1.02.2010

Getting Wet. A quick look at a fun shoot.


If you've read my previous posts you'll know that I shoot the advertising materials for Zachary Scott Theater here in Austin, Texas.  This year we did a season brochure project that called for images from each of the upcoming productions.  One production is an incredibly interesting play, called Metamorphosis, which combines ancient mythology with modern psychiatry. The play will take place in a round pool of water that the theater will build on stage.

We wanted to show the protagonist standing in the soaking rain to give potential audiences a glimpse of what was to come.

To backtrack for just a second, the overall project called for 36 different shots.  This is not the kind of shoot that you just show up for with a shoulder bag full of Vivitar 283's and the best of intentions.  It calls for a sense of continuity between the look and feel of all the shots that will be used together.  It requires the scheduling of 50-60 people as well as the efforts of costuming and prop professionals.

Since many of the supporters and other non-actors that needed to be included in the brochure were politicians, people from large corporations and sought after professionals we needed to set aside a number of alternative days to accomodate everyone's schedules.

We met with the marketing staff several times to trade collaborative ideas about lighting, background and the general visual direction of the materials.  When the time came to do this shot we'd already done six other principal shots that day and had plowed through several thousand digital captures.  But we were prepared and ready.

My background is thirty feet from the camera position.  The spot on the background comes from a focusable spot light.  It's a Desisti fixture with a 300 watt bulb.  This is not a flash.  It's a continuous tungsten light.  The main light is a 1000 watt tungsten light from the Profoto company, called a ProTungsten.  It's one of the few fan cooled continuous lighting fixtures I know of.  We used a Magnum reflector to spread the light evenly over an 84 by 84 inch Photoflex panel with a translucent white diffusion cloth.  The diffusion panel was as close to our actor as we could get it but our light was a good 8 feet from the opposite side of the panel.  This ensured that the spread of light was optimum.

We did get a little spill from this main light toward the camera position but we created a "barn door" with pieces of Black Wrap (a heavy duty, black anodized aluminum foil used by the film industry) clamped on to the magnum reflector with small, metal clamps.  You have to plan for these kinds of contingencies and pack everything that you "might" need because the schedule is not flexible enough to be able to send out for stuff in the middle of a tightly scheduled day.

We created rain by taking a large gardening water can filled with warm water up a 12 foot ladder and just pouring it on the actor.  We tried it again and again and again until the distribution of drops was just right and coincided with the perfect expression.  This is my select from the shoot but it might not be the one that ended up in the brochure because the marketing director knows his final audience better than me and chooses images accordingly.

So,  why continuous lighting instead of flash?  Easy, I wanted the drops of water to elongate over time and give a much more immediate impression of rain drops.  Flash would freeze the water too well and it would look different than the way your mind would envision rain drops.  I also wanted the option to shoot this shot and several others at five frames per second.  Impossible with flash over the course of a long shoot.

This shot took about an hour from start to finish.  When we were done I shook hands with the actor then jumped in to help clean up the mess and reset for the next session.

Our clients in this case were true professionals.  There were trays of cheese, crackers, fresh fruit and other snacks for people who might arrive early for their sessions.  There was also wine, water, sodas and coffee for the talent and the crew.  Video interviews were done with each principal actor.  (Another reason to use continuous lighting......thinking in advance of need).  Every prop was ready and standing by.  They booked multiple make up artists so we could have one on set for touch ups while another readied the next talent.  The scheduling was immaculate.

When I go into a shoot like this I want to feel a real collaboration between myself, the subjects and the marketing team.  We all leave our egos at the front door.  The objective is not to win awards (although many of our past brochures have won Addy awards) the objective is to put paying audiences in the theater seats over the course of a year.  Everyone needs to be clear about that from the beginning of the project.  I ask for what I know we will need and not one inch more.

Each of the shots in the project were done with two or three lights.  The example above is done with two lights and a white, foam core reflector panel to one side.  Metering is always done with a Sekonic incident light meter.  In this case the image was created with a Nikon D700 camera and an 85mm lens.  We shot large, fine jpegs.

When you do a job like this you may be on your feet from the set up in the early morning until you pull the last case back into the safe confines of the studio, after dark.  But you have to approach each component shot with the same focus and commitment at each moment of the day.  The reason is that the energy of each shot will be directly comparable by the final viewer and it must be consistent.  The shot at the end of the day must be as polished and emotionally connected as the first.  Not easy to do without lots of practice.

