Wednesday 29 October 2008

Making a difference

© Platon  

When I began working on a local newspaper at age fifteen, I wanted more than anything to change the world through photographs — to show the world what was going on, both the bad and the good.

Over the many years that I worked as a photojournalist, I began to doubt the ability of a photographer to make a difference, to change the world with still images.

Yes, I know we can all cite examples of fine and noble samples of work, which arguably have made a difference, particularly during the Vietnam era. However, in the thirty years that have passed, our society has become overwhelmingly saturated with visual imagery, to the point where even the most powerful images often pass unnoticed in front of average viewers as they flip channels or, more rarely, pages.

Add to this numerous behind-the-scenes challenges that influence what images make it before the public’s eyes: political agendas, poor editorial decisions, and fewer print media outlets, just to name a few…. How often do limited finances and lack of commissions for web usage trump photojournalism in today’s news market?
In my view, challenging the mainstream agendas—and changing a nation’s mind—has never been more difficult.

I found Colin Powell’s electrifying endorsement of Barack Obama last weekend remarkable on many levels. But what struck me most was Powell’s acknowledgement that his decision to endorse Obama (and not his own party’s candidate) was in part inspired by a still photograph by Platon which appeared last month in the New Yorker magazine.

In the final tense week of this pivotal election season, Platon’s moving portrait of a grieving Elsheba Khan at the grave of her son Specialist Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan in Arlington National Cemetery has been held up by one of the USA’s most respected public figures as a catalyst in his political decision making. I hope that those who have seen Platon’s image read its visual language with as much insight as Powell. The former Secretary of State parlayed the message of this image—an American mother mourning the loss of her son in service to his country while fighting in Iraq, embracing his headstone whose crescent and star testify to their Muslim faith—into a message about the ideals of the United States.

Saturday 18 October 2008

UK's Leading Ladies of Soap: Subtractive Fill at Work

I was recently commissioned by 'Fabulous Magazine' to create a composite portrait of the Leading Ladies of the UK's top Soap Operas 'Coronation Street,' 'Eastenders' and 'Emmerdale.'

You can see a short video of the models in action and the shoot HERE.

Needless to say, I jumped at the prospect.

Just one problem...

It was to be shot in 3 different locations, and each leading lady was to be photographed separately.

Oh, and one other thing, they will be wearing white or very light colours, and the client wants them on a white background....

Now, creating composited large group portraits is something I have (a little!) experience with, but I have never had to execute one with little or no reference points. Unlike the 'Chameleon' shoot in the previous post, which has tons of reference points like chairs, this shot is set up from scratch in each location by (re)positioning the white columns and models against the white seamless background.


In a situation like this, the first thing to do is plan, so we started off with a basic structure of the image as a sketch, working out who will be sitting or standing where.

Next, work out the ideal height and angle of the camera (which in this instance was the top 2 legs of my Gitzo 1548 fully extended) then stick to it!

As I said before, keep the lighting consistent. On this occasion, I opted for a very simple set up of a single light source coming from the left, slightly higher than eye level, and aimed down by 35 degrees.

I used an Elinchrom Style RX1200 mounted in a 190cm Elinchrom Octa lightbank. This gives SUCH a beautiful soft light.

This is quite a forgiving lightbank too, and meant that even if we could not always place the light EXACTLY where we wanted to, it would always give a similar look.

Now, what about that white-on-white issue?

It's much simpler to deal with than one might think, using 'subtractive fill.'

'Subtractive fill' sounds like something to make one's brain melt, but think of it like this:

Additive fill (from a reflector or light source) will lighten shadows.

Subtractive fill (from black 'Polyboards' or 'Gobos' or anything black) will create shadow, or a more defined darker area, by preventing light being reflected onto the subject.

