10.18.2011

Performance Anxiety. Photographically speaking.

I don't know about you but there are times when I'm faced with the prospect of either shooting famous people or people I feel very privileged to shoot (two very different categories) and the pressure to do everything right, and quickly, gives me a large dose of anxiety.  If I am shooting a captain of industry like Michael Dell I know I'll need to work fast, deal with a layer or two of handlers, and that I might not get more than five minutes with him to do all I need to do to make what I'd like to be an interesting and print-worthy image.  When you add something more to the mix, like the political head of a province  of China the pressure mounts.


Corporate "meet and greets" like this are highly staged and precisely timed.  While Mr. Dell and his guests met I set up lights in the lobby area of Dell's executive suite.  I would need to have a flexible lighting design that could accomodate a group of up to 20 executives and dignitaries, the lighting would also have to work well when I moved all the other participants out to get a few tighter shots of the two V.I.P.'s.   I defaulted to two lights on stands with medium size umbrellas.  I raised the stands up as high as I could as a precaution against getting a glare in the glasses of one of the participants.  I metered the lights to blend with the ambient light in the large room.  I don't like to test much on site in this venue because there are glass panels on the conference room doors where the meetings are taking place, adjacent to where I set up for photography and I feel like the repeated flashes are intrusive...

Just before the appointed hour and minute my anxiety rises up.  There's litany of "what if???!!!!" scenarios that start playing in my head.  What if the radio triggers don't work?  (answer:  I have a two hard sync cables standing by.)  What if one or both flashes fail?  (answer:  I have four extras plugged in and ready to go).  What if the camera fails?  What if they don't like the set up?  What if someone trips on a cable?  What if they blink in every shot?  The list goes on and on.  I start to get hot under the collar of my Haspel suite.  What if I desperately need to hit the bathroom just as they arrive?  The feeling of panic settles in.  I double check everything I can possibly double-check.  From the camera settings (WB, ISO, file format, f-stop, shutter speed, sync) to the radio trigger channels.

I've already marked the spot on the floor for the two most important subjects, calculated the EXACT exposure and written that exposure on the white tape I use just for that purpose on the bottom of my camera.  At the last minute I slip another camera over one shoulder, just in case (even though I've never had a digital camera fail.....).  By now my mouth is cotton-ball-at-the-dentist-dry and I feel just a bit queasy.  I can feel my blood pressure rise and I can hear the pulse in my carotid artery.

Then the doors open and the performance has to start.  I'm moving people into place with as much deference and grace as I can.  Always mindful that the clock is ticking and whether or not I get what I need doesn't even enter into the scheduling equation.  Execs come out from their offices to say hello and show face.  This slows us down.  I want everyone to move faster.  But there's no way to push.

Finally, I'm getting them into position and my hands on the camera are getting sweaty and my breathing shallow.  I shoot and over shoot to make sure I've got what I need.  We do a group of 25 and a group of 10 and a 2 person shot, and then shots of a gift exchange.  In seven minutes I've shot 125 raw frames.  The batteries in the flashes are holding up well.  Then, with a nod from the PR executive I acknowledge that my part of the event is irrevocably over.  The Chinese delegation will move off to waiting cars, the executives will move on to their next meetings.  I'm finally calm and as the last person leaves the lobby area I review what I've gotten on the camera's rear screen and a sense of relief and exhaustion washes over me.  Now I know I have what I need.  I didn't fail this time.  


And it's all so silly.  I've done this kind of work for decades.  And for many of those years we used unruly and tough to wrangle cameras that would never think of focusing themselves.  Flashes that had one or two wacky automatic settings that were.....eccentric... and batteries that were weaker than a mother-in-law's coffee.  We shot on unforgiving film with no time to take Polaroid tests.  And everything worked.

I think the pressure now comes from my assumption that my clients assume that modern technology is foolproof and that, given my years of experience, I'll be foolproof.  They are playing a dangerous game...


Have I ever messed up an event shot?  Not yet, but my psyche is always on guard against the first time.

19 comments:

Rey Bugia said...

Nice article Kirk, I actually have the same feeling for ALL of my shoots: sweaty hands and forehead. I normally have some kind of booboo every single shoot and had to manage on the fly. It's nice to see that you also get nervous while shooting.

Matthew said...

