Sunday, March 25, 2012

music photography - how to rock it

Over here in Philly, it was quite the busy weekend. I awoke Saturday to a text message from old friend Christopher Maxwell. Chris and I went to high school together. We played on the football team together. Chris played center and I was a defensive tackle. Beyond the classroom and football field, we also teamed up to do some heavy partying and troublemaking. As do many relationships, we ended up losing contact after going our separate ways to different universities.

Maxwell and I reunited in a minimal way via facebook. Amazing, that facebook. I didn't find the friending too out of the ordinary, as I connected with many old friends through this social networking monstrosity. Truth of the matter is, I don't really expect relationships to mature any further than just that, a digital profile amongst the masses of others that call themselves friends on the site.

Christopher and myself were friends on facebook for at least a year without any formal contact beyond the initial "friend request." A few months back, and to my surprise, I received a message from the old pal. Turns out that he has entered the addicting world of photography that, like many who get the itch, has been in the process of transforming an obsessive hobby into a business. Far from easy but with the right motivations, anything is possible.

Christopher's Artistic Transformation

Funny thing, Chris and myself were not your typical artists back in the school days. Both of us were portrayed as being mindless jocks. This profiling couldn't have been further from the truth. In those days, I had always been on the better side of the bell curve, in terms of academia and art. Chris was also a rare bird in that fashion. It was back then when he picked up his first guitar and began a lifelong musical journey. Not what most would think of the guy who snaps the pigskin.

Fast forward to the present tense and you can see the wonderful achievements that Maxwell has made. Along with being a financial advisor, Chris has entered the world of photography while maintaining his love of music. Even more, he has also written a couple of television pilots that are currently in Los Angeles under review. Not too shabby if you ask me.

Back to Facebook

I'd never really harnessed the power of what can be achieved by using facebook, at a personal or professional level. Only recently have I began using as a promotional tool, constantly letting the world know, "here I am." That's when its magical powers actually surfaced. The message came in from Maxwell. Before the facebook phenomena, neither of us knew what the other's interests involved. Hell, before facebook, we could only surmise what the other was doing by means of barroom rumor mills. It so happened that he was sharing the same affection for the camera as myself.

We continued to message each other from time to time, sharing our creative photographic thoughts and ideas. Soon thereafter, we shared cell numbers and began to text. I hadn't seen Chris in about ten years or more and although we had been facebooking and texting, we never actually had spoken to each other. Technology, amazing. It wasn't long before we were having long conversations, over the phone, about photography. Old friends wouldn't believe their ears if they could hear two old jocks talk like super nerds. Crazy how things turn out.

Chris had some wonderful ideas. As in wonderful, I mean sick and twisted ideas. Right up my alley. Normality in photography has never been my ultimate goal. Masterminding and creating those epic photographs is what I and many photographers strive for. Normalcy and photography are not synonymous. It was a welcoming to hear that my old buddy had the same freakness lurking in his bones. Awesome.

Philly Photo Walk

Ok, so it wasn't a true Philly photo walk but I'm allowed to be guilty of throwing in a bit of SEO now and then, right? Let me elaborate. As I mentioned, I stumbled out of bed, way beyond an acceptable time, on Saturday, to find a text from Maxwell. He was interested in hitting the streets and doing a quasi photo walk. I was also aware that Chris was in need of some promo shots. I offered that we could kill two birds with one stone. He happily obliged.

Being that this was a total last minute gig, I was, as usual, not prepared. I had to frantically run around the house to get some gear prep happening. Batteries weren't charged and gear wasn't quite in its proper places. Things often find their way out of the bags when I'm doing some random street photography.

I had about an hour to get my proverbial crap together and get myself cleaned up. I got the gear in their places, got the batteries juicing up and hopped in the shower. Soon after, I ran to my favorite bodega, on 16th and Pine, to grab a cup of coffee and a bottle of water, clothed of course. I hurried back to my digs to do a final gear check. All seemed to be operational and ready for work.

It was mid afternoon and Chris arrived. I awkwardly made it down the stairs, towards the sidewalk, spilling black coffee all over my camera bags. Thank goodness the bags are black and water resistant. As for odor resistant, I'd say they don't make the cut as they now smell like a dumpster living behind Starbucks. We packed up the gear and hit the road.

We were toying with a couple of locations to do the promo portion of the shoot. The skies were gray and the clock was ticking. I decided that it would be best to keep to closer locations, trying to beat any precipitation. We headed east, down Pine street and towards Delaware avenue (old school for what is currently called Columbus Blvd.). I knew of many dirty, rusty and dilapidated buildings that would be perfect for this type of shoot. Without fail, after only minutes of scouting, the location was found.

