I don't know if you've been there before but if you are doing a solo set up and shoot for a corporate client there's a point where you are in a big conference room setting up lights all by yourself and wondering if you're getting the lights right. And there's no one to use for a stand in. And you really want to see how the light looks, and whether you're going to get that little reflection in the top right hand corner of your subject's glasses.... But you knew it was silly to bring an assistant along just to have someone to aim your camera at for a few seconds.
I was setting up at a high tech company today. We were shooting a key executive in two locations. This was the first location. I set up a light on the back wall nearly 30 feet behind the spot where the subject would stand. It was an Elinchrom monolight set at its lowest power and firing through a small, small softbox. I had a light to the left of my camera and up high enough so that the bottom edge of the Varistar 41 inch modifier would be just at chin height for my subject. And everyone was off checking e-mail and waiting for the appointed time and I really wanted to see what I was getting.
I know you'll probably say to yourself, "What a doofus. He's been doing this for 25 years and he still wants to preview his set up? Why, in the name of all that's holy and photographic, am I reading this blog???" This is a good question but it's beyond the scope of our article of the moment.
But I really did want to make sure there were no glitches that might bite me later. Like that reflection in the glasses...
I set the zoom lens on my camera to 12 feet (thank goodness I still own a zoom lens with a real distance scale) and I set the camera to manual focus. Then I set the drive menu to "10 second self-timer" and I scurried over to the shiny quarter I'd left on the floor when I paced out the twelve feet. The shutter fired and the flashes fired and I scurried back over to the camera to set what I'd gotten.
At that point I added a very weak backlight. And I adjusted my exposure just a bit. And I did a few cleaning cycles on the camera to knock the gunk off the sensor that was starting to come into focus at f8. When my client came in I was nearly ready. I forgot to switch the camera back to single frame advance so my first button push was a bit anti-climactic. We got that straightened out quickly.
Knowing I had everything set up correctly before the "star" stepped in to the room helped me to be calm and to concentrate on building a rapport with him. It was easy. We talked about his kids.
The one thing I did absolutely right today was to bring along an "Apple Box." You'll rarely hear the fancy photography blogs mention "Apple Boxes," but they sure come in handy whether you're shooting film or digital. They are wooden boxes, originally used by the film industry, and they are great for people of absolutely normal height of....say, about five feet, eight inches tall, to stand on when photographing abnormally tall people (anyone over five feet, ten inches tall....).
Since my subject was about 6'2" or better I can't think of a better $25 piece of gear. So, I do my own stunts with the help of the self-timer and, I like to stand on wooden boxes when I make portraits. It all seems like a very strange business to me.
So many people think that Robert Capa was talking about physical distance. And maybe he was. But I think he was talking about emotional distance. If you can't feel emotionally connected to a subject I just don't see how you can expect to make a great image. If you are a sports shooter it's a connection to the excitement of the competition and the grace of whatever sport it is that you've chosen to photograph. Landscape photographers are drawn to certain areas and terrains. Even if they have to fly thousands of miles to get there. And portrait photographers who do their work for the love of the art should feel a strong connection with the person in front of them. Closing the emotional distance to better understand what to show. Empathy?
To blaze away with your camera without coming to some realization of what you are trying to describe about your subject is a recipe for bland photos. If you are engaged and your subject is engaged then you'll be better able to translate that energy to your audience. The studio should be a quiet, private place with enough emotional space to allow a certain kind of magic to appear. I can't do this work with an entourage. It would be too impersonal.
Tech stuff: Leica R8 camera. Ilford Pan F 50 ISO film. 90mm Summicron lens. Scanned on an Epson V500 scanner and post processed in SnapSeed.
My favorite model, Lou, was in the studio one day during a time when I was working on a video about coffee. It was early times for photo/video adopters. We were using a Canon L2 Hi-8 camera and a couple of Sony EC-M lavalier microphones. Lou wasn't really interested in participating in the video project but we did have fun playing around with our coffee cup props. I used a lower lighting angle on a big, Balcar Zebra Umbrella, with a diffusion cover to light her.
I asked Lou to show me the ennui that comes from "no more coffee." And she gave me this very, very emotionally flat look. I thought it was fun so I snapped the shutter. We were using a Hasselblad Camera and a long lens along with some black and white film.
I posted this to discuss how some artists work. I think that the best work, for me, comes in the moments of play that fall in between the paid work. When we work seriously, for money, we work within boundaries that are established both by the client and by our need to erect a safety net so that we cannot fail. But girding against failure also pins our playful wings and moves us not to risk too much.
When we are carefree and submerged in the process of fun and imagination, and when there are no consequences to failure, we are free to push for what our hearts see. Even if it seems silly and inconsequential at the time.
