"The pictures you make are like a connect-the-dots game that becomes the line of your life, as real and vibrant as the lines on your face and hands. We tell stories with our pictures. In turn, our pictures tell our story - what we did, and how well or poorly we did it, and very significantly, if we stuck with it." - Joe McNally
Every once in a while I get to do something I've never done before. A few weeks ago, I was asked to volunteer my services in support of the Santa Margarita Catholic High School Mothers Club annual fund-raising senior fashion show. Well, I've never shot a runway fashion show before, so I said, "Why not?" As it turned out, I joined dozens of Santa Margarita students who also had never done anything like this before as well. Together, it was a fun ride.
The show had previously been staged in the school gymnasium, but this year, the organizing committee of the Mothers Club was able to secure the services of a professional fashion show producer, James Campbell, and the use of the neighboring San Francisco Solano Church Parish Hall, which was still under construction when rehearsals began. So the group conducted its first rehearsals in the courtyard outside the church. Most of the kids had no clue what they were doing (and some were wondering why they had been volunteered into doing this).
First lessons included how to walk like a runway model.
It was easier for some to grasp than for others...
The guys were even talked into learning some choreography, to Justin Timberlake's new release, "Suit and Tie", a perfect piece. The guys' ability to pick up the choreography....not so perfect.
Eventually, things began to shape up.
Though there were always a few that just didn't quite get it. if it was a guy, he was subjected to good natured ridicule from guys who probably just squeeked by themselves....
As the show neared, the kids finally got to move into the new Parish Hall for two final rehearsals.
The day before the show, the crews came in and transformed the Parish Hall into a full-fledged fashion show venue, complete with elevated runway and wings to create entry and exit points. The lighting crew erected a scaffold filled with LED lighting focused on the runway, which would be my shooting position. The power required for this rig pretty much taxed the load designed into the building, preventing the producers from bringing all the light they were used to. But things were rapidly coming together, which was a good thing, as the show was just 24 hours away. You could see the progress that the producers and the kids had made.
Sunday was show day. The event began with a boutique and a luncheon. To give some insight into the behind-the-scenes activities of the day, I like to shoot details of things like the clothing and food prep.
The event was catered by Dave Hanna, owner of Hanna's Prime Steak in Rancho Santa Margarita. Not only is Hanna's the best restaurant in town, but Dave Hanna has got to be the most active businessman in town when it comes to supporting charitable activities. Here's Dave pausing during the morning rush to speak with guests.
After lunch, the show began. It was at this point that I realized that the big white void above the back of the runway was actually a video screen, showing the logos of the merchants who provided the models' clothing. Unfortunate for me, because I had dialed in a shutter speed of 1/125 or 1/160 of a second to freeze the models as they walked down the runway. That shutter speed was way faster than the video image cycling. The result was unacceptable color banding across the video screen. I would eventually have to desaturate the video screen in Photoshop, rendering it essentially in black and white. Occasionally, I was able to save some color. But the focus was on the models, who now walked the runway with confidence and poise. The audience was blown away. From my vantage point, so was I. It was great to have a bunch of dads around me, marveling at their sons doing something they'd never imagined they'd ever do.
The girls rocked it!
Even the guys' choreography looked sharp.
The merchants' part of the show concluded with some formal wear.
Finally, a parade of graduating seniors in their soon-to-be college sweatshirts.
All in all, it was a great day for everyone.
Here's a quick tip on getting three different looks from one lighting grid, without moving a single light.
Today I received another urgent request for a quick headshot for a young dancer, Halley, who has been accepted into a fashion show/dance competition. She needed the headshot for the event program. So it was time to set up the Qflash in the Kacey beauty dish as a key light, with a collapsible white muslin backdrop lit by two speed lights. The speed lights are unmodified, except for flipping down the built-in wide angle diffuser and attaching a velcro'd Honl Speed Gobo to flag off the light from spilling onto the subject.
The hardest part of this setup is getting even light across the backdrop with the two speed lights. I place each one about two feet outside the backdrop, about one to two feet in front of it, each one twisted vertically and aimed across to the opposite edge of the backdrop. This cross lighting, aimed properly, provides fairly even lighting across the entire backdrop. It requires multiple tweaks to get the coverage even. I check it first by using my light meter at various places on the backdrop. I then examine the coverage more closely by using the highlight clipping warnings on the LCD of the camera. With a constant ISO of 200, a shutter speed of 1/160 and aperture at f/8, adjusting the power levels and aiming the flashes will eventually trigger clipping across the entire sweep. Stopping down the aperture incrementally will reveal where the clipping drops off. From there, more careful aiming can reveal exactly where the light is hitting the backdrop. Once this precise aiming is complete, you can then dial up the flashes to blow out white, or leave them just below clipping, as I did here, according to your taste.
