Sunday, December 4, 2011

mayhem at the mcglinchey's (part one)

This will be part one of what may or may not be a consecutive series. What took place yesterday was a family holiday shoot. I decided to do many different scenes with many different lighting scenarios that would be better explained, to avoid confusion, in multiple posts.

Without further ado, mayhem at the McGlinchey's...

The Call

It was about a two weeks ago when driving down 95 south, listening to The Left Lane Cruiser's jam, "Giving Tree," imagining what it was that I would have for dinner that night, that my iPhone lit up with Jimmy McGlinchey's name upon the screen. He must have a sixth sense of when it would be most inappropriate of times to call me. Instead of hitting the ignore button, I decided to take the call and turn down my radio.

As I answered the phone, with my headset on of course as I am trying my best not to be a scofflaw these days, Jimmy and I began our conversation as we usually do. Rather than ask each other the boring things like how each of us are doing, we immediately just tear into each other. Battle of wits if you will.

It wasn't long into the conversation that Jimmy asked if I would have availability to do a holiday portrait of his wonderful family. I more than eagerly agreed. I was pumped. Lemme explain. You see, it wasn't too long ago that I was toying around with the idea of doing a shoot like the one seen herein. Problem was that aside from some execution, strategical and logistical details that I needed to work on, I didn't know who would be bait for my off-the-wall idea. I decided to pitch Jimmy. My idea was to shoot a somewhat dysfunctional family at the dinner table. Jimmy and I had ideas of what to call it but none of them would be appropriate for a public website such as this. Regardless, he loved the idea, only problem was that he needed to convince his other half, Jennifer, to play ball. As it turned out, she too was close by while we were on the phone. Jimmy threw the speaker phone on (I hate speaker phone) and I pitched her with the idea but in a more subtle fashion than I did with Jimmy. To my surprise, she was game. Sweeeeeet! I immediately began to scribble down minor details and notes to myself of how I would pull it off.

Now, there was to be a tradeoff. You see, guys like Jimmy and myself would be aptly pleased to have such a wonderful holiday portrait. Unfortunately, it is typically the other halves that make the final decisions on big ones like these. Would Jimmy's wife Jen be pleased to hang a funky portrait of her family over the mantle 30 years from now? Maybe not, although she should. Fair enough, she, along with the funktified portraiture that I had planned to shoot, wanted some "traditional" shots of the family. I quote traditional since what I try to do is typically not traditional. I explained this to Jen in great detail. I explained that I had no intentions of placing the family near a tree in the living room and firing off a few snapshots. Just not my style. I further explained that if she absolutely wanted shots near a tree, that I would have to throw my personal twist on them. She obliged and the date was set.

As I already explained, I would post the McGlinchey shoot in different parts. It was decided that we would be shooting different looks in different locations, which all would require different lighting scenarios all with different flavor. My wheels were spinning like crazy days leading up to the shoot. I couldn't wait to get this one going.

One Day Prior To Shoot Day

As I do with all shoots, I spend the night before with preparation. I probably should create a physical checklist but just haven't gotten around to doing that yet. First, I usually throw all of my needed batteries into a charger. These are typically my strobe batteries. Next, I grab the main and backup cameras to make sure they are functioning properly. I also go as far as to change settings from a previous shoot, so that I'm starting fresh on the day of the shoot. What I mean is that I will usually adjust the shutter, aperture, ISO and white balance to very neutral numbers. Not sure why I am that anal but it just gives me peace of mind. After settings are in check, I then remove all batteries and have them charged as well. Next, I check to see if I have ample battery backup. I typically throw in a few packs of AA's, just in case. You see, I don't use rechargeable batteries for my Pocketwizards. Those are typical AA's. Reason being that I use the regular ones for the PW's is that they use very little energy when compared to a strobe. They last for many shoots but the problem that occurs is that I usually forget how many shoots I've used for each trigger. Once in a while, I'll trash the ones that are in there for a fresh set, just in case. For this shoot, I felt that it wasn't too long ago that I swapped them out, so I would just leave those in there for the time being. If any would start to misfire, I would have backup in my bag.

