Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Personal Projects and Ballerinas


Every once in a while between the odd photography jobs and my day to day work, I get the chance to work on personal photography projects.  I can't stress enough how important I think personal projects are.  They give you a reprieve from a lot of the other work you do, but also help to keep the passion and creative juices flowing... and possibly help you to learn something new along the way.

This particular project was something that was in the planning literally for years.  I first saw Amelia in a few photos that a friend and accomplished photographer had taken and I knew the moment I saw those photos, that I had to photograph her.  I am not a "model photographer" by any means, but Amelia's grace, poise and athletic ability was something I definitely wanted to try to capture on film... uhhh, pixels.

So, I messaged her and we started discussing ideas and locations for the shoot but with her and my schedules it was just hard for us both to get on the same page.  However, we finally pulled it off and how fun it was!  Amelia is not only a classically trained ballet dancer, but she is also the current Miss University of Louisville and a chemical engineer to boot!  That's a lot of talent!!!

Since Amelia is so closely tied to the city of Louisville, and because I am fascinated by the athletic ability of ballet dancers, we decided to photograph her in various dance positions but instead of in a studio, we shot on the streets of Louisville in various iconic locations.  The juxtaposition of an extremely talented, graceful dancer in urban environments really appealed to me, and fortunately it did for her as well.

From a technical standpoint, all of these portraits were lit very simply using either a Westcott Double Fold Umbrella or a small, portable softbox, the Lumiquest SBIII and Nikon speedlights.  Why speedlights and not big strobes?  Well, for one, I knew that due to the time of day we had scheduled to shoot in, we would not need to overpower the sun so flashes would work just fine.  Also, because we would be moving quite quickly from location to location and mostly on foot, I wanted to pack as little gear as necessary to get the looks I was after without being over burdened with an excessive amount of gear.  As it was, I still took way more gear than I needed as my friend, assistant and talented photographer Don Lehman, can attest too.  Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it in my book.  In all fairness though, had I not had someone to help me lug around all of that gear, I probably would have packed a lighter kit... maybe, well... probably not.  I digress.

Amelia No. 1This first portrait was taken in front of The Louisville Palace Theater.  If you're from the area then you know this is definitely one of the most iconic locations in town.  Its an absolute pleasure to attend any show there as the theater has been restored to its original Baroque style which in itself is an amazingly beautiful place to visit, much less enjoy fine entertainment there of all sorts.  It was lit with one speedlight in a shoot thru umbrella camera left and triggered with another on camera speedlight.  I don't remember the power settings for most of these simply because once I nailed my exposure for the background, I simply dialed the flash power up or down until she looked good.  A funny side note, there were several folks around and when she took off her street clothes to just her leotard, she attracted quite a bit of attention... justifiably so.  A lady driving down the street even stopped to take her photo with her phone through her car window!

Now, since we were already in front of the theater, we thought why not take a chance and see if we can shoot inside.  In all honesty though, I did check with another photographer friend who has shot in there many times and according to him, you have to rent the facility for any photography projects done inside.  I also checked this out on their website and found the same information.  That being said, I couldn't be down there and not try... that's part of being a photographer right?  So we went on in and I threw out the absolute best manners I could muster and along with that it doesn't hurt to have the current Miss UofL with you as your model.  They gave us 15 minutes to shoot!

Now to say that this place inside is a cave, is a discredit to caves.  It was really dark in there, so I knew I would have to push the envelope on my ISO since I didn't have a tripod with me, to burn in as much of the ambient light as I could.  The inside of the Palace is just too cool to let it fester off in to darkness.  So after quickly dialing in an ambient only exposure (I ended up at ISO 1250 and a 1/30 sec shutter speed) I got a light set up in a shoot thru umbrella and we were off and running.  Incidentally, the reason I picked the shutter speed and ISO that I did is that I know I can safely hand hold a camera at 1/30 of a second shutter speed and still get a reasonably sharp photo, so I set that first, opened up my aperture as big as it would go, which was f/5.6 and cranked the ISO til the background showed as much detail as I wanted it to.  I knew the umbrella'd light would throw a little light around too helping me with my exposure.  After I got the ambient set, Amelia struck a pose and we started shooting.  If we had more time in there, I would have loved to park a few more accent lights around but we were lucky to be in there as it was, so I didn't push my luck. 

