Smart Phone Filming Cheat Sheet

Since everyone has been working from home for the past couple months, I’ve received at least 100 video files, maybe more, from students, faculty, staff and alumni. With a little bit of video editing work, I’ve turned the self-recorded videos into video messages or montages with video reflections strung together to tell a story or share collective thoughts.

I’ve been impressed with the quality of some videos I’ve received, especially the ones filmed on smartphones. The majority of our cell phones now capture video in 4K resolution, so it makes sense the image would come across crisp and clear, making it simple to edit the footage and share it on websites, video sharing platforms and social channels.

Our creative team has run into problems with quite a few of the videos that have been recorded using web conferencing technology. In many cases, the settings have not been updated to capture footage in high definition, so we receive video files that have very low resolution. Those small files make editing brutal because no matter how great the message is, the footage is blurry especially when appearing next to another clip captured in HD.

To ensure the best resolution possible on your at home video recordings, our creative team created a cheat sheet to make sure your video messages shine when viewed online. We recommend to keep it simple and use your smart phone to record, make sure it’s turned in the horizontal position and prop it against a makeshift tripod to keep your phone stable and eye-level. It’s also key to find a quiet place to record videos with a nice backdrop that’s well-lit. The hope is, once you have a good recording system in place, it will be simple to record video messages on a regular basis without thinking much about your set up.

Smart Phone Filming Cheat Sheet. Find a quiet, well-lit filming location. Final a pleasant, neutral backrop like a home office or book shelf. For filming inside, face a window (with indirect sunlight) or light source so light appears pleasant with gentle shadows. Avoid sitting with your back against the window because it will create a dark silhouette. Stabilize your phone for filming. Lean your phone against something stable and sturdy like a computer monitor or stack of books. Position your camera at eye-level. Position your phone. Filming in the horizontal/landscape position will ensure the recorded video fills the screen; this is preferable for a video that will be posted on a web page or YouTube. Record the video. Check camera settings to ensure your phone is set to film in 1080p HD or 4K at 24 or 30 frames per second. Bring up your phone's video camera and press record. Speak at a natural volume and look towards your device's camera. Distribute the video. After the recording is complete, send the video file to the appropriate parties via email, text or Duke Box app. Common question: what should I wear on camera? Bright, jewel tones look best. Avoid prints and patterns which can be distracting.

Instructions for filming video messages or interviews from home using your smart phone.

Download the Cheat Sheet as a PDF

A picture is worth: Baldwin’s Supermoon

On January 31st, 2018 we experienced a “Blue Moon” – the second of two full moons in one calendar month – that was also at a super-close apogee making it appear really large (supermoon), which also happened to be passing through the Earth’s umbra at Moonrise giving it a ruddy glow (bloodmoon). This “Super-Blue-Blood Moon” event was too good to pass up, but what to do with it? I had a couple of photos in mind, one of which entailed capturing this “Super-Blue-Blood Moon” over Duke somehow. But how?

I eventually made two photos that day – one of the Moonset early in the morning out at the Outer Banks, and another that evening of the subsequent Moonrise over Duke. Here’s how I did it.

Using an app called PhotoPills (https://www.photopills.com), I was able to determine just where and when each moonrise and moonset would be relative to locations I wanted to photograph with it in. The moon, like the sun, rises in the east and sets in the west, but unlike the sun, the moon can rise and set at various times of the day through the seasons. On this day, the “Super-Blue-Blood Moon” would set early that morning, and rise again that evening. This gave me two chances to photograph it against the horizon, which is where I’d need it for the images I had planned. The idea? To get a familiar object small enough to fit near or inside the moon itself, like this example from Photopills:

This isn’t a post-production or photoshop trick. It’s merely one of perspective. Since the moon is approximately 225,000 miles away, you can’t really effectively change your distance from it in any meaningful way visually. But, you can effectively and easily change your distance from earth-bound objects. And objects far away tend to appear smaller to us versus objects that are closer. So, if the moon stays effectively the same size no matter what, but you get far enough away from something to make it appear smaller, say a mile or two, and place it against the moonscape, then the moon effectively appears very, very large. That’s the basic technique.

