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In my last portrait post I featured some images of Martha McCarthy, co founder of the Social Lights Digital Marketing Agency. Today’s post features her business partner, Emily Pritchard. I’m presenting a start to finish description of my workflow in this post, but suffice it to say that this was one of the more technical shoots I’ve attempted – and boy did I learn a few things. I hope you find the description useful. Additionally, you can watch a fun little behind – the – scene video from the shoot.
Workflow – Start to Finish
1. Selecting concept – Many of my portrait shoots starts with a strong concept. In this case we’re working with the idea of Alter Ego, but that wasn’t enough information. What personalities are going to be portrayed? How will they relate to contemporary communication behavior? This is, after all, a Social Media marketing company. I received from Emily a loose description of what she wanted, but it needed work. I created a set of characters that aided in a better understanding of the shoot for everyone involved:
Snooky (Jersey Shore) – the quintessential party socialite, relying heavily on text and Facebook to communicate. Lord knows she can’t use the spoken word very well;
Suzy Orman – Power business woman multi-tasking machine. Speaking, phone, iPad simultaneously;
Bartender – Some of the best communicators in society, they still do it with spoken word and body language;
Angelina and Brad – Angelia just caught Brad getting naughty texts from Snooky across the bar. Hehehehehehe
2. Selecting Location – This shot was much more complicated for a variety of reasons, including shooting on location. In this case we wanted a bar setting to best capture “social,” but finding the right bar was very difficult. We wanted modern and stylish and we were restricted to working on a Saturday. Most bar/restaurants open for lunch and we just couldn’t squeeze it in around their schedules. Some just don’t want to mess around with it. You also should have insurance for this kind of activity (which I do). Furthermore, shooting this kind of project on location is very different than a studio. In the studio I’m lighting everything. On location this just isn’t feasible for me. The production of it is much too big and expensive. This can create a wide range of post production issues. Joel Grimes, and well known portrait guy, shoots his subjects on a white background in the studio and pastes them into a scene. This requires great insight and skill to pull off well and solves a bunch of lighting issues. It becomes a great exercise in Photoshop. So does my approach, only complicated by the differences in where light falls and when- and getting a clean paste.
3. The Shoot: Staging - once on location I needed to use all three assistants and Emily to seat at the bar, just so I could establish a camera position and anticipate possible issues. The biggest staging issues was to anticipate hand and body gestures and the physical space in which they occur. I didn’t want a hand gesture from one character interfering with the face of another and in some cases, creating insurmountable post production problems. Also, once the shoot starts things need to stay put. Not just the camera/tripod, but the chairs, props, etc.
4. The Shoot: Lights – I used two strobe lights. My key light was a beauty dish and my accent light was a medium rectangular soft box. You can get a sense of the setup from the video.
5. Post Production: Creating the Master File – The first thing I had to do was play with the process. I started layering images, anticipating issues, layer in a different order, etc. There is some intuitiveness to this, in so much as starting from Angelina forward to Snooky, because of how body parts might overlap. But I also shot several frames with no one in them to capture light everywhere in the scene and bring that in as needed. So, its a little complicated. And messy. And time consuming (hence only 2 finished versions so far). The hard work is in masking. I get right down to the pixel level and mask along necessary edges and merges to create as clean and realistic feel as my patience will allow. I save this file with layers as a master file. If there is a mistake or something is missed, I definitely want to come back to this point. This file, with layers, is over 730 mb. Yep, that’s right. A biggie. You better have a lot of RAM if you’re going to try this.
6. Post Production: The Secret Sauce – well, I can’t give everything away, now can I? Suffice it to say I like contrast and edginess, but I don’t use commercial filters to do this. I have my own very small set of easy to use tools, all of which I discovered just playing around. One hint though: “blending modes and opacity.”
Welcome to today’s post. We’re going to take a bit of a different direction today. As many of you know, I shoot both fine art landscapes and portrait work and today’s portrait images were inspired by celebrity photographer Derek Blanks. Derek pioneered the concept of Alter Ego in photography – capturing an individual’s distinctly different identities in one single image. Brilliant! I love Derek’s work with this concept and wanted to play with it myself. Then the opportunity to work with a fast-rising start up social media marketing company, The Social Lights, was presented to me and we discussed the possibility of working with the Alter Ego concept.
