Archive for the ‘In The Field’ Category
The weather is always with us as shooters, right? Unless we’re still life folks, and click away unhurriedly in a studio, to the strains of Bach or Brahms, safe from the howling elements. (I personally would rather try to shoot frames in the teeth of a hurricane than do still life, by the way. I suck at it so badly that I have great admiration for those who do it well. I’ve tried on occasion, with abysmal results. How can a thing give you more trouble than a person?)
My history with weather is a fractious one, indeed. Just ask my buds Alan Hess and Earnie Grafton in San Diego. I go there as often as I can, and whenever I do, I think Alan just starts nailing plywood boards over his windows. Earnie, a durable, talented, former military shooter who’s now with the San Diego Trib, has shot his way through a ton of shit conditions over the years just looks at me and shakes his head. I think he thinks that way back in Ireland. long ago, the local hag (Cailleach, in Gaelic) cursed my family tree with the rain. Earnie is sort of mystical about this himself, and every time I show up in SD, he tries to break the curse by the mutual imbibing of the holiest of waters–beer.
The curse was in full throat roar recently in Tampa, though, so the suds aren’t working. I was down there to shoot a video for Kelby Training on….well, I can’t even remember what we were going to do originally. I could say I was going to teach a class stemming from my latest book on PhotoShop, entitled, “The Layers of Hell,” but you would know that I am lying. Anyway, whatever we were going to do went rapidly away, and our hopes for a sunny Florida shoot went swilling down the sewers along with a whole bunch of Tampa topsoil. So, as you do on location, we rolled. Shot through the wind and the weather, sat in cars, tried to keep the cameras and the models dry, went inside, shot into the wee hours, sought cover, and cursed the rain. The result actually, was one of the more fun shoots I’ve ever had in Tampa, to be honest. Standing out there on a dock, getting pummeled by the backhanded breezes of an offshore hurricane does inspire some lunacy, and some ad hoc decision making in terms of what to shoot and how to shoot it. The Kelby folks, a generally solid group of relatively normal people, actually got a little dizzy themselves in the midst of the mayhem and went running off the deck into the deep end with the video below.
The elements are always with us as photogs, right? We gather our gear in the morning, squinting at the sky like some sort of Crocodile Dundee armed with cameras and glass, wondering what the clouds will conjure in the afternoon. Moose Peterson is actually quite amazing at this. He’ll gather a bunch of folks around him and say something like, “Well, the wind will pick up later and ricochet off that far canyon wall and drive the afternoon cumulus towards that cleft in the rock. The sunlight filtering through that cleft will give the clouds a nice shimmer. This will happen around 4:10 pm, so set your cameras on aperture priority at minus 1.3EV and go to continuous high as this phenomenon will only occur for about two minutes.” He says this type of thing with such authority that people just nod in response and start adjusting their machinery without ever cocking their head to the side and wondering aloud whether if that was the biggest bunch of bullshit they’d heard since the last presidential debate.
Of course, though, he is so damn good at this, he’s often right. I was standing next to him, and he told me the light would hit the waterfall just so, and everything would be alright. It did, and I got the only decent landscape picture I’ve ever shot.
My history with weather and the National Geographic is a sorry, almost punitive one. They sent me (just once) to the magnificent beaches of Cancun to observe Spring Break, that sun drenched celebration of tequila fueled hormones. I came back with this.
This was perhaps deemed, well, cheeky. So it was back to business as usual, and they sent me to Siberia, in February.
And I spent a dismal but necessary night in the local drunk tank, where the depression caused by the ongoing darkness gathers in sad, rough fashion. The drunks stumble out of the bars, and flop onto the icy walkways. Police patrols haul them in, restrain them, and let them sleep it off, lest they be stiff as a cord of wood in the morning, and just as dead.
On a more uplifting note, I did find my way into the ladies’ locker room in a mine, where the darkness problem is obviously exacerbated by the endeavor at hand, and watched as these shift workers bathed themselves in the salubrious wash of UV light, before heading home through the bleakness outside.
These Russian kids do the same thing at school, where the only evidence of the sun is painted on the walls, and they can perhaps dream of its warming rays and the resplendent promises of the rainbow.
Funny, I do the same kind of dreaming myself…..more tk….
