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Look behind you

I was reminded on my recent shoot in Las Vegas of a simple but valuable truth. It’s good to look behind you. Of course there is the obvious safety reasons when you might endanger yourself by stepping back and either losing your footing, or backing up into a barrel cactus (yes, I’ve done that).

But in this case what I am talking about is looking for opportunities for images. Most times, we get absorbed in watching the light at sunrise as it illuminates the view to the west. Maybe it’s a snow covered mountain, or a reflective building. There’s magic going on, and we get hypnotized by the ever changing quality and color of the light as it progresses second by second.

What I want to suggest to you, though, is that when there is amazing light out in front of the lens, often times there is equally exciting light behind you. Sure, you could be looking back at a beautiful sunrise and the way it illuminates the clouds. But if you look at an oblique angle, you may find unique opportunities by isolating objects. Here is an example of the view looking East North East from the same spot where I was shooting west to the building in the image shown above. So always remember this simple idea to look behind you. It will reward you with great images you did not expect.


Photographing neon

On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I spent a lot of time photographing the neon signs downtown. There are some wonderful examples of mid century artistry all in a few block radius, and they hold great promise for beautiful images.

The key to a successful photograph here is to strike a balance between the light emitted by the signs and the ambient daylight so you can maintain a sense of the environment the signs are in. The way to do that is to shoot close to dawn or dusk when both the exposure for the lights and the ambient light for the sky and surrounding structures match. That means that you want to get to your location right around sunrise or sunset (depending on the background environment), do your scout, and find the spot you want to shoot from. I’d suggest bringing a tripod, since the exposures can be from 1second to 5 seconds long, depending on the situation, with an ISO of 100. If you don’t have a tripod with you, you could hand hold, but be sure to use a high ISO so you keep your shutter speeds up above 1/60 second. Maybe look for a surface to brace your camera against, like a wall or tree.

Because the window for when the two kinds of light are aligned to make a great exposure is small, you may have to return to the area to make images of other signs.

You have a couple of choices for setting white balance. You could go with daylight balance, and let the image take on a warm glow. Or you could set the camera to tungsten balance, which would make the sky go much bluer, or flourescent, which would make the sky go more magenta. Try playing around with the white balance settings, and see what is the most interesting to you.

Either way, if you are shooting at dawn, start 10 to 15 minutes before sunrise, and watch your histogram for when the sky or background gets too light, and the neon is no longer vibrant in color. Here are a few examples.

Notice the great saturation in the signs, the buildings and the sky.

Notice how there is a loss of saturation in all the key areas just a few minutes later.

Here's another example.

Notice the wonderful detail in the white bulbs and saturation of the sky.

Notice the loss of information in the bulbs, and the effect the ambient light is having on the neon itself as the sky gets brighter.

If you choose to shoot at the end of the day, start to shoot maybe ten minutes after sunset to see what the ambient light balance is. Look at your histogram to see how you are doing. As it gets darker, increase the pace of shooting, as the window for when the correct exposure for the lights, and the correct exposure for the ambient light will only be about ten minutes at most. You’ll know you are done when the sky is black, and the separation between it and the neon are lost.


The value of image stabilization

Probably one of the greatest improvements in camera technology of late is image stabilization. Some camera companies have their system in the camera, some place it in the lens itself. Either way, the concept works really well.

In the past, the rule of thumb was that the lowest shutter speed you could handhold a camera at and not have movement was the inverse of the focal length of the lens you were working with. For example, if you were shooting with a 50 mm lens, you could shoot at 1/50 second. And if you were shooting with a 100 mm lens, you would have to shoot at 1/100 or higher. The problem with that is you might have or go to a faster film (or raise the ISO setting if shooting digitally). The sacrifice you made was increased grain with film, or noise with digital.

Well, with image stabilization a little gyro inside a lens, or mechanism inside the camera figures out how much shake you are introducing into the situation and compensates. The results are impressive, sometimes allowing you to shoot at shutter speeds four stops lower than without image stabilization.

