5.30.2019

A Few Environmental Portraits I Did for a Client Last Fall.

Up on the side of a mountain in Virginia.
November and freezing cold. A sleet storm just firing up.
A slick, one lane road in the middle of no where, starting to ice up and 
me trying to get good portraits and still make a flight at an airport 
three hours away.....

I did a lot of domestic travel last Fall. All of it for work. Very few of the photographs were made in big cities, near airports, near nice restaurants; hell, most weren't anywhere near a wall plug or a decent hotel. But it was fun nonetheless. Problem solving on the fly. 

The photographs just above and just below were done at about 7500 feet of elevation in weather that was starting to turn nasty. I'd hit the airport in Charlotte, NC about three and a half hours before, grabbed a Camry rental car and hauled ass up the through the Smokey Mountains. I needed to met up with a large crew of people who were stringing high voltage transmission wires through the mountains. 

Thank goodness for cellphones and GPS. I just made our rendezvous and followed a crew up the side of a mountain at the end of a small caravan of white, crew cab, pick-up trucks. When we got to the near the top I started scouting for a good location. I knew the client, back in Knoxville, would want to see some "product" in the background so I found a spot that showed transmission lines and pylons going off into the distance. By the time we got organized it was sleeting. We found a window screen in frame in the bed of one of the trucks and used it to keep sleet from hitting the portrait subject's face. I put my Godox flashes in a plastic bag, on top of a light stand and the guys who were waiting to be photographed took turns holding the light stand so it wouldn't get blown off the side of a cliff. 

The wind picked up and the temperatures were dropping into the 20's. Somehow we got everyone just before the crew chief got a call that a potential blizzard might be cutting through the passes. He took one look at my rental car and advised me to make a quick retreat if I was going to have a chance at making my next connection back in Charlotte. I headed back another three and half hours watching the gray get darker and darker in my rear view mirror.


Sometimes luck is with you and you stumble into an idyllic setting just about the same time you also have twelve guys who need to be photographed. That was the case when I was photographing the construction leads in a remote location in North Carolina. We were on the site of a dam project which required a bit of travel on unmarked, unpaved roads. We drove through some pretty countryside and the into an open spot when we descended into a scene that was just gorgeous. A lake, with mountains in the background and a bridge out to the middle of the lake. 

I took advantage of the early morning light, a small flash and a Panasonic G9 with a Panasonic/Leica 12-60mm lens to create the two images just below. At first I cropped lighter since that's become, more or less, a style with me. I generally like tight portrait compositions better than loose ones. But as I played around with composition in this setting I just had more and more desire to go wide and to really see the space. 



The two shots just below were in the same location but I had a different reaction. I changed angles in case the images were used at some time in the same publication but I never liked the tall grass in the frame. I finally went with a tight crop and it seemed just right to me. Same G9 and Pana/Leica 12-60mm. 



The image just below was taken on a steaming hot Summer days just outside the Florida Everglades. Again, we wanted to show "product" along with our portrait so we found a suitable location which showed transmission lines going off into infinity. I moved my portrait subject into the shadow of some thick trees to block direct sunlight and then came back in a created a main light with a Godox AD200 flash in a white 20 by 30 inch softbox set over to toward the left of the frame. I tried lower shots, tighter shots and more dramatically lit shots but this one, for me, captured the space, the outdoors-ness of location and the serious look of my guy. If you judiciously fill portraits and balance them with sun drenched backgrounds you are, in fact, increasing your dynamic range. I love it.



Some locations aren't glamorous and all you can do is channel your inner "Annie Leibovitz" and use a bit soft flash to creat a nice key to separate your subject from a so-so background. Again, I used the Godox AD200 flash blasting into a bigger soft box and the exposures were set to match with a small priority (1/2 stop?) given to the subject on the left. And then I got back in the car and headed back to the airport for the next leg of the adventure.

On all these trips I had three parameters to work within. I would need strong enough flash to overcome direct sun. I would need to use a diffuser to kill the contrast that would have been created with direct sun in the photos. I would need to be able to handle all the associated gear; getting it through airports and on and off shuttle buses, and into rental cars working completely solo. I chose two Godox AD200 flashes. One to use and one for back-up (which I did end up having to use...). Three light stands (one for the main light, one for the diffuser, one in case I needed a bit of back light, and one to hold the round diffuser over the top of my subject's heads in order to block direct sun. The lights, stands and my clothes (with a winter coat) all packed into a long Manfrotto roller case. My two Panasonic G9s, an assortment of batteries, radio triggers for the lights, and three lenses (8-18mm, Panasonic/Leica 12-60mm and the Olympus 12-100mm) all fit into a small, Think Tank backpack. One checked bag and one carry on bag. It couldn't be simpler.