I initially wanted to get Duke Chapel in or against the moon somehow, but the Chapel actually sits in a depression lower than its surrounding area and I was unable to find a location East of (for moonset) or West of (for moonrise) the Chapel that would let me photograph it against the horizon. But, I discovered in my experimentation, that from the perspective of the Chapel Tower, the “Super-Blue-Blood Moon” would be rising very near to Baldwin Auditorium on east Campus. But Baldwin is much bigger than a person, so to have it “fit” inside the circumference of the moon would necessitate me being many miles away. As it is, Baldwin is only about 2 miles from the Chapel as the crow flies, so this would just have to be a “be there and see how it goes” kinda thing.

With the height, angle and time set for my attempt to capture moonrise over Baldwin, I worked on my calculations for moonset due earlier that morning. North Carolina is thankfully still a state with very many trees. While this is great from a conservation perspective, its less so if you’re trying to get a clear shot of the moon AND an object together on the horizon from very far away. You either have to get very high (chapel tower) or look for a very wide open area. One of the largest areas with an open westerly view that I could think of was our very own Outer Banks, so a friend and I headed out to Jockey’s Ridge the night before to scout and setup my second idea, which ended up being the first photo that day as the Super-Blue-Blood Moon set just before sunrise. Since we were in the vicinity of Kitty Hawk, I wanted to capture her flying a kite against the supermoon. But it was barely in the teens out on the dunes, so we’re both quite bundled up, so the scene is a bit of a non-sequitur (women all bundled up, flying a kite against a full-moon? What’s that about?), but it was a fun and challenging experiment, and that’s half the point. I was about a half-mile away from her position – here’s the photo we captured:

Super-Blue-Blood Moon at Jockey’s Ridge. 420mm, 200iso, f/4, 1/8 sec

Super-Blue-Blood Moon at Jockey’s Ridge. 420mm, 200iso, f/4, 1/8 sec

After we warmed up over a nice OBX breakfast, I headed back onto campus in time for the evening photo of the same super-moon rising over East campus after sunset almost 12 hours later. Joni Harris, program Director at the Chapel, was nice enough to arrange access for us as she joined me on the climb up the 10,000 239 steps up to the Chapel Tower. Toting my camera, tripod, and longest lens up those stairs, I’m glad I use Micro-four thirds gear, as its size and weight is a fraction of full-frame gear. After setting up and framing Baldwin in my sights, it wasn’t long before the moon made its appearance and I got my photo:

Super-Blue-Blood Moon rising over Baldwin Auditorium. 420mm, 200iso, f/5.6, 1/5 sec

Super-Blue-Blood Moon rising over Baldwin Auditorium. 420mm, 200iso, f/5.6, 1/5 sec

Neither photo is perfect: atmospheric haze and too-slow shutter speeds prevent them from being as tack sharp as I would have liked. To do them over again, I would use a higher iso and faster shutter speeds. There are also now even longer focal length lenses available for my system, so I’d likely rent one of those for even better magnification. Still, for a first time experiment, I’m happy with these for what they are. And, post-production/photoshop work is minimal other than cropping, and I did remove one distracting twig in the sand of the OBX photo.

I hope this gives you a sense of what can go into the making of a photo, and that it might inspire you to get out and make some of your own.

A picture’s worth: Duke’s South Clinic and North Hospital

Last spring, I set out to capture the “busy-ness” of activity around some of Duke’s Health facilities. I was also looking for a way to connect the health system with the University, and so I was looking for viewpoints that would show some of both Medical and University campuses.

My goal was to tell a story of University/Medical connections, locate the photos as being of Duke, hint at the role of technology and expansion of capabilities, and portray the hive of human activity and care the Medical campus can be. All in one photo.

In scouting locations and times of day for this project, I considered a daytime timelapse portraying the human foot traffic in and out of Duke North and South Clinic. But I did not think daytime lighting would be dynamic enough for what I wanted to portray. No, this would be a nighttime photo, but from where?

