Sunday, August 26, 2012

Shall We Dance

I admit to having mixed feelings about dance. While dance is all about movement, it is the moment, frozen in time, that fascinates me. Given my choice of watching the dance itself or viewing photographs of specific moments of time, I prefer the photos.

In July of 2011, I was photographing dancers of the Peninsula Ballet Theatre as they prepared for a fund-raising gala later that week. I really wasn't sure about how to approach this assignment since I had never photographed ballet before, and certainly never on the dance floor with the dancers themselves. Before I started, I immediately introduced myself, making sure they understood that I was making a photograph to publicize the upcoming fundraiser. I told them that I would get their names afterwards so they could concentrate on the dancing. I also told them I'd keep my distance, and that I wouldn't be using flash.

On open assignments like this one, I am usually free to bring back any image I wish, within reason. But to clarify my approach, I try to anticipate what I am about to see, and how the readers will interpret the image.  In this case, the studio was lined with mirrors, so reflections might create an interesting visual element.  Since dance is about motion, it would be better to attempt a photo taken at that moment when movement momentarily ceases, sometimes called the "moment of peak action".  Finally, the dance must look effortless, an illusion created by the studied combination of physical strength and fluid movement. No matter what the approach, my ultimate goal was to capture the viewer's attention so they might actually read the caption, and hopefully attend the performance.

I try to avoid submitting photos in a portrait (vertical) orientation. Most of my photos are only accompanied by a brief caption. The caption, when positioned below the photo, makes for several lines of short, chopped up text. If the caption appears to the side, it would have the same problem, along with the possibility of a great deal of empty white space if the caption is brief. As you can see, the uneven gaps between words can be quite distracting. Incidentally, short lines don't flow as well, and may discourage anyone from actual reading the caption.

I went in with two camera bodies: a D300 with a 70-200 Nikkor and a D7000 with a either a 11-17 Tokina or a 28-75 Tamron. ISO was 1600, Aperture Priority. Most shots were wide open at 2.8. I don't recall the white balance I used. Nearly 250 images would be taken during the one-hour practice session. 

I attempted to show the entire group in the practice studio. While the slight "dutching" (tilting) of the image added to a sense of motion, the dancers would be too small to show any detail, possibly shifting the viewer's attention to the pattern in the ceiling and away from the dancers. This shot was not submitted.

I moved closer for this next photo. The dancers now occupy much more of the frame. But only one male dancer is looking up, so the shot was rejected.

The next shot had some potential, since everybody's face was clearly visible, and the primary lines of the dancers combine to form a "V", giving the viewer the impression of motion. But the computer monitor, situated in the center of the photo, ruined it for me.

I made some photos with a longer lens, which provided some background separation. However, this particular photo lacks any contextual clues as to who the woman is or what she's actually doing. In a word, there's not enough helpful background detail.

I saw this shot, complete with reflections. I purposely cropped tightly so that only her face was visible. But after closer examination I rejected it, although up until that moment, I thought it was THE shot.

Finally, my big break. During one of the practice routines there was a lift. While I was able to capture just a few images (the lifts don't last very long), I took this last shot from a low angle which eliminated most of the distracting details at the floor level. It would have been wonderful if the dancers were closer to the mirrored background so I could have made a version with the dancers' reflection. Alas, it was not to be. But in that moment of attempting to locate the ideal vantage point, low and level with the mirror, I managed to get one reflection: my own. Ouch.

Shooting in the middle of a serious practice session doesn't allow for any manipulation of the subjects. I really couldn't justify any attempts to re-position the subjects for the sake of a tighter composition. I am thankful that I got the shot that I did, although it has probably already been made hundreds of times. But it did capture the spirit, and with the exception of the photographer's reflection, met the criteria I had established before I started shooting.

Final Note: You may be wondering why I seem to take so many "rejects". The answer is simple. First, you never see the exact moment of exposure when using a single lens reflex camera. Second, I don't "shoot and chimp" because I might miss something interesting. And lastly, when I move from side to side to find the best subject arrangement, I can't always see what's going on in the background. So there are going to be a lot of rejects. I just don't submit them for publication.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Where Have All The Photographers Gone?

I was  having lunch with a friend who is a retired technical photographer. After reminiscing about past adventures, the subject turned to photography, or more accurately, the demise of the photographer's mindset. We both mourned the passing from relevance of the hard-earned skill sets that set us apart from mere amateurs, and cursed the role that digital photography played in the current decline of the craft.

Just as a point of clarification: There will always be photographers (film, digital, or otherwise), who continue to push their creativity to the very limits to produce images that literally "glow" from their efforts. One must not infer that the creative drive is dead.

