Whew it’s been a bad year! And I’m talking BAD BAD! Adorama asked me to assemble some potential joy to make your holiday shopping list easier. I’ve broken down my list into two categories. For Everyone and For Pros. Don’t get me wrong, just because my suggestions under For Pros does NOT mean the gear is just for pros! It’s just that my view is the gear either has only an occasional or specific use and/or the piece of kit is pricey to only use on rare occasions. Other than that everything I’m listing can be used by everyone.
This holiday season, you can buy now and pay over time with the Adorama Edge Credit Card. Click here for details.
OK so just like with cars or motorcycles most people feel that the more power the better! Except in photography it also means having to LUG gear or hire others to LUG gear. In the past I have combined two 600ws Flashpoint strobes with a 1200ws head. Works well so I didn’t really think I needed the 1200 Pro but…
What I came to find out is not only does it recycle quicker at full power than my two 600s, but it is a ton easier to carry around while on location! And my primary usage for this strobe would be for outdoor on location work where I’m either trying to turn day into night or using a modifier that sucks light like no one’s business; AKA a gobo projector. It’s a very well made unit that makes life much easier when more power is needed.
Yep in ‘some cases’ size does matter! And in those instances my go to modifier is the Grand Para 70” with the Bounce Rod. I tend to shoot most of my commercial imagery with a focusing rod modifier no matter the brand. I along with my clients prefer the look of focusing rod modifiers, more contrast and a softness or hard light that is unique. The 70” is not easy to assemble since the arms really tighten and stretch the fabric, which is what you want. But I find the assembly is well worth the effort.
I use this modifier for so many different purposes. It is incredibly well built and uses standard class B sized gobos. For those unfamiliar with gobos, they are ‘go between’ patterns that shape how the light is projected onto a surface. It can add incredible drama or mood to your shots.
OK right off the bat I’m going to say that this little light has made me a fanboy! Of all the strobes I own this one is my go to favorite. The construction is great, the light output wonderful and the size format is just so cool! Of course the most important part, the quality of light is amazing! The only nitpick I have with it is the included swivel mount. It gets ‘creep’ when I try to tighten it down with a modifier and not one that’s even heavy. Adorama now has a Replacement Tilt Mount request to resolve that issue. Other than that it’s great. Did I mention it’s my favorite?
Imagery created with smoke and water and lit with the 300 during COVID19
Using the optional Bowens bolt on adapter allows me to use the 300 on modifiers that normally use LED constant lights with a shallow distance to their lenses, so that’s a total win for me. Opening up different instruments designed for non-strobe use is wonderful.
It has also allowed me to use it as my go to strobe for small to medium focusing rod modifiers.
I tend to be pretty snooty about modifiers. Heck since I make my living with them I have to be! LOL Do not confuse my snootiness with only considering expensive or ‘well known’ modifiers. But once in a while an rather unknown modifier peaks my curiosity. Such was the case when I purchased the 300 Pro and saw it has a native built in Godox mount, whose mount I don’t own a single modifier. So I began looking into them and found this one. And as usual I turned the modifier to replicate my favorite light, a focusing rod quality of light. But even without using my modification the modifier not only produces great light, but is ultra-portable. So in those instances where I’m moving around on location this is the modifier I use.
One shot with a Parabolix 35D focusing rod modifier at almost 10 times the cost. The other with the Glow…which is which?! LOL
I was so fortunate to know the late Paul C Buff who mentored me on many things including hard modifiers or reflectors. He explained to me in great detail how the shape and design affects his designs for light output and to not be fooled by shape or size. So I decided to purchase one of Adorama’s Glow 70’s and test it against many other reflectors I use. And guess what? It produces the most even and high output light of any of my other reflectors other than my PCB Retro Laser modifier which is no longer available! For high wind outdoor shots this is my go to modifier.