When photographing actress Katherine Kelly of 'Emmerdale,' I used 2 black polyboards or 'Gobos,' one on either side of her:

To photograph actress Kara Tointon of 'Eastenders,' I used a black polyboard or 'Gobo' on one side only, because the effect was too profound; indeed, it needed a white board, not a black one, on the other side:

When photographing actress Tiana Benjaman of 'Eastenders' I used 2 white boards to add fill on her darker skin tones:

As we can see in both the individual shots of each leading lady, as well as the final composite, the golden rule is that with lighting, sometimes less is in fact more. The key is to use your eyes to observe the effects created by your lighting elements, which can be as simple as black or white cards. Remember this simple rule, and create gorgeous, glowing portraits.

Sunday 12 October 2008

The anatomy of a location composite shoot

Last month I was commissioned by 'Psychologies magazine' to shoot and put together a composite photo of a party scene where the same model appears 5 times, wearing different clothing in a different mood, to depict how we all react differently in certain situations, depending on the company we are in.

It knew it would be quite a challenge,but very doable

So,my first call was to my super efficient producer Clare who got to work straight away on casting and sourcing a location

In a little over 24 hours she had sorted it, some going!

One of the most important requirements was to give each character equal prominence, shooting on a 50mm lens on my Hasselblad H1 with a Phase One P45+ back was going to be the order of the day, this would mean that all of the characters would be too different size in shot, so we had to choose a room with considerable depth,up to 8 meters(18 ish feet in depth)

The first job was to introduce myself and the crew to the hair, make up and costume crew,while we settled on the final angle of the shot with the art director from Psychologies, my assistants were unloading the car,lugging several tons (well, that is what it felt like to them!) up the two flights of stairs

It can seem a little harsh to let your assistants do all of the physical work but it is of paramount importance that the photographer photographs, and is not worn out by helping his long suffering really is a case of being cruel to be kind!

Concentration at this point is ALL

Working with a visual pinned at eye level (to a convenient door) the angle of the shot was worked out and camera was locked down on the tripod


1. Plan, plan and plan again!

Great composites happen BEFORE the shoot, not after.

If you apply just a little thought beforehand and come up with a basic plan of how you want the final image to look all of a sudden it is not so difficult to place the models with great precision.

Nearly ten years ago I undertook a composite shot without planning and ended up retouching the image for nearly a week.

I shot the job at a loss.

It was a lesson learned

The hard way

2. Locking the tripod down to a fixed position is THE KEY FACTOR to making a composite shot work

If the camera is locked down is makes layering the image together quite straight forward instead of resorting to the services of your beloved retoucher

When you work your position out mark the position of the tripod feet with duct tape(just in case!) and be sure that everyone on the set knows the importance of not moving or bumping the tripod

Needless to say importance of a good quality tripod and head has never been greater,they are not cheap but they make the world of difference, skimp on these at your peril!

You will see from the images I use a rather cool integrated laptop/camera solution (I will be covering this rather cool set up in the very near future)

3. Keep the lighting consistent and plausible

Once you have established how you are going to light a set, keep the lighting the same,as much as possible.

Vary the power of individual lights by all means, but not the direction, otherwise it will look wrong and fake.

And we all know there are a TON of bad composites out there, right?

Here is my lighting set up

An equipment list and what it all did....


1 x Elinca Ranger in a Chimera Globe lantern as the main light,to give an overall natural light,I use this on booms as the battery pack makes a great counter weight!

2 x Elinca Style 600 heads in Chimera letterbox soft boxes to provide uplit fill

1 x Elinca 1200 head with a honeycomb to provide an extra little 'kick' on the business couple on the left hand side of the frame

Triggered with Pocket Wizard radio transmitters


Hasselblad H1 with Phase One P45+ 39 megapixel back

Hasselblad HC 50mm lens

Tripod and lighting supports

Gitzo 1548 carbon tripod

Redwing Boom

All other lighting supports by Manfrotto/Avenger

Putting the 'letter box' softboxes straight on the floor is really not in any lighting guides I have read,but it can work a treat when giving some uplight 'fill'

4. Shoot for individual components

Treat the whole shoot as a giant jigsaw puzzle

A simplistic approach but if you have not shot an individual element to the image(varying exposure on it for example) there is NOTHING you can do about it short of spending a ton of money on post production retouching.

