Archive for the ‘In The Field’ Category
Another in a continuing set of blogs, parsing out a current National Geographic story on UAVs published in the March issue.
The way it was shot….
The way it ran…
When I tell some folks, who might be just starting to shoot jobs for money, that a client like Nat Geo sees every frame I shoot, they tend to blanche a bit. Every frame? Like, even the ones you don’t retouch?
Yep, good bad or indifferent, every frame goes to the magazine. Was like that in film days, and remains true now. (I say this as being a general rule of engagement with the yellow border gang, without knowing if some isolated photogs out there have a special arrangement with them. That could be possible.) But, for the workaday shooter in the employ of the magazine, you shoot it and ship it.
Which means of course the raw file. No PhotoShop, no retouching. The pix drop out of the camera onto a hard drive and thence into a FedEx package and onto 17th and M in DC. Most of your images are in fact like a stone you drop down a well. There’s a long period of silence, then a distant splash as they vanish from sight forever. Sometimes though, quite wonderfully, they don’t just drop unceremoniously out of the camera. Some actually strut outta your picture machine like a Vegas showgirl in full plumage, resplendent in seductive stilettos and fishnets, and all so sparkly and spangly they utterly bedazzle the bespectacled editors at the Geographic, who, I suspect, are a group who don’t get out much. They win their audition in stylish fashion, and thus gain entry, in all their colorful glory, onto the pages of the magazine. That happens to a rare few, actually.
But honestly, “dropping out of the camera” is a good description for most of your efforts. Thud! Mine in particular often bear a rough similarity to a bunch of rapid fire rabbit turds. There’s a bunch of them, they smell bad, and they get left behind.
They get left behind for good reasons, of course. The astute picture editors at Geographic are a pretty visually jaded bunch, having had many wonderfully stirring images pass their eyeballs. I can only imagine what goes through their heads as they plow through a take. (“Christ, another beautiful sunset. What was this asshole thinking?”) They seek only those images which impart difference and information in a truly distinctive way. If it’s just plain pretty, it generally closes out of town.
I thought I might have had one of those rare, meritorious, worthy of ink images with the frame atop the blog. It features one of the ” 50 best inventions of the year,” the Nano hummingbird, which flies and hovers just like a hummingbird and bears a video camera onboard. It is in the class of mini UAVs that are currently being experimented with and developed. The inventor, Matt Keenan, of AeroVironment, is a pretty brilliant guy, so, I thought, let’s get him with the machine. That was harder than you might expect.
Here’s the basics. It’s a programmed double exposure on a D3X. In brief, it’s got two small flash exposures, operating on different channels, during each exposure, a pair of LED lights attached to the bird (my suggestion), and a focus shift in between those exposures. First exposure was at a fast shutter speed. Second exposure was on bulb.
First exposure: A channel one deal, with a 24″ softbox on the Matt’s face, and then various hard flash splashed around the warehouse room to establish some sort of depth and context. These have various gels, and there is an ungelled flash rimming him. Shutter speed, 1/250 of a second. Didn’t want any cracks or slivers of light in the big room to bleed into the photograph. For the subject, he simply has to stand there, and look at the camera, UAV controller in hand.
Second exposure: On the same piece of, uh, film. Change channels on the commander to two. Two speed lights rigged to light the little birdie off to camera right. A main and a backlight. The hummingbird, LEDs alight, takes off from the inventor’s feet, and flies in its herky jerky way over to semi-hover in front of the camera lens. Focus has been shifted from the human to the bird. Click. Camera processes double exposure. Check LCD. Re-do. Digital definitely facilitated this. If I had to shoot this on film, I’d still be there. Each flight was between 5 to 10 seconds, and the LEDs carve a pattern in the blackness.
Here’s Cali and Drew in position for lighting purposes, with Drew doing his best hummingbird imitation.
Of course, the hummingbird we worked with was a singular prototype, so we were lucky to get a picture at all, and the thing didn’t break. And, being a prototype, its flight path, as you can see above, was on the unpredictable side. (It has evidently made great strides since this time in terms of endurance and precision of flight.) And of course, yours truly just flat out missed it a couple of times, as it buzzed its way past my ear.
But we got the deal done, and shipped it, un-retouched to the mag. It ran, as I hoped it would, but only as, really, the second exposure. In the published version, the focus is on the bird, not the inventor. Which is okay by me. Once you surrender a picture to a magazine, it is under their purview, not yours.
