Archive for April, 2013
I like all sorts of music, having grown up in the sixties and seventies. My musical whims are all over the lot, which is probably why Drew and Cali never allow me to plug in my playlists on location.
News came this week that George Jones died. I never photographed him, and only know a few songs of his, but there was a beautiful, suffering quality to his voice. Anybody desperate enough to drive a lawnmower eight miles to town just to get a drink has got something to sing about, for sure.
I did photograph one of the women of his tumultuous life, Tammy Wynette, down at her home, First Lady Acres, in Nashville. Like George, her life was a roller coaster of love, loss, and the lyrics that sprang from it. We only spent a day, but even in that day, I picked up on a wistfulness, a certain ambient pain that lingered around her.
She of course famously wrote, “Stand by Your Man,” of which she once said, “I spent fifteen minutes writing it, and a lifetime explaining it.”
The great thing about being a photog is that you meet people like Tammy. I was working for People Magazine, and one of the smartest, most wonderfully down to earth editors ever, MC Marden. MC was a fan, so I brought Tammy’s Stand by Your Man album with me, and had her sign it to MC, with the alteration: “MC—Stand by Your Magazine.” I believe MC still has it on her wall.
I also made a location snap that still makes me smile, of myself and Tammy reflected in her vanity mirror. I remember saying to her that right then I was the envy of a lot of men, getting a picture made with her. Ever the lady of the house, she smiled knowingly, and fluttered her eyes at me. She knew it was a photo shoot, and she was being flattered, but she liked it, nonetheless.
Music intertwines readily, emotionally with life, and the lives of the musicians who play it. Music sees you through, and it opens your heart. Strains of certain songs are evocative of time and place. Others are a warp speed return to a specific event or memory.
This is certainly true of country music, which I don’t claim to be all that knowledgeable about, but certainly listen to. My life is richer because Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris picked up a guitar and stepped to a microphone. And I do remember that day with Tammy Wynette.
Leave on Sunday for Nigeria, and the NIPHEC gathering in Lagos. Really looking forward to returning to Africa, where I have worked many times, but have not been for quite a while. I anticipate many changes, and I look forward to working with amazing colleagues, such as Michael Grecco, Seun Akisanmi, Leke Adenuga, Folake Ojeikere & Shola Animashaun. It’ll be a terrific week, a great place to teach, and to learn. Many, many thanks to the organizer, Seun, who has put heart and soul into this conference. Below, some recollections from my first visit to the astonishing continent of Africa.
Ah, the lowly umbrella. Simple, relatively cheap, no frills. I have often denigrated umbrella light as being a bit boring, while at the same time praising it for being utterly reliable, producing predictable results time and again. In other words, boring. It is a very basic light shaping tool, often the very first one in a photographer’s arsenal. Light, cheap and collapsible, it’s easy to see why.
But lately, I’ve been using bigger umbrellas more and more in all manner of situations, and have been collaborating with Lastolite to perhaps produce a couple hopefully advantageous wrinkles in the lighting options an umbrella presents. We’ll see where that goes. But in the meantime, I’ve been having fun using speed lights, and firing them into umbrellas that are about the size of a small midwestern city.
Shot the above in Saudi Arabia a couple weeks ago, and the shaper is an jumbo Lastolite umbrella box type of light, the type with a soft piece of frosted material over the umbrella scoop. I’ve got three SB-910 speed lights on TTL firing into it, all hung on a ratcheting tri-flash. The results from this are generally soft and wrapping–a very easy going quality of light that has a lot of forgiveness in the shadows.
Now, could you do this with a single big light? Of course. Just didn’t have one of those with me. But the nice thing about having small, multiple sources pointing into this Sasquatch of a light shaper is that they do all combine to produce a large, lovely volume of light. And, given the vagaries and alchemy of TTL, I can send a signal to those lights via the commander flash, and they resolutely (well, sometimes reluctantly) follow me to f1.4.
The other thing about using small, position adjustable flash guns into a giant shaper is that if you need to sequester the light into a certain quadrant of that shaper, you can do it by clicking the speed light heads in different directions. Say you want more light being produced out of the lower scoop of the umbrella. Just take two of the flash units and click them downwards into that area. The effects are subtle, but definitely visible, thus giving you a another fairly easily accessible element of control over the broad brush of flash lighting you are painting the scene with.
At PhotoShop World in Orlando, and demonstrated this type of approach on stage, albeit with a big shoot through umbrella. Found a wonderful member of the audience, and asked her to come up.
From ten feet, it looked like this…
From five feet, it looked like this….
Then, by redirecting the speed lights inside the brolly, and pushing them towards the right hand side of the umbrella, the shadow side of my subject’s face opens up, just a touch….
Small adjustments inside a big light….more tk….
