Whether or not you use scrims/flags/etc. in your work is a topic for a completely different post. I use scrims and flags extensively in my work. My issue has always been transporting scrim or flag FRAMES via airline travel. For local shoots it’s not too bad although some scrim/flag frames are not that easy to break down and transport. Even though they are two dimensional in size (yes they have depth too, but barely….) they can be cumbersome.
So when I was made aware and got a set of the Glow Portable Frame Scrim Kit in its own flat small carry case I was intrigued. Inside of the pouch are five frames which fold extremely small in size. And as I discovered after assembling them the scrims/flags can stay ON the frames even when folded! Halleluyah to this invention! Not only are they small enough for me to carry in my trusty SKB hard sized golf case with my other modifiers, but they are so easy to assemble and strike on location!
So for a recent out of town publicity session I opted to take one of the negative (fully black) reflectors and one net to cut light. I cannot display the images since they are not to be released at this point. But I will say that the flag and net worked very well. As well as my regular devices that do not collapse.
My only complaint about these is Adorama does not currently sell nets/flags/scrims for this unit separately. There are times I need two, three even four of the same flag/net/scrim. And with this set up only one of each is offered. For those who need multiples of the same flag/scrim/net I would not recommend this kit until Adorama offers fabrics separately. But once they do I’d highly recommend this kit.
Whenever I am hired by a client to create imagery my first question is always “What is the mood you’d like me to create for this session?” Sometimes they have a mood board established, sometimes not. The reason I tend to shy away from mood boards, meaning photographs; it is human nature to get a specific shot stuck in our heads. Much like those crazy M.C. Escher drawings where there are two distinct images, but once you see one, you have a hell of a time seeing the other. And since the client wants their marketing to stand out from what has been done in the past, photocopy photography (my term) just isn’t something I’m hired to do, nor do I want to do that type of shooting.
So the stage play “Nine” is based on the 2009 movie of the same name. The client wanted a Vanity Fair look and feel to the images which would all be in black and white….my favorite color btw! Since this is a new client for publicity I did not ask questions like, “How do you want the imagery to smell, taste and sound?” Crazy imagery questions right? But imagery, much like music is just the catalyst to begin a sensory process that takes the viewer into feelings, dreams and memories of their own. It is the reason why I judge imagery by how I feel when I gaze upon the vision. A pretty picture without feeling is just a pretty picture for me.
Although I would be creating imagery of each individual character, the money shots would be of the group together, nine people in total. For anyone who has shot groups, you know very well the challenges it produces. My situation was no different. Sculpting light for a group of people takes finesse and planning.
So here are the items I chose for this session:
- Key light: Glow Grand ParaBox Pro Softbox (70″) using the Glow Grand ParaBox Zoom-In Bounce Rod
- Rim and fill lights: Saberstrip v2.0 and the Elinchrom 69″ Rotalux Octabox which I modified to use a focusing rod. Glow EZ Lock Deep Parabolic Quick Softbox (48″) with diffusion disk and inner baffle only.
- Prop and rim light: Mole Richardson 10” Fresnel Hollywood spotlight I have converted into a modern strobe.
- Bowens Universal Spot Attachment for Gobos
- All strobes used are Flashpoint 200s and 600s – a combination of pro and non pro I do not use TTL on any of them.
The Glow Grand Para 70 is a REMARKABLE modifier. It has taken me six full months to begin to understand how to effectively use this beast. Unlike other focusing rod modifiers its most compelling use is not for the faint of heart, just like the Bron 133 Para line. BUT once I began to understand the nuances of its characteristics it has become my go to modifiers for many, many sessions. In its fully flooded focusing rod position it easily covered the entire group of 9 people. And unlike normal diffused soft or octa boxes, the color punch and contrast is delicious. My client base has been convinced of focusing rod modifier results.
With a group this large and arranged in the way the client wanted, a very large fill/rim light was needed. This is where I used my Elinchrom 69” with my focusing rod fully flooded. For directional fill I used the Glow EZ with the inner disk/diffusion panel and the grid to direct the fill to where it was needed.
The ability to focus or flood the Glow Grand Para and the Elinchrom 69” is wonderful. Focusing rods replace my need to haul and lug many different sizes and types of modifiers to obtain the characteristics and feeling I am trying to achieve in light. And as I’ve stated earlier, the light they produced when used properly is just exquisite.
As just an example:
This shot of Steve was created with the Glow Grand with the rod in its fully focused position. His ‘scream’ needed to have a spotlight affect the client desired. So instead of having to change the modifier to a ‘spot’ type or apply a grid I just adjust the position of the strobe in the modifier.
In using the Eli 69” as a fill I was able to either fully flood the modifier or use more of a spotlight fill in the situation where I wanted more of a pinpoint for fill. With a group this large that is a godsend. I also used my Mole Richardson as a subtle hair light in those instances where I wanted a glow on the person or persons hair.