I’ve always been intrigued with the aerial perspective, as it unmoors us from the usual convention of seeing things from head-height, but a drone flight after civil-twilight was out of the question at this time. Luckily, both South Clinic and Duke North Hospital have parking decks located nearby.

To show an idea of activity and busyness, I decided I would need a long exposure – to capture accumulating light trails of vehicle traffic. This would necessitate the use of a tripod, a remote release (however softly, the action of manually pressing a shutter release will introduce enough vibration to prevent the photo from being as sharp as it could be), and a lot of patience waiting for the right conditions as the temperatures dipped after sunset.

Duke North Hospital

Duke North Hospital

For this photo of Duke North Hospital, I chose a vantage point atop the Duke Hospital parking garage across Erwin Rd from the Hospital (always alert the proper authorities when you’re going to be skulking around on rooftops with tripods – just sayin’). I had to choose a moment when the fading light of the twilight sky would allow the lights from the hospital and traffic to show up distinctly, yet still show an illuminated sky not in complete blackness (while a black sky can be dramatic, in the city it is rarely so, and usually lit up by the green-orange glow of sodium vapor lamps and not what I was wanting here). What I was after was a blue sky, to contrast against the warmer colors of incandescent lighting I was hoping to capture.

To keep the fading twilight of the sky, and yet capture the light trails of many vehicles going by, I would need a very long exposure – many minutes, not just seconds, long. The problem with very long exposures in digital photography is that the sensors get very warm and generate a lot of “noise”, sometimes to the point of rendering the image unusable. Fortunately, the camera system I use allows for a feature they call “Live Composite”, which allows for combining many short exposures (say, just 0.5, 1, or 2 seconds long) into one long minutes or hours long exposure. Without getting into too much nitty gritty details, this blend of optical and computational photography can provide the ISO and noise results from a much shorter exposure, but “stacks” or “adds” these together over a much longer exposure time. In the case of the Duke North photo, my initial exposure was half a second for the main exposure, but accumulated any new objects (such as new approaching vehicles) onto the base image over a 6 minute time span, producing the results of a 6-minute long exposure but with the noise and exposure of a half-second exposure. As both darkness and temperatures began to fall, I headed over to the Duke Medicine Circle garage for a go at the South Clinic:

Duke South Clinic

Duke South Clinic

While not as dramatic as the North Hospital results, I was eventually able to find a viewpoint to show parts of the clinic, the main walkway, some construction cranes and of course, our iconic Duke Chapel in the distance. I became intrigued by the bus stop activity, and set out to try to capture that in some way.

After some captures of single busses at each stop, I changed settings to allow for an even longer overall exposure (8 minutes I think), and managed to capture a bus at each stop, which I thought was a much more satisfactory photo. As it is, it’s the same bus – stopping just long enough at each stop to register in the exposure. I really liked this two-bus composition better than any of the other shots I made from this location, but there were only a few other cars that had driven through the frame and I just didn’t have as many light trails as I wanted. And I could see from my rooftop vantage point, that there wasn’t much more traffic coming soon. So, I hopped into my car, hurried down the garage ramps and drove back and forth several times to add my own light trails. As it happened, several other vehicles did drive by about the same time, giving me the diversity I needed to pull it all together. I’m not really happy about the dead space near the lower third of the photo, but c’est la vie.

The nice thing though, essential really, in creating long-exposure work like this is the ability for digital cameras to show you the photo as it “develops” on the back of the camera. In the old days, it would be an educated guess as to what results you’d get (or not get). In this case, I could “see” that I had the busses where I wanted, but not enough light trails, so I could paint the light as I went along in real time. In another example, I was at first using a much “wider” aperture to benefit the exposure. But the artificial lights just didn’t “pop”, so I stopped down to a smaller aperture, which often has the effect of creating the little “star-bursts” that you can see around the specular highlights, which I could preview in real time, choosing the aperture that gave me the desired results.

By the way, both of these photos are, as they say, “Out of Camera”. No elements were added or removed in post-production.

I hope this gives you a sense of what can go into the making of a photo, and that it might inspire you to get out at night and make some of your own.

