I was recently hired to do an on location session for a Seattle Theatre company which needed publicity photographs for “Assassins” which is a play about those who have attempted or succeeded in the assassinations of US Presidents. My primary questions whenever a client asks for imagery is always “What is the mood I’m to create?” In this case the client’s response was “gritty and dark.”
In May 2015 I was asked to photograph the Avant Chamber Ballet in Dallas, TX. ACB is the only truly Dallas based chamber ballet. Their Artistic Director, Katie Cooper resides in Dallas and has turned the ballet community on its ear with her innovative and critically acclaimed ballet creations. Katie Puder (Cooper) danced for years with Arlington’s well-respected Metropolitan Classical Ballet. One of the many aspects which sets ACB above other dance companies is their use of live world class orchestra musicians in their performances. Many are working musicians with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which is a double plus. We work regularly with them on both production and publicity imagery for their marketing campaigns.
UPDATE: June 22 2015
UPDATE June 16 2015
I had the opportunity to use both the Flashpoint 360 and Rovelight in combination today during an on location dance session. I again ran into inconsistent firing of the Rovelight with the CellsII-C HSS trigger. I have yet to determine the root cause of this inconsistent misfiring outdoors. In studio they perform better than outdoors even at moderate distances.
I recently had the opportunity to utilize a pair of Adorama Rovelights as well as a Godox AD360 and a Adorama Streaklight 360 bare bulb strobe on a commercial assignment. All four of the units are capable of High Speed Sync (HSS) when triggered by a CellsII-C trigger
My assignment was to create imagery of ballet dancers in and around the Dallas area. The art direction conveyed to me was to place the ballerinas in recognizable venues in the Dallas area. In order to achieve imagery with production value required me to shoot at higher than normal sync speeds to greatly reduce the ambient light. For all of these shots I utilized my Canon 5DIII rather than my 1DX to obtain the maximum resolution since the images will be used for posters with an option to create billboard size media materials. I would have liked to use my Pentax 645Z MF camera, but at that time HSS options were not available. As recently as June 10th 2015 I discovered a possible solution to the 645Z’s slow sync speed, but have not yet tested these units. Alex Munoz has done extensive testing on the Priolite strobes which seem very promising
One of the fantastic benefits of using Rovelights with the variety of 360 bare bulb flash units is the ability to use one triggering system, the CellsII-C. As illustrated in the photo below placing the Rovelight’s trigger on the hot shoe of the CellsII-C allows simultaneous triggering in HSS of both the Roves and the 360’s.
I have always liked the look of ringflash portraits. There have been several times in my career that I wished I had one. But because I find their use in my work so specialized I didn’t want to commit to purchasing a studio unit. My partner had tried several of the on camera flash types but I didn’t like their light output. So to replicate the look of a ringflash I often used my 86″ diffused parabolic reflector, stood directly in front of it and photographed the talent.
This small tutorial has little to nothing to do about camera gear. I’m on a bit of a rant these days about photo forums. The inane banter that goes on there does little to help photographers who wish to improve their craft. In most cases I find the loudmouths are have to be right trolls and there simply to be….right. At least in their own minds.
For seven years I taught men and women how to navigate their motorcycles around California racetracks. I’d hear similar things like “Oh if I buy these pipes/Powercommander/520 chain/blah blah blah it will make me faster.” Invariably those same individuals would leverage their credit cards to buy the latest titanium bits to lighten their bikes. Did their lap times fall….uh not much if at all and why? Because they’d rather BUY and brag about their gear than learn and practice. How about getting in better cardio shape and losing 15 pounds instead of spending thousands on titanium parts to save 5 pounds of sprung weight? How about listening and implementing what your instructor/coach is telling you instead of justifying why your BIKE is holding you down? Oh well….
