"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
First things first: I'm pretty much a generalist photographer, with an emphasis on performing arts. Dance, theater, jazz, choral, you name it. Along with that comes portraiture. I also shoot occasional sports, and when I'm lucky, landscape and travel. But there are two things I absolutely do not do: video and weddings. Both scare me to death. Why video? I have no idea what to do with it. It's more hassle than it's worth, at least to me. And weddings? The pressure. For everything else I do, there's the ever-present possibility of a missed shot, but another opportunity to get a better one. Or a do-over. Every sports shooter misses a shot for whatever reason, but there's another one right around the corner (unless it's the game winning play, then it's "oh, shit...") But with weddings, there's no do-over, just the gnawing cranial pressure to Not Screw This Up. Several years ago, I did one wedding as a favor to a good friend; the photos turned out fine, better than the marriage did. But that's another story.
While covering a 20th year class reunion for the inaugural class of Santa Margarita Catholic High School, one of the members of the staff asked me if I'd be willing to photograph her son as he proposed marriage to his intended bride. It would be surreptitious, unknown to her until the deed was done. I said I'd do it, as long as we could carefully plan it, so I could get the shots the couple needed, in decent light and camera position, with nobody intruding into the field of view. Okay, she said, and we made a plan. It would be me, alone; no assistant, no lighting gear, no reflector, one camera, one lens. I saw myself as a gumshoe private eye in one of those '50s detective movies.
A couple of days before the event was to go down, I met Nick at the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, to scout out possible locations, considering sun angle, time of day, avoidance of intruders into the scene, and importantly, the beautiful backdrop of the Laguna coastline and the Pacific Ocean. We found The Spot. The day before the event, I went back again, to carefully consider the sun angle at the scheduled time of day. At that time, at that specific location, I concluded that I'd get a lovely loop light on the bride's face as she looked lovingly into the eyes of her man when he dropped to his knees to propose. Slam dunk. Aperture priority, no exposure compensation, no nothin'. A chimp could make that picture, as long as he was looking at the couple and could find the shutter. We'd do the picture at 10:30 in the morning (hazy sun at that time of day), and Nick and Meredith would go up to the fine dining restaurant of the Montage for lunch. He booked a table with a wonderful view, and told the staff that it was his and Meredith's engagement, and hoped for the best time ever.
Comes now the day of the blessed event. At 10:00 I crest the hill down to the Montage, only to see a wall of dense fog. No resort, no Laguna Beach coastline, no Pacific Ocean. No nothin'. No reschedule either. Nick has planned this special day with his bride down to a T. It was going to be a great day, no matter what. Okay, as I say, in for a penny, in for a pound.
I go to our intended spot to make sure nobody else decides to camp out there for the morning. Not much chance of that, given the total lack of view, but that's why I'm there, so I spend my time testing exposures on passers-by, making sure that I can get good exposure on the bride's face, even if the foggy-bright sky would pretty much blow out. Above all, I say to myself, DON'T SCREW THIS UP! I stay with Aperture Priority, and ride the exposure compensation up or down depending on what the cloudy bright sky is doing at any moment, to give Meredith enough light in the face.
But the couple is late. At 10:45, fifteen minutes after our scheduled time to do the deed, they arrive at the Montage. Nick and I are frantically texting each other about whether to do it RIGHT NOW, or wait until after lunch. As they walk from the valet toward the restaurant, Nick decides to do it after lunch, but the staff at the restaurant needs to know that the Special Event hasn't happened yet. They can't blow the secret! So I hot-foot it to the nearest house phone, to let the receptionist know NOT TO BLOW IT!
Back to holding my spot while Nick and Meredith have a wonderful lunch. About half-way through, though, I realize that I haven't fed the parking meter enough to account for the extra time this is taking. Some friendly lifeguards let me know that the chances of getting a parking ticket from the City of Laguna Beach is somewhere around 100%. Oh well, again, in for a penny, in for about seventy-five bucks. I can't leave my post, as the couple could be there ANY MINUTE.