Duke-ify Your Zoom Backgrounds

This is a decorative image

Duke-ifiy your Zoom backgrounds with custom Duke imagery.

The Ucomms team has curated a collection of Duke images that are perfect for “Duke-ified” zoom backgrounds.

You can download these images from Duke’s Asset Management System (NETID required). The system is a wonderful resource of over 7,000 images. It is refreshed regularly with community-sourced photos as well as new imagery captured by the University Communications team.

Follow these steps to login and start downloading Duke imagery on your desktop or laptop.

Step 1: Go to https://duke.webdamdb.com/

Step 2: Log on using your NetID and password

Step 3: Select the “Explore” link

The image shows landing page for duke.webdamdb.com

Select the “Explore” link

Step 4: Scroll down the left column until you see the “Selections by Theme” folder

The image shows a page from duke.webdamdb.com

Scroll down the column on the left side until you see the “Selections by Theme” folder.

Step 5: Select the “Selections by Theme” folder. You will see 12 themed subfolders. Each collection has a variety of Duke images to choose from.

The image shows a page from duke.webdamdb.com

Explore the many galleries and download your favorite Duke images.

Step 6: Explore the collections and download your favorite images and use them in your marketing and communications efforts.

  • Users have unlimited downloads, so feel free to download several images or video clips.
  • Users can also explore other folders on the site and use the search function to find specific images and video clips.

This tutorial shows you how to upload photos and videos as a virtual background for your zoom meeting.

* Please note that Zoom’s virtual background feature may not be available for all computers/laptops

Using a mobile device? Follow this “how-to” guide to logon

go to https://duke.webdamdb.com/bp/#/You will be prompted to logon you will be directed to Shibboleth Logon You will be prompted to logon using your Duke NetID and password You will be directed to the https://duke.webdamdb.com/bp/#/ homepage Start by selecting an image folder to explore Choose an image and click download Click on the "Submit" button to start the download Upload your image to zoom!

Using Zoom to Record Videos on Your Computer

The images depicts a young woman sitting in front of a laptop for video conferencing.

These steps will guide you through the process of creating video recordings using zoom.

Step 1. Install Zoom meetings software

Zoom is available to Duke students, faculty, and staff free of charge.

You can download it here:

https://duke.zoom.us/download

Step 2. Under Zoom preferences, adjust the following settings

Audio Settings
  • Under audio settings, select “automatically adjust microphone volume
The image shows the location of the option to have zoom automatically adjust volume.

Be sure to select the option to “automatically adjust microphone volume” to ensure the best results.

Video Settings
  • Under video settings, select “16:9 (widescreen)”
  • Under video settings, select “enable HD”
The image shows the location of the video settings in zoom.

Select the 16:9 (Widescreen) option and the “Enable HD option for best results.

Recording Settings
  • Under “local recordings” at the very top, pick a spot on your computer to store your video recordings. (for instance, you can create a folder on your desktop called “Zoom recordings” and send all your clips there.)
  • Under recordings, select “optimize for 3rd party editor” which will make the video clips ready for editing.
This image show the location of the option to "optimize for 3rd party video editing" on zoom.

Under “local recordings” at the very top, pick a spot on your computer to store your video recordings. Then select “optimize for 3rd party editor” which will make the video clips ready for editing.

Step 3. Launch Zoom and select “new meeting,” which is the orange icon on the top row
  • If prompted, allow Zoom to access your computer’s video camera and microphone
  • When the next screen pops up, you should be able to see a video of yourself
This image shows the location of the " "Join With Computer Audio" tab on zoom.

When prompted, select the “Join With Computer Audio” tab.

Step 4. Select “unmute”

Be sure that you are “unmute” (on the lower-left corner of the recording screen) so the computer will record your voice

This image shows the location of the mute button on zoom. It is located in the lower left corner of the screen.

The mute button is located on the lower-left corner of the screen. Make sure you are not muted when you begin your recording.

Step 5. Begin recording
  • In the menu bar on the bottom of the screen, select “record” and choose whether you’d like to save your recording to the computer or cloud
  • Direct your gaze toward the top of the computer screen where the camera is located
  • Speak clearly at your normal volume.
The image shows the location of the record button on zoom. It is located on the bottom of the screen, toward the middle.

