Mein kleines Mondlicht,

I want to demystify what happens during a shoot, in the hopes of helping to eradicate from the minds of the uninformed the erroneous notion that photography is a simple matter of aiming a camera at a subject and going click, click, click, that was quick! As for the equally equivocated conception that Photoshop can take care of carelessness, I shall try to address it in another epistle, as I don’t want this one to be unnecessary lengthy.

This is the story of a shoot done for an editorial client, a local magazine. Thus, when I mention ‘client/clients’ in the body of this article, they are actually my client’s clients. It is my hope that You will learn a little about the major elements involved in any photography session, as this could easily be any other shoot in any other location for any other client. The preparation, setting-up, and testing that precede the actual shooting that will yield a small crop of suitable (or commonly called, ‘good’) pictures is all the same in all shoots.

The client’s clients in question were a husband-and-wife-run financial firm, and the pictures were for an advertorial in the Spring edition of the glossy. [For the sake of clarity, hereafter I shall refer to the client as ‘the magazine’ and the client’s clients as ‘the client(s)’.] The assignment was to obtain pictures of the client interacting with a client of their own, at work at the office and a picture of her standing by the sign of the corporation under whose umbrella their financial firm operates. Originally, only the wife was to appear in the pictures and she arranged for a model to stand in as a client of hers; thus, because of the model, the shoot was scheduled for a Friday’s morn at 9:00.

Keeping one’s distance with a telephoto lens allows the subjects to grow comfortable with the presence of the photographer. Initial frames such as this one are normally used to determine exposure and lock in the white balance. (70mm, 1/30 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 200)

The first scene took place in one of the offices, which was illuminated by regular fluorescent lamps. Fluorescent light is a bit of a pain to work with, as its greenish colour tends to introduce colour casts when flash is used in combination with it. Even the use of correction gels might not entirely prevent the problem. Fortunately, this office had a white ceiling which allows me to fire the flash into it, blending its blue light with the green one from the fluorescent lamps, producing a blended, unique colour of light. After positioning the flash gun and adjusting its power, I asked the client and the model to take their places and began shooting. I started with a telephoto lens (70-200 mm): normally people isn’t comfortable with a stranger too close into their personal space, and the telephoto allows me to keep a healthy distance whilst rapport is built up. To the right is one of the first frames, which happens to be my ‘measuring frame’: the one I use to get my bearings on the general lighting of the location and to zone the exposure in. I also use this frame to set my colour target and white balance: You can see my WB checker (SpyderCube™) on the desk.

However, it quickly became obvious that even at its widest, the long lens was not leaving enough space around the subjects. Plus, the compressed perspective that is characteristic of these lenses was giving the pictures too much of a two-dimensional feel.With the subjects more used to my presence now, I switched to a 50 mm lens (also known as ‘normal’, as it shews the images closest to how the human eye sees them when used on a full frame, 35-mm camera).

Getting closer now @ 50mm.

Getting closer now. (50mm, 1/30 sec @ f/4, ISO 200)

I think the pictures are a mite better, but a quick review shews a potential problem: the picture on the wall, with its grey, monochromatic palette is making the photographs come out rather monochromatic as well. So, the client and I went to look for a different picture within the premises we could borrow for a while.

We did find a more colourful picture, which, in a pleasant stroke of Providence, had hues that matched the colours of the clothes the client and the model were using, thus equalising the colour palette. We all got to work again. The normal lens yielded a number of potentially good images, but there was still something lacking in the photographs’ feel, at least for my liking.

With better rapport built up by now, I pulled out my wide angle lens (24mm). My subjects continued going through the motions as I walked around the table, looking for the best angle and distance. Wide angle lenses tend to introduce quite an amount of different types of distortion; they are finicky to work with and need fine tuning once the composition has been zoned in. Yet, these hurdles constitute also the strengths of the wide angle lens and what makes it draw the viewer into the picture, giving him the sense of ‘being there’; it’s all a matter of working the lens correctly and finding the sweet spot, which is different for each picture/composition. All of this takes time.