The Saberstrip v2.0 which uses an AD200 rather than a speed light is just as remarkable as either a key light, rim light or both. I’m still not sure where Scott is in offering these to the general public, but if and when he does BUY some! LOL I cannot speak highly enough about these unique and incredible modifiers paired with an AD200.
I often find that using gobos to project light patterns on a wall, ceiling, floor or drapes adds more texture and mood to a shot. In this case I asked the client to pick the window gobo she wanted for this mood.
I used a light amount of cold haze to soften the light and the complexion of the talent. Subtle haze is something often used in film and I love how it affects the mood of a shot as well. It adds a very cinematic feel to the shot. I use a cold hazer rather than one that heats the fluid. I find the particulate much more fine than heated haze fluid.
Update August 19 2019
I was literally shocked when I read this article on ThePhotoblogger.com. “What I’m going to propose in this article may sound absurd to some photographers, especially if you’re new to the art form….“How can I make my image look like theirs?” But they only want advice on how to do it in post-production. Here’s a controversial idea: do it in camera.”
And just one of the author’s suggestions to his audience:
- “Why not have a creative vision to begin with, and then execute it as well as possible within the camera?”
Wow just wow…incredible that this ‘may be a new concept to create things IN CAMERA TO SOME!’ WOW
Original Post March 26 2019
One of my favorite things to do is to imagine a concept and then execute it. This post is about concepts, mood and light rather than gear. Oh sure it takes gear to have my concepts go from only in my head to fruition, but if you’re looking for a gear review, it’s best to keep moving along.
I wanted to photograph Jeannette, a dear friend’s daughter who was studying ballet in two different concepts. I gave her a general idea of them; one would be as if she was dancing in a grand ballroom. The other was to appear as if I was on stage BEHIND the ballerina shooting downstage toward the audience. And finally I wanted to see if I could configure a lighting protocol where while under an umbrella I could light the ballerina’s face.
So once the concept was developed finding a venue and prop was necessary. A large warehouse along with a non-lit chandelier was needed for my grand ballroom concept. I would light the chandelier using a strobe and long throw reflector. Combining incandescent light, like a tungsten lit chandelier would be very difficult to balance with my strobes. They would overpower incandescent light no matter how low I powered down my strobes. It could be done, but why when I can light it and balance it with a strobe?
The next concept was a tad more difficult, making it appear as if I am actually on stage shooting toward the audience. Using two Fresnel heads on my strobes to appear as spotlights to create drama and spotlight shadows ‘on the stage’ was in order. And then to balance a fill light for her back was delicate to do. I also knew I wanted to add atmosphere to the shot which would add a mystic mood to the image.
And finally how can I light someone’s face under an umbrella? Ah using a simple speed light and a homemade rig to hold it under the umbrella was the answer!
What was this all for anyway? Practice! My belief is practicing the execution of concepts keeps me sharp and improves what I can offer clients and myself in creating imagery. For me it’s not about what gear I own. It’s how I use it.
Original Post August 15 2019
Twenty four months ago a close friend of mine was told that he might have throat cancer during a routine dentist appointment. After visiting his doctor it was confirmed. As can be expected it was a devastating piece of news. Even more so since his profession is as a full time singer. Thankfully he has fully recovered after his treatments and rehabilitation which were both difficult and long. When visiting him at his home I was curious about ‘this thing’ in his music room. It appeared to be a fiberglass mold of someone’s head and shoulders. When he returned to the room he told me that it was the mask made of him and used during his throat radiation treatments.
He explained that the mask was made for him to prevent him from any movement as his neck was precision blasted with radiation. His head and shoulders were bolted to a metal table under the mask. I had a visceral reaction to that story. It was at that very moment when I knew emotionally that I wanted to create an image of both the horrors of his cancer and his recovery. I asked him if I could take the mask to do a proof of concept before embarking on the full project. He agreed.
I took his mask to a pile of black rocks along with a small AD200 strobe. I wanted to see if I could create light rays coming out of the throat area if I threw dust into the air for particulate. It worked.
My concept was to have him stand next to the mask, having light emanating from the throat area with birds flying away from his torso. I had scouted a location where the vegetation was barren after it had been mowed down. I wanted the landscape to reflect the wasteland that is the news of cancer. I had planned that with a sharp sound the birds would fly away representing cancer leaving his body. But like all things organic, that did not work out. The day was VERY windy and late in the day. So the birds could not be coerced, even with food placed into the area.
So I paid to download an image from Shutterstock, a crow disintegrating which would represent the cancer. I normally NEVER use Photoshop in my commercial work, but this was not for a client, nor was it for my friend. It was for me. And that really is my point of this post. There are times when I feel or more accurately I am emotionally COMPELLED to create a piece. Two things happened when I showed both a virtual friend and my friend whose trauma of cancer this entailed.
