What I learned on the job yesterday.

I've been talking about the growing likelihood that traditional photography and video would collide and change the nature of the creative content market profoundly and permanently for photographers and, for me, it seems to be happening this year. I worked on a project yesterday and when we started talking about the parameters and fleshing out the brief with the client a few weeks ago the project was centered around the idea that we'd be shooting lots of stills for a rotating banner on their website. They tentatively asked about video and we said that we could do interviews and additional content called, "b-roll" that we could use to edit into the interviews to make them more dramatic. Over time the project changed from one that was still image intensive to one that is more video intensive.

Instead of spending most of the day looking for great still shots the time ended up being almost evenly divided between shooting stills and setting up and shooting video interviews and b-roll.

On the day of the shoot I made sure we packed a case with sound equipment which included a little Beachtek mixer that also matches the impedance of balanced, XLR connected microphones to the input impedance of my a99 camera. The little box is passive, meaning no battery power, but it does a good job managing the interconnection of professional, powered condenser microphones to what is basically a consumer level interface on the camera.

I debated a bit about which microphone to use to record my interviewees. A nice lavalier solves a lot of problems but, in the end, I didn't want any mike showing in the scene so I opted for a shotgun microphone at the end of a pole and used a Rode NTG-2 as my first choice. (Please don't write and tell me to take the microphone off the camera. As I said, we used it on a pole. The image above is just a quick way to show the "moving parts.") I packed extra cables and batteries as well as several back up microphones, just in case. The sound we got was good and detailed and Ben got it in nice and close which minimized the usual, office background noise. 

We were shooting broad spaces for the photography so lighting was very secondary in that regard but it was critical for the video. That being the case we knew we'd rely on continuous lighting so we brought two choices. We packed two large, florescent panels along with some nice diffusion cloths and we brought along four of the Fotodiox AS 312 LED panels with adjustable color temperatures. Ben and I used the LEDs, handheld, to pop a little light across glass or into dark spaces while we shot. We used the two, big, four tube per fixture florescent panels for our video set ups. They actually kicked out enough soft light so we could shoot with the (highly tinted) windows behind our subjects and show downtown in the background.  I thought we needed to travel light so I took intermediate sized light stands. They aren't really stable enough when the florescent panels need to go high. Next time I'll pack heavy duty stands for the fluorescent lights. We didn't have any issues but it sure made me nervous to see the lights sway a little bit next to floor to ceiling window, sixteen stories up.... This falls under: Sturdy stands trump lightweight travel. 

We packed one fluid head tripod and one tripod with a three way pan head. In retrospect, since everything we shot may end up as a 16:9 banner on a website and everything will be emphatically horizontal, we should have packed two fluid head tripods so that both of us could shoot various video footage separately. Even in the locked down shots of interior architecture (and there were many) we could have shot our stills and then unlocked the pan control and done a slow, controlled pan to use as a cutaway in our video editing. 

I don't shoot a lot of architecture anymore but at one time in my career I used a couple of Linhof TechniKarden 4x5 view cameras and a couple of wide lenses (75mm and 90mm) and shot tons and tons of interiors and exteriors for a magazine called, Early American Life. For a span of ten years or so I shot a lot of transparencies for them. If we needed to see a window in the scene and we wanted detail outside (we always did) we had to raise the ambient light level in the interior with strobes to balance. We'd always let the light go one stop hotter outside than inside. You could do that back then because film didn't just default to 255 and go white. It gracefully gave in to over exposure....

On this job I shot about fifteen shots that featured floor to ceiling windows with views of downtown Austin. Our working method now is to shoot a perfect frame for the exterior followed by a perfectly exposed frame for the interior and then we stack them in photoshop and paint in the window detail. I like working in layers this way because it makes it easier to control apparent depth of field by being able to blur the outdoor layer to tone down distance details and return emphasis onto the interior space. So far, in post production, this method is quick, easy and kind of fun. 

I learned to use my grid lines and the bubble level on my fluid head. If you have to pick one it's good to be consistent and depend on just one reference so that all your post production corrections are done with one angle change or one lens correction parameter. If you go back and forth between checking the internal levels and checking the tripod level one or the other will be off and you'll be zigging and zagging all over PhotoShop to correct them.

If you are transitioning to offering video it's cool to shoot ten seconds of video once you've got your still shot. The frames come in handy when you are editing and you know people are tired of seeing a talking head on camera. Intercutting related images breaks up the visual boredom. We roll ten seconds of video at the end of every still set up. Just to have it in the can. 

I did a stupid thing on Tues. (the day of the shoot).  I wore a white shirt. It was a really nice white shirt with collar stays and it was well tailored but....it was white and as I mentioned we spent a lot of time shooting into floor to ceiling windows...which reflect a lot of bright stuff from the interior space. Bright things like white shirts. I hate cloning out my shiny, shimmering white torso...Save yourself some time and wear you BLACK shirt when you shoot in shiny spaces. You'll have a lot less to mess with in post.

I learned that no matter how organized you are that by the end of the day you'll get tired and forget something. For video I keep a check list next to the camera and I've become manic about making sure the little red light on the camera is flashing to indicate that the camera is recording. It's hard to always remember when you stopped and when you started and it's embarrassing to get a really good take and then reach over to turn off the movie mode on the camera only to discover that you never pushed to start. 

We were organized but we forgot one thing. There's a great client logo/sign as you step off the elevator into their lobby. The client and I talked about the sign and Ben and I talked about the sign and we walked past it at least ten times on the shooting day. But we never shot it. After I do the post on about 120 shots I'm heading back downtown to shoot the darn lobby sign. Can't believe I didn't spend five minutes doing it on Tues. and now will spend more travel time and what not to grab the shot after the fact....In the future we'll write up and official shot list and check off stuff as we go. I've done so many shoots in my career they all blend together and it's hard to remember what  you did and didn't get. A list is helpful.

Finally, I learned that I still love the problem solving, people directing and general sense of discovery that comes with every shoot we do these days. I learned about a new industry. I had fun solving the interior/exterior set ups. I enjoyed directing people in their interviews and I had a blast having lunch at a downtown coffee shop with the kid.  Photography is still a wonderful and engaging career. And work keeps coming in. I'm loving it.

Bottom line? When you keep learning you stay engaged and attracted to projects. When you think you know it all you should stop and change careers. 



G Gudmundsson said...

Wonderful story, thank you.... good to see that you are growing :-)

Jeffrey L Minch said...

Great stuff.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thank you!

Joe Gilbert said...

I love the inclusion of foibles in your stories, they are great teaching points. I had an attorney that worked for me a few years ago. Incredibly bright and ambitious, she wanted to shoot surveillance and as luck would have it she missed the red light on her first assignment resulting in her recording her dashboard, and turning off the recorder every time she brought it up on target. It was an eyeopener for her.

What many consider simple and menial, is neither when you add all the details and consider the stress involved in creating a finished product. Checklists are invaluable.

John Flores said...

Shooting video - with all the new things to learn and all the amateur mistakes to learn from and all the researching gear and technique and all the new challenges to consider and solve - makes me feel young again, like when I first started taking pictures.