What I Did This Summer…

San Diego — Remember the first little essays you had to write back in grade school  such as “What I Did This Summer” or “My Vacation to the Mountains” or some such?  Here is my version of it.  You already have seen data from the Bristlecone Pines workshop and the Brooks Workshop at the beginning of summer so I’ll pick up from there.  The few weeks following the Brooks Workshops have been busy getting ready for the Fall semester which starts in two weeks (although faculty has a set of mandatory meetings the previous week).

I came back from that workshop, as you may have picked up from the last post, inspired and enthusiastic about what I had experienced and full of ideas to bring to my own classes as well as the photo program at City.  That meant spending time to revisit nearly all of the courses I have in terms of presentations and assignments so I still have much to do before we fire off the first classes.

In my “spare time” I was fortunate to be able to do a little shooting with friends.  For fun, I spent a few hours at The San Diego Botanical Gardens (formerly the Quail Gardens in Encinitas) with my friend Diana.  It was beastly hot that day and I was too lazy to carry a lot of gear so simply brought a light tripod (mistake) and two lenses (semi-mistake) but I think I managed a shot or two to bring home.

Here is the first shot I took; it was of a plant from the Canary Islands called a Centaurea.  Hmmm... doesn't look like a horse to me.  Canon 5D Mk II, Canon 70-200 f4L

Here is the first shot I took; it was of a plant from the Canary Islands called a Centaurea. Hmmm… doesn’t look like a horse to me. Canon 5D Mk II, Tamron 180mm macro

Bamboo stand.  Bamboo fascinates me since it can be used for so many things and some species grow so fast you can almost watch it happen.

Bamboo stand. Bamboo fascinates me since it can be used for so many things and some species grow so fast you can almost watch it happen. Canon 5D Mk II w/ Canon 17-40 f4L

In a far corner of the gardens is a small water lily pond with some benches to sit and relax.  THe flowers were attracting the most brilliant dragon flies i had seen and the contrast of the red flowers, blue dragon flies  in the green environment was too alluring to pass up.   Canon 5D MkII w/ Canon 70-200 f4L

In a far corner of the gardens is a small water lily pond with some benches to sit and relax. The flowers were attracting the most brilliant dragon flies I had seen and the contrast of the red flowers and blue dragon flies in the green environment was too alluring to pass up. Canon 5D MkII w/ Tamron 180mm macro

Those who know me also know that I love teaching and the freedom it gives me to pursue some fine art and landscape subjects, but still seriously miss shooting for real commercial projects.  Perhaps due to some cerebral malady I loved the challenge of solving visual problems in situations were, unlike in nature, I had complete (or nearly complete) control of all of the elements of the shot.  No excuses here for weather or reluctant wildlife or shy clouds.  There was no one to blame for failure but yourself.  To me it was exhilirating and challenging and I thrived on it.

So for a complete change of pace from the Bristlecone Pines and Quail Gardens, I was more than delighted when my friend Cynthia asked if I would be willing to help her do some cover shots for a local restaurant guide.  Would I?  Try and stop me.  Much as i loved most commercial/product work, I especially loved doing covers.  They were part of the group of shots sometimes referred to as “beauty shots” because they were what lured the viewer into the magazine/brochure/catalog to see the offerings there.  A mentor once described them as a shot that when the viewer looked at it and had no clue what he or she was looking at, they just had to have one anyway because of your shot.

Cynthia is a natural stylist and would make a good art director with a little training.  And, better still, she is also a good photographer.  She has a passion for her work that makes her a very, very hard worker and it shows in the product.  These shots were a team effort in every sense of the word.  It was her gig and her client.  She arranged it and when on site, styled it, set up the items and/or people and got everything ready to shoot.  Like all good directors was able to articulate what she envisioned clearly and that is a rare gift to a photographer.  If you have ever worked pro shoots with clients hanging around, you know just how great a treat it is to have someone doing that; it makes everything else easy.

My job was to light what she had created and then, depending on who was close to the planted camera, one or the other of us might actually trip the shutter while the other was tweaking the set up or the lighting.  I must tell you these were some of the smoothest location shoots I’ve been involved with and it was her work and effort that made it so.  Best of all, I did not have to interface with the client since to them I was simply a “hired gun” member of the crew.  It doesn’t get better than that…!!!