I told my virtual friend the backstory of the image. Once he knew his comment was “And shoot is a lot of emotion but not sure it works if you don’t know the back story.” I can completely understand his reasoning, but like all things art, what truly matters is what the creator of the piece feels. Remember that in your own work. I miss the days of LP cover art. Some of my favorite album covers which you may or may not recognize:
Know the backstory of each of these? No? Yes? What each element represents? My point is the artist who created these knows the story of the image. If an image makes anyone stop, think and wonder, then for me that’s an accomplishment. Perhaps they will figure out the meaning, perhaps not. But to capture one’s imagination for a moment and in the best of times, for a while or ultimately years later is all that really matters. Art was never meant to be literal, its purpose is to spark the imagination, to awaken an emotion.
When my friend who overcame cancer saw the image he said “I laughed because at first I thought it was a chicken! Then I thought I’d like you to make it a Phoenix and I like the one with no clouds, can you remove the clouds?”
Keep in mind that I did NOT create any of these images FOR HIM. They are most certainly ABOUT HIM, but how I FEEL about what he had to endure. And thankfully in the end, how the wonders of his treatment and his physical therapy relieved him of cancer.
As you create your own art, others may or may not offer the approval you seek. The trick is not to seek approval, but to be emotionally satisfied with what you have created. Art is not created by committee. Its genesis is emotion. And its birth begins through your hands.
Someone recently requested that I post some behind the scenes shots of my water shoots. These are NOT underwater sessions. To date I am not skilled enough in the nuances of underwater shooting. Lighting and its color are very different, radio transmissions don’t work underwater, the equipment needed is different. But I have done quite a few sessions involving water, just not UNDER water….
I really love the organic nature of water and the story and drama it can add to the right project. So this first example involved quite a bit of engineering to set up the mood of rain. First off the restrictions were as follows:
- The talent could only be at a specific location at a specific day and time. This prevented me from scheduling the session at a time when the sun would be in the optimum position so I was not fighting its influence.
- The location where I was able to shoot must be at the client’s venue. So I could NOT rent a studio that allowed me to use water.
I scouted the client’s building area two weeks prior to the scheduled shoot and determined the best place to conduct the shoot would be the enclosed area where they keep their dumpsters! On one side was a chain link gate, the right and back wall were part of the building and the left wall was 20 feet high. The entire area had no ceiling. Shooting inside of their building would be impossible due to the water damage that would occur. Pushing the dumpsters out of the area and washing the concrete was first. The next thing to do was to rig up a sprinkler system to shoot water up and in front of my black drape. I rigged two garden sprinkler heads onto the top of the background crossbar and ran garden hoses to the outdoor spigot. Figuring out how to prevent the sprinkler heads from rotating in the Super Clamps once the water was turned on was another challenge. They naturally wanted to rotate back away from the forward direction I needed the water. If they did that while the strobes were firing the bulbs would explode from the temperature difference.
Then of course there is the issue of power and I needed to wrap my strobes in plastic so no one would be electrocuted including me! In order for water to show up in a photograph the way I wanted it to, it must be lit. In this case backlighting of the water was necessary.
I along with my clients prefer to NOT create elements in post processing, but in camera. First of all doing so adds so much authenticity and also excites the talent which then adds even more real emotion to the shot. My work IS NOWHERE NEAR THE LEVEL OF GoT’s not even close but, David Benioff’s comment about shooting on location versus graphic treatment is so spot on (at 2:19 mark in the video).
You can see the two garden sprinkler heads at the top of my backdrop crossbar. I had to consider the weight of the water as it runs up through the hoses. This is a test of fabric, the water and lighting. Two strobes were required to illuminate the water.
This next example was to shoot dancers with water trails. These are high school dancers so the restrictions were:
- Photograph them immediately after school, two hours maximum time
- The session MUST be held on school grounds
So I selected a wall that runs around the perimeter of their school’s pool area. Because the sun was high in the sky it was very difficult to find and area that I could shade just a bit. So I extended my background stand as high as it would go, about 12 feet. I then asked the student’s dance teacher to ‘douse’ the dancers with a bucket of water from the pool! As SOON as the students were wet they MUST perform their dance routine otherwise the water would dry and not be sufficient to leave water trails.
Again all strobes were covered in plastic.
This final example took one year of planning. YEP one full year. I’ve worked with these two Argentine Tango dancers for a number of years. They are the only tango dancers to have ever appeared in Cirque du Soleil, they are that skilled and beautiful. One of the main barriers was to pick a surface that would afford them traction in water and contain the water, so plastic was eliminated. It was very difficult but I finally figured out what to use, textured rubber. The other aspect that I didn’t anticipate is the timing of the shot. I am very accustomed at photographing dancers at the apex of their movement. But what I discovered is once they reach that apex, water trails are gone!
The momentum necessary to carry the water in an arc stops when a dancer reaches their apex. So I had to retime my shots, which took a bit of effort, but I was able to time my shutter press appropriately.
