Sometimes things just happen for a reason. I had just checked into the hotel in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay for my last night in the country coming off an assignment in Punta del Este. I remembered as I was packing my suitcase for home that my sweater was in the backseat of our rental car. As I unlocked the door I saw an old man walking across the street with a cane. Even though it was dark, I had this feeling he had one of those faces I just had to make a portrait of. Acting as if I was getting something else out of the car I waited to see where he went. To my luck he sat down at the restaurant right next to the hotel. I did a walk by and sure enough I was right about needing to photograph him.
I ran inside the hotel and quickly texted my assistant Cam, asking if he’d mind working on what was our night off. I knew the best way to do not waste this opportunity would be to light my subject. Thankfully Cam agreed and we headed to the restaurant. We ordered some wine and discussed our plan before Cam spoke (in Spanish) with the owner and explained what we would like to do. She kindly agreed to let us move a few things around and she also spoke with my soon-to-be subject Fernando about our idea. He agreed as well, and we ran next door to get our gear.
As it turned out, Fernando was an actor in his younger years, and was happy to be photographed. We poured him a glass of wine and set up my Photoflex TritonFlash with a Medium Litedome quickly. I wanted to create the feel of the restaurant’s window light- or at least how I imagined it would be during the day. Not too splashy, partially blocked by the curtains and shutters, but directional. Not having a big HMI to recreate the light, or even a stand with us to mount the light outside, Cam would be my light stand and I would direct him from behind the camera. Initially we used the soft box with both baffles, but it was too broad a source, so we added the accessory grid and it honed the light in nicely.
I’ve made these kinds of portraits before, without being able to speak much more than what can easily be deemed “baby talk” in Spanish, so having Cam there was a huge help. I was able to give direction both thru him as well as with my limited Spanish knowledge. Fernando was great. Knowing he was older, I didn’t want to take too much of his time, so we worked fast, and in between he shared stories of his younger days with Cam and I picked up some of it- and Cam translated the rest when I didn’t know the words.
Aside from many stories about his acting experiences, it turned out Fernando was not only a part in a movie called A King for Patagonia but also being a local, he aided the producers by helping to get the goats and sheep alongside other local elements for the film. We thought he said he was in the movie with Omar Sharif, but as far as I can tell, the movie was made in 2011 without Sharif…either way, for my purposes, he was a great subject.
This was definitely a highlight of the trip, making the long drive from Punta del Este to Colonia del Sacramento well worthwhile.
As photographers, we often get caught in a routine where we are doing the same basic lighting set ups for different shoots. I’ve never been a fan of the same old formula every day. As a result, I do try to vary my lighting, matching whatever the subject is to my choice for lighting. Telling a story with your lighting is as important as how the subject is composed in the frame.
Every so often, there are those really fun challenges to overcome. You might think this involves having to hang backwards off a cliff to get the right angle (did it), paraglide off a mountain tandem (that was sick), or fly backwards and blind to land on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean (that was crazy!). However, I am talking more about the lighting challenges to overcome. This is where we make the mistakes that make us stronger as photographers.
When I can, I do like to do tests on my ideas prior to a shoot, but there are times or conditions when this isn’t possible. As I always preach, drawing up a plan will always make your life easier. When I am sketching up my plan for the shoot, I’ll have a loose idea of what I am theorizing will work. Much of this of course comes with experience, but unchartered waters are often ahead.
Being a hands-on photographer it helps to have good assistants with you, but the job is on my shoulders, so I feel obligated to come up with a good plan. Here’s how I made this one work:
For this assignment, the Creative Director, Chris Hobrecker (http://thescribblefactory.com) wanted to showcase the 3-4 movements within each of these exercises, all in one shot! I felt the best way to show our model’s different positions would be to shoot on a dark background. In an ideal world, we would shoot in a studio, where we could control the environment.
The first hurdle would be that we needed to shoot on location at a gym. There was some specific equipment we’d need and getting it all to a studio would be too difficult. I asked all I could about the ceiling height, amount of space in the gym, etc. We’d definitely have space issues, and much of the gym had large windows or mirrors around. Ceiling height wasn’t great, but it was an open ceiling, so that at least helped a bit.
I got five 12x12’ black duvet, plenty of C-Stands, Medium Rollers and enough 6’ crossbars to make a wall of black fabric. As it turned out, we could only use 12’ of pipe on c-stands, mostly because of space. In some cases we just draped the fabric over machines that were in the way. I actually have a few pieces of black velvet around quite often at gym shoots, as there’s nothing more annoying than a white or silver machine that is catching a little bit of light that distracts from my subject. Giving my client a cleaner image is always for the best. I knew that I would intentionally burn in the bottom of the frame to keep the light focused on the model. This also applied to any light that spilled on the duvet. More ideal would be to have it further from my subject- or have black velvet that tends to eat up more light.