The record button is located on the bottom of the screen, toward the middle on the screen.

Step 6. Conclude recording
  • Press “stop recording” on the top left of the screen
  • Then select “end meeting” on the bottom right of the screen
  • At that point, your video will convert to a .mp4 video file
  • You can share the file through Duke Box

*If you use a smartphone or tablet for video recordings, make sure to record video in one of the following settings:

  • 1080 HD at 24 or 30 frames per second (this option will take up less recording space on your device)
  • 4K at 24 or 30 fps

Look Your Best During Virtual Meetings and Video Recordings

We’ve put together a few tips for looking your best during video calls and while making video recordings.

The image depicts a young woman sitting at kitchen table in front of a laptop. Her face in being illuminated with a desk lamp.

Achieving flattering lighting doesn’t have to be complicated. Use a simple desk lamp or window to illuminate yourself during video conferences or when recording a video.

Dress for success
  • Choose your outfit based on your dress for an in-office meeting.
  • Solid colors, muted earth tones or blues work well.
  • Bright colors and white clothes reflect lots of light and are not the best choices.
  • Patterns, stripes, and plaids can blur and be distracting on camera.
  • Avoid any accessory that jingles or makes noise.
Find a well-lit recording location
The image shows how to set up a desk lamp so that it properly illuminates a subject's face for a video conference or recording session.

The desk lamp is pointed toward the subject’s face. Experiment with the angle and position of the lamp to find the most flattering position for your next video meeting or recording session.

  • For filming inside, position yourself facing towards the window so the natural light illuminates your face.
  • You can also use a lamp or other large light source to illuminate your face.
  • Avoid sitting with your back against the window because it will create a dark silhouette.
  • If you’re filming yourself outside, either film in all shade or all sun to avoid mixed lighting on your face.
  • Remember that there will be more ambient noise when filming outside.

The video shows how using a simple desk lamp to illuminate your face during a video meeting or video recording can improve the overall quality of the video.

Choose a neutral background
  • Before you start your call or video, take a moment to look at your background.
  • Remove any items that may be distracting.
  • If you are using Zoom, you might be able to use the virtual background feature. If so, you can choose from the preloaded options or upload a custom image or video of your choosing.
  • Check out our post on how to Duke-ify your Zoom backgrounds using Duke images from our collection!
Maintain good eye contact
  • Position your device so that it is slightly above your eye-level. You might need to place your device on a stack of books or other flat, sturdy household items.
  • Experiment with the distance between you and your camera to find the distance where you look your best.
  • Remember to look at the camera and not your screen when talking.
The image depicts a young woman sitting at a kitchen table in front of a laptop.

Stack your laptop on top of a few books in order to get the camera just above eye level. If you are using a desk lamp as a light source, you may need to also elevate it, so that the light evenly illuminates your face.

Tips to Minimize the Spread of Germs During Video and Photo Sessions

Camera bag with two canisters of disinfecting wipes and a bottle of hand sanitizer

Remember to clean your camera equipment with disinfecting wipes before and after use.

We’re all adjusting to life during COVID-19  and for creatives who are used to working closely with others, this means adjusting our workflows to ensure that we are following social distancing practices and thoroughly sanitizing our equipment, especially pieces of gear that come in contact with our faces.

As a team, we’ve adopted these practices to keep our equipment sanitized.

  • Wash your hands before and after touching any equipment.
  • Wipe down gear before and after each session (including equipment cases)
  • Use hand sanitizer during sessions, especially if you are readjusting equipment.
  • Wipe down the lav mic kit before and after interviews with a wipe or disinfectant foam 
  • Guide interview subjects in putting on the lav mic themselves.
  • Keep a safe distance during filming.
  • Remember to pack wipes and hand sanitizer in your equipment kits!

First and foremost, recognize the seriousness of this pandemic and try to postpone video and photo sessions. We are reaching out to our subjects and encouraging them to reschedule their sessions. If the session is time-sensitive, see if your subjects can record themselves using Zoom, Microsoft Teams or other recording software.