Getting the water into the area was accomplished using a garden hose from the building’s restroom located 75 feet away!
The couple practicing their dance moves.
Once we finished the clothed shots we moved onto the nudes. Keep in mind that this was shot during winter in Seattle. Because the water was cold and the room has one heater near the ceiling we pumped up the temp to 95 degrees! I wanted to be nude! Oh and ask me how we got the water OUT of the room! Can you say towels and buckets! Yep, we had to soak up the water, wring them out into a bucket, carry those buckets to the restroom and do it over and over and over….UGH! I kept reminding myself that the shots we got were worth the effort!
Whenever people ask me about what camera I use, what modifiers, what this or that I tend to ignore those questions. Why? Well because those are NOT the elements most important in what I do. Sure the right tool for the right job helps, but CONCEPTS ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT and EXECUTING those concepts well are key. I sometimes think that people believe they can buy their way out of poor imagery creation by purchasing expensive gear. A crappy photo can be created by a 50k camera as easily as it can be with a phone camera. And the inverse to that is also true.
A big part of my job is to figure out how to create unique and emotive moods and stories for my client’s imagery. A pretty picture without emotion or a story is just a pretty picture. One of the most challenging part of the job is to come up with a COMPELLING concept and then determining how to execute that concept with the restrictions I know I must face. In truth my client base could care less what gear I use. What they care about is if the product I produce for them evokes emotion, is unique and contains a story which will help sell their product. Can I CONSISTENTLY produce compelling imagery and does the talent enjoy working and collaborating with me? Can I overcome impediments to a shoot on the fly and quickly? If not I can expect a one in a row job from that client. Not to mention my reputation would suffer in this very close knit community.
Imagination and working around restrictions is the most challenging part of my job. And I would not have it any other way.
I know there are a ton of online sites that show specific lights/cameras/etc. along with their specs and such. I wanted to write this post about combining all of the tools we all have at our disposal to create an image. FIRST AND FOREMOST the paramount factor in my shooting is NOT the gear, but the concept. Of course the right gear makes my job easier, but without a solid concept and how to execute that concept, no amount of cool gear matters in my world. My clients come to me looking for several solid concepts to create for a final image. Most have ‘some‘ ideas, but they are depending on me to flesh out their ideas. The two most valuable assets I can provide to them are the final concepts and the talent’s expressions. Authentic expressions can’t be created in post processing.
I wanted to share the video my partner created as I was shooting the promotional materials for a small theatre company’s production of “Heathers.” This video shows in detail how the shoot was created for the client. BTW I always shoot wirelessly tethered to my iPad using the Canon WFT-E6A (replaced by the WFT-E8A) through Shuttersnitch. Both the client and I then know when the shot has been achieved and we can then move onto the next shot. Much more efficient for me than taking a break to show the talent and client things on the back of my camera. I still do that when needed, but it is much more the exception rather than the rule.
Here are the items I used AFTER scouting a location for the shoot and conveying my concepts to the client:
- 6 Flashpoint XPLOR 600 HSS Battery-Powered Monolight (Non TTL)
- 4 7″ cone modifiers
- 1 PCB Omni reflector
- 1 Aputure Fresnel Lens Mount for COB 120 Series Light Storm
- 1 Yamaha EF2000iSv2 generator
- 1 Chauvet Smoke Machine
- 1 EGO Power+ leaf blower
- 1 Flashpoint R2 Pro 2.4GHz Transmitter for Canon
- 1 Glow Grand ParaBox Pro Softbox (70″) (for in studio publicity shots not shown here)
- 1 Glow Grand ParaBox Zoom-In Bounce Rod (for in studio publicity shots not shown here)
Using battery powered equipment is key to my on location shoots. Wireless everything has been a godsend in the last 12 years. No more cords which were replaced with remote triggers, remote control over strobes…wow. The only reason I used a generator was to power the smoke machine. In those instances where gas generators are not allowed I use a Goal Zero Yeti 1000 solar generator for my smoke machine when called for in a shoot.
I selected the Ego Power leaf blower because it has variable power, not stepped power. During those times when I need to have a wind machine I need the ability for my assistants to either subtlely or forcefully use wind. As of this posting I cannot show the actual publicity shots the client will use, but can display shots they have opted not to use for the promotion.
What will be of interest is the video my partner Tracy Martin created for the client which has been released. My point of this post is to help others in displaying how combining all of the tools now available to photographers is only limited by your imagination.
Four strobes in various positions including to illuminate the smoke. Key light using the PCB Omni reflector. It’s great in wind and produces the quality of light I wanted.
February 18 2019
I recently used the Flashpoint eVOLV 200 Round Flash Head attached to an AD200 during a professional tango shoot. I like the modeling lamp in the head and find it brighter than the stock Fresnel head in the AD200. I used the light with a ‘voice activated light stand’ (a human) in this instance. Because the Argentine Tango dancers were moving freely a normal light stand just would not be the best tool for the job. Plus the room was filled with haze and the rays of light coming through the doorway made balancing light a challenge.