The next thing I check is the camera bag. I make sure that I pack the appropriate equipment; lenses, cleaners, wiring, et. al. Once that bag is in check, I move on to my strobe bag. In that bag, I store all speedlights, pocketwizards, gels, PC jacks, justin clamps and small modifiers such as my Rogue grids. At this point, so far so good. One last bag to check is my light stand/modifier bag. This is the heavy duty bag that came with my Calumet lightstands. It stores three of my ten foot stands along with some of my larger modifiers. I typically keep three 45 inch brollies and my newest 60 inch monster brolly courtesy of my friends at Calumet.

One snag. I grabbed that modifier from Calumet just about a week ago only to discover that the shaft was stripped. No big deal. The next day's shoot was to start in the mid afternoon time. I had ample time to make it over to Calumet to make the exchange as I was planning on using that beast of a modifier. It's freaking huge. Plenty of size to throw light onto an entire family, with room to spare. That sucker would suck up lots of light so I was planning on throwing two strobes into it. I digress.

Shoot Day 

My shoot days are usually begun the same as always, shaky. Yep, my nerves begin to kick in and along with the black coffee intake my hands begin to look like those of a bastard son that Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali would produce. I try to meditate a bit while driving. I usually do this by listening to something on WXPN, the World Cafe Live's radio station in Philly. On Saturday's they usually play some of their more unusual tracks. I end up hearing Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes, whom I dig tons, puts my mood at ease a bit.

My first stop is to Calumet on Delaware Ave. (Columbus blvd. for the non-Philly natives). They swapped out my 60 inch in no time at all. Luckily, they had only one more in stock. Close call. From there is was over the Walt Whitman Bridge into New Jersey. I try to concentrate on the road as I simultaneously stare at my iPhone's navigator, as I have only been to the McGlinchey residence a couple of times. I have a general idea of where it's at but need the GPS to guide me in. As I head down Route 41 towards their home, I notice that there are many interesting places that we could do the outdoor portion of the shoot. Minutes later I arrive and Jimmy greets me outside. Boy did he look like a dork. I could immediately tell that his wife had put this outfit on him. Collared shirt and a sweater aren't his style on a daily basis. I have to admit it was funny to see him dressed up. I entered the house and was greeted by the family. His sister and brother-in-law were on their way out. Jen, the mom, was running around trying to get the kids prepared in their holiday outfits. I could sense the chaos and the tension. All the time they were running around like chickens minus their heads, I was eyeing up their kitchen to see how I would create a photo that would do this post's title proud.

Soon after my arrival we decided to do the home shooting last. All of the outdoor stuff, that you will see in upcoming posts, we would get out of the way first. The family packed into their Cadillac SUV and headed out as I followed behind.

Back At The House

After completing the "traditional" stuff, it was time to get freaky. First step was to get the kitchen in proper disarray. The photograph in my mind called for disorder. The kitchen table was moved from the eating area to the cooking area. This would give a sense of smallness, if you will. I wanted everything to me jammed in the frame. Chaotic. While Jen, Jimmy and the kids went upstairs to change into their appropriate attire, I began to set up the lighting.

Jimmy came down wearing a sleeveless t-shirt and some colorful pajama pants. Jen wore the wardrobe that I had envisioned for her, a house dress, curlers and an apron. Can you say awesome?! Olivia and Gracie were wearing their winter PJs. Hojo, the dog would also be starring in this portrait. Luckily, food was delivered just before we got to shooting, as the food would also play a role in the shoot. We messed things up a bit. Jimmy would be drinking Yuengling cans while ignoring his children and talking on his cell phone. Jen would also be paying no attention to the family while reading a chick magazine. The kids would be doing everything they shouldn't be doing. Olivia would be playing with the stove and Gracie feeding the dog from the table. Choreographing this whole thing would take some finesse. Think about it. We would use a dog a main character, who would need to take his mark and hold it. Not an easy task by any means. After everyone took their places I began to shoot. The dog was hardly cooperative. Tension began to rise as we were trying to get the family to sync perfectly for each frame fired. Somehow, it was pulled off. Patience was running thin so I didn't want to drag it out more than the family could endure.