It is time well invested, though, as can be seen in the final yield of frames. 

A wide angle shot, shewing the keystone distortion that is characteristic of the camera being tilted slightly upward or downward rather than level to the horizon. (24mm, 1/100 sec @ f/4, ISO 200)

A wide angle shot, shewing the keystone distortion that is characteristic of the camera being tilted slightly upward or downward rather than level to the horizon. (24mm, 1/100 sec @ f/4, ISO 200)

A winsome shot: the distortion has been corrected, the papers spread on the table help reduce its dominance, and the expressions of the subjects are natural.

A winsome shot: the distortion has been corrected, the papers spread on the table help reduce its dominance, and the expressions of the subjects are natural. (24mm, 1/60 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 200)

To obtain the winning shot, it was all a matter of having the subjects continue talking as I fired away as fast as the recycling time of the flash allowed me, in order to have their best expressions captured. At one point, I asked the client to extend her promo material on the table and hold it in a vertical with respect to the camera, thus reducing the dominance of the round table,  an unavoidable result of the lens distorting objects closest to it, making them appear larger than they really are. Suddenly, the client raised the brochure a bit, letting a glimpse of the words ‘financial highlights’ be captured. Subtle and rather unsharp, but readable nonetheless. After over a score of frames, I had my winning shot. I announced the end of this stage of the shoot, we thanked the model and, and as my client accompanied her to the door, I got ready for the next required shot: the client’s portrait.

Total time for the shots with the model: ~50 minutes.

 


The next shot was that of the client standing next to the business sign.

Technically correct; however, the attempt to produce a warm, inviting image, turned out yielding a sallow tonality. Not good.

Technically correct; however, the attempt to produce a warm, inviting image, turned out yielding a sallow tonality. Not good. (127mm, 1/30 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 400)

Since the sign was rather high in the wall, we had to spend some time finding something the client could stand on. The office’s wheeled stool was of little use, as it was rather high too and it was obvious in the pictures that she was standing on something. Finally, we settled for some reams of bond paper, which were a mite tricky to use, since my client had to stand in the contrapposto position (resting her weight on her back leg). We spent the best part of 15 minutes adjusting her stance and position with respect to the sign. I used my 70-200mm lens for this shot. Lighting-wise, I kind of overpowered the room’s fluorescents and used a 1/2 CTO gel on the flash to warm the image up. When the final shots were taken, it was 11:04 and time to pack up, as the client had to leave the office by noon.

When I got home and started to go through the pictures I quickly realised that even though there were several ‘keepers’, we had essentially only two shots: the client with a client of her own, and her portrait. Not good enough for the magazine, said I; so I the client up and suggested we took more shots. She graciously agreed and mentioned that we could even get her husband involved as well. Capital, said I. So, we set up for Monday in the afternoon. I checked the magazine’s brief again and spotted something about the advertorial sporting the line ‘financial health’. Hmm. I kept thinking and thinking about it for the rest of the day and, on Saturday, I went to the supermarket and bought some granny apples, thinking that the use of the green fruit would convey or emphasise the notion of health; besides, green is analogous to yellow, which is the predominant colour of the business, as You can see in their brochures and papers. Additionally, I wanted to have a better photo of the client, as I didn’t like the ones I had gotten. Whilst they were technically correct, I disliked the overall rather sallow tonality and lack of dynamism; I also thought that had I placed the main light (a 45-inch shoot-through umbrella) on the right: nothing wrong with that, however, had I placed it on the left, I could have hinted at the light ‘coming from the “sun” ‘ in the sign. A mere matter of style that probably nobody would ever notice, but you know me, Liebchen: it has to be perfect (Matt 5:48).

On Monday, the client rang me up in the morn and told me that she had cancelled her lunch time in order to give me more time to shoot, and thus, was hoping I could come earlier. A very nice gesture: I am always pleased when people appreciate the effort that goes into a shoot, not because I desire praise, but because it gives me what I need the most in order to produce work that is higher in quality: Time. Needless to say, I agreed and got there a little bit before 13:00.

