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Imagination and Improvisation – How to REALLY Improve Your Photography

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…

I’m going to go over three separate sessions in this article. Keep in mind that all shoots are for specific purposes and moods. When clients want a session, they will tell you the question I always ask first is “What mood are you trying to convey with the imagery?” Recently one client said “Mark I hate it when you ask me that and I know you’ll always ask! It’s because you’re forcing me to articulate what I want!”

Why the question about mood? It dictates how I plan to light my subjects because for me it’s all about light or more accurately shadow. Anyone can take a modifier and blast light directly at the talent/subject, there’s no skill in that method. But to SCULPT the light by creating shadows and mood, ah that’s what I live for! The second question I have is “on location, create the environment or in front of seamless?” Clients vary their choice in that regard. Depending upon time/budget/mood they may choose to have me shoot in front of seamless and then use that imagery with graphics applied or the shot dropped into a specific scene. It’s not my favorite way to do a shot, but I fully understand the need. On location shoots are sometimes sourced by the client or a location scout, but my favorite is when a client asks me to select the location. That is a subject that needs a dedicated article, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Location scouting is part art and part luck!

The third method I’ve experienced is to create the environment in which the session will take place. Obviously this can range from simple to incredibly complex and anywhere in between. We’re not just talking about creating props/scenes for the shoot, but the logistics of getting things in and out…in the case I’m going to cover that includes things like water….

And for those clients who want what I call “photocopy photography” where they see a specific shot created by another photographer recreated exactly the same way I simply say “I’m the wrong photographer for you.”

My point here is when you see shots and wonder how they’re done it takes a lot of planning, innovation and improvisation to create a great shot. That’s one of the big differences between a ‘nice shot’ and a breathtaking one. You get to decide which you’d like to create and it has little to nothing to do with the camera you’re using.

Seamless

In December of 2014 one of my theatrical clients wanted several sessions done in front of seamless for an upcoming co production with another theatre company. My partner decided it would be a good idea to do a small time lapse of the session. The actual time of this shoot is 7.5 hours which has been condensed into something like 2:12 minutes. What you will see in the time lapse is a variety of talent in terms of groups. Some were single shots, in others there are three people and I believe the most I shot together in that session was a group of five. One of if not my only primary goals with any talent is to get an authentic expression in my shot. Things like hair/garment/makeup can all be retouched in post. But an expression can’t be altered in Photoshop at least not so that it’s authentic. How you interact as the photographer will directly affect how your shot affects others as they view your work. If the talent is bored or not engaged the viewer WILL be able to feel that despite the subject’s expression. I firmly believe that and always work so that even in a studio environment how the talent feels in the moment I press the shutter is truly authentic. For me that’s the most important part, even more so than the shadow and light.

You will see that I’m using several different modifiers in the video. My key light is an octabank that’s 47″ with only the inner diffuser used. The reason I wanted this particular set up is I wanted a more specular look for the key light. The light is gently painted across their faces, not directly pointed at them dead center. Adjusting your lights is an art and inches or sometimes quarter of inches make a huge difference. My fill light is camera right and I’m using a deeply hooded octabank. I wanted to keep as much spill off the background as possible and have the ability to control the light direction. You’ll also see that I’m using both a silver and black reflector from time to time. In those cases where I need just a bit more fill, the silver is used and when I want more contrast or to remove light I use the negative one, the black one.

The final shot of Kendra on seamless ready to have graphics applied.

The final shot of Kendra on seamless ready to be dropped into a post graphic.

You will also noticed that I shoot wirelessly tethered during a session. In this case I’m using an EyeFi card tethered to my iPad while using a Pentax 645Z medium format camera. Because Ricoh had not yet released their tethering software I was forced to use the EyeFi solution. It worked well enough and as it turns out when Ricoh released their tethering software I could not get it to function anyway. You can read more about my experience with that software here. Allowing the talent and any art directors to view images as they happen is not only important but keeps the enthusiasm of the session high.

For anyone who has worked with groups, you know how difficult it is to get the expression you want out of an entire group. These folks are all professional stage actors, some have appeared on Broadway. So your natural assumption is that if I tell them how to ‘look’ they’ll nail it right? Nope, actors or not we are all human and given to our specific moods of the day. So it’s important to remember to DIRECT the talent, give them specific and constant feedback THROUGHOUT the session. If you’ve never been ‘the talent’ try it. Have a friend take your photo and see just how ‘dead air’ or no feedback feels when you are in front of the lens. It will give you a whole new perspective and appreciation of the role of giving constant feedback and direction is to any session.

