Lighting Sermon… IBM’s wearable computer = Google glasses???

9 years ago I was hired by IBM Research magazine to photograph various interesting projects those mad-genius scientists at the semi-secret facility up in the foothills were creating. Although I photographed several whiz-bang cool projects that day, these “wearable computer eyeglasses” were by far the most futurist and fantasy-inducing.

Researchers explained while wearing these glasses – with a small battery pack on your belt – you could literally see an invisible-to-everyone-else projection about like a 21″ display where you could go online, check your email, etc, and do it all while out in public, anywhere really, with the only clue being this slightly odd looking semi-eyeglasses device worn over one eye with an earbud for audio. While sitting on a park bench… Can you imagine a park filled people wearing these, gazing off into the ozone… What a trip…

WAY COOL, I thought back then, and wondered if this device would ever transition to reality from the research phase. Was this idea too-fantastic to work OR will everyone be wearing such a device one of these days? Only time would tell…

My nearly 10-years-after curiosity was piqued when I first saw the new Google Glasses. I’m a photographer – not a technologist – BUT the new Google glasses certainly appear to be related to these photographed for IBM Research Magazine almost a decade ago… What’s your guess? Check out Google’s glasses here to see if you agree they may well be an evolution of this IBM prototype “wearable computer” photographed a few years back. My own completely off the wall, unconfirmed, uninformed wild guess is these ARE the prototype for those hip glasses Google is further developing in 2013.

These days the use of blue and other brightly colored gels in photography are a bit less fashionable than 9 years ago since gels, like many things photographic, tend to cycle in and out of style. During the dot com boom, so much magazine photography was being done in Silicon Valley yet vast seas of dull-gray cubicles filled gigantic, multi-building tech campuses, so magazine editors and corporate marketing folks were begging us to use gels or any technique which would make all those gray room dividers a bit less dreadfully boring. Gels, cool camera angles and oddball techniques served this purpose until dot com transitioned to dot bomb so the bomb saved us from more gels, to think of the downturn optimistically. Still, the use of gels can be an artistic way to make something out of not-much…

Lighting Lesson… I honestly prefer reacting with light, rather than calculating before the shoot, since for me having now done literally thousands of lighting jobs generally allows gut level reactions to be more interesting or creative than planned shoots. Now it almost works best for me to attempt not to think but, rather, to simply react. Some folks may disagree with my notion that not-thinking can be creatively stimulating – but it works for me…

My secret weapon for this specific photograph is the focusable optical spotlight which lit the very small 3/8ths” “wearable computer” selectively, a great result from seldom used but fantastic light, the DynaLite Optical Spotlight, a fairly rare and somewhat expensive optical, focusable strobe spotlight which allows tiny to larger strobe-beam, highly controlled spotlight effects with strobe – and a minimum loss of light intensity, sometimes the case with focusable strobe spotlights. Please note: this spotlight requires an accessory Dynalite strobehead.

In this case, the optical spotlight was used with a very tightly focused spot-effect so a tiny focused beam of light struck ONLY the glass element of the wearable computer. The narrow beam of spotlight originated from the mannequin’s feet, pointed directly up at the wearable computer, yet without any of that focused light straying onto the blue-lit mannequin. (more dramatic that way, in my mind) It required a bit of patience to get the narrow beam just right but, voila, in the end the wearable computer really popped!

As you can see in the diagram, I used two blue-geled strobes on a black seamless background to make that seamless a solid blue. When lighting seamless with gels, black is often an excellent choice of background since it doesn’t bounce colored light all over the studio, as white seamless is more prone to do.

To illuminate the mannequin head, I placed two extra small Chimera Super Pro softboxes – each equipped with fabric grids to limit the spray of the light, behind the mannequin head on either side directed at the side of the head, in order to create backlight from either side. This sort of light is dramatic so it worked well for IBM’s magazine where a bit of drama was welcomed. (this technique is also key in some of today’s dramatic lighting techniques – just lose the gels…)

If you try using blue gel for this rich blue effect, be aware it requires roughly two fstops underexposure as compared to the exposure of the main light, which in this case is the beam of light from the optical spotlight.

Lighting is simple like anything else, once you discover it and learn not to fear it. Having lectured to large seminars of professional photographers across the land, I now understand many photographers would prefer to use only existing light. I’m DOWN with that concept except if strobes exist and I need them in a given location, I know how to use them.

The single most important element you can pursue to make your photography better is in learning lighting, simple or mondo. Lighting can be confusing, occasionally complex and lighting is often used poorly rather than creatively, yet no way is lighting hard. Simply pay your dues, practice lighting constantly on unimportant shoots then be self-critical about your light. Better yet, get a knowledgeable lighting guru to work with you. Learning lighting is a cumulative experience – not something you learn overnight – yet you can make major progress in lighting by facing your fears while practicing lighting in scenarios where you do not have world figures or revolutionary product in front of you prior to working on your lighting skills.


Gary Parker - April 24, 2013 - 1:55 PM

Thanks for the link to the video, Pete. Yes, I did see this hysterical video way-back-when – very funny and effective! Hoping someone will tell me if IBM is still into wearable computers or if they’ve peddled that technology to Google?

Pete Wassell - April 24, 2013 - 7:43 AM

A friend of mine, Vincent Cozzolino, was the IBM VP that had the Wearable Computers department, you may have met him during the photo shoot. Have you seen this video?

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