When I walk into our house at the very end of the day I am sometimes too tired to talk.  I've been entertaining, cajoling and pushing people all day long.  I've been making constant decisions:  Should I go lighter or darker?  More fill or less?  Push for an over the top smile or go for the subtle nuance?  Laugh at the 20 or 30 times people say, "I hope I don't break your camera!" Or, commiserate with the ten or so who, "Hate the way I look in pictures!"

And when the sexy part of the shoot is over and everyone has toasted the effort with Champagne and then gone off for an early dinner my assistant and I are the ones who spend the next hour or so knocking down the set, packing the lights, labeling the envelopes with the memory cards in them and then packing everything into the car(s).

And when I've had a good night's sleep I get up the next morning, grab my coffee and then head into the office because there are 6,000 files that need to get off the memory cards onto a hard drive, edited, burned to an archive disk, then sized and prepped for initial delivery.  That's another day.  And when the client makes final selections the real fun begins as I sit down for a day long session of correcting contrast and color for each chosen file.  Some will have notes attached that ask me to do "just a little" retouching on an actor's face or because of some sort of costume or prop failure.

It just goes with the territory.

People ask me if I can't just farm out all of the post production and I guess you could if your clients had the time and you had the budget.  But in the real world you get to do all the "butt" work.  And that's the anatomy and overview of the shot above as part of a bigger project.  Just thought you'd like to know.

Edit. 01/03/2010:  Some people have asked for a link to more zach photos from this project:
http://www.zachtheatre.org/stages/09_10_season.html
Near the top right hand of the page is a link to a pdf for the entire brochure.

New Year's Walk. Getting into the new decade.


     Tree in Zilker Park.  EP2 with kit zoom.  Handheld.  Tree lit by a street light.


I don't know about you but I think best when I'm out walking around.  Can't imagine spending the first day of the new decade sitting in front of a television set watching sports.  At some point, if you've watched hundreds of football games on TV, don't you feel like you're a participant in that Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day?  Excuse the digression.

I spent the morning doing a ritual celebration with some of my swim friends.  We'd done a 6000 yard swim on New Year's Eve and we celebrate the next morning by heading to Barton Springs Pool to jump into the chilly, spring water and swim around.  There's a group of swimmers that starts each year with a nude swim (only in the middle of Austin) at 6 a.m.  but we get there at a much more civilized 9 a.m.

After we swim around and dive off the diving board we all bundle up and head over to a friend's house for waffles.  A local coffee shop of note sends over a barrista and the appropriate equipment so that every swimmer and attendant family member can enjoy the city's best coffee, made to order.  After the waffles and coffee we all float off and do whatever else it is people do on New Year's Day.

For me it's all about grabbing a camera and lens and walking around the city.  If you've followed my blog recently you know I'm captivated with the Olympus EP2 and whatever lens I feel like sticking on the front.  Yesterday it was still the little 14-42mm zoom.

     Holiday Decorations on cactus in Clarksville Neighborhood.


I set off from the middle of the old Clarksville neighborhood and headed at a leisurely pace over the several miles to downtown.  I stopped to see what was new at the flagship store of Whole Foods and wandered past the weird furniture store on W. Sixth Street that sells sculpture and Elvis figures.


I loved the juxtaposition of this bizzare bronze in the foreground and the statue of the Virgin Mary in the background although I can't really say why.

I should note that I shot a lot of raw files yesterday and processed them in Lightroom 2.6.  I don't go in for much sharpening, and God forbid I should abuse the clarity or shadow and highlight sliders.  What I usually do is to correct the white balance to make the images pleasing.

I think it's part of the pathology of photographers, no matter what their typical personal style, to not be able to pass up bizzare images of Elvis Presley so, of course, when I saw a figure of him behind bars I snapped a few frames of the "The King".



I'd set my ISO to 800 or 1600 during the waffle bacchanal and had forgotten to change it back to my usual default of ISO 200 but I don't think it made much difference in the enjoyment of the images for me.  I contend that, as a result of only looking at images on computer screens people have become much to sensitized to the "horrors" of electronic noise than they need to be.

After I left Elvis I moved on toward downtown and didn't really see much I wanted to shoot.  There were the many new high rise condominium towers in various states of completion but I felt I'd covered them pretty well in my last long walk.  Instead I went looking for close ups like leaves with Lady Bird Lake in the background.  And, for a few minutes, I understood the motivation of some landscape photographers.  Then I realized that I was just having a viceral response to the beauty of the fresh, clean, late afternoon light that was rubbing it's golden glow over every object it could find.  The light was just shamelessly beautiful yesterday from 4:30pm on.  My first regret of the new year was that I didn't have a beautiful model in tow.  This was the kind of light that could make any photographer look good so long as he or she pointed their camera in the right direction.