Turning mid day sun into night is easily accomplished with a single 300 Pro and the Magnum Reflector. Both shot with a Canon 1DX II 1/3200th f2.8 ISO 160
If you own a Flashpoint eVOLV 200 and don’t own one of these kits my simple question is WHY! OMG this little kit include so many items I use all of the time. The round head’s modeling light is brighter than the built in modeling light on the Fresnel head. And while I’m on the subject I’ll include the Flashpoint eVOLV 200 TTL Modular Strobe! I actually lost count of how many of these little beauties I own. So portable and their batteries seem to last forever. AND they can be used with the new 300 Pro! The modular head design is brilliant and when combined with round head or the Flashpoint XP-200 V2 Portable 200ws Extension FlashHead it allows me incredible flexibility. The light loss of the extension head is only ½ stop. Well worth it for the many things it allows me to do.
What can that little 200ws extension head do? Well how about powering my K5600 24” Big Eye Fresnel!
Not to mention they are my studio dance strobes.
I often chuckle to myself when other photographers wonder “Why does Mark use some of those inexpensive modifiers.” Well the answer is really easy! If the quality of light it produces is delicious then it’s what I use. And in this case the EZ lock is so simple to set up and strike – comes with a grid and great diffusion materials it’s a win to me.
Adorama is running a special for the 2020 holidays on several items. Most likely because 2020 has been a sucky year! LOL. You are able to buy lights with 0% interest charged for 24 months using their Adorama Edge credit card beginning on November 2 2020, you know the day before the election!
- XPLOR 1200 PRO
- 400 PRO kit
- 300 PRO 2 light kit
- Evolv 200 Pro kit
Well I hope my little list gives you some ideas on what to purchase this holiday season. I just want to say that anyone who tells you that in order to create memorable light and mood requires expensive gear is all wet. Ask to see their body of work, not a one in a row shot. Then decide for yourself. How you use a tool is much more important than the tool you use. Of course an effective tool makes life much easier. But consider a golf club or a frying pan. Tiger can use any club and make par, and a chef can use a pan, any pan and cook way better than you or I.
And BTW no one has paid me for this post. If something isn’t good I say so and how or if I’ve improved it. If it’s good I say so too.
Happy Holiday and goodbye to 2020 forever! UGH.
If you’ve read my review of the Glow EZ Lock Deep Parabolic you already know I find it to be a remarkable value in modifiers. I’ve also done a preliminary review of the Glow EZ Lock ARC strip box. So for this post I wanted to show how I combined both of those modifiers in two of my recent client sessions. I was asked by one client to create portraits of 21 individuals and then an overall group shot of the entire team of talent. For the portraits I used both the ARC and a 48″ Deep Parabolic. The Parabolic was the key light and the ARC was the rim/hair light.
The subtle wrap of these when used in combination is really flattering for portrait work. For the group shot below I simply used a single Glow EZ Lock Deep Parabolic 48″ with both diffusion panels inserted, but without the diffusion disk. A 600 was my light source. Wonderful coverage and quality of light.
Next up was my dance session for a long time client…I used two Glow ARC modifiers, one Glow Deep Parabolic 48 and one Saberstrip v2.0. All three Glows used 600 lights. Prior to this configuration I utilized three Saberstrip 2.0s, but since they are not available I wanted to see how the ARCs would fair in my use. I had tested the quality of light prior to the session and was pleased with the results. My client commented, “Man you bring new toys every time you come here!” LOL
When used in combination I cannot stress enough how elegantly these modifiers produce in terms of quality of light. When I consider the ease of set up and strike along with their inexpensive price points there’s not anything to bitch or argue about! Incredible combination I’ll use when it’s the right tool for the job.
Whenever I am hired by a client to create imagery my first question is always “What is the mood you’d like me to create for this session?” Sometimes they have a mood board established, sometimes not. The reason I tend to shy away from mood boards, meaning photographs; it is human nature to get a specific shot stuck in our heads. Much like those crazy M.C. Escher drawings where there are two distinct images, but once you see one, you have a hell of a time seeing the other. And since the client wants their marketing to stand out from what has been done in the past, photocopy photography (my term) just isn’t something I’m hired to do, nor do I want to do that type of shooting.