The quality of light produced by the Round Flash head is very very nice. I won’t ever hesitate to use it when it’s the right tool for the right job. And in this case it was.
Update January 13 2019
I purchased the 36″ version of this modifier based on my experience with the 25″ model. I’m not sure if manufacturing has changed, but the 36″ model’s snaps which hold the inner diffusion panel are of less quality than my 25″ model. They are EXTREMELY difficult to remove once they are snapped into place on the modifier. So much so that removing them is very difficult and one of them pulled the mating snap off of the modifiers. I now use a binder clip to hold that part of the diffusion panel in place.
Be aware that the modifiers may be of a different manufacturing level when purchasing these.
Original Post November 26 2018
I was recently asked by a client to create a portrait of one of their executives that will appear in a magazine article. They let me know only one day before my flight. This was a surprise since my trip was originally scheduled to fly up for a production shoot. This meant I had no plans to haul any strobes or modifiers up on my airline trip. So in order to keep my luggage small I opted to take my Glow EZ Lock Octa Small Quick Softbox for Speedlite (25″) along with my Flashpoint eVOLV 200 Round Flash Head as my lighting gear.
I really like how small the EZ Octa folds down. It fit so well into my suitcase and hardly took any space at all. Because the modifier is relatively small, I knew I would have to place the light close to the talent. I rarely use modifiers smaller than 39″ as my key lights, but in this case opted to use the 25″ due to packing space. I used the metal disk in its concave placement along with the outer diffusion panel. Although the Adorama ad shows that the modifier comes with a grid, mine did not…..
So here are some of the shots:
My assessment of the modifier is it’s ‘good.’ The light quality is good for a modifier this small. Its pack ability is excellent and I will continue to use it as a rim or hair light. Or when I need to pack very small as a key light as well.
I know that I often state whenever I get a new modifier/strobe/etc. I ALWAYS test them BEFORE putting them into my workflow. I’ve had a suggestion arise lately about showing them in a group in addition to in each of my modifier/strobe posts. Sounded like a good idea so here we go, but I have no plans to make this post comprehensive for all of my tests. Just a few. The first covers the Saberstrip v2.0 that utilizes the Flashpoint eVOLV200s.
Bought this 1965 MGM Studios MR 412 Fresnel and converted it from a 1000 watt constant tungsten light into a strobe Fresnel. The following images were all shot AS TESTS prior to putting the Fresnel into my workflow.
Elinchrom 39″ Deep Rotalux
I NEVER place anything into my toolkit unless I’ve tested it previously. Too many unexpected situations come up in any session. Being unprepared with things you KNOW about is not wise.
Shooting as a pro means there are times when you have to prove yourself once again with an established client. Not doing a great job either in the finished product or through your service simply means you’re not used again. One of my long standing clients, Village Theatre recently changed Artistic Directors. Jerry Dixon, their new AD planned to attend two of the three on location publicity shoots all to be held in different cities in greater Seattle area. The first session for the play Curious Incidents is also the play he is directing. No pressure eh? LOL
The second aspect of this day that is always a bit concerning was that I NEVER SAW ANY OF THE VENUES IN ADVANCE of the day! Sure the Marketing Director sent me some camera phone photos and links to the MOPOP (Museum of Pop Culture) areas where she wanted to shoot, but I had never been there. Nor had I been to Spangler Book Exchange/Reread Books, the quaint bookstore where we were to shoot the Matilda publicity or the alley in Everett where I’d shoot the Howard Barnes publicity. Add to that the additional element of time. For each venue we were limited in time based on either the schedule of some of the talent or due to the venue’s prior commitments.
The only element I ever insist on from clients is to answer; “What is the mood you want from each session?” Why? Well because the expression of the talent(s) and the LIGHT is something I have to plan for BEFORE I hit the job….which leads me to….
The Marketing Director kept asking me “Mark, I need to know your power requirements for each venue so I can work with each of the operations managers to plan power for your gear.” Since I exclusively use Flashpoint strobes, guess what….they need no outside power!!! SCORE! I hauled seven, yes seven strobes from SF to SEA in a small Pelican case. 49.5 pounds…just UNDER the 50 lbs. limit! Three Xplor600s, one 600Pro and three Evolv200s! I split the four 600 batteries between me and my partner’s carry on camera bags instead of inside checked luggage to save weight (btw I always put gaff tape over the contacts of the batteries just in case…). All of the stands were rented in Seattle and for the smoke I advance shipped smoke grenades to the Marketing Director. It takes planning folks….LOL
For modifiers I took three v2 Saberstrips which use Evolv200s with their Fresnel heads. I cannot speak highly enough about both the Evolvs and the new Saberstrips. Together they create what I view as a revolutionary combination in camera lighting. Yeah they’re that good. I knew that both the MOPOP and the bookstore sessions would be VERY CRAMPED in terms of space. Using “traditional” modifiers or strobes would be a total pain in the ass. Sure it could be done, but would easily have been a 10/10 on my cussing scale. I knew I wanted a softer light for both the MOPOP and bookstore feeling, but a hard light in the alley. So I took three Fresnel modifiers for that session. All of my modifiers fit into my SKB hard sided golf case which I use to transport my light modifiers when traveling out of town.
