Recently, I had the opportunity to shoot a family in Fairmount Park, in Philadelphia. I want to start by saying that the shoot was not supposed to happen there. It is a rare event that things go as planned when leading up to a particular photo shoot. As the photographer, I need to always think two steps ahead, like a game of chess. Or, as a good friend shared with me on one fine day, "Prepare for the worst, hope for the best." For some reason, that statement has been my mantra for situations just like the one you are about to learn about.
It had to be sometime in late August when I had received an email from Heidi Shober (the mom in the photo). She had encountered one of the photos I created. It was posted here on the blog. Funny thing, it was the photo of the wife and myself. A self portrait of sorts. You can find that photo [here]. Anyways, she fell in love with the shot. Heidi had decided that she would like me to shoot her family in a similar fashion. Basically, she wanted my very unique twist on things. There would be plenty of time to prepare since it was August and she wanted to know if I had availability in November. I told her that my schedule for November looked good and that she should contact me when she decides to move forward with the project.
A few months had past and no word from Heidi. I didn't sweat it though. I had plenty of work lined up and thought to myself that maybe she decided to push the date to a later time or decided not to hire me at all.
Wouldn't you know it? Heidi resurfaced. The wife and I went out for a walk one Sunday afternoon and decided to grab some coffee at Cosi, a franchise cafe/restaurant. Their Tandoori chicken sandwich is quite delicious. I usually have them add fresh mozzarella. Mmmmm, cheese. I love cheese. Wow, I have totally lost my train of thought. My mouth is watering. So, we were waiting for the barista to serve us our drinks when, wouldn't ya know, Heidi bumps into us. We spoke of the shoot but still had not set a date in stone. I let her know to shoot me an email anytime and we would figure out a plan.
The Call (s)
I believe it was a Wednesday night. I was driving somewhere, probably on my way to Super Fresh to pick up ingredients for that night's meal. The wife often sends me a text message of what items I am to purchase for the meal she would be creating. While driving, I notice the phone ringing. It was Heidi. I answer. We talk. She had explained that she would need the shoot complete that following weekend. I do admit, I was a bit floored. Little prep time for this gig. On the other hand, she did mention back in the summer that she would need the shoot completed sometime in November. At the time of the call, it was indeed November and I gave my word months before that I would make that month work for her. I penciled her into my iCal for that following weekend.
Later that week Heidi and I collaborated on where we would do the shoot. She wanted to have it done at Longwood Gardens, in Kennet Square, Pennsylvania. We both thought that would be quite appropriate since Heidi is in the flower business. She is the CEO of Wild Indigo Gardens, a company that specializes in landscaping, hardscaping and outdoor design. Although not my cup of tea, the flowered theme would fit this portrait session.
Having been to Longwood Gardens, I'm very aware of their stringent rules. Security there is as tight as JFK airport just after 9/11. Ok, that may be exaggerating a bit but they are a bit on the anal side with their rules. I decided to look up their policies and procedures regarding photography. As it turns out and not to my surprise, anything more than a point and shoot would require your first born child as a monetary sacrifice, just to add a tripod.
I explained to Heidi that the facility does not welcome photographers such as myself. My bags and bags of lighting and equipment wouldn't make it past the security check. I toyed with the idea of sneaking the gear in and giving it a shot but something told me that would probably end up a bit messy. I didn't want to be tackled by a team of rent-a-cops and locked into some dungeon below the grounds of the place. I let Heidi know that if she would want some boring ambient based shots at the gardens, I would be more than happy to do them. But, she contacted me due to my style of photography that requires lots of lighting. I advised her that it would probably be best if we changed venues.
After a few conversations and the clock ticking, we decided on Fairmount Park. I mean hell, the park is over 4000 acres in size, there has got to be at least one spot I could find to do some awesome shots.
Before leaving the house that day, I decided to shoot Heidi a text. Knowing that the park is pretty big, to say the least, I would have to do some scouting to find out where exactly the shoot would occur. I explained, in the text, that upon arrival, I would give her the exact coordinates.
