Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Nikon CLS and Crossfit Games

This last weekend I had the rare and wonderful opportunity to step out of the box with my shooting and cover an event that was both exciting to witness and an intense challenge as a shooter. The gym I belong to, Front Range CrossFit, hosted the Rocky Mountain Regional Crossfit Games on May 16th and 17th. Two days of some of the most inspiring human feats of physical ability you could possibly imagine. Men and women pushing themselves to the very limits of what is possible in strength, stamina, endurance, speed, agility, power, and mental and emotional toughness. Words do no justice in describing what it takes to do a Crossfit workout and having been there I only barely begin to understand what it takes to compete in such an event. I will just say that for me it was one of those moments in life when I realize how amazing humanity is, how we continue to find new ways to challenge ourselves physically, we are still moving forward and reaching new heights. And certainly, it was a lesson about how I can push myself farther, personally and professionally.

As a shooter, the weeks leading up to the games had me less than thrilled at the prospect of a point and shoot photography job. Lighting, to me, is what sets the professional photographer apart from the average guy with a camera.  Many people have a great eye for composition, lots of photography enthusiasts buy all the latest and greatest of gear. Nowadays, with digital cameras and their super smart metering systems, and no need for film knowledge or even aperture and shutter speed savvy, you can simply shoot something over and over again until you get the shot you want. Pilots who don't really steer the plane? A good friend and fellow photographer likes to say "why become a pilot if you are just going to use auto pilot?", but then again, there are foggy days, and long, straight flight paths, and there is a time and a place for the pro to tap into some of those great little bells a whistles that are put into our cameras and flash units.
In this situation, I was limited in my ability to set up lights and there were some questions about how I should go about covering the event. Fast action in a dark location, with on camera flash, leaves little room for creativity and originality and I am a professional that doesn't much care for the hard line shadows cast on walls and floors using on axis lighting. Many of us who are lighting junkies scoff at the idea of TTL (Through The Lens) settings, and creative snobs have a hard time accepting the fact that sometimes you just have to let the technology do the work. I knew I would be shooting at a 250th of a second because of the need to freeze the action, my max flash sync speed, and I knew I would be shooting with my aperture at wide or close to wide open to get as much of the ambient light recorded as possible. In addition, I felt confident with the D300, bumping the ISO up to 400 to get a bit more bang for the buck out of the flash and the ambient light. So in effect, I knew my exposure was F2.8 to 4.0 at a 250th of a second.
It became apparent to me after a few practice sessions shooting workouts at the gym, that the Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System) and TTL feature of the flash were the best way to get the job done. CLS would allow me to hold the flash high and to the left, wireless, while my right hand worked the camera. If you are not familiar with CLS, in a nut shell, as I understand it, the camera's on camera flash sends signals and info to the SB flash, telling it what the camera's aperture is and when to fire.  The SB reads and meters it's own flash and knows when adequate power is obtained for exposure. This can be done with many flashes at once as long as they are within operating distance of the camera, experience has taught me that the distances vary depending on the situation.
So with my Nikon D300 in one hand and my Nikon SB800 flash in the other, on Saturday morning I took the first of over 1500 photos for the weekend.  I never had to think twice about the numbers, I just had to compose, focus and shoot, a welcomed simplicity which allowed me more concentration on trying to stay alive and uninjured, keeping out of the way of the competitors and flying weights. Everything was dictated by the situation, I just had to let the flash do it's thing.

Freezing the action was no problem at a 250th.
Getting the flash off axis just a little bit helps to bring some dimension to the light.

The typical post-Crossfit workout position.... if you do it right.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Eastern State Penitentiary Workshop