I began to unpack gear as Maxwell was deciding on wardrobe. I advised him that the black button up with Chuck's would be total rock star style. The gray skater style dress pants created a synergistic rock star effect that I believed would be perfect for the shoot. I'm no stylist but I could tell that he had the perfect amount of hipster to rocker ratio happening. To boot, the Jeff cap as a final accessory would be perfect.

One by one I lugged my equipment bags close to the spot I would be shooting from. I didn't want to leave anything for temptation by passerby pedestrians. We weren't in the prettiest of places and I'm sure if my head were turned towards the subject and away from the gear, for any extended period, some expensive equipment could have easily grown a pair of legs and walked away. The best bet was to keep everything in plain sight, where I could shoot and know that a curious criminal couldn't be snooping without my knowing.


I began to quickly think of some interesting lighting scenarios while Chris was tuning his guitar. I do admit, his skills on the strings were extremely impressive. I heard everything from Bob Marley's Redemption Song to Metallica's One. The wind was heavy and like the dolt I can sometimes be, I realized I was in some desperate need of sandbags for the lightstands. I always forget the weights, always. I found ways to improvise. Being able to improvise is a super handy trait as a photographer. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Not sure who coined that phrase but they can be words to live by.

To begin setup, I decided on using two and three strobes, depending on which look I was going for. Two strobes would be bare and the third into a 45 inch brolly to maintain control over spill. I was totally going to pull out the 60 inch but the wind was much too powerful. The brollied strobe was gelled with a 1/4 CTO. And yes, believe it or not, that will affect when converting an image from color to black and white. The gelled and brollied strobe was to be used as the key light. Another strobe would be for background lighting. The final strobe, when and if used, would be a kicker of sorts.

Glass options on this would be to ultimately use two lenses. A wide angle zoom for the, well, wide stuff and a 50mm f/1.4 for the tighter portraits. In the end, I probably used the wide angle zoom for about 75% of the shoot, at a range somewhere between 18mm and 35mm for the majority.

It should be no surprise to regular readers that to trigger the strobes I used those little bundles of joy that I call love. If you guessed Pocketwizard Plus ii wireless transceivers, than you guessed right. Give yourself a big pat on the back. I'm not sure how many shoots I've done on the batteries in those units but I will tell you this, they did not fail me even once on this particular shoot.

I took some ambient readings, dialed down a couple stops and began to add light. I guesstimated where I would want the key and background lights. I directed Maxwell to take position and from there I did the tweaking of power, position and distance of the strobes. The kicker was not one of my top players for this shoot as I didn't want to lay on the rim too heavy. I ended up using the third strobe about 50% of the time.

I dialed in the camera above its acceptable sync speed, to a shutter of 1/320. I find that I can get away with that shutter and avoid any banding that could be threatened by those speeds. ISO was down to 100 and I began with an aperture of f/5.6. At this aperture and with strobe levels close to or at 1/2 power, I could do most of my lighting adjustments by simply playing with my f-stops. Remember, shutter controls the ambient and aperture controls the strobes. Physics lessons about how that process works on another day.

I directed Chris to jam away on the acoustic Fender. I just love the sound of an acoustic guitar. I wanted the shots to be as natural as possible. He asked if I was ready. A sneaky way I get some awesome portraits is to tell the subject to relax and do whatever, that I am still working on getting my exposures correct. They usually go about doing things in a relaxed manner. Some of my favorite portraits have been captured using this technique. Ethical? Sure. Why not? The shoot is mine (or yours), do what is necessary to get best shot of the day.

Chris wanted to take a break from playing and do some simple and guitarless posing. In my opinion, he just didn't look relaxed enough. I directed him to get that damn guitar and gimme some Guns and Roses. He grabbed the Fender once again and was quickly lost in his music, as if nobody else was on his planet. It was perfect. After a short time I had made a boatload of awesome images. I couldn't wait to get them on the big screen for a proper examination.


We completed the shoot before the rain began to fall and fall it did. I rushed to the computer to get the RAW files uploaded to the hard drive. I immediately found many photos that I believed to be total winners. I couldn't wait to get them through the editing process and into Maxwell's hands.

I ripped through a bunch of files with lightening speed, adding my Murphy magical touch to them. I then decided to convert to black and white and after doing so I felt as if I had just gotten mind f#&*ed. It was a eureka moment. These files had no life ahead of them but in the world of grayscale. Black and white would be their photographic destinies. Period.

That about sums it up.

Rock on!

Until next time...