So if you’re looking for the latest MTF chart or DxO results here, do yourself a favor and close this browser window now. Occasionally I may mention the type of camera I was using and WHY, but beyond that this article is all about improving your imagination and ability to improvise at will. And in my work, that’s what separates the men from the boys. (No offense to women, you often already practice those qualities…but like most things there are exceptions!) There’s a big difference between TAKING or CREATING a photo…
David Allen Cooper, Principal Horn – Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
David commissioned me for a two day portrait session and although he resides in Dallas, TX he agreed to travel to San Francisco along with his manager to conduct the session. I was free to completely art direct his imagery. His only request is that they were different than traditional symphonic musician portraits and conveyed a younger more relevant look.
Photographers often ask, “Mark what’s your favorite modifier? Is it a softbox, umbrella, shoot through or bounce?” My answer is always the same – My favorite modifier is what I think is the best one for a specific job. Sometimes it’s a softbox, sometimes it’s an umbrella, sometimes a cone or in quite a few cases it’s a combination of several.
As I often like to do, let’s go back a few years. One of my teachers, actually the man who taught me about using artificial light was thankfully VERY hard on me. No namby pamby talk it was mostly, “You must not be listening to me because that looks terrible, here’s why!” And he would go over EXACTLY why it was bad and he was always right…..back then. After a bit my photos moved from terrible to a preverbal “Nice” which in Greg’s speak meant crummy but not horrible.
Just this week I was scheduled to shoot a publicity session for one of my regular clients. As I was setting up Dan said “Hey Mark, did you bring your IceLight and barn doors?” I thought to myself Huh? I had used the unit about two months prior on a different shoot, how could he even remember what lighting instrument I used? My clients seldom if EVER mention what I’m using for gear. (well except when I use my little Fuji X`100S affectionately named by my clients as Mark’s Little Instamatic) More on this later…
Let me ‘rewind’ about one year, maybe a bit more or less. Tracy, my partner in business and life read some information about something called an IceLight and was quite excited. She loves working with constant light especially since she was developing her skills in film making. As usual I was a bit hesitant about purchasing something new so I suggested we rent one to try. What I initially found was the lumens were not quite what I was accustomed to since I normally use 640ws strobes, Einsteins to be exact. She loved the unit, but of course my comment “Babe the retail on those things is the same as the retail on our Steins which we use all the time. I don’t think we’d have much regular use for those, let’s wait.”
Later that year I was reading Gregory Heisler’s book “50 Portraits” and was completely captivated by his work using constant light sources. So like the fool I am I announced to Tracy “Hey babe, let’s try using constant light for some of our work. I think it has real application and I think it would be best if we buy two. One is fine if we did this for a hobby, two would give us a lot more flexibility. “ Now for anyone who has a wife, girlfriend or significant other you will completely relate to the body posture, tone and statement which was uttered through clenched teeth as a result of my spoken ‘revelation.’ Enough said and I’ve never pretended to be smart….
I’ve used the IceLights as a key light, fill light and when anything that flashes would just be out of the question. Case in point. I was asked to photograph Jaap van Zweden the world famous conductor for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and I was allowed to sit IN the orchestra, dead center during a rehearsal. The lights in the Meyerson Auditorium are great for viewing but absolutely horrid for photographing a conductor. Directly overhead and without any fill, Jaap’s eye are completely shaded by his brow line, making his eyes appear dead and lifeless.
Some may ask themselves “Why not use a reflector?” Great question except with a conductor who MOVES passionately while conducting keeping the sweet light where you want it is impossible. Plus one MUST consider that a reflector is going to obstruct the view for some of the orchestra members who must watch the conductor. Because the form factor of the IceLight is so thin, none of those issues were a problem and made it the perfect light instrument for that job. I combined Westcott’s tungsten gel and barn door with just enough of an opening to cover his movement and not obstruct the view of the violin players since the light was placed camera right, right where the concert masters sit.
I sometimes use a Fresnel 1000w spotlight with a gobo for some of my sessions. Such was the case with Laetitia, a Cirque hoop aerialist during an action portrait session. Again a reflector was out of the question since she’s moving. I used one IceLight to fill in her face since being backlit by the Fresnel with haze rendered her face too dark without the IceLight.
