It's not "what you took with you" it's "where you've been."

A ceiling detail from the Alexander Palace in Pushkin, Russia. 1995

Dead of winter. Blizzard conditions outside. The one thing Russia had plenty of in 1995 was petroleum and the one thing they shared all over the country was heat. I've never been  hotter than in a Russian public building in the dead of winter. I was part of a survey team from the World's Monuments Fund. We were analyzing the very last palace of the Czars. This is shot with a Hasselblad SWC/M.  It was a specialized, wide angle medium format camera that had a permanently attached 38mm Zeiss Biogon lens on the front, a bright-line optical viewfinder in the accessory shoe and an A-12 film back on the read end. There was also a bubble level on the camera.  The system was sharp and distortion free.

All we had back then was film and film cameras. All the camera info is in a little notebook that I kept while I was in the St. Petersburg area in February of 1995. I brought home so many better memories than of what was at the end of my camera strap. It was the people I met and the sights I saw that stick with me. Curators and guards, translators and professors. 

In the end it may be what you take with you on assignment, but I certainly am not referring to cameras and lenses and power packs. I am referring to all the experience and vision you have already packed in your head. Just a thought.  And actually, that's the most valuable commodity today-----just a thought.

Spa Shoot. Fun Shoot. More Like These, Please

Cured Greek Olives on Flaky Pastry Crust with Carmellized Onions and Herbs.
50mm 1.4 Sony. Handheld.

I tend to write about the big, exciting event shoots because I perceive that it's what you want to read about, but my favorite shoots are the kind where I drop into a business or a project and try to capture the essence of the people, the space and the products in a less frantic and more measured pace. So today I thought I'd write about one of my favorite shoots from the last quarter, my website project for the Spa at The Lake, here in Austin, Texas.

I did this job before I acquired the a99 and, in looking back I am almost surprised a what a proficient and transparent tool the a77 cameras have turned out to be. For this job I packed simply. A bag of cameras and a bag of small, LED panels that run off batteries. I packed two Sony a77's, the Sigma 10-20mm lens, the 16-50mm Sony lens, the 50mm 1.4 Sony lens and the 85mm 2.8 Sony lens. Three small Manfrotto micro light stands and my wooden, Berlebach tripod.

We worked on a cold Sunday. We choose that day as one on which the Spa was least busy.  I worked without an assistant but with a very bright art director. We did the whole shoot as a stream of conscious exercise. We knew we'd need a frame work of shots, the "must haves" but we kept our eyes constantly moving; looking for nuance and new angles.  Because in projects about beauty and brands every detail tells part of the story.

Cucumber Infused Mineral Water. 85mm 

A great example is something as simple as the jug of water above. I saw it and immediately cleared clutter out from behind it. The jug is lit solely by direct sun. No reflectors or diffusers. And it's one of my favorite shots. I like it even more since I tasted the water. The infusion of cucumber is subtle but so refreshing. I can taste it now whenever I see this image.

Dressing Rooms. 16-50mm

Part of the assignment was to document all of the facilities. Interior architecture with and without people. The dressing room shot is simple. I like the inclusion of the blue towels on the orange stool. We used all three of the LED panels to make the shot. The setup took just a few minutes because we could gauge light placement so quickly with the continuous light sources. The lights were the Fotodiox 312AS panels that I've written about so often.

Olive Pastry from the Artisanal Bistro. 50mm 1.4

The Spa at the Lake is located in a shopping center just off the entrance to the Lakeway community that sits next to Lake Travis. In the same shopping center is one of my favorite recent restaurant finds, The Artisanal Bistro (and bakery). The restaurant is run by and cooked for by a chef was professionally trained in France. The Spa's owner had our snacks and lunch catered by The Artisanal Bistro and it's probably the best food I've ever had in a shoot that wasn't directly engaged by a restaurant! I drove back out a few weeks later to have dinner there with Belinda and we are now officially addicted. Funny how the message of comfort and luxury ends up being reflected by all the little touches, like wonderful food or fresh flowers in all the treatment rooms.

Sony a77, 16-50mm 

When I work with locations that have good natural light coming through the windows or really good interior lighting design and implementation I try to use the LED panels just to fill and reinforce the intention of the existing light. My goal in most advertising shots is to show off the product or the person and to make the lighting look as though it's all natural; even when I have two or three fixtures on at once. Having lights with changeable color temperatures and infinitely adjustable output levels makes it easy to use your eyes to carefully supplement what is already there.

Bread, Dates, Preserves and Cheeses. Craft Service Snack.

Yes, they did serve a very nice red wine with our afternoon snack. As the day went on we photographed women getting manicures, couples getting massages, people having their hair done and a number of spa treatments. In all I delivered about 24 set ups with people in the spaces and about 10 nice details that we just grabbed as we went along during the day.

A Bit of Hair Craft Before the Final Photographs.


The image above was done in one of the massage rooms and we were able to mix LED panels with the existing incandescent lights almost seamlessly. The image was shot at ISO 160 with the 16-50mm lens at f4. The shutter speed was down around and 1/8th of a second but it didn't matter, this was hardly and "action" shot.

A Post-Massage Glass of White Wine overlooking the Hill Country.

The Spa has a beautiful deck with a sweeping view of one of Austin's nicest golf courses so we wanted to include exterior shots as well. I built a small softbox from the three LED panels and balanced the color temperature in order to add a bit of fill even outdoors in open sun.  If we needed to control contrast even more I was ready to put up a large one stop diffuser between our model and the sunlight.

An Alternate Use for Cukes.

The Sony a77 gets a bad rap for having too much noise in high ISO situations. But it's not entirely true. The image just above, with the model and her cucumber eyes was shot at ISO 1600 but the LED panels, set at a color temperature of around 4400K seems to help keep noise out of the blue channel and decrease the overall appearance of chromatic noise. I wrote a blog many years ago talking about how little of the blue spectrum exists in incandescent light and how it causes cameras to over amplify the blue color channels to compensate for the deficiency. It's the amplification of the blue channel signals that causes the appearance of noise in digital files. That's why shooting a digital camera at high ISO's in bright daylight doesn't illicit the same noise effects as shooting in low light situations that are lit mostly by orangey-red light bulbs. In the old days we used to add corrective blue filters to our higher ISO shots. We'd lose a stop but gain back maybe two stops in noise control. When you did the math we were generally one stop better off than with an unfiltered light (82C).

Professional Photographers and Art Directors do break for lunch.

My most used tools in this project were the 16-50mm lens, the LED panels and the tripod. Everything else could have largely been interchanged with Canon or Nikon product and done just as well. But it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun. I just can't go back to the optical finders. Not enough feedback. Not enough information.

On another note my friend, Frank, met me for coffee yesterday and surprised me by pulling two really cool lenses out of his camera bag.  He shoots with Olympus OMD EM-5 cameras and has all the cool prime lenses. Well, now he also has the two, new Panasonic zoom lenses that I consider the first truly professional zooms for mirrorless cameras, the 12-35 2.8 and the 35-100mm 2.8. He was indulgent and let me play with them for a while. I can only say that I wish it were possible to use these on the Sony Nex cameras. They cover the 24-70 and the 70-200 focal lengths that are the standard gear for most working photographers. But they do it in a fraction of the size and far less than half the weight of their full size competitors.

These lenses, coupled with the soft thump of the OMD shutter have me sitting on the fence. We'll see how my will power holds out. And we'll see if Sony ramps up production on some useful, professional lenses for the system. I'll give it a little while.

Have fun out there and don't forget to stop for a nice lunch.