This is part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 will appear online in a couple of days.
It’s been a funny few weeks at Binns Towers; madly busy with barely a moment to breathe, or so it’s seemed to those of us caught in the tide of everything going on. It seems to be slowing down a bit now, and we’re just over a week away from our California road trip (more on that later in the week), but I still feel vaguely breathless, as though I’m running to catch up with my life. And in all the turmoil it seems like my camera hasn’t been out of its bag for nearly a month, and I still haven’t blogged the studio / beauty / find a makeup artist and shout “Go!” shoot that I did in February. More things to add to the to-do list. Hurrah for doing things out of order.
Over the weekend before last, in a flurry of we’ve-been-talking-about-this-for-ages-so-let’s-do-it-before-we-forget-again action, I spent a couple of days shooting with my good friend and fellow Ubuntero Tony Whitmore. We booked four models for two days’ worth of shooting – one on location and one in the studio – and ventured forth with nothing other than two cars full of gear, a desire to do some photography and an intent to come back with some cool images…
… and I flailed around like a beached salmon.
There’s nothing more frustrating, creatively speaking, than having all the right pieces of the puzzle – great model, great light, great locations – and somehow not being able to glue it together in your head. At first, I thought I was just rusty. After all, I’d not picked up my camera for a proper shoot for a few weeks, and as always when I’ve had a bit of a lay-off it felt like I was having to learn ISOs, aperture and shutter speeds all over again.
Brick and Graffiti
With Nikki, our first model for the weekend, we went to the run-down but colourful warehouse district of Lancaster (to call it a district is to give it an overabundance of praise, in fact. It’s not big enough to be a district; it’s more of an area). Normally I’d say it was a photographer’s paradise: lots of graffiti, exposed brick and plaster, rusty old staircases and in the case of the Sugarhouse – an old sugar (clue’s in the name, there) warehouse that’s been converted into a club – some brick walls that have been painted a very fetching shade of blue. Nikki even jumped up on top of some wheelie bins (dumpsters to our American friends), because she apparently has no fear.
And still I got nothing. Every lens I tried, every aperture, every lighting set up felt dead to me. It all seemed bland and ordinary, despite the great location and the energetic and engaging subject. I just wanted to fade into the background, but realising that that wasn’t really an option when we were less than half an hour into our weekend I just kept shooting. We moved on from the bins a little bit and finally something clicked for me. One light, shoot through umbrella, brick wall, pretty model. More than a bit clichéd, but at least it was something.
After some natural light shooting in the little alleyway next to the brick wall we moved on again and tried a corner next to the Sugarhouse where corrugated aluminium walls are covered with graffiti. “How many children,” remarked Nikki as we were setting up a light, “do you think have been conceived here?” Lovely. I was feeling a bit more confident now, so I had no hesitation in asking Tony to hoist up a light in a reflective umbrella and fly it out over Nikki’s head.
(Incidentally, just before sending this and the other images to Nikki, I discovered several inventive but somewhat inaccurate anatomical diagrams on the wall behind her; took a little while to remove them, but such are the perils of shooting against graffiti).
One more location – which didn’t pay off due to the sun being at its zenith – and it was time to bid Nikki adieu and dash for some lunch. Our afternoon was to be spent in Williamson Park, a multi-acre park-cum-woodland site to the East of the town centre, with Cassie Jade being our subject.
Trees and Sunshine
I’d been lucky with the location, in a way, because I’d spent 45 minutes scouting it a few days earlier (in an endless drizzle, I might add; I don’t hesitate to sacrifice my comfort for art) and I knew which bits of it I wanted to hit first. But I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted to capture. That spark of inspiration, that sniff of vision that makes for great images completely eluded me, so whilst Tony shot Cassie in some naturally-lit poses I went and set up a light and an umbrella and hoped that and idea would come to me.
It did, but it wasn’t remotely like what I ended up producing. I wanted to create a feeling of otherworldliness, with Cassie backlit by the little beams of sunlight that sneaked through the branches into the bottom of the little dell we were shooting in, but I couldn’t seem to bring it to fruition (I rather get the suspicion that I could realise the image I had in my head if I spent an hour or so lighting the dell myself instead of using one light and hoping that the sun played ball. I also suspect I’d need some smoke to make the whole thing work properly). Instead, whilst working around my subject and trying different angles, my 50mm f/1.8 did what it always does when facing into the light and flared horribly. In this case, one photographer’s horrible was my beautiful, and I got something with which I was happy.
As always in this game, when inspiration’s not with you, you just keep going. Make it work, make it happen. You can’t give up or cry off or walk away because if you do you’re wasting money – yours, the client’s, whosever – and you’re telling the world that you are not a professional, no matter what they may be paying you.
We moved on to some rock formations, where Tony and Cassie did their damnedest to get the right shot despite the massively bright sun and the ugly man-made intrusions (I know that it’s Health and Safety conscious to put up a picket fence and thus protect people from doing stupid things like falling off a ten-foot high rock, but it’s artistically irritating) and I alternated between assisting – in this case using a reflector to turn the sun, which Tony was using to back-light Cassie, into a key light – and mooching around trying to find something in my brain that went with the glorious day and lovely scenery. A log, moss-covered in the middle of some ivy but lit beautifully by the sun’s rays, provided the inspiration. Some discussion about pose and outfit with Cassie and a quick wardrobe change, and I shot like my life depended on it. Every angle I could think of, I tried, and I knew as I shot that I was getting the frames I wanted. There was a certain amount of spray-and-pray, but less so than earlier; all I needed to do was follow the light and the idea and find the right frame.
One more location – which was beautiful but which didn’t work out, at least for me, and we were done for the day, annoyingly just as the light was turning golden. Knackered, but reasonably happy, we headed for dinner, and I hoped that I’d manage to pull myself out of the creative mire.
In part 2: Fun and frolics, seamless and empty brains in the studio.