I like this sort of post. Gets my adrenaline going!

Frank Grygier said...

My heart is pounding. Is this what it will be like reading your novel?

kirk tuck said...

Oh Frank. The novel will be infinitely more exciting...this blog post is just a day in the life....

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Good one, Kirk, and the photo also - you managed to get the background very nice, considered its complexity. But wouldn't Michael look a bit too casual in comparison to his guest? I wonder what their thoughts would be after a period of, say, two weeks or so.

I'm asking because once I've met a former boss who's now head of another department. He's 10 or 15 years younger than me, and I told him that he's always dressed so nice, and that I would like to take his picture if he'd ever have time for that. And he looked into a mirror and said: "Me? Good looking? Oh look at the dark circles around my eyes, I look as if I'd been up too late, ..."

These execs can be more difficult than women ;-) I mean, wouldn't Michael blame it on the photographer if later he decides that he doesn't like his open shirt? And wouldn't the Chinese guest take it as an insult maybe? What's the role of you as a pro in this? Can you make suggestions?

mshafik said...

You're writing a novel? Where? When?

Timothy Gray said...

"I think the pressure now comes from my assumption that my clients assume that modern technology is foolproof and that, given my years of experience, I'll be foolproof. They are playing a dangerous game..."

Kirk, this single statement nicely sums up one of the greatest misconceptions of the digital era.

Simon Hucko said...

I'm just starting to do a few paid shoots, and I feel this way every time. Even though I've got the skills and I've been over the pre-shoot checklist multiple times and I have backups for everything, I still worry that I'm going to screw something up, or that the client won't be happy with the result.

I think a little bit of fear is good. It means that you care, and that you're aware of the impact of your work and the potential shortcomings. If you aren't nervous, especially about a big job like this, then you don't really have any skin in the game and you shouldn't be doing it.

Bold Photography said...

You just summarized the key points in "Art and Fear" ... but from a photographer's perspective, not a "paint" artist...

shojin said...

As an independent contractor, I feel performance anxiety every time I approach the point of moment of truth!

Thanks for the great post... and thanks for returning to the blog. Yours is one of (if not the) best in bread.

Ron Nabity said...

Dang, my heart was pounding by the third paragraph!

I did have a digital camera fail in the middle of a large family portrait shoot (21 people). It is not a fun experience, especially since the failure was not initially obvious.

When I realized what was up, I was happy I had an identical back-up camera at my feet. I took a deep breath, swapped bodies, double-checked settings and kept smiling and shooting.

There is no substitute for disaster planning.

kirk tuck said...

It's funny and frightening to think of a missed photograph as a "disaster." But there it is. Everything is ultimate contextualized. We're always thinking of how the small ripples might add up to a tidal wave.

Bold Photography said...

That's very true - one of my friends recently melted down on FB.. she perceived her photography and her life as a 'disaster' ... where there's no shred of evidence of a 'disaster' in there, other than how she reacted to the things happening around her.

What makes us go on and get PAST (or not) this very real fear of being on the edge of disaster is what makes us human...

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Minesh Bacrania said...

Exciting! Can't imagine how hard this kind of thing would be without having the comfort of the LCD screen us kids have nowadays. Not being able to catch people blinking.... And having to change film rolls.... Or.. worst of all... waiting hours (a whole day?!) to see if you got the shot.

e7802420-a990-11e0-a37f-000bcdcb2996 said...

Intense story.

The uninitiated assume you can perform miracles in photoshop.

Last shoot I did I had my camera overheat and one of my monolights was only firing reliably if it was at full or half power.

NeoPavlik

Dan said...

You have put into words exactally how I feel every time I shoot. It's been going on for thirty two years. I don't want it to stop. O'Keefe I think, said to become an artist you have to learn to love the paint. I think you have to learn to HATE failure.

Thank you for your return to the blog.

Paul Glover said...

Fear of failure is a powerful driving force to keep us on our toes. As long as we don't use it to excuse not doing something at all because we might fail (this is something I have to watch for in myself).

Also it beats strolling in 5 minutes before the shoot with only just enough gear to get by if nothing breaks down.

Dave said...

I stress before every shoot too. I remember some war movie where the young person readying himself for combat asked the grizzled veteran if he was afraid. The veteran said something about every time, and if someone wasn't afraid, they didn't really understand the situation!