5.13.2017

Stream of Consciousness timeline of a photo assignment.

AcraYoga at Eeyore's Birthday Party, 2017. This image has nothing to do with the subject matter of this blog. It's just part of my continued sharing of images I like. Sony RX10iii.

I thought it might be interesting to write a piece that outlines a day of visual content creation on location, complete with what I'm thinking about as I go through the day. It's something new I want to try out so here goes: 
I have sufficient anxiety about traveling and being sure not to miss appointments that I woke up (for the third time in the early hours of the morning) about five minutes before the alarm clock on my iPhone 5S goes off. I lie in my very comfortable bed at an anonymous Courtyard by Marriott  in Oklahoma City and thumb through my e-mails to see if there is anything from my family. There is nothing but the NYTimes headlines, ATMTX's blog, Ming's Blog and the usual flurry of ads and phishing e-mails. I check the weather. I check the stock market to see how AAPL is doing and to see whether or not I can cash everything in and retire today instead of packing up and meeting my client for breakfast. It's a pipe dream but my wife will tell me, "Just a little more. Just a little longer. You never know how much we might need."

I drag myself into the shower and a blast of cold water brings me to full consciousness. Not to full enlightenment. 

It's a one night stay over so I've packed a pair of boxers and a clean shirt in a one gallon Ziploc plastic bag and I pull them out and put them on. Every shirt this week seems to be a plaid, short sleeve shirt. Today is no different. I shove yesterday's shirt and boxers into the Ziploc and seal it up. Besides my backpack full of cameras and a book I am reading there is nothing else in the room. I take one last look around, pull the backpack over one shoulder and exit the room at 6:30 am. I'm supposed to meet the client (we'll call him "Bob") in the lobby at 7:00am. The plan is to head to a nearby Starbucks to grab coffee and oatmeal. I notice that the "Bistro" in the hotel lobby serves Starbucks coffee and I also notice that I am (compulsively) half an hour early for our rendezvous so I grab a cup of coffee and sit down to read the next chapter in the book. It's called, "PEAK Secrets from the New Science of Expertise." It was written by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. The basis of the book is the idea that deliberate practice is the way to improve performance across a range of skills. 

I like the book and I like the message. It's basically saying that doing your ten thousand hours of practice is meaningless unless you are practicing with deliberate concentration and call on expert coaches to help you fine tune each step. You also need to develop learning and practice patterns that assist you in gaining improvement. I instantly start thinking of ways to improve my swimming by concentrating on making each stroke as perfect as it can be; as well as badgering my coaches (more often) to watch and correct the parts of my stroke that may need correction, even though the deficiencies involved may be masked to my perception. In photography I am encouraging myself to slow down and really consider each step more carefully. I don't know if it will work but it doesn't take any more time to do stuff right as opposed to doing everything on autopilot; right?

Bob shows up a little before 7:00am and, seeing that we can source his favorite brand of coffee right here in the lobby decides to modify our plan and breakfast here. He goes for the oatmeal, I choose a breakfast sandwich that's eggs, ham and cheddar cheese on a ciabatta roll. A bit of fruit on the side. Bob asks if I mind him checking the prodigious amount of e-mail he gets from the office over breakfast and I tell him that it's fine; I'll get more reading done in my book. 

We arrive at the shooting location right on time. Our "talent" and his wife are pulling in right in front of us and the person from our host facility (a prosthetics research and development company) is already at the back door welcoming us. I pull the two big cases out of the trunk of our rental car and start to pull them into the facility. Once we stage the gear in the far corner of the big exam room we'll use for some photographs and an interview I turn my attention to meeting our talent, his wife, and some of the people from the facility. The talent is a guy we'll call "Gary." He's about my age and he's volunteered to tell his story about moving from an archaic prosthetic lower leg to my client's latest product (which is used in conjunction with a product made by our host company).  I am careful to try and build a rapport with Gary as genuinely as I can so we can work together smoothly through the day. 

Our first series of shots is in the big exam room and we'll be doing a wide, medium and somewhat close-up of Gary going through the process of putting on his lower leg prosthesis. We need still photos and video of every step. I pull out the Sony A7Rii and the RX10iii and confirm the settings I made in my hotel room the night before. Then I start thinking about lighting. 