So here’s how it all worked: (All of the BTS images are by my partner Tracy Martin)
Session 1, Curious Incident shoot at MOPOP
Session 2 for Matilda at ReRead Bookstore
A few of the Final Images
Session 3 for Howard Barnes in an alley in Everett WA
A few of the Final Images
I was so shocked to see an article written by James Spangler the owner of ReRead Books where we shot the Matilda publicity! All if not most photographers know that getting feedback is rare so this was both a nice and humbling surprise. My whole point on this post is to highlight the incredible leap in technology and innovation in the field of photographic lighting. Sure all of us can figure out how to do something even if it’s tough. But to have others who are helping to ease the stress of creating beautiful light is wonderful!
I get quite a few questions about light. Specifically questions about strobe brands, what I feel is the best modifier, focusing rods, octabanks, blah blah blah. I get it; I want to know about things like that as well. But on a recent trip to a client’s location I was asked to photograph a group of 2800 high school students as they attended the 5th Avenue Theatre’s Annual High School Musical Awards. It’s a huge event equivalent to the Tony Awards for High School students.
Almost all of the imagery I create at this annual event is ‘non lit’ meaning no strobes or modifiers, only available light. I’m not speaking of available ‘natural light’ from the sun. Nope it’s all unnatural light either from stage lighting or very dark back stage or street lighting. If you’ve never been in the wings of a live theatre just imagine the illumination of a strip club bar and you get the idea of what it’s like.
The real visual story action happens in the alley behind the theatre. It’s where the kids are collected to go backstage before their school performances of the productions for which they’ve been nominated. Obviously the energy is very high. Combine adolescent hormones with a very exciting event and you get a small picture of the energy!
The lighting in the alley is what you’d expect. The illumination is to prevent crime, light the trash bin areas and the HVAC equipment. Anything BUT something conducive to creating any type of portrait photography! But I decided to grab a few groups of students to use what light I had to create some portraiture. I wanted to test my own theories and when people ask me how to use light I simply say “study light.”
So the alley has about eight tungsten lights, the kind you see in the back of any retail establishment near the loading dock or employee entrances. Covered in an industrial plastic, they’re hearty to resist breakage as well as being damn bright. Each light is about 15 feet high on the brick walls and spaced about 25 feet apart running the length of the alley.
So I placed the groups of kids so that the light that fell on them created shadows I wanted and lit their faces in the manner I wanted for the mood of each shot. How I did that is something I won’t go into and I didn’t use any reflective materials or trash to fill in the shadows. Nope this was completely ad hoc shooting with the light I had from those alley lights. My point here is rather than concentrating on what brand, how many watt seconds, whether the modifier you’re lusting after is ‘truly parabolic’ study light and shadow. In my view it’s what will elevate your lighting beyond elevating your credit card balance with little actual yield.
OK so anyone who knows me KNOWS that I love haze/smoke/atmosphere for my personal project shoots. Heck even some of my clients are AWARE and ask me to add atmosphere to a shoot. The quality of light when you add particulate to the air and shoot light through it is delicious and magical. Anyway….
Although I don’t consider myself a survivalist per se, I do live in the San Francisco Bay Area – AKA earthquake territory. Yes I was here during the ‘89 Quake and it scared the shit out of me. Because of the desire for fried chicken on that fateful day my wife and infant daughter were not on the Cypress structure that collapsed and killed so many people. So I know that being prepared is the intelligent thing to do. I have a Yamaha 2000 gas generator, water purifiers, things to cook with and extra food. But for my photography purposes, I like to use my generator to power my Chavet smoke machine when there’s no power available, like in the middle of the Mohave Desert or on the Coast of California.
In my backpacking days I relied on my Suntactics USB solar charger made right near where I live! For such a small device I love its lightweight and high wattage output. I wrote a review on my experience using it on this blog. You can find it here. But when I needed AC inverter plug in power that small solar charger just would not do. I’ve recently discovered that the National and State Park services frown heavily on the use of gasoline generators in forest areas. And with very good reason given the rash of horrid California fires. So I started to investigate solar power stations and decided to purchase the Goal Zero Yeti 1000 from my beloved Costco. These days there are very few brick and mortar shops I frequent, but Costco is one of them. And after doing some research I found that the GZ Yeti 1000 was 300 bucks less at Costco than anywhere else.