Finally, I see them approaching from the hotel. I move from THE SPOT to a location I've already determined I'd shoot from, even though the fog is still with us. I'm stealthy as hell, looking out of the corner of my eye as they come to the location. Nick is talking to Meredith, and he then drops to his knee. I bring the camera up, and shoot like a man posessed.
At this point, I steal a look at my camera's LCD, and realize that the exposures are good, and I've caught THE MOMENT, several, in fact. Meredith processes what has just happened, and she reaches for Nick. Again, I bring the camera up and fire away.
At this moment, I later find out, I've been made, by Meredith. She says to Nick, "There's a man in the bushes over there. Is he with us, or is he a creep?" Fortunately, Nick assures her that the creep in the bushes is, in fact, legit. Meredith smiles, and our eyes meet for the first time.
But there are a couple more frames to get before I leave my post. Nick knows that Meredith has made him the happiest guy alive.
You can see what might have been in the background. It's there, but it's totally superfluous.
We had planned all along to get some additional shots after THE SHOT, so we spent a few more minutes around the exterior of the Montage.
Before we left, as I was sure my car was about to get towed, I suggested one last location, in the lobby of the resort. It's a beautiful hotel, and the lobby looks like a well-appointed lodge from the Craftsman era. We chose the fireplace as a good setting.
We then decided on a few final shots on a patio just outside, overlooking the property and the ocean (out there somewhere). That view was not going to happen, but shooting the other way, with the couple on a sofa facing the ocean was a good alternative.
Just out of frame, to my right, was a lady sitting alone at a table, working on her laptop. She began chatting up the couple, wanting to know way more details of their lives than she had any right to, but she was rather amusing. I kept shooting and caught what might be the best shots of the day, at least after THE MOMENT.
At that point, it was time for me to go, and probably bail out my car. A couple of final shots of Meredith calling her family and friends on the east coast to let them know of her engagement, and we parted.
I went back to my car, expecting the worst, and found to my amazement that I had dodged the bullet, and not received a ticket. I knew I had some great photos, and my stress level was replaced with a feeling of joy at having the opportunity to photograph two people deeply in love, two really nice people I wish I could remain friends with (they live in New York). When i got home, I looked at Facebook, and found that Nick had posted an iPhone pic that I had taken so he could get the news out on social media. It was a great photo, especially since I am in no way comfortable with phone pics, and his post had received almost 700 likes by the time I got home.
My fear of weddings has not diminished one bit. But on this particular day, my fear was overcome by careful planning and familiarity with my equipment, enabling me to concentrate on my clients and their special day. It was, altogether, one of the best days of photography ever.
Wow, it's been almost a year since my last blog post. Chalk that up to being way too busy with things that are rewarding on many levels, but maybe not exactly portfolio-quality work.
Last week, I had the privilege of photographing the LA-based CONTRA-TIEMPO dance company in rehearsal with their latest work entitled "SHE WHO: Frida, Mami & Me", inspired by the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Cahlo and Nigerian deity Mami Wata, to be performed at the Ford Theatre in the Hollywood hills. These dancers, led by their creative and artistic director Ana Maria Alvarez, are extremely talented, and they're great people to work with as well. My assignment was to shoot their rehearsal, as they would be the first performance, ahead of the Brooklyn-based company, Urban Bush Women. UBW would perform their work "Walking with 'Trane", featuring the music of the legendary John Coltrane. As the LA County Arts Commission, which operates the Ford Theatres, has a contracted photographer to shoot their productions, my role would be limited to shooting CONTRA-TIEMPO for their own publicity purposes, as well as for LA Arts.
Though I grew up and lived most of my life within about ten miles from the Ford Theatre, I hadn't been there in many, many years; so many that I barely remembered the place. It's that small venue tucked away in a hollow on the east side of the 101 Freeway, on the other side of the Hollywood Bowl. But it's a beautiful, 1200 seat amphitheater that is currently undergoing extensive renovation and improvement. The performance area is a multi-level stage, with decorative hardscape and plants, behind which are the steep cliffs of the Hollywood Hills. The audience experience is currently being improved by the addition of a large sound wall behind the seats, as the Ford performances are often overshadowed by the audience response at the nearby Hollywood Bowl. Last night's dance performance was continually "augmented" by applause from the audience of Boy George and Culture Club. I didn't know that Boy George was still a thing.