So remember, if you have not shot it, you cannot include it.

A bit like a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece...........

Here we have taken a shot just for the illuminated side board lamp to be added in the final comp

5. ALWAYS remember to shoot a blank frame of the set before you tear it down

This will give you the 'Background anchor' shot to layer all of the components onto.

Without this 'empty' you will end up rebuilding and cloning in bits of background for hours and hours and hours.....

Here are the separate shots

This one is for the 'extra couple' on the right of frame

This one is for the couple in centre of frame,note how I asked her to toss her head back to get some animation into the shot

This shot is for the business couple
, the black suit meant I had to use supplemental light just for them

This one is for the couple in the foreground,getting her forehead to touch the bottle helps brings her character alive

For the group of 3 ladies on the left.......

And finally the 'Blank' of the set

In the next week or so I will be covering a far more daunting montage assignment where I had very few visual reference points to work from, and the models were all over the UK....

I,m VERY pleased with how it worked out though, so watch this space

Thursday 2 October 2008

Photokina 2008

by kind Permission of Hans Nyberg©

I have just returned from Photokina.

The photographic worlds biggest, best, and most daunting show

BIG is not really an adequate description of the sprawling Messe Hall at Cologne

To be honest between presenting shows on the Phase One stand I really did not get much of a chance to look around. If you want to see an amazing 360 Panorama (with sound!) shot by Hans Nyberg of me photographing the amazing Gary 'Stretch' (he holds two world records, one for the stretchiest skin and the other for the most clothes pegs on the face) click here

Here are a couple of shots I took at the show.....

Shot Details

Phase One Camera with 80mm lens at F8

Profoto Ringflash (I often use a Ringflash at presentations, it gives the audience a much better view)

Processed and captured using Capture One Pro 4.5 beta

But in no particular order here are my very own stars of the show (apart from Gary Stretch of course!)

I had the great pleasure of meeting Miss Aniela who at the age of 21 is set to go far.She is prolific and deeply talented. Stunning work by a bright and rising star

The Phase One P65+ back (see previous posting)

The Leica S2.It has a 37.5 mega pixel sensor, 56 percent bigger than 35 mm
When I first heard the announcement I thought 'why?'
This is a great looking and feeling camera (I was lucky enough to try out a fully working model) It really does feel to be hewn from one piece of metal, chunky but not too big.Great OLED display on the top plate and THOSE lenses! Lenses which will surely end up in design museums for their form and function. I now understand why...

The Canon 5d mk2, along with the remarkable Vincent Laforet video, which was running on a loop in the centre of the Canon stand (so few people seemed to be paying any attention to this, sometimes I,m baffled)

The Elinchrom Ranger Quanta a small, lightweight, robust 400 joule battery powered flashpack which will appeal to many photographers, whether you fancy yourself as a bit of 'Strobist' or you want to use the high intensity LED modeling light as a video light for the new generation of hybrid HD/DSLR. A hit for sure.

The new Manfrotto Stacker stands (you can fit 3 of these in a bag where you can normally only fit 2, it makes a big difference when you are traveling!) Their predecessor has been around for some years now, but the main deterrent to using them was the 'rubber securing hook from hell' which has reduced more than one assistant into a fumbling sweating heap when dashing to load the gear to avoid overtime in a studio. This has been replaced by a easy to use clip..AT LAST!

Where was the much anticipated Nikon D3x? A camera expected by the rumor mill but did not show.

CGI imaging software companies seemed to be everywhere,or was it my paranoia?

Wednesday 1 October 2008

The First shoot with the Phase One P65+

Earlier this year I was chatting with a friend at the renowned Digital back and now camera manufacturers Phase One

I asked if I could shoot with the new camera back, when they made one, just to see how it performed and hopefully get some cool shots too.

