Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ready if I want it now, Danger Boy...

Do I have your attention?

It's 1:30am on Thanksgiving Day. I'm wide awake, Johnny Cash is fitfully playing from some show on the Biography HD channel, and there's a frozen turkey sitting in a blue plastic tub in the kitchen. And yet, instead of dozing off or preparing for a wonderment of victuals delicately prepared and teased, I sit here thinking about my lighting style.

I am frustrated by it.

Let's back up a bit. I've been re-reading the Hotshoe Diaries again (and watching some recent McNally videos on the Nikon site) and realizing what difficulty I continue to have with my lighting style. I think I've been so abused of this notion that light must be grand and soft, that I find it a terribly grim notion to try something else.

Lately, I've been limited to using umbrellas. I know, there's nothing quite wrong with them, really. You can shoot through them. You can bounce into them. But controlling that light is a pain. It just goes everywhere. And generally, some of it is reflecting back some place I don't want it to go. Aeon Flux I I suppose I could get smart and flag out some of the light more, but in the heat of the moment I forget that I can do that. Or that I can collapse the umbrella. Or feather it. Or just take it off.

And herein lies the rub. I get wrapped up in what I'm doing that I can't defiantly remove myself from the scene and observe what's going on within it. Or even know what the scene should really be about. For the longest time, I've taken the mindset of letting things occur and reacting to it. No real foresight or planning occurs. I mean, what right-minded pirate would think of being so rigid as to stick to some photographic code! They're guidelines, people!

But, really, they're not even that. And I'm beginning to observe that not having some sort of reasonably gelled idea, not having some set of guidelines for what I really want out of the photo, not having some set of rules and checks that I want to purposefully constrain myself within is affecting my not very well-formed vision of the shoot from coming to fruition. A plan you must have. You can have a plan and choose not to follow it. You can't choose to not follow a plan that doesn't exist. Just doesn't work very well.

Take this latest shoot, for example. The idea was simple: Aeon Flux. That's it. I would show up with the camera, take a few photos, and be gone. I asked about what they specifically wanted but didn't get very good direction beyond, "We're going to suspend her and try to recreate one or two shots from the original TV show." Ok. Didn't know that until I got there so I had no idea what those shots would have or should have resembled.

I'm fond of the phrase, "a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine." Only, in this case, it was my lack of planning that made it a struggle. We tried a few positions, took some shots. Aeon Flux IIMostly, it was an evening of aimless fucking about until something kind-of, sort-of began to gel together if you tilted your head to the left, squinted your right eye, and covered your left with the back of an aching, sweaty palm.

And yeah, I was fighting the light the entire time. I wanted something mood-filled. Dark. Reminiscent of what I recalled the cartoon to be. Tried using two lights. One in a large umbrella, one bare to get some separation from the background. In most cases, it just did not work out the way I kept envisioning it. I'm still mulling over why. Could have been the space we were shooting, the lack of a real shooting plan, the phase of the moon. I'm not sure. Frustrating, it was.

So like any good non-plan following jack, I did what I thought best: killed the second light, pulled the first in closer, and dropped to a smaller umbrella. And this helped. I was dealing with too much light. Well, not so much that there was too much light, but that there was too much being illuminated. The walls, the ceiling, the carpet, the midget in the corner. I wanted to layer light in a pleasing manner, but I could not do it. Just wasn't working and I was tired of bashing my head against the wall.

Lately, I've been playing with the idea of using smaller light sources. more controllable, more directional. And the umbrella makes it difficult for me to achieve this (or maybe it's just that I don't know how to do it effectively yet). So, I'm getting a small 15" softbox for my speedlights. Aeon Flux III I think that'll be a good first step to get what I want. Blast all the light forward, don't have to worry as much about light coming from places I don't want it (like reflecting off the beige wall behind me). And this is what I really needed for this Aeon shoot. More control.

Once I got to a smaller umbrella, things started to work better. I felt less and less like my clutch was slipping and more like I was making positive forward momentum (even if I was squealing tires and redlining the engine). And looking back at what I was doing before, I begin to realize that what Joe McNally is doing is second nature to him. He understands just what light mod needs to be in place to achieve a particular effect (plus a bit of magic and luck) and I'm still figuring that out.

Only, in my case it feels like "shoot, shoot some more, shoot again, and then ask questions." Not a great way to do it.

