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.
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.
Beethoven Festival Brochure Mailer
Shot with a single PCB Einstein through a 52″ parabolic reflector
Five PCB Einsteins used to light this. Key light shot through a 12×12′ scrim off to camera right.
A single Canon Speedlight shot through a 61″ parabolic to obtain the motion blur using second curtain sync
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.
Original shot for building banner. Shot with a Fuji X100S, a single Einstein through at 51″ parabolic high specular modifier.
18×80 foot building banner
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.
Shot with two PCB Einsteins. Behind Greg is a parking lot full of cars and trucks. Shot a light with a cone modifier through the arch to reduce ambient behind him and blacken out the parking lot. Key light is a single Einstein held camera left high by an assistant. Shot with a variable ND filter set to -6 stops with a 1DX
Single Einstein used through a specular modifier, Elinchrom deep octa camera right held by an assistant. (voice activated light stand!)
Single Einstein with cone reflector. Negative reflector to camera left. Variable ND filter used on a 1DX set to -4 stops
Two Einsteins. One shot from behind the subject with a cone to reduce office ambient and to produce the dramatic shadow. Second key light to camera left shot through an Elinchrom deep octa. I wet the pavement to add reflection to the shot.
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 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.
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.