Jun 24, 2010

Things I did wrong on my last shoot, Vol. 3

Mission: take some punchy shots of a fuse. (Not the "honey, why is it so dark in here" kind, but the "won't that coyote ever learn" kind.)

In the course of shooting "photo booth" type images at parties, I like to go all out. I mean, why offer just formal shots, when you can throw in props and wigs?

(Okay, sometimes this goes a little overboard. )

But why use a plastic scimitar, when you can use that samurai sword that's been collecting dust in the garage since you were nineteen.

And, for that matter, why have someone holding just a samurai sword, when they could be holding... a lit bomb? I get like Bruce Willis when he's gearing up to exact his revenge on Zed.

For my next shoot, I got it into my head that I'd like someone holding a classic "bowling ball" bomb—without all the fuss something like that could cause on location. Lit bomb fuses? These days,  you can't even smoke in the parking lot at Phillip Morris.

It's not that I don't like to bend the rules sometimes, but when you're already juggling camera settings, strobes and tipsy party guests, you hardly need to throw a smoky, sparking TNT fuse into the mix.

The solution, of course, is to do it in post, and what could be easier than a slapping on a generic layer of sparks in screen mode? So, I take a trip to iStockphoto, and quickly realize that nobody has the image I'm picturing. Everything says "sparkler ". I want something that says "Acme".

DIY time. I mean, I'd much rather pay five bucks for a JPEG, but any chance to play with incendiaries and a camera? Done deal.

So, I buy a bunch of cheap fireworks from the local sleazebag (note: you can buy a "Flamebomber Nightstorm" no problem, but you can't buy fuse on its own. Umm... okay.) then hang a black velvet backdrop from some light stands in my kitchen.

Rule #1: Don't forget to remove the fuse from the ordinance.

The plan:
  • Bracket like mad, with various apertures, to see what combo works best.
  • Use battery grip and high-speed CF card to maximize shots per burn.
  • Use a tripod, macro lens, and wireless shutter-release.
  • Go manual focus.
  • Put something wide and fire-resistant on the floor.
  • Open the windows, and pray that Lysol will kill the smell.
  • Don't do this right before the G20. Whoops .

[crappy photo of set-up, taken with D700 something else]

What went right:

  1. Bracketing exposures produced some dragged shutter that emphasized smoke cloud. Neat.
  2. The always-pleasing "fuh-tsh-tsh-tsh-tsh-tsh-tsh" sound of Continuous High mode.
  3. Fire. Love it.
  4. Got exactly what I envisioned and then some.
What went wrong? Well, there's those small burn marks on the soon-to-be-reno'd kitchen floor. No sweat this time, but the only thing getting shot in our kitchen after August will be me, if I try this stunt again.

One thing I would do differently... that I should probably consider will absolutely do on every future shoot, time permitting?

Take a ten minute break to consider a totally new line of attack (i.e. before all the fuses are burnt). Had I done that on this shoot, I might have tried something different, namely... burn the fuse upside down.

Dang. Never got a chance to try it, but the possibilities are intriguing. The sparks would shoot in a more vertical, blowtorch manner and, as a bonus, the fuse would burn faster, as would the linoleum!

Maybe next time.

Jun 11, 2010

Fathers' Day Cheat Sheet

[As seen in this month's Chill magazine. Available wherever you buy fine stout.]

You may not like him—or even know him—but if your name isn't Anakin, you have a father out there. He's not necessarily wise, and he can't play God of War for beans, but if you tolerate the way he nods off at Thanksgiving and blames his farts on the cat, it's time to throw the man some respect. June 20th happens to be a great day of the year to reconcile male bonding with family duty.

Now, there are those of us who are fathers, and those who will be fathers. There's also a group I refer to as 'The Others'. The Others are a tribe of men who play Texas Hold 'em until three on a weeknight; sleep in late; and think Yo Gabba Gabba is a Chinese cellist who covers Ramones tunes. I'm not talking to you guys. Go buy an iPad app.

There are also those out there who are fathers but—spoiler alert—just don't know it yet. Men in this category should consider Fathers' Day a time to give their collective heads a shake. Because, if you're in any danger of unwittingly siring an offspring, consider the following a Public Service Announcement:

Dude, since you've obviously harnessed the Axe-effect, might I suggest swinging by the latex aisle the next time you visit Shoppers. The women of Canada—and all taxpayers—thank you in advance.