So I’ve tested the GZY1000 with my Chavet smoke machine and it works very well. When heating the Chavet pulls almost 1100 watts, well below the rating of the GZY1000. But since I tend to be practical I didn’t want a 1k machine just sitting around until I was on location so I started to figure out how to use it on an everyday basis. My partner and I own ebikes and ride them almost daily. We put about a thousand miles each on of our bikes annually. It’s just plain fun and we’d ride more if it wasn’t for work. This summer we plan on taking the bikes camping so we will need a way to recharge the packs. And many camping areas no longer allow gas generators….thank god. They’re noisy and people who are totally inconsiderate run them at shitty hours.
So I thought I would buy a solar panel, one that is easily transportable. I opted for the Goal Zero Boulder Briefcase 100 for my portable panel. But then Amazon (damn them) had a Gold Box deal on the Renogy 100 Watts Panel for $99.00 so I bought that one too! Much less expensive than buying the 200 watt GZ briefcase. I’ve installed both panels on my roof and hook them into my GZY1000 to power the things on my patio. That includes a water feature, my outdoor refrigerator, the patio bistro lights along with the power outlet station on my patio table. The GZ portable panel is mounted so that it can easily be removed from the roof and the Renogy is in a permanent position. I have a small hot tub and tried to power it with the GZY1000 and it does well UNTIL I power the jets to their highest level. Then the GZY1000 just shuts down, which is the safety feature. So for July I will see just how much PG&E (utility company) money I save by hooking just the hot tub to the unit and not using the highest jet setting.
If you’re looking for a solar power station I cannot recommend the Goal Zero highly enough. There are other units available, but for a much higher cost. For me the value of this unit is wonderful. Putting the unit to use daily makes much sense to me rather than just keeping it for emergencies or shoots. Besides some of the money I spent can be recovered by not paying PG&E!
UPDATE May 24 2018
CalArts has placed their entire Summertime Issue 2018 #3 online.
In January 2018 the Editor of The Pool, an alumni magazine for the California Institute for the Arts contacted me about a feature they had planned for their 3rd edition of the publication. CalArts was incorporated in 1961 as the first degree-granting institution of higher learning in the United States created specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts. It offers Bachelor of Fine Arts, Master of Fine Arts, Master of Arts, and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees among six schools: Art; Critical Studies; Dance; Film/Video; Music; and Theater.
The publication wanted to feature one of their alumni – Antoine Hunter a deaf dancer, choreographer and educator. The editor informed me that Antoine had specifically requested that I create the imagery for his feature which prompted CalArts to commission me for the honored task. I met Antoine when he danced for Savage Jazz Dance Company of Oakland where I created publicity imagery for their troupe.
As with all creative endeavors my workflow was to meet with Antoine over coffee to discuss the mood he’d like to have for his imagery. Once we had our meeting I contacted the editor to discuss his wishes and we scheduled the session in and around iconic San Francisco landmarks. He wanted the imagery to reflect the majestic flavor of Antoine’s home. Beyond that, the artistic elements were left to my discretion which I always appreciate.
In March the editor flew up for the day and we began the session. Even though there was a chance of rain I was confident that the areas I had selected would be shielded from rain if it occurred. As luck would have it, it was a glorious day with wonderful clouds in the sky that I adore. Antoine brought his 6 year old daughter to the event along with his ASL interpreter. Even though we had not discussed shots of him and his daughter, I took them anyway as a memento of that day which he could have for his own memories. I too have kids and having imagery of them never gets old. In the end the magazine used one of the photos which I felt added much to his story. I’ve often found that the images created outside of an assignment are often used and enrich a story.
For all of the images I used a two Flashpoint 600s with extension flash heads to keep weight on the modifier end to a minimum. The modifier I used was a PCB Omni reflector which is my go to outdoor modifier. I had written a blog post about how I converted it to accept a Bowens mount. It is great in wind which is always a concern with my on location shoots. I planned to utilize two of these and had both with me during the sessions. All of the images were created using HSS between 1/1000th and 1/2000th of a second depending on my location and the sun’s intensity at the time. Generally the aperture was f2.8.
My plan was to NOT make the images appear lit, but balanced in natural light yet with a high production value. The only exception was when I created his portrait in a tunnel that is very darkly lit. In this instance I used two of the lights, one as a backlight to rim his figure and the other as a key light. The back light modifier was a simple 7 inch cone on a Flashpoint 600. The magazine ended up using that shot for the cover and I’m really pleased with the results.
I continue to be impressed with the performance, flexibility and quality of my 600 units, both as a monolight or with an extension head. They are key to my work and the innovation in their ability to convert from a monolight to a pack/head or 1200ws head offers me options other manufacturers don’t offer or match at the price point. I often chuckle when I read others who are so concerned about a 1/3 drop of power when using the extension heads. I guess increasing their ISO 1/3 of a stop doesn’t occur to them! LOL!!!! Some people will bitch about absolutely anything rather then spending their time on creating.