Martha, a co-founder of The Social Lights, gave me some descriptions of herself as a working business professional, but also gave me some thoughts on her love of Vintage and the TV show Mad Men. So, we went with it…building two Alter Ego’s around the modern day business woman and the vintage woman, representing the modes of communication of the times.
Lighting is easy, but its also difficult. Its easy to get your lights to do what you want, its difficult to know what you want. Having worked with studio lighting for a few years now, I could see in my mind the “look.” With that image in mind, I went through the following process to establish the final lighting diagram you see below.
Step 1. Establish Key Light – the beauty dish is my key light and once I was happy the amount and positioning of light falling on Martha, I was ready to move on;
Step 2. Establish Fill Lights – the umbrellas are my fill lights. They have the job of bringing the rest of the scene, along with heavy shadows on Martha, back up to a level that made sense for me;
Step 3. Establish Hair/Rim Light – Now I was ready to set up a Hair Light. For this I used a large softbox. Why? I had a spot grid but it produced a harder light than I wanted for this shot. So, all I had on location with me was a large rectangular softbox. It cast a broad, very soft and subtle accent. Perfect;
Step 4. Background Light – This was not immediately obvious. While looking at the test shots I had a feeling that something was missing. The background light was it. Right behind the couch, dead center. It creates that added sense of drama and dimension.
Today’s post arises out of the strong interest to create portrait photography of people I find personally compelling, but to shoot them in a place that represents, to a greater extent, their story. I’m after the story in a very few, but meaningful, words and still images. This is certainly not a fashion shoot and hopefully less contrived than an editorial shoot. A few of you in my readership know the subject personally and/or professionally, and many of you have never heard of him or his accomplishments. In any event, I’d love for you to post your reaction to the words, the images or both. And of course I’m happy to answer any questions regarding technique.
Background: Subject of the shoot was Dan Hanlon, an entrepreneur that has founded several businesses including Excelsior – Henderson Motorcycle. The story of EH is well documented in the press and I’ll leave it to you to research it, but he did raise about $100 million to bring to market a heavy weight cruiser motorcycle and compete directly against Harley Davidson. I’ve known Dan for a decade, well outside the EH experience, and am aware of his vast entrepreneurial career. I am drawn to what I affectionately refer to as his “Danness;” the idea of Dan, his energy, drive, value systems, his DNA, or more conventionally, the stuff that makes him tick. With the help of my good friend and entrepreneur, John Benzick (Risk, Stumble, Stand), we photographed and interviewed Dan for 2 hours in a small barn on the dairy farm in Belle Plaine, MN where Dan grew up. John was still talking with Dan while I was breaking down my gear when Dan made reference to a quote by Shakespeare. A friend of Dan’s would use this quote to describe him. It was these last words and the images I chose that, for me at least, capture his Danness.
“Some men never seem to grow old. Always active in thought, always ready to adopt new ideas,
they are never chargeable with foggyism.
Satisfied, yet ever dissatisfied, settled, yet ever unsettled, they always enjoy the best of what is, are the first to find
the best of what will be.”
technical details: Canon 5D MkII, Canon 24-70mm, ISO200, f/10, 1/100sec, tripod, 3 alien bees strobes (see lighting diagram below)
In a recent post I wrote about resetting my north star, with a focus on “intimate relationships.” My very first project in that direction was with Tommy Becker, a recently graduated senior from St. Thomas. Tommy majored in Entrepreneurship and took my capstone class this past semester. Tommy lead Wayzata High School football to a state championship in 2005, as a linebacker. He then went to UMN on scholarship and finally (and fortunately) settled at UST. In his first year at UST he wracked up 71 tackles and was picked for the all MIAC team. In the North Star post I wrote about focus, meaning, direction, determination. He spoke to me several times about his unwavering belief that he’ll get to play in the NFL and he speaks in a way that leaves no doubt in your mind that it will happen. I dig this. This kind of drive and determination made Tommy a great photography subject. Keep an eye on Tommy – he has a track record for accomplishing his goals. The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote an article (click HERE) on Tommy last fall that gives you a good idea of who he is as a football player and individual.
