Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fashion For Compassion 2013

I always look forward to Fashion For Compassion, a pet fashion show that includes a luncheon and auction. This will be the third time that I have photographed the event, and I would like to think that this time I have the drill down pat. I have two objectives: make the Fashion Show Runway Shot, as seen here, and some candids of cute animals. The paper was only interested in the "pick of the litter", which this shot definitely was.

Last year's "money shot", while similar, may have been more a combination of being in the right place and a lot of luck. I had forgotten how quickly the dogs would turn away from me, anxious to leave the runway and get away from the scary crowd. For this shot, I had only enough time to make two quick exposures.

Setting up for the runway shot was straight forward. I used a Calumet wireless slave trigger to fire an SB-800 mounted on a light stand. I had experimented with leaving the camera's white balance at "flash" and let the ambient go warm, but I didn't like the result. I eventually added a CTO gel to bring the white balance closer to the ambient light provided by the overhead chandelier because it would play a major role in the photo's layout.

This shot was taken with the camera on "Flash" white balance before I gelled the main light. The background is really too warm, but this turned out to be an interesting photo, albeit somewhat surreal. The SB-800 had a Honl Grid mounted on it, so the light is very hard and direct. This was a sketch shot, so I hadn't yet mounted a fill flash on the camera. As I mentioned in earlier posts, the Calumet unit allows full iTTL control of a shoe mounted flash while maintaining "dumb" control of a manual remote speedlight. The round shadows in the foreground are from balloons that floated just below the speedlight. I remembered to bring a tall light stand because I knew that I would need to get the speedlight very close to the ceiling so I could shoot over the offending balloons. They would be popped as part of a raffle prize giveaway, which is why they don't appear in the submitted shot.

Just before the presentation began, there was time to make some candid shots. By now, I had attached CTO gels on all three SB-800s, including the one  on the light stand serving as my key light. I planned on using on-camera bounce flash. The camera's white balance was set to Tungsten, so everything matched.

This typical bounce-flash shot was made in the hallway just outside of the main dining area. Working with a fairly open aperture, it wasn't possible to get the lizard and the Lady in sharp focus, so I focused my attention on the fingertips and let the face go soft. I also turned the subject so that the accents lights in the background would give a sense depth without adding any distracting detail. There is a bit of color contamination due to the tinted walls and ceiling with a dash of warm ambient thrown in. Color correction in post processing improved the situation slightly.

Straight bounce worked here. There are a few things that one should watch out for. First, the young lady at the left has her legs in an awkward position. Second, the dog isn't particularly "cute". And finally, the color contamination from the rug makes the left subject look downright orange. I didn't submit the shot, since it wasn't particularly compelling, but it's still a nice shot of the two sisters.

Back in the hallway, Allie the Green Iguana made a new friend. This woman was obviously not afraid of the lizard, which remained surprisingly calm throughout the day. The bounce light came from high above (see the nose shadow). I suspect, but can prove, that most of the light came from the white ceiling and not from the darker walls which impacts the depth and placement of the shadows. The woman in the background pretty much killed the shot.

I tried something different here. The on-camera light became a commander, and my second speedlight set to Group A remote. The main light, bounced off the left wall, was the key/main light (+.3 stops), while the on-camera flash became the the fill (-2.0 stops). The Calumet transmitter could stay on the camera, since it allows iTTL controls to pass through it. I didn't expect the color contamination to be as bad as it was. You live, you learn.

This last shot was a "drag shutter" shot, meaning that the shutter speed was too slow to stop the movement, while the flash partially freezes the action, giving motion blur to the background. I have obviously not mastered the technique, but I like the way this shot turned out. The next time I'll set the camera to Rear Curtain Sync, which will put the blur behind the subject. The cupcakes were being auctioned off,  so they were moved from table to table as quickly as possible so that everybody could see what they were bidding on.