Both of us grew up in the days of "wet processing" of film and prints. We remembered long hours spent in darkrooms, or in my case, darkened rooms, our hands aching from the constant dance of dodge and burn, our minds numbed by the see-saw motion of developing trays, our spirits rising and falling to the parade of good prints and bad, each one the result of the invisible influences of light and chemistry. 

When I got started in photography, I was using my father's Mamiyaflex, a twin-lens camera that used 120 roll film (12 exposures) and was focused manually. The taking lens had a Seikosha shutter with a listed maximum speed of 1/400 of a second, which was really 1/300th, if that. I measured my light using a "solar powered"  Weston light meter, converted  the Weston readings to ASA, and transferred the shutter speed and aperture setting to the camera by twisting dials and moving levers. And after all twelve exposures were made, I went home and developed my roll of film. Since I used an AnscoMatic Roll Film Developing Tank with reels that could only load film when perfectly dry, I usually waited until the next day to process my second roll of film, if there was one. And when I had enough negatives to justify a print run, I would cover all of the windows in the garage and would print until the sun came up, literally. It was just the Solar enlarger and me, working our magic, hoping for a great image to reveal itself under the gentle rocking of the tray of developer.

Eventually I bought my own 35mm camera, an Olympus 35SP. It was handier than the Mamayaflex and easier to keep with me. I suddenly became the iconic 1970's "concerned young photographer", righting society's wrongs with compassionate and powerful images lovingly printed in black and white. That compact Olympus fit unobtrusively under my jacket, and because it was always with me, got more use than any other film camera I have ever owned. It now lives on my desk here in my cubicle. To look at it is to re-affirm the beliefs of that idealistic young man from so many years ago.

As many other photographers, my friend currently uses a film camera and then scans the processed negatives for importation into his computer. He is considering a conversion to a full digital work flow by purchasing a digital camera. I committed myself to a totally digital work flow because a large percentage of my work goes on to publication in one form or another. The speed with which the digital capture becomes a digital image is frightening, and the seduction of speed at all costs is exacting its toll, occasionally tempting me to accept "good enough" in place of a easily produced "properly done" image. 

I'll wager that nearly all youngsters who are not yet reached their "one score and ten" have never known the commitment level of the photographers who preceded them. As citizens of "the now", they accept the nearly instant gratification provided by the digital medium without a second thought, believing it to be their birthright for their opportune participation in the first half of the 21st century.

This was not meant to be a rant in the common sense. Just my reflections on the sea change brought about by the digital revolution. It should be seen as a reminder that the digital magic should never be taken for granted. There will always be a new challenge, and new rewards, when you push the new medium to your personal limits, and beyond.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Event Photographer

I was sent to bring back a photo from the Menlo Charity Horse Show in Menlo Park. This was the second time I covered the event for the paper, and as in 2010, I had visions of Frank Sinatra (Mike Connor) and Celeste Holm (Liz Imbrie, photographer for Spy Magazine) in the movie High Society running through my head. Me, rubbing elbows with the “swells”. As always, I was over equipped and under dressed, as I like to say. 3 speed lights, 3 lenses, 2 bodies, spare batteries, spare cards, Zumbrella on a monopod, all my usual stuff. You never know when an opportunity to make a Pulitzer Prize winning  photograph might present itself and find me fully equipped and ready for action. Just waiting to produce gorgeous lighting on a  moment's notice.

(This photo, taken at the same event in August of 2010, was one of my early Journal photos. I realize now that this photo "missed" in a number of ways. For instance, the sunlight at the lower edge of the photo is distracting, along the the splayed fingers on the camera-left subject. But I was proud that I thought the have the rightmost subject bend her arm to hold her shawl to tighten up the composition. The biggest shortcoming is the lack of overall context, something that would take me many assignments to understand.)

Now out of the corner of my eye I saw another photographer. She was a stylishly dressed twenty-something who could easily pass for the daughter or niece of any of the Diamond Level donors. She carried only a Canon DSLR with a flash (Canon people call them flashes, Nikon people call them speed lights) equipped with a Gary Fong Light Sphere. She was one of the Photo Associates working for Drew. a well-known photographer who works the social scene in the San Francisco bay area. While the peninsula may have other photographers working similar social events, Drew and his crew are the “go to” folks in the City.

I did notice one thing: she was incredibly smooth. She could establish rapport with her subjects in just a few moments with her disarming smile and cheerful demeanor. It was obvious that her subjects knew why she was there, and they were confident that the festivities wouldn’t be interrupted for more than a few moments. She did some minimal adjustments to her subjects, smiled, and made several photos in quick succession. Then she moved on to the other guests, photographing them with equal aplomb.

