Friday, August 10, 2012

Back in the saddle ...

Yep, it's been a while.  Again.
Partly because of some turmoil in my personal life and partly because writing about shoots that I do or other photography related subjects usually involves mentioning people and it's not always positive or of interest to those of you who read this blog and speaking about people in less than glowing terms can also attract more turmoil!  But enough of this.  I don't live in Syria.  I don't have a mortgage.  I have a few genuine friends.  Etc.  So happy days.

The photograph above has been in the planning stage somewhere in my complex brain for over a year.  It's probably not art or acceptable by those whose photography seeks to represent something esoteric but it's mine and I'm happy with it.  Could it be improved?  Of course, but first let me tell you about it.

I had the idea in my head (as I said) over a year ago.  The idea sprang from me falling into the trap of 'judging a book by the cover' on a few occasions - something I always tried not to do had felt like I had let myself down when I did.  I have judged a few people without actually knowing the truth.  However, to my credit I hope, I had allowed that my judgement might need to be adjusted and it had, and I did.
I wanted a way to show this in a photograph and a humorous version of it germinated in my brain where the people who 'judge' would be represented by pink, clean, elegant ballerinas and the person being judged would be the antithesis represented by a Goth or a punk who had a desire to dance but retain their individuality.

I had lined up a number of 'girls' (anyone younger than me is a lad or a girl) to do the shot.  Unfortunately whenever I tried to organise the shoot there were always a list of excuses - not reasons - for not doing it.  I couldn't get them to let me know what leotards, tutus, ballet shoes they had so I could co-ordinate the colour.  Organising everyone to be free at the same time was almost impossible.  Looking for a place to shoot was similarly almost impossible.  So after several failed attempts I decided to stop frustrating myself and park it away for another day.

Recently, a girl I know (Rebecca Flynn) who is not only a ballet dancer but also teaches ballet asked me if I would take photographs for her website.  We agreed a deal part of which involved me being allowed to take my 'ballet' photo at the shoot.  We discussed what kind of shots she and I wanted from the shoot and then the logistics began.

A shot like this is 90% technical and logistical and 10% photography.
We knew the shots we wanted.  Some were rejected because they relied to a large degree on the beautiful location for effect.  The ideal setting for the shot would have been a dance studio with white walls and dance bars and maybe mirrors.  The reality was that the ones that were available cost more than we were prepared to pay or were too far from the majority of the children's homes.  So, eventually, Rebecca found a school hall that more or less met our compromise of the ideal.

Next was my gear.  I needed a white background.  Luckily I have a Pro360 kit that consists of two stands and 4 interlocking poles that form a bar that a large background roll can fit on with room to spare.  I also had a cheap roll of whit background purchased from Poland that is a curious material.  I haven't quite figured out what it is but it looks like a weave material that has been plasticised.  It behaves more like a bed sheet than paper or vinyl but at about €10 a roll I can afford to throw it out and get more if it tears or gets too dirty.

I have 4 Bowens units.  1 x 750, 1 x 500 and 2 x 250.  I also have a range of umbrellas and softboxes as well as a few other reflectors.  For this shoot I used the 250s with shoot-through umbrellas to light the background.  I pretty much crossed the units - aimed the flash at the opposite corner of the background to provide more even illumination.  The use of the brollies gives soft even light but the position of the brolly on the unit is important.  If you install it too far away from the flash tube you can get direct (harsh) light spilling forward onto the floor and your models.  You can see this in the picture below.

Moving the brollies nearer the flash tube means the tube is more or less behind the brolly and most of the light that is important to the shot is diffused.  You can see the difference below.

I also use the 250s at full power.  I set my camera at ISO 160 and want to have my background almost at complete white (255 in binary).  That is assuming I am shooting at f8 to f11.  If I take a reading with my flash meter at the background it should read f16 which is about 1.5 to 2 stops overexposed in relation to the aperture I'm going to shoot at.  I have two ways of checking my background exposure besides using the meter.  One is a feature on the Canon camera that, when switched on, will flash alternately black then white if it's overexposed.  This can be useful even when you've used the meter because there may be a hotspot you haven't seen.  The second way is more related to the model.  I ask him/her to hold a piece of white towelling, make an exposure and check it on the view screen on the back of the camera, zoomed in as close as it will allow to see if the towelling has texture.  If it's overexposed the texture will be missing.  If it's correct it will be white but with texture.  Simples!

