Sunday, July 28, 2013

CuriOdyssey-Event Versus Editorial Photography

This is a cellphone photo made by a friend while I photographed Reptile Day at CuriOdyssey, a hands-on natural history museum in San Mateo. I asked for this particular assignment because I like reptiles and it was near my office. As a kid, I spent a lot of time with snakes and lizards, so I always enjoy any assignment that involves "creepy crawlies".

I decided to post some of the shots from this assignment as an object lesson in the differences between editorial photography and event photography. In a nutshell:
  • an event photographer primarily documents who was in attendance, while
  • an editorial photographer attempts to illustrate why people were in attendance. 
As an editorial photographer, I wanted viewers to see Reptile Day as both fun and interesting, with lots of appeal for youngsters.

The shot was made with a Nikon D7000, shutter speed 1/250, ISO 200, Flash White Balance, with a  Tokina 11-17 lens set to F 7.1. This is only significant because these settings are available to anybody using a modestly priced digital SLR. I mounted a Nikon SB-800 speedlight with the diffusion dome in place. This is not particularly creative light, but since I was working in very close quarters, off-camera flash would not have been a practical approach. On-camera, fill flash would have to do. The camera's built-in flash just wouldn't cut it.

The following images are "right out of camera", with very minor level adjustments to make them easier to see. In other words, uncropped.

Shot #1
Shot #1 was made as a "sketch" to see how the flash was performing. Outdoors, I'm pushing my luck here because the diffusion dome reduces the flash output, but because I was using such a wide angle lens, I could work very close to my subjects and the subject-to-flash distance would be relatively short.

Shot #2
Shot #2 was a nice enough shot. I wish the snake's head was visible, but the Animal Keeper, mindful of how excited children sometimes get, made sure the snake's head was safely under control.

Shot #3
In Shot #3 my subject's expression was wonderful, but the snake is no longer visible.

Shot #4
Shot #4 could have been cropped, but without  the snake's head, there's no reptile context.

Shot #5
I love this little girl's expression in Shot #5, but once again, no real evidence of a snake. Also, the headless Handler might be a little to "spooky" for the paper to use.

Shot #6

Shot #7

Shot #8
Shots #6 - #8 share the same shortcomings. The snake's head isn't visible, but there are some cute expressions.

Shot #9
Shot #9 concentrated on the snake and the Handler. This might do if I was trying to illustrate  their relationship, but this was not where I wanted the image to go.

Shot #10
Shot #10 has some important visual elements. 
  • The snake's head is clearly visible. 
  • The composition follows the "Rule of Thirds" composition almost exactly. 
  • All of the attention points directly toward the snake. 
If I had examined the photo more carefully, I might have had the presence of mind to get the photographer's name. In my opinion, #10 was a good shot by all accounts. But because I didn't get the name, I didn't send it.

Cropped and adjusted Shot #2
I finally submitted a cropped version of Shot #2. I has has an engaged child, a "catchy" tee shirt, the Handler's visible face, and a "recognizable" snake. I liked the simplicity of the shot, and managed to get the young lady's name because this shot was the "front runner" as soon as I saw it. 

I look at these last two photos and believe this shot better illustrates "why" a child might enjoy coming to Reptile Day. I don't like the areas of "non-content", or regions that don't add to the viewer's sense of the moment. Shot #10 was very "content dense", but lacked one key element: a child. I believe I submitted the better photograph, but I'll keep a copy of #10 for my portfolio.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Beach Blanket Babylon: Inside and Out

Beach Blanket Babylon is a cultural landmark of the first order.  The show began its run in 1974 at Club Savoy Tivoli and has since moved to the larger Club Fugazi in the North Beach district of San Francisco. It is America's longest-running musical revue.  Every year, three $10,000 Steve Silver High School Scholarships are awarded to encourage high school students to pursue their educations in the performing arts. This year, one of the finalists was Ms. Candy Tong from a high school in our service area, and my editor and I hoped to get a shot of her holding one of those checks.

Before we went into the theater, I introduced myself to all of Ms. Tong's friends and asked them to please PLEASE wait on the street in front of the club after the show was over so I could make a photo for the paper.

Indoors: Club Fugazi is a relatively small theater as seen in the lead photograph. Because of the wide variety of artificial light sources, I decided to let the camera select the proper white balance. The camera settings on the Nikon were Automatic White Balance, F2.8, 1/15 if a second, ISO 3200, with a Tokina 11-16 2.8 zoom. This shot was stretching my ability to hold still, and despite the signs of subject movement, this shot gives you a feeling for the audience's excitement before the competition began.