It would be nice if there were exact formulas for every lighting situation. No matter which way I go I worry that I should have pursued a different strategy. The room is brightly lit by diffused florescent fixtures mounting under the acoustic tile ceiling. Since big window (floor to ceiling) in the room faces to the west we don't have to worry about any direct light until the afternoon, and we should be on a different location by then. The florescent is the dominate source but the soft daylight coming through the window adds a slight blue cast to one side. I vacillate about pulling out a couple of battery operated strobes but decide instead to make a custom white balance with a Lastolite WB target and trust to my processing of the uncompressed raw files. 

I have to confess that I dread having a bunch of people in the room when we're trying to shoot. In this case there is: the talent (highly necessary), Bob (the client), Gary's clinician, a sales guy from my client's company, Gary's wife, and two technicians. I am not, by nature, anti-social but I find that non-professional talent is easily distracted and spends a lot of time grinning at the people he knows in the room; and it's more or less routine for the sales guys to constantly crack jokes. I'm trying to balance the line between being a controlling dick and keeping a rein on the situation so we can get through all the shots we need in the time we have allotted. Getting authentic (non POSED) expressions and body language wherever I can. 

Most clients don't do a large number of shoots in a year and don't have much knowledge of how easy or hard it is to set up shots, get exactly what we need and how much time it takes to re-light and change lenses or cameras for the next shot so I spend a certain amount of energy at shoots explaining the processes and managing expectations. 

Most of the video we're shooting is, during the first part of the day, without sound. I leave the microphones on to get background noise we might use at a very low level just to layer some detail into the final sound mix. But shooting video (as opposed to photographs) requires that we coordinate the action of two people. Where will we start? Where will we end up? What's the technical action? Will we need multiple tight shots of the process or the product? All of this needs to be managed and, in some cases, rehearsed so I know where I need to be. I also need time to focus and figure out exposure since people are moving through the spaces. 

This is where I get nervous. There are moving parts. The color shifts as we get closer to the window. The exposure shifts as we move closer to or further away from the window. I am loathe to break out the lights because if we set boundaries for the shots it can look great. Setting up lights means we'll need to re-light a big room, and that we'll probably have to do some re-ligthing for every shot. 

At this juncture I am moving more or less constantly and trying to keep everyone around me on task and in character. People who work at the facility are used to the rooms and the way they use them. Coffee cups end up all over the place. So do wrappings from the materials they are using as well peoples' laptop cases, backpacks and phones. As I begin shooting each new angle I have to stop myself from rushing and carefully survey the widest frame I'll be using in order to make sure there's nothing left in the shot frame that shouldn't be there. Moving chrome trash cans becomes a nearly subconscious activity.

At some point Bob realizes that the product needs an adjustment and he heads into the lab with the technical sales guy and the clinician. I follow along to shoot some video that we might be able to use in the final edit. I get what I need pretty quickly and leave them to manage their product fix and take the opportunity to go back and have a one-on-one conversation with Gary, our talent. Since we're about the same age I know we can talk about stuff like kids, hobbies and our mutual close calls with mortality. It gives us ten minutes so we can get on the same page with each other which gives me a lot more insight for our upcoming interview. 

The product comes back and I take another swig of now cold coffee and wonder if this is a good time to run down the hall to pee. I decide that it is. When I come back we move into a different room to shoot a consultation between Gary and his clinician. I like the composition but the light has changed and I'm not loving the overhead fluorescent lights so much anymore. I sprint back to the first room where the equipment is staged to grab a small LED light and a hot shoe flash with a trigger. I turn off the overhead lights and start positioning the small LED bounce into a wall 90 degrees to the left of camera. It's just enough to fill shadows and compress the contrast range a bit. This is what I need for video. Once I have enough good video of the consultation I need to switch cameras and shoot the same thing in stills. While 1/50th or 1/60th of a second works for video I find I need to get up above 1/125th of a second to keep moving hands from blurring too much. I set up the flash on a small stand and dial in a good exposure that adds a light to the room but doesn't overwhelm the look of the shot. 