So our next stop down the road a bit was the Seelbach Hilton Hotel, another great iconic location in the city of Louisville.  Everyone from Al Capone to F. Scott Fitzgerald have graced its majestic rooms so this definitely had to be a location to shoot in.  As with the Palace, we were unsure if we could even get in there for a shoot, but since our luck held out for the first location, we thought we'd chance it and walk on in.  Lo and behold, the same approach worked again!!  I have to admit though, I suspect if Amelia hadn't been with us, I doubt my ugly mug would have done us any favors.  Interestingly enough though, they seemed pretty lenient about the idea except for one really cool room in the hotel which was currently waiting for a huge party to show up so we opted for the grand staircase right in the center of the reception area!  I used the same scenario here as I did in the Palace except that it wasn't quite as dark so I didn't need as high of an ISO and also, this time I didn't want my light spilling all over the place so instead of the shoot thru umbrella, I opted for the smaller, Lumiquest SBIII softbox.  I've used these softboxes a ton and I always have one with me.  To me, the light is kinda similar to a beauty dish but in a smaller, more compact form.


Amelia No. 4

Once I had my ambient exposure dialed in, Amelia started striking the poses and we shot away.  The light in this one was off to camera left and about 10 feet in the air.  I wanted this light up high enough to not be lighting Amelia from below her chin... didn't want any flashlight-under-the-chin-ghostly portraits.  Another fun thing about this location was that people were gathering around watching and more than willing to move out of the way so we could get the shot we were after.  It was really funny, but several folks that were walking in to the shot literally stopped and froze as if they had committed a cardinal sin!  Have to say, most folks in this town are pretty downright friendly!  This place looks empty except for Amelia working her magic on the stairwell, but in all actuality there were tons of people all around us!

This last portrait was, totally unplanned and a "happy accident", mostly impart to Amelia's perseverance to perform no matter the situation.  While we were walking to our next location, the sky opened up and started dumping Noah's flood on us... figures right?  Not wanting to get her wet, I herded us under a nearby awning and thought we could wait it out.  After sitting there wasting time for what seemed like forever (about 15 mins actually), Amelia decided, 'hey, lets shoot in the rain!'... God Bless her.  Ok, so how to do this.  Being the lighting guy that I am, I new I wanted to control the contrast in the scene as best I could but didn't particularly want to take a chance on getting my lights, or Amelia, soaking wet so the solution was to park a speedlight in one of my bigger umbrellas, a Photek Softlighter II actually, and have her hold it above her so that she would stay dry and still be lit.


Amelia No. 6 (Dancing in the Rain)

The trick to this (if you want to call it that) was to position the light in the umbrella so that it lit the front side of Amelia.  So I explained the situation to her, since she would be the one in fact holding the light, and she grasped the idea like a duck to water.  She simply held the umbrella so that the flash was in front of her.  I had no idea honestly what power setting to use, so I dialed in an ambient exposure that I thought would work and this time set the flash to TTL.  I generally like using manual power settings, but this time I thought I would let the camera and flash do the heavy lifting and it did a pretty darn good job with no compensation adjustments.  I normally shoot with the intention of converting to black and white later, but this photo just seemed to sing to me in black and white so I changed it after the fact.  I wasn't exactly happy with the background, but we were kinda in a situation where there wasn't anything to be done about that so we made the best of it, and honestly, its one of my favorite images of the shoot... even if its not perfect.  I have to give it to Amelia on this one though, her tenacity and skill made this shot imho.

Before I forget, the photo at the top of the post, was probably the most technically challenging, but still not that difficult.  You would think that I would have had to shoot in burst mode to capture that kind of action, but with Amelia's superior training and the flash's stopping power, it was all a matter of framing the scene and locking the focus.  I dialed in the exposure on how I wanted the background to look, which left Amelia in complete silhouette, then I lit her with one flash in a shoot thru umbrella from camera left for a test shot... and it was way underexposed.  I didn't want to max my flash power out at full power because of the slow recycle speed, so thankfully, I had a triflash bracket with me.  I mounted three Nikon SB-800s on the bracket, and put them back in the umbrella and took a test shot... which was more than enough power.  So the ambient exposure was good and the lighting was good, now all I had to do was sync myself with Amelia.  I had her stand where she would end up landing and locked my focus on that spot, then gave her a 1.. 2.. 3.. count and off she went!  At the peak of her jump was when I clicked the shutter, and she made this incredibly easy for every single shot, every single frame straight out of camera was a keeper.  I think we took about 5-6 shots here til we were happy with what we had and called it a day.

This was one of my favorite shoots to date, and Amelia and I both agreed to make this a continuing project until we have shot in front of or in, every place in Louisville we can get in to!  I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed this shoot (even in the rain) and how much I look forward to the next one.  Amelia was simply amazing!!

Also, I have to give a very sincere thank you to an awesome photographer, Don Lehman, for helping me out with this shoot and lugging all of my heavy gear around, you were a huge help dude!!!

If you'd like to see a few more shots from this session, you can find those HERE.

 

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