Gallery of images. Not all were utilized in the publication.
I’m proud to have been named as a Finalist in the 2018 OneEyeland B/W awards under Nudes. I’m especially thrilled since Howard Schatz was one of the judges. I’ve LONG admired his work so I’m honored! My submission was one of the images I created for my “Tango in the Mohave” series with Eva and Patricio.
For about 38 years I was a ‘suit.’ A pure corporate guy whose career started at the bottom and worked its way to COO of a Fortune 100 company. But now having been a small business owner running a full time commercial photography firm I can safely say that even if I had the chance, I’d never go back. I say that I photograph just to meet people and it’s true. My camera is just a convenient excuse to meet and befriend other artists.
One of my clients is a symphony in Dallas, TX. And over the years I have become friends with many of the musicians in the orchestra along with people in Marketing, Development and many other departments. Just recently I was tasked by the VP of Marketing to create an image of 90 of the musicians in the lighting style of the Dutch Masters paintings.
While doing so the two co concertmasters, Alex and Nathan began fooling around during a toast by intertwining their glasses and arms like newlyweds! Of course the whole orchestra HOWLED with laughter and no photographer would pass up that decisive moment to capture it on film. Ah the blackmail leverage I now possess!
Then during the creation of another part of the marketing collateral I was asked to do a portrait of several of the senior members of the orchestra.
But during that time two of the video team from Genius House Media were there filming their version of James Cordin’s “Carpool Karaoke” by having Alex, Nathan, Erin, Lydia and Kara ride through Dallas playing their instruments. So often there’s friction between photographers and videographers, but in the case of Adam and Darren from Genius House, they feel more like just collaborative creatives. I so enjoy working along side them when our work intersects I just had to create a photo of them goofing around.
My whole point to this post is this; what good is life without the camaraderie and companionship of other creatives? Like I said, my camera is simply an excuse.
Lately I have been asked by a few people, “Mark what gives you inspiration for your shots?” Food inspires my work because when I view an image I’m creating I want to ‘taste‘ the deliciousness of the story, to feel satisfied, to actually smell the environment or mood with my eyes. I often listen to music and get inspired by the tones, the pauses, the crescendos of each passage. If all of this sounds like bullshit to you, well I don’t know how else to explain what inspires my work. I am also inspired by films; the lighting, the flavor, the moods, THE IMAGINATION brought to REALITY. I recently watched a BTS video of Game of Thrones, Beyond the Wall. At 2:22 in the video one of the creators explains why he likes to shoot on location. His statement is exactly the reason I prefer on location shooting to in studio work, especially for personal projects. I bow to their creativity and ability to execute what is imagined. Whenever I hear people say “Oh I thought of that years ago…” I always laugh to myself and think, “Yet you didn’t ACTUALLY MAKE IT HAPPEN.” And sure it’s always easy to say “Well if I had the kind of money GOT has then I could do that.” I often feel sorry for those who think that way….
So many forums/sites/people in photography or other endeavors talk on and on and on and on about gear. They can argue about which gear is ‘better’ in what almost seems like forever, just to ‘be right.‘ Gear has never been a motivating factor for me except when I was just starting out. Back then I thought, “Wow if I only had this camera/light/modifier, or had access to what the pros have….” I found that “if onlys” prevented me from actually DOING. For me inspiration is born from watching, tasting, listening, touching LIFE. And not necessarily things people would consider remarkable. Simple things like a smell, a taste, an expression, or an experience spark ideas that I want to create.
The reality is coming up with a concept, translating that concept into reality by developing all of the elements necessary is also one of the things that so inspires me. The planning, the ‘figuring out’ what to do, how to make it, what location I want to use, searching for that location, adding atmosphere, what kind of lighting, how will I overcome wind, do I want wind, what kind of flavors do I want to include in wardrobe? It goes on and on and on. And even the limitations are inspiring! It’s so easy to believe that if EVERYTHING is available, that there are NO RESTRICTIONS on what you hope to do, what you create would be possible.
REAL life is all about restrictions, limits and hurdles. For me they are the spices in the recipes for what I cook with my camera.
All of the final images I created on location below can be seen in my Conceptual Gallery.
Inspiration comes from many different places for most people. In addition to what I mentioned at the beginning of this post, one of my largest inspirations comes from the experiences I have with people. Sure I’m happy with the images, but what I remember are the interactions I have with the people I “cook” with and who invariably become close friends. And that is the most inspiring aspect of all.
About 50% of my work takes me out of state for client work. I believe many people view that as ‘cool’ and in many ways it is. BUT hauling gear to and fro on airlines is NOT so COOL. Because of the number of miles I travel each year I have top status on several airlines which is a godsend. I’m allowed 3 bags free as is my partner so between us we can haul 6 fifty pound bags without being charged. And thank goodness! This does not include gear we rent on site either!
Won’t be able to share any of the images from this shoot for about two months…NDAs….