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Archive for May, 2008

Holy Sand Dune!

May 27

In Lighting, Travels at 9:09pm

Been reading Strobist, which I do on a regular basis, and it seems like David and I stirred up a mild sand storm with our lighting efforts out there in the vast beyond. Some folks have weighed in on the potential excess of multiple multiple SB 800 units on location. I did myself actually. In my blog, I wrote ”……we got a bunch of of the SB800 strobes, and of course, I never met a subject I couldn’t overlight, so we put up a mess of them. It was kind of this loopy strobe puzzle stuck on the end of a c-stand…”

I also owned up to my tendency to overdo things. I think it must be a bit about being raised Irish Catholic. I go out there anticipating disaster. I look for the simple, fatal flaw that will dash my hopes, crush my spirit, befuddle my brain, corrupt my flash cards, estrange a client, and generally doom me to a ruinous fate. This flaw, mistake, gaf, miscue, misdeed, or error is usually self inflicted.

So, I bring more stuff than I need. Mostly for backup. Sometimes I even use it. At LIFE, Eisie always used to say, bring it, even if you don’t use it. It does you no good back at the studio.

Nowadays, of course, one needs to be more sparing in what one brings in the field, cause it just costs so damn much to bring just about anything. But I did go to Dubai with multiple SB 800 units, which I often bring along when I teach.

So I needn’t go over the reasons I popped 7 SB flashes on a stick in the desert. David spoke of the technical reasons for the number far more eloquently than I can, and with more solid reasoning and backup than I can muster on any given day. When David does his book of strobe, it will go on the shelf right next to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We’re talking stone tablet truisms here. I do things by the seat of my pants, based not so much on the absolute certainty of knowing the deal before I get there, but by the feel of things at any given moment. Needless to say, after operating like this for some 30 years, the seat of my pants is wearing pretty thin.

But there is a bit of history that pointed me towards the big flash tree. The day before the shoot, I went into the near desert, just outside Dubai, with a wonderful dancer who had worked really well in one of my classes, and is just a terrific, easy person to shoot with. This is just off the highway. No need for land rovers or camels. I shot a few things, experimenting, as I tend to do.

I used 3 SB units on these pix, and here’s what I found. They weren’t enough. Again, I was using FP hi-speed sync, pretty much a given in this sun blasted land, and I was pretty skinny on power. The specs on the above were running at 1/600th @ 5.6. As you can see, it’s pretty dead. Looks like a fairly blah available light rendition. Certainly nothing like I had set up in my class on the beach in Dubai, with one of our gymnastic stars, Salim.

With the above pic I used 6 SB units, just out the frame, without the dome diffusers, and zooming them to 105. The light stands are three quarter back of my subject, and it gives me almost an angle of incidence/angle of reflection efficiency for the light. (He was also oiled up, which some of the women in the class were happy to help him out with:-)

Back to Alessia. Moved her much closer to the lights and racked the camera out to 1/8000 @ 2.8. She continues to move in eloquent fashion, and now, because of her closeness to the light, and the wide open f-stop, I can see strobe punch, and exert a little control over the landscape. But here’s the giveback. (Always!)

She is working so close to camera (D3, 14-24mm lens) that some of her begins to get the edge of distortion. Just a touch here, but I am, in this iteration, compositionally constrained to a degree. Also, light on power, I am working with the sun here, not against it. Danger there is the shadow of your own gear on the desert floor, as you can see in the background. Doesn’t trouble me overmuch here, but it is something to be aware of.

Okay, I used 3, and that wasn’t enough. Figured for the deep desert and wider views (meaning strobes further away from subject) I gotta have at least one more f-stop. One more f-stop means twice the light, so 3 units becomes 6 units, nutty as that may be. That formed the basis for putting up that gaggle on the shoot with David.

It’s not that unusual for me to do this. I use multiple SB’s on lots of occasions.