If you absolutely need to record an in-person session, we recommend practicing social distancing by staying at least three feet away from your subject.

Stay safe, be smart, and keep washing your hands and equipment.


Instructions on filming Zoom interviews/messages

Step 1. Install Zoom meetings software: https://duke.zoom.us/download

Step 2. Under Zoom preferences, adjust the following settings:

  • Under audio settings, select “automatically adjust microphone volume”
  • Under video settings, select “16:9 (widescreen)”
  • Under recordings, it’s best to choose a spot to store your video recordings. Under “local recordings” at the very top, you can pick a spot on your computer to do this. For instance, you can create a folder on your desktop called “Zoom recordings” and send all your clips there.
  • Under recordings, select “optimize for 3rd party editor” which will make the video clips ready for editing.

Step 3. Launch zoom and select “new meeting,” which is the orange icon on the top row. If prompted, allow Zoom to access your computer’s video camera and microphone. When the next screen pops up, you should be able to see video yourself.

Step 4. On the lower left corner of the recording screen, make sure to select “unmute” so your voice is audible during the recording.

Step 5. In the menu bar on the bottom of the screen, select “record” and choose whether you’d like to record to your message to the computer or cloud.

Step 6. When recording your message, direct your gaze toward to the top of the computer screen where the camera is located. Speak clearly at your normal volume.

Step 7. When you’ve finished your message, press “stop recording” on the top left of the screen. Then select “end meeting” on the bottom right of the screen. At that point your video will convert to an .mp4 video file. You can upload the video file to Duke box to share it for further editing  such as adding name supers and Duke bumpers or share the file directly on your communication channels.


Producing Something Special Under a Very Tight Deadline

Last fall, I was given one of my toughest challenges yet—to produce a video highlighting the Duke President’s strategic plan in about ONE MONTH. The video needed to be done quickly to showcase at pre-scheduled alumni events around the country. I wanted the video to do justice to President Vincent Price’s vision. Usually it takes a couple months of work (storyboarding, scouting locations, filming, editing, reviewing) to bring a video of this magnitude to life. Luckily, I work with an incredibly talented creative team. I knew that I would need their help to make this happen and they were more than happy to work together on this major project.

I prioritized the two things I felt were most important. First, finding the best way to showcase President Price immersed in campus. Since fall is such a beautiful time of year at Duke, it felt crucial to place President Price in Duke’s natural backdrop. Second, it was also important to showcase President Price interacting with students to symbolize him sharing his vision for the future of Duke with them. Meeting with students is something President Price naturally does all the time and I wanted the opportunity to bring those special moments to life.

I asked my colleague Megan Mendenhall to scout possible locations for the scenes with President Price on West Campus. From spots by Duke’s clocktower to the Chapel, Megan narrowed down beautiful 11 spots. After reading the final script for the video, I settled on filming in Few Quad because Duke’s first President William Preston Few is referenced numerous times throughout the video. The quad is also tucked away a bit from a lot traffic and noise that occurs on West Campus.

Along with the colorful trees in Few Quad, I liked the natural foot traffic that occurred as students walked from their residential hall to other parts of campus. My vision was for students to continue walking by as President Price spoke on camera. However, I was concerned students would be startled by our large lighting and camera set up and, of course, Duke’s President right in the middle of the quad. In hopes of keep students moving along, I created a large sign that read “Just Keep Walking” and asked my colleague Caroline Pate to hold it up during the shoot. It worked perfectly. Students kept walking right through the shot in a natural way allowing us to showcase campus life at its best.

For the video’s special on campus moment, I also wanted to try out something a little different by creating a dolly-like movement as President Price spoke on camera. After a couple trial runs, the karma grip stabilizer with the go pro did not produce a smooth enough shot. My colleague Bill Snead and Sam Huntley tested out walking backwards while hand-holding a drone and using the drone gimbal as a steady cam. It worked nicely because there was no noise coming from the drone and it was very smooth. On the day of the shoot, we first captured a traditional shot of the President on camera to make sure we had something usable. Then we captured the drone walking shot. In the end, we used the walking shot because it created the more personalized, dynamic feel.

