Keller Williams Book Shoot.

It was a cold and rainy day last month when Caitlin came to my studio with a box full of books. She'd designed a new book for Keller Williams Ink, a large publisher of real estate specialty books and she wanted a whole basket full of documentation. We did the regular stuff, the single book cover, the stack of books, the interesting angle on the book and everything else you can think of. Then we embarked on massively non-parallel book arranging. Seems the book is just crying out for an arrangement similar to the domino set ups where you spend days setting up millions of dominos, knock over one and watch the rest fall over at a rapidly accelerating clip.

Our biggest challenge was stacking them without accidentally starting a book avalanche. We did them a number of different ways and even incorporated a hand into the mix. I was using a Sony a99 with the Sigma 70mm macro lens. We lit our set with a combination of the new fluorescent lights because it's so much easier to arrange still life shots when you operate in the "what you see is what you get" mode.

The real bear was doing all the clipping paths. Beware of having too many image design ideas because your client may not want to choose and you may get stuck creating complex clipping paths for every single variation. I didn't mind because I really did find myself appreciating my client's design sensibilities. 

When we were thru shooting and Caitlin headed back to the office I sat down and actually read the book. Pretty darn good guide to doing business but an even better guide to figuring out how to be successful in life.

Above, grappling with the sad reality that books really do fall down from time to time and, if they are ill placed they take the whole stack down with them.

The End.

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We just finished shooting this TV commercial for Zach Theatre. It's "Harvey."

It's tuesday and editor, David Munns, already has our Harvey spot ready to go. We shot the footage on Sunday morning with Martin Burke. Click on the  YouTube logo on the bottom right corner of the video frame to go directly to YouTube if you want to watch the HD version.

Nearly a dozen loyal VSL members chimed in to me personally after I wrote about shooting this video last Sunday. They were interested in trying their hands at DSLR video and the common question was: "What do I need to get started?"

I'm just at the beginning of this whole video journey myself but I'll tell you what's come in handy so far.

1. While it's wonderful to have a camera that includes a headphone jack we've done a bunch of projects with the Sony a77 and some with a Canon 5D mk2 and neither of them were so equipped.  The most important feature (as far as sound goes) for me is the microphone input and a set of manually settable level controls. The headphones are critical to hearing problems with sound as you go but there are workarounds. You can record your audio to a digital audio recorder, listen to the sound via the headphone jack and output the same sound with a "line out" or "aux" to the microphone input of your camera with a 3.5mm to 3.5mm male, stereo plug. Kind of cool because you're making a back up as you go. Honestly, all the APS-C and FF DSLR cameras can record great HD video. Even a lowly Rebel. (The Sony's are the only ones with good, fast focusing during recording...if you don't mind losing manual exposure controls..).

2. I think you'll need two different external microphones. You probably won't use them at the same time but you'll end up needing each kind sooner or later. For interviews or direct to camera content where you have a subject or actor talking to the audience a lavalier microphone is great. There are all kinds. It's sexy to get wireless radio mics but it's not necessary. People have been using cabled microphones for decades and decades, and they work. Seems like every microphone sounds different so you'll probably want to go to a store and try them out with your camera. Bring someone else along to talk so you don't end up thinking you don't like a microphone when you really just don't like the sound of your own voice.

I bought a wired Audio Technica Lavalier microphone and it sounds great. I spent about $125 and I bought it used. I also have a Sennheiser wireless system and it sounds insanely good but it was a whopping $600. Start with the wired one and move up when you find a pressing need to. The audio is not that much different.

The second kind of microphone you'll want to get is a good shotgun microphone. We use these when it's impossible to hide a lavalier mic on someone and you need to hear them well.  Contrary to popular belief they're not made to function like a telephoto lens and bring far away sound close to you.  They just tend to be good at isolating the sound of a voice right in front of you and dumping away the sound that's off access. These work great if your subject is stationary and you can carefully aim the microphone and put it on a stand. They are also great if you have someone who can hold a pole and aim the microphone for you as the person is moving and talking. Also, if you only have one microphone and you need to record a back and forth conversation you can have a person swivel the microphone back and forth between them. Plus, when equipped with the fuzzy wind sock they look so cool and all Hollywood.

Play around with your microphones and cameras until you find a need you can't fill and then start looking at things like mixers and stuff that lets you hook up several microphones simultaneously and control their levels separately.

3. Depending on what sort of video you want to shoot you'll probably need a fluid head tripod. It's just a tripod with a dampened head that allows you to pan or tilt without too many jitters or false movements. Mine cost $500 but there are many priced down in the $150 range that might work. Alternately, if you are a big spender and your wallet comes well equipped there are numerous models up to the $5000 range and over. Go play with some and see how they work before you drop big dough. A lot of successful camera movement is from practice, not the gear. Sound familiar? But the fluid head are helpful. You probably find a decent head that will fit on a tripod you already own.

