Mein kleines Mondlicht,

The essence of success in any endeavour is commitment. Whilst, Passion motivates (i.e. motions) man towards an end… yet, it is by itself not enough, as power is useless without direction. Vision shews the goal and the direction to follow… yet, it is by itself not enough, as vision is useless if it lacks motion, and it leaves the destination a distant dot that can only be gawked at with a telephoto lens, but never touched.

Thus, the essence of success is a determination to incorporate Passion and Vision into a mix that propels man towards the Moon ( 😉 ). This integration requires a method, which needs be followed faithfully. Now Faith begets Commitment, and Commitment, in turn, rests on a foundation of discipline. Thus, the essence of success is discipline.

Thus, Success in Photography, by virtue of requiring a Disciplined Approach, encompasses several methodologies and routines that are to be observed, respected, appreciated and thoroughly followed if man is to produce a photograph that will not only satisfy the creative appetite but also the daily hunger of the more mundane stomach.

Quite a fine coincidence, this one of me telling You about food, for I shall use the description of the process of a photo shoot for a couple of local restaurants to enlighten You anent one of the elemental parts of the Disciplined Approach to commercial image making: namely, that of the recce.

 


A recce is really nothing more than a practical aspect of a mental process called previsualisation, which encompasses the assimilation and analysis of all information regarding the purpose of a photograph, the nature of the subject, the budget, and the expectations of the client[1]Gerry Kopelow, How to Photograph Buildings and Interiors (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998) 15 . Previsualisation is the first step in image making: in very deed, nothing has ever come into existence that has not been imagined first.

In this case, the assignment was for a variety of general shots: interior, exterior, food items, and staff. Run-o’-the-mill type of assignment. However, I had never been to either location before, so a recce was in order. There was about a week between the day I contacted the client and the scheduled date for the actual shoot and so, with so many days in between, there was more than enough time to visit the locations in advance.

Essentially, getting acquainted with the location and its environs helps the photographer in these ways amid others:

  • lighting and light levels can be evaluated;
  • potential shots can be envisioned, optimal shooting positions pinpointed, and potential dangers or complications can be marked;
  • one becomes better acquainted not only with the client, but also with the staff;
  • both client and staff can be preliminary ‘briefed’ on what is to be expected during the shooting;
  • what equipment shall be needed can be determined.

For this assignment, I arranged with the client to visit both locations on the Saturday prior to the shoot date and, using my small format camera and a zoom lens which, for the most part, included the focal lengths I expected to be using on the day of the actual shoot, spent some time taking snapshots of the restaurants and some of the food items.

These are some of the recce pictures snapshots I took. Snapshots, says I, because they are blurry and not carefully composed –in fact, I didn’t even post-processed them… They don’t have to be pretty, but merely informative to the photographer.

For the first location…

 

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This composition looked like it could work if food were placed on the table; the background is too busy, though, rendering it unusable.

 

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Restaurant’s interior, as seen from one of the corners.

 

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Switching positions to have the building as background improves it. If properly set up, a shot using this composition can be a ‘keeper’. One is a the mercy of the weather here, though; and on the day of the shoot it was raining, so outside shots were impossible.

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Restaurant’s interior as seen from another corner.

And, the concept in practice: 

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When I took this picture I was focusing on the desserts. When I was analysing the photographs on my computer, however, I noticed the cards in the bottom and decided that they’d make excellent props for the ‘dessert shot’ that was required by the magazine.

 

The client was more than happy to oblige when I asked for one of the cards: I let her choose which one, and she suggested the one depicted as it said 'chocolat' and that's what the dessert is made of. Involving the clients in the shoot and asking for their feedback not only builds up a good relationship with them, but allows for better pictures: two heads do think more than one.

The client’s wife was more than happy to oblige when I asked for one of the cards: I let her choose which one, and she suggested the one You see here, as it said ‘chocolat’ and that’s what the dessert is made of. Involving the clients in the shoot and asking for their feedback not only builds up a good relationship with them, but allows for better pictures: two heads do think more than one. (100mm, 1.3 sec @ f/11, ISO 100)

  

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As I sat in the corner sipping coffe and continuing to study the location, I noticed the structure above the counter and how it undulated till it stopped at the round clock on the far wall. I knew I wanted to do something with this aspect of the interior design, so I took a picture. Later, at the computer, I espied the barista standing behind the counter, next to the espresso machine: a Heaven-sent arrangement that advanced my idea for a powerful picture. No matter what, I HAD to get this photograph, and so…

  

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The envisioned shot was executed. Lighting was a 45″ brolly to camera right, roughly in the 45-45 position; a bare flash to the right of the barista, hidden behind the espresso machine served as both a kicker light for her face and as an illuminant for the area behind her. This photo would have never been obtained without a recce. (24mm, 1/60 sec @ f/11, ISO 800)

 

For the second location…

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The standard head-on shot: quite documentary, but seldom full of impact. This type of shot can be made into a good picture; but in this case I found the house in the far background distracting right off the bat, so I decided I wouldn’t use this composition unless I had no other choice.