So….here’s your chance to art direct a bit. Cropped version? Uncropped version? Which do you prefer? Which tells the story better?
Just like the opener, you never know exactly where it’s going to come from.
Argo did well at the Academy Awards this past week. Good movie. It transported me to another place in time, which is what good movies are supposed to do.
Back to 1980, when Iran held the hostages, and the attention of virtually everyone in this county. 444 days! It was endless for us, unimaginable for the hostages. I was there at West Point when they came back on buses from Stewart AFB, but those chromes have been lost over time. Managed to hang onto a chrome from lower Broadway and the ticker tape welcome home parade. I shinnied up a light pole with my cameras and perched, quite uncomfortably, on a traffic sign for several hours as the parade made its way. Thankfully, it was quite cold, and my ass just froze, so I was able to ignore the fact that I was basically giving myself a street sign wedgie. My positioning, and the inclusion of Liberty St. was, of course, not an accident.
As a location shooter on assignment, you are continuously desperate on many levels, and one of the principal sources of your ongoing anxiety is the search for the lead photo. It is a picture that does a lot of the heavy lifting for you. It’s the opening spread, bears the weight of type and text, announces the intent of the coverage, and, most importantly, grabs the eyeballs of the beleaguered, over-saturated, out of time reader. It sometimes has nano-seconds to do this. Sometimes you know you have it, instantly, when you shoot it. (As one of the old timers at the New York Daily News told me, somewhat indelicately, when I was just a pup apprentice in the studio, “You know you got somethin’ good, kid, ’cause you can feel your asshole goin’ like dis!” He then made kind of circular grouping of his fingers, and roughly imitated the uh, well, feeling.)
Having just come out of the Masters program in photojournalism at Syracuse University, and thus having been steeped in the elegant, erudite legends of Steichen and Stieglitz, I was amused, and mildly appalled at this rough around the edges piece of advice. However, that street-wise NY shooter knew what he was talking about. When you do get that picture, the one you come for, and you know you got it, something happens. Your head pings, your heart skips, your lungs catch abruptly. Or something happens elsewhere, as he indicated. I guess that’s just a matter of one’s personal physiology as it relates to the welcome emotional relief that knowing a good picture has been made bequeaths to you. It’s like the sound of the shutter nailing that frame constitutes a momentary overload, and your circuit breakers trip inside of you, somewhere.
Sometimes this just happens, almost effortlessly, in the course of a coverage. Sometimes, it’s a pulled tooth. I did a telescope coverage for Nat Geo not too long ago. (I’ve shot telescopes for Geographic twice now, and these types of coverages are like being an extra in the opening scene of Les Miserables. It’s heavy lifting.) I got sent to the world’s largest binocular telescope up on Mt. Graham, in Arizona. It was bad weather, and the scope could not be opened, but we had a deadline, so I went, met an assistant there, and we proceeded to light the interior of the chamber.
I knew this telescope was important to the story, but I also knew this would most likely not fly as a lead. Too confined, too busy. A lot of work for a picture to never see the light of day, and the work is not particularly joyous at that point, because I’ve been doing this long enough to know, at least occasionally. as I’m shooting it, that the picture, as my dear friend and editor at NGS Bill Douthitt tends to say, “is going to Toledo.” His phraseology for a pic that is on a train out of town, and ain’t coming back.
So I went back. Chalked off the first go round to an exhausting scout. I pushed the notion that the pic was outside, looking in, not the reverse. My ever patient studio manager and production guru, Lynn, drilled through the reams of paperwork required to get a 175′ boom crane truck up Mt. Graham, which is a National Park and an endangered species area, and we blocked it into the side of the hill, went up and shot what turned out to be the lead.
Occasionally, your work in the field is such a blur, that you make the lead pic and you don’t know it. Sports Illustrated sent me to Japan for a month to shoot Japanese golf, and I was met in gracious and ceremonial fashion by our Japanese hosts, who promptly whisked myself and Gabe, my assistant at the time, off to a huge welcome dinner. Jet lag of those proportions does not mix well with high end, exotic Japanese style cooking, and Gabe and I gamely, honorably, muddled our way through a Daisy wheeled panoply of fish with the eyes and heads, spicy brains, eel and the like, and then…..we were brought to a a famed, multi-tier driving range in downtown Tokyo to do a shoot!