My goals for the shoot were: one shot of both the client and her husband at work, one shot of her taking a call, one conceptual shot about ‘financial health’, one stock-like shot anent idem and/or financial work, and one shot of the clients standing by the sign. After being graciously offered a cuppa, I briefed the clients on my goals and on how we would attain them; then I quickly got to work.

Another 'measuring' frame

Another ‘measuring’ frame. (24mm, 1/15 sec @ f/11, ISO 200)

We would be using her husband’s office. Whilst he wrapped some things up, I fired my ‘measuring frame’ (You can see my colour checker card on the desk), and quickly assessed that the dynamic range of the scene was higher than what my camera can capture, even with my flash gun at full power and aimed at the white ceiling to blend in with the greenish fluorescent and to diffuse the light. Had I been in the possession of a monobloc, I could have most likely equalised the lighting in the room with the light levels from the outside, thus requiring only one exposure, but alas, I had only a puny (sort of) speedlite. Ergo, the use of a multi-exposure technique would be required. Considering that my subjects were people, who would find it nigh impossible to stand perfectly still holding a given position for several minutes, HDRI was out of the question; that left me with exposure blending. Good. Now it was time to let the clients clean the office up and move temporarily to another one whilst I set up my lighting and zoned in on the composition. When I was ready I called them back, they took their places and started ‘working’ whilst I fired away. Once I had the shots I wanted, I asked them to leave the room again whilst I took the pictures that would be exposed for the outside.

The 'at work' shot. Exposure is correct for the inside, but the outside is painfully overexposed.

The ‘at work’ shot. Exposure is correct for the inside, but the outside is painfully overexposed. (24mm, 1/30 sec @ f/11, ISO 200)

With the subjects having left the room, an frame that renders a correct exposure for the outside is taken.

With the subjects having left the room, a frame that renders a correct exposure for the outside is taken. (24mm, 1/200 sec @ f/11, ISO 200)

The final image, after blending the two exposures above in Photoshop. Because living subjects move, attaining this result would have been impossible with them in the frame.

The final image, after blending the two exposures above in Photoshop. Because living subjects move, attaining this result would have been impossible with them in the second frame.

Now it was time to do the conceptual shot, for which I didn’t particularly care about having the cityscape out the window overexposed, as I was going for an upbeat look, rather than a technically accurate one.

Having pleasant thoughts about man's financial future. (24mm, tilted away from the subject's plane; 1/200 @ f/4, ISO 200)

Having pleasant thoughts about man’s financial future. (24mm, tilted away from the subject’s plane; 1/200 @ f/4, ISO 200)

I would use my tilt-shift wide angle lens to throw everything out of focus but the three items on the desk: the brochure, the apple, and the cup. Thus, after finding the right angle, and setting the right exposure and flash power, I called my subject to sit on the chair and adopt a reflective posture. Click. [Click thrice, that is, for we tried three different variants of this composition.] Time to move to the next shot.

I moved the camera to the left and composed so that the client would be sitting on the desk, ‘talking’ on the phone as she made annotations on financial information papers. This shot would require multi-exposure as well, as I did not want the view outside the window blown out, something I consider poor photography (unless done intentionally). I instructed my client to sit on the chair and to start going through the motions whilst I fired away, hunting for the best facial expression. (I confide to You, Liebchen, that I also dislike shots that look posed: they are, too, poor photography in my little white book). One method I like to follow is to keep people talking: not only does this help relieve tension (as many subjects do not enjoy being photographed), but also, I agree with Renaissance sculptor and architect Gian Bernini in that the best moment for expression is just before or just after speaking: this moment has a spontaneous nature and the expression allows a ‘true’ interpretation of the subject. So now You know one reason I shoot so many frames.

Anywise, once I had shots I liked, I asked my client to step out of the frame and I made the pictures where the cityscape was exposed correctly.