We shot a number of variations. I was shooting off my tripod for some technical reasons, so choosing camera position was critical. Then I interviewed Tommy while snapping the shutter and got some great moments, but this is one of my favorites. I used three lights, set up in the UST football locker room – see lighting diagram. I was very pleased with the light effect I got with having my rim lights just off the edge of the camera’s perspective. I chose a beauty dish with spot grid for my key light – I strongly prefer the subtle shadowing the beauty dish provides for portraits. The beauty dish was positioned directly behind my camera and just above it.
Technical Details: Studio White Background, Alien Bees 800, Medium Rectangular softbox, Pocket Wizard remotes, f/7.1, ISO100, 1/160 sec shutter speed, Canon 5D MkII, Canon 24-70mm
Hi Gang, I want to share an image I shot over the weekend and discuss some of the technique use in it and the images in my previous post. “Why Are They Surfing Lake Superior?” Let’s start with that one by mentioning the photographers currently inspiring/influencing my personal work. One is Joel Grimes (my cousin KC turned me on to him) – Joel’s work blows me away. Another is the work of Eric Curry, who I’ve mentioned previously. I’m beginning to play with their techniques as a fresh start to 2011 photography season.
Next I want to share a quote my friend Megan sent to me, read by her daughter from Jim Henson’s Doodle Dreams book. “An artist gives people back a part of themselves – the stories and sounds, the feeling of what it’s like to be alive. That’s a pretty powerful gift.” Its just a beautiful quote I wanted to share with others.
In the Lake Superior portraits I used one light, my speedlight with a softbox on a light stand, above and right behind me. My intention was to use a three strobe setup, but upon arriving I found out that my power converter wouldn’t handle it. No worries, I had my alien bees battery pack as a backup. Well, I thought it was charging the entire drive up, but it was dead. So, #3 backup was the single speedlight I was fortunate enough to have with me.
I first shot my portraits with the light, then had John the surfer step out of the scene and shot a series of 3 images for HDR processes. In post production I first produced the background using the Photomatix HDR engine, then I brought the frame with John back in and masked him into the image. In both images of John I used a series of Photoshop processes, including Selective Color layers pulling back the brightness on reds and yellows, as well as a mix of gradient maps and high pass filtering to get my own gritty look.
In today’s image it was much more complicated. Tommy, the subject, is an amazing talent. He’s a musician, but he’s also incredibly inventive and creative. The remote control car at his hands was built by stripping down parts from three other cars and building what he wanted. He knows more about a race car than a NASCAR crew chief. I wanted to photograph him in his boycave, where his work gets done. It doesn’t stop with cars, though. He builds extremely large, intricate Star Wars cruisers, in the background is a solar oven he built as a class project (it basically got much hotter much faster than any other), and like many young men, he digs riding his skateboard and snowboard. While building his creations he watches “Top Gear” on TV.
The space was staged and then I brought in my strobes. Two accent/rim lights and a key light immediately camera left. Then the lights were removed and I shot a series of 3 images with all the room lights on, for HDR production (Photomatix Exposure Fusion engine). After that, both Tommy and I started painting with light. We used a fluorescent work lamp from Home Depot wrapped in blue gel for the star wars ships. I used a spot light for the car at his hands, as well as across the floor, the stack of tires, the small helicopter lower left, etc. Then on the lower left space ship Tommy put a flashlight down inside to get the warm glow in the control deck. All in all, I layered together 25 frames to compose the single final image. I’ve included a few of the layer images for reference. The first is the HDR image, then a couple of frames painted with light.
