The anatomy of an annual report shoot.

I shot this job last month and I wanted to post a few pictures and talk about it but there's this thing called "an embargo".  It basically means that you can't (ethically) use the images you shot until your client uses them first or gives you their express permission to use them.  It's part of the professional ethics that you need to practice to make sure you'll have clients in the future.  I had lunch today with the client and she gave me her permission to show photos and to blog about the job.  I knew she would because she understands the power and benefits of long term collaborations.

The client is a quasi governmental agency that plans and builds roadways and toll roads in and around central Texas.  Their core mission is to provide sensible solutions to our traffic problems and to make sure there will be the right kinds of roads in the right places to support the city's growth.  Every year we do an annual report that showcases what they've done and what they plan to do.  In the recent past we've won significant awards for Annual Reports from various professional organizations and we've gotten good at reading each other and playing to our strengths.

If you are new to professional photography this is the kind of client I think you would want.  My direct contact has the responsibility for designing and producing the printed document and repurposing our work on their website.  Before we started the project we had a planning breakfast together in which we went over the goals of the project, the time line, the look and the styles that she wanted to include.  If every client did this kind of pre-planning there would be fewer spinning wheels and a lot more efficiency....

We wanted to showcase the people who do the actual work on projects.  We also wanted to convey that the agency had created several "shovel ready" projects in central Texas that would benefit local companies.  The companies who do the real work.

Our challenges were limited to the weather conditions in Austin.  We completed the job in six long days, mostly during the end of July, and our biggest problem was the heat index.  Nearly all of the shots were exteriors and the temperatures ranged in the low 100's (farenheit).  This meant that we would need to work quickly and efficiently.  We were working on active construction sites so hard hats and reflective safety vests were a must.

The shot above is our very first shot of the project.  This is one of the supervisors for a company that digs foundations for, and then builds forms and pours the concrete pillars that support overpasses and flyovers.  We arrived mid-afternoon when the mercury hit 102 and the humidity was nearly 100%.  We could see those tall, threatening thunderheads moving in from the northwest.  I set up quickly and did about 60 variations in the space of eight to ten minutes, sweat dripping down my hands.  The rain did hit and we started to wrap up and put stuff away.  The Elinchrom Ranger I was using got splattered but never paused and never went down.

So,  how did I set this up?  I used a Canon 7D with a 15-85mm IS lens.  I put it on a tripod so I could step away from the camera, invite the art director to inspect the image on the screen and then step back in without worrying about the framing being disturbed.  I floated a sixty inch umbrella with a black cover over the top of the subject's head to cut any direct sun (which kept coming in and out.....).  It's on a heavy duty Lowell stand that's straddling a trench.  I used an Elinchrom Ranger RX AS pack on half power thru a head that was covered with a quarter CTO filter and shoved into a small (16x20) softbox.  My method was to meter for the glowering sky and then set the light from the flash about 2/3rds of a stop higher.

By filtering the flash with a quarter CTO (an orange filter) I was able, in the raw conversion, to bring his face back to neutral which drove the sky into a deeper blue.  That gave me the color contrast I was craving and would try to use for the rest of the project.  (Reference the white on the logo on the helmut before telling me that his face still looks warm.  This is Texas and a lot of us who work outside have excited more melanin than most pasty northerners will in a lifetime.....).  The challenge is to find a balance between the background and foreground that is believable.

This is the look we were hoping to get.  I will tell you that when you work in temperature extremes there is a great temptation to "call it" too early.  By that I mean that you get so uncomfortable that you start to think,  "this is close enough.  I'll fix it in post".  This is a mistake.  You should never walk away from a set up until you are sure you've got exactly what you want.  My goal is to make a shot that I could convert to Jpeg and give to the client on the spot and still be proud.  We shot this in raw and did a little PP but not much.  We stayed until I had it.

