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.
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.
“31 Hands – 16 Artists” Peninsula Museum of Art
Mark Kitaoka Solo Exhibit, 16 large format images located in the North Gallery
May 18 2014 through July 20 2014
Artist’s Reception Sunday May 18th 1:00 – 4:00 PM
Well, if you’ve happened over here you undoubtedly have seen something new. After three years, I have been pressured to get into the 21st century and leave my arcane Front Page HTML in the gutter. Truth be told I was pressured constantly by that damn Diane Varner of Diane Varner fame. She got a preview of this site and told Tracy, “Again you have made Mark look good.” What are friends for?
One of the main reasons I switched is because my former hosting company Shieldhost Suck, er I mean Shieldhost messed up my billing for the fifth time. I was so angered by their inept accounting, I recently purchased the domain name shieldhostsucks.com. And yes, I will be developing a site for that domain along with taking them to court.
But back to this new and improved site. This was no small feat for many reasons, but despite my stubborn nature and Tracy’s constant support, coding ability and design skills, I present to you this site. My Musings are in WordPress and the blog utilizes PixelPost. The integration is all due to Tracy’s brain power and now I’m able to post images and have an RSS feed with not any adieu.
And the one thing I swore I’d never do was allow comments on my images. So many people have told me that they’d like to do it, I thought that for now I’d give it a try. I’m also doing something a bit unusual for a photo blog by allowing people to comment on my Musings. Gulp, this is all an experiment, so I may or may not disable that feature on both my thoughts and images.
And like with all things new there are still some bugs that need to be ironed out. Some of my images are not on this site yet, some of the links are squiggly, and I need to get accustomed to all of the new features Tracy has built into this thing. Plus since we’re both sitting side by side during an hour when most respectable couples are snuggled in bed, it’s time to go to bed! But I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep, since what she’s done for me is way exciting. On the other hand, she’s sitting next to me, arms crossed and damn pissed that she can’t figure out how she messed up my pro site’s gallery navigation. Well at least one of us will sleep well!
Thanks Tracy, you are indeed making me look very good on the web.
I have often captured the performance imagery of artists who are dancers be they ballet, tango or jazz along with those who are musicians or actors during live performances. And in the past I have tortured my fellow photographer friends by well, photographing them! As we all know photographers make the very worst subjects since they are accustomed to being on the ‘safe’ side of the lens.
There is another art form that I always marvel at, but never photograph – design. I happen to be very fortunate to have my very own live in designer, Tracy who I’ve written about numerous times on this page. Today she released my new pro site at:
I have often fancied myself as a amateur designer, but as I look upon how she designed and executed my site, the reality of just how elementary my skills are is evident. I wrote to a friend yesterday that looking at my work through the site she developed is akin to appreciating the frame that holds the art more than the art itself! Another friend wrote “Congratulations you lucky dog. Great lady….great work.” Amen brother, I’m right there with you. Thanks Tracy for so many things.