I've been thinking lately about the process of thinking and I've come to believe that when everything is processed through the thing we call "intellect" it short circuits the process of being in the moment and being unambiguously creative. In the martial arts people practice their moves over and over again so that when they compete or fight their attacks and defenses happen in a space beyond thought. They do it by instinct. The act of playing around with photographs in a carefree way helps to build that same sort of unconscious and unplanned creativity that lets us create work that moves us in a different way than the quantitative process of planning provides.
I know people who plan meticulously and execute their photography exactly according to plan. My feeling is that the planning is valuable, but only if you are willing to throw it all away when instinct, and your heart, over-rule your brain and suggest a different approach, all at faster than the speed of thought.
When I photograph I am not looking for perfection. I am looking for a way to channel a feeling about my subject. I am looking for ways to guide inspiration that comes from an immeasurable place into my camera. I become a conduit.
Sometimes coffee helps.
Making a fun portrait is like a dance where I lead sometimes and I am led at other times and neither of us really know what awaits at the next stanza.
In my "welcome back" article yesterday I mentioned that I recently had an assignment to photograph one of Austin's greatest actors in order to "sell" theater seats as a way of funding a much needed, new theater building. The marketing people knew that showing a seat by itself would be boring but a seat with Martin would sell. I showed up to the shoot with several things that might interest you as a photographer. First of all I've all but given up using white, seamless background paper on location. It's a pain in the butt to transport and, with the new selection tools in PhotoShop CS5 and CS6 as long as you get enough light on your background to get it near white making a drop out is a piece of cake. White cake. I bought a white, muslin background years ago for an annual report project. It came from Calumet. When it gets dirty I toss it in the washing machine with some detergent and a bit of bleach and it comes out clean and white, white, white. I probably spent $60 on the cloth background in 2002 and I've used it hundreds of times since then. When Ben was young he used it often to build tents in the living room....
I brought four Elinchrom D-Lite 4IT monolights but I only used three of them. I used one on either side of Martin because the marketing folks at Zachary Scott Theatre like bright, high key light for stuff like this. The light on the left is coming through a small, Elinchrom Varistar which is a like a shoot through umbrella but the back is enclosed so there's no backward light scatter. A white interior re-directs light to the front for more efficiency. It's soft but directional. And the Varistars set up as quickly as a regular umbrella. That seemed easy enough so I used another, larger (41 inch diameter) Varistar on the other side. Usually I use two lights on a white background, bounced out of black-backed umbrellas. Today I had enough room to try something different so I put one D-Lite 4IT with a standard reflector behind the background and shot it through the fabric. I tried to balance the exposure so that the area directly behind Martin would go white without too much spill coming forward onto Martin. I think it worked out just fine.
I brought along one of the Sony A77 cameras with a 16-50mm f2.8 zoom lens and shot all of the images here with that lens and camera combination. I like the Sony A77 camera even more than I thought I would for studio work. You get to pre-chimp every shot and then see a post shot review immediately. I had the camera set up so that I'd see a review for two seconds after every shot. But a touch of the shutter button would cancel the review and return you to the live image. At one point in the shoot one of the front monolights stopped firing. I saw it on the very first review. I was able to quickly fix the issue (dead or dying battery in a radio trigger....). Shooting in the "old school" OVF method I would probably have shot a long volley of shots before stopping to review and we would have lost many good shots to a technical problem.
The shots here are presented as 1800 pixel (long axis) images but I can assure you that at 4000 by 6000 pixels the images are exhilaratingly sharp. In fact, now that I've untangled the "jpeg rubric" of the Sony hive mind I love what I'm getting from the camera and rarely, if ever, need to sharpen images in post. What you see in the EVF or on the rear screen is such a close approximation of what I eventually see on the studio computer screen that I've stopped worrying about technical details that fall outside of the binary "fail/succeed" paradigm.
But the real magic of a shoot with Martin is Martin. He's a pro and that really makes getting wonderful images easy as pie. My big complaint from the marketing department? Too much great stuff to choose from. I wish all my photography problems were like that...
Information to Sony Alpha shooters... I'm kinda shocked at how good some of Sony's cheaper (more cost effective?) lenses are. I was going to buy the Zeiss 85mm 1.4 for the Alpha cameras but I tested the 85mm 2.8 SAL lens and found it to be terrific. Even wide open. The Zeiss is around $1500 while the Sony SAL lens is just $249. When I first dallied with the system I also bought a cheap, 55-200mm SAL lens for around $250 just to have something longer and light weight. I eventually bought their big Kahuna, the 70-200 f2.8, with its glorious white finish (and dense, wrist straining, beefy construction) but after I saw how sharp the cheap zoom is I've left the other lens in the drawer for every assignment except the low light theater work. Amazing how good the consumer stuff is... All the Canon and Nikon shooters can ignore this.