I'm bouncing the light off the ceiling at one end of the room. It works. But it takes five or so minutes to set up and in that amount of time two Starbucks cups and small paper bag have made their way into the edge of my frame and I have to stop and remove them. I'm already thinking ahead to the interview and what I need to set up. We continue through the laundry list of shots and I remind myself of advice my video friends in Austin have proffered: Shoot more angles, get closer. 

I more or less live in fear of having the wrong profile or the wrong color balance set so I slow myself down and remind myself to double check the main settings between every shot. I catch dumb mistakes like leaving the image stabilization on with the camera on a tripod. But then I have to remember to also turn it back on again because I am trying to do more handheld, wider angle shots so I can introduce a bit more movement into the frames. 

I wish I had finished my coffee before it made it to room temperature.... I could really use the caffeine and the stuff in the break room coffee pot looks pretty oily and dense...

We move back to our primary shooting room and the client and sales guy start discussing some obscure but necessary shot that just came up and I take that opportunity to start pulling video oriented stuff out of my bigger case. I start setting up a light stand with a grip head and a boom pole holder. One part of my mind wants to stay with the conversation about close-ups of products on white to send out for social media but my main focus is getting the video stuff together so we can get the interview done before we break for lunch, without rushing. 

I ask Bob to go over the interview questions and to get Gary to sign a model release while I'm setting up. That frees up another small part of my brain to concentrate on the task at hand. I choose and attach the Rode NTG-4+ microphone to the boom pole. I've brought along other microphones but I default to this one because I tested it a week ago in Austin and it's the last one I tested before the trip. It's freshest in my mind and I remember how everything works. I get the mic and boom pole set up and start blocking out the shot. I run cable from the microphone into the Saramonic SmartRig+ preamplifier and concentrate on getting the settings right. I've only used this device three times and I get nervous if I'm not 100% familiar with the gear. I plug a set of headphones into the pre-amp to make sure the audio is sounding good and that the switches are all set correctly, then I plug the pre-amp into the camera's microphone in jack, plug the headphones into the cameras headphone jack and do the same test over again. I breathe a sigh of relief when I hear good, clean test audio. 

Once I've got the audio stuff set up and tested we need to go outside and shoot some images of Gary walking with his clinician around a attractively landscaped pond. We need photos and video. I start with the video. I take a chance on using the long end of the RX10iii lens and continuous autofocus. I have a variable neutral density filter on the front and it makes focusing a bit more dicey. After a few circuits I switch to manual focus and immediately miss not having a bigger monitor and some cine lenses with hard stops and repeatable focus settings. It would be so much better to do the shots with some follow focus. I'm feeling a bit unprepared. I decide on a work around and shift to a different position where I am perpendicular to the walking path and can do a long pan as Gary and his clinician walk. I back off the VND filter setting a bit so I can move from f5.6 to f8.0 and I go a bit wider on my frame. This way I have enough depth of field to cover my scene and the perpendicular pan should be easy to execute. I'm shooting a little wide so I have the (4K) luxury of cropping a bit in post production/editing. 

Once I get the exterior shots I need I head inside to set up the cameras for the video interview. I'm using a new picture profile in each camera for video. I mark a spot on the floor with orange tape to serve as Gary's mark. If he strays I can always reset him right into the same spot. I'm using the RX10iii as the "A" camera and I'm confident in its operation. I almost screw up by leaving the camera in the "M" setting to do the interview instead of switching to the dedicated movie mode. It's a silly mistake but if you aren't in the dedicated movie mode then your audio is, by default, set to auto level control. You'll hear the pumping of volume and noise when you review the audio and it's almost impossible to fix in post. 

A final review of the settings, by rote, allows me to catch my mistake and fix it. I set final audio levels as Bob and Gary chat and then I finished setting up the A7Rii as a second camera from a different angle. I'm using the 85mm on it and I'm using the full frame 4K setting even though, in theory, the APS-C frame is supposed to be sharper. I want the angle of view I'm used to and I want the focus in the background from this point of view to just fade away. I didn't bring a second tripod so I've mounted the camera to a small ball head and mounted that to the top of a small light stand. As long as no one breathes too hard the camera shouldn't move once it stabilizes... It's just nice to have two angles to edit with. 