Multitasking. The outside, in the meanwhile, has won the blowing out competition versus the inside. (24mm, 1/15 sec @ f/11, ISO 400)

Multitasking. The outside, in the meanwhile, has won the blowing out competition versus the inside. (24mm, 1/15 sec @ f/11, ISO 400)

The Whitewashed Beast is tamed. (24mm, 1/80 sec @ f/11, ISO 400)

The Whitewashed Beast outside is tamed. Yes, that’s my flash reflected on the window, but I’m running this one through Photoshop anywise. (24mm, 1/80 sec @ f/11, ISO 400)

Multitasking... and multiexposing. A pleasant overall exposure and yes, the flash gun has been banished from the window's reflections.

Multitasking… and multiexposing. A pleasant overall exposure, and yes, the intruding flash gun has been banished from the window’s reflections.

Switching to my 100mm macro lens and asked my client to have a seat again and place her hand holding a pen on the financial sheet laying on the desk. I framed her hand in a diagonal across the frame and used the ‘apple of health’ to balance the composition. The use of a polarising filter on the lens was a must, in order to kill the glare from the window on the desk and enhance the colours a mite. Lighting-wise, I used my flash bounced off the ceiling as a main light and the window light as fill.

Props can liven up an image; and sometimes they can be eaten after the shoot! (100mm, 1/8 sec @ f/11, ISO 400)

Props can liven up an image; and sometimes they can be eaten after the shoot! (100mm, 1/8 sec @ f/11, ISO 400)

The light from the window came out a bit higher in intensity, but I liked the rim lighting effect it added to the hand and apple. I shot several frames and was done. This stock-like shot ended up being used as the opening spread in the advertorial: not bad, not bad at all.

Then it was time to do the final shot: the clients standing by the sign. I needed some time to set up, and so my clients returned momentarily to their duties. I decided to use the sign on the hallway, in front of the elevators, instead of the one inside their offices which I had use the first time around. Also, this time, I forgot about CTOs and used a minus green gel on my flash gun (I was using my brolly again, so I couldn’t blend the blue light of the flash with the green of the fluorescents), and I made sure that the light was coming in the direction of the ‘sun’. Once I had the tripod with the camera on it and the brolly in their optimal positions, I called on my client and asked her to hold the colour checker card. Next, we called her husband and I shot away. Now, meines Mondlicht, when I say ‘shot/fired away’, please, think You not of mindlessness and careless abandon, for there is always intent underlying the apparent madness in the method. In this particular case, I was aiming for two variants, which You can see below: one from eye level and one looking down on the subjects. After comparing them both in the post-processing stage, I determined the latter to be the winner.

(24mm, 1/8 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 400)

(24mm, 1/8 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 400)

 

(24mm, 1/8 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 400)

(24mm, 1/8 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 400)

 

That was the end of the shoot. It was past 14:32: the whole shoot had lasted over and hour and a half. ‘Twas time to pack up and head back home, download the pictures, and get onto the post-processing stage, which is usually as long, if not longer than, the shoot itself.

Total time for the overall shoot, combining what was done on Friday and Monday: ~3.5 hours.

The use of a colour target prevents people from having unintended, unnatural skin tones in the final shot.

The use of a colour target prevents people from having unintended, unnatural skin tones in the final shot.

 

The post-processing is rather tedious and I shall not describe here the evaluation of pictures, deletion of Rejects, and subsequent choosing of Selects; nor the work on the Selects to do colour corrections, sensor dust busting, minor adjustments such as straightening of tilted frames, de-noising, and contrast adjustments. For now, I think it is sufficient for You to know that this is also the stage where exposure blending and/or HDRI generation and tone-mapping is done; as well as cosmetic adjustments. I am not a fan of the heavy use of Photoshop, and I try to get as much as I can in-camera; and that includes the special effects, such as selective focus or the looming shadow of a man about to break into a house.

Realising that I might have ended up writing You too lengthy an epistle, I leave You to return to your manifold duties, Little One, whilst I continue to remain,

Ever yours.