Sunday, July 1, 2012

hillbilly hoedown :: a filthy photoshoot in the forest

Personal projects are what makes photographers grow into their skin, if you will. Many commissioned gigs will limit you, the photographer, in terms of creative license. Confused? Let me elaborate.

When getting a call from a client to do a portrait session for whomever the model may be, there will be much discussion of an end goal that the client is looking for. It is your job as the photographer to give your professional advice of how to achieve those goals. But, and the key word here is but, at the end of the day, the client will ultimately decide how they want the final product to look. This is especially true when the client is of the commercial variety. DPs and/or CDs will have a vision in mind that they want you to create, with or without your advice. There are occasions that you will be able to have full creative license but for the most part the directors will give a template, of sorts, on which you can build your images. The template being, "we want model A and model B doing thing C, yielding result thing D". Being that the company hired you for the gig means that although you have to follow those guidelines, it is your style that they admired and want portrayed in "result thing D." That is where your creativity will shine.

More after the jump...

Are there gigs that will give you all of your crazy cool freedom? There sure are. It's the big corporate jobs that will have the strictest of rules to ensure that the product you, the photographer, will deliver will coincide with their brand. Mom and pop shops or works commissioned for individuals typically allow the creative to have much more control over the final product. Think of a wedding shooter. Those photographers are hired based on, most likely, their admired portfolio. Once hired for the wedding, creativity is in their hands. Think about it. Wouldn't be a bit odd if a wedding photographer was shooting tethered and the bride was running up after each shot to view the images deciding what should stay or what should go? In a corporate shooting environment, that is exactly how things are done. A close eye is kept on each file after every frame is shot. Adjustments are to be made accordingly.

Now, which is more desirable to you? Having full control or having somebody give you a plan? Food for thought.

Recently, I had a shoot that was a great success. Both the client and myself were more than happy with the results. Now, going into that shoot, we had some disagreements of how certain aspects of the set would be arranged. In the end, I shot, for the most part, how the client wanted it. All was good.

Days following that shoot I decided to get my own creative juices flowing, sans restrictions. How so? Behold, the personal projects.

Personal Project?! Work For Free?!

Personal projects are muy importante for all photographers. They produce a myriad of results.

Personal projects are an outstanding way to help you practice your craft, hone your skills and simply become a better photographer. Working on jobs like these allow you full creative control since there are no clients to dictate their exact needs. The only needs here are yours and your growth as a shooter.

Having trouble with composition or lighting. Personal projects are perfect to find certain flaws and perfect any imperfections that may be bothering you.

Most important of all, in my humble opinion, personal projects will help you develop the ever elusive "style." If you are a seasoned shooter than you may or may not have developed your own style of shooting. It is one of the most difficult achievements in the craft. If you are a newbie and getting a bit confused, just study the portfolios of your favorite artists, be it a photographer, designer, painter or any artist for that matter. Each of the greats has a significant style that makes them stand out from others. For instance, I am a huge fan of the works of Chase Jarvis. His style is like no other. I can't say what it is exactly but if you put up a bunch of photographs in a lineup, I could certainly pick out the one that Chase shot. He has developed a style all his own, as does every photographer. Furthermore, Chase Jarvis and others, at the top of the game, all have done and do many personal projects to perfect their skills and grow into their "style."

Concerned that you aren't getting paid for such a shoot? Don't be. The payoff can outweigh the fact that you aren't getting immediate monetary returns on these personal works. Hell, many of these projects can and will end up costing you money to get the gig to materialize. The ROI is simple. If you put all of your love and all of your passion, as you should, into these personal projects, you will create something extraordinary (hopefully). Now, adding the extraordinary to your other works will make your portfolio that much stronger and that will yield more and better clients. Of course, you still need to market yourself as dream jobs aren't going to simply fall into your lap.

Convinced? Feel free to share your thoughts here in the comments section, my Facebook page, Twitter or via email at

My Latest Personal Project

Now that we are up to speed on the hows and whys of the personal project, I want to share with you my latest of creative exploration.