The next hurdle would be dealing with a long exposure but a short flash duration. I needed the quick flash duration to freeze the action, whereas the long exposure would allow for the model’s movement to “drag” across the frame. Shooting on black would help this, and we used a Profoto 8a packs, a bi-tube head to get power and a fast flash duration on the key light. We removed the pyrex on the strobe to get a bit more power out of the light. This was inside a Photoflex Medium Octadome, with power set to f22 at iso 50 warmed up with a 1/4 CTO gel. Our highlight light was a Profoto Head inside a regular zoom reflector, set to f22.3. We also used a continuous 1000w light to help create the drag effect. This also gave me a good focus light.
All shots were exposed from 2-6 seconds depending on the exercise, and camera set to f18 at iso 50. We assumed we would have some issued when the model had to move a decent distance, like the shot at the start of this post, but rather than changing the settings mid shot (as if there was time), we decided to live with it, and I could always add a little light in post. Using a PocketWizard Transceiver I fired the strobes at the points of each sequence that needed to be highlighted, essentially position A,B,C and when needed D.
All in all, things went smoothly, and something that could have taken a long time to get right was accomplished in a few hours. Seeing the images on the computer as we shot, the writer/tech advisor was able to approve images right away, so we shot each sequence a few times just to be safe.
I can’t say this is one that will apply again anytime soon, but it was a great challenge and a fun day.
This past May I got the call from MTV to go to St. Thomas to photograph the cast of season 27 (amazing it’s been on that long huh?!?) of the original reality series, MTV’s The Real World. Head to St. Thomas in May? AWESOME! what a way to get the summer started right? Not so fast…
Challenge Numero Uno.
Since we’d be traveling out of the country, we’d of course be facing airline limitations, baggage fees, coupled with the fact that this season’s house was located not on St. Thomas, but rather just across the bay on Hassel Island. This meant we’d only be able to reach the location by boat, thus limiting how much equipment we could bring.
Normally I work with Profoto lights, occasionally with Broncolor- neither which are lightweight, even when going the portable route, which I often choose when working on locations where power could be an issue and/or when I know I need to do a lot of shots in one day. I prefer the mobility of portable units to avoid the excess of stingers, and the freedom of not relying solely on electricity. There was one assignment years ago in Scotland where we brought Profoto Acute 2400s with us to cut cost, and not only had one shot outside where we ran 500 feet of extension cables- literally to full extension, but blew a bunch of fuses in the 200 year old distillery we shot at. Lessons learned.
With these limits though, no way could we travel with the Profotos and have enough lights to accommodate a group shot. Now, I’m a big believer in the ideology that you can make do with one light, after all the sun is only one source right? But I am a proponent that you need to be prepared, there’s always variables on shoots, little did I know how true that would come to be.
Originally, I thought to go with Profoto Acute B’s. 600 w/s and the reliability of Profoto. I had used them once for a cover shoot in Majorca with a Heavyweight Boxer. They worked well, but I was staring down a tight budget, renting six with at least two additional batteries, extension cables, etc, would mean two cases at least. Then I had an idea, I own two Photoflex Tritons, their newer mono-block portable flash units, highly versatile, lightweight, and batteries that often seem to have no end. Add four more and I’d have six lights, all that would fit in the Tenba hard case that normally houses my Profoto 7b, with triple batteries, chargers, reflectors, speed rings, Flashfires (their transmitters), cords, accessories, and woah, still more room for some of my other gear, all UNDER 50lbs, the airline baggage weight limit. Oh Hell yes. Why six? Well, my thought was to get a Photoflex 39”x72” White Translucent fabric and place four units behind it. That would be enough to make a main source equate to 1200 w/s that should be enough to equal a Profoto 7b, and the two additional units could be backup and/or used for hair lights, fill lights or anything of the sort. I am not a proponent of bringing everything and the kitchen sink, but an extra head never hurts. Lights solved.
(As an added measure, we carried on one pair of the lights, batteries and accessories. If our bags didn’t make it we’d at least have something in terms of lights….that’s just me being extra cautious).
St. Thomas = Sunshine and Blue Skies Right?
Think again, we arrived to a misty humid rain, and the forecast called for ten days of cloudy skies and/or rain. Throw in some mega humidity and mosquitos that look and sting like something out of Jurassic Park. Needless to say the first addition to the supply list was plastic bags to cover the lights, second was bug spray.
