Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tools and Style

Sometimes you work consciously to develop your style, sometimes it happens by accident.  I play a little blues guitar in my band and the other week, started playing on my old Fender Strat instead of the semi-hollow Epiphone I've been using.  It struck me that the different guitar noticeably changed my sound and style of play.  A change of tools can do that.

So, the other day I did a little photo shoot for EECA, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority.  It involved shooting Johnno, an electrical contractor installing a timer on a heated towel rail. Cutting down on that kind of waste will save householders hundreds of dollars a year and reduce the need for more power plants, dammed rivers, etc. Gets a tick from me.

The PR company that hired me on ECCA's behalf had also got a photo journo to do some shots for a story in the Otago Daily Times, so I made sure I was there early and was prepared so that I could give her the time and space she needed to do her job.  She didn't need much, and lit the shot as I've seen a lot of newspaper photogs work: On camera flash pointed up, with a diffuser on.  Quick, efficient, and on to the next job.

Since I was shooting stuff that might be used in a campaign, I wanted a look with just a little more pop, so my plan was to use a simple setup David Hobby of the Strobist blog uses:  A key light at an angle to the subject to define things, with an Orbis ring flash to fill the dark shadows.  Key and fill.  Nothing exceptional apart from the choice of a ring light for fill.  Kept dialed down it works nicely to eliminate hard shadows without chucking light everywhere or creating secondary shadows.   My assistant Ray was my voice-activated light stand, holding the key.  Here's one of the results:

Sparky with Key and fill

It's exactly what I was working to get.  Then as we got into it, I took one shot just before the flash Ray was holding could recycle, leaving Johnno lit only the ring flash.  Of course it was a bit under-exposed, but shooting raw rather than jpg files, that wasn't a complete disaster and was fixable later in Lightroom. But looking at it in camera, I saw something I liked.  It's nice and simple but it's not a lighting style I'd think of using for a tradesman.  Normally I'd think hard, well defined directional lighting for men.  This is more a glamour kind of light but I did a few more exposed primarily by the ring light, and I stumbled upon something I really liked.

Sparky lit by fill only

You may not even notice the difference I'm going on about - and that's good, I don't want my process to distract from the image.  So what's so different about this look?

Because it doesn't have the usual defining shadows created by a high key (like natural sunlight or ceiling lights), it doesn't look completely natural and yet because we're used to seeing a lot of on-camera flash, it's not so novel that it looks particularly weird.  It's just a little bit different - the even light with the subtle falloff around the edges of things - and the halo-like background shadow it creates is kind of distinctive, and I certainly haven't seen it used for tradesmen before.  Because of that, I like it and I'm going to keep playing with it.  I like to be versatile, but if you're serious about creative endeavours, it's important to evolve a distinctive style of your own too.

Sparky with fill as main light

Your style is influenced very much by your choice of tools.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Apprentice

It's official. I have an apprentice.

Conducting photons
CC conducting photons

A few months ago I got a phone call from a Rheinhard Schatz in Germany. He'd seen my stuff online, wanted to visit New Zealand and do a little photography, and asked if I would mentor him. That's a big responsibility, but I've done some teaching before and love a challenge, so I said sure, I'd be happy to meet him and give him some tips. I didn't really expect to see him a few weeks later, wanting to be taught for as long as his visa lasted.

So there we are, sipping coffee and I'm looking at some of the shots he has on the card in his 7D. He's asking me real enthusiastic newb stuff like which metering method to use, and what I think of the10-22mm for a walkaround, and I'm looking at his shots, looking for something good and really, really struggling.

There were few obvious subjects in most of his shots, terrible light, awful composition, camera shake.  I had plenty of criticisms to make, but they were all going to be constructive.  You know why?  It all reminded me of my own stuff and not that long ago. Ray had some work to do, but if I could do it on my own, I was pretty sure he could with a little guidance.

I told Ray his stuff was about as bad as it got and that I knew from personal experience that the only way was up.  Shot by shot, I told him what I'd want to do to make each one better. I don't like to lay down rules, this is a creative medium; rules are helpful but can be a shackle.  Instead I like to think of them as options, and I was telling Ray what the options were in each of his frames and which ones I would take.  God bless him he took it all on the chin.  More importantly he was keen to get to work.  We've been on a couple of walkabouts, he's assisted me on some shoots, and I've given him a few exercises to do.

Well yesterday he showed me his results and they really impressed me... bold, graphic compositions, leading lines, silhouettes, nice use of colour... some real intent had gone into the pictures. There are still a few technical things to attend, but Ray has come a long, long way in a very short space of time. I'm so pleased with his progress, I'm going to see if he'll let me show some of it soon but meanwhile, meet my apprentice... already working hard, reminding me of the deadline I set to get a lighting setup sorted.  Kiwi tenacity, German efficiency, we're going to make a good team.

