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.
Earlier this month while was using my Mavic to both film and photograph for a client, I was flying sideways and ended up crashing into a tree! Total user error and thankfully it was at the very end of the sessions! LUCKILY I had purchased DJI Care Refresh (Mavic Pro) when I bought the drone. They allow you to purchase the coverage within the first 48 hours of purchase. For 99.00 on a 1k item it’s a great value. But just like all insurance the REAL TEST comes when you make a claim. Any company will gladly take your premiums, but filing a claim is a different story. So I got onto the site, filled out the form and guess what? They emailed me a FedEx label! That’s right, they pay for shipping to and from! Incredible. The cost for my ‘repair’ was 79.00. And IF I crash again it will be 129.00! Now this does not cover things like theft, losing your drone, etc. Makes perfect sense. But in my case I could not be happier and DJI has a loyal customer for life.
UPDATE November 11 2017
Still practicing and boy to get cinematic film ain’t easy. But hey if it was everyone could do it! It sure is fun to learn though. Using ND filters really helps.
It’s also nice to know that the Mavic can take RAW stills in the form of the DNG format. Granted not as high res as my MF camera, but still good! What I did learn though is when I set my shutter speed at a low number, usually around 1/125th or lower when I take stills that have motion I get motion blur. Makes perfect sense, I’m just not accustomed to switching from film to stills. Learnings…..
Yep, it was time. Time to try something new, to feel uncomfortable and out of my comfort zone. Film, stills, creativity from a new perspective. How does anyone expect to grow simply by being ‘safe?’ FAA certification is on tap. Using light and motion….
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.
I am proud to have been awarded Finalist status in the Professional Fine Arts Nude category of the 2017 One Eyeland Photography Awards for my “Tango in Water” submission. Five images make up my series of tango images. Shot in Seattle in studio using water to accentuate the delicious movement of Argentine Tango.
Professional Fine Art Nudes Finalist list
UPDATE February 22 2018
During a client session they allowed me to experiment using my Elinchrom 69″ with focusing arm. Here are the results
UPDATE January 5 2018
This month I have several sessions where I will use the focusing arm with my Elinchrom 69″ Rotalux Octabox. Elinchrom sells their Elinchrom 75″ Indirect Litemotiv Octa Softbox which is an inverted modifier. But unlike using a focusing arm the strobe is confined to a set distance from the modifier. Oh and not to mention it’s about $1100.00 USD more expensive than my 69’r!
UPDATE December 31, 2017
Over the past two weeks I have been giving my new virtual friend Ulysses my experience using focusing rod modifiers. We’ve gone back and forth over FB Messenger as I answered some of his questions and concerns. It was during this time I realized that some people may not have any idea how a focusing arm paired with a parabolic or other modifier would benefit them. So instead of answering another email I decided to post this (My last post of 2017 btw) to benefit anyone who may have questions about focusing arm modifiers, their benefits and downsides. But are put off by their prices.
I found what I view as one of the most informative lessons on some of the benefits of a focusing rod on a YouTube channel. Karl Taylor and Urs Recher, two pro fashion shooters do an excellent job explaining the benefits of focusing arm modifiers. You can view that video here.
If you begin to watch the video and think or say to yourself “Oh sure if I had the money to buy a $7,000 Broncolor Para 222 Mark I could do anything!” STOP READING NOW and go about your usual business.
I’ve posted elsewhere why I have switched to focusing arms modifiers and this post is about how you can do it with relatively simple ease. And just as important for a fraction of the cost of Broncolor, Briese or Parabolix. Of course the shape of the modifier you use will have a bearing on your results, but unlike people alleging you ‘have to have’ a pure parabolic shape I disagree based on my own actual usage. I love my Parabolix 35D, my Cononmark 120cm and my Westcott Zeppelins which I use with a focusing arm.
The best thing to do is to buy a Parabolix focusing arm from their site. They use a standard Profoto attachment to mount their modifiers to the focusing arm. The arm is excellent and well made. To attach the arm to any Bowens modifier you simply purchase a Haoge Profoto to Bowens Mount Speedring Ring Adapter.
Viola! You now have a focusing arm that will work with any Bowens modifier! And you don’t have to go through the crazy fabrications like I did when I built my first one. (I just like doing that kinda stuff tho….)
Prior to figuring out that method I fabricated all kinds of things! My other solution was to purchase a Cheetahstand Chop Stick and modify it to accept a Bowens modifier. It took some doing and it works well. Someone mentioned that Edward at Cheetahstand stated that his Chop Stick will work with most Bowens mount modifiers and that’s true….to a point.
For travel it’s a toss up. My DIY Cheetahstand Chop Stick with mount weighs a total of 4 pounds 13 ounces including the rod. The Parabolix weighs 3 pounds 15 ounces. For space the Chop Stick comes apart thereby having the ability to save space when packing. Not so with the Parabolix arm. Weight or space? It’s up to your needs. The Bird Cages which hold the lights are not included in these weights, but I have described their weight above.