Photogs, well, at least certain photogs, are legendary screamers, right? They get upset when things go wrong, and things always go wrong, so stories about on set grouchiness abound. We’ve all, I’m sure, heard about the prima donna shooter, male or female, who explodes on the set when the latte’s not the right temperature, or missing the nutmeg flakes on the hot foam. There are also the divas, the ones who look disdainfully about and tell the crew, “Give me God’s light!” and then retire to the location vehicle for, uh, extra-curricular activities. Then of course there are the unprepared, those who blow a gasket about stuff that should have been fixed and set before the airplane tickets were bought.
You have to pray for patience on most photo shoots and try not to reach, screaming, for the eject handle. One mildly amusing story came years ago from an assistant to a somewhat vociferous, overlarge photog, who got his comeuppance after badgering the location help for days on end. Seems his size made him a bit tippy, and he was in the waves, trying to get an over/under shot, with a housing. You’ve seen these pix, with the camera half out, half in the water. (They’re on the cover of, you know, Field and Stream all the time, with the hapless mackerel straining for the deep, and the triumphant fisherman, rod bowed like hairpin turn on the Pacific Coast Highway, fighting to board him. I always feel bad for the fish, and have consoled myself by figuring it’s gotta be mechanical, ‘cause I can’t figure out for the life of me how they do that stuff.)
Oh, well, back to the waves. This photog insisted to his assistants that they literally lash him to a dock piling to stabilize him and the camera. Which they did. When he finished the shot, he handed the camera up, and waited to be untied. Whereupon his beleaguered assistants waltzed away, down the pier, got themselves drinks with big umbrellas in them, and watched the tide come in. Turtle like, literally pinned to the piling like a butterfly specimen, he had no recourse but to wait to be released at their discretion. He didn’t scream so loudly after that.
I tend not to be a screamer. I suffer the slings and arrows of location photography with relative equanimity. That’s not me giving myself absolution, by the way. I’ve said and done stupid stuff, been a jerk-brained idiot, yelled at people, mostly myself, punched walls, sometimes with my head, literally bloodying myself out of rage and frustration. But, most of the time, I’m pretty calm. The bigger the problem, the calmer I get. Little stuff still can make me nuts. Big stuff, well, figuring that out gets too interesting to get mad about.
I was determined to do a re-shoot of a portrait for a friend I had messed up on. I blew a picture. Big news there, huh? But, you know, it’s not the ones you get that populate your dreams. It’s the ones you miss. Needless to say, my dreams are very full, and colorful. I’m actually glad I don’t remember most of them.
We were on location early on one of those amazing Montana mornings, where the sunrise is a piece of heaven you can actually shoot. Light drenched, with panoramic skies just rolling out an endless carpet of color, it could have made a country boy out of this city kid right then and there, at least momentarily.
Of course, I got shit. If I don’t anchor my frame with a human being, I am frequently lost. So I turned to my friend and fellow photog, Kevin Dobler, who’s a quintessential good guy, and a very fine shooter. This magnificent dawn occurred on the road outside his family’s ranch, which I know is a very special, emotional place for him. I offered to do his picture with the road and sky meeting in vast Montana distance. It was not a good effort. No fault of Kevin. Totally my fault back at the camera. I couldn’t get a feel for the frame, as sometimes happens. I finished bothering him with my clicking, and he was happy enough, but I wasn’t. In my head, as I often do, I made a check mark, looked at the land and the light, and thought, okay, next time I’ll get you.
The next time was about two years later, and I had been chewing on doing this again for a while. (I’m a real water under the bridge kind of guy.) I planned it out in my head. I was going to make a special effort, with an Elinchrom Ranger, a 74’ Octa, c-stand, the whole business. A full blown, big flash, one light character driven portrait of the man and the land.
Drew and I went through a checklist of gear the night before. But the next morning, when Drew, a really good shooter, and a formidably capable first assistant, came to me with that, you know, look, I knew something was awry. Out on that frozen road, he looked at me sheepishly, and said, well, we got the Ranger pack, we just don’t have the Ranger head.