Some years back, I was stumbling around at dawn in the other worldliness of Augusta National golf course when I encountered an ebullient, utterly happy gentleman. I wished him a good morning. He beamed back. In one of the most delicious Southern accents I’ve ever heard, he exclaimed, “It’s April in Augusta! What could evah be wrong?!”
I could have offered up a couple of notions, such as the lack of good coffee at that hour around the golf course, but I didn’t want to blunt his enthusiasm for the sheer joy of smelling azalea bushes, and watching the dew glisten on greens that were as manicured and brushed as a show pony. I also didn’t want to attract attention to myself and my genuine mystification at the sheer, boundless passion this swatch of greensward, located in a town in Georgia that you might only be prompted to get off the interstate and investigate if you really needed gas, prompts in the golf crowd.
That mystification actually fueled some decent pictures during my one and only visit to Augusta National. Everything was new, and exceedingly strange to me. And, not in a bad way. I was genuinely curious about this annual ritual, and eagerly observed the proceedings. The first thing you become aware of at Augusta is the rules. There are so many of them! No cell phones is a biggie. Don’t run afoul of that one, or you’ll be shown the door. There are many others, of course. Like, photographers aren’t allowed on the course to shoot until something like 9am, or so, which exactly corresponds to the disappearance of good light. I got around this by showing up ridiculously early and going through the service entrance with other folks who were actually doing something useful, like bringing in boxes of keychains, umbrellas, wallets, hats, sunglasses, pencil sketches, all emblazoned with the Masters logo. To my recollection, you can’t order this stuff. You actually have to be at the course during Masters week to buy it. And buy it they do. The tent where all the merch is sold generally looks like the Times Square subway platform at rush hour, only more polite.
I screwed up on the rules, big time. I had seen one of Augusta’s more prominent members of their security detail at the end of a lane that was lined with trees and quite picturesque. He had a face like a basset hound, a state trooper’s hat, and was bigger than Ceelo Green. I thought, well, I’ll just go down there and ask him if I can make his picture!
He started frowning at me from about 100 yards away, and when I reached him he had his arms outstretched, palms facing me. They said stop. He looked at me. Actually, he eyeballed me. There’s a difference. “Who told you that you could walk down Magnolia Lane?” “Uh, no one, sir.”
“Do you know that no one can use Magnolia Lane except members, their guests, and past champions? And I suspect you’re not any of those things, are you?”
“Uh, no sir, I’m not.”
I love southern accents, but there’s something about being addressed this way, in a drawl, that makes you feel particularly stupid. During his line of questioning, he left unspoken, no doubt for reasons of decorum, that which he truly wished to say, which might have been along the lines of “You big city, shit for brains, dumb ass. What do you think you’re doing on my beloved Magnolia Lane?” Indeed. I had chosen to try and photograph the Lee Ermey of Augusta National.
Given the splendid start to our relationship, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I came away without a photograph. I’t didn’t help that I had trundled a four wheel cart filled with strobes and c-stands down there with me, and therefore looked for all the world like an itinerant vendor calling out “Clothes, rags, bottles!” All I was missing was a broke down nag and a wagon, a roughly painted sign and a gypsy dancing girl.
In short, I didn’t fit in at Augusta real well. Which is okay. As a photog, you are often an interloper, a stranger at least occasionally eyed with suspicion or dismay, the guy at the bar with no one to talk to. I was there courtesy of Golf Digest, and had the benefit of course of being coached by their wonderfully experienced set of staff photographers. I still screwed up, but less than I would have. But, truth be told, they actually brought me in there because golf is not my world, and the newness of it can really fuel some odd or different pictures.
I did have a good time down there, to be sure. I was fascinated by the decorum which prevails, and the fan rituals, such as rushing to locate your vantage point near one of the prime greens. Every morning of the tournament, Augusta stages its own version of the Oklahoma Land Rush. You secure your spot by placing your chair down, and that placement is respected throughout the rest of the day. To get this prime seating, you rush. You fast walk. But you do not run. Those are the rules. It’s probably a good thing, ’cause people are so keyed up for the morning opening of the course that the lords of Augusta could probably borrow the mechanism of start off from another time honored American sports classic, the Kentucky Derby, and just put these folks in chutes and ring a bell. Best they don’t do that, as most of the Augusta watchers are not exactly in thoroughbred race horse shape, and someone could get hurt, or worse, just keel over from the sheer excitement of it. The imagination I have of that happening brings me to an old golf joke about George and Harry, best friends who played a round together every Saturday morning for thirty or forty years. Upon his return home, Harry’s wife asked, “How was the golf today, dear?” He replied, “Horrible. On the third tee George had a heart attack and died!” “Oh goodness,” she exclaimed, “That’s terrible!”
“You’re tellin’ me! After that third tee, all day long, it was hit the ball and drag George! Hit the ball and drag George!”
The folks at Augusta are super nice, so I’m sure they’d drag along whoever fell down or had a heart attack racing for a good spot on the course. As long as it didn’t slow them down too much.