Try to learn something new every time you shoot. Looking  back, I learned plenty. And while I don't think I made any mistakes, I had some unexpected results. Experience is being a little better prepared to anticipate when things can potentially go astray.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rebecca - My First Muse

Rebecca: Once I had had it in my mind to experiment with fashion photography, I had to find somebody to photograph. Into this period of photographic discovery came a model named Rebecca Yahr. I met her at a photo show sponsored by Brooks Camera of San Francisco sometime in the early 70's. Nearly every major manufacturer of "consumer" equipment had a booth and a sales rep there. And believe it or not, one of the attractions was the dozen aspiring models from one of San Francisco's "modeling agencies". For the most part they were Charm School graduates, and while they all had some degree of poise and a basic understanding of the power of makeup, Rebecca stood out. She made posing look effortless, and with her typical model thin figure, very easy to photograph. 

She taught me many things about life on her side of the lens. I learned that she, like a number of people I would later photograph, smiled "down", which meant that the corners of her mouth didn't curve upward. I learned from her the importance of framing the face. She had a very high hairline, and by using props like scarves and hats, she could effectively re-direct the viewer to her eyes. Her face was beautifully symmetric except for a slight irregularity on the tip of her nose, which her ex-husband, a plastic surgeon, refused to "correct", saying that he found it attractive. And sadly, as a model, she was constantly being hit upon.

I photographed her several times in my makeshift home studio. She was always totally prepared, bringing a variety of outfits and accessories to each shoot. Looking at the contacts sheets, I was surprised to see that fashion is truly cyclical, since her shoes are not that different from what women are wearing today. The photographic "take" was limited because I was using my father's Hasselblad 1000 F, the best camera I had access to at the time. The "Hassie" was a SLR that used 12-exposure rolls of 120 film stored in interchangeable "backs", allowing a photographer to quickly change should one run "dry". If I shot 4 rolls in a session, I had to process them over a two day period because the 120 film inserts of my Ansco processing tank had to completely dry overnight, as I only owned two and they would not function properly  when they were the least bit moist. It might take a month before I had enough negatives to justify "blacking out" the garage in preparation for an all-night printing session. 

She was truly my first muse, and I was understandably shocked to find that she passed away at the age of 71. She was funny, resourceful, and totally professional. But most of all, she genuinely cared about my progress as a photographer.  And one afternoon, while chatting after a shoot, she said something that I remember to this day:

"There's always room at the top".

I will always think of her with a great fondness, and will be forever thankful for her faith in me, and her belief that the time we spent together would be a benefit to us both.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Happy Fortieth Anniversary

May 23, 1973 will be the 40th anniversary of my first published newspaper photo. It has been posted before, but for those who didn't see it, here it is.

I find it hard to believe how far photography has come since I started seeing a camera as something I might actually master. I remember when the whole process started to come together for me: the loading of the camera, the selection of the subject, the actual exposure, the developing of the film, and finally, the creation of the finished print. I didn't realize it at the time, but my fascination with the craft would last for many, many years. True, I pursued other hobbies in the 80's and would not return to photography until the advent of the affordable digital camera and the expansion of my duties to include the production of our school's catalog of courses.

At the time, my "hero" photographers were photojournalists. David Douglas Duncan, Eugene Smith, Larry Burrows, and a lesser known photographer named Mark Jury. His book, The Viet Nam Photo Book, really brought to war home to me. Unlike the first three photographers who were better known for their combat photography, Jury included much of what was often overlooked: life in the rear echelons. His photos highlighted the surreal lives of the 80% of service personnel responsible for keeping the other 20% fighting in the field. Finding the book in stacks of the City College of San Francisco library was a very fortunate accident.

The real game changer came in December of 1972, although I didn't realize it at the time. Vogue had run its Holiday Issue with Cher. I was stunned. The photo spread was incredible - I had never fully appreciated the art of studio lighting until that point. The photographer? Richard Avedon. There was something about the complete control available to the studio photographer. I started to re-think the direction I wanted my photography to go, and became a closer observer of studio work, particularly fashion.

The years prior to this revelation were full of inspiration. In 1966, a movie called "Blowup", featuring a young English fashion photographer played by David Hemmings, had just been released. He was young, handsome, impetuous, and self possessed. It suffices to say that the movie had an influence on how mainstream culture viewed fashion photographers, and to some extent, helped create the myth. 