So the stage play “Nine” is based on the 2009 movie of the same name. The client wanted a Vanity Fair look and feel to the images which would all be in black and white….my favorite color btw! Since this is a new client for publicity I did not ask questions like, “How do you want the imagery to smell, taste and sound?” Crazy imagery questions right? But imagery, much like music is just the catalyst to begin a sensory process that takes the viewer into feelings, dreams and memories of their own. It is the reason why I judge imagery by how I feel when I gaze upon the vision. A pretty picture without feeling is just a pretty picture for me.
Although I would be creating imagery of each individual character, the money shots would be of the group together, nine people in total. For anyone who has shot groups, you know very well the challenges it produces. My situation was no different. Sculpting light for a group of people takes finesse and planning.
So here are the items I chose for this session:
- Key light: Glow Grand ParaBox Pro Softbox (70″) using the Glow Grand ParaBox Zoom-In Bounce Rod
- Rim and fill lights: Saberstrip v2.0 and the Elinchrom 69″ Rotalux Octabox which I modified to use a focusing rod. Glow EZ Lock Deep Parabolic Quick Softbox (48″) with diffusion disk and inner baffle only.
- Prop and rim light: Mole Richardson 10” Fresnel Hollywood spotlight I have converted into a modern strobe.
- Bowens Universal Spot Attachment for Gobos
- All strobes used are Flashpoint 200s and 600s – a combination of pro and non pro I do not use TTL on any of them.
The Glow Grand Para 70 is a REMARKABLE modifier. It has taken me six full months to begin to understand how to effectively use this beast. Unlike other focusing rod modifiers its most compelling use is not for the faint of heart, just like the Bron 133 Para line. BUT once I began to understand the nuances of its characteristics it has become my go to modifiers for many, many sessions. In its fully flooded focusing rod position it easily covered the entire group of 9 people. And unlike normal diffused soft or octa boxes, the color punch and contrast is delicious. My client base has been convinced of focusing rod modifier results.
With a group this large and arranged in the way the client wanted, a very large fill/rim light was needed. This is where I used my Elinchrom 69” with my focusing rod fully flooded. For directional fill I used the Glow EZ with the inner disk/diffusion panel and the grid to direct the fill to where it was needed.
The ability to focus or flood the Glow Grand Para and the Elinchrom 69” is wonderful. Focusing rods replace my need to haul and lug many different sizes and types of modifiers to obtain the characteristics and feeling I am trying to achieve in light. And as I’ve stated earlier, the light they produced when used properly is just exquisite.
As just an example:
This shot of Steve was created with the Glow Grand with the rod in its fully focused position. His ‘scream’ needed to have a spotlight affect the client desired. So instead of having to change the modifier to a ‘spot’ type or apply a grid I just adjust the position of the strobe in the modifier.
In using the Eli 69” as a fill I was able to either fully flood the modifier or use more of a spotlight fill in the situation where I wanted more of a pinpoint for fill. With a group this large that is a godsend. I also used my Mole Richardson as a subtle hair light in those instances where I wanted a glow on the person or persons hair.
The Saberstrip v2.0 which uses an AD200 rather than a speed light is just as remarkable as either a key light, rim light or both. I’m still not sure where Scott is in offering these to the general public, but if and when he does BUY some! LOL I cannot speak highly enough about these unique and incredible modifiers paired with an AD200.
I often find that using gobos to project light patterns on a wall, ceiling, floor or drapes adds more texture and mood to a shot. In this case I asked the client to pick the window gobo she wanted for this mood.
I used a light amount of cold haze to soften the light and the complexion of the talent. Subtle haze is something often used in film and I love how it affects the mood of a shot as well. It adds a very cinematic feel to the shot. I use a cold hazer rather than one that heats the fluid. I find the particulate much more fine than heated haze fluid.
Update January 13 2019
I purchased the 36″ version of this modifier based on my experience with the 25″ model. I’m not sure if manufacturing has changed, but the 36″ model’s snaps which hold the inner diffusion panel are of less quality than my 25″ model. They are EXTREMELY difficult to remove once they are snapped into place on the modifier. So much so that removing them is very difficult and one of them pulled the mating snap off of the modifiers. I now use a binder clip to hold that part of the diffusion panel in place.
Be aware that the modifiers may be of a different manufacturing level when purchasing these.
Original Post November 26 2018
I was recently asked by a client to create a portrait of one of their executives that will appear in a magazine article. They let me know only one day before my flight. This was a surprise since my trip was originally scheduled to fly up for a production shoot. This meant I had no plans to haul any strobes or modifiers up on my airline trip. So in order to keep my luggage small I opted to take my Glow EZ Lock Octa Small Quick Softbox for Speedlite (25″) along with my Flashpoint eVOLV 200 Round Flash Head as my lighting gear.
I really like how small the EZ Octa folds down. It fit so well into my suitcase and hardly took any space at all. Because the modifier is relatively small, I knew I would have to place the light close to the talent. I rarely use modifiers smaller than 39″ as my key lights, but in this case opted to use the 25″ due to packing space. I used the metal disk in its concave placement along with the outer diffusion panel. Although the Adorama ad shows that the modifier comes with a grid, mine did not…..
So here are some of the shots:
My assessment of the modifier is it’s ‘good.’ The light quality is good for a modifier this small. Its pack ability is excellent and I will continue to use it as a rim or hair light. Or when I need to pack very small as a key light as well.
I get quite a few questions about light. Specifically questions about strobe brands, what I feel is the best modifier, focusing rods, octabanks, blah blah blah. I get it; I want to know about things like that as well. But on a recent trip to a client’s location I was asked to photograph a group of 2800 high school students as they attended the 5th Avenue Theatre’s Annual High School Musical Awards. It’s a huge event equivalent to the Tony Awards for High School students.
Almost all of the imagery I create at this annual event is ‘non lit’ meaning no strobes or modifiers, only available light. I’m not speaking of available ‘natural light’ from the sun. Nope it’s all unnatural light either from stage lighting or very dark back stage or street lighting. If you’ve never been in the wings of a live theatre just imagine the illumination of a strip club bar and you get the idea of what it’s like.
The real visual story action happens in the alley behind the theatre. It’s where the kids are collected to go backstage before their school performances of the productions for which they’ve been nominated. Obviously the energy is very high. Combine adolescent hormones with a very exciting event and you get a small picture of the energy!
The lighting in the alley is what you’d expect. The illumination is to prevent crime, light the trash bin areas and the HVAC equipment. Anything BUT something conducive to creating any type of portrait photography! But I decided to grab a few groups of students to use what light I had to create some portraiture. I wanted to test my own theories and when people ask me how to use light I simply say “study light.”
So the alley has about eight tungsten lights, the kind you see in the back of any retail establishment near the loading dock or employee entrances. Covered in an industrial plastic, they’re hearty to resist breakage as well as being damn bright. Each light is about 15 feet high on the brick walls and spaced about 25 feet apart running the length of the alley.
So I placed the groups of kids so that the light that fell on them created shadows I wanted and lit their faces in the manner I wanted for the mood of each shot. How I did that is something I won’t go into and I didn’t use any reflective materials or trash to fill in the shadows. Nope this was completely ad hoc shooting with the light I had from those alley lights. My point here is rather than concentrating on what brand, how many watt seconds, whether the modifier you’re lusting after is ‘truly parabolic’ study light and shadow. In my view it’s what will elevate your lighting beyond elevating your credit card balance with little actual yield.
For about 38 years I was a ‘suit.’ A pure corporate guy whose career started at the bottom and worked its way to COO of a Fortune 100 company. But now having been a small business owner running a full time commercial photography firm I can safely say that even if I had the chance, I’d never go back. I say that I photograph just to meet people and it’s true. My camera is just a convenient excuse to meet and befriend other artists.
One of my clients is a symphony in Dallas, TX. And over the years I have become friends with many of the musicians in the orchestra along with people in Marketing, Development and many other departments. Just recently I was tasked by the VP of Marketing to create an image of 90 of the musicians in the lighting style of the Dutch Masters paintings.
While doing so the two co concertmasters, Alex and Nathan began fooling around during a toast by intertwining their glasses and arms like newlyweds! Of course the whole orchestra HOWLED with laughter and no photographer would pass up that decisive moment to capture it on film. Ah the blackmail leverage I now possess!
Then during the creation of another part of the marketing collateral I was asked to do a portrait of several of the senior members of the orchestra.
But during that time two of the video team from Genius House Media were there filming their version of James Cordin’s “Carpool Karaoke” by having Alex, Nathan, Erin, Lydia and Kara ride through Dallas playing their instruments. So often there’s friction between photographers and videographers, but in the case of Adam and Darren from Genius House, they feel more like just collaborative creatives. I so enjoy working along side them when our work intersects I just had to create a photo of them goofing around.
My whole point to this post is this; what good is life without the camaraderie and companionship of other creatives? Like I said, my camera is simply an excuse.
I have always believed that as a professional photographer I should always continue to pursue personal projects. Projects which have nothing to do with imagery I create commercially. I find that it helps expand my view of the world, beyond that which is just ‘pretty’ or pleasant to view. Gorgeous people in beautiful outfits are easy to shoot. I also believe that in our world of immediate gratification I needed to maintain projects which take time to develop and those which require collaboration.
In October 2015 I began a project titled “Our Perceptions, Ourselves.” A pictorial study about how each of us views our own appearance in contrast to how we are viewed by others. My thought was to try to find a forensic sketch artist who could draw a specific person and then have several different people describe that same person to the artist. I would then paint the actual subject’s face white and project each sketch onto their face and photograph them with each sketch. I thought it would be both unique and interesting by adding a third dimension to a 2D image even though I was converting it back to a 2D image. In addition it invests the subject in the drawn perceptions of how others view them. My plan is to have at least 12 individuals with three separate sketches, varying by age/race/gender.
This morning I was reading the March 2016 edition of the Professional Photographer’s Association (PPA) magazine article on portraiture. Before I began I thought to myself “Oh just another article on technical aspect of portraiture, lighting, posing, etc….yawn….” But as I read the article my mind was completely changed about its intent;
“I didn’t understand until later that it is all about the connection you make with your subjects.” he says. “My father understood that, and that’s why he was so beloved. He got to know his subjects and made portraits that were about them, not just pictures of them. It’s all about the harmonic resonance that you set up between yourself and the subject you’re about the portray.” – Arthur Levi Rainville
…”For Rainville, portrait photography boils down to two key elements: the art and the heart” – Jeff Kent, PPA
How wonderful to read an article about portraiture which matches my own view. I have always believed that a portrait, a great one, is a conspiracy between three people, the subject, the photographer and the viewer. I often see portraits that are technically very well done, but without any feeling. They are simply photographs of the person’s physical likeness, but contain nothing about the inner portion of the person. In my view the most important element.
And there are also photos I call ‘cheaters.’ These are the portraits of physically pretty women which primarily show them clad in skimpy outfits, revealing lots of tits and ass. Often they are shown with what they and the photographer feel are provocative expressions, which so often appear contrived or forced. Many people (especially men) feel it’s a great photo, but the reality is it’s much like having someone walk an American flag into a room to garner applause.
Yes light, pose, expression are all a large part of a great portrait. But those are simply the basics. All of those elements should accentuate the person’s soul, who they are in that moment and should never be the ‘star’ of the image. Technical knowledge and expertise is a given in portraiture. The part that is most critical to the image is to reveal who they are as people, their soul in the moment. Rainville’s style;
“To create a mansuesco portrait, Rainville schedules a planning session, during which he often spends more time with the client than during the actual portrait sitting.”
Sometimes the amount of time we have with the talent is limited to the time we have them in front of our lens. In those cases it’s up to me to research the person, to know what they like or what they don’t. Not in terms of photos, but in terms of life. And if nothing exists to research then my research must begin as soon as I meet the person. Engaging the person is more critical than snapping the shutter or figuring out the technical details of their shot. Those items should be second nature. By far the largest aspect of any portrait is trust. In the moments I have with anyone I must convey to them the fact that they can trust what I’m about to do. That their feelings are the most valuable elements in the session. What someone was born with from their parents has nothing to do with their portrait. It’s what they developed, who they are that separates a ‘nice’ portrait from a great portrait.
I study the work of Greg Heisler and Joey Lawrence because I feel their style of portraiture is something I strive to achieve one day. I strive to achieve a story in a single image whenever I embark on creating a portrait.
And if by chance you ever feel that as the photographer YOU are the most important person in the room, find another vocation. You simply don’t get it.
You may find this Musing ironic since I chose to include only a single portrait in this article about portraits.
I make my entire living photographing people. It’s what I love to do, because I love people. To date I estimate I’ve photographed over 1,000 faces of all ages and ethnicities. My preference is to photograph men simply because I find them more versatile in nature. What does that mean? I find that the majority of women only want a single dimension of their ‘appearance’ to be shot one way…for beauty. Men on the other hand are more open to be photographed as rugged, sad, angry or in a myriad of other ways besides ‘handsome.’
Today, Friday October 30 2015 is the day the last remaining gun store in San Francisco closes. My long time friend Steve Alcairo has been the store manager for the last six years. His staff has consisted primarily of former Armed Forces personnel and his client base is in large part members of the SFPD.
I created these portraits of his staff on the second to last day they were in operation to thank him for his friendship as well as his staff’s devotion to safe and legal sales in the area.
I have always liked the look of ringflash portraits. There have been several times in my career that I wished I had one. But because I find their use in my work so specialized I didn’t want to commit to purchasing a studio unit. My partner had tried several of the on camera flash types but I didn’t like their light output. So to replicate the look of a ringflash I often used my 86″ diffused parabolic reflector, stood directly in front of it and photographed the talent.
This small tutorial has little to nothing to do about camera gear. I’m on a bit of a rant these days about photo forums. The inane banter that goes on there does little to help photographers who wish to improve their craft. In most cases I find the loudmouths are have to be right trolls and there simply to be….right. At least in their own minds.
For seven years I taught men and women how to navigate their motorcycles around California racetracks. I’d hear similar things like “Oh if I buy these pipes/Powercommander/520 chain/blah blah blah it will make me faster.” Invariably those same individuals would leverage their credit cards to buy the latest titanium bits to lighten their bikes. Did their lap times fall….uh not much if at all and why? Because they’d rather BUY and brag about their gear than learn and practice. How about getting in better cardio shape and losing 15 pounds instead of spending thousands on titanium parts to save 5 pounds of sprung weight? How about listening and implementing what your instructor/coach is telling you instead of justifying why your BIKE is holding you down? Oh well….
So if you’re looking for the latest MTF chart or DxO results here, do yourself a favor and close this browser window now. Occasionally I may mention the type of camera I was using and WHY, but beyond that this article is all about improving your imagination and ability to improvise at will. And in my work, that’s what separates the men from the boys. (No offense to women, you often already practice those qualities…but like most things there are exceptions!) There’s a big difference between TAKING or CREATING a photo…
David Allen Cooper, Principal Horn – Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
David commissioned me for a two day portrait session and although he resides in Dallas, TX he agreed to travel to San Francisco along with his manager to conduct the session. I was free to completely art direct his imagery. His only request is that they were different than traditional symphonic musician portraits and conveyed a younger more relevant look.
I am easily bored. After falling in love with the light characteristics of a new modifier I want to move on, at least until I want the same look a specific modifier gives me. I like having different looks for my images and as such I often combine modifiers. In the images for Emma I wanted a more surreal or ethereal feel for her portraits so I combined a standard projector to fill in the background seamless with a variety of images. I found some of my cloud images read best for this session.
Today while I was conducting a commercial session I decided to run a quick test. I wanted to compare my work camera, the Canon 1DX using Sigma’s new Art 50mm Lens against my Fuji X100S with the TCL X100 teleconverter attached. Both images were shot using the same studio strobes and modifiers. Camera settings on both units was ISO 200, 1/160th shutter speed, f6.3. Obviously both focal lengths were 50mm.
For those who may be sneaky, I’ve removed the EXIF data. It’s quite remarkable what the little Fuji paired with the TCL X100 can do. After all it’s only about a $6,049.00 difference at suggested retail! Smile or no smile, which is which?
In January 2014 I photographed publicity imagery for Village Theatre‘s 2014-15 Season Brochure marketing materials. Some was done against seamless, others done on location. We were able to collaborate with the Company’s principles on concepts and messaging prior to beginning the shoot which made a huge difference in consistent messaging and impact. This was a wonderful experience of complete collaboration.
Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2014-15 Season Brochure
In order to put an entire marketing campaign together it first takes vision. The Marketing VP at Dallas Symphony Orchestra had a very specific vision for his 2014-15 Season Brochure. His concept was to carry a “Date Night” theme throughout his brochure, creating an experience which would attract new as well as existing patrons. He also wanted a theatrical and dream like quality to the individual performances, one that matched each symphonic piece.
Keep in mind that whenever you’re hired to create commercial imagery there is quite a bit at stake. Beyond your own reputation, there’s the talent, scheduling, venue logistics, graphics gurus, administrative help, travel, blah, blah blah. And although an Art Director may have a specific shot they have in their own minds, it’s up to the photographer to execute that vision, one that often only exists in the AD’s mind.
I’m always surprised how the majority of posts on photography forums focus primarily on ‘gear’ and ‘which is better.’ It’s as if most people are vapor locked on what type of gear they purchase rather than improving their own skills. Yes, we all wish to improve our craft in creating images and gear is a part of that equation, but the amount of effort and discussion seems to focus on the exact opposite of what would improve one’s own creation of photos. If the amount of effort on gear was placed into other areas, ah but I digress….
Like most photographers be they pro or amateur, all of us know the excitement of getting what we think is a great shot and the desire to share it as soon as possible. In this digital age that means displaying your work through some sort of social media or other form of immediate gratification.
But in the commercial photography world, immediate gratification takes a back seat to business needs and NDAs. So much of what we shoot commercially is shot with extended lead times to be of any value. Marketing materials are carefully planned months or in some cases years in advance. As such, once the shots are in the bag it’s up to the client to decide on the imagery’s strategic timing for public release. And because of that we’re not allowed to display those images on our own sites or through social media. And by the time the images are released publicly we’ve been on to other projects for months. Whenever I receive a client’s marketing materials, I’ve often forgot that I shot that session!
I have two separate client sessions in this article. One was for Dallas Symphony Orchestra and another was for Village Theatre’s publicity for Les Miserables.
Dallas Symphony’s Beets Campaign
The photos I display here were taken in July 2013 and released to the public in late Fall of 2013, about four months after I shot the “Beets Campaign” (Beethoven Festival) for Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Performances begin April 28 2014, almost 9 full months from when I originally shot the session.
About two months prior to the shoot, the VP of Marketing along with some of the Marketing staff and I began a conversation about the overall look, feel and messaging they wished to achieve with the imagery. Rather than presenting musician’s in tuxedos playing music, the VP wanted a much more ‘scandalous’ look, one that coincided with the public’s reaction to Beethoven’s music in that actual time period. When written and performed his music was actually quite scandalous to the audience of that time. Music is all about emotion and the VP wanted a reaction to his campaign that would evoke emotion…and boy it certainly did and in a very good way!
We agreed that on location sessions would be much more effective than shooting the talent in front of seamless and then dropping them into graphics treatments. On location (I refer to them as ‘onlo’) is my favorite type of publicity shooting. Why? Well it forces me to be creative in developing the imagery by not counting on graphics folks to make the imagery have production value. The right location with the right lighting has a richness that just can’t quite be replicated with graphics. Well at least that’s my opinion… Plus I have to be both patient and think quickly on my feet about what the client wants and how I will execute it. The client developed Mood Boards and sent them to me so we could begin discussions on exactly the mood we wished to create for the campaign.