Our first job was to do a cover shot for a Cupcake Shop.  A what?  Yep, apparently they are the newest trippy thing and I can tell you this shop, Loves Cupcakes in National City, makes incredible cupcakes!!!  The shop itself was not very exciting visually so we concentrated on product and had the cutest little girl (daughter of a friend of the shop owner) to be in the shot sampling the wares.  (Remember, compositionally cover shots, indeed all advertising shots, are made to leave “dead space” for titles, volume and date data, and callouts for interior stuff or the ad copy)

Cover shot for restaurant guide for Loves Cupcakes in National City.  Canon 5D Mk III with Canon 85mm f1.8

Cover shot for restaurant guide for Loves Cupcakes in National City. Canon 5D Mk III with Canon 85mm f1.8

The next week we shot the cover for a sandwich shop.  The three Gaglione brothers own shops in the area so we shot them in their shop off of Mission Gorge Road.  The lighting in the shop was deadly awful and availale space was non-existent, so this shot was done using a technique called painting with light.  Cynthia styled the shot and we lit the brothers and food for the first part of the assembly.  One light coming from the side for the tray of food was actually placed on a stand on the grill and created a flare in the base shot.  Worse, that shot let the rest of the shop go dark since the proper place for lights was actually going to be in the shot and there were no more electrical outlets anyway.  We released the brothers to go do prep for opening and with the camera locked down and Cynthia driving it, I took a strobe in a softbox, meandered about and took 7-8 shots in the shop lighting different parts of it individually.  It is a technique called “Painting With Light.” It was nearly impossible in the film days, but with the layering and stacking available in digital post processing it has become a very viable approach.

To process it, I first assembled the shots of the shop and then laid in the brothers on top of it.  Since the camera had not moved everything lined up in terms of perspective.  The goal is to make the shot look like it was a properly lit single frame.  This was much easier than a similar shot last year (and posted here) of the woodworker, Bill, in his shop where the background of the final was from a different view of his shop.

Gaglione Brothers Sandwich Shop cover shot.  This is a composite of layers due to the need to light areas separately.  Canon 5D Mk III, Canon 50mm

Gaglione Brothers Sandwich Shop cover shot. This is a composite of layers due to the need to light areas separately. Canon 5D Mk III, Canon 50mm

Then, a week later we did a cover shot for the Corvette Diner.  This is a 50s/60s retro style diner.  The owner had hired a Marilyn Monroe impersonator and she and the waitresss were incredibly good playing off of one another.  It was hard to pick a shot.  As before, Cynthia styled it and I lit it and depending on who was tweaking what on the set both would fire the camera.  Another really cool collaborative team effort.

Cover Shot for the Corvette Diner in San Diego at Liberty Station.  Both "Marilyn" and the waitress were absolute delights to work with!  Canon 5D Mk III and 50mm lens

Cover Shot for the Corvette Diner in San Diego at Liberty Station. Both “Marilyn” and the waitress were absolute delights to work with! Canon 5D Mk III and 50mm lens

We also had to shoot with kids in some of the photos.  It made a cute shot of the kids for a family portrait but was not much of an advertising for the diner because they were distracting, made the shot too busy, and in the shots with food were not interacting with the rest of the shot.  I just heard that they picked one of the kids shots but I think that is a mistake from a marketing standpoint.  Oh well, for our portfolios, the one above would be the choice.  I would love to have placed two more lights to bring the car and background a little more to life but after spending all the time shooting the kids there was not much left before they had to open for lunch so we just went for it.  There are, as is often the case, some good “war stories” to come from having to try to wrangle half a dozen kids PLUS a parent who knew best…

As any pro shooter can attest however, it is sometimes difficult to fathom why a client picks what they do.  And the truth is, if you want to be a pro then you learn to live with it, laugh all the way to the bank with the check, and then use the really good one in your own portfolio.  It always amazed me back in the day when a client picked you because they liked what you did as shown in your portfolio… but then wouldn’t trust you (or sometimes even the Art Director) to know which shot was the best for marketing purposes.  And it was so frequent as become a cliche.  You would share a “look” with the AD and then give them what they wanted.

So it has been an interesting summer.  Now I am buried with stuff to get ready for class though next Monday we have a Mexican Restaurant to shoot for the magazine.  That will be an evening shot with customers in the place.  That will add some sport to it… If it turns out I’ll post it in a blog down the track.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to What I Did This Summer…

  1. Carole Massey says:

    How fun is this!! Thanks for your share. Especially enjoyed the commercial photography. Enjoy your new semester and keep that younger generation inspired!!

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