Jon Cowley isn’t a professional photographer. Taking photos isn’t his day job. He’s just a guy with a hobby and a passion who happens to make amazing images.
Ken first introduced me to Jon one day when Jon was shopping in the store for some lighting equipment. Jon took out his iPad and showed me an amazing macro photo of the image of several sunburst-colored flowers perfectly preserved in not one drop of water but three.
I was baffled and immediately demanded to know how he made the image. Jon described the focus-stacking he does to achieve, and I knew I had to see this process for myself, so Jon invited me to his home where he lives with his wife and his son, and told me he could show me exactly how he accomplished this.
Jon’s enthusiasm for photography was apparent the moment I entered his home, where a select few of his favorite personal shots hung serenely on the walls. Having recently taken down his first show in the Short North, and his latest interest has been with printing and mounting, and has come up with some really creative solutions, such as his backlit work. Jon said he sends his images to PhotoGlow in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts. They place LED lights along the edge of a duratrans screen that evenly spreads the light across the back of the image, much like how your phone’s screen is lit. The result is an immersive, atmospheric photographic experience: I’ve seen a lot of Antelope Canyon photos since I started blogging here, but none that have placed me there like Jon’s backlit image of the famed destination favorite for photographers. His Machu Picchu backlit landscape is also incredibly cool.
Jon has been taking photographs for ten years, but he’s only been serious for five, he said. He started taking pictures because of all the travel he was doing for work and recreation, so he carried around a point-and-shoot to simply capture the memories of where he’d been. But then that moment came when he realized he wanted to take better pictures, and to do that he needed to get more serious. He was in Budapest, trying to capture night shots, and the only adjustment his point-and-shoot could make was a slower shutter speed, which was not working for him. This moment coincided quite nicely with the birth of his son, and that event convinced him to get his first DSLR.
Five years later, Jon was making gallery-worthy photographs.
One of the biggest differences, Jon has found, now that he makes images with the intent on printing them, is that he takes a lot less shots. Before, he said, he was taking a lot of bad shots because all he was doing was making snapshots, creating memories. But those bad shots have led to having a more discerning eye, and a better idea of what he likes in a photograph.
Jon also uses Photoshop in his images, and he’s not afraid to admit it. In fact, one of his bigger peeves is someone asking if his images are “Photoshopped” and not quite grasping what that means. The only difference he sees between processing film and the way he uses Photoshop is that photos printed and developed with Photoshop are simply more consistent. Of course Jon uses Photoshop to create his colorful, dimensional macro images, but he spends more time setting up the shot than working in post.
Before we went to his makeshift studio in the basement so that I could see how Jon put together his macro shoots, he explained to me that he’s a very right-brained kind of guy. This means he thinks of making his photographs as a series of decisions rather than a sudden burst of inspiration.
The first decision that Jon had to make was what flower he wants to feature in his shot. He pointed to a vase of various flowers and asked me decide, so I chose a sunflower with yellow petals and a yellow eye. Jon seemed a bit uninspired by my selection and suggested that I choose the sunflower that had yellow petals and a dark eye, as that would look more interesting in the background of the photo. Having seen the results before, I really couldn’t argue with him, as he obviously knew what he was doing.
After that, we had to decide what would hold the water droplets. Jon showed me a bunch of different stems and twigs that he’d plucked from his backyard, including pine and maple branches and healthy looking blades of grass. We ended up going with a colorful evergreen twig, to contrast with the yellow in the sunflower.
Downstairs, Jon set up his shoot. He had a LumoPro softbox and an umbrella on either side of an unassuming card table. On top of that was an empty beer bottle with a miniature makeshift boom made out of broken sticks that would hold the twig in place. Another actual boom arm held the flower suspended in front of a cloudy blue background that simulated the sky. Looking on, with a discerning eye, was Jon’s trusty Canon 5D Mark III supported by a rail slider on top of a tripod. The lens was a Canon 100mm Macro with a 2x Extender connected by a Kenko extension tube. He had a ring light around the lens, but Jon used this as a modeling light and not his primary lighting source.
Before taking any shots, Jon spent a few minutes spraying the evergreen twig with a mixture that was half water and half glycerin, which allowed the water droplets to hang on the twig and hold their shapes for hours at a time. Earlier that day, Jon had told me that he was a “control freak,” and it was admirable to watch him spray and respray the twig until he got the droplets exactly how he wanted him. Then he took another several minutes to position the flower just so behind the twig.
Jon said he usually takes forty or so images to create one macro focus-stacked image. His first shot was focused on just a fraction of the furthermost droplet, mere centimeters away from the other subjects in the image. Before Jon took his first shot, he placed his hand in front of the lens and hit the shutter. He explained that this was his system for keeping track of where his focus-stacked images began and ended, so that when he brought the files onto his computer he wasn’t spending hours sifting through the minute details of each image, trying to figure out where to start.
Finally, it was time to shoot. Though his Canon flashes had TTL capabilities, he set them to manual so that the light would remain consistent throughout because even the small focal adjustments he would be making sometimes caused the lens to communicate a slightly different exposure to the flashes. Then it was simply a matter of shooting one image after another. I was sort of mesmerized by watching the barely perceptible movements of the focus rail paired with the rhythmic bursts of the flash.
After a few minutes, the shoot was over. Then it was time to focus stack in post.
Where I thought this part of the process would be gratingly time-consuming, it was actually the least painstaking step of the day. Jon uses Zerene Stacker, an intuitive and highly accurate stacking software, and then smoothes out the ghosting and touches up the final stacked image with Photoshop in conjunction with some Nik Software plugins as a substitute for messing around with layer masks. The result is a stunning macro image bursting with color and detail.
If you’re interested in seeing Jon’s prints in person, his next exhibit will be up from January through March in the lobby of Dinsmore and Shohl in the Arena District. There will be a public reception on Thursday, March 6, 5:00 PM-7:00 PM. You can also check out more of his work at his website.