There’s 8 SB-80 units under this experimental aircraft. Individual splashes of light. They are triggered by two larger strobes, camera left and right, running through strip lights, which are long, skinny softboxes. Used those cause the wings are long and skinny, and wanted the light to travel with the shape of the plane as best I could. The small units make great kickers in a scenario when you are using larger strobes.

Above, shooting Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman’s hands, the principal setup is a pair of Elinchrom Rangers. But the photo lives because of those little sidelights off his body behind his hands. That light is coming from 4 SB units, running on SU-4 mode, 2 on either side of him. Why four? Two (one per side) would be plenty for this view. But I knew I was going here.

I thought I might need good pop and some spread on the sidelights, so I put up two per side, which I knew (or felt I knew) would give me good coverage through a range of his moves. Last thing I want to do is interrupt the flow of the shoot by stopping for not enough light. Rather have too much already up, and then just turn ‘em off. Also, redundancy in this mode, SU-4, means the lights work less hard, and I have faster recycle time, while he’s got the weight up. Even Ronnie Coleman gets tired.

Out in the desert, there’s another important reason I didn’t use a bigger strobe with a single pop. I didn’t have one. I can’t speak to Alien Bees, cause I’ve never used one, but I can pretty much guarantee the Elinchrom Ranger units (1100 ws) I use could have done the job. I use them religiously, and especially when you put them through a long throw reflector, they give a pretty good wallop of light. A long throw reflector is a deep dish, polished reflector pan that gathers the light and throws it a good distance with less dispersion than the basic standard issue pan that comes with the head.

So in the time honored tradition of shooters everywhere, I went with what I had. How I got into the desert with that particular gear set is a mildly interesting parable of the modern photog interfacing with the wondrous miracle of flight. Ahh, flight! Remember Spencer Tracy magnificently lecturing the stacked jury in Inherit the Wind? He’s talking about the price of progress, and he uses air travel to make a point. “Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”

Flight has distinctly lost its wonder, especially if you are a bedraggled photog on a budget and gotta get yourself and a bunch of gear from here to there. I am exhibit A in this regard

This trip—flew to Venice with a little bit of grip and a bunch of SB units to teach small flash at VSP. Flew Delta. Checked 4 pieces. Cost me $150 in overweight.

Okay, didn’t break the bank on that one. Finished Venice. Loaded the exact same gear onto Iberia for a hop to Spain. Cost me almost two grand! Thankfully for the that leg, I was Spain bound on assignment. (Iberia was one of the worst experiences ever in 30 years of flying claptrap, bucket-of-bolts airplanes all over the world. The plane to Spain charged me the dough, then tried to pry my camera bag from me and check it—unsuccessfully. Their personnel opened the counters in Venice late, with no stanchions to establish lines. Pushing and shoving occurred, so intensely the police were called. Lots of harsh language. I don’t speak Italian, but “Push me again with your suitcase and I’ll punch your lights out ya scrawny ass sumbitch” sounds pretty much the same in any language. Completely, totally, Iberia’s fault.)

Meanwhile, the intrepid Mr. Moore was loading 8 pieces aboard Delta in NY, and heading for Spain. Those bags cost about a grand. We met in Madrid and headed north. Was planning on flying Iberia back to Madrid, but I was terrified of the potential bank breaking luggage deal with them, so we got a van, loaded the gear, and drove 7 hours so Brad, who was returning home, now with 10 pieces, could interface direct with Delta. That leg cost $1500 in overweight, and took years off Brad’s life as he negotiated 10 pieces on 3 luggage carts through the Madrid airport to Spanish customs, signed off a carnet, and then got it to the counter without the aid of a skycap. Wonder of wonders, it all showed up at JFK.

By then I was flying KLM (love the Dutch!) through Amsterdam to Dubai with a vastly reduced inventory of gear. Still, getting it to UAE and home again (this time on Etihad Air, a first for me) cost about $800. All this is why I only had SB units in the dunes.