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Shooting at an angle with respect to the subject introduces diagonals, which add dynamism to a picture; if anchored with true verticals in order to maintain correct perspective (i.e. avoiding keystoning effects by using a lens with perspective control capabilities) they make powerful photographs. I liked this composition and marked it as candidate, noting that care should be taken to avoid including the sign from the business next door. Given that the client wanted a night-time shot, I seized the chance to ask him if the neighbouring business left its lights on at night: one more thing to consider for the final exposure.

 

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This composition was another candidate. The building to the left does not intrude as outlandishly as the house in the first shot of this series, plus its colours are roughly the same as the restaurant’s, and its lines can even be used to lead the eye towards the main subject.

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Shooting the vertical right after the horizontal, I marked this composition as a candidate as well. There’s some negative space in the foreground, but the sky is also included, and if it happens to be interesting it can add power to the shot or enhance its mood.

Now, in the praxis…

A test frame: a grid collimates the light, creating a spot-lighting effect. In this case, the flash head is aimed too low, and the faces of the subjects are in shadow.

A test frame: a grid on the flash head collimates the light, creating a spot-lighting effect. In this case, the flash head is aimed too low, and the faces of the subjects are in shadow.

The client wanted a night-time photograph of his business exterior because his wife liked the orange colours of the interior lighting at twilight. Having studied the pictures I shot in the reconnaisance session, I decided that the best angle and composition was that of the photograph immediately above. Now, even when one comes with a plan, there are always happenstances that can potentially ruin plan A, plan B and even plan C. In this case, there was a car parked right in front of the building, blocking the field of view, which did not belong to any of the restaurant’s patrons. As I was worrying about this and trying to reposition the camera, however, the owner came out of a nearby restaurant and moved it; thank God. Then it was just a matter of setting up the camera and waiting for the light levels to be just right: over a half-hour wait. Whilst waiting, I affixed a flash gun fitted with a CTO gel to the awning, aimed towards the wall, in an effort to eliminate the deep shadows over the door and introduce even more orange to the scene. Finally, at ~9:30 P.M., the colours were just right and I had to work fast. The two patrons inside and the client’s wife were asked to sit outside for the shot. I underexposed to keep the sky dark blue –even though it was cloudless (i.e. not very dynamic, ah well…)– and keep the interior lighting from blowing out (I did not worry too much about the white sign, but thank God it fell into the dynamic range and did not blow out, thus the lettering can be made out); this, of course, brought most of the scene into the realm of shadow, just as I wanted and needed for the lighting arrangement I had chosen. Working quickly, I aimed a flash gun fitted with a grid and a CTO gel towards the table at which the subjects were sitting, asked them to hold still for 2 full seconds once I signaled them, and released the shutter.

Now the flash head is properly aimed and this was the final shot. (24mm, 1.3 sec @ f/16, ISO 800)

Now the flash head is properly aimed and this was the final shot. (24mm, 1.3 sec @ f/16, ISO 800)

 

Moving onto the interior shots…

An average informative shot.

An average informative shot.

There were several I took during the recce. To the right is one of them, informing me, in addition to the layout of the place, that the ceiling is painted black and cannot be used to bounce flash light off of it, and that the illumination is given by tungsten lamps and so I have to come prepared with my CTO gels.

Below are the final shots obtained in the actual shoot. I prefer the first one, in which the background is thrown out of focus and the capuccino and cookie on the table become the focal point, but the magazine designer preferred the second, the ‘story-telling’ one in which everything is in focus. In retrospective, I was thankful I could shoot at the blue hour, a time of the day when the outside doesn’t blow out to white and demands multi-exposure techniques to come up with a decent picture: in these conditions only one frame is needed. Lighting was a blend of ambient and a 45″ brolly to the right of the subjects, its flash gun fitted with a 1/2 CTO gel.

My preferred version, in which I tilted the lens to throw the background out of focus. (24mm, 2.5 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 200)

My preferred version. The lens was tilted to throw the background out of focus. (24mm tilted, 2.5 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 200)

The magazine's preferred version, with everything in focus from front to back: what photographer Bryan Peterson would call 'a story-telling picture'.

The magazine’s preferred version, with everything in focus from front to back: what photographer Bryan Peterson would call ‘a story-telling picture’. (24mm, 1.6 sec @ f/13, ISO 800)

 

As useful as recces are, they are not always possible, unfortunately. Time constrains, unmatching schedules, and even lack of cooperation on the part of some clients, can leave the photographer unable to see the location until the date of the shoot. In lieu of a recce, one can always ask questions of the client either on the phone of via other means of electronic communication. Doing this is not as good as doing a recce, however, as people do not always have the time, or are often confused by the questions being asked (yea, I have gotten my share of ‘huh’s’ when asking if the illumination in a given location is fluorescent or tungsten and how many windows there are and what is their orientation). It is, nonetheless, possible to do a successful shoot without a previous reconnaisance: it will just take longer than with one.

For those times when a recce was not possible to do, it does help to arrive to the location early to do some scouting and try to assemble a shooting plan on the spot. It is important to note that, recce or no recce, the process of previsualisation still has to be carried out: this is unavoidable –nothing ever comes into existence without being imagined first.

Now, I imagine it’s time for me to start planning on oncoming tasks, Little One, and so I take a momentary leave of You, whilst remaining

Ever Yours.

 


References:

^^1. Gerry Kopelow, How to Photograph Buildings and Interiors (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998) 15.