Friday, September 24, 2010

An Anniversary of Sorts: Turlock Senior Portraits

Posted by David

It's Sunday night at about 2:15 (that makes it morning, doesn't it?) and I'm sitting here waiting for yesterday's wedding to load so that I can start edits. It's been a busy week and weekend with many hours and even a few days away from home. We wrapped up five days of shooting with a joint senior session with Mariah and one of our Model Seniors, Jessica. They'll each be getting their own post because, as Jessica so aptly put it, "We all like to be the star of our own show."

One thing I just had to share was a shot from today that has my creative engine purring. Seriously, my eyes light up every time I look at it. I don't mean that in the conceited way that it probably comes across. It's honestly one of those things where you look at it and think, "Wow, I did that?" You see, it's more disbelief than anything else.

I say it because exactly one year ago from the time of today's shoot, with a Nikon D80 that I borrowed from my mom, I took my first steps into photography. It's something that I've been afraid to mention up until now. I don't want clients to lose faith in our ability to create amazing photographs. I also don't want to lose face with my peers. But to be totally honest with you, dear reader, there are not a lot of things in life that I've done that I feel like I can be truly proud of.

I'm proud of all that my wife has accomplished, and my family. My heart swells over every time my son does even the smallest thing worthy of praise. But for the most part my life has been filled with false starts and almosts. As a matter of fact, one year ago I was trying to change that by giving my all to writing, only to abandon it for photography. (Anyone that used to read Divining the Words already knows that my posts tend to have a very introspective feel to them. Those of you new to my writing, prepare yourselves for a little soul searching.)

That has been the crux of my problems for so long: half assing things. I've never been proud of myself because I've never given something my all. Things that others are proud of for me, I take no pride in. The record for the 400 yard dash that I broke in high school that friends still bring up, is not a point of pride for me because I know I didn't give it my all. I got kicked off the team for bad grades for cripes sake. They don't remember that, but I do. Art school, while I learned a lot, did not produce the kind of work that I was capable of. College saw me doing just enough to get by as better than average; still, it wasn't my best.

When it came to photography, I had to make a choice: move forward with something Melody was passionate about that we could share in, or concern myself with only my creative needs and let her hash things out on her own. I chose to abandon my love of writing to embrace my love for and commitment to my wife. A pretty good trade-off if you ask me. After all, nothing worth having ever came easily. Then again, photography was easy, you just pointed the camera at stuff and captured expressions. Right?

Modesto Senior Portraits: Picture Blown Out

Our second shoot together, which should have been a fairly straightforward portrait session, left me reconsidering my ability to be a photographer. For the entire shoot, nearly all of my shots, save for when I was in the darkest of shade, were blown out. Super bright whites everywhere, and nothing I did on the back of that goofy Rebel camera could change it. It wasn't until the end of the shoot, after our senior and his mom had headed home and I was left to monkey with settings as I shot geese on the Stan State lawns, did I figure out that I'd had my ISO bumped to 1600 in the middle of broad daylight. Of course, back then I wasn't even second fiddle to Melody, I was more like the guy that plays the triangle once a movement. My shots didn't really matter.

But I wanted to matter. We all do, don't we? And so, I turned my back on writing and embraced photography. Nearly every day since then has had some form of study, practice, thought, or experimentation in photography. Without Melody's encouragement along the way I'd likely have given up on this as well.

So what has me thinking that I can finally admit to being new to this? Is it just the photograph I captured? To be honest, anyone can get lucky. I know that. And I know that luck played a big role today. Luck came in the form of amazing clouds. It also came in the way that although I'd forgotten all of my filters at home in the scramble to get out the door after unpacking from the overnight stay in Sanger for the wedding, the one filter left in my bag was the Neutral Density for my 100mm. Luck came in two ready and willing models, and their supportive mothers. Luck especially came the day I somehow tricked Melody into marrying me. Even with all of that luck there were things that no amount of luck could create.

No, today it's different, it's different because I had the wherewithal to say, "Let's do that over." I was confronted with a problem and instead of saying, "oh well, Melody's shots will cover my butt," I did what every professional that I aspire to be like would have done and worked the scene until I got the shot.

So here's the beginning of the problem. We've got two lovely young ladies who love the Harry Potter series. The gods have graced us with a moody sky, and we've got half of a dead tree. Mel's thought was to place one girl on each side, zoom in tight on the tree so that we don't see the top and catch just the two of them and the gnarled bark. A great idea, but a problem for me.

Turlock Senior Portraits: Harry Potter Themed shoot

I knew right away that the light fall off from my source would be too great to cover both girls, and that I only had one light source to play with (fried the backup flash at the wedding the day before). I understood the limits of my modifier and source, which for anyone who works with off-camera flash can attest to, is grounds for kudos all by itself.

I made the choice to bring Jessica around to the front of the tree. Now I'm working my light, balancing ambient and off camera, working the scene, fumbling my way through directions to the girls. I'm liking the shots. They're looking good. "I think we've got it," I say and then show the girls the back of my camera, something I rarely do. Far too many times I've been excited about a shot only to show the client and get a "Yeah, that's nice," in response. Nothing deflates a creative's motivation faster than "yeah, that's nice," but I took a chance.

Turlock Senior Portraits: Harry Potter Themed shoot

They loved it. The girls loved it, Melody loved it, even the moms loved it. I was feeling pretty good about myself. We decided that there was no point taking any other pictures because that was THE ONE. However, something Mariah's mom said nagged at me. "That's the kind of picture you print as a poster and put up on the wall."

Turlock Senior Portraits: Harry Potter Themed shoot

"f/5" echoed in my head. I'd shot it at f/5. For those of you not in the know, f/5 was going to leave one girl nice and sharp while the other would end up just the slightest bit out of focus given the distance between them and my choice of focal length. I knew that and was going to let it slide because you'd never see it in an 8x10. But a poster? A poster was an entirely different beast. That's when I made the call that a professional would make, I asked them to set up and do it all over again.

They probably thought I was crazy, but I knew one of them wouldn't be sharp and I knew I could do better. So we set up again and I pushed my light to the limit and worked my settings until I could squeeze f/10 out of the camera. The results, straight from the camera, . . . .

Turlock Senior Portraits: Harry Potter themed shoot

One year. Granted, there was a foundation of years of art school, drawing, graphic design, sign shops, and just a general love and appreciation of art on which to build, not to mention the unwavering love and support of Melody through it all, but it has been one year with a DSLR. I went from blowing out images because I couldn't figure out that I had my camera set to ISO 1600, to having the wherewithal to restage a scene because I knew I needed f/10. I used to look at images like the one I created today and think, "I'll never be able to do that," but I did. The best part about it is that I know that I'll be able to do it again. It probably won't be tomorrow, or next week, or maybe not even next month, but I know I now have the ability to seize the moment when it is presented. I finally feel like I'm the star of my own show and I finally feel comfortable saying something that I haven't felt I could say for a very long time, "I'm proud of myself."

The final image, after photoshop:

Turlock Senior Portraits: Harry Potter Themed shoot
Edit: The blown out senior portrait shots above are from October 9th of last year. The shot above was 1/200, f/10, ISO 400. Canon 5D mkii, Canon 100mm IS L macro with a neutral density filter, two 580ex ii's fired at full power in manual through a three foot softbox with outer and inner baffle, triggered by a radiopopper PX atop an ST-E2. ISO was pushed to 400 in order to achieve f/10. In hindsight, I probably could have removed the ND and pulled back on the ISO to achieve the same aperture. I'll keep that in mind for next time. :o)

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