4. Unless you plan to be an available light videographer you'll need some continuous lights. And if you do this commercially you'll need some big, bright ones. You can go old school and buy a bunch of tungsten hot lights pretty cheaply. You can play around with LEDs which, for big commercial video are either expensive or need a few nudges of filtration for good color, or, you can go with some of the recent fluorescent panels from Alzo, Fotodiox, KinoFlo and other.
I'm not going to tell you how to light anymore than I would tell you how to dress but I find I usually need one big main light and two or three additional fixtures for lighting up backgrounds, creating fill light or making accents. I'll assume that, if you've been shooting photography professionally, you'll already have light stands, diffusers and the like.

5. You'll need a totally different mindset from that of a photographer. Stuff really needs to move and it needs to tell a story so rather than just shooting from the hip you have to slow down and create some sort of narrative framework to use as a guide to your shooting. I found it very revealing to sit down for the first time with a non-linear video editing program and try to cobble something together. It humbled me. Still does. That's my weak spot and the area I need the most help on.

Good luck with your efforts in video. It's a nice commercial adjunct to still photography.

Tomorrow I'm doing a total immersion kind of assignment. We're shooting portraits, interviews, and some stuff they call "b-roll" which means all kinds of footage of a manufacturing process, the smiling faces of the workers and staff and the sexy detail shots that will make nice cutaways for the main body of a comprehensive video. Crazy, but it means I get to try my hand at a bit of everything that I've either studied up on or practiced in the studio. Wish me luck.

Creating a portrait of an actor. The time on the back end was always a bitch.

Actor, Woody Scaggs, was in my studio for a photo shoot we were doing for Zachary Scott Theater. The play was The Illusionist. We did all sorts of shots with a transluminated crystal ball and also with second actor. What I really wanted was a dramatic image of Woody so when we had the rest of the images in the bag I asked him if we could do a solo shot directly into the camera. 

The fun thing about photographing actors is that they seem to get what I want in my images. I can give them a thin story line or even a feeling and they translate it so well. This expression was exactly what I was looking for. I think we spent all of five minutes making this one and probably half of that was spent timing Polaroids. The image endures as one of my favorites.

What I love about it, in addition to Woody's great energy, is the interplay between the light and dark areas. I also consider the border treatment to be part of the overall image's design. The light side of his hair is contrasted by the black line running down the right edge of the frame while the dark shadow on the other side of Woody's face is offset by the bright background, and all of it is contain between undulating borders. The flaring borders were caused, in printing, by my use of a Pictrol mechanism just below the enlarger lens which flared the highlights into the shadows while non-linearly distorting and diffusing them.

The image above is a quick shot of the 16x20 inch work print in one of our flat files. When I got a good first print I would write useful information on the front and the back. On the back of the print are the exposure times under the enlarger, the toning, washing and other information, all in pencil.

There was always an investment in process when we worked with film and prints. I was never able to hit everything perfectly on the first print and, many times, when trying to mix vision and technical clumsiness I would print ten or fifteen 16 x 20's in an attempt to get everything on the paper just right. I thought about the discipline forced by process this morning. When I shot this image I worked carefully to get just the right expression but always mindful that we had some sort of budget to hew to, whether external or self-imposed. Once I was mostly sure that I'd hit the right mark I developed three or four tanks of fim. That took an afternoon. Then the film dried overnight. The next day I made two sets of contact sheets, 24 sheets in all. One set for me and one set for the client. I selected a final image and set up the dark room with oversized trays.

I went through the process of making test prints and then a final test at full size. We'd take that final test and put it out to dry. We needed to see how the paper image would look once it dried down. Prints always looked darker dry than they did in the fixer tray... If we needed quicker feedback we'd stick a chunks of the final test print in the microwave to dry it quickly.

Once we had the windage I'd go back and print iterations. Different burning and dodging methods. Different implementations of the Pictrol. Experiments with different paper grades and all the rest. Once a print came out and was as perfect as I could make it I could have 20 or more hours invested in that one artifact, not counting the shooting and prep time. Is it any wonder that we had a different regard for the final product? 

And, of course, if I put the ten prints I have of this negative side by side none of them are strictly identical. There were changes in the way my hands moved across the paper when burning and dodging. The chemicals drifted in temperature and potency over time. Even the selenium toner changed subtly from print to print. In fact, just about any hand made print from the film age could/should be considered a one off.

The contrast to that work was my documentation of the work this morning. I put the print on the floor, stood over it and shot it in the available light of my studio with a handheld Sony a58 camera. Once I knew I'd worked cooperatively with the camera's built in image stabilization I stopped shooting, walked over to my desk and stuck the card in the side of the computer, grabbed a frame and then spiffed it up a bit in PhotoShop. Two minutes later it was in this document, ready to anchor my thoughts and my words.

There is still a resonance from the older work that guides me today. We may have ditched the physical craft but the idea of the work still informs the way I shoot today. We're near the balance point though. The point in time when my tenure with film based systems just slightly exceeds the amount of time I've worked with digital. Close to a 50/50 split as a working professional.

Everything you've done informs this one moment. The moment right now when you make today's art. 

Please use our Amazon links to buy your camera gear (and anything else you like at Amazon). We'll get a small commission which helps defray my time and cost while costing you zero extra.
Thank you very much.