Okay, then, at least we don’t need a sandbag for that big light, ‘cause that’s what that Ranger pack just became! Stay cool, and think. I wanted the big Octa feel of the light, and I wanted to shoot B&W. This particular morning was Montana on mute, not the riot of color of last time. How ‘bout merging big flash and small flash?
I had never put SB units inside the big Octa, but there’s always a first time. We quickly performed impromptu surgery on the guts of the Octa, gaffering, clamping, and otherwise festooning it’s speed ring and ribs with a total of four hot shoe flashes. I did quick math. At full power, they can put out roughly 60 watt seconds. Four would give me a pretty good push of light at max. I couldn’t shoot fast, or much, but, I could shoot. I had a couple SC-29 cords with me, so I could run another light off the camera and actually inside the Octa. That SB unit became both a flash and a commander.
Okay, all lights at manual 1/1 power. No TTL nuance, or letting the little darlings decide things all on their own. I dragged my shutter all the way to 1/20th, and wrangled (hey, I’m shooting in cow country) f13 out of the lights. A mix of ambient and flash to be sure, but with enough declarative flash pop to edge Kevin’s rugged face. I went to monochrome, and a 5:4 aspect ratio on my D3X, and shot with a 24-70, racked to 32 millimeters. I tried long lens but that didn’t work so well. The middle-ish wide angle aspects of this make the road feel like it goes forever, which in Montana, they do. Kevin is the anchor for the frame up front.
What did I lose doing it this way? Well, I lost about 700 or so watt seconds, which limited my flexibility, for sure. At 1/200th of a second (max flash sync speed for Nikon with a third party power pack) with the Ranger at full bore, I could have made that Montana country road look as dark as a Manhattan night club. But that wasn’t my intent. I had to do a more delicate dance with the ratios of ambient to flash, given the limited power supply, but that balance was where I was headed aesthetically, anyway. How do you know when you have the right mix in a situation like this?
You just know. Hate to be inconclusive, but this becomes a matter of taste. A good guideline is often to work your flash up to a value that is one stop over the ambient conditions. Thus when you expose for that flash value, you automatically have subdued the background somewhat. But that is a general, and generally breakable, rule out there in the world. Once you have the frame and the values dialed in, ballpark-wise, it becomes a matter of personal taste, and what is possible technically. Here, I had just enough flash to give the photo a look. And if I told you this was a Ranger head and pack inside that Octa instead of a bunch of ragtag small flashes, you’d believe me, ‘cause the look of that light is definitely smooth, like you would expect out of a 74” source.
Misses don’t have to be forever. Keep a rolodex of failures in your head. (I’ve got an unfortunately large rolodex!) They inform your conduct in the field, always. And sometimes, you can go back and fix ‘em, even just a little. And try to think, not scream.
Just finished shooting another Epson ad for their “Finish Strong” campaign. This one was inspired by the portrait work of Corinne Alavekios, a wonderful shooter, based near Seattle, who embraces the continuous cloud cover and soft light of the Pacific Northwest as a motif for her beautiful, luminous pictures of young women and brides.
The conundrum, or essential difficulty of shooting these is you have to get used to a change up in your thinking. The hopefully dynamic, wonderful shot you create for an ad campaign runs quite small, while the production, BTS shot, or, as it’s referred to on the set, “the shot of the shot,” dominates the real estate of the ad. I shot both ends of this last year for Epson, and got to work with the incredible Anti-Gravity performers, who are a group I’ve had a relationship with for about 20 years now.
But then, having knocked out that relatively complex shot, which ran small, we had to shoot a production shot of doing the shot, which ran huge. This was handled by our own, intrepid Drew Gurian. We shot the ad pic, and then re-staged and blocked out an arrangement for the production image. It being an ad, all the pieces had to fit, puzzle-like, into the art director’s layout, sized and designed for a spread, and a vertical presentation.
For this one, we had responsibility only for the production picture, and left the “shot” up to the magic of Corinne and her team. She writes about our day in the river here, in her blog.
Of course, as always, there were things to solve about this shot as well. As you can see, it was a “fluid” situation. The eye of the exposure needle I had to thread was to light the foreground just a touch, to pull in the details of the sky, but not make that foreground area look too “flashed.” Not a job for small flash! This was big flash all the way, using an Elinchrom Ranger, triggered with Pocket Wizards. The light source was a 74″ Octa Indirect soft box, hoisted on a high roller stand and stabilized with waterproof sandbags. The bigness, and soft quality of the Octa gave me a prayer of matching the overall soft quality of the cloudy day.