Of course there was some talk of postponing and what do we do, but in the world of tight budgets, we’d have to make it work. Already we knew we’d try to avoid the worst light of the day since we had no scrims, so on our scout we chose areas that we’d avoid the direct sun, (or direct rain), but word came that THE shot we needed to come back to NY with was the cast on the boat they use to get to St. Thomas proper, blue skies and sunshine. Did I mention the forecast of ten days of rain?
The First Shot of the Day
One of my assistants, Lee Morgan, fixing the Photoflex Tritons for the first shot.
Sure enough, it was raining when we woke. We covered ourselves in bug repellant, and jumped on the boat to Hassel Island. First shot would be under a gazebo, thankfully, but as we set up, I had eyes in the back of my head watching for any piece of sunlight and blue sky I could use later in post should the skies not clear. I don’t like to disappoint, so I needed to be prepared to make the boat shot happen. I was able to get about six minutes of sun and a few scrapes of clear sky, and I was even able to grab a couple shots of the sea planes that take off from across the bay, this would be a nice addition to the boat shot- assuming I pulled it off.
I had a thought about how the light would look through the translucent fabric and the Tritons did not disappoint. We placed four of them behind the frame added a little bit of 1/4 CTO gel for warmth, one fill (-2 stops) inside a Photoflex Medium Softbox as a fill opposite the key source, and our last light clamped to the interior of the gazebo roof with a Photoflex Small Softbox as a hair light (-1/3 stop). We shot at 200 iso, knowing that we needed a little extra to open up the background as well. Recycle was a little slow, but what I found was unlike some of the other group shots, where I was using big studio packs, or quick recycling Broncolor packs, this was like shooting 4x5, I could coax the subjects a bit more, and elicit the personalities to come out.
Now, the lights were working great the only thing that was useless was the bug repellent, the mosquitos were brutal. The Director of Photography actually had a bite that looked like something from Aliens.
The first group shot, Real World St. Thomas.
Second Group Shot, then singles.
Shot two was also inside, taking advantage of the threatening skies, and the same set up proved itself again. The house was surprisingly small given the show includes seven subjects and two to three cameras following them around. We chose their pool room, and composed them around the table. We lifted the frame above a doorway and again placed the four heads behind it. One -2 stop fill under camera and bam. We’d have faced some major problems trying to get an Octabank in this positions, and same for most soft boxes.
Group shot two. Real World St. Thomas.
After this, we did a series of individual portraits and here’s where the Tritons again proved their value. We took our two additional heads and put a Photoflex Small Octobank as the key and the Photoflex Mini Octodome NXT as the -2 stop fill. We moved around the house with ease. We took a moment to check where the batteries were at, and after two group shots, seven individual portraits, and about ten couples and triple shots, the majority of the batteries hadn’t used 50% of the capacity yet! We actually didn’t change a battery on the lights all day. I can’t recall that ever being the case with Profoto 7b’s.
The Client ALWAYS comes first.
How many times have you heard this? Well, there’s a reason it’s repeated. It’s fucking true. You make it happen for them, they will remember it. I’m a believer in cautiously advising my clients when they ask for the world, I don’t like to disappoint, and at the same time, I don’t want them to believe everything under the sun is possible each and every time. I do my best, and so long as they see it, they will see you are honest in your efforts.
Given the limitations with equipment and all the weather issues, expectations were a bit lower, and when I saw the opening to succeed I go for it. Time for the boat shot.
Assistants Cam Camarena and Lee Morgan set the lights one more time, our biggest challenge, now we are outside. (Of course when we set up, the sun peaked out for a bit, then we could see a storm coming toward us). Time to get it done.
First test frame of the boat shot, look at those lovely clouds. No fill on this one, just the one source.
The final version, (note the sea plane on the right). Cast of MTV’s The Real World St. Thomas, 2012*
*special thanks to Photoflex for helping make this possible
I got a call from the editor of Muscular Development to see if I would be interested in shooting a day in the life of champion pro bodybuilder Jay Cutler, a four-time Mr. Olympia and fan favorite. Hell yes!
The editor was introducing me to the magazine as a new photographer, and he’d nicely laid his reputation out on them hiring me. Like many magazines these days, budget was a concern, and I would have to do this one sans assistant.