I went through downtown and along the Lake toward the pedestrian bridge.  Since it was New Year's day all the overweight resolution makers crowded the hike and bike trail running along with the daily regulars who run year in and year out.  Brand new shoes, brand new running apparel and uneasy looks of discomfort shining in their faces.  Over the bridge and into South Austin where I cut past Zachary Scott Theater and up the road to Flip Happy Crepes.  The light was directionless and liquid at this point and I saw this pile of rocks on one of the picnic tables.  Not sure why I thought it was so cool at the moment but the rocks stopped me while the stacks of brightly colored, incredibly weathered, folding metal chairs kept me shooting for a while.




I walked on past restaurant row.  Past Chuy's Tex-Mex restaurant and into Zilker Park.  By this time the sun had set and I was walking the dark trails with the aid of occasional street lights.  I kept shooting just to see what the EP2 and the Image Stabilization would get me.  Most of the time I'm shooting wide open on the camera so it's probably not a fair test of lens quality but what the hell do I care?  I'm just shooting this for my self and, for the most part, I really don't care just how sharp this or that photo is as long as I enjoy taking it and subsequently looking at it.  Face it, most of us take images to remember how things looked and what we felt at the time, not as a test for some silly testosterone contest.

As a portrait photographer I spend too much time already trying to walk a line between bringing down too much sharpness without calling attention to the technique of degradation required to render things the way I really see them.

So  I kept shooting stuff like this next  image until the battery indicator in the camera told me to quit shooting now and the air temperature told me to go home.


The Olympus EP2 handheld.  800 ISO.  Tree in Zilker Park.  New Year's Day 2010.

So I'm walking around for four hours and I've hit the hills in Westlake to get home and now it's time to summarize in my own head all the things I thought about during my first stroll of the new decade.  I thought about my friend, Russell Secker's new book, Running Across Countries.  He's an ultra marathon runner who wrote and self published a book about his run across Europe.  His book is available as a "print on demand" book at Amazon.com.  After my experiences creating photographic books I've come to believe that we're about to turn the book publishing industry upside down.  I think ebooks, with video components, will be launched first and then made available as "print on demand" physical books instead of the other way around.

Why eBooks?  Because the markets and the technology and, of course, the products change so quickly that the old method which involved taking a year to come to press squanders some of the potential that the information contains by dint of books trailing innovation instead of helping to grow it.  I'd like to do a book teaching digital photographers important techniques about video.  About lighting and movement and scripting and creating a solid narrative.  The market is here.  Now.  Today.  It is resident in nearly every camera bag that contains a new Nikon, Canon or micro 4:3rds camera.  But traditional publishers will give a nod to the trend when it goes "mass acceptance" instead of getting the book now.

I thought about moving images and how people are using photos in today's life.  The big, framed, posed portraits of yesterday seem dated.  The iPhone snapshot seems triumphant and yet I think portraits that transcend widely done styles from the past and step into the realm of fine art will still have a market.  The model is Jock Sturges and Sally Mann.  Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.  The vanishing market belonged to the carefully airbrushed or photoshopped, posed portrait with the family in matching clothes and each subject carefully lit by four or five not altogether convincing light sources.  Art and craft have to intersect to make good work going forward.  Formula will no longer do the job.  Not for my corporate clients and not for your retail clients.

Finally, I thought about how lucky I am to have such good friends and such great family.  No matter what the economy ultimately does, going forward, we'll weather it with the insulation of love and friendship.  And we'll measure value by happiness and sharing, not by acquisition and hoarding.

At this juncture I've written over 120 blog posts and gotten some good feedback.  If you have a moment to make leave a comment I'd love to hear from you about three things:

1.  I would really like know what you think about the future of book publishing.  Do you buy eBooks?  Would you? What would you like to see?  2.  I'd also love to hear from you about your ideas for the perfect photo workshop.  What would you like to learn?  3.  Are there subjects that you wish I would write about that I've not done previously, here?  Let me know.  The comments cost neither of us anything so if you have the inclination then let it rip.

Thanks for tuning in and supporting my writing.  I appreciate the "con" comments as much as I appreciate the "pro" comments.  I am rarely 100% right and it's good feedback to get called on it.

Here's hoping we all have a great new decade.  Kirk