So the two units at the back are lighting the background and some of the forground.  Now I use either the 500 or 750 with an octobox.  Because of its size it gives a lovely soft light and virtually no shadows but I don't normally use this as a key light.  I treat it as a fill.  My key light will be either the 500 or 750 with a beauty dish.  This reflector is somewhere between a harsh reflector and a softbox.  It consists of a slightly matte surface (probably sandblasted) reflector but also has a second small reflector that is situated in front of the flash tube.  This prevents a hot spot and harsh light getting to your subject and reflects the light into the matte surface of the larger reflector.  I sometime use this on a flash unit in front of a large softbox when I'm doing a portrait.  The combination gives me soft light with areas like the nose, cheek bones, collar bones, etc., given a 'pop' by the beauty dish.  So the octobox and beauty dish are both set to give me f8.

This arrangement worked well for me.  I also got a bonus from the setup.  Because I had 4 units all pointing at a white background I now had a giant softbox.  I didn't realise this until I turned around and found a group of the children were lined up along the opposite wall watching what I was doing and interacting with each other.  I wondered .....   I increased the ISO to 400, took a quick shot and, based on the histogram, increased the aperture to f5.6.  Later I adjusted the exposure in post processing by 1/3 stop but not bad.
The shots have a warm tone to them that I like (luckily) and I think it might be a reflection of the wooden floor.  Extra bonus.

So, my shot.
I needed a small group of scared ballerinas reacting to the presence of a scary ballerina and one of the little girls pushing her somewhat reluctant adult teacher to make her leave.  The first hurdle was the background was not wide enough but I knew that I had figured on making two exposures.  The point to watch out for here is perspective.  If you shoot the two shots from the same point it will be wrong.  The brain will know it is wrong even if it doesn't understand why.  If the people in the shot are 20-25 feet apart (about 8 metres) the angle you shoot the people on the left will be significantly different from the angle you shoot the people on the right.  So when you're doing two exposures you need to compensate by shooting the 'left' people from the right and the 'right' people from the left.  Confused?  Take a look at the diagrams below.

The ideal situation
The diagram above shows the ideal situation.  I'm using cubes with a groove in the top surface in place of people.  The background they are sitting on is as wide as I need and the three views below the camera show what the camera would see.  from the viewpoint of the camera, the groove face of the left block is on the left and the right block is on the right.
But unfortunately my background paper is not wide enough so I must shoot in two stages.  To maintain the correct perspective above I must shoot to maintain the point of view the camera had above.

So with the real size of background I shoot the left and centre block from the correct angle to mimic the ideal setup and ......

shoot the right and centre block from the opposite angle.
That means when I put the two photos together I have the correct angles of the subjects that obeys the laws of perspective.

The second hurdle is to NOT rely on your subjects understanding the technical logistics of what you're attempting to do.  Explain - yes.  So I needed interaction between the children and the baddie.  So when I was shooting the children and the adult ballerina (Rebecca) I asked Kay to stand off to the side of the background so as to give them something to react to.  Similarly when I was shooting Kay, I had Rebecca stand in so Kay had somebody to play to.

Posing and knowing when to stop is the next hurdle.
Originally I had the child pushing Rebecca and Rebecca was stepping forward as though she was really being pushed.  I changed that to her being anchored to the floor as though she too was a little scared of Kay and was resisting being pushed into a confrontation.  Rebecca (I believe) is used to taking direction and was a pleasure to work with. The little girl doing the pushing was brilliant.
The other girls were grouped in a circle (my instruction) and it looked static so I asked them to pretend they were afraid of Kay and hug each other in fear.  Born actresses!
Kay is performer and also a model so is used to posing.  She listens to what I say, takes it in and gives me more poses than I ask for.  All I had to do was tweak the pose I wanted and she nailed it.  Attitude!

I later took the two selected shots, put them together separated by space I wanted and then blended the hard edge using a layer mask filled with a black to white gradient.

No, it's not art.  It's a picture that has produced raised eyebrows of delighted surprise and smiles.  It's an original idea (for me) and it took planning, expertise and hard work.  Could it be improved?  Of course.  I'm satisfied ....... for now.