product photography :: starring the nikon d4 and westcott apollo

I've done little product photography in my days as a flasher. Many people assume that being a photographer means that you shoot everything under the sun, including the sun. The truth couldn't be more distant.

Sure, there may be some photogs that are a Jack of all trades, when it comes to making images but as that saying goes, there is sometimes an added ending to the quote; master of none.

Fact of the matter is that the majority of photographers will, in their careers, gravitate towards one specialty or another. Why? Because there are so many specialties that it would be quite difficult to master all of them, as each requires its own dedicated skill requisites. To give you an idea of the different photographic disciplines, you have people photography (explain in a second), sport, underwater, astronomy, macro, wildlife, advertising, product, real estate, architectural, abstract, street, editorial and that is just a bunch from the top of my head. I'm sure there are plenty more I have not mentioned. Now, I mentioned that there is people photography, a broadest of terms. Basically, the disciplines I've mentioned can be broken down even further to where a photographer really puts their concentration. A people photographer may be strictly a wedding shooter or a portraiture shooter or a editorial shooter, etc. etc. etc. Let's look at the sports photographer. Typically they won't be a shooter of every sport known to man. Some may shoot your common sports such as football, baseball or basketball. Others may focus on forms of racing such as drag racing or motocross. Even deeper in the mix of sports shooters are those who focus on extreme sports such as skateboarding or even rock climbing. To confuse you a bit more, from time to time, these disciplines will intersect. For instance, a portrait photographer may find themselves shooting an athlete in their natural setting. These crosses happen often but a keen eye can typically recognize what that photographer's strength really is.

The point of this synopsis of photographic disciplines is that there are an uber duber (that's the scientific term for a lot) amount of what a photographer may be shooting and it usually is narrowed down to one very very specific area. Now, and probably coming to you as no surprise, I will share with you my own little anecdote.

If you have been a regular reader of this blog, it may be very obvious that my photographic emphasis is in the discipline of shooting people. My forte has shifted over time. I've always enjoyed shooting people and typically gravitated towards working in a (makeshift) studio environment. I now try to shoot most of what I do, on location, having the subject in an setting that fits the "feel" of the shoot. Now this is not to say that I won't shoot indoors, against a backdrop. There are many instances that require such a shoot. I just get a bigger rush of epinephrine when I get to work on location.

What does this have to do with anything?

More after the jump...

The photo probably tells the story much faster than I am about to.

I was contacted last week by a person that will remain nameless. Ok, before I go any further, you will need to know that the people involved and the reason for the shoot will remain anonymous as I don't have full clearance to disclose all of the new start up business details. Until I get the go ahead, I have to keep things on the hush hush tip, the DL, the QT, if you know what I mean.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, I was contacted by a potential client(s) in regards to doing some product photography. Now, with as little product shooting that I've done, I hastily jumped on the offer. I mean, come on, how hard could it be? I've shot plenty of people in the same environment. I thought to myself that people have got to be harder to shoot. Products don't move, have emotion or pretend to know how to pose. Directing a product to do what you want would be the simplest of tasks, right? Wrong.

[Obviously the top secret company that the shoot was for has something to do with golf. The photograph at the post opening would be a bit of a give away. I won't say or type any more than that. ]

My biggest mistake was thinking that it should've been an easy shoot, since the inanimate object emits no life, whatsoever. The joke was on me. I soon realized that it was my job, as the photographer, to give the product a life that is not readily available. Before the day of the shoot, my mind, as usual, was spinning, trying to think of how I would give such a simple object lots of drama, lots of life, so that it may stand on its own. My work would be cut out for me.

The Evening Prior to Shoot

On Friday evening, I did a thorough gear check. I powered up all the batteries for the speedlights. I juiced up the gargantuan Nikon D4 battery pack to full power. I replaced the batteries in the Pocketwizards (I <3 you Pocketwizard). By the way, I typically replace the Pocketwizard batteries after two shoots. They probably have power for more but I never want to take the chance to have them fail mid shoot. I opt out of using rechargeable batteries for those, reason being, well, I'm not quite sure. 