Not long ago, my sister, who will be 14 in a few days (yes, I'll be 35 in a few days, a big age gap indeed), had asked me to do some portrait work of her. When asked why she would want these photographs, she replied that she just wanted some professional photos. Not much for me to work with which is the perfect recipe for full creative license.

Soon thereafter on a hot Sunday afternoon, I contacted my sister, Morgan, to see if she would be available for a session. She obliged and I quickly got the gear packed into the Xterra. Heading over the Walt Whitman Bridge and into the Garden State of New Jersey, I didn't have a clue of how I would be shooting little sister. I wanted to try and gather some more information in hopes of giving her a product that would make her happy. I was fine with full control of the shoot but didn't want to get so crazy that she would hate the photographs.

Upon arrival, I sat with Morgan to try and pick her brain a bit. She insisted that she just wanted something awesome. The ball was in my court. I sipped on my large black Dunkin' Donuts coffee and brainstormed a bit.

Knowing of a small lake, or is that a pond, I'm not quite sure. I'm far from nature savvy. Let's call it a lake, not far from her home and surrounded by lots of trees and plants, a forest setting, if you will. See, clueless about what to call that spot. For the blog's sake we shall call the location lake and trees. I digress.

Knowing of the lake and trees spot just up the road, I decided to build an idea from that secluded location. I threw out the idea, thinking it would get knocked right in my face, of a hillbilly photo shoot. A redneck of sorts. Hey, no offense, I'd love to pack my bags and become a moonshine brewin' hillbilly. I'm all for it. Where was I? Ok, so I threw out the idea and to my surprise, Morgan was totally up for it. Our mother, on the other hand, wasn't so psyched about the idea. I ensured her that I would not make her daughter look ridiculous. Well, I wasn't sure but made the promise anyway.

I advised Morgan to find an appropriate outfit, keeping the theme in mind. Along with wardrobe, I asked that she put her long hair into pigtails, stereotypical but necessary for my vision. We headed to my vehicle and drove over to the location.

Arriving at location lake and trees, I scouted the grounds a bit, trying to find a spot that wasn't being blasted with awful light from the midday sun. I noticed the back end of the lake was canopied pretty nicely by the foliage. That would be dark enough to work some ambient and strobes synergistically. My goal of this personal project was not only to do some unique work with Morgan but also to experiment with the Westcott Apollo softbox in the bright ambient daylight. I acquired the Apollo recently and had only used it in very controlled environments. It was time to put it to the test.

On that particular day, I packed lightly, carrying only the large Tenba bag (Nikon D4, 3 strobes, 4 Pocketwizards, etc.), one Calumet lightstand and one Westcott Apollo softbox. I had no intentions of using more than one strobe but having backup is never a bad idea.

We began our short hike around the backside of the lake. Not nearly as bad a lugging bags and bags of gear along the hot streets of Philly as was done a couple weeks ago. You can read about that adventure [here].

As I stomped through muddy grounds and poison ivy, I had another vision. Sharing this vision with Morgan, I told her that I would like her to rub mud and dirt onto her face, creating an even more believable hillbilly character. Again, I thought she would deny such a request and again, I was surprised that she was up for the task.

I set up rather quickly, only having to prepare the camera, PWs, one strobe, lightstand and softbox. Before getting down to business, I grabbed some exposure readings with the Nikon D4. As always, I was shooting in full manual mode using the awesome 3d matrix metering system that the D4 has to offer. My goal was to knock down the exposure a stop or so while maintaining a somewhat shallow DOF and keeping within the camera's sync speed, allowing me to crank out some juice from the strobes. This was the hardest part of the day. I placed the subject, Morgan, so that the sun would would shine from above but slightly behind her. This would allow me to use the sun as a second light source adding some rim/hair light to the subject. The nuclear ambient was a challenge using only one speedlight. A remedy would have been an ND filter which I did not have (ordered a new one on Friday). There are some other ways to overpower that sun but that is neither here nor there. I had what I had to work with and I had to improvise somehow, someway. I would get a single speedlight to work just fine, against the nuking brightness of that midday sun, no matter what. I decided that I would get crazy and go beyond the camera's sync speed of 1/250. I ventured up to 1/320 and 1/400, pushing the limits with some excellent results. Banding was no issue for the D4 pushed to those speeds. I was able to get working apertures of f/2.8 through f/4.0, producing smooth , buttery backgrounds and pumping the flash at 1/2 power with a stop to spare.