From there, the key light is placed in a clamshell configuration, centered above Halley about three or four feet in front, with a reflector below. I first used a white foamcore fill board, then decided to decrease the lighting ratio even more by substituting a silver reflector, placed immediately out of frame below her. With the backdrop metered at f/11 and the key light giving me 1/160 at f/8, here's the result:
After making several frames with this setup, the second look is achieved by simply turning off the speed lights. The falloff from the key light renders the backdrop a darker gray. Still at 1/160 at f/8. No other change was made. Here's the result:
From here, the next move is dramatic, but the lighting setup hasn't changed at all. What has changed is the camera position. I've moved about 120 degrees to my right. Halley is now rendered in perfect profile. I've taken the white collapsible muslin (which has a black side on the reverse), and placed it to what was the previously the camera left side of Halley, now behind her relative to the new camera position. That prevents spill from the beauty dish from contaminating the background. Why 120 degrees rather than a straightforward 90 degrees? Because at a 90 degree angle, the coverage from the beauty dish provided more illumination on Halley's cheek and hair than I wanted. From my position at 120 degrees, and turning Halley that extra 30 degrees toward me (leaving me 90 degrees from her - a perfect profile), the light is coming from slightly behind her, wrapping around her slightly, then falling off rapidly. The result is beautiful, and dramatically different from the look with which we began the shoot.
Still at f/8 and 1/160.
Some photographers (i.e. the good and famous ones), are noted for either a specialty, such as landscapes, or portraiture, weddings, sports, or whatever, while others are known for a particular style. Then there are guys like me, who shoot everything under the sun, and hope that something sticks. I'm being a bit hard on myself, because just about everything I shoot these days is in response to a request, whether paid or not. So I've set myself up for this, and I'm certainly not complaining. The point, however, is this: no matter what the assignment, whether it's a dance competition, headshots, a charity event, or family portraits, the photographer has to bring all of his or her skill, experience, and perspective to the assignment. That doesn't mean pigeonholing the client's needs into the photographer's own "art"; it means drawing on the photographer's experience, technique, and ability to see and tell the story visually, no matter what the assignment demands.
My last blog post was in early February, and here it is in mid-April. In the intervening weeks, I've had fourteen assignments, some requiring only a small amount of time, and others covering multiple days of shooting in high volume, with similar demands on the back end, editing and delivering the final images.
The first assignment came from the Advancement Office at Santa Margarita Catholic High School, where I volunteer my photography services on request. This one was to cover the visit of Bishop Kevin Vann, the new Bishop of the Diocese of Orange. Bishop Vann's visit to the school was his first public appearance in his new role, and the school was very proud to welcome him to celebrate the Mass. This was the kind of assignment that demanded a quick turnaround, as the school and the Diocese both wanted photos as soon as possible. This image was my favorite of the day, isolating Bishop Vann visually, with a diffused background of students in the gym.
Later that same day, I traveled to the theater at Soka University in Aliso Viejo to photograph the first Winter Showcase of the JSerra Catholic High School performing arts department. This production featured drama, musical theatre, dance, vocal, and instrumental music. I shot two rehearsals and the performance over a two night period. Lots of good images came from this venue; one of my favorites was of this violin player, whom I placed in the center spotlight during a break in the rehearsal. Normally, performance photos are "found"; this one was "made".
Two days later, still in a black and white mood, I covered another live radio broadcast of the Gary and Kelly Show on KSBR, featuring pianist and composer Brian Simpson.
I picked up a new dance studio client, Center Stage Dance and Performing Arts in my hometown of Rancho Santa Margarita. My first assignment was to photograph their Dance Team. This engagement included photographing approximately fifteen groups and individual portraits of each dancer. Because some of the groups were quite large, the lighting setup was intentionally broad, flat and flexible. Not particularly artistic, but appropriate for the fast-paced progression of groups, individuals, groups, and more individuals. So, from a photographic perspective, I can't say that this was an "artistic" result, but it was a success from the clients' point of view. For my purposes here, the photograph presented below represented a highlight of the weekend. This is Brooke Schulte, trying to replicate a jump attempted by a previous dancer. In two attempts, she nailed it.