Now, when you think about it, it should really be called Dad's Day. I mean, any turkey-baster with motile sperm can be a father, but it takes a real man to be a Dad. 'Father' is so clinical and Victorian. A 'father' is a man who brings home coal and asks you to fetch a switch when you don't wipe you nose properly. Surely, no kid has ever said, "Thanks for the Xbox, father."

But to be called 'Dad'... that's totally different. It means you are genuinely sought after, and likely free of scandal. Maury Povich never pauses dramatically, and says, "You are the Dad." Dad's know what they are, and work hard at it. Which poses the question: how did we end up with a crappy expression like 'Deadbeat Dad'? This is an oxymoron on par with 'friendly fire' and 'stationary orbit'. I've got a news flash for you, Daddy No-bucks: If you've ever blown your kid's sneaker budget chasing an inside straight, you have as much claim to the title 'Dad' as I do to 'Rwanda's toughest vegan'.

So, assuming you are the man of honour, here is one hard truth to consider... the only people who get excited about Fathers' Day are... kids. Think about it. Your wife hasn't forgiven you for that 'Wii Fit Oprah-ciser' you got her for Mothers' Day, so she's not going to be your wingman on the sleep-in thing. Your parents only call when they need to know how to 'unfriend' someone on Facebook. And even Robin Williams on Prozac would rather hit the links than celebrate the day he got one through the posts. So buck up and consult the following when you're stumped...

Priority #1:
Keep the kids from crying...

  • If you smell burnt toast, you're not having a stroke. That will come later.
  • Depending on the age of your kids, you have macaroni-art heading your way. Just smile, and try not to inhale too much glitter.
  • If they give you a tie, put it on right away so they have one clear memory of you wearing it.
  • If they give you cologne, they're just following the playbook. (If they give you Listerine and 1000 yards of mint floss, there may actually be a hint in there.)
  • Kids eventually realize that sleeping-in is the best gift of all. This occurs near their 30th birthday.
Priority #2:
Take care of your own Dad...

  • Call him after 11. That's all he wants. And try as they might, there is still no such thing as a masculine Hallmark card.
  • Bonus Points: If your name's Patrick, tell him you took out life insurance. Good for you, son!
  • Want to get creative? Turn a cliché on its head by giving Thai, rather than a tie. (My advice? Food, not massage.)
Priority #3:
If you're a wife...
  • You know how you like a box that says DeBeer's? We like a box that says DeWalt.
  • If you promise to not bug us for 24 hours, we promise never to say, "Who's yer daddy"
And to The Others, I say, enjoy your rest. I hope life in the fast-food lane is every bit as enjoyable as I remember it to be. Do at least two of the following for the Gipper, will ya?

  • Set your alarm for 2 in the afternoon... just to see if you can make it.
  • Walk into a Walmart... then leave immediately. Savour this memory.
  • Go to a theatre and pick a movie on the spot. Too early? Grab a beer and read the paper.
  • If you're feeling especially cruel, drop by a pet store and loudly talk about the six puppies you want to buy for your daughter, "just because she's worth it".
And, finally, let's not forget those fathers who aren't with us any more. If you can spare a thought, why not offer thanks to those deserving dads who went to that great workshop in the sky (especially since you're guaranteed to get the last word for once). Just don't get carried away when giving props to your main homie. Unless Dad had the word "Ice" or "MC" in his name, there's no need to pour a malt liquor down the sewer. 

Come to think of it, that's pretty much the only place it deserves to go. I stand corrected.

Jun 10, 2010

Things I did wrong on my last shoot, Vol. 2

... or, "How I Became a Muslin Extremist".

With a charity shoot, it's usually up to you to come up with the idea and see it through. And since nobody's paying the piper, you generally get to call the tune.

So make it a jam session..

On my last shoot, what was required was a pay-per-shot "photo booth" for a large party. I figured on some formal stuff and some crazy stuff. The perfect time to stretch out a little.

Last year at Lobsterfest, I kicked the tires on a 9' white seamless, complete with shiny tileboard on the floor. Pure Arias. Definitely a classy look, but—as it turns out—impractical on location. (You can read about that set-up here.)

