Spelling Bee. It's a lot like life. Distilled.

Photo above from a postcard for the Zach Scott Theater production of:  The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee.  All shot with Olympus e-3 and 40-150mm lens.  Lighting:  Profoto Studio Flash.

I've spent the last few days working on the kind of job I really love.  It's an annual report for a large governmental agency that builds roadways in central Texas.  And I love the job because it combines portraits, done on locations outside, with enormous earth moving machines and the elements.  The photo of the Spelling Bee production has nothing at all to do with the current job but when you are working on commercial projects you are usually subject to an embargo.  It basically means that you can't publicly show the work you're currently doing until the project is printed and out from the client.  But I wanted to write about a few things while they're fresh in my head, so you get to look at the photo above.

One of the things that makes this current project wonderful is that I'm working with a kindred spirit.  She's a project manager with the power to make judgement calls and not be second guessed.  She's a former English major so she gets that everything doesn't need to be linear or to rigorously follow a pre-ordained game plan.  She's open to my suggestions and I am open to hers.  If a particular shot has to be done in a particular way to appease someone further up the org chart then we usually agree to do it their way and our way.  I guess I'm just saying it's nice to collaborate instead of being tightly comped.

Instead of the old school way of trying to shoot as much as possible in an eight hour day we're working by the shot.  We all get that shooting in the heat and humidity wears us down quick and that four good shooting hours beat the hell out of the death march for the sake of the mythical "day rate."  We have a budget.  We have a schedule.  We're out for efficiency and quality.  Yesterday we started way north around 1pm.  I know this might be an affront to all the old guys out there but once again I chose not to drag an assistant around with me.

We hit the location, a big hole in the ground, and looked around.  Loved the big earth moving machines and the poured concrete pillars that will someday soon be an overpass or span.  That would be our background.  Our brief on this location was a photo of the very experienced concrete expert.  I lit the guy from about six feet away with an Elincrhom Ranger RX AS pack and one head.  The head was fired through an Elinchrom Varistar which is a small, (32 inch) shoot through umbrella box.  I taped a one quarter CTO filter over the flash head to warm up all the light that the flash provided in the photo.  I set the exposure so the flash would be two thirds of a stop brighter than the ambient exposure.  Not too tough since we had massive clouds and it was threatening rain.  It took me three attempts to tape the filter on the unit as the humidity was near 100 % and the sweat would drip down my arm and slurp across the front of the filter gel.  Eventually I got everything to stick together and we took off and did some images.  The reason for the 1/4 CTO is to make the foreground subject a bit warmer than the (in this instance) glowering sky in the background.  When I take the images into PhotoShop and correct for the color temperature on the subject's face the background goes a nicer shade of blue.  The contrast is more interesting.

I shot with the Canon 7D instead of the Canon 5d2 because the 7 syncs slightly faster, 1/250th versus 1/200.  I've also come to appreciate the flexibility of the 15 to 85mm EFS zoom lens which only works on the smaller sensor cameras.  I shot most of the images at 1/250 with an f-stop ranging between f11 and f14.  The camera was locked at ISO 100.  And I will say that at ISO 100 all cameras are good.  The 18 megapixels in the 7 are certainly enough for a double truck spread, if my designer goes in that direction....  The 15-85mm might not be one of Canon's "L" lenses but when you apply all of the auto lens correction in the cameras and in Lightroom 3 it's performance is nothing to sneeze at.  Everything I've inspected, at 100%, is sharp and meaty.

I've been using Sandisk Ultra UDMA 8 gig cards in the 7d and find the throughput to be a whole world of difference vis-a-vis the older versions of CF cards.  When shooting full RAW files the camera writes the files in less than half the time when compared to the fastest of my previous selection of cards.

As we progressed through the day we put the Elinchrom in some nasty situations.  Down in a freshly dug twelve foot deep trench where the contractors were laying pipe,  on freshly dug up dirt,  and on the edges of concrete pours----always in high ambient temperatures----with nary a misfire.  The real test came with a freak downpour and thunderstorm.  The pack was splattered with fat raindrops and the surface it was resting on instantly pooled about 1/2 inch of water.   The head was mostly inside a softbox so I was less worried about it.  The plug covers worked and the engineering that places the battery in the bottom of the box but the connectors in the middle also worked.  The top cover is gasketed and uses touch switches which are also sealed.  I wiped the unit off with a rag and, as soon as the rain stopped, we were back in the business of banging out photons.

The other interesting thing about the big Elinchrom pack is this;  we got at least 600 half power flashes over the course of the last two days without drawing down the power indicator from full.  From my experience we would have been through the Profoto battery on the Acute 600b at least four times in the same shooting situation.

When shooting in sunlight I've learned to do two things to make the shoot work better.  First, I put up a 4x4 foot black panel, centered behind the camera.  This means the subject will have something dark to rest their eyes on and I think it helps prevent blinking and squinting.  I also "fly" a black panel over the subject's head to shade them from hot, nasty, direct sun which enhances the directional look of the softbox light from my Elinchrom set up.  If we do anymore shoots that last more than an hour in the sun I'll start bringing white umbrellas and light stands to provide shade for me and for the art director.

Several shots required me to climb over really, really rough ground, through some mud and up the side of a mountain of dirt.  I thought about taking the Elinchrom but I just didn't feel like dragging the kit and two twenty pound sandbags and 1/8th of a mile, uphill, so I took a Canon 580ex2, covered with a 1/4 CTO, nestled inside a small Speedlight Prokit softbox (maybe six inches by 10 inches of the front?)  and used the flash/camera's ability to do FP flash.  By this time the clouds had all but occluded the sun so the flash didn't have to make any really heroic efforts.  I was using an aftermarket TTL cord that gives me eight feet of leeway and the PR person who accompanied us on this particular day kindly agreed to act as a mobile light stand.

We have about five more days of shooting to do on this project and I'm really looking forward to them.  As a bonus, the marketing director tells me that on two of the days we'll actually be shooting in interior locations.  How wonderful is that?



Jon Yoder said...

Interesting idea on having a black panel behind the camera--I never heard of that. Do you see much of a difference when using it or when not using it?

Love you blog. I really like your writing style and your non-bias to any one camera brand. Keep up the great work!

kirk tuck said...

Jon, When you are working outside in the sun anything that can reduce glare and high light levels in your subject's site line is a big help. I use a black panel over the top of the subject to cut down of direct light into his eyes and to provide some shade. The secondary effect is to accentuate the direction quality of the light I'm adding. A benefit is that it keeps the subject cooler and more comfortable.

The black panel behind the camera was a big help because otherwise my subject would be staring out at a big hill of bright rock. The bigger the panel the better the effect.

Dave Jenkins said...

I don't use assistants much either, but sounds to me like you could have used a good assistant on this one, Kirk.

kirk tuck said...

Dave, Right in the middle of the first day I was thinking that. We're shooting at another rough site in 102 degrees monday. I think I'll bring along an assistant on that. Hope they can handle the heat....

Hate to spend the day rushing an assistant to the hospital for heat exhaustion.....