This was a high-volume project requiring about two weeks of editing and order fulfillment. As soon as it was completed, I was back in dance competition mode, this time at Santiago High School in Corona, one of my least favorite venues. Why? Because the gym floor is the darkest place in the entire gym, and it usually requires significant post processing to pull anything usable from the captures. This time, however, there was some sunlight filtering through the windows, enabling me to get some direction to the light and better shots than on other occasions. Empty bleachers on the other side "helped", at least in that there were no other distractions back there.
Two days later, I was in mid-afternoon sun shooting 65 members of the SMCHS Pep Squad. Shooting in mid-day sun requires careful attention to mitigating the harsh shadows cast by the sun, which at this time of day is behind the camera-right shoulders of the girls. Filled properly, the sun angle presents a pleasing rim light; improperly filled, it could be a mess. The challenge here is wrangling all 65 members of the squad across the chosen location, taking into consideration the placement of the individuals as well as the curvature of the group, and lighting them effectively.
The location selected for the individual portraits provided the same challenge: harsh side lighting and deep shadow on the other side of the face. Not really a problem, though. I asked another squad member to hold a two-stop scrim just out of frame between the sun and the subject, and filled the face with light I could control, in this case a Qflash in a socked beauty dish. At the end of the session, I asked one of the girls, Mari Yacoubian, to take a different pose for a more casual look, but I used the same technique to diffuse the harsh afternoon sun and fill with flash.
Two days later, it was young actor headshot time. I've photographed the St. John's Episcopal School Middle School play for the past seven years. This year's production is "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory". Big cast, young cast. I tried a different approach here. One light in a 72-inch diffused Westcott umbrella with a white seamless behind. Placed properly, this one light gives an almost shadowless look vis-a-vis the background. If you look closely at the catchlights in Lexi's eyes, you can see me, blocking the lower portion of the light.
The very next day, it was back to high school dance competition, this time at Glendale High School for the CADTD State Championships. I had never photographed anything at Glendale High School, so I wondered what kind of knuckleball this venue would present. Friday night was the preliminary solo competition, held in the school auditorium rather than the gym. Nirvanna! No crappy gym light, no distracting gym floor or bleachers behind the dancers. This was like studio competitions, but with no annoying competition banner behind the stage. What could be better than that?? Here's what: Ashley Traber of Saugus High School. When I shot this, I knew she had nailed the leap; when I opened the image on my computer, I literally stared at it for nearly thirty minutes. My favorite image of the year.
Well, this was the high point of the competition. The rest of the event transpired in two gyms, one decent and one absolutely devoid of anything to work with. I was spoiled.
I'd say that at least 75% of what I shoot involves performing arts or performers of one sort or another. So shooting products and architecture takes me out of my comfort zone. But for the past three years, I've shot the National Charity League Canyon Chapter's annual Home Tour. It involves careful awareness of my own limitations of equipment (no Tilt/Shift lenses to mitigate wide angle lens distortion) and access to the properties. So you get what you can, and concentrate on the environment, the details, and the people.
Three days later, back to performances. I've been blessed with the opportunity to photograph the Tesoro High School choral groups twice now; most recently at their Spring Concert. For this particular engagement, Director Keith Hancock asked me to get some shots of him directing the Madrigals. This sounds like a pretty straightforward photo, until you realize that the subjects (Keith and the singers), are facing each other, and the photographer has no angle to capture both, except in profile, and even then, with no angle to get the whole group without Keith's back to me. Well, I got those shots, and they're competent frames. To get them, I concentrated on the Director, timing my shutter to his instantaneous movements. But for me, the better shot was made in the tight corner of the stage, tucked in next to the singers, during the final rehearsal. What did I see from there? The light on Keith's face, bounced back into it from behind him via the sheet music on his piano. Sheet music fill light; what could be more beautiful?
Two days later, it was back in mid-day sun covering the Special Olympics at SMCHS. This was a huge event at the school, with hundreds of athletes of varying ages from all over Orange County competing in track and field events. Lots of opportunities for good picture making. My favorite of the day was this guy, the winner of his 50-yard dash. It's the thrill of victory. And as I said when I posted this shot on Facebook that day, there was no agony of defeat that day, anywhere.
Two days later, a celebration of a different kind, the commissioning of Lieutenant Sean Watson into the United States Marine Corps. I had photographed Sean first several years ago, as he came back to St. John's as a high schooler to portray the Cat in the Hat in St. John's production of "Seussical the Musical". Little did I know that the next time I saw him, it would be on the Janss Steps at UCLA receiving his commission. Photographically, this was actually a tough gig. Absolute mid-day sun (high noon), in a ceremony that lasted only five or ten minutes. Gotta get everything and get it quickly. Followed by portraits of family and friends, while the restaurant was holding our reservation. No pressure there.... So after the ceremony, I asked Sean to follow me to the colonnade at the front of Royce Hall, where I could find some soft yet directional, diffused light. Three minutes and we were out of there.