The mood of the group shot was to be one of irritation bordering on anger but not quite, a subtle difference. Two of the people are naturally happy all the time and I could not get the correct simultaneous expression out of this group to my satisfaction, so I decided to have them whisper “Fuck you Mark.” Of course when I told them that’s what I wanted them to say they all laughed. But when anyone says “fuck you” there’s a universal mindset that happens when you utter or even think those famous words. And on the second “fuck you Mark” they nailed the shot. I didn’t ask again simply because I sensed they liked telling me to fuck off…

"Fuck you Mark"

“Fuck you Mark”

Creating the Environment

I have worked with a wide variety of dancers. Dance is my all time favorite subject to capture. This session was a year in the making. Two pro tango dancers who I’ve shot in production enthusiastically agreed to do a session I had envisioned, something using the organic properties of water in an artistic nude. Not me mind you, them! So the logistics of this type of session was massive. Where can one find a location that will allow water? How do we contain the water? How do you keep dancers from slipping? How do we get the water into the area? Because we were doing this during the winter months, how do we heat the space, after all they’d be naked? And finally the largest problem was how do we get the water out?

So a construction berm was sourced to contain the water. The talent had rented a studio space where we would conduct the session, but it was tight, especially given the size of the construction berm. It barely fit into the floor plate. Did we tell the landlord….I can’t remember…wink wink. No water nearby so running a hose from the common bathroom 100 feet into the room would do. Hot water? Maybe enough to wash your hands but certainly not enough to fill a 16×20 foot berm 1.5 inches deep. Oh and then there’s the issue of ensuring no one gets electrocuted by the strobes as water splashes against the walls. Ooh, we need to cover the walls with plastic don’t we?

This is the space where the water session was conducted. Large, eh? LOL

This is the space where the water session was conducted. Large, eh? LOL

Wow that water is cold, so what to do? Let’s crank up the heater so the room gets to about 95 degrees. Nude people in cold water don’t stay too happy. The photographer is sweating like a pig, not an issue. He could get naked like the talent, but just look at their bodies. Taking my clothes off so that I’d be not sweating may cause the talent to become violently ill and I just could not afford that after all of this prep! My camera is waterproof so I’ll just sweat it out!

Just beginning to fill the berm and set up the lights.

Just beginning to fill the berm and set up the lights.

Lighting? Rim lighting would work well in this instance to sculpt their bodies so I placed my two strobes with extreme silver modifiers on each side of the berm. Since the black backdrop I used was fabric it would act as my negative reflector. I had tried to use a silver reflector in front for some fill, but because of space it obscured my alley of shooting space so I had to do without. To counteract that I moved the camera right light slightly forward pointing back toward to backdrop to give me some front fill, but not so much as to remove the rim lighting….improvise for the situation.

Patricio having fun playing in the water before we begin.

Patricio having fun playing in the water before we begin.

Now I’ve done a ton of dance shooting and am pretty proud of my ability to anticipate the apex of a dancer’s movement. If you press the shutter when you see the apex happen, you’ve missed the shot. It happens that fast. But when I clicked my shutter, guess what, no water trail. WTF? Well if I had thought about it that makes sense. The water trail disappears when the apex is reached because there’s no more movement to trail the water. And since their bodies are nude there’s no fabric to hold any water. So I had to improvise by adjusting my timing on shutter release to catch them just BEFORE they reached their apex. Sounds simple? Hardly, but I adjusted.

Eva practicing her water moves.

Eva practicing her water moves.

Then there are the dance moves. What works well on stage out of water doesn’t necessarily translate well for water trails in the nude. So they both had to step out various movements which looked the best on film. And since I was using my 1DX with a WFT-E6A transmitter I was sure that we’d be able to see the shots on my trusty iPad. Nope. Because I had updated the firmware on the iPad the day before and had not tested it the iPad would not receive the images. Lesson here: TEST your gear before any session or don’t change anything until it’s over.

Oh and getting the water OUT of the berm? No way to siphon it so it was scooping out what we could with buckets and then using towels to soak up the rest, wringing them out into buckets and hauling them back to the bathroom 100 feet away. Was it worth it all? Yup!

A nanosecond later and that water trail coming off Eva's foot is gone.

A nanosecond later and that water trail coming off Eva’s foot is gone.

Eva and Pato moving exquisitely through the water.

Eva and Pato moving exquisitely through the water.

On Location

In the fall of 2013 one of my new clients wanted to do promotional imagery for their upcoming production of Les Misérables . They asked my view of how it should be shot. “On location!” was my answer. Let me step back a bit. This publicity shoot was my ‘first date’ for publicity with this client. I had seen what their former photographer had done before and I certainly did NOT want to create anything like what I had seen. Not that their work was bad, it just was not my style. Plus the client didn’t want to focus on Cosette, the little girl you see in illustration and photos for that show. They wanted to focus on Jean Valjean the primary character in the show.