There have also been times when I’ve used a projector on the talent to place graphics either in the scene or actually on him as in the case of this violinist. Due to the very low lumens afforded by a projector sending a graphic blowing out the graphics is very easy to do with a strobe or hand held flash. Only highlighting his face was my goal for this shot using a single IceLight.
What do I love about them? Portability, ease of use and its slim profile. What would I change? I’d like to have the intensity setting kept in memory so when I turn the unit back on, it’s in the same lumen state as when I turned it off. I’ve also noticed that although you can use the units plugged in, it appears that the battery is used first and then it recharges itself. So if I need to unplug the unit and use it without power I’m sunk if the battery was run low.
What do I hate? Not having two more! Is it the perfect lighting instrument? Oh hell no, but what is a perfect lighting instrument? Is it perfect for the right application? Absolutely!
I said at the beginning of this article that Dan remembered the IceLight which in and of itself was remarkable. But what was more striking is his memory of how the image I created looked using an IceLight. I really think he just wants one for his own iPhone shots!
In late January 2014 I was contacted by Cristine Kelly, the Marketing Director for Music in the Mountains, a symphonic company nestled in the gorgeous foothills of Nevada City, CA. Cristine, or more accurately her husband had found my work while searching the web for his Christmas present from Cristine, a Fuji X100S. I had written a short article about using the Fuji in some of my commercial work. He saw the imagery I had created for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and yelled down to Cristine, “Honey, you need to look at this. I think this is the guy you’ve been searching for to shoot your Company!”
Cristine wanted her new Season Brochure to reflect the beauty of the surrounding area, so we discussed an on location shoot with costumes for the various performances her Company had planned for their upcoming season. Orchestras around the country are discovering that the ‘tried and true’ (I refer to that style as “Tired and Yawning”) photography, be it stock or shot for their specific needs, requires change to remain relevant. Rather than performance photos of musician’s clad in tuxedos and evening gowns, publicity imagery for music should reflect the emotion it conveys rather than what musician’s look like when they play. For most patrons, they know what they will see once they arrive. What they go for is for what they’ll experience and FEEL. Transmitting the feeling of an aural piece into something visual was my job.
In January 2014 I photographed publicity imagery for Village Theatre‘s 2014-15 Season Brochure marketing materials. Some was done against seamless, others done on location. We were able to collaborate with the Company’s principles on concepts and messaging prior to beginning the shoot which made a huge difference in consistent messaging and impact. This was a wonderful experience of complete collaboration.
Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2014-15 Season Brochure
In order to put an entire marketing campaign together it first takes vision. The Marketing VP at Dallas Symphony Orchestra had a very specific vision for his 2014-15 Season Brochure. His concept was to carry a “Date Night” theme throughout his brochure, creating an experience which would attract new as well as existing patrons. He also wanted a theatrical and dream like quality to the individual performances, one that matched each symphonic piece.
Keep in mind that whenever you’re hired to create commercial imagery there is quite a bit at stake. Beyond your own reputation, there’s the talent, scheduling, venue logistics, graphics gurus, administrative help, travel, blah, blah blah. And although an Art Director may have a specific shot they have in their own minds, it’s up to the photographer to execute that vision, one that often only exists in the AD’s mind.
I’m always surprised how the majority of posts on photography forums focus primarily on ‘gear’ and ‘which is better.’ It’s as if most people are vapor locked on what type of gear they purchase rather than improving their own skills. Yes, we all wish to improve our craft in creating images and gear is a part of that equation, but the amount of effort and discussion seems to focus on the exact opposite of what would improve one’s own creation of photos. If the amount of effort on gear was placed into other areas, ah but I digress….
Like most photographers be they pro or amateur, all of us know the excitement of getting what we think is a great shot and the desire to share it as soon as possible. In this digital age that means displaying your work through some sort of social media or other form of immediate gratification.