“There are some people looking to play the guitar. There’s other people looking for a sound. I was looking for a sound…”. Keith Richards, from his biography, “Life.“ This quote really struck me as I was in the process of thinking about this post. I’ve been grappling with the idea of finding my voice in photography, and I don’t think I’ve found one yet. That feels like a question for others to answer. At the same time I wonder if it matters?. Maybe a better question is to ask when does it matter? I’ve reached out to a few artists in pursuit of a perspective to share on this issue. Here is what the early, and maybe predictable responses, are:
1) “If I develop a style, I’ve stopped evolving.” Christian S., founder of the band Catchpenny;
2) “I shoot all over the map. I hope that never stops.” Martin B., photographer;
3) “You need to have a unique voice in your work.” Debra W., Creative Consultant to the advertising industry;
I can remember a moment in a photo workshop, early in my workshop process, a teacher challenging us to “examine what it is you want to say in your photography.” At the time I thought, “I have no bloody idea. I’ve already failed. I just like taking pictures, pretty pictures, fun pictures. Landscape pictures. Isn’t that enough?” It was frustrating? No one talked about the what where when how or why of finding my voice. It was just asserted that I must find one. This caused problems for both hemisphere’s of my brain. The right just wants to create within the moment, damn the idea of what I want to say (which may or may not be coming through) and the left brain says, “wait a moment, you must shoot this to your style.”
Then came an evening recently when the image above was shot. I’ve decided to do a lot of experimenting with my studio/portrait photography and dragged my friend John into the studio to experiment with some unusual lighting conditions. The experiment quickly failed and I became a little frustrated. John was great and helped talk through what it was I didn’t like. What I didn’t like was that I kept wanting to run from the experimental conditions right back to what I knew. My style, my voice, my look in the studio. There was quite a little battle taking place in me. An important battle.
So, the rhetorical questions I’m still struggling with:
1) Am I taking pictures or creating a sound, a voice?
2) Is it important to have a voice and if so, where when and why?
3) How do I manage the struggle to fall back on what I know how to do, what’s comfortable, what I shot a hundred times before vs. trying something truly new to me? There are real costs associated with failed experiments.
I’d love to hear from you on these questions – as they relate to your own photographic process, your life process, your entrepreneurial process.
About the image: John is a part of a small, brave group of souls who surf Lake Superior during the late fall, winter and early spring storms. By most accounts, totally insane. We wanted to capture a look – a feel consistent with the idea and I was inspired by some lighting I saw recently that I thought would be a great fit for the mood. It quickly failed in my eyes and we decided to finish on some more conventional approaches, just to keep productive. The final look of the image is my own secret sauce of editing, not a photoshop/lightroom plugin – no “auto awesome” button here. (Quoting a good man, Markus Mangold).
Consistent, quality photography is generally not an accident or product of happenstance. Its a product of management and preparation. I now spend less than 1% of my time on any shoot actually pushing that silly little shutter button.
I recently had a teaching client in my studio working on a shoot. I had worked with this client previously, watched his behavior and listened to his words. His behavior was anxious, nervous, uncertain, lacking confidence. His words were, “I don’t like pre-visualization, I just like to go with the flow.” I’m not judging this behavior as poor; its a natural part of the learning process, but can regularly lead to less than optimal outcomes. So this time around I forced him into the studio the day before his shoot for several hours of preparation. Check lighting with props, nail down some camera settings, anticipate HOW you want to shoot, work with computers and software so your process is clear. The outcome of the shoot was amazing, some of the best work he has done yet, in which he was able to focus on the model and shoot and eliminate dealing with pre-shoot issues. He has become a fan of what this really means and a blog post started brewing in my head. Then good friend and outstanding photographer, Matt Gibson, stated recently in his blog post, “My job as a photographer is to continually revisit subjects… refining my composition and learning my environment. When conditions arrive, I’ll be best able to ‘react’ and head right to the spot to capture the masterpiece.” Matt is actually saying the exact same thing only relating it to a different subject matter and environment.
I hated learning this lesson. I learned it while assisting another amazing photographer, Bryan Allen, on some wedding shoots. The man will drive any reasonable person bat-shit insane with his preparation for a shoot (or a workshop or a trip to the store). Scout the location 76 times, go through lighting possibilities for hours, walk the property again in the blazing heat and humidity, go over equipment, count batteries, make sure everything is packed just so, have his system down for backing up files (I still owe you for that hiccup Bryan:)), consider all possibilities for how and what he might want to shoot or “pre-visualize,” and have the gear and assistants to accomplish those ideas. Oh, but he produces great photography all the time and I finally found the cure for that nervous, uncomfortable, itchy, burning, anxious feeling I had going into shoots: PREPARATION H(elps). Using a little will allow you to more consistently produce better work.