Here are some examples I shot with a Canon 24-105 ƒ4L IS USM lens. If I were shooting this handheld without image stabilization, I would probably use 1/100 or 1/125 as my shutter speed. It’s a bit hard to see online, but when I look at the example at 1/30 there is definitely some softness from camera shake. At 1/15 and 1/8, it is quite noticeable. But with image stabilization turned on, even the exposure at 1/8 sec. is tack sharp. I’ve gained full four stops! Again, the advantage here is that you would not have to raise your ISO to capture an image where the light levels are low, or you need more depth of field. That means less noise in a digital file, or grain if you are shooting film and have to go to a faster one. And that translates into better photographs.

So if you have the option in purchasing cameras or lenses with this technology, I highly recommend looking into it.


Analysis of a shoot part II-The shoot day

Having done the scout, I called the actor and asked him to meet me at the location at 7:30 AM, a little bit before the time when I think the light will be the most dramatic. When he arrives, we look at wardrobe, and we select something that feels casual, but elegant. Once he changes, we are in the window for light, and ready to go.

I start the shoot with him standing next to the edge of the building. Giving him a solid physical reference point is an easy way to get him warmed up since he has something he can lean against, and work off of.

The beginning of the session is, in my opinion, the most interesting part of the whole shoot because it’s when you establish the way you will work together. Not unlike meeting someone socially for the first time, it takes a little bit of time to get comfortable with each other, and understand how you will communicate. To get great images, it’s important to create a positive, encouraging environment where the subject is willing to relax, open up to the camera, and be creative.

I’ll generally start with things that don’t require a lot of the person, but are more about light and form. As we progress, I’ll encourage the subject, and compliment them on how they are performing. This invariably makes them more responsive, and as they soften, I’ll ask a bit more of them. “Smile. Make the expression more tender. Grit your teeth and make me feel like you are looking right through me.”

Giving good direction makes your subject feel confident that they are good hands, so even if you are not sure of what you want, make a suggestion with confidence. And if it doesn’t work, go on to the next idea. The key is to keep moving, and create a rhythm that propels you forward. All the while, look for the lighting, expressions and camera angles that will fulfill the concept you started with.

In the end, we worked for about two hours, feeling like we had explored all the possibilities the locations provided, and had a lot of fun along the way.


Analysis of a shoot part I-Concept and Scout

How you approach a shoot clearly affects the images you get, so I thought it would be good to walk you through how I do a shoot from start to finish. The benefit is the same whether you are shooting a portfolio image for an actor, or intending to take a special picture of a friend or family member.

The first order of business is to come up with a concept for the image (or images) you are going to produce. What do you want to say about the person? Do you want to show their physical attributes? Their sense of humor? Their state of mind? I keep a reference file on my computer with images of paintings, sculptures and photographs that inspire me. The goal is not to copy, but rather to spur the thinking process.

Once you’ve got your idea in mind, think about the lighting and background that will serve those ideas best. Should the location be indoors or outdoors? Would hard or soft lighting be better?

Next, if I’m shooting on location, I’ll do a scout of potential sites. Sometimes you can set the shoot time based on the light at the location, but sometimes it is based on your subjects’ schedule. I take that into account in choosing the time of day to scout. I may not know a location at all, so in that case I will go there whenever it is convenient, and while shooting take good notes with compass headings and reference points. Many cameras have built in microphones, so I’ll shoot a picture, then say something like “Looking northeast from the the landing on the south side of the building, three feet from the left front edge of the first bench.” If the location is a broad landscape without a lot of obvious manmade landmarks, I’ll carry a GPS unit with me and mark the spots I shoot. In that case I would add “Shot at Waypoint 5.” New on the scene are devices that sync GPS positioning to specific images on your media card. I hope to test this technology and report on that soon.

Since I travel a lot, I also make sure I have the correct time set in my camera so I know when the scout picture was shot. All digital cameras will display the time and lens information in the EXIF files, so I can duplicate the look when I come back.

Since I did not know the actor I was going to shoot in advance, I set up a phone call in which we could talk a little bit about who he was, and how he was being positioned for roles. Based on that, I decided to shoot at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where I could look for simple, graphic backgrounds that would give a sense of place, but make him the hero of the image. I always look for something people can relate to. That is, if I give them a wall or a tree, it gives them something to work with to create line and shape. It also makes it easier for talent to get into the session if they have a prop than if you have them just stand in open space.

Here are a few of the scout images.