Boy oh boy! What can I say about this shoot? This was the one that nearly broke me, and I still remember well the sheer frustration as my best-laid plans fell apart, forcing me to work well outside of my comfort zone. If I had executed this shoot a year ago, I would probably have thrown in the towel halfway through. But with interstate legends Zimiel and Min on the job, it was a matter of pushing through, past the uncertainty and making it work (or in this case, forcing it to work).
One of the things that marks me as a photographer, for better or worse, is the amount of planning I do for my shoots. This came about mostly because of limitations built into my process and logistics, but I think quite carefully about what sorts of look I want for a shoot, and then I bring exactly what is needed for it. Nothing more, nothing less. If I go on a shoot with tonnes of equipment, you can be sure I will be using almost every piece of it for a certain purpose.
The problem, of course, is when things fail. And failed they did for this shoot.
The original plan was to have a contrasty look, with a gridded beauty dish as the main light, gels to light the environment and gridded flash to provide the “car headlights behind” separation light.
The original, intended look.
But a few minutes into shooting (before Min had even arrived), the lights started failing. They just would not trigger properly. Long story short: radio triggers would not work. I’m not sure if it’s due to radio interference at the location, or some other problem.
With radio triggers out of the equation, I had to rummage through all my technical experience for an alternative way to make the shoot work. The only way was to put a flash on the camera, and then set the other off-camera flashes to trigger via their built-in optical slaves. The problem is that this constrains the positioning of the flashes, and also takes modifiers like the beauty dish out of the equation because it would be too complex to work with the grid (already a massive pain even with radio triggers) AND try to ensure line of sight.
So as opposed to four off-camera flashes lighting the scene separately, I had one flash on the camera, and at most two off-camera flashes (though usually only one worked).
Luckily for me, Gigi and Karen had come along to help out with the shoot. Their presence allowed me to use a piece of light modifier that would be out of the question if I was working alone (or with only one other assistant): a white plastic table cloth that we named The Beast, because it was hard to handle in the wind.
I had gotten this particular piece of gear from a $2 shop earlier that day, with the intention of using it as a kind of picnic spread if the ground was too dirty to put out bags on. It was available in many different colours, but I tend to just get white anyway, precisely because somewhere in the back of my head, I did think about using it as a surface to bounce light off of – never actually thinking I would need it for that exact reason.
In light of the failure of everything, the table cover became a really attractive light modifier option. I had Gigi and Karen each hold one end and stretch it out like a big flimsy plastic wall, and bounced my on-camera flash off that surface.
The final look: note the soft key light as a result of bouncing off The Beast, plus a rim light optically triggered.
This gave a nice soft light as the key light, and a much better chance for the optical triggers on the other flashes to catch the light needed to make them work. Certainly, we did not ever recover the contrasty look originally envisioned, but the photos came out nicer than I would have expected under the circumstances.
Oh, and The Beast? Yeah we threw it in the trash after we were done. Best $2 disposable modifier ever.
This shoot made me realise the limitations that I had – it was one of the few shoots where I really, absolutely needed to have friends that I could count on in order to make the shots happen – because they were the ones providing the main light to work with.
It also made me more flexible in terms of my plans. To embrace variance and the unexpected, and not expect everything to work out as planned. I don’t think it’s possible to have 100 percent redundancy on all the technicals of a shoot, but being able to think fast and adapt and not be stuck on just one way of doing things.
And finally, it made me a much more persistent person – or perhaps I realised my own stubborn qualities to push through with shooting regardless of the difficulties.