But in the commercial photography world, immediate gratification takes a back seat to business needs and NDAs. So much of what we shoot commercially is shot with extended lead times to be of any value. Marketing materials are carefully planned months or in some cases years in advance. As such, once the shots are in the bag it’s up to the client to decide on the imagery’s strategic timing for public release. And because of that we’re not allowed to display those images on our own sites or through social media. And by the time the images are released publicly we’ve been on to other projects for months. Whenever I receive a client’s marketing materials, I’ve often forgot that I shot that session!
I have two separate client sessions in this article. One was for Dallas Symphony Orchestra and another was for Village Theatre’s publicity for Les Miserables.
Dallas Symphony’s Beets Campaign
The photos I display here were taken in July 2013 and released to the public in late Fall of 2013, about four months after I shot the “Beets Campaign” (Beethoven Festival) for Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Performances begin April 28 2014, almost 9 full months from when I originally shot the session.
About two months prior to the shoot, the VP of Marketing along with some of the Marketing staff and I began a conversation about the overall look, feel and messaging they wished to achieve with the imagery. Rather than presenting musician’s in tuxedos playing music, the VP wanted a much more ‘scandalous’ look, one that coincided with the public’s reaction to Beethoven’s music in that actual time period. When written and performed his music was actually quite scandalous to the audience of that time. Music is all about emotion and the VP wanted a reaction to his campaign that would evoke emotion…and boy it certainly did and in a very good way!
We agreed that on location sessions would be much more effective than shooting the talent in front of seamless and then dropping them into graphics treatments. On location (I refer to them as ‘onlo’) is my favorite type of publicity shooting. Why? Well it forces me to be creative in developing the imagery by not counting on graphics folks to make the imagery have production value. The right location with the right lighting has a richness that just can’t quite be replicated with graphics. Well at least that’s my opinion… Plus I have to be both patient and think quickly on my feet about what the client wants and how I will execute it. The client developed Mood Boards and sent them to me so we could begin discussions on exactly the mood we wished to create for the campaign.
Most non pros have the impression that commercial shooters are able to scout locations months or weeks in advance and carefully plan out the angles, lighting and time of day to shoot. For me that happens on rare occasions and when that happens it’s a true luxury. But in this case the VP simply said, “I’d like to shoot it over at the AT&T Center, I like the juxtapose of a modern building combined with period piece costumes we’re using. We can look around at the locations when you get here.” For all of these shots I had about ten minutes to scout each location around the building and then decide how I was going to light them and shoot them. Should I use natural light? Which camera will be the best for this job? If I need more contrast how many negative reflectors should I use? Do I want motion blur in the image, if so should I drag the shutter or use second curtain sync with a Speedlight? What gels if any do I need to match the ambient? Oh I’m shooting in front of windows, how will I place the light/reflectors/etc. so I don’t get reflections or bounce off the windows I don’t want? (No I’m not of the school that all those things can be ‘corrected’ in post. Getting it right in camera is my preferred method) ALL of these decisions are made quickly because we don’t often if ever have the luxury of time. If you’ve never been ‘the talent’ or the art director, try getting IN FRONT of the camera and you’ll see what YOU consider to be a short amount of time while you are making your adjustments can seem like an eternity to your subject.
Four PCB Einsteins used. One beauty dish to camera left, one Einstein to camera right in order to illuminate her hair and two key lights to camera right. Keeping reflections off the windows here was key.
Les Miserables Publicity
This publicity session was what I called my “First Date” with this client for publicity. I had been previously hired by them to shoot production of another performance, but had never been hired to do publicity. The Marketing Director had seen some of my onlo publicity imagery for other clients and thought it would be great to do one for their production of Les Miz. In this case we took a day to drive around the area to look for just the right setting. I knew that the location needed to replicate the script, stone walls, old wooden doors etc. As we drove around the area I found a couple of “OK” locations, but nothing that really floated by boat.