It tries one’s soul, and tests one’s patience and just generally makes you feel good about yourself when your stuff costs more to ship than you, and is probably more comfortable down there in the luggage hold, where there is presumably more leg room.

The Quiet Guy

May 21

In Seminars & Workshops at 6:55pm


He goes by a couple names here at DLWS. “Kev” for short, and of course, “Kevin.” Moose just calls him flyboy, cause he’s an aviation engineer and a pilot who works for Cessna and teaches newbies how to fly.

I figure that’s why he’s so damn unflappable. Never see him upset or off kilter. Years of flying buddy to a bunch of nervous new pilots will probably do that to you. He’s got that Midwestern voice, too, the kind as a passenger you like to hear coming from the cockpit. Reassuring, in a word.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you might have just noticed, heh heh, our old airplane just took a big swoop upwards out of our landing approach, and you might’ve heard those old engines back there barkin’ like a big dog, but there’s no need for alarm. Seems I got this little red light here on the panel tellin’ me my landin’ gear’s not coming down. Darnedest thing. But I tell you what, we’re gonna come around again low and tight over the runway and give them nervous nellies on the ground a looksee up our skirt a little bit, and get what we call a visual. And they’re gonna find out what I know already, that our old landin’ gear’s just fine. I’ll get back with you in a couple, meantime, sit back and enjoy the flight, winds are out of the southwest at about 20mph, broken cloud, unlimited visibility, about 65 degrees Farenheit. It’a just a beautiful day out there!”

For Kevin, an emergency code red situation means his heart rate will drift slightly above 65.

Of course, he’s not always quiet and reserved.

But what he is, consistently, is indispensable. He stays in the background of the workshop, helping people with every photo problem from tripod mismanagement to exposure issues, composition, and finally, ouptut. He is a magician on the Cintiq, the Wacom’s version of a flying carpet, and in the classroom sessions, always has a crowd hanging around, watching him work.

He’s also a helluva shooter. Check out his blog. He and Moose have been photographing together for years, flying small sea planes into remote areas up in north country and making pix of big critters like the Kodiak Bear. They keep asking me to come. They say they’ve got this special wardrobe item for me. It’s a scratch n’ sniff shirt that smells like barbecue sauce. Hmmmmm. Think I’ll stick with the subways in NY.

So we have been in the Redwoods. Lots of fun. Great bunch of folks.

Of course, we be earnestly searching for the forest in the trees, and the wonderful youngster Raven chose very smartly to focus her attention on something much smaller. A ladybug.

David of the Desert

May 19

In Lighting, On Location at 4:44pm

The cool thing about teaching photography is actually how much you learn while you do it. Such was the situation in Dubai a couple of weeks ago. Amazing faculty. Felt like a kid in a candy store. Wanted to go to all the classes.

A big lure of teaching in Dubai of course, is teaching in Dubai. One of the truly strange, nutty, breakneck places on earth. So I was determined to get out into the desert before leaving. I mean, out there, where you see nothing but sand and sky. Got a model, a makeup artist, a couple of drivers with Rovers, David Hobby, a local assistant, a…..@#%%&**#$$&&%#….hey, wait a minute, David Hobby???!!!

David was teaching as well, and when he found out I was going to the hot sand he was in. Lessee….going out shooting small flash with David Hobby? Uh, wanna rate that on the cool meter?

Next thing, we’re slewing through the sand, riding dunes in a Rover like a surfer rides the waves, looking for a spot where the undulating sand and the play of light and shadow might be favorable. That kinda sorta is everywhere out there. Just wild and alien, so for both of us, the radar was way up, DEFCON 5, the way it gets when you are seeing something you haven’t seen before.

We picked a charming spot right by some petrified camel shit and went to work. Between me and David, we got a bunch of of the SB800 strobes, and of course, I never met a subject I couldn’t overlight, so we put up a mess of them. It was kind of this loopy strobe puzzle stuck on the end of a c-stand. A strobe clusterf–k, in other words.