Bob led the first part of the interview while I watched audio levels on the A camera and made sure that Gary didn't drift too much from his mark. Once Bob had asked all his questions I took a stab at the interview process just to make sure I had a complete story to use as the main story line. We made a good team. Bob went after the details while I tried to find an intact storyline. 

Everyone is happy when we proclaim the interview to be a rousing success. We knocked it out in about 25 minutes. But now everyone is anxious to get to lunch and then to an exterior location where we'll have Gary walk down a steep bank, and across treacherous rocks to get to a good fishing site. And, yes, we need both wide, medium and tight shots in both photography and video. But while everyone is anxious to move I realize that I've got bits and pieces of gear spread across two rooms and that it's going to be up to me to get it all back in the right pockets of the right cases. 

Old Schoolers will immediately take me to task for not traveling with an assistant but I'm going to defend my choice. In the days of yore I worked with assistants on a daily basis. Many of the projects we did were not complex; they were the broad foundational jobs of the time. Headshots, real estate shots, product shots, etc. But they happened almost every day in the last century and it was efficient to have a full time person who, over time, came to know your processes, the way you packed, the way you lit, etc. Now we shoot more episodically, and on basic shoots we don't need to carry a bunch of big lights, we don't need to have anyone time Polaroid tests, we don't need to have anyone load our twelve exposure backs. Since there's no financial efficiency in having staff these days (at least for me); we only use assistants on bigger projects. Ones with lots and lots of moving parts.

My work has become more project oriented. I'm as likely to spend a day in a meeting or sitting in front of the computer writing as I am to spend days shooting. Especially if there is a video component to the job. If I had a full time assistant they'd spend a lot of time twiddling their thumbs, stewing in reception areas, and checking their texts. 

Another issue is that I use different gear for just about every project. I know the gear and I know how I packed it but a contract assistant would not have the chance to learn it often enough to make the knowledge stick. I'd either end up supervising the re-packing or cursing later when I couldn't find a needed part or device in the place I expected it to be. I loved working with Ben (my very smart kid) because he could help me pack the night before a shoot and he'd get out a Sharpie and white tape and label things if he didn't know about them. Sadly, we don't have the time and budget for regular assistants to parachute in and do these things. 

So, as everyone else refreshed their coffees and packed up their own stuff, I spent twenty five minutes breaking down and packing the audio gear, the lighting and the cameras. Then I checked my packing against my check list. I dragged the (wheeled) cases back to the rental car and this gave everyone license to head to the restaurant. 

Our lunch break was good, and sharing food with people is, according to cultural anthropologists, a good way to bond with people you've just met. Over lunch we discussed our next location.

After lunch we headed to a local lake to take shots of Gary walking down a steep slope to go fishing. We also shot a bunch of images and video of Gary casting, and actually catching a fish. The things that vex me about shooting outdoors are manifold. With video it's all about dealing with dynamic range and contrast, given that both cameras are outputting to 8 bit files there's not a lot of leeway to fix issues in post. The light was ever changing. We'd go from full sun to clouds covering the sun every five minutes or so. When shooting under clouds my custom profile worked as well as I could have expected it to but when I was in full sun I was tempted to shoot in S-Log. Knowing that I don't have the color correction chops for S-Log down pat yet I ended up shooting in PP6 which is a profile set up to protect the highlights while boosting the shadow areas. I had to get into a shooting rhythm that would have me shoot under sun in PP6 with a preset color temperature of 5600K and then switch to PP1 with a color temperature of 6800K under cloud cover. Remembering to go back and forth with both parameters while also shifting exposures to maintain a fixed density on flesh tones was like dancing backwards in high heels while juggling plates. 

The added variable to all of this was to remember to shoot wide, medium and tight for each angle. I also needed to remember to switch back over to my still camera and get the same coverage. Much easier in that case because shooting Sony A7Rii uncompressed raw files gave me lots and lots of dynamic range which easily translates into contrast control. Additionally, I really didn't need to worry about color temperature shifts since I could easily correct global color issues in post. 