The Nuts And Bolts

Here's a diagram of the lighting setup for the shot above. Excuse the lack of reality the diagram entails but it is the best I could do with the tools that are offered. Actually, not too bad considering. If wondering, these awesome lighting diagrams can be created and downloaded [here]. I know, I know, the dog isn't in the diagram. I was going to draw one freehand but felt that the diagram was busy enough. Just imagine little Hojo in digital format.

By glancing at the photo one may think that it was all done in post. Truth be told, I actually didn't do too much post production work at all. Minutes in the digital darkroom helped produce the final image. The real work was done on location.

In camera I went with a shutter speed of 1/200 to kill any ambient in the room. Although I was shooting with a 7d which could have handled a much higher ISO, I decided to stick it at ISO 100, so that all of my light would be produced by the strobes. The aperture was f/5.6. This would give more depth of field so that the family would be in focus. For my lens choice, I went wide, at 17mm to be exact. To get the angle that I shot, I was standing on a step ladder provided by the McGlinchey family. The white balance was set to daylight, which was key for making this effect possible. I messed around with some different Kelvin settings but daylight was the winner.

Now, here's where things get interesting, for us nerds anyway. What really stands out in the image is the crazy colors. This was produced via gels. I didn't go subtle in that department. The strobe at camera right was gelled with two, count 'em, two full CTB (color temperature blue) gels. Yes, you heard correct, I doubled up on the gels. At camera left was another heavily gelled strobe. But this time, I added two red gels. Finally, the rim light from far off camera right, placed strategically in the hallway was gelled with a single green gel. If you were wondering, the gels were Rosco's Strobist collection. You can find those [here].

Obviously, I used three strobes. The two front strobes were Vivitar 285HV speedlights, while the kicker was a Canon 430EX ii speedlite. Up front I had the Vivitars set to 1/2 power, zoomed all the way in to produce the hardest and harshest of shadows possible. From the rear, the Canon was also set to 1/2 power, with a slightly wider angle for ample coverage. No, my friends, no modifiers here. Hard light was my goal and hard light is what I produced. I wanted awkward and unpleasing shadows. The bare strobes zoomed in to the max yielded these desired effects. The 60 inch monster remained in the bag. In hindsight, I'm particularly happy with the green gel on the kicker. I love the way it adds that awful color to the rim of the subjects, as well as, the fridge.

All of the strobes were triggered via Pocketwizard radio triggers. I <3 Pocketwizard!

Back To Base

I arrived home in the early evening, dying to upload the files to see what I really produced. It's hard to judge while chimping the camera's LCD during the shoot. Many times the results you see on the camera's LCD are deceiving. It's when the RAW files are opened on the MacBook Pro that the truth is revealed. Could I shoot tethered? Sure. Just not ready to take that step yet.

In Adobe's Bridge, I immediately went for the files from the kitchen shoot. The "traditional" shots would wait. I quickly opened up the best of the bunch and began working. In the Adobe RAW editor, I didn't mess with the white balance since I didn't want to screw with any of the colors that were purposely tweaked with the gels. In the RAW editor, I simply bumped the clarity and vibrance a bit and then went to the details section to adjust for detail and noise reduction. Not much needed in those departments either. One tool that was quite useful was vignetting. I added a heavy dose of vignette to focus the viewer to the center of the frame. Once the vignette was complete I opened the file in Photoshop to add some final tweaking.

Aside from my usual Photoshop edits, such as sharpening and corrections, I added a few more of what I thought would make this baby pop. First was to up the tonal contrast approximately 30% via Nik's Color Efex Pro plugin. Once added I bumped up each individual gel colors, green, blue and red. I think that was about it. Again, it was only a matter of minutes it took for the post production process. The heavy lifting was primarily done in camera and with strobe manipulation.


A success if I had to say. I would have liked to have had a messier/dirtier scene but with time restrictions I think that what I had envisioned before shooting, the results are pretty close to those ideas.

A special thanks to the McGlinchey's for allowing my insanity into their home.