How do I get that Cobra Snake look in my photos?
October 10, 2008 10:50 AM   Subscribe

I want to start taking party pictures with the Cobra Snake aesthetic. I don't own a dSLR so I will be buying into the body/lens system. It looks like Cobra Snake uses a Canon with a speed light with some sort of fisheye lens? Anything else unique about his setup or is it as simple as it looks?

I do realize that Cobra Snake is somewhat derided among amateur and professional photographers, but there's a certain intimacy and lack of self-consciousness with his party photos that I find charming. A lot of this has to do with putting his subjects at ease, but from a technical perspective it does not seem very hard to replicate what he does.

What should I be looking for? I've been leaning toward a Canon XSi with a fisheyes lens plus a speedlight flash. A good start? Are the 400 bodies a better deal now? I've read through nearly all the "What should I buy?" thread, and realize it comes down to personal preferences for the most part, I've also meticulously gone through dashiv's suggestions for party photography. The choices seem limitless, but I'm looking for entry level Canon/Nikon. What specifically would you buy if you were me? What lens, what speed light?

I've also always admired Infrangible and definitely want to start exploring photography beyond my little, outdated point-and-shoot. I just know that if I don't have something specific I'd like to accomplish, I'd end up always finding an excuse not to take pictures, so I'm aiming at recreating a Cobra Snake party album when I go out with friends. I figure it is a somewhat easy, obtainable goal that will help me get comfortable with photography before I start sinking real money into this.

With that in mind, any further suggestions? Is this something I can accomplish for for under or around $1,000? Or, let's fudge and say $1,500? Thanks, always wanted to get into photography but was intimidated by the prices and complexity, trying to get my feet wet.
posted by geoff. to Technology (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think that's a fisheye lens. To me it looks like a wide-angle or short zoom lens with on-camera flash, but with the shutter speed high enough to keep the backgrounds dark. The flash looks to be centered several inches above the lens, so a speedlight is possible.

Frankly, I think they are exactly the kind of photos that beginners make by accident and wonder why their photos are so crappy. But to each his own.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 10:58 AM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Frankly, I think they are exactly the kind of photos that beginners make by accident and wonder why their photos are so crappy. But to each his own.

That's what I keep hearing, which makes me believe I'll pick up the camera, see how easy it is and then become quickly disappointed. Perhaps a better example, or to try to hone in on the look I want to achieve, what about these Kylberg photos from Vice magazine? They are definitely better (or at least I think so), but seem harder to achieve, but they seem to carry that same hipster aesthetic. Not to derail this too much, but how would I achieve those photos? What is about these photos that make them look "hipster" and how can I replicate that? Does this make any sense?
posted by geoff. at 11:08 AM on October 10, 2008

Let me clarify: a fisheye would produce comically distorted images. Looking at more of the photos, this is nothing that you can't produce with any decent SLR and a flash in the hot-shoe.

I've taken the exact same kinds of photos with a Canon AE-1 and a Vivtar 2600 flash.

If you really want to do this, any DSLR with the included kit lens (usually about 18-55mm) is all you need, plus the flash. Then get yourself invited to parties, mingle so people feel comfortable, get close in and take your shot.

It looks like maybe these photos fall into Andy Warhol's definition of a good photograph: In focus, and of someone famous. (Although I can't vouch for the "famous" part.)
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 11:08 AM on October 10, 2008

I would suggest a faster fixed lens that would be able to get better quality pictures in the low light conditions of a party. Plus less fiddling with zoom.
posted by GuyZero at 11:20 AM on October 10, 2008

what about these Kylberg photos from Vice magazine?

Those look like single flash with a diffuser. The shutter speed is slow enough to capture ambient/background light, while the flash provides proper illumination for the subject itself.

The clue it to look at the shadow behind the subject. The light is coming from above the camera lens, and the edges are soft. So, if indeed those use on-camera flash, then the camera is either fitted with a bracket (StroboFrame) that allows the flash to swivel 90 degrees when shooting in vertical mode, or the shot was made horizontally then cropped to vertical. (A flash in the hot shoe will normally produce a shadow to the side of the subject when the camera is turned to vertical orientation. Some of the Cobra Snake photos show that. It's generally considered bad form and to be avoided. It might be fine at these hip parties, but you wouldn't want wedding photos to look like that; although they too often do.)