Here’s the thing. We have both been messing with hi speed strobe sync, and, as I mentioned in a previous blog, the SB has a handy feature called Auto FP hi speed sync, where the strobe will stick with the camera even up to 1/8000 of a second. The problem is power. The FP deal knocks the oomph out of the flash, so to punch back, we put up multiple lights, and cranked out a decent picture of Lenka, our wonderfully bemused model.

We had a happy accident. (I love those! Always tell my editors I planned it that way.) Thought we would run the lights through a Lastolite diffuser, but the wind was such the diffuser was flopping around like a freshly landed tuna, and raw light from the top couple SB units hit Lenka. Hmmmm……looked good. The diffuser continued to behave like an unruly child so we dumped it and went with open, hard light. Now there was too much light, even in FP mode. Dialed ‘em down a touch, and started making frames.

David had the notion of a hard sidelight and grabbed a spare flash and circled slightly behind and camera left of the model. No diffuser dome. Zoomed it to 105 and used his hand as a gobo so there was no telltale spill on the desert floor. That’s a great trick right there. He shielded or cupped the light with his hand, holding the SB unit with his other hand and then running the video camera clenched between his teeth. Just an astonishing display of versatility.

So here’s a problem, or at least something to watch out for. See Lenka’s shadow? It’s not clean. Has no simple, hard edge the way you would get from the sun, or one, definitive light source. I was kind of sloppy putting these up, and the result is a variation in the angle of approach from the various sources. In the best of worlds, you could use one strobe, or at least gang them coherently so the direction is slightly more unified. Remember that once you set one of these puppies off, photons go everywhere, and once they get out they’re tougher to catch than a fart in a bag. So it is best to try to line them up on the same axis if at all possible.

We wrapped out of that position, and the sun had hazed out considerably, enough that we could shoot right into it. This, in alot of ways, was a more manageable setup. Went to a shoot through umbrella with 3 SB units on Justin clamps. Didn’t use multiple units to increase power, cause I was still dictating f-stop from the camera, but what this does is increase the volume, or surface area of the light in relation to the subject. Makes it more all embracing, wrapping, and softer in it’s rotation from highlight to shadow. Tried this first.

Not happy. Kinda flat. Moved in…..

Liked this better. Flagging off the bottom of the umbrella helps gradate the light. It’s very helpful when there is the desert floor in the picture.

Light started plunging after this, so we did a quick change and knocked out one last view before jumping back into the Rovers, going to the hotel, grabbing a quick bite and a shower, repacking and heading for the airport for the 14 hour romp to JFK.

Had some hits and misses out there, to be sure. One thing about working TTL wireless in combo with aperture priority mode on the camera is shifting output and some exposure variance. This is not inconsistency, I don’t think, but rather the camera point of view changing ever so slightly, which is causing the camera and strobe system to exchange different messages, and producing different results. Afterwards, I realized I coulda/shoulda gone, at least for a bit, into flash value lock, or FV mode. You can program that feature into your function button on the front of the D3. Program it, then tap the function button and the flash output will be locked. Of course, I thought of that later. Had one of those “THWACK! Coulda had a V-8!” moments. It’s why I have a flat forehead at this point in my career.

On this last shot I used a gold Lastolite Tri-Grip reflector instead of my kneecaps. The tri-grip gives a nice warm fill, while my legs are much more neutral and give up only about a half stop of bounce.

So, all in all, fun in the desert. Over the top in certain ways, to be sure. 7 SB800 units is pretty wacky, I’ll be the first to admit. But the high speed sync is enabled with these guys, and that is helpful. I do use bunches of these units periodically, either in a teaching environment, or ganging them through a big silk or panel. The trigger for all these CLS guys was the either another SB unit or the SU800, which is a pretty directional, powerful trigger, which I have found works real well, even in bright sun.