As far as lighting mods go, I planned on using my new Westcott Apollo softbox to do the heavy lifting for the shoot. This baby is sweet! I haven't done any commissioned work with it as of yet but have done some test shooting with the modifier. I just have to say that along with my love and affection for my new Nikon D4, the awesome Nikkor lens lineup, my PWs and now the Westcott, well my bed is getting full. Tough to sleep with all of these beauties, my wife and Bruno, our pit-bull. The light that the Apollo produces is fantastic, big and soft. I hit a few frames using the new softbox on my wife with mind blowing results. It has become an immediate key piece to my arsenal of gear. I digress. Anyway, I gave the Westcott a "once over" as it was already prepared on the light stand with a PW and a 430ex ii roaring to go. All looked tip top and so pretty.

As I had planned on using nothing more than the Nikon D4, I made sure that my antiquated bodies had fully charged batteries as well. God forbid if the D4 failed and I didn't have a backup camera. Three working cameras would be more than enough if I were to be dealt a hand of a DSLR tragedy of some sort. 

Bedtime came around midnight on Friday evening. I wanted to have a good nights rest so that I would be fully amped to shoot Saturday morning. 

The Day Of Shoot

Stefanie, my wife, headed out bright and early, around 7:00 a.m. She planned on spending the day at the beach, LBI, NJ, while I would turn the house upside down to do my work. Always best for the relationship as she does not like to see when I tear the house to shreds, converting it into a studio. 

My typical modus operadi is to sleep as late as possible on the weekends. My client was due to arrive at 11:00 a.m. I had set my alarm for 10:45, praying the client wouldn't arrive at 11:00 on the dot. I bank on people being a few minutes late due to trying to find parking in Center City. I readied myself at record speeds, washing up, dressing and even preparing some of the room for the events about to take place. 

I underestimated his punctuality. It must have been 11:05 when the doorbell rang. Still in my slippers (I like to shoot in comfort, slippers or barefoot), I hurried to the door. Nerves began to kick in, shaky as ever and not a drop of caffeine in the body. I was in desperate need of a large cup of Joe. The client was so kind as to bring me a large black WaWa coffee. 

We headed into the makeshift studio and I began to pre-visualize how I would be shooting the products. While in deep, lack of caffeine thought, I began to place the mods in their appropriate places. Lighting would include three strobes. One into the Westcott Apollo, another into a Calumet 45 inch brolly and a final flash into a Rogue gridspot. The softbox would carry the brunt of the workload, while the 45 would work as a fill and the gridspot would be a gelled background light. I planned on varying up things such as lighting scenarios and colors. The background choice was black, clean, dramatic and yet simple. The client discussed using white but in my humble opinion, thought that would have been photographic disaster. If he and the partner were planning on selling stuff on Ebay, I'd say sure but for pure advertising purposes, I objected to the white. Don't get me wrong, white can be awesome in many situations but I felt that with my creative decisions that it just wouldn't work. In the end, the client usually has the final say but it doesn't hurt to try and persuade them with your creative thoughts. They may or may not agree. The answer is always no unless you try. 

Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind

As I swapped out the 85 1.8 for the 24-70 2.8 for its ability to focus at closer distances than the former, I began to enter the zone. Everything was ready, the strobes were hot, PWs blinking and the D4 awaiting my next move. By the way, my friends, that 24-70 is some heavy glass but an amazing lens nonetheless. Expensive but worth every penny.

On the sidelines I had my rickety old tripod. I never use a tripod, ever but for this day I thought it may be a good idea. shooting product requires extremely tack sharp images. Sure the speedlights will freeze motion but if you are pixel peeping, even the lowest strobe power can yield a bit of movement while shooting handheld. For product this is not acceptable. 

My dilemma arrived twofold. First, I was going to try and shoot handheld, shaky as they are, fearing my broke ass tripod would collapse, with the new Nikon D4 and the 24-70 crashing to the hard floor. I didn't want to take that risk. The other problem that was introduced was that I could't think of a rig to support the product in a static position. Rather, the client held the products in a position at which I directed him to be. The risk for shake was now exponentially increased. With some quick thinking I did the unthinkable, something that one could not fathom with an old DSLR. I wanted to keep the strobe power pretty low, producing a much faster flash and better freezing ability. I kept the shutter pretty high, around 1/160 to 1/250, the D4 sync speed. At f/5.0 give or take depending on the shot, I had to jack up the ISO to 800. ISO 800 for product photography! Insanity. I believe that would take us to a third variable for disaster but played my cards regardless. The Nikon D4 is the world leader in high ISO performance and I was about to put that to the test. You see, besides wanting the product to be tack sharp, one would also want the image to be free and clear of any noise. ISO 100 or even 50 would have been ideal for this situation. ISO 800, well, I've shot the D4 well over that range with results that had left me speechless so I was thinking that I could sneak by without anyone noticing at 800. I wasn't tethered so I was banking on the large LCD to give me an idea of what was being produced. 