So I made a call to my partner back in the Bay Area. We normally work together, but since we were double booked (when you’re self employed I call that a ‘pretty girl problem!’) she was back home covering another client’s session. I asked her to get on the Web to look for an old church or rock quarry. In about ten minutes she called back and said “All of the churches close to you are modern and won’t do for what you’re looking for. I checked out a rock quarry very close to you on Google Earth. I can’t tell because the view is from their satellite shot straight down, but it looks like a a great possible for you. Here’s the address. Gotta run, heading to the client shoot, good luck.”
So the Marketing Director and I drove over to the rock quarry and I IMMEDIATELY fell in love with the venue. We spoke with the owner and he was more than willing to allow us to shoot there on the date we wanted for a couple of tickets to the performance. He even went on to say that if our date was when they were closed, he’d be happy to come in and open the place up for us.
So on the day of the shoot the weather was projected to be rain. The Marketing Director called me and said “Mark, what do we do if it rains, I’m nervous!?” I simply said, “If you can have three people there with umbrellas you don’t have to worry.” My plan was to have those three stand over my strobes with their umbrellas so that strobes and power packs were protected. I was actually hoping it would rain because I felt it would add to the ambient atmosphere of the shot and I’ve shot with my 1DX in full rain without a problem. On the day of the shoot, it did rain, but only lightly and the cloud cover was PERFECT for the session. For you gear heads I used PCB Einsteins and his Vagabond Mini power packs. Paul’s lighting is my preferred studio strobe equipment.
Being patient means KNOWING your equipment front to back, no matter what type of camera/lighting you’re using. Your client could care less if you’re using a Nikon, Canon, Fuji or other camera or whether you’re a Profoto fan or Uncle Bob’s strobe user. They could care less if you’re a full frame guy or gal, use a cropped sensor or not. The PICTURE tells the story and how well you know how to think on your feet, exhibit creativity on the run, keep the talent engaged and get a photo better than they ever imagined are elements that separate the men from the fan boys!
Whether you shoot for your entire income, are a ‘semi pro’ or just shoot for the pure enjoyment of the craft, be patient. For me that means taking the time to truly know your gear, all of it. Practice, read, experiment and have fun with what you already have. I get as much fun as the next guy when I want to buy something new. But the real difference is how I USE my gear, not what brand it is or its stats. To a client In the commercial world, you’re only as good as your last session. They’ve trusted me with their whole marketing campaign based on my shooting style and consistency in delivering a great product. Practice, know your existing gear and develop a body of work. One great shot leads to a second great shot. The difference between a good or nice shot and a great one is huge. And that comes only through forced patience.
I had the opportunity to photograph an emerging musician on location in Canada while it was snowing. Lit with a single speed light, ND filter enabled at ISO 200.
I often say that cameras are just like any other tool, sometimes you need a hammer, sometimes you need a wrench. While shooting for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra I noticed an infinity pool located on their property. Technically the pool belongs to the AT&T building, but for me that was just a technicality! I kept hounding the DSO’s VP of Marketing that “We just have to do a shoot in that pool!” I think he figured I’d never stop hounding him so on one Fall day in 2013 he let me know that “We’re doing it Mark!” WOOHOO I thought to myself until he told me that we’d be shooting right around every photographer’s least favorite time, high noon. UGH so much for getting what you wish for… One of the differences between commercial photography and doing it as a hobby is you HAVE to make due with the cards dealt and make it look GREAT. There’s money and your reputation at stake. Remember to a client you’re only as good as your last session.
I was out in the pool only fifteen minutes before the talent arrived, 13 of DSO’s best musicians including their Concert Master who was carrying his 300 year old 5 million dollar Stradivarius violin! I almost had a heart attack as he was holding THE violin in one hand AND while standing on one leg as he was trying to roll his other pant leg up. In total there must have been over 20 million dollars worth of instruments on that pool of WATER. No it’s not deep, but that didn’t quell my nervousness.