Because I wasn't going to shoot the actual performance, I decided to bring my little Fuji X100S, which hasn't gotten much love these days after I purchased my XPro2, and used it extensively in Italy this past spring. But since "non-professional" photos are allowed (no flash) at the Ford, I thought I'd bring the X100S and see what might be possible.
The first thing you notice when you arrive at the Ford is the sheer verticality of the place. It's a steep hike from the small parking lot to the entrance, and from there up to the doors. From the rear of the audience, here's your view back to the park-like area you just came through.
Once inside, because we were so early, I had an opportunity to reconnect with the CONTRA-TIEMPO dancers as they warmed up.
As the sun dropped behind the Hollywood Hills to the west, we began to see how the natural environment and the design of the stage area would combine to become a great performance space.
It was difficult at first to watch a dance performance without shooting it. I saw the contracted photographer at work, sometimes wondering whether she was getting anything at all under the subdued lighting at play during parts of the performance. But as the stage darkened, both CONTRA-TIEMPO and UBW employed projected images on the back area of the stage, meaning the hardscape, landscape, and natural cliffs. It was an amazing use of this space. I figured I'd try the X100S and see what its fixed 23mm lens would give me from Row M, probably 100 feet from the stage. No zoom, no ability to move from my seat, expose for the highlights and hope for the best.
What turned out to be the optimal exposure for this distance and view? Amazingly, I was at 2500 ISO, f/2.0 and 1/60 or 1/125 second. That's way, way too slow to stop the motion of dancers. Way too slow, that is, unless they occupy such a tiny portion of the frame. Under those conditions, a dancer's movement that would translate to noticeable subject motion in a "normal" frame barely registers from such a distance. The biggest problem I encountered was the camera's difficulty in achieving quick focus from so far away, with the subjects so small in the frame. Nevertheless, I was surprised at what I was able to capture. Post processing consisted of nothing more than "auto" straightening of vertical and horizontal edges in Lightroom, plus a bit of clarity, vibrance, and in some cases, shadow boost.
The first half of the Urban Bush Women's performance featured recorded music of John Coltrane. Following intermission, Grammy award winning pianist George Caldwell manned a grand piano on the riser to the left and began to play arrangements of Coltrane's "A Love Supreme". Here's Caldwell, alone, at 23mm from the cheap seats:
A silly photo, yes. But there's actual detail in this shot, if you zoom in all the way to the max. So the show went on:
All in all, this was a great night of dance, and a surprisingly decent collection of photos to remember it by. I'll never prefer the X100S as a dance camera, but I continue to be impressed by the image quality of this little gem, and the fact that it can go anywhere so easily.
Back in 2011, I posted some cool images of Navy F/A-18s generating vapor cones during the annual air show at MCAS Miramar. Those photo were made with my Canon 5D Mark III and a 70-200mm lens. This was the longest lens I own, and even at that length, there was quite a bit of post-processing needed to clean up these photos and render them faithfully to what I saw that day.
After the fiasco of budgetary "sequestration" that sidelined the Blue Angels from air show appearances for a year, I was happy to go back to Miramar this weekend to take in the show. And having added my Fuji system to my photographic inventory, I decided to bring the X-T1 and a couple of lenses, and focus on a different aspect of the show. As I've said before, the X system isn't the best for action, so that wouldn't be my goal. However, after completing the task I gave myself, I did turn the X-T1 and the oft-neglected 18-135WR lens on the Blue Angels to see if I could get anything worth keeping. I was pleasantly surprised that I could, in fact, maintain focus on fast moving jets, once focus was acquired (that's the tough part). But none of those images could compare with the flight photos from 2011, for reasons not due to shortcomings of the Fuji gear, but rather due to atmospheric and weather conditions this weekend. Nevertheless, there are a few worth sharing, at the end of this post.
