Sunday, November 10, 2013

Cover Shot

I needed a cover shot for the Spring 2014 Adult School Brochure. The theme for this semester was the introduction of a new GED Test format, one that will be delivered via computer. The test format has also changed, requiring entirely different strategies for those challenging the test. I wanted to include a flat-screen monitor featuring the GED logo in a classroom environment. I had planned on including a student, totally focused on his/her studies, preparing to take the test. How I finally arrived at Photo #1 is a bit of a cake walk, but the technical issues were addressed in a most systematic way. 

Every Flash Photograph Is Actually Two Images. This is important to remember. The first step was to separate the image into the background and the foreground components. In this image, the foreground was the monitor. For this shot, I used two scrims (opaque panels) to shield it from as much ambient light as I could. This allowed me to concentrate on the background, since the monitor would be providing all of its own light. The first scrim acted like a roof to shield the monitor from any top light, while the second scrim acted like a wall to minimize light hitting the monitor from the side.

I placed a tripod on top of some desks to support the camera and provide a slight downward perspective on the filing cabinets in the background. The monitor was positioned in the lower left hand corner of the composition, with the out of focus background hinting at student record storage.

To provide overall room lighting, I used a 800 w/s Norman flash bounced off the wall from camera right. The exposure was made at 1/200 of a second at F 4.0, ISO 100, Flash white balance. The 105mm focal length and the fifteen foot distance between the camera and the monitor helped blur the background. The short exposure time in this test shot minimized the influence of the ambient room, allowing the flash to provide the necessary illumination.  (Don't forget: flash exposure is only affected by the aperture size).

Photo #2
In Photo #2, you can see that the background is properly exposed and the lighting on the student (me) sitting at the desk was a good starting point. In this shot, I was just standing in for the student/model I planned on recruiting from another classroom. Notice the absence of glare on the LCD panel's surface.

Nikon D300 To The Rescue: I chose my Nikon D300 instead of my usual D7000 because of a single feature: When you select the Self Timer mode, the cameras stays that way until you choose another setting. In most cameras, you are allowed only a single self-timer exposure, forcing you to reset it for each shot. The D300 was the more convenient choice, since multiple time shots would be required.

Photo #3
In Photo #3, I turned the monitor on. By itself, was not bright enough to balance the flash exposure. So the next step was to turn off the room light and the flash, and adjust the exposure time until the monitor's brightness was raised to an acceptable level. 

In Photo #4, the flash and the ambient lights were turned off and the exposure time lengthened to 1/20th of a second. Two staffers volunteered to stand in for the teacher and student I hoped to add to the finished image, and can be seen in the background.

Photo #4
Putting It All Together: Just for fun, I made an "Arrgh!" face just when the photo was taken (Photo #5). Here's the nearly completed photograph, taken with the electronic flash on and the lights off. The monitor was off for this shot. To facilitate the repositioning of the hoped for teacher and student, I asked that the chairs NOT be moved. This would help anchor the positions in the background. When I showed the sketch photo to people in office,  I was surprised at how well my "frustrated student" portrayal resonated with those who saw it. So I stayed with the concept, hoping that i would be replaced by a more believable "student".

Photo #5

The empty desk bothered me, so I thought about what "props" I could add to evoke a sense of a student studying but feeling a bit frustrated about the whole effort. I added the following props:
  • Crumpled Paper
  • A Large, Open Book
  • A Calculator
  • A Pencil
These items were arranged on the desk in a way that suggested a student studying at a desk. With everything in place, I waited until the school day ended so I could shanghai a teacher, a student, and a more realistic student "screamer".

Showtime: When it came time to make the actual shot, I found out the the need for a teacher hadn't filtered through the ranks, so I didn't have a real teacher or two real students to use. I quickly grabbed two believable staffers and after a minute of soul-searching to find my inner student, made the following shot (Photo #6) in a single take.

Photo #6

Closing Argument: Two final comments on the shot. First, the plane of focus is clearly on the computer screen. This was deliberate. I had built the original image concept on a student studying quietly (see Photo #2) and purposely want him/her to be out of focus so that all attention would go to the GED screen. Second, small details can add enormously to the finished image. The crumpled and open book add something to the image, suggesting both commitment and frustration, exactly the feeling I was after.

The San Mateo Adult School's circulation includes about 95,000 residential addresses, and I have already  braced myself for a deluge of autograph hounds and groupies hoping to actually speak to me. Of course, my Director may reject the direction of the cover project, so be prepared for a posting on a super quick replacement cover shot.