After a round of shooting and sweating on the D4, we took break. I wanted to upload the images so that the client and I could review what was shot so far. I popped the XQD in the reader and within seconds the lightning fast card was clear. Before viewing a single image I had already a bad vibe, wondering if my slight moving and his, holding the product, would have caused the critical focus to be slightly off. You see, at f/5.0, up close, the DOF is shallower than you might think. 

Adobe Bridge, as I have programmed, opens automatically after the files are transferred via the Nikon Transfer 2 software application. Son of a bitch! Wouldn't you know it, many of the images were off, ever so slightly, but to a discerning eye, noticeable. Another faux pas that was noticed was the slight reflecting of my client's arm in the product.

I was shooting right on schedule. The client mentioned that he would have a few hours to stay and I told him that it wouldn't take nearly that long to complete the shoot. It was only about 45 minutes in after the first frame was fired that round one was completed. Hell, if all were properly focused, it would have been a wrap. Unfortunately, another round of shooting would be required. Only this time I would attempt to use old rusty, heap of metal that was once a tripod. 

Here's the thing about tripods and David Hobby a.k.a. Strobist said it best. It was something along the lines of investing more in a better tripod. You and your camera are a temporary relationship, over time you will eventually move on to another. A good tripod, on the other hand, can give you a lifetime of happiness if you get the right one. Skimp on the tripod and you set yourself up for disaster. I am proof in that pudding. The tripod that once was, was from a yard sale, five bucks. It may have worked properly thru five shoots. I suppose I got my money's worth.

The old tripod has legs, none of which can be extended, due to the locks all failing. My option would be to extend the center column as high as possible. No ball head here, just an old fashioned pan head that screws right into the bottom of the camera. 

I approached the tripod with much anticipation and slowly locked the D4 onto the pan head. I didn't leave the presence of my gear, fearing it was about to topple over any second.

To remedy the arm reflections in the clubs, we used the black umbrella case as a sleeve on his arm. Quick thinking and it worked. Improvisation as a photographer is a trait that must be had. Curve balls are thrown all day long, on location or in the studio. It's the job, as a professional, to identify the curve balls and adjust accordingly. 

I was able to lock in a single focal point. Now had I been able to rig the product, I would have dropped that ISO to 50, lowered the shutter and pumped the flash power. The client was still holding the product and the risk for motion was still present so I kept my exposure at the initial settings. 

The second round was much faster. Thank goodness because I wanted the D4 off of that tripod, A.S.A.P. After this file transfer, I was much more confident that critical focus was achieved in every single frame. It was. The day was a success. Well, sort of. The sort of will be explained in an upcoming post. 

The Money Shot

Ok, so the shot herein will not be used to sell the products but I thought, and mentioned to my client, that it would be a great image to use with a homepage or logo, something along those lines. It screams drama. Only seeing a tiny part of the product makes one wonder what is in the photograph but within a second or so the mind is able to extrapolate what is missing in the darkness. The brain then realizes that it is a golf club. The negative space at upper left is prime real estate for copy. Hey, that's just my opinion. They can opt to fly with it or tell me to eat dirt. Regardless, I dig this shot. 

How I pulled this one off was a bit different from the majority of images taken on the day of the shoot. I was working on getting proper exposures and lighting when this frame was created. Opposing what I did with the others, I shot this at a low ISO 200, with a shutter of 1/160 and an aperture of f/5.6. Lighting involved only the one Westcott Apollo softbox at a hard 90 degrees, camera left, with the 430ex ii firing at 1/8 power. Triggering done by Pocketwizard Plus ii transceivers.  You can see the slight specular created from the softbox along the shaft and on the bottom left of the club. Post included darkening up the image a bit more, some cleaning up and a simple black and white conversion. Why black and white? That shall be explained, also, in an upcoming post. 

Until next time...

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