After checking, double and triple checking the gear, I loaded up the SUV and hit the road. Along side of me was my very reliable business manager/assistant/VAL (voice activated lightstand)/wife, Stefanie. Our destination? Unknown. That's right, I had absolutely no idea where I would even begin to search through 4000+ acres of land.
Not a long ride from my digs, I arrived at the park in minutes. Funny thing with Fairmount park, it's hard to tell where it begins and where it ends. Sometimes you may or may not be in the park and not even know it.
First to explore would be the uber cliche spots that one would think to be a cool place to shoot. Places like Boathouse Row or along Kelly Drive just shouted out to me but just not the right word. I kept hearing the word, boring, being pounded in my head as I drove by such significant landmarks. I would keep on driving. I decided to take some random turns down and up some random roads. I was now basically trying to get myself lost in the park, only to discover some eureka moment.
After hanging more than a few Ueys (U-turns), I discovered the spot. There it was. It shouted out to me but this time in a good way. It was as if the Holy Grail was glowing at this exact location. Here's the kicker. It was far from pretty. Trash was strewn across the grass. Buildings were dilapidated. Tree trunks on the grown with no signs of life in them. It was perfect! That's one of the secrets of photography. You need to find interesting. Create it. Don't go down that road that the others travel. On that day, I was on a mission to find a little slice of interesting in a land mass that I can't even really speculate how large it really is. It takes time, effort and creativity but when it's found, the feeling is glorious.
What I found was the grounds of Strawberry Mansion. Not sure the history of the mansion. I just knew that this would be the spot. My business manager, on the other hand, did not agree as much. Why? Well, as I parked up the vehicle, we noticed a beat up van nearby. A very suspicious man doing God knows what had the wife feeling a bit uneasy. I have to admit, he looked every bit as shady as shady could be. His van was one that when you see drive down your street, you yell for the children to go inside and lock the doors. Yep, it had kidnapper written all over it. Had to be an early '80's model. Flat black paint job, as if he did it with a few cans of Rust-oleum, to change the color in a pinch as the law was after his butt for some highly punishable crime. He was dressed every bit the same. Filthy black pants, black shirt and jacket. He kept going into the back for something. Beating his captives if I had to guess. Anyways, I was more worried about my gear than anything. Sounds awful, I know. Rather than scout another location, I just kept my gear very close to me. Oh yeah, I kept my wife close too.
Latitude and Longitude
Rather than try and figure out where I was by triangulating my position on earth with the sun, I decided to locate myself with the map on my iPhone. I took a screenshot of this location and sent it to Heidi. Her approximate arrival time would be about 45 minutes from the moment I sent the coordinates.
In that time I would be able to walk around the area, with an eye on the creepy dude of course, finding specific spots I would place the family of four. While doing this, I also had the 7d out to get some exposure readings. I wanted to knock down the ambient by at least two stops so that I could pull some richness from the land and sky, while adding speedlights for effect.
After finding a few ideal spots, I decided to haul the equipment over to an appropriate spot. I also brought along a blanket to lie on the ground. This would be where I place all of my gear. I didn't want to lay gear on the randomness of the ground and lose something small yet significant. The blanket served as a great gear protector.
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J.D. and Heidi's children are Jackson and Dillon (or Dylan), Jackson being the older of the two. I was pleased and excited to have the opportunity to shoot this family. As usual, my nerves were in overdrive and like the Geto Boys once said, my mind is playin' tricks on me. I was spinning the wheels up between my ears trying to think of an awesome lighting scenario. How much would I knock down the ambient? Where to place the kicker? To mod or not to mod? I fought the urge to second guess myself and just took a deep breath and jumped into the zone.
