Persistence pays off

Persistence pays off

Part of the process of building your skills as a portrait photographer depends on pushing your boundaries at times and trying something new. Getting out of your comfort zone can mean many different things – from new equipment and techniques to new locations and unique subjects.

The old truths remain valid – for great images, find something interesting, put it in an interesting place and light it well.

More info after the jump…

There are a number of very interesting locations in the city I live in, and one in particular has been tempting me for a while.

Butter Factory is a location I’ve been dying to shoot in for some time.
As its name implies, it is located in a historic building within the CBD, and because of its aged appearance, has a very specific feel to it.
Maybe it’s just me, but every time I walk in there, Frank Sinatra starts playing in my head and all I want to do is plonk myslef down on one of the leather couches with a good single malt and a fat Cuban cigar and just relax.

Many months ago I started working towards getting a location shoot lined up.
From the start I knew I had 2 options: Either be ballsy and ask the proprietor for permission to drag subjects and gear in on a quiet evening or go the “quid pro quo” route.

I opted for the latter, and approached the owner offering to provide him with free interior shots in exchange for the permission to do the work I wanted to do.
This would involve more work, but I figured it was the smarter move for 3 reasons:

1) It would give me a chance to do some very detailed location scouting – both for places to shoot and times when it would be least disruptive to other patrons.

2) Knowing what kind of ambient light you’re dealing with will save a lot of headaches. (Turns out the place was a photographic black hole – which made things quite interesting)

3) If it turned into a useful location for repeat work, being on the owner’s good side would make future requests easier.

So, step 1.

Shoot the locations pro bono.

The above scene is actually from Butter Bank, which is a bar, under the same management, directly above the location I was angling for.

Permission to drag lights and subjects in on a quiet evening – check

Next problem – Good subjects.
The mood of the location demanded something quite specific – classy, sophisticated and mature would be the words of the day.

Enter Sarah Shields and Steve Haywood, willing guinea pigs from my BNI group who fit the brief perfectly.
Not married, or even related, they were both keen to do a little TFCD work when I had explained what I had in mind.

Steve is a local Master Jeweller, and Sarah is the General Manager of Oceans Resort Hotel

And so it happened that we found ourselves in Butter Factory one quiet Thursday evening with a car full of lighting gear and a number of little road bumps to navigate.

Lighting a Black Hole
Step number 1 for me is to work out the ambient light first.
For me, this involves working in manual and dialling in the exposure settings I am hoping to work with.
The trick here is that both your shutter speed and aperture provide their own limitations wrt safe hand-holding, sync speed and depth of field.

So, not keen on shooting slower than 1/125, and not keen on a depth of field shallower than f6.3, I dialled these settings into the camera (Along with an ISO of 200) and got…

…exactly what I expected.

Given the work I had already done in that location, I was fairly certain that ambient light would not be a part of the image.

Regardless, things can change on the day of a shoot, and I took a few shots to find out if my initial hunch was correct.

Step 2 – ramp up the ISO by 1 stop and open lens all the way (f2.8)

Better, but in the same way that a BMI of 40 is better than 50!
So, question answered.
Scientifically I could bump up the ambient light by increasing ISO to “Holy shit that’s noisy” or drop my shutter speed to well within “get me a tripod and don’t move a bloody muscle” range.
Realistically, for image quality, neither was an option.

So, question answered, I need flash to light my background.

Step 3 – set up a TTL flash (triggered with pocketwizard mini/flex) and take a look.
Camera settings: ISO 200, f2.8, 1/125

Better, but not quite there.
It almost approximated the the ambient light.
Problems for me – the colour and intensity of the light.

Easy fixes.
Added a 1/2 cut CTO gel to the flash – warm light, and the gel itself would suck a stop or so of light out of the flash.
– 2 birds with 1 stone

Lather, rinse, repeat…
This time I brought Steve into the shot, as I was certain I was pretty much in the ballpark.

Definately getting there, but the depth of field was a problem.

Normally I’m all for blurring everything but your subject, but this time I wanted detail in the background, because it added to the mood and “feel” of the image.

Easy fix this time.

Set aperture to f11 and the miracle of wireless ETTL flash would sort out the rest. (I do love the pocketwizard Mini)

Time to start making magic.

Brought in a 90cm square softbox on a 600w/s Interfit head, triggered with Elinchrom skyports.
I’ve found the combination of Pocketwizards and Skyports to be quite useful in certain circumstances, even if it does make the camera hotshoe look a little odd.

(Will be doing a post on this soon)

The Interfit was powered by a Tronix sine wave inverter which has been a godsend for this kind of work.

The combination worked fine; soft light on the subject, mood in the background thanks to a gelled 580EXII.

All that was left was to work on poses and switch out lenses for close in work.

BIG PROBLEM though was the ambient light which made the simple act of focussing impossible.
Once again I had the help of two fantastic assistants, Heather and Shelly.
Even with one of them using torch light to illuminate the subjects, I still got a lot more blurry shots than I’d want – not good when eyes have to be pin sharp.

Ordinarily the modelling light on the softbox would work fine, but this is not an option with a sine wave inverter.
Note to self – mains power if possible next time, or do something about the ambient light.

All in all, a very enjoyable shoot with two great people.

Great location, even if the ambient light was a problem.
Even better to know that your skills are improving, both in what you are capable of doing, and in the confidence that comes with smoothly negotiating the little hiccups that are inherent with any location work.

My thanks to Steve and Sarah for their time and patience.
It really was worth the wait.