Sunday, January 6, 2013

Battle Of Inches

Funny. I was watching Joe McNally's DVD on lighting this morning, just hours before this shot was taken. Joe (like I really KNOW him) stated that sometimes lighting is a Battle of Inches, meaning that an inch or two can make a big difference in the final appearance of a photograph. In viewing this photo, it is clear that if I had only seen my mistake, I could have easily corrected it.

The assignment brought my editor and me to the Redwood City Courthouse to gather background information for an upcoming story on the Sheriff's Department. Their responsibilities cover a much wider range than most of us realize, and my job was to try to illustrate some aspect of the department's responsibilities that would get the viewer quickly to the point.

After spending nearly an hour touring the Sheriff's "turf", it was time to make a photo. With so many different aspects, my editor and I did a quick evaluation of how we should approach the shot. Due to privacy issues, I was decided that only our designated subject should appear in the photograph.

Since I had the full cooperation of the department, I was able to get Officer Heindel to pose for the shot. In order to minimize my impact on his day, I said I'd call for him after I had a chance to stage the shot. I now had five minutes to evaluate the environment for useful visual elements. First came the door. "Presiding Judge - Criminal" seemed a natural, since the presence of an armed member of the sheriff's department surely indicated that something ominous was in the air. But the normal comings and goings would mean that the door would open and shut randomly, so we had to be fast and flexible. Then came the ambient light. Indirect sunlight was coming in from a window on the far wall, leaving the tell-tale glare on the wooden benches. I decided to include that in the image, as it gave a sense of depth without adding any distracting details. There was no way I could have arranged for the lights to be turned off, so I decided I would just have to live with them. By underexposing the ambient by 1 stop, I lessened the impact of the color temperature mismatch.

During the test phase, I "choked up" on my Zumbrella by sliding the umbrella shaft so that the flash was much closer to the diffusion surface. This effectively reduced the diameter of the light source, giving me a harder, more direct light. Also, it eliminated edge spill which could have allowed stray light to get past the umbrella's edges. Used in this manner, I gained some control over the light at the expense of soft edge shadows. Considering the demeanor of my subject, "soft" was the last thing on his mind!

Immediately after I took this shot, I noticed that the door handle was interfering with a clean line on the sign. By moving to my right, I could get some distance between the handle and the sign, and improve the perspective to boot. But in doing so, my subject appears to move closer to the dark wood door, something I didn't catch. Incidentally, the person at the end of the hall killed the shot for publication, even though he would have been impossible to recognize.

After I re-positioned myself to address the door issues, I moved my light closer to me so I could get some light on Officer Heindel's right eye. I finally asked him to give me a look that said, "You'll have to get past me", which he did.

Now back to the chosen image. Notice that Officer Heindel's dark uniform blended in with the wood frame. Even though he is several inches away from the wall, it looks like he's leaning against the door, detracting for the strong image I had hoped to create.

I know this is putting a very fine point on the subject, but it bothers me a tiny bit, primarily because I didn't notice it during the shoot. But I have to admit that Joe was right: It is a Battle of Inches.

Addendum: After I wrote this article, I went back to see if there was something to be learned about composition for future reference. Since I could not include anybody in the photo other than my subject, the benches had to be empty. But what if the number of people waiting on the benches was an issue?

I was surprised at how complete this photo could have been if I had people on the benches and a full view of the name on the door. Certainly this alternate composition is worth considering, should a similar opportunity arise.