The Games Begin
Without hesitation, I begin, with my assistant's assistance, directing the family into position number one. I fire off a test shot to get an exposure reading. Then, I knock down the shutter speed a bit to darken things up a tad. Next, I fire up the Pocketwizard to see how my strobes are feeling. Once all are working harmoniously, I tweak my aperture until I find the strobes are not under or overexposing the scene. I was going for dramatic here (duh, what else is new?) and coordinating the ambient with flash is how dramatic is achieved.
The children were getting a bit restless and I knew I had to start picking up the pace. Minutes after shooting about 50 frames at the first location, it was time to move on to a new spot. I didn't want to spend the whole shoot in one area as I my creativity may explode with some new idea by moving the family into a slightly new spot. The large dead tree was calling me and I just had to get them over there. The juxtaposition of Heidi and her family upon a dead tree, I felt, was extremely interesting since she is in the business of flowers and such. Or, maybe I'm just weird, who knows.
It was probably another 50 frames that I shot near the broken tree. I now had two totally different looks to work with. The first being the leaved ground near the edge of a hill. I wanted to get one more look (see first photo). The dilapidated building was the spot. It reminded me of ruins that one would find after a bombing in Germany during the second world war. In the first photo, I tried to capture a sense of fear of what is coming. Not your typical family portrait by any means, as I'm not the typical shooter by any means. I digress.
All in all, I think the shoot was beyond successful. Heidi was diggin' the self portrait I did at the Jersey Shore, so I wanted to create something different for her family. I didn't want to get to crazy though, as it is a family portrait. Have to keep the line drawn somewhat. Had it been just the couple, I would have probably gotten a bit freakier.
How I Did It
I'm not sure what my deal is lately but I've really been going mod-less when fighting the sun for light. I think I'm a bit self-concious about any modifier sucking up the power I need to battle the big strobe in the sky. Crazy? Perhaps.
So, how did I overpower the sun with strobes? Easy, use lots of flash with lots of power. No high speed sync, ND filters, monoblocs or special chips here. I did not have to ask the DOE for permission to suck the world's power reserves for the day of shooting. I simply was working with speedlights and double As. Three and twelve, respectively.
As mentioned earlier, I to get the effects that you are seeing in the photos, I knocked down the ambient a couple of stops, powered up the strobes and fired away. All triggering done via Pocketwizard of course. My wife has officially called me a unfaithful spouse. She feels that the polygamy between her, the Pocketwizards, Bruno (our dog) and myself, just isn't working.
Where was I? Yes! Knock that sun right out of the park with some smart decisions. Ok, ok, I'm not blowing out any backgrounds using this technique but as long as you are comfortable shooting at apertures above and beyond f/2.8, than this technique will suffice.
I used three strobes, two basically on the same plane, providing a larger and more powerful light source. A third speedlite was used from behind as a kicker or rim. All strobes were set to 1/2 power with their heads at a normal focal length. To vary their power, I either tweak my aperture or adjust the flash to subject distance. Using the same strobes over a period of time allows you to get very comfortable with their capabilities. Once comfortable with their strengths and weaknesses, I have also become very aware of how I can use the Inverse Square Law, in my favor.
Camera settings varied from shot to shot, depending on how the sun/ambient was changing. I kept the ISO speed at a low and noise friendly 100. Shutter was tweaked up or down depending on that sun's shift of positioning and cloud cover. I shot anywhere between a 1/200 and 1/320 of a second, outsmarting that camera's sync speed recommendations. Aperture settings were adjusting accordingly to how much power I needed from the strobes. That varied anywhere from f/8.0 on up to f/11.0, depending on my needs.
I wrapped the whole shoot up in just over an hour. Not bad considering when driving through the park, I didn't have a clue of where I would even place the subjects.
Back at the home base, the RAW files were ready for some of my flava. I kept the edits subtle but not too subtle. I felt different photos required different treatments, depending on the scene and final exposure. Other than that, the editing process, as far as editing goes, was pretty much on par as I have been doing lately.
Other than that, the day was a success. I look forward to shooting at that location again.
Until next time...