This is one of her photos taken directly from Drew's web site. It's a wonderful photo of two guests at the event, but like my first attempt, doesn't give many clues as to where the photo was taken. It is an event photo and not an editorial photo, although I am sure that this couple would love to have a copy on a desk or nightstand somewhere in their home.

The Business End: This started me thinking about every photographer’s relationship with the craft. Each of us brings several important attributes to the assignment.  Our technical competency (focus, composition, and exposure) will affect the image's clarity, our communication skills (guiding subject expression, positioning) will affect its appeal, and our organizational skills the speed of delivery of the final product. This young photographer was clearly adept at putting people at ease, making a very satisfactory photo, and moving on. I’m sure she would go on to photograph dozens, maybe hundreds of guests and all the while with a smile on her face that would have easily gone from sincere to contrived, were it my face behind the camera. Her total take was over 1,000 images, posted to the site and available for sale, a testament to Drew's organizational skills. If you take a moment to visit Drew's site, you will see that all the prints are available for sale in a variety of sizes, at reasonable prices.

In short, there is much to be said for a photographer who can make pleasing images quickly and efficiently, Granted, the condensed work flow may force the photographer to adopt a standardized photographic approach and rely on a simple, predictable lighting technique. And in retrospect, her simple approach of on-camera lighting would prove less stressful to the subjects and make it easier for the photographer to maintain rapport with her subjects. And last but not least, the process of purchasing a print must be as convenient as possible.

I may need to re-think how I approach similar events. Certainly, I'll want to "push the envelope" of my abilities to light, pose, and engage future subjects, but this encounter was a reminder that my needs cannot interfere with my subject's participation in the event. After all, unless they make an appointment to work with me specifically, the process of making a photograph will always be secondary in my subject's mind, an important consideration my young colleague clearly understood.

P.S. There are usually horses, too.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Clamp Is A Clamp

A while back, I wrote about The Black Plastic Thingie, a piece of sheet Delrin that I made specifically for mounting a speedlight close to the axis of a shoot-through umbrella. To be specific, I wanted to align the speedlight with the sock-like sleeve at the center of a Photek Softlighter II.  The BPT is simply a platform that holds the head of a speedlight using a ball bungee. It is low tech but adequate, so long as the speedlight doesn't shake loose.

I was testing out my Softlighter in preparation for a head shot I planned on doing this week. While rummaging through an assortment of umbrella/flash brackets, I selected an Impact Umbrella Bracket. Now several of my brackets have two mounting holes for the cold shoe brass stud adapters: One on top, and one on the side. The Impact unit was unique in because the secondary mounting hole allowed me to align the body of my speedlight parallel to the umbrella's shaft. It was a simple matter to remove the mounting stud from the top hole (left below) and insert it into the alternate one (right below). This put the cold shoe very close to the umbrella shaft allowing a speedlight with its the head in the "up" position to slip into the sock-like tunnel in the center of the diffuser panel. As you can see, this alternate mounting brings the speedlight very close to the umbrella shaft. For inquiring minds who want to know, that's a Nikon A10 shoe mounted on a threaded stud.

There were problems. You may have to rotate the speedlight to get adequate clearance. In the case of the SB-800, the control panel wound up nearly touching the umbrella shaft and the sensor eye wound up pointed in an odd direction. In small indoor sets there should be enough reflective surfaces to allow the sensor eye to "see" the command pulses. Outdoors, you may need to resort to a radio trigger, a better choice due to the "iffy" nature of Nikon's CLS when used in the great outdoors. The other issue is the slight inclination of the umbrella shaft. In the photos, you see the shaft's downward inclination increases the distance of the flash tube from the "center" of the umbrella. But since the Softlighter "chokes up" with a very short shaft, I'm betting the displacement will have little or no effect. And since I plan on using this arrangement at very short distances, I can "feather" the light slightly to bring the hotter regions of the round diffuser panel higher up on the subject. And if I leave the diffusion dome on the flash head, the point may well become moot.

If you already own a Softlighter II, you know about the removable section of the umbrella shaft. Because the sideways mounting of the speedlight brings the flash head closer to the inner umbrella surface, you'll probably need to leave the extension in place to maintain optimal head position.

While my photos of the bracket aren't "arty", I think you will get the idea. What is most important to me is that I now have a more practical way to use the Softlighter in the field. The Impact Umbrella Bracket can be used with the Softlighter or with my favorite Zumbrella. In addition, the Softlighter has a removable "skin" that can turn the reflected umbrella into a shoot-through, giving me two distinct characters of light without any additional gear to pack.

Let's see how this works in the field. Stay tuned.