Instead, I would concentrate on photos of the static displays and the aviators who own, fly, or maintain them. As such, it would be an exercise in environmental portraiture. Now, to do this job "right", the strategy should be to carefully assess the scene, manage it within reason, pose the subjects carefully, and light them if necessary. But in the context of an air show, with environmental conditions less than optimal (e.g. harsh sun) and lots of crowd that can't be managed, and no lighting gear, you do the best you can, utilizing as much knowledge and skill as you have to get images that are worth sharing.
First up, the cockpit of a B-52, made with the Fuji XF 10-24mm lens at 10mm, through the very small open window. Because I was just one guy in a line of maybe one hundred people climbing up a staircase to look through this window, the challenge here was to estimate the proper exposure (in manual mode) for the interior of the aircraft, without being influenced by the nuclear sunlight outside. My total "time on target" was probably 10 seconds. Get in, get out. Score.
VMFA-121 is the first squadron in the Marines to fly the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. Here's Captain J.P. Stuart on the flight line with the F-35B.
To get this shot, all l had to do was ask Capt. Stuart to move a few feet closer to the nose of the jet, and turn his gaze to give me the loop lighting on his face that I wanted. Of course, I couldn't have the foil sun shields removed from inside the cockpit, nor the three spies trespassing behind the jet. Same 10-24mm lens.
This is an old, Vietnam-era Huey helicopter, used primarily for search and rescue missions. Still armed with machine guns and rocket pods, there were little kids all over the thing. I asked this crewman to stand precisely where I wanted him, and waited for a four year-old to finish firing the machine gun. Immediately after this snap, he was back blasting away.
Another helicopter on display is the CH-53E Super Stallion, the largest and heaviest helicopter in the US military. It can carry up to 16 tons and can retrieve downed aircraft, including another CH-53. For this shot, I simply asked the crew member to don his helmet. He asked, "Can I put on my vest, too?" Sure.
Cal Fire, the state's wildland fire management agency, utilizes a wide variety of aircraft in its fire suppression mission, including this Grumman S-2T, originally tasked as a carrier-based anti-submarine warfare platform. Today, it monitors fire activity and drops retardant.
The F/A 18 Super Hornet:
The C-17 Globemaster III is simply huge. It can transport two M1A1 Abrams tanks inside its massive hold, though for weight reasons, it typically will carry only one. The cargo bay was filled with visitors, and Sgt. Trowbridge was there to manage the crowd and answer questions. My only question to him was to see if he could move about one foot to his left, enabling the light to fully illuminate his face. Three elements make this photograph for me: the filtered light on Sgt. Trowbridge, the girl looking at him on the right, and the illuminated back wall of the C-17, courtesy of a door to the left, a window on the right, and an escape hatch on the roof of the plane.
When I first saw this biplane, I had to stop and look at it twice. It's the largest biplane ever produced. Moreover, it was first built in 1946, after the Second World War at the beginning of the jet age, and it was built in Russia. It's the Antonov AN-2, and it's still in use in some third world countries today.
The TBM-3E Avenger was a carrier-based torpedo bomber extensively used in the Pacific theater during World War II. It was the heaviest carrier-capable plane of its time, carrying one huge torpedo under its belly in addition to two machine guns and a crew of three. The Avenger was credited with the sinking of the Japanese super battleships Musashi and Yamato.
This is the AirGyro Cavalon, a European gyroplane. It's a two-seater (with luxurious leather seats), claims to be able to fly long distances through weather you'd never want to fly it in, and able to land on a dime. You can have one for 86,000 euro.
Here are three members of the eight-man Swiss Breitling L-39 Jet Demonstration Team, walking quickly across the tarmac. This is a total grab shot, as they were practically running at the time. I raised my camera and snapped off a couple of frames before they began mugging for me.
Though my goal was to capture some decent environmental portraits of these aviators, and without much expectation of impactful flight photos, I was fairly impressed with some of my Blue Angels photos. Here are four that I thought worked well.