He said 'You should be careful making an offer like that, we may well take you up on it'

Shortly after the Phase One P65+(the worlds biggest at 60.5 mega pixels and the first FULL FRAME medium format digital back)was announced the phone rang, and they invited me to Denmark to shoot with the back and Phase One camera.

As with all pre production prototypes it was really down to the wire with technicians working late the night before the shoot ensuring all was as it should be.

We set off in the morning to pick up the (fantastic!)assistants and equipment from 'The Lab'
and headed to the location for a two part shoot, in the forest and on the beach

We started in the Forest,and I was more than a little nervous about the performance and reliability of an unproven piece of cutting edge technology on its first time out in the field on a full shoot.

I need not have worried.

It performed faultlessly, with quality I truthfully have never experienced before.

I say as much on the short P65+ video
P65+ Video from Drew Gardner on Vimeo.

It was caught at an unguarded moment initially.

The quality leap from my P45+ was immediately noticeable, to my eyes and the eyes of all of the assistants.Some of whom work with systems too, other than Phase One.

It was not just the detail and sharpness either, which surpasses anything else by a significant margin.

It was the beautiful tonal range,shadow detail which I found to be superlative

Not to mention the speed, it is blazingly fast, way, way quicker than the P30+ I was using at Photokina! (It is set to get even faster too in the new year when 'sensor +' technology arrives allowing scalable pixel and file size too)

As my friend Alex Ray of the Flash centre said 'make-up artists are going to have to really improve their work'

I know these results cannot be considered to be scientific by any stretch of the imagination but to my, and the assistants eyes it was a noticeable step forward.

Just check the spider detail out,truly remarkable,particularly when a spiders thread is considered to be just 0.003mm in thickness.....

And here is the detail shot(note the spider and web on the right are more or less on the plane of focus, the spider and web on the left a little out of focus)

Shot details.

Phase One Camera with 80mm lens

Phase One P65+ back

Shot at 30th sec F5.6

Lit with (as well as the sun!) a Profoto Battery unit,modified with a Medium sized Chimera Soft box,triggered with Pocket wizards

Shot tethered via Firewire to a Lenovo T60 with 3 GB of RAM and dual
core 2 GHz processor running Capture One Pro 4.5 beta

Here are a few shots of the 'forest' shoot,behind the scenes....

Focus as ever,on all medium format digital cameras, is critical....................

A smoke machine,powered by generator always lends atmosphere, but has to be thinned out for best effect(here using a California Sunbounce Pro reflector) .Otherwise the flash or sunlight hits it and it 'burns out' appearing too thick

The beach shot was a real technical challenge,synchronizing the flash at 125th sec,with a leaping running model at sunset

For the record leaf shutter lenses will start to be come available for the Phase camera system in the next few months (the 80mm with leaf shutter was shown at Photokina). Along with series of Leica lenses from the brand new Leica S2. The quality should be amazing.

The high level of ambient light meant I was always going to be dealing with speed I used the stunning 28mm Mamiya lens.

It is a peach

There might just be a sharper wider medium format lens,with less distortion,straight out of the box without any fancy software adjustment, I just have not yet seen it....

So as well as using a wide angle to minimize the effective distance the leaping model moved across the CCD, I panned the shot

It worked a treat.

Check the video out to see how I did it

Shot Details

Phase One Camera with 28mm Mamiya Lens

Exposed at 125th sec F11

Lit with Profoto Battery unit(from the front) with no light modifier

Triggered with a pocket wizard

Shot to Sandisk ExtremeIV CF card

Processed in Capture One Pro 4.5 beta

Special thanks go to our model Irina Brabrand, Blaaholm Great Danes,Kajsa Bjornberg(first assistant), Frederik Säll, Alexander Kornmåler, Ditlev Rosing (assistants) and last, but not least all the crew at Phase One