Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fewer Shots? Why yes, I think I will.

Wesley and the Fire Demon

Today, I was catching up on tweets from the photo world and this blog post from Scott Bourne happened to come up.

Become a Better Photographer by Taking Fewer Shots « Photofocus:

"‘Okay, I’m done.’

‘That’s it? You’ve only been shooting for ten minutes!’

‘Yep, got about 50 shots, I should have 4-6 proofs for you from that bunch.’

‘So we’re done?’

‘Pretty much…I mean I can keep shooting, but there’s really no point, it’ll just be duplicates of the same stuff.’"

Every Thursday night at a local coffee joint called Spiderhouse, burners from around the area filter out into the night to meet up, catch up, burn up, and live up the evening. Some nights you'll only find one or two people there. And still other nights, the crowd will be thick and awed by these people knowingly dancing with spark and flame, mixed in a combustible hydrocarbon cocktail. Spinners, young and old, greenhorns and gurus alike come out to play.

I was out this Thursday.

Man, Thursday night was cold. Not bitter cold like we've seen in the last few weeks, but cold enough that I should have remembered my recently acquired +5 gloves of comfort. Not a good thing when you're trying to photograph someone outdoors, at night, with a bit of wind at your back. Exposed fingers become icicles in mere moments. The last thing you want is to have a finger freeze to your camera trigger and break off at the decisive moment. Nothing good would come of that.

So, like I was saying. I was out this Thursday and happened to be at Spiderhouse. Out back amongst the cobblestones and picnic benches, in fact. Lisa, one of the regulars, and a new guy, Wesley, were out by the stage prepping for a burn, so I walked over and watched. No. It's not so much that I watched. I was drawn in. Captivated and hypnotized by this new guy's fluidity with the poi. He was very good, to put it mildly.

LisaAnd herein, I decided I need to grab the camera and take some photos. Lisa and Wesley were gracious enough to allow me some time to play. I wanted to try something new, so out came the Ezybox. Now, I've done a fair bit of photography in the local burner community, so I'm always interested in trying out new ideas here. In fact, the cover of Joe McNally's Hot Shoe Diaries is very inspiring for me; I want to do a shoot like that with one of the local burners.

This night would be a step in that direction.

But, before I go on, what does this all have to do with the quote from Scott's blog? Having spent quite a bit of time photographing fire spinners, the one thing I've found is: there's only so many moves you can do with each type of fire spinning prop. Poi, staff, meteors, swords: they all have limits to their showmanship, so there's only so many ways you can experiment with photographing them. After you take a few hundred shots of someone spinning something in a circle, all you have is a few hundred shots of flaming ring photographs. It looks all the same.

And knowing this, I've been trying to cut down the number of photographs I take of people playing with fire.

When I first undertook to photograph fire spinners, I always saw it as a race against time. Get as many photos of the flames before the wicks flamed out or grew too lacking of fuel to get the rich oranges and yellows of blaze. When I started seeing the blackness of the wick itself, I knew it was coming to a close. The camera sounded like a slow-motion machine gun as the shutter clicked open, waited a second or two, and then clicked closed. And then again. Again. And again. And ... again. Until I filled up a card and was forced to swap to the next.

One of the things that fire has begun to show me is that this can be so. unberably. repetitive. Boring almost. Of the few thousand photos I have now, I can point at maybe a hundred that have become artistically interesting for one reason another. And many of those have been caused by something different that happened during the burn. Maybe it was someone I'd never seen before. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe it was me trying something I'd not played with before. But, whatever happened in the photo, it was different. Unusual. Something to be remembered.

And knowing that, I've begun looking at what I'm doing in my other photographic interests and trying to apply the same aesthetic. I don't want it to be repetitive and I believe that this often causes the mental blocks I've so frequently been encountering with my camera. Because, if you're shooting the same thing over and over, where is the art? Where is the fun? Where is the blade of unusuality that takes ahold your interest and leads you into the photo?

Gone. It's just gone.

So I'm forcing myself to look anew at what I'm doing and try to evaluate what should be different. What should be played with. Like Thursday: I don't normally add flash to my fire photos. I've always found it difficult to balance and clumsy to work with when you're playing with longer shutter speeds in order to capture the arc of fire.

But here's what I learned: it's still no different than other flash photography. You can easily over power it. You've got the control there you need. Now, rightly control it. In many of my photos from that evening, I let the flash over power the scene. Why? Because the chimper in me kept seeing the scene as too dark on the back of that god forsaken camera LCD. And second? What I want to do is fire within a portrait. I want to go for that McNally photo and make it my own. And doing so is going to make me think differently about what I'm trying to achieve with the local fire spinners, moving from a passive documenter, to an active photographer and engaging them in the photo, so they can engage you in the photo.

I ended the night with about 50 photos. Three came out good. I think that's a fair haul for 20 minutes of shooting filled with experimentation, don't you?

The photos above are of Wesley and Lisa. Both were photographed using a 15" Lastolite Ezybox Hotshoe with an SB-900 at 1/2 power and a full CTO to balance the color of the flash to that of the flames.

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