Since we had a 30-minute window with President Price, we wanted to use the time frame to also capture him with students in Few Quad. Bill Snead, our talented drone pilot, quickly filmed some lovely shots of President Price in natural conversation with three students.

President Vincent Price talks with students in the Few Quad during a nice Fall afternoon.

After the outdoor shoot, I got to work editing. But the capture did not end there. Bill captured beautiful campus drone imagery that included movement and campus activity. Megan and Jared Lazarus filmed engaging classroom moments and library studying scenes. Once we got all the footage back in house, my creative director Blyth Morrell and I combed through all the material to pinpoint which shots mapped closely to the five planks in President Price’s vision.

In the end, our creative team produced a video I am very proud of and, more importantly, President Price feels good about it. Looking back, I learned some important lessons in the process. A big takeaway includes not getting intimidated by a tight deadline. Having a vision along with an action plan can go a long way. I discovered it’s also crucial to realize that you don’t have to do everything by yourself. In some cases, it’s impossible. I’m fortunate to have a talented team to collaborate with. I’m still in awe of the way everyone came together so quickly and efficiently. Even a task that may have seemed like a small role, such as holding a sign, made a huge difference in the end. As daunting as the timeline may have been at the beginning of the project, I think it pushed us all to be our very best and resulted in something really special.

Pursuit of Dancers in the Cube

I began chasing this picture of the Rubenstein Arts Center – kinetic students in the second floor fishbowl space known as the Cube – for the past 14 months, but started thinking about it months before. A beautiful visual representation of learning, teaching and discovery inside Duke’s blossoming arts scene and the crown jewel on Central Campus.

On Oct. 10, 2018, after photographing a Hoof n’ Horn dress rehearsal, I walked out of the Ruby at 10:30pm to see Street Medicine practicing their dance moves inside the large space adjacent to the street. I worked the scene for the next half hour from multiple views, and liked this frame enough to post on our #dukephotoaday, but knew the upper level would be a more dramatic and interesting composition.­­­­­

The lower level of the Rubenstein Arts Center at night.

I also figured that twilight or “blue hour” – that short window of time just after sunset or before sunrise – would be an ideal time as the sky begins to darken to a rich purply blue, matched in brightness by the glow of incandescent, fluorescent or LED light indoors. This harmonious light lasts only 10-15 min., until the sky becomes a dark inky blue and the indoor light appears washed out in contrast.

So I reached out to the dance program to find out their schedule of classes and began my quest last November.

I brought along a 10 ft. ladder, but even after moving it closer to the high ground near the intersection, the dancers were still too hidden from view.

The upper level of the Rubenstein Arts Center, as seen from a ladder.

I then coordinated with the Ruby’s tech. person, John Kolba, who had offered the use of their lift. We set up the lift just inside the front door, but the reflections from the glass and the scarcity of energetic movement led to a lackluster result.

The upper level of the Rubenstein Arts Center, as seen from the lift in the building.

By now, it was the end of Fall 2018 and the photo would have to wait until all the elements were in sync again.

On my commutes home I would cross Anderson Street on Campus Drive, occasionally glimpsing a dance class teasing me in the Cube.

During the summer, my colleague Bill Snead, our digital assets manager, had obtained his remote pilot license and we talked about doing the shoot with a drone during the coming Fall 2019.

The stakes were higher now: my colleague’s time, coordinating the drone rental from the Innovation Co-Lab, and finding the right dance class to photograph.

Additional emails were exchanged. Would a student dance group work? No, because they practice later at night, well past twilight.

The director of the dance program now became involved because they had recently started a Master of Fine Arts in Dance synthesized with a new undergraduate curriculum. It was important to the dance program to photograph a class that best represented thoughtful embodied movement, which investigates the deeper nuances of the mind and body as a whole, and explores multiple genres, multiple methodologies, and inter-cultural styles. We settled on Andrea Woods’ Modern Dance class.

On Nov. 5, 2019, Bill and I began prepping at the Ruby about 4:30pm for blue hour beginning at 5:32pm. We began flying about 5:15pm and decided to make some initial passes as the drone captured video of the class, but due to excessive interference we were unable to continue flying.