So the Marketing Director and I took an afternoon to begin location scouting. I knew that I wanted rock, old gnarly rock with lots of patina. So we began to search for old churches, walls, buildings. We found ‘some’ but most of those are what I classified as “B” spots, OK, but not killer. So I called my partner who was back in the Bay covering another client and asked if she could hit the web and see if she could find any churches. To my dismay she could not, but said “Hey there’s this little rock quarry located really close to you. I looked at it on Google Earth and checked out their website. I can’t tell what it looks like since I can only see it from space down, but it would be worth your time to check it out.”

So we drove over to the quarry and OMG I thought I had died and gone straight to location heaven. The quarry had a literal cornucopia of structures built out of every type of stone imaginable. They allow their rock suppliers to use stones to build structures at their quarry to show off their stones. And better yet, the staff along with the owner were magnificent. “You want to do what here? Sure! As a matter of fact if we’re not open when it’s convenient for you to shoot, we’ll have someone come over to open the place up. Can we get a couple of tickets to the show? My wife has always wanted to see Les Misérables.

You can see my assistant Nick as I'm testing the backlight. To eliminate the need to remove the Exit sign in post, I simply repositioned the door so it was no longer visible.

You can see my assistant Nick as I’m testing the backlight. To eliminate the need to remove the Exit sign in post, I simply repositioned the door so it was no longer visible.

Behind that door is the office. To eliminate the visible office 'stuff' I blew a bare light through the door to blacken that space. It also created a great shadow for Greg. My assistant Nick followed Greg with a strobe on a hand held boom so he had freedom of movement. which I felt as very important to the shot. Just below the step was a doormat and because it had rained it left a wet square. So I found a hose nearby and hosed down the entire area. Problems solved.

Behind that door is the office. To eliminate the visible office ‘stuff’ I blew a bare light through the door to blacken that space. It also created a great shadow for Greg. My assistant Nick followed Greg with a strobe on a hand held boom so he had freedom of movement. which I felt as very important to the shot.
Just below the step was a doormat and because it had rained it left a wet square. So I found a hose nearby and hosed down the entire area. Problems solved.

So a few days before the session the Marketing Director called me and said, “Mark, I’m pretty nervous, the weather forecast says that it’s suppose to rain the day we’re shooting. What do we do if that happens?” My response, “Have three umbrella people there. I’ll have them stand over my lights with umbrellas so the strobes won’t get wet. My camera is water proof so don’t worry about that.” In reality I was hoping for rain or at least a very cloudy sky to add drama to the shot. And on that day the big guy answered my feeble prayers. A dramatic sky with just a few sprinkles.

Just behind Greg is a parking lot FULL of trucks. Solution? Blow light through the arch to blacken that problem. Poor Nick has climbed up on the rock wall to camera left holding a boom with a strobe and extreme silver modifier as Greg's key light. It was a little bright despite the cloud cover so I opted to use a 6 stop ND filter to really make the sky pop and replicate evening.

Just behind Greg is a parking lot FULL of trucks. Solution? Blow light through the arch to blacken that problem. Poor Nick has climbed up on the rock wall to camera left holding a boom with a strobe and extreme silver modifier as Greg’s key light.
It was a little bright despite the cloud cover so I opted to use a 6 stop ND filter to really make the sky pop and replicate evening.

Greg, can you squeeze yourself between those two rocks, point and yell out HEY! when you point?" A single strobe was used here,camera right about two feet above him and just out of frame.

Greg, can you squeeze yourself between those two rocks, point and yell out HEY! when you point?” A single strobe was used here,camera right about two feet above him and just out of frame.

My whole point of this article is photography has something to do with your camera, but the REAL difference is your ability to create the light/mood/atmosphere you seek. Want to improve? Get out from in front of your computer screen and go out and create. Isn’t that what you bought your camera for in the first place?

5 thoughts on “Imagination and Improvisation – How to REALLY Improve Your Photography”

  1. Thank you for your article and your articulate descriptions of your work. I really enjoyed reading this and it has inspired me to push my creativity. I shoot real estate photography and rarely photograph people. So this was very interesting to read. I appreciate your creativity and use of light to create drama. It is amazing how your dancers look so well in the water and the back ground was not in the scene. You really demonstrated how photography is an art form and you work with your surroundings and the tools you have available.

    Thank you for sharing,

    David Dewing

  2. David photography is SO MUCH MORE than sensor stats, pixel peeping and pressing the shutter. The use of light is perhaps the most important part of creating an image. I’m happy that the article has inspired you. Creating photographs is so rewarding. And the difference between ‘taking’ a photograph versus ‘making’ a photograph separates the men from the boys. Take care

  3. Mark, greetings from Dallas! I’ve just barely skimmed parts of the article and I already want to thank you for writing such an informative article. The images of the dancers are a revelation and the “fuck you, Mark” part has given me an idea for a series that I’m really excited about. Keep up the good work!

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