos and sharing them over at my Flickr account.

Was I able to do something creative every day? True photographers would question my answer here but I have to say yes. It had become apparent early on that I was going to have to come up with something to pose with, something to pose in front of, something interesting to do, a new way to sit, etc. Self portraits can get boring and repetitive and they can do it faster than lightening. While I certainly do not believe I’ve captured myself in 31 days in the most creative way possible, I certainly believe I did alright coming up with original compositions every day for the month of January even though there are only so many ways you can pose in your den, living room and garage. It was also nice to be able to jump back into Photoshop, my favorite artistic tool that I’ve ever used and a tool I’ve not been able to utilize much over the last couple of years.

Was I able to get to know my camera a little better? Heck yes! I’ve used a DSLR camera before in previous jobs but only knew it well enough to be able to do what I needed to do for my job which was mostly video and video that wasn’t really creative at that. You take some things for granted being a video guy most of your life so it was very interesting to learn how to manipulate ISO and shutter speeds to capture certain moods and lighting effects in the different rooms of my house with the provided light source. I kept my focus on automatic most of the time only because I found it difficult to manually focus when I wasn’t able to see what I was focusing on (myself) but all of my other photos were taken in manual mode which allowed me greater control over the look and feel of my photos.

Did I learn anything about photography? Knowing and practicing videography has given me a nice solid foundation for finding shots while learning why some work and others don’t. In this project I was able to learn a little more about interesting composition but more than anything I learned a lot about light. My light sources ranged from natural sunlight outdoors to backlit with windows, fluorescent lights, clear incandescent light, soft white light and often times a combination of 2-3 at once. Lighting is something I know very little about and I feel like my knowledge increased exponentially during this project.

Am I able to reflect (positively) on the previous month because of this project? That’s kind of hard to say but it’s definitely entertaining to see how I went from bearded in day 1 to mustached on day 18, clean shaven on 21 and then shadowed by day 31. All appear to be very different versions of the same guy – sort of like an action figure only instead of accessorizing with a little plastic gun and knife I come with interchangeable facial hair and a Canon EOS Rebel SL1.

Anyway, here’s a sampling of my favorites from the 31 days of January. You can find the rest on Flickr.

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