I’ve shot these kind of stories before, and many times I will just go available light, to be able to get closer, and more “fly-on-the wall” with the subject. We all learn from our best shoots and our worst shoots, and although the available light thing worked for me on a few of these kinds of stories, it failed however whenever I found myself in situations of extreme exposures. Cutler’s home base of Vegas is all about that. It’s bright as hell outside and inversely dark inside. Balancing that would be easy if I had my assistant and time to make adjustments, so how could I solve this without? I needed to be able to move fast, anticipate things and not interrupt the natural flow of the story. Of course I knew I could just do flash on camera, I have a few modifiers that would make it at least a little more interesting. Or Flash on a cord, but that has seemingly gone out of style with digital and the telephoto lenses that are more popular than fixed lenses, and more versatile on stories like this. Or of course I could use a Stroboframe, or even a magic arm I have with a camera mount. But weight and limitations from past assignments were turning me off to that, I would have liked to had an assistant with a light on a stick ala Larry Fink, but instead it would be on my shoulders to do something more than just shoot available light. So I decided to do just that…
I thought if I could rig a Photoflex OctoDome nxt extra small light modifier with a Canon 580ex flash to a hiking backpack I’d have more freedom to shoot without being cord-tangled. The frames are light, usually hollow aluminum, so I was thinking with a superclamp and pin, or a magic arm, I could rig the light above me, maybe hang it out to the side.
I was in Minneapolis that week for a shoot, and just happened by a camping store, so I checked out what they had, $150+ or more was certainly not worth it for a backpack with or without a frame, and something I’d likely not use again but once in a blue moon. I checked online with some army-navy surplus, and they had some nice options for $35 or so for just a frame, but then I realized that I’d need to be able to carry some gear, and although I could probably get away with a couple LowePro S&F Series Pouches on a belt for that, maybe there was a better way.
I then jumped on the LowePro site, and almost immediately found the Scope Porter 200 AW. Made primarily for bird-watchers who want to carry a scope and fully opened tripod out into the field with ease this could be modified to be the perfect bag. I called up a contact of mine there, and mentioned what I was thinking…prefacing that it was a bit odd…he laughed, and said, “yes I think that could work…let me see what the guys think.” Within a matter of minutes I had a text message with a picture of the guys in California with a stand rigged to the bag, and that same Photoflex OctoDome attached. Lock it in.
I had the bag a few days later, and it could not have been more perfect. Ergonomic as it gets, which means the comfort level would be high, and the accessory pockets on the side would hold all my extras, batteries, cards, lenses, and slap on the S&F Water Bottle Pouch and Cell Phone case attached to the waist straps, and I had everything within reach. I was pleasantly surprised to find the bottom of the center tunnel has a velcro-adjustable flap, (my guess it to be able to store something under the scope one would normally carry there), but for me, that meant I could avoid an unnecessary stand, which was my original plan to use. Now I could put a simple floor plate at anywhere from bottom to about 1-5” off the bottom of the bag, attach a Photoflex Extension arm, (actually it’s a LiteStand without the base), instead of a stand with cumbersome legs and now travel even lighter. The ability to move that velcro pad turned out to be crucial, as I could keep a few things under it, but also use it to raise the floor plate up a little, giving me a little more options with the height of the extension arm. As well, the coincidentally perfectly placed opening to the bag was just the right spot for my Turbo battery. The top of the bag had a sliplock strap (again, perfectly placed as if I had asked for one there), and I used that to help keep the extension arm perpendicular to the ground.
From there I attached a Photoflex Umbrella Bracket and with the OctoDome’s adjustable shoemount hardware, I slid on a Pocket Wizard TT5 unit and my 580EX. Note I have the TT5 and flash facing backwards, this I had to do as the TT5 is too large, and I wanted the 580EX inside the dome. I could have used a regular Pocket Wizard and show mount, but the advantage with the TT5 when coupled with the Mini tt1 unit is that I could now shoot TTL! Showing up to Jay’s door looking like an idiot with an octabank hovering over my head would surely be, well, interesting…
Freedom is an understatement, I could shoot vertical and horizontal without any cords getting in the way, any brackets to flip, and within minutes, I even knew how to twist my back a little bit when I was juxtaposing my subject to the left or right, but still wanted that light coming from straight on. The height of the dome, about 3-5” above my noggin was perfect. Jay has deep-set eyes, and with the double baffles in the OctoDome I was able to keep the shadows to a minimum, but still get really nice shape to the light, as well as consistency through the use of the TTL feature of the tt1-TT5 units. As well, for a few shots, I wanted to get the key light off my back and I was able to quickly remove the Extension arm and have someone hold it then pop it right back into place in the bag. Very little effort to do so, meant I could be quick. We were moving to many locations, and I got a lot of looks and a few chuckles, but didn’t matter to me, I was comfortable and knew I was getting great shots with the added light.
Here I am doing that twist to keep the light on Jay. (photo by Sean Andros/Muscular Development)
Stay tuned for the June issue of Muscular Development for the Day in the Life Feature with Jay Cutler.
Special thanks on this one to Josh Semolik/Lowepro, Sean Andros/Muscular Development, and Photoflex