The Apprentice.
Ray... of Light

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Very Good Fortune

Go see some live theatre.

Two very good mates and former TV colleagues recently managed to tear Mrs. C and I out of the house to see a play at Dunedin's Fortune Theatre. I'm so glad we got a sitter for Miss C and went along - and not just because of the pre-show Scotch I had with them.

I really have no excuse not to be going to this season's shows. I shot some of the promo pictures for them; I went to the preview evening and they all looked like a good night out. The main stage production that's running right now is "God of Carnage" and here's the shot they used for the poster (before being put through the fab-u-tron):


That's Lara Macgregor, the Fortune's new creative director by the way. I think she's doing sterling work.

Tonight's show was downstairs in the studio, a one man play called "The Second Test".

I know. One man play. You immediately think "heavy" or "high risk of stage death". Forget it. This is the true story of 22 year old test cricket bowler Bob Blair who, when the rest of the team were battered, bruised and bowled out, walked on against a ferocious South African attack at a time nobody expected him to: the day after hearing of his fiancee's death in the Tangiwai railway disaster. It's funny, sad, and thoroughly entertaining. 70 minutes flew by like 15.

It's written and played by Johathan Brugh, who's voice and face you'll recognise from a fair few kiwi ads. I recognise him from 90's comedy duo Sugar and Spice... I'll never forget their sketch of Jacques Chirac being rogered by a... well, I won't go there.

But you should go to the Fortune. Great stuff. And on the way in, check out the light panel, there are some fabulous promo shots on it.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Stay Away From Cheap Glass

I learned a lesson in lenses yesterday. I'd just received my Canon 100-400mm f/4-5.6 L USM Zoom lens and was gagging to get it out and do some shooting with it. Of course, before I could, I had to burn the packaging and bury the courier's body in the back yard before Mrs C found out about my second big purchase in one week.

The evidence taken care of, I leapt in my truck under the pretense of going out for cigarettes, and headed down to the local bird roost. I was a little worried about the deception because Mrs C is an amateur detective and I've never smoked cigarettes in my life before, but like many photogs I'm not that rational when I've got a new piece of gear to play with. Anyway, after a breakneck drive down to the inlet, I started shooting some pictures of some royal spoonbills and shags, but was immediately underwhelmed by the zoom's performance.

I couldn't believe how soft the images in the review screen were, even in the 100-200 range, and at all f-stops. I expected to get some joy at f/8 or f/11, but saw no improvement whatsoever. I put my 70-200 on the 5DII to check, and sure enough, even blown up, shots from the 70-200 at 200mm look better than the 100-400.

Here's a shag with the 10-400.

Lesson in cheap filters #1

...and here he is with the 70-200. Even zoomed in, the image is sharper.

Lesson in cheap filters #2

I was starting to feel a bit gutted, having shelled out a reasonable amount of money for this lens. Had it had a bad knock and needed the elements realigning? Was it just a dud? This is a lens with a great reputation and I really expected better, especially after considering the much cheaper Sigma 150-500 which has some very good reviews. I was having another look at the Canon when I got home and duh - I realised it had a Kenko lens protect filter on... Could that be it?

Here's another shot, this time of a wild lawn sprinkler from my back yard - same lens, 400mm.

Lesson in cheap filters #4

And now here's the same lens, same focal length, same wildlife, with the filter off.

Lesson in cheap filters #3

I felt a flood of relief (and just a little embarrassment) at this discovery. I'd always heard that cheap filters degrade your images, but I didn't think the effect was this pronounced. I like to use Circular Polarising Filters (CPL's) for a lot of my shooting, and was immediately worried that I should've gotten the $400 ones instead of the sub-$100 that I do have, that everything I've done so far could have been much, much sharper. I checked them out, and thank goodness they're okay. But boy, the whole experience will make me a lot more careful about choosing filters in future.

So I tried my 2x extender on, just for good measure. As I expected, you lose some sharpness with it, as well as half your speed - at maximum focal length, you go from a max aperture of 5.6 to 11. Even more challenging is the fact that you lose autofocus. But frankly, the results are still better than with that crappy filter.

I was so relieved I had to tell somebody. The good news is: Mrs C didn't bat an eyelid when I confessed about the new purchase. That woman is an angel. Of course as soon she's out of the house I'm going to be checking her wardrobe for the new dress or pair of knee-high leather boots that must be there.

So now I'm free to fall in love with my new lens but what I really need is a subject worthy of it. The local Yellow - eyed penguins are all hiding in their burrows and moulting at the moment and frankly, 400mm is overkill for sea lions. Luckily, I've got a project coming up that is the main reason I got this lens.

Stay tuned for that adventure.