I don’t recall shooting this, actually, as my head was just as much of a blur as the foreground golfer, which I shot with a flash mix, which of course endeared me to everyone at the range. They got their revenge for my flash affronts when Gabe and I were given what we dubbed “the bat shield,” and allowed to walk out in front of all the golfers to shoot back at the grandstand. One of them almost took my ear off as I poked camera and lens around the screen to make pictures. I didn’t know it, and I of course continued to shoot for a month, but I had the lead photo within hours of stepping off the plane.
And then of course, you can be utterly clueless. (Numnuts strikes again!) That’s when you need an editor. For the pic up top, it was our first day in the field with multiple UAVs. We had three, which was a good thing, ’cause two of them didn’t work. It was a shakedown day, opening day, sort of, and I wasn’t overly concerned at the non-performance of our flying machines. It was cold, and getting dark, so Drew and I set up a small flash on a paint pole, and started just making some sort of picture, somehow, out of this day in the field that was an absolute bust. Ziggy, our intrepid UAV pilot, hovered his Micro-kopter out in the middle of a lonely agricultural road, and I shot a few frames, and we called it a night. The lead photo was in the camera, but I didn’t know it.
My editor Bill, at Geographic, and I share an unfortunate fascination with all manner of bad movies, science fiction, comic book characters. As our wives remind us, if we could just download the committed to memory dialogue of movies from Dirty Harry to Predator to Monty Python, our upstairs decks might actually clear enough to do something productive. But, his dark fascinations do play a role. In this pic he saw something–I don’t know–UAVs meet Twin Peaks, or here’s the UAV scouting for the imminent zombie attack. Anyway, he brought it forward, and the magazine gave it a stamp of approval, and it became the lead. I had zip to do with that process. The only stupidly smart thing I did was put my camera to my eye and keep shooting on a day when all was basically lost.
Tech specs….Flash on paint pole, w/ dome diffuser, camera left. 14-24mm lens at 15mm. D3S camera. 1/80th at f5.6, ISO 800. Below is a shot as it lands, so you can see why I had to look up at it. If I referenced the ground, the shadow from the flash becomes too prominent.
I have a great deal of empathy for pet photogs, those fonts of perpetual patience. I’ve only had one experience doing it, and it came to me via LIFE magazine, who had a notion of doing a four page double gatefold of all 148 (at that time) breeds of dog present at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in Madison Square Garden in NY. This year’s show just concluded, with an affable Affenpinscher named, oddly enough, Banana Joe, as the winner.
The things you do as a photog. I set up a 617 Fujica Panorama camera, on a super heavy tripod, and gaffered it to the floor. We then massed sandbags around the legs, so many that the thing looked like a machine gun placement out of a World War II movie. The camera could not move for three straight days. It was looking at a stage we built, with draping and brightly painted blocks for the smaller pooches to climb up on. Behind the drape, concealed, stood the owners. (Trust me, show dog owners are a highly specialized breed, themselves.) I then would try my best to get the little darlings attention, via all manner of undignified noises and gestures at the camera. It got so embarrassing, so quickly, that my assistants taped a scrawled message to the back of the camera: “You Said Yes,” referring to the assignment.
I did say yes, and when you open your mouth as a photog, and that word comes out of it, the editor then shifts the responsibility for whatever happens to your long suffering shoulders. I had great support from the LIFE staff on this job, gathering pooches, keeping the breeds straight, making sure that no animosities surfaced on the set amongst our star subjects. (I don’t want to be next to the Ibizan Hound!) The whole thing was the brainchild of Melissa Stanton, one of the senior editors, and a dog lover.
I also had to listen to the owners, one of whom, whose charge was a Labrador Retriever, warned me, “Whatever you do, don’t use a squeaky toy to get his attention. He will come get it, and I probably can’t hold him.” My bad. I didn’t convey that to the crew, one of whom was behind me with a squeaky toy, and gave it a good honk. That lab bounded off the stage, dragging his owner through the draping and plowed through my lights and stands to, well, retrieve. Mayhem ensued. Throughout it all the pooch’s expression of the sheer joy of the chase never changed.
The gatefold itself was put together back at the magazine in Rubik’s Cube fashion by the art directors. You can see the original 617 transparencies above, still in their sleeve, with grease pencil marks, adhesive tape codes and numbers, which I dodged out (badly) to simply show the physical nature of chromes and how they would be transported into print. It was a very popular spread in the book at the time. Lots of dog lovers out there.