I also get a bit flustered when shooting back and forth, between video and photos; to remember to stay super still in photo mode for the sharpest images and then to remember to add smooth movement to the video to make it more interesting to watch. 

We wrapped up at our lake location around 3:30pm and we were all saying our goodbyes in the park's parking lot when I remembered the two images that my client, Bob, needed for social media. We needed to go back to our host's facility and set up a quick, white background, studio set-up, light it and shoot our two products. One more unpack and re-pack. 

At 4:30pm we headed back to the airport and turned in our rental car. Then took the short, bouncy journey in the rental car shuttle. Southwest Airlines was changing their computer systems and had warned that there may be glitches. There were. No curbside check-in. I had to drag the cases to the ticket counter and deal with a partially functional check-in terminal. A human finally had to intercede and help get the bags squared away. 

A bit later we were sitting on a couch in front of The Coffee Bean when my phone vibrated. It was a message from Southwest Airlines. My flight was delayed. My connection would not work and it was suggested that I check (quickly) with one of the gate agents. God Bless Southwest Airlines because they already had me re-routed on a quicker flight by the time I got to the gate. Bags transferred as well. 

I never breathe a real sigh of relief until my bags come off the carrousel unscathed at my final destination. At 11:30pm I dragged them to my car, shoved the backpack onto the front passenger's seat and headed on to the final lap back home. Studio Dog was thrilled to see me. 

I'd like to say that there is a feeling of satisfaction and closure the next day but there's nothing of the kind. The next day is the post processing hangover. This in when you get to see everything you messed up, or missed getting, that you might sorely need. It's where you realize that the color is off or that your focusing technique isn't quite what you thought it was. 

Then you make your next set of plans which is to fix everything you can and also make some accommodations in your initial storyline to compensate for the missed shots. All the while hoping you'll come up with some great rationalizations when you run the new direction past the client. 

All in all we had a pretty good shooting day. I liked the 28mm but next time I'll also take along a 20mm for those really small exam rooms we sometimes end up shooting in. And next time I think I'll try the whole thing with my two Panasonic cameras; just for kicks. 

I hate parts of traveling. Getting to the airport on time and making it through security always causes me anxiety. I constantly worry about being delayed on the way to the airport or being delayed in the TSA lines. I worry that we'll miss a crucial connection, en route. I worry that the bags will head off on a vacation to a location quite different from the one I intended for them. I worry that the rental car service will have already given away the last rental car by the time I get there. I worry that my hotel will have overbooked and that there will be a convention and a football game in town and no other rooms will be available.

It's just a worry fest, and it's nothing new. I've been this way for years and years. I'd rather drive just about anywhere, but with deadlines and budgets the way they are these days it's just not practical. 

To Southwest's credit, and a little credit to my packing, there was no equipment damage. The hotel was anonymously perfect and quiet, and every meal was good. I loved working with Gary and I always enjoy working with Bob. Sorry I can't show any images with this blog but Bob hasn't even had time to pick through them yet and he's paying the bills.

One last thing: my psychological method for dealing with delays, long layovers and too much downtime on the way to and from locations is to always bring along a good book. Reading can get me through just about any situation that requires patience in order to survive --- or remain mentally balanced. Next time I'll bring two books. I might need a back up....



Note the price drop on the RX10iii. 




4 comments:

Frank Grygier said...

Happy you made back in one piece. Sounds like you had a successful shoot.

Michael Matthews said...

Brilliant!

stephen connor said...

Please tell me there was a large Scotch (or equivalent) at the end of this day.

ODL Designs said...

Hey Kirk, I really enjoyed that breakdown!! Sounds like you survived and needed another set of experienced hands :) what... me? Why of course!

I shot a rush video for a client last week just grilling food by a lake, I brought one of the new designers on board, and I am so glad I did. From carting all the equipment to and from the shooting spot (only 100m from the car but you cant leave any camera equipment un-attended) but the shoot itself was tough... I was suprised at how fast we had to work as the food cooked, and remembered your advice about capturing a story which really helped.

I also came away thinking I had to do more experiment with the normal colour profile for these rush jobs and not rely on the flat profile and grading meats.

Thanks again for the read, lasted my tea, and hope you are keeping well. I will send you a cut of the video for your feedback.