The only thing that makes any of those photos look "hipster" is the subject matter. What if the exact same kind of photos featured John McCain or your grandfather or a senior citizens center bingo game? Where's your hipster now?

(The shots could also be made if off-camera flash on a stand, behind and above the camera. Again, a diffuser like a soft-box or umbrella would be used. I doubt this, however, because if you are going to the trouble of using an off-camera flash on a stand, you probably put it to the right or left of the camera to give more interesting lighting.)

In short, I do think you are over-thinking the equipment portion of this. Get a DSLR with a kit lens, plus an external flash if you want, and start learning.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 11:28 AM on October 10, 2008

it's not a fisheye lens. get any kind of digital camera, it doesn't matter, at this point they're almost all 10 megapixels or higher, it doesn't matter. the problem if you want to get this kind of picture is getting access to the right parties he gets access to. cameras are just cameras, especially for the kind of look you want.
posted by matteo at 11:31 AM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

there's a guy who does the same sort of thing locally; his flickr site is here. He has, I think, a Sigma 20mm/1.8 on a 30D and a 430EX with a Sto-Fen diffuser on it.
posted by heeeraldo at 11:50 AM on October 10, 2008

No fancy lens - just a DSLR with a powerful flash and a big diffuser like the LumiQuest Big Bounce. That's it.

In the Infrangible link, there's some post-processing going on that gives it the desaturated/faded colors look that people associate with Holga/Lomo toy cameras. You can do that afterwards in Photoshop or a photo manager/editor like Aperture or Lightroom.
posted by junesix at 11:56 AM on October 10, 2008

A lot of this has to do with putting his subjects at ease, but from a technical perspective it does not seem very hard to replicate what he does.

It has less to do with his putting subjects at ease and more to do with what he is taking pictures of. He is taking pictures of scene people who want to be seen. He has been invited to the right parties, his subjects are very into how they look and appear and they know how to model themselves to get the right "look". This isn't rocket science or a photographer posing his subjects - it's a photographer who is shooting off the hip and who knows that his subjects ARE hipsters and WANT TO BE KNOWN as hipsters. They're doing the work; he's not. There is no lack of self-consciousness - it is EXTREMELY conscious. It takes a lot of work to look and act like it took no work whatsoever and that is the goal of everyone in those photos.

That said, everyone else is right who says it's a simple DSLR with a flash and a defuser. Buy the Canon XTI, get the 25 or 30 mm 1.8, buy the 430X flash and the defuser for it. Point the defuser at the ceiling. Make sure the ISO setting is a little up, point the camera and click. If you're with the right people, your pictures will turn out and look just like the cobra snake guy. If you aren't with the right people, it's not going to work out.
posted by Stynxno at 12:49 PM on October 10, 2008

Im pretty sure its the canon d50, built in flash - they use no extra flashes or anything. [yes, its more than one person :)] It seems unbelievably boring to me, he usually just walks through the crowd and just holds down the shutter and just takes tons of pictures, no setup or posing.
posted by mattsweaters at 12:55 PM on October 10, 2008

I would look at the Olympus E-420. It's a fully capable DSLR, but small and easy to carry around. But as said before, any one will do what you want.
posted by Quonab at 1:06 PM on October 10, 2008

I agree that nothing in most of the photos you referenced necessitates high-end equipment, nor do I see any fisheye effects. Most of these photos could be taken with any camera equipped with a general purpose zoom lens or moderately wide lens, and an on-camera flash. A lot of them even require nothing more than a decent compact camera (I have a Canon G9 - great little tool). The look of the Vice Magazine photos would probably be better off done with a DSLR since as has been said, the photographer is exposing for the ambient light in a low light situation.

If you're going to buy into a system, I suggest Canon or Nikon. Both are near-equal market leaders, and both have a great lineup of cameras and lenses.
posted by tomorama at 2:27 PM on October 10, 2008

Not that it matters much, but those Vice shots also appear to have had their color mucked with a bit post-facto. Photoshoppery etc.
posted by rokusan at 2:51 PM on October 10, 2008

Get any entry level DSLR, it's "kit" zoom lens, and the manufacturer's dedicated external flash unit so the shutter lag of a p&s won't be an issue. Shoot close enough to the subjects so that you're filling the frame at the wide end of the zoom range.

Using any non-DSLR with any combination of accessories will put you at a major disadvantage due to shutter lag.

If this is the look you want, you don't need fast expensive glass, potential system expansion capability, or even a high level of hardware durability.

