Dec 28, 2009

Bag of Tricks

I'm still recovering from the holiday festivities and travel, but I wanted to sit down and address something that comes up a lot in emails to me and that I address in my workshops.  The question goes something like:

"When you're lighting a shoot or setup, are you starting from scratch every time?"

And the answer is: yes and no.

Basically, I do approach every shoot as its own thing and requiring its own creative process and considerations.  But that said, it's rare that you've got enough time on every shoot to explore and play and fiddle and see what works and what doesn't, especially on a portrait or fashion shoot where you're responsible for nailing a few different looks in a short time and expected to get a reasonable amount of coverage on each look.  You aren't always going to have the luxury of saying "let's see if this works" and just winging it.

And thus enters what I like to call my Bag of Tricks!

Every photographer has one, whether they know it or not.  In the worst case, it's the lazy habits and creative crutch that you rely on to get you through a shoot without breaking a sweat.  In the best case, it's a series of tried-and-true techniques, creative approaches and lighting setups that you know you can employ to get a reliable result...that way you still have time to try something that might or might not pay off.

I think of it like this: when a model agency sends me a model for portfolio development, there's an expectation that I'll send back at least 2-3 looks, with a bunch of options within each look, that are appropriate for use in that model's portfolio.  Those looks should probably mean different lighting setups, wardrobe changes and hair/makeup styling from one to the next - that's a lot of ground to cover in a short time, and the fallout from not hitting that mark isn't pleasant.  In order to stay consistent and reliable, 1 or 2 of those 2-3 looks are going to be setups that I've shot any number of times in the past, have shown to the agency and gotten positive feedback on, and know that I can duplicate with a minimum of fuss.

By "minimum of fuss" I mean "can get the camera and lighting ready for it in under 5 minutes."  I want to be waiting on hair, makeup and wardrobe, not having those things waiting on me.  Or, even better, I want to be shooting a different look with a different model and still able to be ready for the next thing.

When it comes to fashion, one of those go-to looks for me is what I call my "Gap Look" - it's simple, clean and somewhere between editorial and catalog:

It's worth noting that the same lighting setup and approach works just as well for beauty:

And even for portraits:


All three of those are the same single light and modifier, just in different positions and relative distances.  The setup time is minimal and I know that I can get at least those looks without additional gear or time lost to a swap.  They're also versatile enough that they become starting points for layering on other touches or variations, yet they're still recognizably my work and style.

I might have four or five similar setups that require minimal gear, give me a reliable result and that I know the value of to my clients.  Relying on them for a shoot frees up time that I can spend experimenting, trying something new or different, throwing in an extra setup just for kicks without having to stress out over whether it's going to be a dud.  I'm still trying new things and seeing what the situation might allow for, but after I've gotten the tried-and-true shots that let me say that I've already nailed the shoot.

For anyone in the position of needing to achieve proven results quickly and efficiently, developing your own Bag of Tricks is a basic necessity.


Danny Tucker said...

Interesting post - thanks for sharing your experience, appreciated :-)


davidc said...

Thanks for the post. So were all of those shot with 1 light? and a reflector I suppose? I'd be interested in seeing setups if you have the time!


Shatterkiss said...

No reflectors, David! I think I do have a wider shot somewhere that includes some of the equipment, but it's about as simple as can be: a 5' octabox to camera-left, maybe 25-degrees off the camera axis and centered about 6' high, probably 6' away from the lighting "sweet spot". That's it. One light, one modifier, one subject. The ease of it is my favorite thing about shooting that look.

Jared Campbell Photography said...

These are AMAZING. Going to have to give that a go.

Jared Campbell Photography said...

These are AMAZING. Going to have to give that a go.