On this day, I really put into practice some words of wisdom that I learned from the one and only, the legend of light, the superman of speedlight, the sultan of strobe, Joe McNally. Get a pen, take a screenshot, type a note, scribble in your journal, diary or tattoo this, in reverse, Memento style, across your forehead, as these words are more than just essential to lighting, they are gospel worthy.

Now, I'm paraphrasing of course, but Joe said something along the lines of this that all photographers must recite daily upon waking up and before going to bed:


Yup, it is those words that should change the way you decided to light your subjects. 

Shadows are your friend. If you blast the entire image with light you can possibly remove all shadows and thus remove drama and dimension from the image. Think of using an on camera pop up flash. First of all, those things should be banned from existence. The are the epitome of poor use of light. Think about it, pro cameras don't even have those pathetic little bastards. Think my D4 has a pop up flash in there? Think again. Pop up flashes will create ugly, flat, xerox worthy, amateur stamped light. Now, I'm not saying that using many strobes will produce light that is the same as pop up flash but if you use too much, angled in the wrong way, you may be setting yourself up for disaster. 

The first image at the top of this post is probably the best example of how I put McNally's words into practice. I applied the theory to all of the photos herein but I think the first, and the third, for that matter, really exemplify what it is that you should be thinking when lighting a subject.  

Typically, if you don't have much experience with off camera lighting, you may be tempted to throw up a flash or two, just off axis to the right or left of the camera. Or, even worse, throw the key light on the hotshoe, feeling that this is far off axis enough to create awesome light. Don't get me wrong, there are times and situations that throwing a strobe on the camera's hotshoe is quite necessary but if you have the means and knowhow, you'd probably want to avoid lighting in that manner. 

Why? The answer and I believe I've already mentioned these words, are drama and dimension. Again, there are times when lighting at less dramatic angles are necessary but for today's sake, we are focusing on lighting for, and I'll say it again, drama and dimension. 

In each of these images, using my new favorite modifier, the Apollo, due to its big beautiful, wrapping light, I moved the mod around to camera left, on a 90 degree or even a bit further to the subject. For images one and three, it was placed higher up so that I could feather (and feathering is so easy with the Apollo) the light. 

Drama, dimension and what not to light. Refer back to that first image. Rather than wrap her entire head and body with light, I opted to simply have the light kiss part of her face, leaving much of her in the shadows. Due to the positioning of the light, the end result really jumps off of the page and adds a bit of mystery to the subject. 

The second image of Morgan sitting on the ground is less dramatic since the softbox was not positioned as extreme and the wonderful lighting capabilities of the Apollo were not as dramatic as the others. The light still falls off in the right manner but not as extreme as the others. Take a look and compare the two or three or all four for that matter. Which do you look at and see the most dimension and drama? Ok, all of the words I have just written clearly explain this but you may have other opinions. 

Fact of the matter is, when people start out in photography, and I was no exception, we tend to fear shadows, thinking that any shadows that show up while trying to compose an image are bad. Embrace the shadows. Shadows are your friend. 

Sometimes less, is indeed, more.


At the end of the day, I was able to produce a series of photos, a vision that I had, a personal project of work that may have otherwise, never been produced. Without a doubt, I will proudly add this work to my portfolio. More importantly, I didn't just do this for mine or Morgan's benefit. I do personal projects like this and others for the sheer passion of creativity. 

By the way, yup, Morgan was able to catch a few catfish during the shoot. 

Now, get off of the internet and get shooting!

Until next time...