Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In which I recall that I have a blog, and opinions

Hey. Long time no talk. It's been... an interesting couple of years. A major transition or two, friend and family funtime adventures, et cetera, et cetera. But enough about then. Back to now.

I was out on Monday night, watching RuPaul's Drag Race at the Blue Moon with the most glittery painter I know. I'm not in the habit of bringing my grown-up camera to that venue; the stage lighting is pretty minimal, and I hate taking direct-flash pictures of live acts in dive bars. I know there are a bunch of you out there who do this. I see you at shows with your DSLRs, with speedlites or pop-up flashes pointed straight at the performers. Please stop it. Direct on-camera flash in a dark space flattens your subject, removing contour shadows from faces and costumes. It also lights the area behind your subject, which does a great job of cluttering up your composition. Congratulations, you've just taken a boring snapshot of a drag queen. Sashay away.

Taking interesting pictures of people, whether it's portraiture or performance, requires, among other things, interesting lighting. It doesn't require a fancy camera. This is an unretouched cell phone picture:
Pittsburgh artist Lauren Toohey, photographed in available light using a borrowed cell phone, just outside the ladies' room at the Blue Moon in Lawrenceville, 4/16/2012. Chanté, you stay.
I had just taken a picture of her and her friend with her phone, using the phone's white LED "flash." She had complained (justifiably) that the shot failed to show off her makeup, which was completely showing-off-worthy. I mean, if you're going to watch Drag Race, you're going to get all glittered up. That's just common sense. So, challenge issued, challenge accepted. "Ok, walk over here... now stand right there... turn a little... follow the phone... chin up just a little... ok." Click.

The trick was, "over here" was in a little dark hallway with a light in the ceiling. Directional light sources yield interesting pictures, every time. Whether or not that particular "interesting" is actually aesthetically pleasing depends on some other variables. That's when it's important to know things about how we perceive people, and particularly how we perceive faces. The goal — my goal, anyway — in portraiture is to render what you want to render about your subject. Here, it was glamour. Not evenly-lit airbrushed studio glamour, but shadowy dive-bar "this is my look, I own it, and if you don't like it I'll cut you" glamour, or something along those lines. So: even-ish light on the face, with well-defined shadows at the nose, cheekbones, and jawline; everything else, including the background, fading off into darkness.

Monday, October 19, 2009

International wedding of mystery

Sometimes, I second-shoot for other wedding photographers. It's something I enjoy, and while there's still the pressure and responsibility of getting the shots and telling the story, it's only there on that day. Post-processing, creating albums, client relations? Somebody else's problem. This weekend was different, though.

I had signed up as a second shooter to a wedding photographer from Toronto, who was coming to cover a wedding here in Pittsburgh. On the day of the rehearsal, she calls me. There's a border with the US, and nobody is willing to let her cross it. Now if it were up to me, North America would be one big free trade zone for wedding photographers, and possibly also DJs. But it's not up to me, so a brief reshuffling of roles ensued...

I made some calls. Then the calls made some calls, and sent some emails, and so on, and so on. October 17, 2009 is apparently a very busy day for Pittsburgh wedding photographers. Then, in the car, on the way to the rehearsal dinner, my phone rang. I now had a second shooter. She had some outdoor portrait sessions that had to cancel because of the weather, and was available for the wedding. Even better, she has more wedding experience than I do. Plan B is falling into place.

Now this was the first time I'd worked with this arrangement: acting as the main photographer, but shooting for someone else. It was a bit different. Normally, when I'm under contract like this, I'm a second shooter, and I do my best to be a good second shooter. What do I mean by that? Good second shooters know how to play as part of the string section, not as another solo violinist competing for the spotlight. When I'm in that role, my goal is to add to the story, following the theme and style of the principal photographer. Except that she wasn't there. I was.

What to do? Well, the first rule of wedding photography is: This Is Not About You. This Is Their Day. So: "Hi, I'm Kevin, and I'll be Michelle today." And off we went. More than one of the guests at the rehearsal dinner introduced themselves to me with a tagline like, "so I hear you've come to save the day." Which was nice, because I wasn't quite feeling the crushing responsibility yet. But, in the end, everything went smoothly. The venue was beautifully rustic, if a little cold and damp. Jen, Casey, and their families and friends were a complete joy to spend time with, and that energy came through in every photograph.

Thanks to Michelle for originally reaching out to me as a second shooter, and later trusting me to fill in for you. Thanks to Jessica for coming through at the last minute to fill the role of second shooter in a way that entirely exceeded my expectations, and for putting up with the seldom seen ball-of-stress side of my personality. And I can't let this go without a big shout-out to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service, for providing me with the opportunity to tell this story.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

That's entertainment

or, Adventures in Event Photography

It was my distinct privilege recently to be present at, and to be photographing, the first independent performance by the Bridge City Bombshells, Pittsburgh's newest burlesque troupe.

Elizabeth Couteau and Phat Man Dee
Their style is a delightful mixture of classical and modern burlesque; in their own words, "anything but ordinary." Friday's performance was jazz-themed, featuring the vocal stylings of Phat Man Dee as well as some classic recorded tracks like "I Put a Spell on You."

Elizabeth Couteau, Miss Hush, The Bees Knees, Kat de Lac, Shrimp Scanty, and the C*ntess von Tella (sorry about the asterisk, dear, but this is a family blog) each bring their own style and flavor to every number. The show featured a classic fan dance, some great character pieces including a petulant Shrimp Scanty dancing to Phat Man Dee's interpretation of "A Tisket a Tasket," and my favorite, a literally edgy interpretation of the balloon dance. The balloons already add a percussive element to your traditional striptease, but what if instead of that silly hatpin, you popped the balloons with an eight inch dagger?

ISO1600, 1/30, f/4, second curtain flash
And what if the balloons were filled with stage blood? Well then you'd be Tella. Stay out of the splash zone, kids.

Anyhow, about the photography. This was a very straightforward performers-on-a-stage kind of gig. Belvedere's is a dive, with lighting as low as the drink prices. I can't really complain, but I needed a little bit of reinforcement if I wanted sharp images of moving people. What I ended up doing was putting my SB-800 in remote mode, choosing a low power level and a pale amber gel to balance with the ambient light, and setting it on top of the PA speakers at stage right. The angle was consistent with stage lighting, so you don't look at the pictures and immediately think "flash."

Friday, June 19, 2009

Gee, that looks complicated

When I think back on using print film, or even more so, slide film, and how careful you had to be to meter everything just right, and how each time you pushed the button you spent money on tangible consumable things, there's that impulse to complain about how digital is "making photography too easy" or something.

But then you read something like this and realize that kids my days didn't realize how easy we had it either: How do you make a collodion negative?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Saturday, in the park

Oglebay Park, in Wheeling, WV to be specific. Through the magic of the internet, and no small amount of planetary harmonic convergence, I ended up working as second shooter to the wonderful Heidi Good, a Wheeling native now living and working in New York City. It was her role to tell the story of the couple's happy day, so I won't do that here. Instead I'll talk about me. This is, after all, a blog.

Heidi is the kind of wedding photographer I want to be when I grow up. What I mean is, her whole attitude is one I find so appealing. Wedding photography is about dropping into someone's life on That Most Important Day, then, ideally, leaving them with a record that will be meaningful and enduring, reminding them of all the things that made the day special. Retelling the story, as it were. It's not about a number of hours of coverage, or a number of pictures, or even a book or album; those products emerge from the process of entering the family's world and documenting it during the time you have together.

It was a long day of hard work, but so very rewarding. More, please.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Inclusion vs Exclusion

Painting vs photography. Discuss.

[more to come...]