Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Gold and Ghosts, Part 2

So there I was, all alone for the night in a back country hut. I had a fire for company, and thought a nice firelight picture would be good to try and do. I love to light, but in this case, using flash was just going to result in ugly shots with absolutely no atmosphere, like this:

Fire, in ugly flash light

With limited control over the on-board flash on my little Canon G12, I was going to have to work with available light, namely the fire. I love a lighting challenge, so started experimenting with subject and exposure. The bare hut was a little boring, so setting aside my mild aversion to self portraits, I decided I was going to have to be in the picture.  After a little bit of experimenting, I realised that I had all I needed for three point lighting if I used the two candles that were handy. I had a little control over the brightness of the fire: namely add fuel, and as for the candles, I could change their position to adjust the light they put on the scene. All I really needed to do was set up for a nice long exposure.  After a few experiments at different shutter speeds, I settled on a self-timer shot of 10 seconds duration.  The hardest part was sitting absolutely still for that long.

Bullendale Hut fireplace

I love the quality of this light. The flicker of the flames adds a very soft quality to it and I'm sure that's what makes a lot of old masters paintings so distinctive - candle light. Definitely something to work with in future and add to my photographer's tool kit.

Next I checked the sky. It had cleared - a good sign for my walk out the next day, and better yet, the Southern Cross was shining above the chimney of the hut. The steep terrain and long grass meant vantage points for my little Gorillapod were limited, so I had to content myself with a low angle shot of one half of the hut. To light it without overpowering the stars, I got out my head lamp, and painted the hut with light over the 10 seconds needed to expose for the sky, concentrating a little extra light on the chimney. Luckily the fire and candles inside  balanced the starlight fairly well without any adjustment.

Bullendale Hut and Stars

I've always been aware of light painting, in the Egyptian artifact pictures by Brian Brake for instance, but since I've put all of my time into mastering strobe and flash, never tried it myself. Another new technique ticked off the list, and definitely one to put to further use.

Far from having an early, boring night all alone, I was having a ball experimenting with my limited resources. So much so that it was soon midnight and time to turn in. I planned to explore some of the ruins of the Phoenix gold mine the next day before walking back down the stream. I got into my sleeping bag, and as the firelight faded, drifted off to sleep wondering what I'd find, and of course, what the light would be like.

More in the next post.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Gold and Ghosts, Part 1

The artist at work
Towards the end of last week, I found myself sweating away in the kitchen. Destination Content Production Assistant Holly Russell and I were working on a video shoot for the True South Dining Room at the Rees Hotel in Queenstown. Footage in the can, I decided to spend some time in the back country before heading home.

My destination was Bullendale, site of the Phoenix mine, upstream from Skippers Canyon. Once I'd finished the Restaurant shoot and checked with the Department of Conservation about the state of the streams in the area - there'd been heavy rain in the days before and the trip involved many stream crossings - it was getting late in the day. By the time I'd driven to the end of the treacherous Skippers Canyon road at breakneck pace (the best way to keep from worrying about the narrow track and precipitous drops), it was already 5.30 and the hut was an estimated 2-3 hours away.

I packed light, just taking my Canon G12 point-and-shoot camera. Wanting to reach the hut before dark, I went for it, not stopping to take pictures. Boy was I glad I checked about the rainfall, because by the time I got to Bullendale, I'd lost count of the stream crossings after 22. I was also glad I'd made it in just two hours, despite some minor protests from my knees. I found the former mine site okay, but the hut was nowhere to be seen, and the light was starting to fade. I eventually spotted some cairns leading up above the river to the hut, a very welcome sight indeed.

Bullendale Hut

From the sign on the door, some kind of conubial activity obviously goes on in our back country huts, and the Minister of Conservation is not missing the opportunity to profit from it. Must be a National Government initiative.

Bullendale Hut Warning

Feeling much better after a quick meal, I took in the surroundings and got some interior shots before it got dark. The on-board flash on my Canon G12 doesn't make for stunning pictures. There's not a lot of control over it, but there was enough to let me balance interior with exterior light to get a record of the place. Of course, in line with tradtion in the New Zealand back country, the toilet had the best view - of the head of the valley and Mt Aurum.

Bullendale Hut Bullendale Hut Bullendale Hut Toilet

In the absence of fine control over the flash power, I tried folding a plastic bag over a few times in front of it to soak up some lumens, to balance with the fading light for a shot of the hut as it got darker outside. It was a start.

Bullendale hut in the evening

I don't mind being alone in the wilderness, but it's amazing what good company a fire and a couple of candles can be on a dark night. I imagined being visited by the ghosts of long-dead miners from the river below, but instead of trying to run away from that, I decided to use it and create a ghost portrait.

Bullendale Ghost

With time on my hands, I started to see some possibilities for more pictures, and some magic started to happen. More in the next post.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Shooting Actor John Bach for Fortune Theatre

After my shoot with veteran Kiwi actor John Bach for the Fortune Theatre earlier this year, I can say John is a really hard working guy.
  John Bach

We were shooting promos for one of this season's productions, Red by John Logan, which is about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko's struggle with a significant work. Now that the season has been premiered, I can share a few of the pictures with you.

  John BachJohn BachJohn Bach

My lighting setup had four parts, a shoot through umbrella for key, high and camera right, an Orbis ringflash adaptor for just a little fill, and for rim lighting, one bare flash rear of John cam right, another in a small softbox, rear camera left. It gave a nice edginess to the pictures shot against black, plenty of dimensionality, and just a little flash flare, something I've been meaning to play around with.

John BachJohn BachJohn Bach

It's a two man play, kind of intense, so I wanted those rim lights, and was pretty happy with the effect I was getting. What I didn't figure on was the intensity John bought to the shoot. He was amazing. Gradually working into the role, you could see him crawl into the character, deeper and deeper. It was almost scary to watch, and it's a bit of a cliche, but it really was a privilege to work with such a pro.  Then we noticed the paint dripping at John's feet, so played down there for a while, where John got positively Gollum-like. I recommend you click on some of these to go through to the larger versions on Flickr, and really see John at work, it's cool.

  John BachJohn BachJohn Bach

What a shoot. What a model. In the end, the designers ditched the lights and flare and added a little more negative space to the shot, so I've approximated it below. It shows a man struggling, alone with an act of creativity, pressures, questions. Inner conflict is the most interesting kind, and John really delivers. When they revealed the shot last night at the premiere, folks took in the picture but then you could hear as people started to recognise him behind the painted hand. It worked so well, and I think it's a great choice and treatment.

John Bach

Red, by John Logan, Fortune Theatre 14 April-5 May. I'm planning on seeing it. Maybe you should too.