So there you have it. This will be my last post about how to develop your own focusing rod. I have sessions to cover and don’t really have the motivation to talk more about this subject. I post this in case you want to do it as well.
As I was growing up my father was always in the garage tinkering. During his lifetime he was a professional auto mechanic who was in a partnership in a Mobil Gas station. I’d work there in the summertime when full service was the norm. Later he became a civil engineer. He and I shared lots of good times in our home garage building things which were usually motors or crazy inventions. One of the aspects of life he taught me early on was “Boy there are people who will bitch that someone hasn’t invented or built this or that. Or they’ll bitch about how something is designed. Basically they’ll bitch about anything instead of trying to figure out how to fix it or inventing something themselves. Don’t listen to those assholes, if you need something that ain’t around, figure out how to build it and build it. I’m not raising no bitch, so just remember that!”
To this day I’m not sure if I never wanted to be ‘a bitch’ or I just plain enjoy figuring out how to do things. It’s one of the main reasons I HAVE TO HAVE a garage. Not to store shit people never use, but to fabricate things. I find it relaxing. And I must admit that my former racing motorcycle which is now the world’s most expensive towel rack does sit in my “Man Cave.” I just can’t bring myself to sell “Ashley.”
Anyway I’ve written elsewhere on this blog that I adore focusing arm modifiers. I won’t go into all of the reasons, but one of the most frustrating things is every single manufacturer of focusing arm modifiers makes it so that their arm only works with their modifiers. Broncolor, Parabolix, Briese, Cheetahstand, Westcott, you name it, they can’t be used with other modifiers. I did find out that the Parabolix line of focusing arms will work with any Profoto mount. Their focusing arm uses the same attachment as Profoto so if one purchases a Parabolix focusing arm it will fit any modifier that uses a Profoto mount.
But many of my modifiers are now Bowens mounts. It’s my preferred modifier mount since I exclusively use Flashpoint/Godox strobes/heads now. As I examined Cheetahstand’s Chop Stick I discovered that I could modify his focusing arm so that it will allow me to attach ANY Bowens mount modifier to the focusing arm! It took quite a bit of modification and a bit of cussing, but now I have a focusing arm that will accept any Bowens modifier INCLUDING HARD MODIFIERS. What? WTF you may be thinking, hard modifiers Mark? Well I’m gonna try them and will report back later. Why not?!
I’m sure some people will ask questions like “Will it support the full weight of X or Y strobe?” What about if the modifier is not a true parabola?” To the first question, I’m not sure and I don’t really care because I’m not a manufacturer of this for retail. I made it to solve a problem. I plan to always use the remote head for the AD600. As for the second question, who cares?
Every morning I go out to my patio to turn on the water feature because the hummingbirds like it. They drink and bathe in it very often. On the ground I see a small “something” and just then a hummingbird flies around the ‘thing‘ and I see that it’s a baby male! My gf comes out, picks him up and warms him with her hands. And just after I take a few ‘portraits’ of him, he flies away. Making a normal morning something very special!
Sometimes in my infinite idiotic wisdom I purchase something because I can’t afford something else. I use that item for a while and then it sits on the shelf for a bit. This has been my buying using pattern for quite some time, like I said I can be an idiot.
Such was the case when I purchased a Saberstrip light modifier. I had rented a Westcott IceLight and had a great experience with it, but at $499.00 it seemed a bit too steep in price for a constant light source I would only use occasionally. (I ended up buying two of them later, but that’s for another post.) Like everyone else I began searching the web for alternatives to the IceLight and found the Saberstrip. Unlike the IceLight the Saberstrip uses a handheld flash as its light source.
I own a Fuji X100S and formerly owned their X100. For my commercial work it is a remarkable tool for the right situation. I use the X100S for personal use since it has so many features I enjoy. I normally don’t write reviews until I’ve had whatever I’m reviewing for a few months, but in this case I’m making an exception. I ordered and purchased my TCL-100 off Amazon through a third party retailer at the street price of 349.00. I had seen retailers from Japan selling the unit prior to its release, but was not willing to pay what they were asking. Although my X100S is silver I really didn’t care that the lens for sale was black. I’ve purposely made my little Fuji look crummy with gaff and grip tape. My clients laugh whenever I bring it out on a commercial shoot. They call it “Mark’s little beat up instamatic,” but after seeing the results never complain about its use for their work.
in his exhibit, “29 Hands — 15 Artists”
When most of us attend Open Studios, we look at the art. When photographer Mark Kitaoka attended an Open Studio weekend at the Peninsula Museum of Art in Burlingame, which rents studio space to artists, he looked at the artists’ hands. And he thought of photographing the hands of the artists, at work.
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 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)
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.