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On Assignment: Armed with Preconceptions

Planning ahead is a good thing, and I always try to pre-think a job before I head out. It gives me ideas to fall back on if nothing jumps out at me at the location.

But you can pre-plan things too far. So much that they blind you to better ideas and leave you banging your head against the front windshield even as you drive away from the assignment.

That's exactly what happened to me last week when I was assigned to shoot one of the coolest pieces of tech I have ever seen.

You are looking at a real, prosthetic limb in the photo above. But not just any prosthetic limb, as this limb has quite a bit of special sauce.

For one thing, much like your own mostly-dark-meat arm it can move in 22 different ways -- brushless motors everywhere. It has a ton of processing power inside the hand. Not a lot of space there, but you want the thing to be modular with the smarts at the end. That means you can attach it to partial limbs.

Much like Popeye, this thing has its power in the forearm. That is where the user-replaceable, rechargeable battery is. And it has power to burn. It can curl 50 lbs. That's more than my arm will do.

Oh, and did I mention it is designed to be controlled by the human brain? Just like in Firefox, where Clint Eastwood has to think in Russian to fly the advanced fighter jet he just stole. It gets impulses from the brain and provides neural feedback so your brain kinda knows what is going on with it.

My first thought when I saw it: Where is the rest of the cyborg it was attached to, and where do you have to shoot it to kill it. (People always aim for the head in the movies, but this thing has its brain in the hand. So it pays to ask.)

The folks at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab hate it when people write stuff like that, because they really are not trying to hatch a T-virus. (Of course, that's also what SkyNet said.) They just want to give high-level function back to people who have lost a limb.

And they are doing it, too. Live, clinical trials within a year with these things, thanks to a $34 million dollar DARPA grant. Sorry, Steve Austin. $6MM doesn't really cut it anymore.

So you can probably already tell how stoked I was when I got the assignment to shoot this thing for a local biz pub. And the fanboy stuff only got worse when I got to the lab.

Fortunately, I knew exactly what I wanted to do -- all planned in advance. I had a cool idea for a portrait of Mike McLoughlin, the head of the Modular Prosthetic Limb project. And I also wanted to get a sexy product shot of the arm itself.

For a variety of reasons, the portrait I visualized wasn't coming together. So I did the photo above which was perfectly serviceable for the assignment, but not what I had hoped. Then I circled the wagons and worked the product shot to salvage at least one of my preconceptions.

The lighting was pretty simple -- on axis light with an Orbis and four SB-800s spread around the floor to create highlights along the edges. On the clock face, the wrap lights were about at 2:00, 5:00, 8:00 and 11:00. Power levels were all about the same by the time the lights hit the arm. (I cranked up the Orbis a little to compensate for the light loss.)

Except for the Orbis, everything was hard light. This gave me a lot of shape and highlights. The Orbis mostly erased the shadows and makes the whole thing look strangely soft.

In the setup shot above, you can see the distances involved. You cannot see all of the flashes, but the highlights on the floor will point you to them. Dave Kile (who was helping me) piggy-backed my flashes with a channel-1 PW as I pulled the ring away between shots. (I was shooting through the ring for the actual shot.)

Background was a cheap poster board, in a complementary color. I'll usually bring three or four different colors if I am gonna do a small product shot. Way easier/cheaper than background paper.

While I was on location, I was thinking that the portrait I wanted which did not happen. But at least I got the product shot I visualized. It wasn't until I got back to the car and was reviewing photos until the photo I missed hit me.

The portrait I wanted would have been cool. But the iconic picture was right behind my subject the whole time.

I should have shot a still life at the workbench.

You know, just like any other DIY hacker's work area -- soldering iron, pliers, a smattering of little parts and a couple cyborg limbs that mark an amazing leap in bio-mechanical science just sitting around. Static, but a great narrative.

I am such an idiot for missing it.

Of course, I even fawned over the workbench while I was there. But I was so blinded by the pictures already in my head (especially 'cause one of them was giving me fits) that I did not see it.

Pre-planning is not a terrible thing, and I am not ready to give it up. But you can bet I will be on guard for awhile against stupidly missing found pictures because too much thought is being given over to the preconceptions.

Next: Summer Reading


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