Also, having David Hobby on location was pretty cool. David is one of those guys who just knows. I’m out there making wild-ass guesses, but a guy like David has got it locked. Plus he’s got a great recipe for camel shit shavings. Little melted mozzarella, some garlic and red pepper, quick garnish, and you are eatin’ in style.

He also cooked up this video to show what we were doing out there in the sand…

And if you wanna download the hi-res version, he’s got that posted as well.

The tools we have now are amazing. As David mentioned in his blog, I used to assist Mathew Brady, and that was a bear, shagging all those plates around in the back of a covered wagon. It is so much easier now.

Google!

May 16

In Seminars & Workshops, Thoughts at 1:21pm

Was graciously invited by Google to lecture at their campus yesterday. Took me about .5 seconds to say yes. Googler Mike Wiacek sent me an email a while back and mentioned that enthusiasm for The Moment It Clicks was high within the organization and was there a chance I might be in the neighborhood some time or other?

Cool! Got a chance to relax and float around in the foam cushion thing filled with plastic balls. (Photo by Brad Moore.) Evidently some folks relax in here with their laptops.

The nap module was already occupied.

Made the stop on my way to my favorite DLWS location, the Redwoods. (Ahh, the mighty Redwoods! It stirs my soul! I don’t want to be a photographer anyway! I want to be a lumberjack. Leaping from tree to tree as they float down the mighty rivers of British Columbia! The giant redwoods! The larch! The fir! The mighty Scots pine! The smell of fresh cut timber! The crash of mighty trees! With my best girlie by my side!)

I digress. It figures there are photo enthusiasts everywhere in the halls of Google. Can’t imagine a better place to plug into the fast paced world of digital shooting, the discussion threads, the new tech and gear, than the home base of this internet powerhouse.

Thing is, it doesn’t feel like a big company. It feels very human. It feels like a place where people (and their pets) are valued. The array of food options (for free) is astonishing. There are more cafes and eateries per square yard than Little Italy in NY. Seems management figured out it is cheaper, happier and more productive to take care of their employees and create a positive work environment than to burn them to a crisp, make them afraid of the future, and send them off into the highways and byways of California in search of a Taco Bell for lunch.

Enlightened management is tough to find these days, but I do know of another distinctly wonderful workplace. Scott Kelby and the folks down there at Kelby Media and NAPP are a bunch of happy campers, to be sure. Hmmm. Both these places are forward looking, innovative, very creative, and use the newest of technologies. And, they value their people and treat them well. And both outfits are doing gang buster business….Geez, I wonder if there’s a connection?

There were about 100 folks at the lecture, and Google beamed it out to 8 of their other locations, domestic and international. My buddy Bill suggested that in return for doing the lecture, I simply ask Google to change a few lines of code, you know, couple of minor alterations, nothing truly significant. That way, he said, anytime anybody in the world Googles, “photography,” they get sent to my website. Just a few tweaks in the codes, and, when you type in “Ansel Adams,” it comes up as “joemcnally.com.” Or, “Moose Peterson.” You get “joemcnally.com.” If you type in, “I’m a client with a huge budget and I wanna spend some big ass money on pictures,” it connects you directly to my cell phone.

Way cool day.

Long and Winding Road

May 12

In Travels at 3:57pm

Just got back from what for me, nowadays, is a long trip. Three international locales, total of 20 days on the road. It’s different now, of course. Road time used to be counted in weeks, not days. First international story I did for Geographic in the late 80’s was 17 weeks, split into just two trips. Crazy. Lived in the East End of London for all that time, in a little flat on the Isle of Dogs, which is a big loop (above) in the River Thames. Had my own local, the Tooke Arms Pub.

This photo took three weeks to shoot. Let me explain. I wandered into the Tooke, which was friendly enough but pretty rough around the edges, as estate pubs in working class neighborhoods tend to be on the East End. No one spoke to me. Had some terrible bar food and a pint of Ruddles. Walked out.