The guest judges include a number of local luminaries, including former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. If you look closely in the shadows of his jacket, you can see that some of the accent lights were definitely blue, which adds to the problem of obtaining an acceptable color balance. I set the camera to Incandescent and hoped for the best. At least this way, the white balance would be relatively consistent.

Shortly before the performance, I was directed (escorted, if you will), to the "photographer's area", up in the balcony near the back of the theater. I switched to a 70-200 2.8, and was saved not so much by the focal length but by the vibration reduction. Without it, all the photos taken from this vantage point would probably shown some camera motion. F 4.0, 1/200, ISO 800. The relatively short exposure time helped freeze the action, since subject motion can be a real problem when shooting indoors under available/house lighting conditions.

Ms. Tong gave a lovely performance during the competition. I made over two dozen photos during her routine, but kept this one because of the light fell directly on her face. Whenever possible, make your photos when the subject is look towards the light. This was the only acceptable shot I made of her that evening.

There is never a shortage of "drama" among show people, as this former scholarship recipient clearly demonstrates. The gentleman with the microphone is Don Bleu, a local morning radio personality.

One of the winners,  Reilly O'Flynn is seen here receiving his check. It sure looks to me like he couldn't believe he really won.

Outdoors: The competition ended, so I headed out the front door. Thankfully, all of Ms. Tong's friends were already in front, waiting for her to emerge from the theater. When she did, she was greeted by a wonderful, hand-painted sign, a surprise her friends managed to keep from her throughout the evening. Although she didn't win a scholarship, she was very pleased at this showing of support by her classmates. Incidentally, those shapes in the foreground are the backs of the hand painted signs held by her friends.

Now I had to start setting up the shot. I wanted the "Club Fugazi" sign in the background, so I re-arranged her friends in front of the stairs. The naturally fell into line, so I decided to take the shot as they were, even though I had another arrangement in mind.

In this first pose, it was difficult to see Ms.Tong standing in the background. After I made this shot, I asked that the signs be held over their heads. I moved Ms. Tong to the foreground so she would appear larger. The juxtaposition of her head, while corny, seemed to work, so the shot was done. You can see the final, corrected shot, below.

Only three shots were taken of this particular arrangement, and luckily for me, her feet weren't completely cut off, as it was the only shot where the "O" sign was fully visible, so I was especially thankful to the Photography Gods who let me slip by with this one. Just having that little bit of curve from the shoes made a huge difference.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Lighting was provided by a single Nikon speedlight held high overhead with a monopod. The extended exposure setting of 1/15 resulted in some blur but great background separation provided by the lamp above the front door. The framing error and the camera shake may have been the result of trying to hold the monopod while shooting with one hand, not the steadiest shooting combination.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Lighting Big Groups Outdoors

I've been making the group graduation photo for the past nine years. My first attempt was with a handheld 6-megapixel Sony Point and Shoot, the last with a 16-megapixel Nikon D7000 mounted on a tripod. Things have changed considerably since my earliest efforts. The biggest jump came when I decided to upgrade my lighting several years ago. I traded in my speedlights for two Norman 200B units mounted on 8' light stands and triggered with twin Eilenchrome Skyport radio receivers. So far the system has worked well. The session now includes "chimping" with a Hoodman Loupe between shots which gives me a chance to inspect the shot before the group is dismissed. Using a tripod allows me to get the horizon as level as humanly possible, and helps to maintain a consistent shot-to-shot appearance.

The two Norman heads were mounted at 45 degree angles to the left and right of the camera. While this might qualify as unimaginative, the size of the group and the shooting distance make it very difficult to be creative with your lighting. so I have always thought it best to play it save and use a simple copy-light setup.

Hiding Glare Spots. This is a tough place to photography because there will be strong direct sunlight shining on the students at camera left. That can't be helped, since this is the most suitable location for the shot. I use a "sketch" shot like this one to fine-tune my exposure.  If you look a the two shadows cast beside Cissie, you can see the nearly symmetric placement of the lights. You can also see a glare spot on the glass door from the camera-left Norman flash. While there would probably be people to cover the door at this point, I decided to be pro-active and eliminate the spot by re-positioning the flash head.

My first effort was not quite on target, but you can see I'm moving in the right direction. If memory serves, I had Cissie move the light stand a short distance to the left, make a shot, and examine the results. Eventually, I was able to hide the glare spot on one of the grey columns beside the door.

As long as my camera stayed on the tripod and the lights stayed in position, I wouldn't need to worry about any glare from the background. The light was still even, and the shot, while pretty straight forward, was well lit.