I love shooting outside. It's always a challenge and I always like the play between almost out of focus backgrounds and the main subject. I'd hate for the gear to slow me down.

Odd contraptions that make handholding heavy cameras easier. Made for Video. Usable on Photography Cameras?

A production photograph from a video shoot at Zach Theatre. Videographer, Jake Fordyce, (center) is shooting with a rigged out Sony FS-5 (extra heavy duty batteries, follow focus gear, and an Atomos monitor) which is...weighty. The thing strapped to his back makes a four or five hour shoot bearable...

Those video guys are pretty ingenious. The device being used by the camera operator (above) is called an, Easy-Rig. It's a backpack with support belt and extra strength connections which support the strong metal bar you see running up over his head and ending up above his head and about a foot in front of him. At the front termination of the bar is a cable (capable of adjusting closer or further from Jake's face) that reaches down and supports the weight of the camera and its accessories. This adds a lot of stability to the handheld camera and keeps the operator from having to support all the weight with his arms. I watched Jake work with the Easy-Rig and it seems like the right compromise for a lot of shooting. It's more controllable than most gimbals and seems to require less experience to use. I can also be used in conjunction with in lens or in body image stabilization. At the same time the Easy-Rig allows more fluid movement than any tripod or monopod.

I've been playing around with gimbals for video and find them fussy and hard to control. I'm a much bigger fan of "dumb" shoulder mounts, monopods (with or without feet) and, of course, tripods. But I wonder if some enterprising company might realize that sports photographers, and some other specialist photographers, spend a lot of time holding heavy gear up in front of their faces in a handheld fashion and might benefit from a device that suspends the camera right in front of them while supporting the weight of the camera and lens with a system that transfers that weight to the hips and body's core.

I'm sure it would look a bit "dorky" for photographers but if it worked to make camera handling more comfortable and at the same time more stable I'm sure a fair number would give it a try; especially those who frequently work on sets and in other controlled environments. Yeah. I think it would be embarrassing to see a street photographer in one of these rigs but it might be just what the doctor ordered for a guy shooting a football game with a 300mm f2.8 and a big-ass camera body...

Blog notes: 

I want to thank everyone who wrote to offer condolences and other good thoughts in connection with the recent passing of my father. I enjoyed reading them all. It made a difference to me that you all cared enough to write and share.

I've been busy since I wrote that post about my father; I've made funeral arrangements, closed out accounts, cleaned out his room at the memory care facility (with the help of my older brother...) and have had two phone conferences with my family law attorneys. I've pretty much done all I can do for right now since just about everything surrounding the disposition of his estate requires either/and/or a death certificate and letters testamentary.

For the first time in at least two years I feel unconstrained by the familial responsibility to be "on call" and also to not venture away from contact and proximity for more than a work week at a time. I can now check in with my close "nuclear" family and then head out for a road trip or a flight to someplace more exotic than Austin, and spend time both in transit and away from home. It's odd to feel the weight of "availability" lift off one's shoulders.

Many have written about their grief. I rarely hear anyone say (out loud) that a family member's passing is accompanied also by a sense of relief. Relief from the schedule restrictions and restraints, yes, but also a relief from the long term and incremental drip of grief and sadness that must accompany anyone sharing a loved one's accelerating mental and physical decline. And one understands, on some level, that the person "departing" is also enjoying a sense of relief. In a moment all responsibility is removed, all expectations evaporate and someone else picks up where they left off.

While we photographers are sometimes the record keepers and curators of our families, by dint of creating and housing a visual archive, I think it's important not become a museum curator for your parent's memory since that pushes you to constantly live in and re-live the past. While the photos are bittersweet reminders of people who have gone ahead of you it's important to remember that all of these things that happened to you and your family are now in the past and your life is best lived in the moment in this day with an eye to the future; and a plan to make your every day from now forward count. No parent would want their child moored to one spot in the continuum instead of constantly experiencing the joys of life right now.

It's been an interesting experience for me, to be there for my father. But while many have suggested I somehow sacrificed a bit I would say that just as children teach us patience and kindness the elders teach us the value of this life. This moment.

Walk out the door and live. It's our best gift to and from ourselves.