The Rubenstein Arts Center as captured by a drone.

Now was the time to ask John Kolba a big favor – can we use their lift outside, which he had previously said he doesn’t like doing for safety reasons (i.e. – uneven ground, wind, etc.).

John agreed and we set the date for the next attempt, Dec. 3 with set up at 4pm.

Shooting from the lift, I would have to be deliberate about the position because once blue hour started at 5:18pm, we wouldn’t have enough time to reset the lift.

I chose a spot near the tree in the outdoor courtyard – I helped John stabilize the lift with plywood boards…too close…we repeated this process three times until I found the spot I liked.

I set my camera on a tripod and waited for peak flurries of dancer activity, all the while hoping for the Duke bus to anchor the composition in the lower right corner. The bus came at 5:27pm but didn’t have its interior lights on as it stopped. A very colorful bus arrived at 5:40pm with interior lights on, but the dancers were static, taking direction. The sky was a bit dark by then but could be brightened in Photoshop.

The initial photo of the upper level of the Rubenstein Arts Center, as captured on an outdoor lift.

I kept shooting until I was happy with the dancers’ movements at 5:54pm.

A darker shot of dancers in the upper level of the Rubenstein Arts Center.

Bill, a Photoshop master, then worked up the base shot of the dancers and grabbed the right hand portion of the earlier frame with the sky, bus and street, and finessed the straight lines from the building.

The final image was all I had hoped and imagined on those rides home with students dancing in the Cube in my mind.

The final shot of dancers in the Rubenstein Arts Center, after being edited in Photoshop.

Behind the scenes of the New Faculty Profile Portraits

One of the toughest challenges with the New Faculty Profiles portrait series is finding a way to visually represent the faculty member’s research into the portrait. This was just the challenge I faced when photographing Professor Neil Gong, an Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who is an expert in cybersecurity and data privacy technologies.

A screenshot of Professor Gong's website. I always try to find out as much as possible about a faculty member's area of study so that I can suggest portrait locations and backgrounds that relate to their work.

A screenshot of Professor Gong’s website. I always try to find out as much as possible about a faculty member’s area of study so that I can suggest portrait locations and backgrounds that relate to their work.

In the past, I’ve solved this problem by finding a visually interesting image from the faculty member’s research papers to use a backdrop for their portrait. However, Professor Gong didn’t have an image that would work. So, I decided to look through his website and research papers to see if I could find or create a background image from charts and diagrams included in his papers.

I am by no means a coding expert, but I know that some computer languages resemble patterns that I find visually interesting. So, when I saw a link to source code documents that he used for one of his research projects, I downloaded it, hoping to find something that could work as a backdrop image.

I ended up finding a text document with columns of four-digit numbers. I have NO idea what the numbers represent or how they are used, but they formed an interesting pattern. After adding a few adjustments to the original document, I had a dynamic background image that referenced Professor Gong’s field of study.

A test shot with the final version of the text image projected onto a background and subject. (Ignore the UNC symbol on the subject's shirt. Good test subjects are hard to find and sometimes you have to work with what is available. )

A test shot with the final version of the text image projected onto a background and subject. (Ignore the UNC symbol on the subject’s shirt. Good test subjects are hard to find and sometimes you have to work with what is available. )

A hand-drawn lighting diagram for Professor Gong's portrait.

A hand-drawn lighting diagram for Professor Gong’s portrait.

After got the background image working, I to add a fill light and a hair light. I opted to use video lights so that I could easily switch between stills and video.

I ended up using a slider to create the video clip because I really wanted the numbers to have the appearance of moving.  After an hour of practice pulls with the slider, I was ready for Professor Gong’s portrait session.

For the portrait session, I used an LED video light as a fill light on Professor Gong's face and a second LED light as a hair light to provide separation between Professor Gong and the background image.

For the portrait session, I used an LED video light as a fill light on Professor Gong’s face and a second LED light as a hair light to provide separation between Professor Gong and the background image.

Page 2 of 3

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén