Right now there are so many important and historic events happening in our country and our communities. The Black Lives Matter movement changing how blacks have been mistreated throughout history, COVID-19, record unemployment, home schooling, Zoom Meetings, and face to face isolation.
On February 24 2020 just before the public officially became aware of the novel coronavirus, a collection of artists of all genres gathered to create the Hillbarn Theatre’s 2020 Season Brochure. I need to rewind this story five years prior to that date. Tracy and I work with many theatres and performance venues in the Western United States. After having helped in creating season brochures and publicity collateral for theatres ranging from pre-Broadway houses to community theatres, August Laguio and I became restless with the look of theatre publicity imagery. August is one of the most accomplished graphic designers I have ever worked with and was responsible for so much of the marketing collateral our clients used.
We spoke to the marketing staff of all the theatres who were clients, “Hey we would like to try a new approach to how theatre presents itself to the public, a photo centric approach, not heavy with graphics and not using traditional show graphics titling.” Well what has always been done is a very difficult mindset to overcome, especially when theatres feel their income may suffer. Or they feel their season subscriber base would not take a liking to something new.
In 2006 before ever dreaming of becoming a commercial photographer I had the opportunity to spend time with Annie Leibovitz. She was on a tour for her book A Photographer’s Life and a friend arranged time for me to meet with her. “Annie, how can I learn to shoot like you?” Her reply “Mark, don’t attempt to shoot like me, strive to shoot like Mark. And one day I will look at your work and wonder why I didn’t ask you the very same question.” What she taught me in the time we spent together was not about camera gear. It was about concepts, storytelling and feeling.
So in late 2019 Tracy and I were looking through some of Annie’s work and the delicious nature of a wider shot that enveloped the entire scene of what goes into creating an image struck us both. “Let’s talk to Dan about doing it this way for Hillbarn’s 80th season, their 2020 Season Brochure!” In reality once Tracy and I are both on the same page about an idea, poor Dan didn’t really have a chance. With his typical askance look and a raised eyebrow he simply said “Uh OK I guess we can do that. Yeah it sounds good.” So we were off to the races. Of course Dano had to tell us the season so we could begin formulating a plan.
One of the most delicious elements in Annie’s style of pulled back imagery are the drops. Hand painted canvas background drops. The texture of painted drops is just delicious on film if they’re done correctly. So as Tracy often does, she began her investigation and found out that to purchase a 12’x12’ hand painted drop, averages 1800.00 per drop. Gulp! “We need to raise our prices babe!” was my response. We both agreed that we would need at least four different drops for the session. So what did she do? She researched how hand painted drops are made, what materials are used, where to find them and how they’re painted. Kelly Tighe was instrumental in helping her understand the process of selecting the correct canvas, the paints and the process. He was the first in our epic collaboration to create something very special.
So off to Musson Theatrical we went to buy the canvas, then to a paint shop in Belmont and then to the hardware store for brushes. But where do we paint these? The canvas can either be stretched over a wooden frame we would have to build or….
Stapled to a wooden floor. HEY Hillbarn’s greenroom has a wooden floor! So as luck would have it that area was clear during the times we’d need to occupy the space. So for days and nights Tracy painted, sprayed and rolled the canvases. Of course I was there for moral support as I napped in one of the prop chairs left in the room.
Dan informed us of Hillbarn’s 80th Season lineup:
- The Sound of Music
- A Chorus Line
- Shakespeare In Love
- The Producers
Now came the task of how to light each of the shows. Although I review gear on this blog I tend to not discuss gear too much outside of this site. Concepts are the most difficult aspect in my imagery development process. But the fact that I have been using battery operated Flashpoint strobes for the past six years makes my job easier. No more asking clients where power is located at on location venues. It’s all battery powered now, no cords, just freedom. And why is that important? Because NO ONE likes Mark’s cussing scale of one to ten. I’m a real bitch about just a few things; authentic expressions, donuts and light. Not many people know this because I don’t say, but with light and imagery I smell and taste when the shot is the right one; delicious, LITERALLY. For those who have worked with me they are accustomed to when I say I got the shot and I never even look at my camera. Sure all of the images go to my iPad, but it’s because I can taste when the shot is right that I know I got the shot. Weirdo? Yep, but it works for me.
Dan Demers the Artistic Director of Hillbarn Theatre had these thoughts:
“It’s always a challenge to think beyond the last brochure you create. Creatively you have to stretch yourself; you have to push beyond the uncomfortable beyond the safe looks. The honest reason I’m able to do that more easily now is because of the partnerships, friendships and trust I have with Mark and Tracy. So when both of them came to me with this idea I knew it was going to be powerful and I could see it in my mind instantly.
But how could I make this shoot rise to the idea of it. I knew I had to reach out to some amazing creative people and ask them for help. Together I shared the concept with them and they quickly starting to see if for themselves. But I was missing something…
You see every year Mark, Tracy and I sit down and talk about the emotion or feeling behind the shoots or brochure, and it is one of my favorite days. It usually starts with an idea that has been stirring in me, then when we sit down and talk about it, Mark takes it an begins to cook up ideas or images, and usually ends with a ‘damn you, now I can’t stop thinking about it.’ This time the tables were turned. It was me who was constantly thinking about the concept. I knew we had to do more, so with this amazing group of creative people we started to craft actual scenes for each show. Pulling props, period costumes, small set pieces and using the full theater space. This creation would only enhance the beauty of the concept and idea of our 80th Anniversary season brochure. I could not wait to see the pictures, the models, and the scenes we had all created to evoke the emotion of each show.”
So on the day of the shoot, Tracy is filming and I’m shooting. My primary job is to keep the energy HIGH throughout the day. What does that mean? It means that when each of the talent arrives and begins to go through makeup, hair, wardrobe, etc. when they get to me I need to show them my energy. I’ve never been the kind of shooter that just snaps my shutter. Nope I like to tell the talent a story of what I’m looking to create. In a way, I’m a director. And if I bore or lose that momentum then I have not done a good job. Smiles need to be genuine; tension needs to be authentic, even in a studio environment. Actors are professionals, but they need direction and that’s what I try to convey. I have concepts in my mind whenever I begin any session, but it’s the organic collaboration that happens during the sessions that creates the true magic.
Being collaborative, directing and encouraging organic development of ideas on set is what makes a shoot successful, memorable and authentic. I’ve always said that a pretty photo without emotion is just a pretty photo. We all strive together to make imagery and our memories of that day magic.
Behind the scenes images in the creation of:
It becomes very evident that our sessions are very serious and boring….LOL!!!
The Sound of Music (not accomplished due to COVID19)
A Chorus Line
Shakespeare In Love
And the final choices for the brochure by show
The Sound of Music – NA
A Chorus Line
Shakespeare In Love
I asked all of the people involved to add any comments if they wished to do so:
“Any smiles shown in the picture were real and not staged, just pure happiness being around amazing people in a warm and welcoming theatre family!!!” – Kylie Abucay, actress
“Thank you for sharing these with us, and we’re honored to have taken part of this experience, despite the current circumstances. Just imagine how strong and amped up we’ll all be when this all subsides! Much love and healthy wishes to you both and your families.” – Christine M. Shulman, actress
“It was almost surreal for me to be included in this photo shoot. As long as I have been Sofia’s mom I have sat in the audience. Enjoying all you very talented thespians from the seats in the second row. I never thought I’d be part of the gang. And then Tracy and Mark thought of me as the perfect Ms Scarlett. Be still my heart. It was amazing to be included.
Growing up in an Irish Catholic school most girls had blonde hair, freckles and blue eyes. I had a ton of dark hair, a unibrow among other unwanted hair, and pretty ethnic. I didn’t feel very pretty. Moments like this, where the way I look is appreciated and never gets old. Thank you Mark and Tracy for liking my look enough to include me as Ms Scarlett! You two and Dan are amazing! We miss you all very much.” – Vicky Costantini
“Walking into the theatre yesterday was like uncovering a time capsule—from before shelter-in-place, before face masks and government mandates to stay six feet apart. Caught in the moment before everything changed, the place feels frozen. The set for Laughter on the 23rd Floor is still in place; the props are pre-set and costumes hang on racks in the green room ready to be returned to storage.
We walked out on March 16 and other than visits for mail pick up, a place that is usually filled with people and projects has been abandoned. Only weeks before we jumped ship we had spent an incredibly creative and collaborative day as part of a collective hive-brain at an 80th Hillbarn Theatre Season brochure photoshoot.
With an understanding of the show characters, limited access to stock costumes and no actor measurements, co-costumer, Melissa and I had preselected outfits. With fingers crossed we hoped the Artistic Director approved ensembles would fit and tell the story.
Over the course of several weeks we’d watched videographer Tracey Martin paint the ombré backdrops; each gradient background is arguably a work of art in itself! It was against these grey’s and sages that the actors would express character with costumes and props aiding in setting time, place and character.
Photoshoot day was one of the best ever. The process was organically synergistic and well beyond the control of any participating individual. The “process” was humming as each member of the creative crew added their layer to the storyline. Editing was rich. No one said no. Creatives love to hear yes and… not yes but. The room reverberated.” – Pam Lampkin, costumer
Hillbarn’s 80th season may not have transpired on stage as planned. But the magic and collaboration of what we all created together is something that deserves sharing. Especially in the times of COVID19, the importance of Black Lives Matter and the changes necessary to make our world what it should have become long ago.
Hi, if you’ve stopped by to read about my latest blog post regarding a specific piece of gear, it’s best to keep moving along. Nope, this post is about all that went into a recent publicity shoot I just completed. A big part of the job is developing the look and feel for a campaign. After viewing some of Annie Leibovitz’s work, my partner and I felt using painted drops for a number of the sessions would create the feeling we wanted. After investigating the cost of hand painted drops she discovered that good ones range anywhere between $1000 to $1800 dollars for a 12×12 foot size. So..
We went to our local theatrical supply store where she purchased the fabric and then it was onto the paint store. In total, two 12x12s, three 8×6 foot drops including the paint and tools came to just over 500 bucks. She plans to use the smaller drops for her headshot business too.
We spoke to our client about the concepts and he generously allowed us to use the theatre’s Green Room to paint the drops. We needed space, but just as important a wood floor where the canvases could be stapled to the floor. His Green Room had both. Once done we showed him the mood board we assembled for the concept and it was at that point all of us became very excited. Since it is the theatre’s 80th anniversary season, he wanted something special. So we presented the following concepts for the imagery:
We also presented the idea of including behind the scenes shots of the sessions. EVERYONE including myself loves BTS imagery and film. I still get goosebumps thinking about Game of Thrones BTS film of Beyond the Wall. The client immediately approved the concept so we were off to the races. Logistics is one of the most tedious aspects of any shoot. Scheduling talent, securing the venue, preparing wardrobe, makeup, props is just part of a shoot. I’m consulted on the type of wardrobe, colors, etc. which has nothing to do with the camera or lighting gear I’m using…but…
The type of lighting instruments I plan to use really does depend on the mood, the costumes and the setting for each session. I know so many forum trolls like to pretend they are skilled in light when they argue about if a modifier is a true parabola or not. Go right ahead and argue about it, but for me and most importantly my clients, how something looks and feels is what matters. And will the imagery evoke enough emotion to initiate a sale, that’s the REAL question.
All of my publicity imagery is shot with my Pentax 645Z medium format. I do this for two reasons; first there is a feeling of medium format that I just cannot recreate with 35mm. Second clients often use the files for billboards, bus banner, etc. so file size can be a concern. In addition all strobes are Flashpoint 600s or 200s. Modifiers….well that’s a different story.
Sure I use focusing rod modifiers most of the time, but when those are not the right tools for the job at hand I often improvise. Like using a Cheetahstand Lantern with a cut up cheap umbrella fabric as a drape held with wooden clothespins to control spill. Or a 1965 Mole Richardson 412 Fresnel spotlight converted into a strobe. Some of my gear is used like the OEM intended yet with other modifier instruments; well I’ve just adapted them to my needs.
My whole point of this post is to highlight creativity, planning and imagination in developing imagery. Do what is right for you or for you and your client. Don’t be afraid to try things that work for you. Stay away from the naysayers, how many times have you seen their body of work beyond shitty ‘test shots’ anyway? Crickets? Exactly my point!
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.
Someone recently requested that I post some behind the scenes shots of my water shoots. These are NOT underwater sessions. To date I am not skilled enough in the nuances of underwater shooting. Lighting and its color are very different, radio transmissions don’t work underwater, the equipment needed is different. But I have done quite a few sessions involving water, just not UNDER water….
I really love the organic nature of water and the story and drama it can add to the right project. So this first example involved quite a bit of engineering to set up the mood of rain. First off the restrictions were as follows:
- The talent could only be at a specific location at a specific day and time. This prevented me from scheduling the session at a time when the sun would be in the optimum position so I was not fighting its influence.
- The location where I was able to shoot must be at the client’s venue. So I could NOT rent a studio that allowed me to use water.
I scouted the client’s building area two weeks prior to the scheduled shoot and determined the best place to conduct the shoot would be the enclosed area where they keep their dumpsters! On one side was a chain link gate, the right and back wall were part of the building and the left wall was 20 feet high. The entire area had no ceiling. Shooting inside of their building would be impossible due to the water damage that would occur. Pushing the dumpsters out of the area and washing the concrete was first. The next thing to do was to rig up a sprinkler system to shoot water up and in front of my black drape. I rigged two garden sprinkler heads onto the top of the background crossbar and ran garden hoses to the outdoor spigot. Figuring out how to prevent the sprinkler heads from rotating in the Super Clamps once the water was turned on was another challenge. They naturally wanted to rotate back away from the forward direction I needed the water. If they did that while the strobes were firing the bulbs would explode from the temperature difference.
Then of course there is the issue of power and I needed to wrap my strobes in plastic so no one would be electrocuted including me! In order for water to show up in a photograph the way I wanted it to, it must be lit. In this case backlighting of the water was necessary.
I along with my clients prefer to NOT create elements in post processing, but in camera. First of all doing so adds so much authenticity and also excites the talent which then adds even more real emotion to the shot. My work IS NOWHERE NEAR THE LEVEL OF GoT’s not even close but, David Benioff’s comment about shooting on location versus graphic treatment is so spot on (at 2:19 mark in the video).
You can see the two garden sprinkler heads at the top of my backdrop crossbar. I had to consider the weight of the water as it runs up through the hoses. This is a test of fabric, the water and lighting. Two strobes were required to illuminate the water.
This next example was to shoot dancers with water trails. These are high school dancers so the restrictions were:
- Photograph them immediately after school, two hours maximum time
- The session MUST be held on school grounds
So I selected a wall that runs around the perimeter of their school’s pool area. Because the sun was high in the sky it was very difficult to find and area that I could shade just a bit. So I extended my background stand as high as it would go, about 12 feet. I then asked the student’s dance teacher to ‘douse’ the dancers with a bucket of water from the pool! As SOON as the students were wet they MUST perform their dance routine otherwise the water would dry and not be sufficient to leave water trails.
Again all strobes were covered in plastic.
This final example took one year of planning. YEP one full year. I’ve worked with these two Argentine Tango dancers for a number of years. They are the only tango dancers to have ever appeared in Cirque du Soleil, they are that skilled and beautiful. One of the main barriers was to pick a surface that would afford them traction in water and contain the water, so plastic was eliminated. It was very difficult but I finally figured out what to use, textured rubber. The other aspect that I didn’t anticipate is the timing of the shot. I am very accustomed at photographing dancers at the apex of their movement. But what I discovered is once they reach that apex, water trails are gone!
The momentum necessary to carry the water in an arc stops when a dancer reaches their apex. So I had to retime my shots, which took a bit of effort, but I was able to time my shutter press appropriately.
Getting the water into the area was accomplished using a garden hose from the building’s restroom located 75 feet away!
The couple practicing their dance moves.
Once we finished the clothed shots we moved onto the nudes. Keep in mind that this was shot during winter in Seattle. Because the water was cold and the room has one heater near the ceiling we pumped up the temp to 95 degrees! I wanted to be nude! Oh and ask me how we got the water OUT of the room! Can you say towels and buckets! Yep, we had to soak up the water, wring them out into a bucket, carry those buckets to the restroom and do it over and over and over….UGH! I kept reminding myself that the shots we got were worth the effort!
Whenever people ask me about what camera I use, what modifiers, what this or that I tend to ignore those questions. Why? Well because those are NOT the elements most important in what I do. Sure the right tool for the right job helps, but CONCEPTS ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT and EXECUTING those concepts well are key. I sometimes think that people believe they can buy their way out of poor imagery creation by purchasing expensive gear. A crappy photo can be created by a 50k camera as easily as it can be with a phone camera. And the inverse to that is also true.
A big part of my job is to figure out how to create unique and emotive moods and stories for my client’s imagery. A pretty picture without emotion or a story is just a pretty picture. One of the most challenging part of the job is to come up with a COMPELLING concept and then determining how to execute that concept with the restrictions I know I must face. In truth my client base could care less what gear I use. What they care about is if the product I produce for them evokes emotion, is unique and contains a story which will help sell their product. Can I CONSISTENTLY produce compelling imagery and does the talent enjoy working and collaborating with me? Can I overcome impediments to a shoot on the fly and quickly? If not I can expect a one in a row job from that client. Not to mention my reputation would suffer in this very close knit community.
Imagination and working around restrictions is the most challenging part of my job. And I would not have it any other way.
UPDATE February 11 2019
I realized I had posted some of my lighting techniques under a different blog heading about the v2.0 Saberstrip modifiers, which I consider to be a revolutionary modifier, but had not updated this post. I do so because I find the v2.0 Saberstrips to be almost invaluable for me in creating dance imagery. In some cases I have used three of them to light dancers in studio. As an overhead light on a boom arm and two on each side of the dancers as rim lights. It creates a very dramatic sculpture of their forms as they move. I have also taken to using my 10″ Fresnel to light dancers. I love the light produced by a large lens Fresnel. A hard contrasty light that is unlike any other modifier.
The following images were all created with three v2.0 Saberstrips as shown in my photo above.
The following were shot with a backlight with a cone, three v2.0 Saberstrips and the Fresnel as a fill light.
And finally two v2.0 Saberstrips and the Fresnel as a key light.
For me experimenting with light is one of the most exciting parts of dance photography. Don’t be afraid to experiment, otherwise all of your images will begin to look the same. And what fun is that?
UPDATE October 12 2017
In my review of Cheetahstand’s Quick Stripbox and Lantern I have shown my lighting setups for a different dance troupe. You can view that post here.
I was recently hired to do an annual studio dance session by one of my long time clients. I’m posting this to show how I use xPLOR, eVOLV, Cheetahstand, CononMark, etc lights and modifiers in a session. This was an all-day session lasting approximately 6.5 hours of nonstop shooting. I had charged both the Xplor and eVOLV lights to full the day before. I never even ran close to running out of battery power on any of the strobes. All of the strobes showed half full at the end of the day. My Canon 1DXII showed 25% battery life left at the end of the day to give you some reference. I was using the WFT-E6A wireless transmitting dongle on my camera to wirelessly tether my rig to my iPad so the client could view the images as they happened. Using the transmitter uses more battery life than without.
There seems to be quite a bit of ‘talk’ that certain brands of modifiers/lights/etc. must be used in order to ‘be a pro.’ Nonsense. How one uses gear, how one engages with the talent and how one uses their imagination are the most important part of imagery to my clients. So I post this in hopes that it will help other shooters who are interested in multi light set ups, but not hung up on brand names or scientific theories about what makes a true parabola or other talking points. When people ask me what is the one thing I would have for gear over everything else, I always say your imagination. Years ago I was blessed to be able to spend time with Annie Leibovitz and I asked her “How do I shoot more like you?” Her response? “Don’t shoot like me Mark, shoot like you. It’s the only way to develop your own style.”
Some of my final images.
Occasionally my clients ask that I shoot in front of seamless. Most of the time it is because they have a graphic artist add treatments to the shot. In other cases they don’t have the time or budget to go on location. Shooting in front of seamless is my least favorite type of shooting, but sometimes it’s necessary. In a recent studio publicity session for Noises Off the client asked that I shoot in front of white seamless due to actor scheduling issues preventing an on location shoot. In addition he conveyed to me that no graphic treatments would be added to the final image. The Director of the play sent me a photograph created in NYC by another theatre company for the same play, Noises Off. They had shot their publicity image on location. It conveyed the mood of the shot to me very well.
So my challenge was to recreate that mood in front of seamless. No room, no textures of walls, just plain white paper is all that I had. So after giving it some thought, I decided to combine three different light sources to create the shot within the Artistic Director’s confines, but give the Director the mood and story he desired. I asked that some furniture be used to create levels between the seven (yep 7) different characters in the shot. It would also provide a much less sterile feeling of the seamless. A chair, a small table and I opted to bring a prop lamp I had purchased from a theatre company long ago.
So here’s what I used to create this final image:
Setting up the ‘room’ with the lights and props. The talent found this very entertaining to see me flashing the lamp and gobo strobes while all of this was going on! LOL
Key Light was a PCB legacy 86” Soft silver umbrella. I had intended to use my Glow Grand Para focusing rod modifier, but found that PCB worked much better for this shot. Camera left was its placement. I cannot vouch for the newer version of the PLM soft silver umbrella as I have not purchased or used one. The strobe I used for the key light was the Flashpoint 600.
The lamp was lit using a Flashpoint Zoon R2 Manual Flash with a Gary Fong Lightsphere placed inside the lamp shade. Because I was using strobes, any normal light bulb would have been completely overpowered so I needed to illuminate the lamp with a strobe. It just added the authenticity of light that I wanted for the shot.
The ‘window shadow’ I decided to add was created using a Flashpoint XP600 Pro attached to a Flashpoint XP600 Pro Portable 600ws Extension FlashHead using a now discontinued Bowens Universal Spotlite Attachment with a Rosco window gobo. I wanted some visual interest and a cue to the interior of a grand room to add mood.
Part of the story of the shot is the ‘butler’ dumping a tray of appetizers on one of the other characters. So in order to time the shot, I asked the ‘butler’ to nod when he was about to dump the tray. The tumbling of the items off of the tray was not done in post, but in camera. It’s just my workflow.
As professional shooters we are so often asked to create a mood and story out of nothing. It’s just the nature of the job. Using your imagination and different light sources/modifiers can do things that one can only imagine.
Shooting as a pro means there are times when you have to prove yourself once again with an established client. Not doing a great job either in the finished product or through your service simply means you’re not used again. One of my long standing clients, Village Theatre recently changed Artistic Directors. Jerry Dixon, their new AD planned to attend two of the three on location publicity shoots all to be held in different cities in greater Seattle area. The first session for the play Curious Incidents is also the play he is directing. No pressure eh? LOL
The second aspect of this day that is always a bit concerning was that I NEVER SAW ANY OF THE VENUES IN ADVANCE of the day! Sure the Marketing Director sent me some camera phone photos and links to the MOPOP (Museum of Pop Culture) areas where she wanted to shoot, but I had never been there. Nor had I been to Spangler Book Exchange/Reread Books, the quaint bookstore where we were to shoot the Matilda publicity or the alley in Everett where I’d shoot the Howard Barnes publicity. Add to that the additional element of time. For each venue we were limited in time based on either the schedule of some of the talent or due to the venue’s prior commitments.
The only element I ever insist on from clients is to answer; “What is the mood you want from each session?” Why? Well because the expression of the talent(s) and the LIGHT is something I have to plan for BEFORE I hit the job….which leads me to….
The Marketing Director kept asking me “Mark, I need to know your power requirements for each venue so I can work with each of the operations managers to plan power for your gear.” Since I exclusively use Flashpoint strobes, guess what….they need no outside power!!! SCORE! I hauled seven, yes seven strobes from SF to SEA in a small Pelican case. 49.5 pounds…just UNDER the 50 lbs. limit! Three Xplor600s, one 600Pro and three Evolv200s! I split the four 600 batteries between me and my partner’s carry on camera bags instead of inside checked luggage to save weight (btw I always put gaff tape over the contacts of the batteries just in case…). All of the stands were rented in Seattle and for the smoke I advance shipped smoke grenades to the Marketing Director. It takes planning folks….LOL
For modifiers I took three v2 Saberstrips which use Evolv200s with their Fresnel heads. I cannot speak highly enough about both the Evolvs and the new Saberstrips. Together they create what I view as a revolutionary combination in camera lighting. Yeah they’re that good. I knew that both the MOPOP and the bookstore sessions would be VERY CRAMPED in terms of space. Using “traditional” modifiers or strobes would be a total pain in the ass. Sure it could be done, but would easily have been a 10/10 on my cussing scale. I knew I wanted a softer light for both the MOPOP and bookstore feeling, but a hard light in the alley. So I took three Fresnel modifiers for that session. All of my modifiers fit into my SKB hard sided golf case which I use to transport my light modifiers when traveling out of town.
So here’s how it all worked: (All of the BTS images are by my partner Tracy Martin)
Session 1, Curious Incident shoot at MOPOP
Session 2 for Matilda at ReRead Bookstore
A few of the Final Images
Session 3 for Howard Barnes in an alley in Everett WA
A few of the Final Images
I was so shocked to see an article written by James Spangler the owner of ReRead Books where we shot the Matilda publicity! All if not most photographers know that getting feedback is rare so this was both a nice and humbling surprise. My whole point on this post is to highlight the incredible leap in technology and innovation in the field of photographic lighting. Sure all of us can figure out how to do something even if it’s tough. But to have others who are helping to ease the stress of creating beautiful light is wonderful!
UPDATE May 24 2018
CalArts has placed their entire Summertime Issue 2018 #3 online.
In January 2018 the Editor of The Pool, an alumni magazine for the California Institute for the Arts contacted me about a feature they had planned for their 3rd edition of the publication. CalArts was incorporated in 1961 as the first degree-granting institution of higher learning in the United States created specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts. It offers Bachelor of Fine Arts, Master of Fine Arts, Master of Arts, and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees among six schools: Art; Critical Studies; Dance; Film/Video; Music; and Theater.
The publication wanted to feature one of their alumni – Antoine Hunter a deaf dancer, choreographer and educator. The editor informed me that Antoine had specifically requested that I create the imagery for his feature which prompted CalArts to commission me for the honored task. I met Antoine when he danced for Savage Jazz Dance Company of Oakland where I created publicity imagery for their troupe.
As with all creative endeavors my workflow was to meet with Antoine over coffee to discuss the mood he’d like to have for his imagery. Once we had our meeting I contacted the editor to discuss his wishes and we scheduled the session in and around iconic San Francisco landmarks. He wanted the imagery to reflect the majestic flavor of Antoine’s home. Beyond that, the artistic elements were left to my discretion which I always appreciate.
In March the editor flew up for the day and we began the session. Even though there was a chance of rain I was confident that the areas I had selected would be shielded from rain if it occurred. As luck would have it, it was a glorious day with wonderful clouds in the sky that I adore. Antoine brought his 6 year old daughter to the event along with his ASL interpreter. Even though we had not discussed shots of him and his daughter, I took them anyway as a memento of that day which he could have for his own memories. I too have kids and having imagery of them never gets old. In the end the magazine used one of the photos which I felt added much to his story. I’ve often found that the images created outside of an assignment are often used and enrich a story.
For all of the images I used a two Flashpoint 600s with extension flash heads to keep weight on the modifier end to a minimum. The modifier I used was a PCB Omni reflector which is my go to outdoor modifier. I had written a blog post about how I converted it to accept a Bowens mount. It is great in wind which is always a concern with my on location shoots. I planned to utilize two of these and had both with me during the sessions. All of the images were created using HSS between 1/1000th and 1/2000th of a second depending on my location and the sun’s intensity at the time. Generally the aperture was f2.8.
My plan was to NOT make the images appear lit, but balanced in natural light yet with a high production value. The only exception was when I created his portrait in a tunnel that is very darkly lit. In this instance I used two of the lights, one as a backlight to rim his figure and the other as a key light. The back light modifier was a simple 7 inch cone on a Flashpoint 600. The magazine ended up using that shot for the cover and I’m really pleased with the results.
I continue to be impressed with the performance, flexibility and quality of my 600 units, both as a monolight or with an extension head. They are key to my work and the innovation in their ability to convert from a monolight to a pack/head or 1200ws head offers me options other manufacturers don’t offer or match at the price point. I often chuckle when I read others who are so concerned about a 1/3 drop of power when using the extension heads. I guess increasing their ISO 1/3 of a stop doesn’t occur to them! LOL!!!! Some people will bitch about absolutely anything rather then spending their time on creating.
Gallery of images. Not all were utilized in the publication.
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.
UPDATE November 8 2017
My client has used several of the publicity imagery in and around the greater Seattle area on billboards and bus banners.
My partner Tracy Martin completed and the client has released the film she created for their upcoming fall production of Holiday Inn. The film is a behind the scenes look into the making of the production which includes my publicity photo shoot for the show. This film will be shown nationwide through Fathom Entertainment in movie theaters. In the film you will catch short glimpses of the gear I used which includes xPLOR600, eVOLV200s, Parabolix 35D, Cheetahstand’s Quick Lantern among other items.
UPDATE October 2 2017
I have written a post about a dance session I conducted that uses these items. You can view that post here.
I recently created a dance session using a wide range of the Godox strobe system:
- Flashpoint XPLOR 600 HSS (4)
- Flashpoint Portable 600ws Extension FlashHead (3)
- Flashpoint eVOLV 200 (3)
- Flashpoint Zoom R2 Manual Flash (1)
- Flashpoint eVOLV Dual Power Twin Head (1)
- Flashpoint Portable 1200ws Extension Head (1)
My goal was to create the illusion of a stage, a grand hall using light, shadow and atmosphere. This was the very first time I used every single Godox light I have including a speed light. What is wonderful is how seamlessly all of the lights integrate into a system. I could not be happier with this line of strobes.
All shot with a Canon 1DXII, EF24-70 II. Most images shot at 1/500th at various f stops, ISO 100. I have quite a few reviews of the gear I sighted above. The purpose of this post is to simply show how I use the gear rather than update each review. I find actual usage much more helpful for me and hope this helps you as well.
UPDATE December 9 2017
I recently conducted a two day session using two eVOLV200S mounted to an AD-B2 unit shot through a Cheetahstand Quick strip box. The strobes were used as second key lights combined with my xPLOR600 with remote head shot through a CononMark 120CM focusing octa modifier. The units performed well and the stopping power of the units is excellent. I shot all sessions using a Pentax 645Z whose sync speed is limited to 1/125th of a second. During jumping action shots the strobes froze the action of the talent jumping. I’m continually pleased with the performance of both the eVOLV and xPLOR units. It should also be noted that I was able to complete two full days of shooting without charging either the eVOLV or xPLOR units.
Full crop of the necklace to illustrate the stopping power of the strobes.UPDATE October 20 2017
My client has incorporated some of my publicity imagery into their marketing campaign.
UPDATE October 12 2017
In my review of Cheetahstand’s Quick Stripbox and Lantern I have shown my lighting setups for a different dance troupe. You can view that post here.
UPDATE October 2 2017
I have written a post about a dance session I conducted that uses these items. You can view that post here.
UPDATE September 8 2017
In my post about the Parabolix 35D I have some of my recent client work which was just released.
UPDATE September 7 2017
I wanted to illustrate how I add lights during the session below.
First I see how I want the exposure using the Cheetahstand lantern as my overhead light.
I want to make this simple. The ONLY reason I use a piece of gear is because I have found a piece of gear which works for me. I have long given up on most review sites with the exception of three I trust. I do listen to other pros I know personally if they find pieces of gear that work for them. It doesn’t mean those items will work the same for me, or vice versa. I am LOYAL to companies that service/warranty/customer service the products they carry with integrity.
I was recently hired to create some promotional imagery for a dance troupe. They have an upcoming performance this Fall and wanted me to create some marketing imagery. For this particular shoot I am not tied to an NDA so I am able to use some of the images and BTS shots I created, providing I don’t mention the troupe’s name. This posting is part review, part explanation as to why I choose what I choose for my work.
I often chuckle when I hear/read folks discount or complain about items “Made in China.” Sure I would love to purchase items made in the USA or specifically California, but this is a century which is global where items are made everywhere. Apparently innovation is now global….. (LOL) I remember the day people use to tease me that “Made in Japan” meant the items were ‘cheap’ and poorly made. Well guess fucking what? Times have changed….
I HATE putting together softboxes, HATE IT. So when I read that Edward had designed and manufactured a ‘quick’ softbox I was skeptical. You see I have used Westcott’s Rapid Box line and although they are fine, I never really like the design. So I ordered one of his Quick Stripboxes and was duly impressed when it arrived. I especially like how he includes a fabric grid with his products. The mechanism that expands the four captured rods is genius. And the material he uses is of good quality.
It’s no secret that one of my favorite lighting techniques is rim or back lighting the talent. Normally I’ve used gridded strip boxes, but when I happened upon the Cheetah 26″ Quick Lantern I thought it may solve one of the issues I have with strip box overhead lighting. By using an orb the light would be more evenly distributed on my subjects. Photographing dancers often means they MOVE around and are often out of the sweet spot of a strip light. The light produced by the Cheetah 26″ Quick Lantern is smooth and more natural looking for my work. To keep the unit’s light from spilling onto the background I cut an old PCB umbrella and use it to drape over the lantern. When I want to direct light other than straight down, I simply use some wooden clothespins to roll the material up to expose the lantern. Works great! Oh and assembly of the lantern is so easy. Love omnidirectional light when needed.
On a different post on my site I’ve done an initial review of the Parabolix Deep 35. I was not yet able to display any photos due to NDAs, but am able to do so here. I will simply repeat that the modifier is very well made and the focusing arm and pivot is top notch. The light produced is wonderful. Is it three times better than my CononMark 120? For me not three times better, yet it is wonderful.
My point to this post is I’m not influenced by brands or theoretical ‘views’ by other ‘photographers’ who love to spew out their views without any imagery. I try to find what works best for me and presents a good value. I value my freedom above all else.
Three of my fellow pro shooters are sponsored by photographic house hold names. In each case when I’ve said “Hey have you tried XYZ’s new lens/strobe/etc?” they respond with “Ugh I can’t because having agreed to be sponsored by ABC Company means I can’t use XYZ’s stuff.” I get it though; getting expensive gear for free is cool. But for me the freedom to use what works for me, means a ton more than free gear.
In the end it’s what I produce that’s more important than what brand of this and that I use. If people believe that a specific brand or model of anything is going to make their work better, then they need a reality check. HOW YOU USE any tool and HOW YOU USE YOUR IMAGINATION are the most valuable assets you can own.
And since I just received an email from a client I consider quite a hard ass who SELDOM hands out ANY compliments which said, “You my talented bad ass brother…is the man…” after viewing some of the shots, I’ll stick to my own methodology.
About 50% of my work takes me out of state for client work. I believe many people view that as ‘cool’ and in many ways it is. BUT hauling gear to and fro on airlines is NOT so COOL. Because of the number of miles I travel each year I have top status on several airlines which is a godsend. I’m allowed 3 bags free as is my partner so between us we can haul 6 fifty pound bags without being charged. And thank goodness! This does not include gear we rent on site either!
Won’t be able to share any of the images from this shoot for about two months…NDAs….
UPDATE January 26 2018
I’ve recently written a post about my use of the xPLOR600/eVOLV200s with several different modifiers for a session. You can find that post here.
UPDATE September 10 2017
I recently posted an article on my use of all Godox units in one session. The article includes the use of this product. You can view that post here.
UPDATE September 8 2017
In my post about the Parabolix 35D I have some of my recent client work and how I used the xPLOR/eVOLV units during the session.
UPDATE: July 29 2017
I have written an article about how I achieved using the Xplor/Godox 600 and 200 strobes in HSS with my Pentax 645Z. You can read that article here.
Prior to using the Xplor/Godox line of strobes I shot exclusively with PCB Einsteins. Paul’s t:1 performance combined with his Vagabond line of batteries, the Cybercommander controls were bulletproof. Combine that with his customer service and well….for me it was a winning combination. But with Paul’s unfortunate passing years back, PCB’s innovation has lagged behind other strobe/modifier manufacturers. I adored Paul and I was so fortunate to have him as a sponsor for a short time. In my mind he was a true genius and yes, a bit of an eccentric fella, but geniuses are so often an ‘acquired taste’ but thank gawd for them.
Paul’s Einstein line never included HSS so for my outdoor workflow I simply used ND filters of various brands and types when I wanted to reduce ambient light. Variable ND filters were convenient, but I found that the color shift took a bit of post processing to reduce. I did find nanotec’s ND filters to be the best for my needs, but by reducing the ambient it also reduced the power of my strobes.
So I was an early adopter of the Godox line of strobes starting with their 360 line, moving onto the Flashpoint Xplor600/AD600 line and finally to the eVOLV200 units I found my niche. Having all of the units that communicate from one trigger along with the flexibility of combining several strobe bodies to create higher WS output…..gosh what could be better? The innovation of Godox combined with the service in the US of Adorama or Cheetahstand is a wicked combination. There were two instances early on when I purchased Godox AD600s on eBay when I could not get any service. But when both Cheetahstand and Adorama started rebranding the Godox line under their own names, well customer service in the States changed for the better.
I certainly realize that every photographer’s needs are different and mine differ from job to job. Sometimes I may use only two lights, sometimes three and sometimes 7 or more. It always depends on what my clients want for the mood of the shot. By having the ability to combine two lights into one, or to change my Xplor strobes from a monoblock into a pack/head design is so innovative. I have read opinions that other shooter’s clients ‘insist’ on specifying brands of strobes/cameras/lenses, but I have never encountered that situation. My clients care primarily about these issues:
- The concept of the shoot.
- The quality of the image
- Does the image convey the intended mood?
- Will the image help sales?
- Does my demeanor keep the talent engaged, thereby obtaining the expressions needed for the shot?
- How easy am I to work with?
Not ONCE has a client asked me about what brand of gear I plan to use. Nor do they ask me about the brand/model of vehicle I own. Or the brand of clothing I wear. My client’s jokingly say “Oh Mark is using his little magic Instamatic..” whenever I decide it’s the right time to use my Fuji X100T. The reality is I find photographers seem more concerned about what other photographers feel/say about gear than how their clients feel about their product. In my business I’m only as good as my last session. And if my clients don’t like ALL ASPECTS of my work, then I’m not asked to return to shoot another session.
I had a client who I shot four years ago ask me to do another shoot for his cover band. I delayed answering simply because I felt they wanted a typical band shot, which I was not willing to do. As we talked he said “I want you to shoot whatever and however you want to do the shoot.” So we began. And in this case I knew I was going to use multiple lights of varying power, with multiple modifiers. And guess what? The Xplor/Godox line of lights could not have been a better combination. I literally used every Xplor/Godox light I own for this session. The smallest number of lights used at one time was four and the most was nine.
My whole point to this post is to say that the Xplor/Cheetahstand/Godox line of lights is the most valuable lighting system I’ve ever owned and used. In my mind innovation in lighting is moving much faster than camera bodies and I love that! Find what works best for your style of shooting.
My clients have released their season brochures so I can now share the final results along with a short BTS video of the Hillbarn session. All of the images were shot using the Flashpoint Xplor 600 and Evolv 200 line of strobes using various modifiers and gels. All shot with a Pentax 645Z utilizing a 45-85mm MF lens.
My shots often appear in print, but today was special and unusual. On the front page of the Seattle Times, my publicity image for Village Theatre’s 2017-18 Season Brochure appears above the fold. Then two of my publicity shots for 5th Avenue Theatre’s world premier of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion – the Musical appears in the entertainment section. Fun!