With all of this activity, I was a very busy guy. But just when I completed delivery of all of these disparate projects, another one flew in over the transom. One of my favorite dancers, Emily Justiniano, needed some senior photos quickly. I mean, like now. Her mom had an idea to create some cap and gown shots with Emily en pointe, so off we went to the Mission Viejo Library to place Emily in the stacks. I had done a variation on this theme two years ago with the seniors on the SMCHS Dance Team for a calendar project, so this was an easy task. One speedlight in a Westcott Asymmetrical Strip Bank and we had the shot. The scholarly dancer who's going to study the human body.
Emily wanted some more "traditional" senior portraits, so we went over to the windows for some casual, relaxed looks. No lights, no reflectors, no nothin'.
That night, I delivered her favorites of the day, in time to make her deadlines.
Right now, I'm smack in the middle of the busy season. This week it's more volunteer work at SMCHS, including shots for the school's publications, plus rehearsals and staging of a runway fashion show fundraiser and the Middle School play, all in the same week. Then it's more portraiture, and vocal and dance concerts followed by studio dance recital season.
I need a bigger hard drive. And vitamins.
Lots of good, young, ballet dancers aspire to attend summer intensive workshops put on by some of the most prestigious ballet companies in the nation. To be accepted, the girls need to submit an application, accompanied by a photo of the dancer doing one or more ballet poses, including an arabesque, and a headshot. Many times, a dancer (or a bunch of dancers at a studio) will simply have a mom or dad with a camera snap a frame or two at the studio and submit them with the girls' applications. So these apparently don't need to be portfolio shots, but they get the job done.
Me? I'm not satisfied with that approach. I've done several of these audition sessions. Until last night, my approach has been to set up a white backdrop, whether muslin or 12' seamless, and light the heck out of it. Last time I did this, I set up two completely separate shooting sets, one for the dance pose and another for the headshot. The dance pose was lit by four moonlights, including a key fitted with a big octa, a broad umbrella fill, and two accent lights in stripbanks. The headshot was lit with a Qflash in a beauty dish augmented with two speedlights to hit the back. Lots of setup time, but when you're shooting a dozen or more girls, the results were worth it.
So yesterday (Wednesday), I got an urgent phone call from a mom whose daughter, Sophie, needed an arabesque/headshot combo for an audition this weekend. She needed the photos ASAP. Uh, okay.... I'm thinking to myself, how am I going to pull this off? No time to set up the usual grid, and I certainly don't want to set up two. But the most important aspect is the need to have a qualified ballet instructor present to ensure that the pose is good, and that the image selected is the best one captured. So I immediately called the studio, whose staff helped secure the assistance of one of the instructors who kindly agreed to stay after her last class to help with this.
Knowing that the instructor would stay after class was a big relief, but the pressure to set up quickly and efficiently to not abuse her generosity weighed heavily in my thoughts on the approach I decided to take. First off, no backdrop. Setup time for the seamless is not long, but steaming a muslin would be out of the question. Instead, I decided to use the environment of the studio, including the marley floor and the ballet barre as a setting. My lights of choice: the Qflash T5DR mounted in a Photek 60" Softlighter to provide a big, soft, pillow of light. It was set just to the left of the camera position, because I wanted to get a slight gradient effect from left to right as the light falls off. In post, I decided that the gradient was a distraction, and a quick fix in Lightroom took care of that. The other light was an unmodified speedlight from camera left pointing to the wall, to add a bit of spark to Sophie's face and knock down the barre shadows just a bit. Manual mode, maybe 1/32 power.
We needed to get in and get out quickly, so I put together the Qflash and Softlighter at home and brought it to the studio already assembled. I even decided on exposure settings ahead of time: ISO 400, f/6.3 at 1/160 of a second. I set the Qflash to give me that at around 6 feet away from Sophie. I also mounted the speedlight on a small stand at home. On arrival, all I needed to do was mount the main light on a C stand and check the exposures of both the key and accent lights with my trusty Sekonic flash meter. Total setup time: less than five minutes. Call in the instructor, make about 20 frames, and here's the result:
I'll take it. Sophie's form is good, the instructor's happy, Sophie's happy, and that's what matters.