And of course, the usual production details abounded. Corinne chose the location, and handled the talent, the hair, makeup and wardrobe, all configured to match her ongoing style of portrait work. (Corinne chose the young ladies well! They were out there in that river in frilly gowns for hours on end. I swear they were direct descendants of Lewis and Clark. Tough Pacific Northwest girls!) On our end, Lynn in our studio had to figure out how to get a dock built. Harder than it sounds. It had to accommodate three people, obviously not sink, be relatively stable in the current, but at the same time be mobile enough rotate into various directions of light and background. It also had to be suitably worn and weathered to look like it had been around since the days of the sailing ships.
Lynn worked her magic and of course found Perfect Docks, in Lake Stevens, Washington. Frank Sovich did an amazing job creating an artistically terrific 600lb. dock for the young ladies to step onto and for us to push around in the muck of the river. And of course there were myriad other details, such as food, RV, travel, permits and insurance. I’m a big fan of guerilla style, just go do it film making, but when you have a crew of 15 people, and a dock and an RV and an Octa on a highboy in the river, you ain’t exactly low profile. This type of thing has to be done by the book.
It was also fun once again working for Epson and the folks from M&C Saatchi. Stephen Reidmiller was terrific as the art director, maintaining a sense of the ad and the placement of the elements even though he was looking at comps in what occasionally was almost chest deep water. And of course we had the redoubtable Mike Grippi out there with us. He hauled the lights, pushed the dock and, at the end of the day, hoisted Corinne for a celebratory shot. He was Flashbus crew, out of Ridgefield, Ct. but now has re-located to Portland, Oregon. Glad he’s out there, as he just jumped in a car and headed up to help us out.
Then of course there were the waders. We all spent a good four or five hours on a cool, cloudy day in a river that at times felt like it was being directly fed by a glacier. Dano Steinhardt of Epson, as usual, was the maestro of events, keeping all of us moving forward and holding steady to idea of the ad, even as the dock was drifting, and the light was changing, and the rain was threatening and everything from our toes to our, well, uh, the, uh, rest of us had gone numb in the river water. The waders really saved us, and of course, everybody took a pair home at the end of the day. Dano, well, he maybe should have left his on location. See below.
Gene is a good guy, and a good shooter who works at Adorama. He was about to get married, last week, at City Hall in downtown Manhattan. He mentioned to his colleague, Annie, my wife, that he kinda, sorta, needed somebody to take some pictures. Annie made a call.
How could you not shoot a joyous few hours like this? Gene’s bride, Olivia, was radiant and beautiful. Gene himself was so over the top in love I coulda used his bald pate as a Group B kicker light. Sharing this day with them was a great way to start the year. (I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve never gotten off of school schedule. August is always dog days, a reprieve and recharge period. September means back at it.)
The day started early at an East Side hotel. Olivia donned her veil (very proud she had found it for $5) and pulled herself together while Gene clutched the marriage license and engaged in deep breathing exercises. Rings? Check! ID’s? Check! Metro card? Check!
And off we went to the subway.
If New York City were a human body, the subway system would be the veins. They nourish the city by ushering people on a mission to every nook and neighborhood. On a subway car, you hear everything from Swahili to French to German to Farsi to English—the unique, mixed jargon of the underground. Very international, which is to say, quite local, given the fact of New York.
Gene, from Ohio, and Olivia, from Zimbabwe, fit right in, and given their attire, and the fact they had a photog in tow, were warmly received on the six train to City Hall and the courts. As block after block zipped by overhead, the congratulations flowed, and good spirits filled the car. It was such a treat as a shooter. Instead of being greeted with the usual mix of subway suspicion and indifference, punctuated by the occasional growl of annoyance at a flash pop interrupting the morning look at Page Six, I was an honored guest. People suggested shots, and had no problem with me squeezing into a crevice on a bench to get an angle.
We flew to City Hall. And found some light along the way.