To her everlasting credit the client hung right in there and never, for a moment, suggested that we should move on.  Figures.  She runs distance races and practices around our hike and bike trail regardless of the elements.  We finished this shot and then moved on to the next location.  And the next location.  All at 102 degrees or better.

In a week no one remembered the misery of the location.  We were all thrilled with the sixty or seventy different variations we'd done of the twelve or so set ups.  The sweaty shirts got washed.  The mud covered shoes were cleaned off.  We stood under the garden hose to cool off.  The project is in production.  I'm happy I can share it now.

A few shooting notes from central Texas:  We used the Canon 7D because we knew it was about to rain most of the week and that camera is both a good performer and weather sealed.  I made good use of the 15-85 because it allowed me to do a lot of different looks without having to change lenses amidst the dust storms that roadway construction sites can become.

I use the Elinchrom Ranger RX AS because it is designed for use in  rough conditions and always has enough power to overcome direct sun.  At first we recharged every day but as I became more and more trusting of the Elincrhom gear I started charging up every two or three days.  The batteries in these things are amazing.

The trusty Honda Element took anything that a pick up truck could handle without a complaint.  Certainly this is one of the ultimate photographer's vehicles.  If I could custom design one it would have some racks for light stands and maybe a built in water cooler....

I'll post some more shots from the project over the next few days.  In the meantime I want you to know about the anti-workshop in San Antonio on the fourth of Sept.  Read about it here:  http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2010/08/free-low-key-event-for-anyone-who-wants.html

I want to tell you that these long sleeve shirts are amazingly protective......

And I want to thank my client for their support and creative spirit.  We're on to another project now but this will go down as the best project I've worked on this season.

All the best,  Kirk

If you work in the sun, get good shirts.  Here and here.

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Daniel said...

"low 100's" = oxymoron

I feel your pain Kirk I'm just an hour away...

Nice images, the clouds turned out great, thanks for the insight and yes I wish that I could find a few clients like these.

Sheygetz said...

Great post - very interesting to get these hands-on impressions. Your mix of insightful, though-provoking and the plain "nice" atmo thing that you do so well, is very special and makes for a wonderful read. Thanks.

Btw - the 15-85mm is not sealed though, is it, so that would be a potential weak spot in torrential rain?

Anonymous said...

Kirk, great post. Quick question: how exactly do you "float" a 60" umbrella over a construction worker's head on a job site? Is this a boom stand or just a c stand? I assume there was no wind, or do you have massive sandbags? I'd love to know how you did this and if it was indeed a boomstand.


kirk tuck said...

C-stand with an arm and a clamp head. five to ten mile per hour breezes means three, twenty pound sand bags. Gotta keep em out of the sun.....the subjects, that is....

kirk tuck said...


I don't worry too much about the lenses. It's always a compromise but having a long range and not having to change lenses is a good thing when out it the elements. I put a hand over the lens when it's raining. If it's really bad I get someone to hold a hard hat over it.

Robert said...

I thrive in the heat, I love the scorching desert, but I admire your ability to work in such high humidity, along with that heat.

Kurt Shoens said...

When I first saw the images, I just thought they looked great. Then I read about the 1/4 CTO on the flash and I did a double-take. The gel really gives a nice subtle color shift to the sky.

I was in Austin most recently in August 2009 and the weather was as you described for this job. I got a little time to photograph late one afternoon and sought shade wherever possible. Then I saw guys like your subject out doing road work (on asphalt!). Just another day at work for them!

Your San Antonio low-key get together sounds great, but it's a 1700 mile drive for me. I should take the opportunity to get off my good intentions and devote a full day to looking for pictures. It's crazy, but I was feeling envious of the locations other people are shooting. Then I thought about the variety available to me within an hour's drive.

The film picture of Belinda gave me the thought of shooting color print film for a day. I shot some recently and was amazed at how forgiving it is of things like color temperature and exposure. No worrying about the blinkies! I don't do my own film processing or scanning. Less control, but on the other hand, less to worry about.