Most non pros have the impression that commercial shooters are able to scout locations months or weeks in advance and carefully plan out the angles, lighting and time of day to shoot. For me that happens on rare occasions and when that happens it’s a true luxury. But in this case the VP simply said, “I’d like to shoot it over at the AT&T Center, I like the juxtapose of a modern building combined with period piece costumes we’re using. We can look around at the locations when you get here.” For all of these shots I had about ten minutes to scout each location around the building and then decide how I was going to light them and shoot them. Should I use natural light? Which camera will be the best for this job? If I need more contrast how many negative reflectors should I use? Do I want motion blur in the image, if so should I drag the shutter or use second curtain sync with a Speedlight? What gels if any do I need to match the ambient? Oh I’m shooting in front of windows, how will I place the light/reflectors/etc. so I don’t get reflections or bounce off the windows I don’t want? (No I’m not of the school that all those things can be ‘corrected’ in post. Getting it right in camera is my preferred method) ALL of these decisions are made quickly because we don’t often if ever have the luxury of time. If you’ve never been ‘the talent’ or the art director, try getting IN FRONT of the camera and you’ll see what YOU consider to be a short amount of time while you are making your adjustments can seem like an eternity to your subject.
Four PCB Einsteins used. One beauty dish to camera left, one Einstein to camera right in order to illuminate her hair and two key lights to camera right. Keeping reflections off the windows here was key.
Les Miserables Publicity
This publicity session was what I called my “First Date” with this client for publicity. I had been previously hired by them to shoot production of another performance, but had never been hired to do publicity. The Marketing Director had seen some of my onlo publicity imagery for other clients and thought it would be great to do one for their production of Les Miz. In this case we took a day to drive around the area to look for just the right setting. I knew that the location needed to replicate the script, stone walls, old wooden doors etc. As we drove around the area I found a couple of “OK” locations, but nothing that really floated by boat.
So I made a call to my partner back in the Bay Area. We normally work together, but since we were double booked (when you’re self employed I call that a ‘pretty girl problem!’) she was back home covering another client’s session. I asked her to get on the Web to look for an old church or rock quarry. In about ten minutes she called back and said “All of the churches close to you are modern and won’t do for what you’re looking for. I checked out a rock quarry very close to you on Google Earth. I can’t tell because the view is from their satellite shot straight down, but it looks like a a great possible for you. Here’s the address. Gotta run, heading to the client shoot, good luck.”
So the Marketing Director and I drove over to the rock quarry and I IMMEDIATELY fell in love with the venue. We spoke with the owner and he was more than willing to allow us to shoot there on the date we wanted for a couple of tickets to the performance. He even went on to say that if our date was when they were closed, he’d be happy to come in and open the place up for us.
So on the day of the shoot the weather was projected to be rain. The Marketing Director called me and said “Mark, what do we do if it rains, I’m nervous!?” I simply said, “If you can have three people there with umbrellas you don’t have to worry.” My plan was to have those three stand over my strobes with their umbrellas so that strobes and power packs were protected. I was actually hoping it would rain because I felt it would add to the ambient atmosphere of the shot and I’ve shot with my 1DX in full rain without a problem. On the day of the shoot, it did rain, but only lightly and the cloud cover was PERFECT for the session. For you gear heads I used PCB Einsteins and his Vagabond Mini power packs. Paul’s lighting is my preferred studio strobe equipment.
Being patient means KNOWING your equipment front to back, no matter what type of camera/lighting you’re using. Your client could care less if you’re using a Nikon, Canon, Fuji or other camera or whether you’re a Profoto fan or Uncle Bob’s strobe user. They could care less if you’re a full frame guy or gal, use a cropped sensor or not. The PICTURE tells the story and how well you know how to think on your feet, exhibit creativity on the run, keep the talent engaged and get a photo better than they ever imagined are elements that separate the men from the fan boys!
Whether you shoot for your entire income, are a ‘semi pro’ or just shoot for the pure enjoyment of the craft, be patient. For me that means taking the time to truly know your gear, all of it. Practice, read, experiment and have fun with what you already have. I get as much fun as the next guy when I want to buy something new. But the real difference is how I USE my gear, not what brand it is or its stats. To a client In the commercial world, you’re only as good as your last session. They’ve trusted me with their whole marketing campaign based on my shooting style and consistency in delivering a great product. Practice, know your existing gear and develop a body of work. One great shot leads to a second great shot. The difference between a good or nice shot and a great one is huge. And that comes only through forced patience.