Here are three broad and related categories of PREPARATION H for you to consider in your workflow:
1) The Scout – Do you need to scout in your studio? To some degree, YES. Location portrait and Landscape, absolutely. Its all about getting familiar with your surroundings, shooting angles, opportunities and threats to the shoot; test shoot to anticipate problems and opportunities that the casual walk through may not reveal.
2) The Timing – If I’m working with a model, how much time do I have? When does the shoot begin and when should the model arrive so hair, makeup, wardrobe, etc is managed to fit in the time frame allowed? If I’m on location I want to anticipate light conditions, weather conditions, driving time, time to haul gear and get set up. Is any of this happening in the dark? Do I have flashlights? Have I walked it in daylight to anticipate any dangerous areas of travel? Is there parking for everyone involved? The Scout is a very helpful in this process; If its a wedding, have I gone over with the bride exactly what the schedule is and when/where formal portraits will be shot? What’s the light in that spot at that time and what do I need to control it?
3) The Needs – What gear do I need, photography and otherwise, right down to bottles of water and power bars, to keep me in the best creative place? Does my client have the gear he or she needs to be successful for the shoot? Does someone have a physical limitation that will impact the shoot. Can your assistant handle the weight and awkwardness of studio gear? Is there a need for an assistant who has GREAT people skills with a particular client/shoot?
Consistently shooting better work is not about pressing the shutter button. Its about management and preparation for the shoot.
Today’s series of images was with my client, Mary Jane. She is my favorite type of client because her only objective was to have fun and document this moment in her life. One of her defining characteristics is a love of flowers. She has her own side business designing floral arrangements and her favorite flower is the, umm, whatever is in these photos. I forget. So, a flower theme was part of our shoot and I want to share some of those images. You are now familiar with the panoramic format on white I’ve been using lately and have some ideas of where it might go, but I am generally enjoying this finished look. Mary Jane and I then went a little astray and decided to try some painting with light. I taped to her finger tips some small LED lights I got from Radio Shack, along with these little flat batteries, and went to work experimenting and playing. I’ve included two of those images as well.
Tomorrow night, Friday April 23rd, is the opening reception from 7-10pm at the Minneapolis Photo Center. Click here for Google Map. I have one image from Duluth Harbor on display. Please come join me for an evening of viewing great landscape photography.
What does it mean to find your voice in an endeavor, be it artistic, business, personal? I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.
Today’s images are of Christian and Diesel shot in the studio and I want to use them as a setting for some photography issues that have emerged lately. In a recent post/shoot, I used a white background and produced the images in a panoramic format, 2.5 to 1 ratio, to be exact. I was experimenting with space and subject, and white space in particular. This came out of a very important push from a high paid consultant to “find my own voice.” So, the Space post was about just that. Working with a portrait subject in a way that isolated an existence, attitude or energy into some simple elements.
This most recent shoot represents an evolution of sorts. After the Space post, my good friend Miriam (amazing painter and graphic designer) suggested I read a book titled, “Geometry of Design: Studies in proportion and design” by Kimberly Elam. The book is about the golden mean which many photographers understand and apply, but extends the idea of proportion in design much further than PHOTOGRAPHERS tend to consider these days. So, after going through the book I found that there was a proportion of design I felt drawn to: the panoramic in a 2.23 to 1 proportion. This is the square root of 5 and has stronger aesthetic qualities than the 2.5 to 1 ratio. Small evolution, but evolution nonetheless.
While photographing Christian and Diesel I asked Christian, “As a musician, have you found your voice yet?” He replied quickly (and I paraphrase here), “No. I’m always evolving as a musician.” It has me considering an number of the entrepreneurs I know. I don’t think any of them are known for just one thing, like a particular industry expertise. As I consider them, what occurs to me is that they honor their voice by moving forward, changing, adapting and creating. Its never about the singular idea; its seems more about the process that’s true to them. One of my biggest influences in photography, Jill Greenberg, is known for a look, but every time I visit her site she has a NEW idea she is working on and I can tell some get dropped and others move forward. She is constantly evolving.
Enough said. On to the images.