One of my long term clients (thank you! thank you!) called a few weeks back and asked for a bid for a good assignment. The assignment was a case of opposites. On one day we would need to set up a shooting space and lighting design to make shots of hundreds of tiny glass ampules. And each one would have a different label. These little glass "bottles" are used to store pure formulations of reference chemistry. We needed to make shots of individual bottles, groups of bottles and still life images that incorporated the ampules with other items. (For some reason Blogger compresses images in a weird way. In Photoshop the background in the image below measures 255, 255, 255 but in this blog ----at least on my laptop--- it looks quite gray...).
The other part of the shoot (the second day) required us to set up a nine foot wide white seamless background and to make images of people against white. We'd be fitting each person for a lab coat, doing primary make-up and then directing them through a series of expressions and poses. We won the bid and this past Weds. and Thurs. we produced the shoot. I arrived at the client location (about 45 minutes from the studio), solo, at about eight a.m. and unpacked the equipment from the car. The first day was dedicated to shooting the tiny bottles and still life set ups so I decided to handle that on my own.
I set up in conference room and used smooth, white , bristol board as a background. It was a 24 by 32 inch piece and it made a nice, compact sweep. The main lighting for all of the small work was provided by "floating" a white diffuser (Westcott frames) over the top of the items to be photographed and using a Fiilex P360 LED light (set to full daylight, 5500K) right over the top on a small boom arm. If I needed more power for more depth of field I added more LED lights, including a Fiilex P200 and eventually (for a big grouping at f22) two Fotodiox 312AS panels. All of them were aimed through the diffusion for a consistent look.
I brought along two full frame cameras because, from the very beginning, my client was adamant that they would be using all of the images large. Very large. I wanted the highest sharpness and pixel count camera I had in the inventory. In this case my intention was to use the Sony a99 with its very good 24 megapixel sensor. With that, and an electronic first shutter curtain, it seemed like the a99 would be the perfect tool for close-up, high magnification work done with continuous lighting.
The way I imagined the day's shooting was based around setting up the first in a series of "single ampule" shots, snapping a perfect frame and then removing the card from the camera, sticking it into an SD card reader and then opening the perfect frame on my 15 inch MacBook Pro. The clients and I would discuss the lighting, the framing and any other details worth mentioning and then I'd get to work applying the same settings and look and feel to all the subsequent bottles. If we changed lighting or any other parameter we could pull the card back out and check a frame before committing to many iterations.
Well.... I remembered the clothespins, the clamps and even something soft to kneel on but I screwed up on one important detail. I brought the wrong card reader. I had a CF card reader and a microSD card reader (which I thought was the SD card reader) but no SD card reader. Oh crap.
I stopped for a second and pondered. I knew the client wanted to see a test frame on something bigger than the screen on the back of a camera but I also knew we had a lot of ground to cover and we were scheduled too tightly for a run back to the studio for one little linch-pin. Yikes. I weighed my options. Then I grabbed the Sony a850 (the back up camera) from the camera bag and went through all the set up parameters, desperately trying to remember how to actuate the mirror lock-up I had never used before on this camera. Bingo. I found it.
At that moment, with the a850 in one hand and a CF card reader in the other I made up my mind to trust the old tech. Here's a stark comparison: The Sony a99 is fast and svelte and actually very light to hold on to. The Sony a850 is like a Russian tractor; it's oversized, heavy and heavy duty. But to my eye the a850 makes files that are equally good at ISO 100-200 and the mirror lock up, combined with an electronic cable release, makes the camera a very good choice for the kind of table top work I was looking at. Up it goes onto the Berlebach tripod and we're off and running. The first reference file looked pristine, the client relaxed, I unclenched my....jaw and we got down to the business of making photographs for industry. By the end of the day, still on the first battery, I had fallen totally in love with the a850. The screen on the back, while not nearly as high res as the screen on the a99, was exposure accurate. It agreed with both my Minolta Flash Meter Five and the histograms on the back of the camera.
I was nervous about switching cameras because I've probably pushed 40 or 50 thousand images through the a99 for business in the last year but I've only casually used the a850. When I got home I rushed to my main computer and carefully looked at random files on my big monitor and I was.....delighted. The color was better than I expected from either camera. But the real star was the lens. And it was a lens that I was determined to use on whichever camera I chose. In fact, it was the lens that pushed me into making the choice of the full frame cameras in the beginning.
I was using the Sigma 70mm f2.8 macro. It's a copy I've use with delight since I bought it. I've also carefully calibrated it to ensure that it has no front or back focus on either of the cameras I might end up using. It's a very sharp lens and it's got a nice out of focus rendering at all the wider apertures.
When working close up I use manual focusing for everything. I like the ability on the a99 to punch a button and increase the magnification of the focus point. It gives me extra confidence in my ability to focus exactly every time. I didn't have it this time but in 267 shot I missed zero as a result of focus failure.
The day zoomed by. There was fresh coffee down the hall and a wonderfully catered lunch. We took a break for half an hour to sit and eat and talk about what we'd gotten done and what we needed to do in the second half of the day and then we got back to it.
We finished with the table top photography around 4:45 p.m. and rather than rush out into rush hour traffic I decided to get a head start on the next day's shoot by breaking down and packing all the lights and materials we'd used for the table top work and then setting up the seamless and the flags and lights we'd need for the full length portraits agains white that we'd be shooting the next day.
Every time I look around my own studio I think about ways to downsize. I think that I have too many collapsible frames or too many types of diffusion. Too many mono lights or too many LED panels. But then I do a shoot in the way I know a shoot should be done and I realize that while we don't use them everyday that most of the items in the studio are there for a reason. We might be able to fix a lot in post but it is a point of pride to be able to fix most things using the right tools in the right ways as we shoot the primary images.