So on to the headshot. I brought a popup Westcott black/white reversible "Illumimator" muslin with me. Allowing it to spring open and propping it up on the floor against the wall, it became my backdrop. I put Sophie on a stool about two feet in front of it. I moved the speedlight on the stand to a position immediately behind Sophie (so as not to see it), opened its zoom setting to it's widest at 14mm, aimed it at the backdrop and metered it to just clip behind her head (giving me f/16). I then moved the Softlighter to a position about 3 feet from Sophie at about an 11:30 position. Not quite straight over camera position, but close. Dialed down the power and metered her face at f/8. I then asked her mom to sit on the floor in front of Sophie and hold up a white foamcore fill card just out of frame below her chest. Total setup and test time, less than five minutes. Because Sophie has a perfect face, about ten snaps later we have this:
I like delivering headshots in landscape orientation. It allows me to put the subject's name in an attractive font to the side of the image if desired. Plus, I just like the look of a horizontal headshot better than the old-school vertical.
So, from arrival at the studio to turning the lights off and locking the door, we spent less than an hour. Post-processing at home was minimal, including cloning out some distractions on the floor and wall on the arabesque shot, and not much on the headshot. Delivered five shots to Sophie's mom last night via email. She prints them today, and Sophie's good to go for Saturday.
My last blog post described the challenges we face when shooting in late afternoon unfiltered, slashing light. This one follows on that, but from a different perspective, editing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
I was asked to photograph the Santa Margarita Catholic High School Girls Soccer teams at the Frosh/Soph and JV levels this year. (The school's official sports photographer Bob Russell had responsibility for the Varsity, which won the Trinity League for the fourth straight year, by the way.) The intended result of this assignment is to provide images for the teams' awards banquet at the end of the season.
So today's game was the final game of the season, a convincing 4-0 victory over neighbor and rival JSerra. Lots of family members came out for the finale, and with the win, the girls were upbeat and in a celebratory mood. Perfect for a big group photo, for which one of the moms eagerly asked the girls to organize themselves, and they happily obliged.
I absolutely love the composition of this group. It's natural, with no posing direction whatsoever. Every girl's expression is great, and despite the glaring sun, there are no blinks and surprisingly little squinting.
But here's where we started from:
This is the result of hard, slashing sunlight, which produces blinding highlights and deep shadows. Exposing to avoid blowing out the white jerseys results in an underexposed image right from the start, which forces the shadows even deeper. But I'm just one of several folks shooting here, and am in no position to re-orient the group or to keep them from their celebration. I'm not sure I could replicate the spontaneity and genuine joy of this particular moment anyway. I'd rather deal with what I have going for me already.
Fortunately, I can bring this photo to some semblance of balance relatively quickly in Lightroom. The current version of Lightroom (4.3) is a vast improvement over previous versions in the way it segments certain tonalities and luminosity values, allowing more targeted adjustments even when applied across the board. I shot over a thousand frames during the game, meaning I shot jpgs, which have their own parameters baked in already, giving me less flexibility than had I shot in RAW. With about 150 keepers to edit, most of which suffered from harsh light and deep shadows, this is a real timesaver, especially when you're on deadline.
So what did it take to resuscitate this file? First, in the late afternoon sun, the photo was a bit too warm, so I lowered the Temperature slider a bit. Next, to counteract the reflectivity of the grass, which produces a green cast, I upped the Tint a bit to introduce a bit of magenta. You'd think that adding exposure would be counterintuitive, but with the underexposure to begin with, I moved the Exposure up by around a half stop, which did quite a bit of the heavy lifting needed to bring the darker tones up. Recovering the now blown jerseys was accomplished by a countering move downward with the Highlight slider. The most radical move here was a very aggressive application of the Shadow slider, nearly a full stop. This brought up the shadows in most of the image, including the back, but it also introduced a quirky, almost HDR-like feel to the image. I kinda liked it, but it was a bit too heavy handed, so I reduced the Vibrance slider a bit to modulate it somewhat. That left just a couple of the girls' faces in deep shadow. Fortunately, the Adjustment Brush took care of that, with additional exposure of another half-stop of light. That left me with the following result, accomplished in less time than it took to write about it.
The only thing I couldn't do in Lightroom to finish this off was to remove the tree trunk behind the girl in the middle of the back row and a bit of a house up in the upper left corner. A quick trip to Photoshop took care of that. This one fix is the only Photoshop edit in the entire batch of 148 images posted that night after the game.
Is this a portfolio shot? No. Is it a genuinely joyful capture of a perfect moment in these girls' year? Absolutely.