Karen and I decided to go down to what some folks think is San Juan Capistrano, but really isn't, to the Blenheim Equestrian Center, to take in the annual Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo. The event is hosted by the Rancho Mission Viejo Company, under the stewardship of the Moiso family, who are wonderful members of the South Orange County community, and developers of the massive Rancho Mission Viejo planned community that begins just across the street from the Equestrian Center.
But the development is a totally different story from the Rodeo. The rodeo is staged by Cotton Rosser and the Flying U Rodeo Company. As he says in his message to the attendees in the program, "I love people, I love horses, I love rodeo, I love showmanship and I love my country!" And he certainly does. So it's a perfect match for South Orange County.
My original intent was to cover the whole day, focusing on the people. I knew there would be real cowboys and cowgirls, plus an assortment of families, vendors, musicians, and best of all, Orange County poseurs - folks who wouldn't know one end of a horse from another, but could rock a hat, $500 boots, shades, and a logo tee. They were all over the place. But that was the problem. My thought going in was to shoot the event street-style. But it quickly got way too crowded to do that stuff. Plus, nearly everybody was two-fisting beers, and I didn't want to invade anyone's space, especially under those circumstances, if you get my drift.
That plan went out the window as soon as we took our seats in the grandstand, about six or so rows up. I hoped to grab a seat that would enable me to move down to the front of the grandstand easily and get some action shots. I had shot the rodeo several years ago, going to the event alone, and working my way around the arena where I could to get decent angles without a press pass. I shot that rodeo with my trusty Canon gear, and got some good takeaways. But because of my now-aborted plan to shoot the event as an exercise in street photography, I had my Fuji gear, and a perch not close enough to get in tight. And I didn't want to stand in front of others in their seats and block their views. So I'd have to settle for obstructed views and mostly fairly aggressive crops after the fact. Thankfully, my Fuji X-T1, not known as an "action" camera, performed remarkably well.
The rodeo started with what you might expect, an exhibition of trick riding by four really talented ladies, who stood upright on the saddle and did other tricks you may have seen before, like this:
But I was totally unprepared for this action, a girl who upended herself and dragged her hair through the dirt, her face inches above the ground. I have no idea what prompted her to think of this cowgirl version of the Zamboni. Fortunately, she did it successfully, and emerged with nothing but dirty hair.
When I looked at this in-camera, I thought maybe I could get some decent action shots with the X-T1. And I did. I began doing single frame captures. I still believe that the Fuji has a delay that makes action shots something of a crapshoot. But when the action is non-stop, it's a pretty safe bet that you're going to get something good. For the saddle bronc event, I wanted to capture the horses at their peak of extension, tails, chaps and legs flying, and cowboys hanging on for dear life.
For the roping and steer-wrestling events, I wanted to capture the teamwork between the riders and their horses.
I especially like the horse slamming on the rear brakes. Sometimes the steer got the best of the cowboy.
These were all single frame captures. But when it comes to bull riding, the action is so quick and so violent, there's no shame in shooting a burst. Most rides (launches?) are over before the Fuji's buffer fills up, so you can capture the whole thing. And for me, while watching the action live, or on video after the ride, is thrilling, I think the frozen moment of a still photograph captures the danger and excitement better than any other way of seeing. You see the cowboy in a precarious position, some with helmets and some without; you see the bull snot flying; you see the cowboys on the fence and the rodeo clowns doing their thing to protect the rider. To me, these are compelling images, even if they're not made from inside the arena with a 400mm bazooka at f/2.8.
It was a fun day, followed by dinner at Lucy's El Patio cafe, down in Capo Beach, a hole in the wall Mexican joint that has been there since the 1930's. A perfect ending to a fun and rewarding day.