Came back the next day. And the next. Jeez, the food was horrible! I was getting the eyeball, to be sure, but not much else. Kept going. Kept at it. Finally, somebody got curious enough to strike up a conversation. That’s all I needed. Somebody broke the ice, and eventually I was accepted, albeit as an oddity. The pub became my watering hole, a listening post for what was going on in the nabe, and a wealth of potential ideas for photos to pursue.

Shot a young lady’s East End style wedding there, a riotous affair, to be sure.

Also met Robbie there, a wild and crazy Scot, and the driver of the tallest crane in Europe, working over the Canary Wharf site. Wanna come up? Sure!

Got my way to the cab of this massive jib crane, and climbed into a wire frame bucket mounted to the side rail of the jib (no OSHA, no safety belts…toughest part was actually walking out to the bucket. Round, painted steel, just a few inches thick. Crane moving in the wind. Wide, spread legged steps. Robbie called to me in his best brogue. “Now you’ve got your arse in the breeze,” he said, laughing. Said my usual prayer to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes and photographers everywhere.)

Robbie ran me out to end of the jib in this contraption and started slewing me back and forth over the site. Got to be fun. Pictures never ran, cause they sucked, basically. Just record overviews of a bunch of girder work and dust. Best part was the ride on the jib, and then driving the crane afterwards. Robbie just cautioned me not to hit the emergency brake as the rig would crumple like paper. Okay!

Then back to the Tooke for pints.

Met a bunch of former dock workers who kept up the tradition of taking a weekly steam. Can I come along? Chuckles all around. “Well,” one old salt said. “We’ll all be in the nude!”

I said fine. Kept my Leica wrapped in a towel. Always joke I shot the whole job on one roll of film. (Had no pockets.) Also shot this.

There was considerable discussion about these pics at Geographic. One of them was gonna run big, but there was hesitation about the steamy junkyard, and ultimately the more demure photo won the day.

Time is compressed out on the road now. Which is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. This recent trip was painful. Missed home a lot. Missed Annie a lot. Enter RC and Jen.

They were in NY for the Kelby Training Days at B&H, and had made arrangements to see Annie for coffee and a bite. Annie was expecting me home that day, but not until late. The real deal was that I was landing at JFK at 8:30 in the am. Called RC from Abu Dhabi airport. Dude! Make sure you get Annie out to see you guys. Make sure she sits with her back to the door.

Landed and hit NY. Got a new shirt, socks and underwear. (14 plus hours in a coach seat…my buddy Bill at Geographic calls it “chicken and goat class.” Let’s put it this way, I wasn’t very huggable.) Went to the gym. Showered and shaved. Gussied myself up as best as this bedraggled bag of bones will allow.

Got flowers. Great guy at the market. Pulled a whole fresh bunch for me. Sat down in the bus stop at 34th and 9th tried not to go to sleep. Eyeballed the front of B&H. Called RC. All set?

Natch. RC had done the very smart thing of getting Jen to call Annie that morning and swing the deal. You see, Annie and Jen know each other really only for a few hours but it’s like they’re sisters. They know about each other’s families, inner thoughts, secrets, childhood, education, favorite foods, workout routines, nail polish, camera pointers, etc. I mean they’re women, and they’ve thoroughly embraced the gift of speech.

In between hoots, clicks and grunts, RC and I have gotten to the point of agreeing the Knicks are a mess and Isiah Thomas is an asshole.

Kidding, really. RC is a great talker and storyteller, and is an over the top, giddy, soon-to-be father. He’s also a terrific shooter, and he had his D300 in front of him, teed up and ready to go. The three of them were chatting away, at the Skylite Diner on 34th, and I slipped up behind the table. Leaned over and said, “I believe the lady ordered flowers?”

It’s been a long and winding road, to be sure, but it led me to Annie…….

Photos by RC Concepcion.