Once inside, I found myself in an effervescent swirl of happy humanity, all of them there to simply declare their love of someone. This wasn’t atheist, or Christian, or Jewish, or Buddhist. It didn’t have a color, or a preference. It wasn’t about where you were from. It was about where you were about to go with the person you had just declared your love for.
Now, it’s still a government bureaucracy. You have to stand in lines, take a number, report to windows, have documents checked, and pay a fee. But, given the mission of the folks on those lines, there was none of the irritated clock watching and tense conversations that often occur when the public faces off against an overworked bunch of folks behind a counter. Think of a deliriously happy version of the DMV.
At a civil service like this, with literally hundreds of people waiting to give each other their first married kiss, the ceremonies are short and sweet. You walk in single, and three or four minutes later, you’re married. You walk out to the cheers and clapping of total strangers, who bid you good luck, and then walk in to try their own in a whole new chapter of their lives.
I thank Gene and Olivia for the invite to their wedding day. And Annie, who made the call. She snapped this Iphone shot of Gene last week. I’m sure today, he’s back at his station at Adorama, doing his thing, which he does quite well.
Being part of their nuptials was a great way to start the fall, a breath of cool air to blow out the sogginess of a long summer in the big city. It was also a powerful antidote to our current, roiling season of discontent and politics, announced daily in tiresome headlines that fairly reek of nastiness, exclusion and blame mongering. It was a wonderful, emotional reminder that when you find your beloved, your life becomes automatically good.
For the technically minded, the pix were all shot on Nikon D4 cameras, with ISO ratings ranging from 200 to 1600. A little bit of hot shoe flash was mixed in here and there. On the bridge we used a shoot through umbrella, with two SB900 units firing through it, maxed out, given the harsh sunlight. A lot of frames were shot with available light, and I pretty much, for the backgrounds, just let New York be New York. Lenses were 24-70, 70-200 and a 35 f1.4. Post was super basic–a bit of burning and dodging and contrast. Couple got sharpened a touch. Couple others had some NIK lighten/darken center. Other than that, these are JPEGS out of the camera. Gene and Olivia, with their expression of love set against the vibrant mess of NYC, are as real and durable as the concrete they walked that day.
May the road rise up to meet you both…..more tk….
The New York Times just did a piece on the grabbing and grappling that goes on under the surface during the very tough sport of water polo. It’s rough down there. Water polo athletes are amazing aerobic machines, constantly jockeying for position, levering their bodies high out of the water for shots, and fighting through opposing blockers and grabbers. The submerged WWE matches that occur are all just part of the game to the players. But, all that underwater strategizing was one of the reasons I once took the entire 2000 version of the U.S. women’s water polo below the surface for a portrait. It was a hoot.
I’ve got a huge, huge American flag I’ve used at the behest of Sports Illustrated, LIFE and National Geographic many times. So, I simply took the flag and put it in the pool, and let the team get creative. The above ran as a two page spread in SI.
Lighting this type of scene is simple in terms of structure, but daunting in terms of volume. To do this, I laid down a 20′x20′ silk on a frame right over the water. How you do this is to sand bag the hell out of the frame corners resting on the deck, and then tie rope to the far corners. Those ropes run up to high rollers, again thoroughly sand bagged. You basically construct a primitive pulley system and just gently lower this huge diffuser down to where it is inches about the water line. Then you pump six 2400ws units through it. I used Speedotrons out of the SI bank of gear for this. Underwater, you trigger the whole mess with a flash running off of your underwater camera. That lights up a slave eye that is dangling at water’s edge. That, in turn, fires all the packs. Trust me, all those huge packs are safety roped and backed off the water. It would not be a good headline…”Sports Illustrated Photographer Electrocutes Entire US Water Polo Team.”
Shot the pix with a Nikon RS camera, an underwater SLR that they, sadly, no longer make. I loved that camera, despite its tendency to flood. Great array of lenses, and for an underwater rig, eminently focus-able and handy. I’d wait underwater with two or three bodies, and the water polo ladies would confer up top about what to try, and then just all jump in. It was awesome, kind of like being depth charged with beautiful, athletic women. Below is my favorite frame of the take, albeit not really a storytelling, publishable image. A shot like this just goes away in the rush to publish a weekly, but it has a certain randomness I’ve always enjoyed.