For the second day of photograph in did a standard white background set up. We didn't need to see feet. Our final crop for use in ads for our people shots would be just above the knees. This meant that I could use two lights instead of four on the background and I could dispense with the shiny board on which I normally have subjects positioned on to get a reflection back forward that cleans up the area around people's feet.
Above: The table top set up from the opposite side showing the camera, tripod and lights.
The old fashioned hero camera of the week, the a850. Perfectly behaved. Perfect files and perfect battery performance. A keeper for low ISO shooting.
The set up for photographing people against white.
A few notes about the portrait lighting set up. I used a 32 by 28 inch Fotodiox soft box and it was the perfect compromise between contrast and softness at the subject position. Notice the white boards on the floor. I find my images more believable and a bit more open if I have that bounce up from the floor. It's not a major fill but it's enough to elevate the shadows just a bit and it provides some evening for the tone of the white lab coats my subjects were wearing.
Then there's the beauty dish at the very back of the set, just to the right of the seamless paper. That's a low power backlight that puts a little glance of light on the check opposite the main light. Not the way I always light things but we were following (loosely) a formula that I had inherited years ago. I've tried lots of different lighting instruments but the beauty light has not back splash onto the seamless and, with the diffusion cover, does a great job not being to specular or too hot on most subject.
With all the light bouncing around I knew I would not need a second, active light source to provide some illumination for the shadow side of my subjects' faces. I used a white diffusion sheet on a Westcott collapsible frame as a passive fill and I used it close in. A little closer for people with darker complexions and a little further away for people with very light skin...
Notice that that umbrellas have black backings to keep light from spilling all over the room and I've used black flags between each of the background lights and the subject position so there is no direct light from them hitting the subject and creating odd and mis-motivaed high lights.
This image shows a flagged background light and also, in the background, my back light.
Center of the frame is white diffusion on a collapsible frame which provides a flexible fill light.
floor boards for just enough passive fill to make some shadows believable.
With the lights and background set I headed home to the family but before I walked out of the client's doors I made a note on my phone to remember to pack the portable steamer from the studio. I knew we'd need it as we had eighteen people to photograph and a limited assortment of white lab coats. One scrunchy arm crossing and we'd need to steam out wrinkles for sure.
Belinda stands in for a test.
The next morning I headed out with Belinda as my assistant, manager, stylist and partner. We left early enough to get to the client's offices by 7:40 a.m. and we were ready to shoot our first person by 8:00 a.m. Belinda organized the lab coats and fired up the steamer. I met with the client and agency people to put together our schedule and go over some of the parameters of the shoot. We'd be photographing 18 scientists and chemists and we'd need to make sure that they were comfortable and that the lab coats fit well. In many cases that meant using clothespins to better tailor a slightly large coat. We also used rolled gaffer's tape to keep collars in place.
I brought along the Barbie Make Up Case and one of us would powder shiny complexions as necessary.
The Barbie Case. Thank you Cover Girl and Maybelline.
One of the most valuable shooting tools I know of.....wooden clothespins.
Yes. Yes. I know. You are a master of reading histograms. Your camera is an infallible light meter, etc. etc. etc. Well, if you are metering a white background it's really useful to know "how white?" it is and what the actual difference is, in f-stops, between your subject, the background and everything else. You can do it by shooting and chimping over and over again but a light meter is a much better and more elegant tool for the purpose. There is a reason the Photo Gods invented incident light meters. They are easier to use and more accurate. We have three. They all agree.
When we got rolling I shot a few reference frames for everyone to look at and evaluate. No major changes were required so we were able to work pretty much non-stop through the day without lighting changes or compositional changes.
When I woke up on Friday I started working on the still life files. There was one product issue that required me to "touch" almost every file in Photoshop. That's okay because I wanted to do a perfect white balance and get the blacks at just the right level. Also, no matter how carefully you clean your sensor any shots you take at f11.5, 16 and 22 will need some remedial dust spotting. That's part of the job. I finished perfecting my last still life file last night around 10 pm. I logged about ten hours of computer time, breaking only for lunch and a few walks around the blocks with the loyal dog.
When I woke up today I started editing all of the portraits (1167 files), kicking out blinks, tired expressions, the moments between high energy and awkward poses. Of course I threw out the frames resulting from an occasional over running of my studio flash recycling times. I ended up with around 700 good files that I needed to fine tune and send to the client for final selection.
Those files got fine-tuned (color, contrast, tone, black point, white point) a few hours ago and when I left the studio my big computer was converting files from huge raw to manageable jpegs. When I finish writing this in my favorite coffee house I'll head into the studio one last time tonight to start the upload of the 700 files to a folder on Smugmug.com which I'll share with my client.
Once the client picks a winner for each subject we'll go back to the raw files, make as many improvements as possible and then convert to .PSD and start the process of masking the images to drop out the background but retain detail in every strand of hair, etc.
So far two shooting days have provided two post processing days. Once the selections are made for the final prints it should take the better part of a third day to make the masked finals. I also suspect that they want to have a black and white conversion of each selected file done as well.
When we wrap up everything we get to sit down and write up our invoice. It's the last step.
So many people think of commercial photography as a glamorous way to earn a living and, I guess it can be. But sometimes it feels just like work. Real work.
But I guess this is really only the tip of an iceberg. We need to work fast to get everything from last week off next week's plate. Next week we're scheduled to start a series of video projects. Talk about shooting days generating post production days!!! I'm planning on about a 2:1 ratio on those projects. And, of course, we have a hard deadline at the end of the month. Again----sounds like work.
I thought it would be fun to let you know what I've been up to...