Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Knowing when to cut & run


Had an important “assignment” to shoot a portrait. Plan A went bad, but had a backup at the ready. More after the jump.

Ok, here’s the situation (my moms & dad left on a weeks vacation): Last week my boss gives me a photo mission – re: Shoot a portrait of Barbra, our senior Design faculty who is getting ready to retire. “We need something very nice. You know, make her look wonderful.”

Ahh – specifics.

Quick background: Barbra is the most senior faculty member of my department. In fact, there’s a good chance she might be the most senior faculty in the entire University. And I’m not talking about age here… Barbra’s been with the University some 40 years. Working at the same place for most of the time I’ve been alive. You just gotta respect that. She’s done costume design for just about everyone and everything; from working with Remero on Creepshow to designing costumes Mister Rogers' Neighborhood; and a vast, seemingly endless array of TV, movies, and theatre.

So yeah – gotta take this seriously.

And I did. Barbra’s world is our costume shop, so that’s the first place my mind went to. Figgure a nice environmental portrait, with sewing machines and costume mannequins in the background. Make the picture about her, but fill in the space with all the things that make up her professional world.

Ok, all well and good. I made a few visits to the costume shop; found a nice corner from which to shoot; did all the requisite pre-viz of the shot... The shop was naturally filled with all the aforementioned props, and is banked on two sides with giant windows. My plan was to kill a lot of that natural light with my shutter, then build it back up flashes – just like the book says. So far so good.

But I can be a real nervous Nelly when it comes to a shot of any importance (and despite the um... specifics from my boss, I knew his expectations were high so I was treating this like a Papal bull). Point is: Best have a backup plan if it all goes bad (spoiler alert! It will).

My backup plan consisted of finding an auxiliary empty room, and setting up a neutral gray background. This would be my “in case of rain” go-to place and – if everything did go well and time permitted – allow me to shoot some other various looks to give my boss options.

Cut to shooting comma actual:

I arrive 45 minutes early to setup the space and my lights. One of our students had kindly agreed to be my assistant – so setup was easy. Used same for test shots/tweeking. Everything is looking good. Barbra shows up, we spend a few minutes talking, and I move her into place. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the moment it all goes bad.

So Barbra wears glasses. Glasses can cause all kinds of grief but you learn to work around it. Actually, what you learn is the angle of incidence / angle of reflection rule. Actually, what you learn is put your key light up high and angled down. That solves the issue 90% of the time. So that’s exactly what I did when I looked at my first test shot of Barbra and saw her glasses reflecting. Much to my amazement doing that didn’t help matters much, if at all. Hurmm… move the light. Nope. Move Barbra, nope. Every shot I take has just a metric ton of reflection in her glasses, almost totally obscuring her eyes.

After long frantic moments I realize that it’s not my flash causing the reflection but the enormous windows that cover two full sides of the costume shop. Windows that DON’T HAVE BLINDS (who the… what the…). Ok, I think – move to the sides of the room that don't have any windows. Quick look tells me that there is not really a flattering view, + now I’ve got windows in the background that will dictate the exposure. And… and… I’ve got my subject waiting on her photo with my precious little plan is now absolutely nowhere. Errrrr...

McNally has one of my all-time favorite quotes: “On location, never go audible with your interior desperation”. It’s Mr. Miyagi like wisdom like that which makes him a genius. Deep breath… explain (calmly) to Barbra what it going on. Be honest but brief: There is a problem with the reflection, but it's not her fault. Give me a moment to work this out.  Look... Think. Along one wall in the shop is this giant “card catalogue” of buttons for costumes. Re-set lights. Grab mannequin. Go.


Shot for maybe five minutes with this setup. It’s ok, but I’m not thrilled. Don’t like the disconnected hand, and can’t think of a way to connect her to the mannequin that is less contrived. Ok then, drop back and punt.

We move to the (dear lord thank you) backup room with pre-set gray background. Use words that make it sound like it was part of the plan. (Quickly) set up one AB1600 in my go to 25” Westcott Apollo softbox, one more behind Barbra pointing at the background. How many looks can you get from this setup changing only one light?

Overpower the bg for pure white.

Dial it down with a 20 degree gridspot.

Color that gridspot blue with gel still in bag from last week’s shoot 
(and that just happens to match the jacket she’s wearing).

So the moral is always have a backup plan. Sure, going with something safe isn't always the most creative choice - but it's a heck of a lot better than blowing it. Also, when the clock is ticking sometimes you gotta ditch your plan, good bad or otherwise. Also, don't run with scissors, or give an Irishman cause.

Badda-bing, badda-boom, badda End of Line.

1 comment:

  1. This is hilarious and wonderful, not only as an insight to your process, but also because I spent a lot of time in that costume shop, and I would imagine it being nearly impossible to get a good portrait done in there. I'm also just happy to see that "card catalog of buttons" again. Great post, Lou, thanks for sharing!