Passion prevails across the undulating, lushly green sweep of Augusta National. Passion and tradition. Two powerful things to photograph, even when, not being a golf fan, I didn’t completely understand them. I was more comfortable amidst the messy, stark differences the rough edged town of Augusta offers, relative to the manicured, meticulous nature of what goes on inside the gates of Augusta National. James Brown was Augusta’s most famous son, so I photographed him in a downtown building lobby.
And I wandered into some neighborhoods, and quite wonderfully stumbled into a church, where I was welcomed by the minister.
Pastor Grier might have thought it strange that I wanted to photograph him in the context of shooting for a golf magazine, but he was amenable, and stood before my camera, holding the cross as powerfully as the golfers teeing off down the block might hold a three wood. He, too, represented passion and tradition.
In all their forms and expressions, those are quite amazing things to witness with a camera in hand.
I do blogs about all manner of things photographic, but clearly, one subject I return to consistently is the nature and quality of light, both natural light and flash light. This is not unique to me, or this blog. Lotsa folks out there talkin’ bout flash. Big flash, small flash, up close, far away, here, there. What occasionally gets overlooked in the “all flash all the time” conversation is the importance of shutter speed. Now, folks who have been shooting for a while know the ins and outs of shutter speed, to be sure. But I can’t tell you how often I’ve taught a class and come up on a team in the field, trying to shoot inside a factory, and, because the class is about flash, they are using a “flash” shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, rendering the scene as utter darkness. They thus burden themselves with the task of lighting the whole damn factory. With two speed lights. This, I tell them, is not possible. And I say that with the complete certainty of one who has amassed a 30 year history of engaging in utterly Quixotic flash follies, doomed to irretrievably embarrassing failure even before I put my camera to my eye.
My opening comment, when I view a location foray such as I describe above about to go off the rails, is often something along the lines of, “Shutter speed is your friend.”
I shot both of the above for Kelby Training video that came to be titled, Making Pictures in Bad Weather. Trust, me, I didn’t head to Tampa with that title in mind. But it turned out that we were trying to shoot through the tail licks of an offshore hurricane, and hence, we bagged a lot of the locations, and found shelter. That class ended up being one of the most fun classes I’ve taught for the Kelby group. It was a hoot, and was just like being on location for a magazine and needing to get it done ’cause the editor who assigned us doesn’t give a rat’s ass if it’s raining anvils. You have to shoot pictures, and shoot through all manner of shit.
The two pix above were shot in the same tiny bathroom, and these views of that little room have very different feels to them. And the differences do stem from the different qualities of light. But, what enabled the difference was shutter speed.
First pass. Window’s glowing and available light dominates the room. One hot shoe flash employed, on the hot shoe. It’s cranked backwards and flying the light up the wall I’m leaning against. It fills the shadow side of the model, just a little. It’s running at low power, no light shaper, except the stock in trade dome diffuser. It bounces partially off the wall and partially off the ceiling. Adds detail, and that’s about it. It fulfills the classic definition of a fill light: A light you don’t notice until you turn it off.
Below is camera info.
And here is more specific flash info, off Nikon software….
The second shot is darker, moodier. No glowy window, and fairly heavy shadows. Reason for that is I chucked available light, and put a Quadra flash out in the rain, cloaked in a baggie, firing off a radio, with no light shaper. It is about 5 feet from the frosted pane of glass, and it’s just a simple blast of light. The frosted glass becomes my light shaper. And because I don’t let any available light in, all the exposure comes from the flash.
Again, camera info.
No coded flash info here, as it is a third party flash, and doesn’t communicate with the camera. But the Quadra is providing all the light, and is well within its power range and capability.
The flash style, power and direction are truly different, to be sure. But the real difference, to me, in the two shots is a simple shift in shutter speed. The f-stops are quite similar. Shutter speeds aren’t. In the open, window blown away version, the shutter speed is 1/8th, and in the more controlled, moody version, the shutter rang in at 1/250th.
Shifting the shutter enables the game of ratios, which is a game forever played on location. You walk in, and you observe what light already exists. Then you factor how much, or how little, of that light plays into your photo by cranking your way through the shutter speed dial. You can allow the natural light to dominate, and thus making your flash a bit player, a reserve coming off the bench, and not the star. Or you can use the shutter speed to snuff the light entirely, rendering darkness upon the land, which you then replace with custom made flash treatment.
A game we always play. What exists, and, what do we layer over what exists? The flash we bring to location can be an unseen infiltrator, a thief in the night. Or it can be a thundering herd. The thing to remember, always, is that the determining factor in how many flashes (if any at all) we take out of the damn trunk is the existing light, and it’s volume and quality.
As as location “flash photographer” the most important light you always wrestle with is the ambient light. And when it comes to ambient light, shutter speed is the judge and jury, and your friend.