Vogue Magazine, with its lavish photo spreads and a seemingly unlimited budget for innovation, was leading the charge, and Irving Penn, Bert Stern, and the aforementioned Richard Avedon were the white knights at the head of the column. As I write, a framed poster from the Berkeley Museum of Art featuring one of Penn's still life photographs titled "After Dinner Games" hangs on my wall, dating back to 1986 when an exhibit of his work was making the museum circuit. It serves to remind me that studio photographs aren't always about fashion, but also includes editorial illustration, the art of combining visual elements to reproduce a mood or a concept.

A collection of Penn's work can be seen in Moment's Preserved. I first found this book in the City College Library, and consider it the greatest photo book I have ever held. I would own it, were it not for the astronomical prices demanded by used book sellers. I found a signed, first edition, for slightly less than $2,000.00 US.

Stern is well known for his advertising campaign for Smirnoff Vodka, a campaign that included his flying to Egypt to photograph a martini in the middle of the dessert, complete with an inverted reflection of a REAL pyramid in the glass.  When I first saw photos, I was fascinated by the extravagance of the photo shoot, but did not fully understand the significance of the location until I read the catch phrase, "Driest of the Dry". Now the pyramid and the location made absolute sense. And more than forty years later, I have come to realize the link this image made connecting the image and the subliminal "dry" message was the very essence of the story telling potential of a well executed image. I might add that Stern is about to become an American Icon. An upcoming movie, "Bert Stern: The Original Madman" is scheduled for release in May of 2013.

Avedon's "Dovima And The Elephants" gives another glimpse of how elaborate an image could be. With three elephants and a stunning Dior gown, this was not a the product of a serious hobbyist, but the final iteration of a vision. In this image, you can clear see the black edges left by the retaining clips of the sheet film holder. This is a view camera shot, made with a camera that cannot be focused while the film was in place, and movement by the subject during the long exposure times could quickly ruin a shot. Incidentally, Avedon was probably the inspiration for the Richard Avery character played by Fred Astaire in "Funny Face". He did serve as a technical adviser during the filming of the movie.

With all of this, it is no surprise that this kind of commercial/ editorial photography would appeal to me. Here was the melding of an idea with an image. It appealed to the technician, the artist, and to some extent, the silent poet hiding deep inside me, hoping to find the words that would transcend mere prose. I wanted to meld Stern's imagery with a subliminal message, however lofty or banal. Until then, I would be content to refine my studio lighting skills with the equipment I had.

More to follow.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Projected Backgrounds

2009: This shot was  made for the cover of the San Mateo Adult School's Summer 2009 catalog of classes. I wanted to highlight some of the current programs in an interesting way. We had just purchased a digital projector, and I was looking for a way to use it in a photograph.

I wanted to show a relationship between the computer generated PowerPoint presentation and the projected image on the wall. I incorporated both visual elements, along with a computer student. I was trying for a "Rosie the Riveter" look, one that reflected a sense of accomplishment. 

To start, I turned off the room lights and made my first sketch shot. You can see that the LDC of the laptop computer and the projected image on a wall. Using Flash White Balance, the LCD is reasonably close, but the projected image is obviously brighter and carries a bit of a color cast.

That small glare spot is from the digital projector just below the lower edge of the frame. There isn't much you can do about it. I could have placed a prop beside the laptop to conceal it, had I noticed it.

I mounted an SB-800 on a boom and positioned it above the laptop. This illuminated the laptop without creating any glare. I darkened the projected image (somewhat) by taping a 77mm Polarizing Filter over the projector's lens, the only "neutral density" filter I had. The image was still bright and it had a green tint, but I didn't have any color correction (CC) gels, so I was forced to leave it the way it was. If I had noticed, I would have put a snoot (think cardboard tunnel) to concentrate the light on the laptop. You can see that some of the light spilled onto the far right hand side of the frame.

Here's a quick reminder: The shot only works with the house lights OFF. I left the lights on (accidentally) and you can see that nothing works.

For my main light, I positioned an SB-800 high and at camera left. I installed a blinder on the far side of the speed light to prevent any direct light from striking the the whiteboard or the flat screen of the laptop. In this shot, you can clearly see how the blinder prevents any light from striking the screen. I added my last SB-800 as a glancing fill from camera left. Here again is the final shot.

I was very pleased with the shot. Had I another SB-800 and a boom, I've have added an accent light above and behind my subject. It took about 2 hours to set up, as it was the first time I tried a shot this complicated.