The rusty bars, peeling paint, crumbling walls and rotting relics of Eastern State Penitentiary,  are the narrators of the story about the nations first prison. It is a design that inspired the blueprints of well over 200 prisons around the world, a center "hub" with cellblocks extending outward like the spokes of a wheel. It is the place where Al Capone was incarcerated, it is the birthplace of "reform" and it is where the term "penitentiary" (from penance) was first coined. The first stones were laid in 1822 and the last of it's prisoners were transfered in 1971. Some believe it to be haunted and it certainly fits the perception of what many think a ghost's residence should look like, never the new Walmart, ghosts need history to accumulate.... I guess. There was a film crew there in fact, filming a new episode of one of the many popular ghost hunting shows. A few movies have used the location as a backdrop as well. What better place to hold a Small Strobes Big Results Workshop?
The cost per day for the location meant we needed to fill the class beyond our normal 12-15 attendees, no problem, demand was high. Even after adding a second workshop to the schedule we were still regretfully having to tell some photographers that there just wasn't any more room. Perhaps a return trip is in the near future, but first, San Francisco, Orange County, and Denver ( still room for more in those workshops).
We arrived on Wednesday, checked into the hotel and promptly headed out to visit some of the city's famous attractions. First stop was Geno's Steaks for a world famous steak and cheese "wiz wit"..... thats Cheese Wiz with onions. Pretty tasty! We returned the next day to try the sandwich from Pat's, the rivalry between the 2 establishments has quite a history and is apparently debated by the residents with fervor. We wanted to form our own opinions on the matter and 3 out of 3 tasters decided unanimously..... Geno's!
Thursday afternoon we were able to visit the prison and with our own personal guide we toured and scouted the entire place. Thursday night we were scheduled for a lecture/talk/picture showing at the local chapter of the ASMP. The turn-out was remarkable and the night was extremely enjoyable. Thanks to all those involved!
Friday it was time for the show, 4 hours of class time sharing our many grip gear secrets, talking about quality of light, and then it was off to Eastern State for the location portion of the workshop. Seeing the photographers walking around wide eyed, shutters clicking, peeping heads into cells to see what neat pic could be found, was for sure a great payoff after so much planning.
We had already decided on our first location for the day following our scouting the day before and within the first half hour we had a shot in the can. The juxtaposition of a beautifully dressed young lady within the decaying cellblock  was a great way to start and it seemed to charge the photographers creative batteries.

We got perhaps a half dozen other shots, moving from one cellblock to another, before our time there had expired and it was off to the pub/restaurant across the street with most of the attendees joining us for dinner and discussion of everyone's favorite subject.
Saturday was more of the same, different models, some new backdrops, and a whole new set of photographers. Dinner was even more popular than the night before with all but maybe 2 attendees joining us for a couple of hours at Jack's Firehouse again.
Sunday found us with most of the day to do as we pleased before a late flight back to Denver. We chose to head Downtown and visit the famous buildings and pathways of our founding fathers. We walked the streets of Philly, enjoyed a great lunch, and it was off to the airport for a long flight home.

Monday, February 9, 2009


We recently had an assignment for a mining company here in Denver and the location of their offices in the Tech Center struck me instantly as an excellent setting for some portfolio portraits. The building's main lobby in particular is quite grand in scale and design, complete with a beautifully tiled floor, huge chandelier, and a colorful archway leading to the elevators. Our assignment that day had nothing to do with shooting people so we didn't get the opportunity to use the lobby in our shots but I promised myself I would return and speak with the powers that be and ask permission to come back and use their lobby. I returned the following day and spoke with the head of security, they gave me the "okay", a somewhat rare answer in a post 9/11 world.
With a solid location, all I needed was a subject, a time, and a lighting plan.
At our most recent Small Strobes Big Results Workshop, I exchanged information with one of our models in the hope that in the near future I could call her for this very reason. She was very receptive, we met and formulated a plan. Appropriate wardrobe and time was decided on, I had a little over a week to wait before she was available, plenty of time to pre-visualize the shot.
I arrived on location around 2pm, expecting the model at 3pm. I used that hour to set up and dial things in. Because I was without an assistant, I asked the security guards there if they would like a nice portrait of themselves to forever remember their job in this wonderful building. They agreed, and one of the test shots was nice enough that I have included here.
The lobby is 2 stories in height and has North facing windows that extend floor to ceiling. I decided to try natural light first, often overlooked by those of us who are lighting junkies. My second lighting plan was to use a large Octabox for a soft main light and let the Ambient do the rest of the work for the background. The natural light idea quickly faded with the sun outside as we didn't really get started until around 4pm. I ended up using the Octabox, close to the subject and forward enough of her to allow for fairly soft non-directional light.
We went through a couple of wardrobe changes and used  three different set-ups. I used 2 lenses, my 20-35 2.8 and my 50 1.8. The camera is a Nikon D300 and the strobe is an SB800 attached to the speed ring of the Octabox using a Justin Clamp.  We shot for about an hour and a half and I was pleased with the results considering we had no make-up artist or hair stylist, no clothing stylist, and the model is not an experienced pro.
As a photographer, I am always on the lookout for locations like this. I keep a databank in my mind of places I could shoot various subject matter and refer to them when things get slow or I am inspired by a lighting idea. A well planned shot will usually give you a predictable outcome and practicing the craft is a must in this competitive industry.