So, some things I walk away with from this shoot:

  • Get a good idea of what the shoot is about. Include a list of photos you want to get.

  • Plan your shots, even if it's only a tiny bit of ordering. This will help you know when you've got it ... or when you should just move on.

  • Don't forget that you have control of the light. If something is broken, change it. Feather it, flag it, move it, change it, turn it into a duck. Whatever. Just try something different, but make sure it's a positive and directed different.

  • Breathe.

  • Think about what you're lighting before you get there.

  • Think about what you're NOT lighting before you get there.

  • Make sure the place you're shooting is appropriate for the subject you're shooting. Had I fully realized what the shoot was intended to be, I would have pulled them to a much better location.

  • Someone spinning around in the air really needs a tagline to hold them steady, otherwise you just cuss and frustrate yourself while attempting to get focus lock.

  • Spend some time after the shoot to review what you did and what worked (or didn't work). Just writing all this down has helped me figure out a few things to keep in my mental checklist of shooting.

My Aeon is a local friend who's moving out of town. This was a Halloween outfit she created a year or two back and she wanted some good photos of it before she departed. She'll be away for quite awhile and likely will only rarely return for visits. My only regret was never being able to photograph her in her Mystique costume. Damn was that thing sexy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Test post.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. :-)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cartier-Bresson never played with fire.

Red Stripes

Like I told my last wife, I says, "Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it's all in the reflexes."

Jack Burton, Big Trouble in Little China

Yes. I'm watching Big Trouble in Little China tonight. I love this movie. It's an 80's classic. I bring it up because of a scene in the movie where Jack and Wang Chi have bet each other that Wang Chi can't split a bottle in two with a large knife. Wang Chi hits the bottle. It, of course, does not split in twain, instead rocketing towards Jack's head. The hand being quicker than the eye, shoots up and snags the bottle before clocking him in the face.

Why do I bring this up?

I've been thinking about Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment and trying to better understand sensing or predicting the moment where the photo is "right". I tell you, I've shot more losers than winners trying to figure this out. Losing photos that is, not loser people. Anyway, this idea of capturing the decisive moment is difficult to grasp. It's difficult to know what exactly this idea really means. There's a group on Flickr to cover some of this. I spent some time reading through the discussions, as well as going back through some of Cartier-Bresson's books to glean some useful information.

Heh. "Useful information". There is none. All the talk I've found doesn't make up for the act of doing. I'm beginning to think it's like pornography ... you'll know it when you see it. And not one second before. Ironic, isn't it ... understanding what the decisive moment should be requires knowing when the decisive moment occurs.

Cartier-Bresson is quoted in a 1957 Washington Post article, saying, "Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."

You see. Intuition. You need that. And that only comes over time as you take crap photo after crap photo. At least, that's what it appears to my finely untrained eye. It's like trying to drive down the road, blindfolded, while steering a northerly course by the sensation of the road turtles under your tires. Bumpbumpbumpbumpbump. Get good enough at it, and you'll be able to judge not only distance and speed, but direction just from the sheer force of the ripple in your shocks.

But, back to Cartier-Bresson. He had years to develop this idea. I imagine he took his fair share of crap photos while slowly charting his course towards the decisive moment.

When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."

Jack Burton Big Trouble in Little China

Yes. I'm sure Henri paid his dues and that's why he understood what it meant to feel his way towards a better photograph. Intuition. A gut check. Using the force. Whatever you want to call the alignment of the planetary photogenesis (hey, I don't know what that means, it sounded good ... go with it). It ends up manifesting in a tiny, imperceptible muscle twitch that impregnates the image upon our photographic medium of choice right before the moment divests itself from our very sight.

And what do you know. Sometimes it's even a great photo.

The woman above is a local fire spinner in Austin. This was the first time I saw her spin. Very hypnotic. I've gotten to the point where I want to photograph something different with fire. Something I haven't seen or tried to see before. Here, she's up on a stage, replete with a large white background. You'd never know it from the photo, but 'tis true. She's kneeling on the stage, arching back towards the screen, twirling the fire ever closer to her face in between her stripped arms. If the music hadn't been loud, you would have heard the crackling get louder and softer, each time the poi flipped around closer to you. Woosh. Woosh. Woosh. Lovely fire. Lovely photo. Lovely woman. And this is me dancing with that decisive moment.

I think it worked.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bullet time.

This has been making the rounds. Makes you want your own highspeed camera, doesn't it?