This year, I decided to forgo the seamless headache, and try a black muslin—no flooring. Basically, the exact opposite of last year. 90% for practicality, 10% because I wanted to try something different.

[Special thanks to Headshots in Toronto, by the way, who donated the muslin and a floor stand for the weekend. Love these guys.]

Because I already knew the location, I didn't re-scout it. I cetainly should have, but there were no surprises. (Last year I got to compete with people crowding the line of an all-you-can-eat lobster buffet. It actually worked out pretty well, but I still have nightmares involving melted butter and a slippery tileboard. Hello liability insurance.)

The new space was better in many ways, slightly worse in others. I had a little alcove right by the main entrance; a cul-du-sac with zero chance of cross-traffic. It was about seven feet across, twenty feet deep, with tons of height.

  • Right by the entrance means people notice you and remember to drop by.
  • I'll take ceiling height over any other dimension. In this case, I had height to spare for a backdrop, plus a hairlight. Hell, I probably could have snuck a hammock up there.
  • A deep space means lots of distance between the b/g and the subject. Way awesome.
  • No width means no rim lights.
  • No width means no wide group group shots. I think that's actually a "pro", come to think of it.
  • No width means people are tripping over light stands and props on their way in.
A 24"x24" softbox (SB-800) was my key light. No problem there. I set it for TTL, since I knew the light-to-subject distance would vary depending on the number of people in the shot. I wanted the key close to people for two reasons: a larger apparent light source, and less illumination of the dark grey black muslin, due to fall-off. 

Getting it right in-camera is the way to avoid aneurisms in post—especially when you're talking about 300 frames or so when it's all over.

I wanted reasonable depth of field, so I shot at f/11. I bumped the ISO up to 400 to improve my recycle time on the strobes. and set shutter for 1/200, as I recall. After that, it was all up to the lighting.

Just like exposing white seamless for the brightest (usable) whites, when you use a black backdrop, the closer you can get it to pure black, the easier it is to burn it in post if it catches some reflection. Unlike white seamless, you cannot over-darken a background. There is no inverse to lens flare.

So, I shoot a grey card...

... then promptly forget to shoot any set-up shots. Argh. (I don't know where my brain goes when I'm on location. If I were shooting on the set of Iron Man 4, with Joe McNally holding the bounce card and Scarlett Johansson manning the wind machine, I would still probably forget to take a set-up shot. Tunnel-vision, anyone?)

After chimping, I bounce the key light with a Tri-Grip taped up on the right wall—again because of width limitations.

Not using rim lights was a drag, mostly because David Hobby had just whet my appetite the day before with this post. But I still needed separation light—lots of black suits and dresses to consider. That meant: speedlight... high, and to the back. I couldn't find a clamp, so I used a light stand at its highest reach, then dropped the muslin by about 6 inches to accommodate.

For lens flare,  I gobo'd the SB-800 with a Honl snoot, sitting up top like a baseball cap. I went back to my shooting location, and made sure I wasn't getting flare. 

This was the look for most of the shoot. I locked the stobe on Manual. If I did it again, I would try a Lumiquest softbox (or two!) to get more even coverage. (I'd probably back off on the nuke factor, too.)

For only a two-light shoot, I was happy with the results, but if I could go back and do it again, I'd bring along my ringflash to fill in those eyes.

Eyes. Eyes. Eyes. It's all about the eyes.

So what went wrong? Not much, actually. I could have used more separation light on the sides and a glint of ringflash would have iced the cake nicely. My full-length shots illustrate the need for a kicker on the floor, but I generally wasn't looking for full length, anyway. (I certainly wasn't cropping for it.) Having the guests bring along some props was a life-saver, too.

What went right? Almost everything.

Everyone had a blast, and the tickle-trunk let people get creative after their formal shots. The guests were nicely lubricated after dinner, and if you're ever looking to generate a little traffic, you could do worse than having a bunch of women, dressed to the nines, shreiking about who gets the samurai sword. We raised a whack of cash for our daycare, and I stuffed my business card in as many fists as possible.

Most importantly... I didn't have to pack a fracking 8'x4' tileboard into my Hyundai at the end of the night.

The full shoot is here.