Last week I took the opportunity to drive (very, very slowly in rush hour traffic) up to Long Beach to see the Jet Set Quintet, aka the Tony Guerrero Quintet when they perform music from, or inspired by, the swingin' jazz sounds of the fifties and sixties. They performed on the Veranda of the Long Beach Aquarium after closing hour as a part of the weekly series of concerts produced by Owen Kirschner. I always like to see the Jet Set Quintet for a variety of reasons. First, I'm a big fan of band leader Tony Guerrero, who's a smart, creative, and thoughtful guy with a load of talent on trumpet and flugelhorn. Second, I'm a big fan of the music they play as the Jet Set Quintet, ranging from straight ahead jazz, to calypso, to show tunes and TV themes from that era. As a band, they're very tight. And last, but certainly not least, they are a fun bunch of guys, with a great stage presence and relationship among each other and the audience. As laconic as Tony Guerrero is, drummer Matt Johnson is equally expressive, which always guarantees a target-rich environment for music portraits.
I brought the Fuji X-T1 with three lenses to the show, the 10-24, 16-55, and 50-140, and used them all. Not having been to the Veranda before, I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of orientation to the sun at that time of day, 7:00 to 9:30-ish. As it turned out, the audience faced pretty much due east, with the sun setting behind the Aquarium, placing the band in 100% shade, and the Shoreline Village background in nuclear sun. There was about a six stop difference between subject and background to start, making available light photography an exercise in what to get and what to give up on. Also, the first row of seating was about three feet from the band, making it difficult to change positions without being a distraction to the audience. I never want to be a distraction to others who have paid good money to see a concert, especially in an intimate setting like this. So I took up a position in the front row, right, and stayed put, letting my lenses change my point of view. Another creative choice I made was to capture these images using the Classic Chrome film simulation that is available on the X-T1.
One casualty of this choice was Robert Kyle on sax and flute. From my vantage point, Robert was pretty much pegged to a spot in front of a speaker, with a wall behind that to camera left. That wall had an exit sign and some other kind of fixture that I didn't want to include in my shots, so the 50-140, racked all the way out, was the best I could do.
It's a proper exposure, but that's about all I can say about it. Definitely doesn't do him justice.
Not so with drummer Matt Johnson. He takes turn on the mic with Tony, and is a very cool guy. Also super expressive. Whenever I had a clear shot in this tight stage area, I lasered in on Matt. I was looking for expressions like this, and was not disappointed:
Tony Guerrero is pretty rock solid when he's playing, and there's not much difference between one look and the next. However, at this particular moment, the setting sun was bouncing off the glass wall of the Hyatt Hotel in the distant background, and I leaned this way and that to catch the reflection just wrapping around his coat, to provide a little extra something to the photo:
As I said above, the dynamic range from shadow to highlight here is so vast that you can't even see the hotel back there. It's totally blown out.
Joining the group for the first time was bassist Dave Enos. He was directly in front of me, but unfortunately so was a music stand, so I never had an unobstructed view. But never mind, as Dave often crouched tight up against the neck of the bass, whether to play the high notes, or to read music, I'm not sure. But he was fun to shoot.
Dave Siebels manned the Hammond B3. I'm a sucker for the B3; I just love the tones it makes and the music it's often performed with. The spinning Leslie speaker provides this great tremolo that I really love. But getting an evocative photo of a keyboard player when you don't have unimpeded access all around is difficult, so here's the best shot I have of Dave, hitting and maintaining a high note as the Leslie wails:
As the night fell, I decided to switch to black and white, not because the Fuji can't handle color on stage - it does so quite well, but I didn't care for the choice of red light - but because I thought the mood of the music would lend itself to black and white. So these images are straight from the black and white-with yellow filter setting on the X-T1.
As I said above, Tony Guerrero's expression while playing doesn't really change much, but Matt Johnson's does, so while I'm focusing the camera on Tony, my eye is glued to Matt, and this is exactly what I was looking for.
Likewise, this shot of Dave Enos and Matt is a blend of focusing on Dave while choosing the point of capture based on Matt.
Finally, a wide shot showing the entire quintet; once again, my moment of capture should by now be obvious.
This was a very enjoyable evening of great music and some fairly successful photography. I'm so glad I'm using the Fuji X system for gigs like this.