I had planned to reduce the ambient on my 1DX by using a variable ND filter since I was using two PCB Einsteins, one with a beauty dish attached and the other with a 64″ PLM Soft Silver parabolic. I was using the PLM as my key light and the beauty dish as the fill since it was not only noon, but windy that day. Try as I did I could not get the ambient down low enough using the ND filter, it reduced my flash power lower than I wanted. So it was time to put away the ‘hammer’ and bring out the ‘wrench.’
So I went into my bag to get my trusty X100S. You see I purchased this little unit specifically for its leaf shutter. In case you aren’t aware leaf shutters don’t follow the same rules as focal plane shutters, you can use flash to almost an unlimited sync speed based on the camera. Remember that hand held flash units that use High Speed Sync are different than using strobes. HSS pulses the light so that their DSLRs can shoot at ‘high shutter speeds.’ (which in turn greatly reduces their overall power)
I killed the noon day ambient with the X100S by shooting at a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second at f4.5 ISO 200. Just like that I had the exposure I wanted for the shot. In this case I found that using a ‘wrench’ instead of a ‘hammer’ was the right tool for the job. This was my second time using the little Fuji for the DSO and I could not be happier. My other shot can be seen here.
Oh and I found out my shoes are NOT waterproof….
BTS Images: Tracy Martin Photography (My partner)
A month ago I got an email from the Marketing Director of Music in the Mountains, a symphonic group located in the Sierra Foothills. Cristine, their Marketing Director had found some of my work on the web and called to inquire about a project.
The way this came about is the real story. For Christmas she purchased her husband a Fuji X100S. Like all new users of any electronic device, he began searching the web for information about his new toy. He happened upon an article I wrote about using the X100S for commercial photography. After looking at some of my commercial images he yelled down to Cristine, “Hey Honey, you need to look at this guy’s work. I think he’s the shooter you’ve been looking for!”
So on the day of the session, she told me the story and said her husband Greg was going to stop by to meet me and watch some of the session. I asked her to text him and have him bring his X100S. Just before all the sessions were done I said to Cristine, “Hey we have hair, makeup and wardrobe here. Go have them put you in an outfit and have your hair and makeup done.” She simply said “WHY?!” I then told her that the best way for Greg to learn how to use his new camera was TO USE IT!
So she reluctantly muttered “I can’t believe you’re talking me into this” and trundled off to hair and makeup. While ‘the talent’ was getting ready I gave Greg a crash course in how to meter while using studio lights outdoors and how to adjust his camera. Like all talent, Cristine was late to ‘her shoot’ and I had to call down to hair and makeup to hurry things along.
She came out looking great and I could see a husband of 10 years looking at his wife in a new way! LOL! Anyway he began shooting and it was worth all the effort and convincing to watch both of them in action together. He got some great shots and I’m sure they had a great ‘date night’ later that evening.
Update: March 22, 2014. I am now able to release some of the final images and they can be seen here.
Publicity photography for Oakland School for the Arts – Dance Emphasis. These images feature seniors from their 2014 Class. This is my third year working with this remarkable company. They are choreographed and coached by Reginald-Ray Savage and Alison Hurley.
The VP of Marketing at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is really shaking things up! Earlier this year I collaborated with the DSO’s Marketing Department to create imagery very different from what the Symphony has used in the past to promote their Beethoven Festival.
Bringing in new patrons is his goal and I’m proud to be part of the DSO’s new effort. Building excitement is well, exciting! Thinking and DOING what is ‘outside the box’ is both challenging as well as rewarding for us. There’s plenty more to come, stay tuned!
My X100S was utilized in a commercial shoot for Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2014 Beethoven Festival Banner (80 feet by 18 feet) which hangs on the side of their building. I chose to make the image with this camera due to its leaf shutter. This was shot with a studio strobe and a parabolic 51″ modifier at f11, 1/640 shutter speed to reduce the ambient light.