For anyone who dislike those geeky “How it’s made” stories – it’s time to move on to something else – nothing to see here folks…!
Anyway – I often find step-by-step process walkthroughs rather helpful myself – so here’s to all the other photography geeks out there……
A while ago, I did an advertisement shoot for Joburg Ballet, producing a series of images promoting their upcoming Swan Lake season – and I thought I would share the workflow involved. Most of my photo shoots begin with a moodboard. I find this a really helpful way to capture inspiration and to ensure everyone involved on the creative side are on the same page early on. It’s also a good way to reduce the risk of accidentally copying something that’s already been done 100 times before. I typically search for images that represent a certain direction we are going for, shapes, textures, colors etc – and then I put all these images together on a 1-page overview. That’s the easy part – but in my opinion – an important first step in visualizing a creative idea.
On the day of our shoot – I’m once again reminded that half the photographers work consist of carrying lot’s of really heavy stuff around. And it certainly doesn’t make things any better that I’m kind of obsessed with having backups for everything. I believe the military coined the phrase “Two is One, One is None!” and I try to live by that philosophy whenever possible. Primarily because I’m a very clumsy person with a well documented habit of breaking “things”, dropping “things” in the ocean, stepping on “things” not to be stepped on, etc – but also because “things” have a curious tendency not to work when I really need them to. Murphy’s law, I guess. So it’s a good and safe backup philosophy to have – but kind of tough on your arms, shoulders and legs.
So I’m not exactly packing light for this one as indicated in the image below where everything has been placed on the floor: cameras, lenses, various flash heads, light stands/C-stands, grips, gaffer tape (always), sandbags, power cables, batteries, laptop with tether cable and finally a couple of dry ice “fog machines” (self-made with a few spare parts from the local hardware store, a paperclip and some duct tape… Somehow I knew that watching all those old MacGyver episodes would come in handy one day).
Our shoot is taking place in the Joburg Theatre side stage area – which is basically a huge dark room primarily used by stage hands to roll sets and props in and out during performances. Having a very dark room helps control the light (no reflections) and I want the background to go black anyway. The dancers will be wearing white outfits – so they will automatically “pop” in the picture. I’m clearing the floor (which, curiously, involves getting rid of a very large motorcycle parked right there in the middle) and put up my lights in a way that somewhat resembles the harsh stage lights of a theatre. I’m still trying to find the right magic formula for lighting large group shots such as this – which involves a lot of trial & error experimentation. Adding further complexity to the fact that we are dealing with a fairly large group of 30+ people here – these folks are also going to move around quite a bit – which means that my light configuration needs to be somewhat forgiving. I’m letting my 3 large Elinchrom BRX lights provide a barrage of key light from camera right – and I put the Elinchrom Ranger on the left side to work as a fill. These lights are all moved relatively far back – to utilize (WARNING: Physics Alert!) the “inverse square law of light” and thereby ensure only a gentle light intensity falloff from the front to the back. Finally I have 3 small Nikon Speedlights working in “slave mode” – which I can quickly throw in where an extra dash of light is required. These small lights will basically go off whenever they see another flash – while my Elinchroms are controlled by a wireless transmitter on the camera.
Suddenly we have 28 swans in white tutus and full makeup, 5 principal dancers and 3 art directors making their entry on the set – and the next 90 minutes are intense. I’m shooting tethered – which means that my camera is hooked up to a laptop. This is particularly helpful when you have several people working to direct the troops and trying to decide what works well – since everyone can see the images we produce in real time on the larger computer screen. Making sure that 28 people line up perfectly, all turning their heads, shoulders, arms, hands, legs and feet exactly the same way may sound easy. It’s not! What the dancers are doing is extremely difficult, requires stamina and a lot of hard work. At a very basic level – it’s a challenge for them to maintain the same pose for longer periods of time. Try standing on your toes for more than 15 seconds – and you’ll know what I’m talking about. We are experimenting with different formations, poses and camera positions – and it’s really a very iterative, creative process with everyone involved. The dry ice fog machines work well – but the correct dosage of dry ice versus hot water is something I still need to figure out and fine tune. When the water gets too cold, the fog generation stops – so there’s a learning curve on this one, for sure. Anyway – we do manage to get a few good frames of nice fog spreading out across the floor.
My GoPro is mounted on the far side of the room, capturing a bit of video during the shoot – but because the room is very dark, the video is rather grainy. Anyway – the following 1 minute clip gives a sense of what’s going on:
The 300 raw images coming out of the shoot are exactly that – raw! The ballet company selects 14 favorites, making note of minor changes and cleanup required (eg. change this shoe color, adjust that strap, etc) – and I move on to the post-processing phase. Our intention is to put Andrew Botha’s beautiful Swan Lake set behind the dancers – creating a composite image which will closely resemble the actual stage view on opening night. We won’t have the real stage sets for another month – so all we have at this point is Andrew’s virtual representation of the stage set using his design software. As Andrew renders the stage image – he’s also trying to match his view with the camera position of my images.
Tedious work lies ahead in Photoshop land (which is not my favorite destination) – creating detailed masks following the contours of each individual dancer, adding fog to the ground where the fog didn’t go, adding shadow gradients, adding blur the right places and working with a great number of layers in Photoshop. The challenge is always to avoid a doctored or fake look of the final image. In reality 95% of all advertisement images make use of compositing techniques and only few people notice this. As part of this process – it’s also important to build in some negative space for copy and corporate logos – while maintaining a pleasing composition.
Once the editing phase has been completed – the final “winner” image is chosen, copy and corporate logos are added by the graphics people and off it goes to the printer (a mighty big printer in this case). Voila! – we have a billboard.
Only a few days still remain to catch the Joburg Ballet SWAN LAKE performance:
WHEN: Fri 1 May at 7.30pm; Sat 2 May at 3pm & 7.30pm; Sun 3 May at 3pm
WHERE: Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein
STANDARD TICKETS: R100 – R400
BOOKING: Joburg Theatre / 0861 670 670 / http://www.joburgtheatre.com/