Hoo-RAH! One last bit of whimsey is the "hooray" shot. You get better smiles, but you have to be careful to make sure that nobody's face is obscured ay an overly enthusiastic fist-pump. I have the students practice it and have them adjust themselves of they can't see the camera with both eyes, an important distinction.

Drag Shutter Candids: If there was a celebrity at the graduation, it was Jan Becker,  who was retiring from the Adult School after teaching for 35 years. I wanted to get a photo of her with two students who had won statewide honors for the accomplishments. I made three photos using three different shutter speeds and a constant aperture.

Shot #1: 1/125th of a second, 5.6, ISO 800, Zumbrella with Nikon SB-800.

Shot #2: 1/60th of a second, 5.6, ISO 800, Zumbrella with Nikon SB-800. 

Shot #3: 1/30th of a second, 5.6, ISO 800, Zumbrella with Nikon SB-800. I like this shot primarily because it provided some separation between the twilight sky and Caesar's blue shirt.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

What Photographers Really Do

From time to time I am asked about how photography stacks up as a viable revenue source. It looks simple enough. You walk up to your subject, share a few pleasantries, click the shutter, and you done, right? How hard could that be?

In a pre-digital era, people usually separated themselves from the development and printing part of the photographic process. The actual transformation from exposed film to finished print was seldom done at home. Times change, and today many home printers allow direct direct connection to a suitable digital camera resulting in a finished print in mere seconds.

I have been asked to help some high school photography students who will be submitting photos for possible publication in the Journal. Since the relevance of hard-copy publications has changed so radically in the 21st century, there are misconceptions about the current value of the still photograph in a world dominated by other forms of visual media. Add to this the technical advances in equipment and it's easy to become dismissive about still photography. I remember hearing one aspiring photojournalist describing his responsibilities as limited to simply showing up at a location and taking the picture. He appeared confident that his digital SLR and an assortment of lenses would somehow manage to overcome odd locations, hostile lighting, and unprepared subjects.

As an editorial photographer, I spend a great deal of time just arranging for a shot. Part of being a photographer is having a strategy for how to approach every assignment. In my own work for the Journal, the typical assignment checklist consists of a series of e-mails and phone calls, each one designed to keep the production “on track”. Here’s my typical sequence of non-photograhic tasks that precede any assignment. 