Shot a lot of frames. Be prepared to trash 80-90% of them.

Have plenty of batteries and memory card capacity.

No fisheye is needed.

Judging from where the shadows fall on the cobrasnake pix, he's probably using an external flash on a bracket to raise it somewhat. This also will minimize the chance of red eyes on the subjects.

This guy's pictures are cool mostly because he really does a great job of capturing the moment.

In other words, as others have said, he knows when to push the button, and is also aided and abetted because the people he shoots love to be photographed and have few inhibitions.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:31 PM on October 10, 2008

I got the fisheye from this comment in the LAist, "semi fishy eyed lens", but my memory was fuzzy and I just now found the link.

I would like to thank all for taking time to explain to someone completely clueless as to how this is done. Whenever I walk into the camera store I'm completely overwhelmed by the very expensive cameras, and I have this persistent fear that I'll always be pining for a $2,500 lens I don't have to get the shot I'm looking for. Good to know I'm over thinking this. Also thanks for putting up with the hipster thing, I've been spending time with a friend in Brooklyn and every time we go out I feel as if I'm missing my chance to capture my New York in the 70s. Yeah I know hipsters came to be oh so long ago, but they just have such an interesting look, thought it would be an easy way to take up this hobby.

In any case I'm getting a Canon 450d (kit lens) with the an external flash and a big bounce thing to soften the light. I can just see all my disposable income going to stupid camera stuff now, I hold Metafilter accountable for that. Again, thanks, this reminds me of why I love AskMetafilter. I'll be checking best answers in a couple of days and will closely monitor this thread for any further comments!
posted by geoff. at 9:27 PM on October 10, 2008

You should be reading The Strobist. Because once you get a digital dslr (just about any will do) and you get a basic lens (a longer lens will blur the background and you don't seem to want that) and you find some really attractive people all in one place who are wealthy and carefree (money + no stress = good skin) then it's all about the lighting, baby.

I think cobrasnake uses a ring flash because it is causing a kind of spotlight with the light dropping off at all of the edges. But ask at the strobist forums at flickr - lots of friendly people love to dissect a photograph there.

Cobrasnake also has a formula where he has obviously practiced so he knows exactly how close to get to achieve the lighting effect he is after. He is also posing them a little. He probably has a knack for gently getting people to quickly pose for him. I think he directs the people a little. That comes easily with practice.
posted by cda at 7:54 PM on October 11, 2008

I think cobrasnake uses a ring flash because it is causing a kind of spotlight with the light dropping off at all of the edges.

Definitely not a ring flash, at least not in any of the photos I have looked at. This isn't complicated to figure out. The 2 biggest clues to lighting source are the eyes and the chin. Look at the pupils. You'll see a single catchlight in it, above the center point. Look at the chin. You'll see the shadow of the chin falling onto the neck.

A ringlight will show a ring in the eyes, not a point, and will not show a shadow on the neck. (Search for "ringlight" and you'll see the difference.)

I'm not trying to be nit-picky about this, honest. I just want the OP to not overthink this and make it more complicated than it is. Get a camera and regular hot-shoe flash, and have at it. There is something so magical about photography that it seems to bring out complicated theories when none are needed.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 1:58 PM on October 12, 2008

I emailed Mark, the Cobra Snake last week and asked him about his set up, here is his reply.

From: cobra mail
Sent: Mon 10/13/08 2:40 AM
To: lee

thats funny
who would want to make photos like mine
posted by lee at 7:32 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I did email back again and ask him his set up (again). If he answers, I'll put it here...
posted by lee at 9:56 PM on October 13, 2008

Frankly I've never found Cobrasnake's photos as all that interesting. It's your typical big flash, big diffuser party photos.

If you want to see something a bit more interesting, check out Nikola Tamindzic's party photos. He plays around with a dual flash, long exposure and drag setup for this shots that really adds a lot of color, energy, and movement. And the shots are much more even and naturally exposed and don't have that deer in the headlights, "hot flash" look.
posted by junesix at 12:01 AM on October 14, 2008

The man strikes me as a pretentious tosspot, to be honest, but then I never liked people who communicate only in lower case.

It looks like there's a bit of a diffuse effect at the edges of his photos - you can get this through lens correction in Photoshop. Play around with the 'vignette', then saturate the colour slightly.
posted by mippy at 10:07 AM on December 1, 2008

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