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KYH: UUPC promo shoot

Have you seen this man?

As I said in my last entry, I shot some promotional photos for the Ubuntu UK Podcast team this weekend, since they were up in Liverpool for OGGCamp 10 and I figured it’d be as good a time as any for me to try my hand at some group shots. The experience taught me several lessons, and in the spirit of keeping myself honest I figured I’d blog about them here.

The charming fellow above, by the way, is Mr Alan Pope, one of the co-presenters of the UUPC. This shot was actually a test shot for light levels, but I thought it came out pretty well all the same.

Anyway, lessons – and photos – below the fold.

1. Zero-out the camera, you dimwit

I should have learned this one long ago, but apparently I still haven’t. Maybe I need a checklist in my moleskine, something to run through before starting any set of photos.

If you look at the exif data for the photos above you’ll notice that it was shot at f/11, 1/125 at ISO 1600. Why ISO 1600? Well, because I was shooting some photos of the hall in which we took this shot – the big, cavernous hall with the matte black ceiling. I shot those without any flash at all, and because the D300 will produce reasonably useable shots at ISO1600 I just whacked up the ISO and shot wide open to get a decent shutter speed. Did I check the ISO when I came to shoot the promo photos with a studio head against a seamless background? No. Could I have shot this at ISO 100? Yes. Should I? Most definitely yes.

Sigh.

So, lesson one is to always, always, always, without fail, zero out the camera. It will save head-scratching later on. Part of the problem, of course, is that modern cameras will happily produce correctly exposed images at ISO 1600 when you’re throwing big lights at things. It’s only later that we notice that they’re a bit grainy or that they’re a bit too even or what have you.

2. Make friends with the building manager

Ironically I’ve known this one for years. My mother was a teacher and always said that the first people to make friends with at a new workplace were the caretakers; they can help you more or make your life harder than most other people. Same thing is true of building managers.

I’d been planning this shoot for a couple of months and had absolutely tons of ideas about how to shoot it, thinking that we’d have plenty of time in the venue. A day or so before the shoot I found out that I couldn’t have been more wrong: we were expected to be out of the venue by 6pm on the Friday night. By curious happenstance, the UUPC brigade (hereinafter referred to as “the talent,” to much hilarity) weren’t expected to be pitching up at the venue until… 6pm. Yeah, this could be an issue.

So, job one: phone on Thursday morning and ask for an extension. Suprisingly, I got one pretty much straight away. In fact the guy I spoke to said we should be able to stay until 7pm. Brilliant! I can do the shoot! Phoned again on Friday morning and things had changed somewhat. No extension any more; the difference being that this time I was talking to the building manager and not to any old member of staff. With a bit of persuasion I got him to allow us to stay until 6:30pm. Turns out that whilst he was reasonably cheerful about this with me he was quite grumpy to the organisers. Mea culpa, folks; I apologise.

3. Half an hour isn’t enough – unless you set up well in advance

Like I said, I had tons of ideas for this shoot, some practical, some not so much (the one with the lady and gents in inter-war period dress, to go with the podcast theme music, would have been both rewarding and hard to pull off without a stylist). In the end, with half an hour to shoot on the Friday night and only three of my five subjects available, I managed to set up for and shoot exactly this many of them:

None.

Of course, you don’t let yourself sulk in a situation like that, you just get on with it, and to be fair the results weren’t terrible, just a bit on the dull side:

UUPC Triptych

All these shots were shot against a grey seamless background (oh so much fun, by the way, to try and fit a 2.7m roll of seamless into a car that’s only 2.5m from windscreen to back bumper. Hacksaws are such wonderful things…) with one light: a Bowens 500W Esprit Gemini head through a Softlite reflector / beauty dish.

After these shots, we pretty much had to scarper, even though the other members of the team had now turned up, because the building manager was on the prowl and getting progressively grumpier. So, inventive ideas out the window. At least I got the safe shots.

4. Don’t rent gear unless you really, really need to

For this shoot, I decided long ago, I’d need to rent some extra gear. This was mostly because the ideas that were bouncing around in my head (and are now scribbled down in my moleskine for future reference) would have required a light with more power than my trusty SB-900 and Vivitars could reasonably produce (though this is only an hypothesis on my part; I didn’t have chance to test it). So, being the kind of chap who plans in advance, I booked the rental of a Bowens 500W head and a Softlite reflector from Calumet in Manchester.

In hindsight, which is, of course, always 20/20, I should’ve cancelled the rental when I found out about the problems with the venue. But I didn’t, so on the Friday afternoon I was stuck with a studio light that I didn’t really need. I could’ve achieved a similar look for the individual shots with one SB-900 and a silver-white umbrella. Of course, having the Bowens I decided I had to use it, which meant that I had to spend some time checking light levels (if I’d been using an SB-900 I could’ve used iTTL or an SC-29 cord for the sake of speed).

Where the gear may have come in handy is later on, on the beach in Crosby (of which more below). However, in renting a Bowens head I’d done myself out of the opportunity of having a battery-powered big-gun flash at my disposal, because whilst Calumet rents out Bowens heads it doesn’t rent out Bowens TravelPaks. If you want battery-powered big flashes you need to rent Profoto gear, which is significantly more expensive.

The lesson to be learned, then, is that you probably don’t need to rent gear (or that you should think harder about what gear you actually need to rent). Did I need the Bowens head? Not really. Did I need the background support stand for the seamless? No; gaffer tape and a wall would have worked just as well. Or in fact a grey wall, of which there was one in the downstairs part of the venue, which I used on the Saturday to get these shots of Ciemon and Daviey, the members of the UUPC team who hadn’t been able to make it to the venue on the Friday evening in time:

Ciemon and Daviey

So in the end I didn’t even need the seamless paper. A little more research and I would’ve known this.

5. Location scouting: it works

One thing that did pay off, at least in part, was some location scouting that I did in between dropping the rented gear off at the Black-E and setting up for the shoot. I’d already looked on Google Maps to see if I could find anything interesting nearby, and I found the beach at Crosby in the process. This is where Antony Gormley’s Another Place sculptures live. I’d planned to shoot in the grassy dunes off the beach, or on the rocky part of the beach (when I say ‘rocky,’ I mean ‘bricky’: most of the stones on the beach are actually bricks worn smooth by the waves). That ended up not happening, partly because it was effing freezing and partly because what had been, earlier, a reasonably short drive turned into a massive trek as my TomTom and Liverpool’s road system basically bore not relation to one another.

But despite the cold we did have time to do some shooting. iTTL for speed (though I made the mistake of using the on-camera flash instead of an SB-900 as commander, which made my life harder). One light, SB-600 at 14mm, TTL through a small Ezybox Hotshoe to camera right:

Clan UUPC

Conclusions

Truth to tell, I’m only partially happy with what came out of the weekend. It was too rushed, too ill-thought through and I didn’t plan well enough for it, spending time thinking about what I wanted to shoot but not what I’d do if the venue became unavailable. So, better planning needed next time.

I got the safe shots, but I didn’t get anything else, anything edgier and more interesting. I’ve still got several ideas in my head about how to shoot the UUPC folks, and they’re much more interesting than what I managed to produce in the time available. Maybe the key would be not trying to do it at the same time as the subjects involved are trying to run a massive (and by the way awesome) open culture event in a busy city.

So ends this edition of KYH. Next up: why I still haven’t shot the woodland set yet and what I’m going to do about it.