I seldom shoot “on speculation”, which means I would never arrive on location unless I’m expected. A typical e-mail announcement from my editor of an upcoming assignment will include the following:
  • Name of the Event
  • Location, Date and Time of event.
  • Press Release text, often forwarded directly from the event coordinator or the assigned publicist, or
  • Press Release / Invitation attached as a PDF.
  • Contact Person’s e-mail and phone number, which may be different from the contact listed on the Press Release. Sometimes the Publicist sends the release, which is who you really want to contact. The name on the Press Release itself might be the person in charge of ticket sales and may not be the most useful contact.
If I am available to make the photo, I let my editor know as soon as possible. Next I will write or call the event contact and introduce myself.  At this time, I’ll go over some important details:
  • Date and Time of the Shoot: I will also confirm the date, time, and location (more important than you might think!). 
  • Number of Subjects: I also try to get an idea of how many people to expect in the photo. Sometimes I can get their names and titles in advance which makes photo captioning much easier. Sometimes the publicist may want to over-populate the photo, so it is important to set some limits. Remind them that the more people that appear in the photo, the smaller the faces which will decrease the impact of the photo. To clarify, I’ll sometimes say “Bride, Groom, Maid of Honor, and Best Man”. This is a simple reminder that I only want the major players.
  • Cell Phone Numbers: Whenever possible, I exchange cell phone numbers with my contact just in case I get delayed, or lost. I enter that number in my phone’s contact list so I’ll recognize them if and when they call.
  • Location Details: Sometimes there will be something that the contact knows will be an important element to include. It may be unique sculpture, a painting, or maybe a particular setting that might be related to the event. Encourage the contact to share any potential locations for the shot. Remember that the number of subjects may have a bearing on the feasibility of such a shot.
  • Shooting Schedule: When possible, I try to set a schedule for the shoot. This gives the contact an idea of how long the shot will take. Believe me, nothing makes friends faster than having a well thought out plan of action. I try to set the “exact” time the shot will be made so that the subjects will know when, and where, they are to show up, and how long the shot will take. Sometimes I have the contact have everybody meet at the front desk, and from there go to where the shot will be made.
  • Lighting Equipment: If I know that I’ll be working in a crowded environment, I attach my speedlight to a monopod. If the shot will be made indoors before the main event, I’ll use a light stand. Both are always in the trunk of my car.
 For a “picket fence”, I will usually allow ten or more minutes to scout a location, five minutes to set up, and five minutes to make the actual photo. I may allow for additional time under certain circumstances. You are better off scheduling more preparation time than you’ll really need.
  • Scouting The Location: I will often Google the location to view images that others have already taken. If I like what I see, I may allow additional time for finding a suitable background. If it’s an annual event, I’ll also look for photos made by other photographers
  • Tough Lighting: This is where your lighting solution comes in. Those of you who read these posts regularly know that I always carry several speedlights in my bag no matter where the assignment is. This allows me to compensate of uneven, or "hostile", lighting. Remember that you are committed to only five minutes for setup, so you better have a plan of action and execute it as quickly as possible. I usually make some sample exposures to insure a proper blend ambient and flash (if used).
At the designated time, your subjects will start arriving on the set. I try to keep my subjects as informed as I can, and try to give the reason for why I do what I do. This helps to calm down the crowd, and also lets them know that you mean business. With your camera at the ready, I always try to say the following:
  • "Hi. I'm Tom Jung from the San Mateo Daily Journal". Make sure you introduce yourself. An explanation of why you're making a photo may be necessary, so be prepared. 
  • "I may be moving some of you to make sure everybody looks their very best." This gives you a license to re-arrange people, ostensibly to make them look their best, but in reality, to better balance the photo.
  • “Be sure you can see the light. If you can’t see the light with both eyes, half of your face might be in shadow.” I sometimes add that they need to be able to see my shoes so their smiles won’t be cut off. This is especially important when you speedlight is on a light stand. If anybody is wearing a baseball cap, be sure the visor is pushed back.
  • “Let’s work together so you can all get back to the party. This reminds them that the sooner the shot is made, the sooner they’ll get back to having fun.
  • “Before you leave, I’ll need to get all of your names and your responsibilities at this event.”
  • “The camera lens is here (and I point to the lens) and this is where you need to look when I take the photo.” Sometimes I’ll add, “This is where the love happens”. This lets the subjects know that the photo is about to be taken.
  • “I will be taking at least three photos so everybody will have a chance to blink”, which usually elicits grins and giggles.
  • After each shot, say, “That was perfect. Let’s make this next one better!” I keep the conversation as upbeat as possible, all the while keeping their attention. I use a Hoodman Hood Loupe to check for proper focus, blinks, or unwanted background clutter after each shot. Watch out for people wearing glasses. The shadow of the frame my obscure the eyes if you’re not careful.
  • “Thank you soooooo much! Enjoy the rest of your day/ afternoon/ evening/ dinner (or whatever)”.
Before you submit your photo for publication, you need to open the image in an image editor and do the following:
  • Select Your Best Image: Your subjects were warned that you would make three images, so now you must choose the best of the lot. How you do this is up to you, but be sure that it is sufficiently enlarged so you can spot anything you’ll regret submitting. Watch out for blinks, unwanted background detail, and bad expressions.
  • Edit Your Selected Image Gently: One thing must be made very clear: You may NOT alter the content of an image.  You should crop the image to eliminate any unnecessary portions of the image. I follow the basic “Rule of Thirds” when cropping, although I normally crop in the viewfinder by insuring proper placement of the primary visual elements before I press the shutter release. Exposure adjustments with Curves or Levels are permissible, along with proper dodging and burning.
  • Crop For Content Density: This is a term I used to describe the amount of meaningful content compared to non-essentials. Generally, if it doesn’t add something to the image, feel free to crop it out.
  • Write The Caption: The last step before submission is captioning. The absolute minimum would include the names, from left to right, of everyone you photographed, along with 3 w's, What, When, and Where. When getting names, be sure to include the position they hold in the organization, or their responsibilities at the event. Hopefully you will be able to read your own writing, but if not, immediately call the publicist and get some help. Keep in mind that the Publicist’s job is to get their “client” in the limelight, so they will often go out of your way to help out. You did remember to get her name and number, right?
  • Use Internet Resources: If you get in a jam and a publicist isn’t available, Google the organization and look at the Officers and Support Staff. Sometimes I’ll cut and paste an important statement from the Organization’s Mission Statement. This will help out the editor, who has the option to include or delete the text from the final copy.
If you’ve read to this point, you’ll have to conclude that as a photographer you will spend more time on the phone or in front of your computer than behind your camera. I have found this to be the norm for nearly all of my editorial and community assignments to date. This is the difference between the craft of photography and being a photographer. 

It is not enough to just know when and where to show up is not enough. Getting of names, writing of the caption, and editing and submitting the image in a timely manner are as important as the actual photo, if not more so.