Sunday 15 September 2013

The Elk (or Moose, depending on where you live)

'Being invited to exhibit at the highly prestigious Shanxi province-based Pingyao International Photography Festival PIPF 2013 was my incentive for shooting what may be the final image in what may be the final phase of of my Forest Series.  

I wanted to finish with a spectacular image -- one that had, in all probability, never before been attempted.

That is not to say I decided to embark on this shoot as on a whim. The seeds had been sown some years before when I first contemplated shooting (photographically) a moose as part of the forest series.

I had made some inquiries and all evidence pointed to them being potentially dangerous animals, so I did not pursue them as a subject.

Then early this year, while researching an unrelated shoot, I discovered that someone in Sweden had trained Elk that could be ridden.

Elk? I thought we were talking about Moose?

Swedes refer to Alces alces as an Elk, whereas Canadians and North Americans refer to Alces alces as Moose (a North American Elk is an entirely different animal Cervus canadensis)

As much as I like America, Sweden is also a much more appealing location too, for one simple reason - it is drivable, all be it very long drive across six countries, for a total of some 2671 kilometers (1660 miles)I thought that this would be a great opportunity to explore the depths of my iTunes collection and the amusing and thought provoking audio book ‘This book will save your life’ by Neil Strauss.

Driving is key because I’m carrying a very large amount of gear, both photographic and camping, this was done on a budget.

The countries I crossed were key too as passing through Denmark (home of Phase One) and Sweden (home of Profoto)

I picked up my new Phase One IQ280 back in Copenhagen and I dropped into Profoto’s HQ in Stockholm to try out one of their latest offerings the Profoto B4.

Though I have played with Profoto I have never actually used one in anger on a shoot and I figured this could be the perfect opportunity to do just that.

The distances in Sweden are not to be underestimated and once you get to Stockholm it is still a 7+ hours drive to Umea (only a 3 hour drive south of the Arctic circle) with strictly and wisely, enforced speed limits. Added to that, the danger of crossing Elk dictate a sensible approach to progress.

Sweden is a lovely place if you like trees

The schedule meant that we would have just two days in the quirky and cool city of Umea, one day to check out the location and prep gear and another to do the shoot.

We met former World champion cross country skier Christer Johansson at his Älgens Hus Elk centre some one hour outside Umea.

All it seemed was set but Christer did have some doubts about the way the Elk would take to the soft box and they did react in a somewhat nervous manner. 

So I came up with a plan to get the Elks used to the lights, I left one erected outside of their enclosure over night, just so they would get used to it (I have used this method before to habituate thoroughbred race horses to a potentially ‘frightening’ light)

Elk are very interesting animals with certain qualities. Think of a skittish, highly strung and nervous cat trapped in the body of a very big(up to 2 metres tall) gangly primeval animal and you will not be so very far off.

They also have the uncanny ability to sneak up on you, silently and unseen, which can give you quite a fright.

It goes something like this: You are standing in the forest and you look around to see if there are any Elk nearby, coast clear, you look into your camera bag to sort out some equipment for a few seconds, you look up and there will be three Elk, quite close by watching every move you make. I'm not quite sure how they do it but they do it, perhaps something to do with them being brilliantly camouflaged in the forest.

Why shoot this is late August? Simple. I wanted to photograph the Elk with full antlers, so we chose late August as the antlers are there largest then and I was able to shoot the Elk with full antlers but before they shed their lovely velvet.

We may not have ended up actually using the tent on the trip but as you can see the guy ropes, pegs and mallet were rather useful.

We got an early night in our humble little cabins on the outskirts of Umea all set for a shoot at first light.

Why first light? For many reasons but it gives a whole load of lighting possibilities particularly when shooting with the Phase One camera and it’s leaf shutter lenses.

Also the location, even with the very best will in the world, does become strewn with equipment and possessions, if you shoot at dusk you will never find your stuff in the dark....I know this from bitter experience.

When we arrived it would seem the Elk had indeed become accustomed to the lights and they were a little too friendly. As a result I switched to a battered old Chimera medium soft box instead of using a loaner Profoto soft box which could be  ruined with one swipe of the antlers leaving me with some explaining to do, can you imagine the conversation....

Ah the Profoto lights, what did I think of those?

I borrowed 2 Profoto B3 lights and 2 of the very latest Pro- B4 lights.

The new Pro-B4 has a nicer interface than the B3, based on the 'see, touch, feel' principle which Profoto has, using analogue switches and dials for all the key inputs, rather than relying on 'deep' digital menus, which we all know can be clever,but confusing.

I like this interface very much indeed.

Other key points of the Pro-B4 are an impressive 1/25000 sec flash, up to 30 flashes a second, a charge time of only 45mins, and if you plug it into the mains you can use it as a studio pack.

Profoto gear has never been the cheapest, but you really do get what you pay for, some really great features in a superbly built package.

Buy one of these and your bank balance would feel it, but you would have a pack which would go on and on for many, many years.

Next task was to set the lights up in an array, so the Elk could be walked into the frame and I could get the shot, this is a technique I have employed many times in the forest series.

The terrain we were working on was rocky and boggy, which meant setting the lights up took some time.

All was ready and good to go but we hit problems straight away, the elk kept moving out of the influence of the 4 light set up, which meant I was always adjusting the lights instead of shooting, the lighting was simply not going to plan and it looked less than good. Added to this the previously nervous Elks came flocking and got between the camera and Janina.

The Elk may have been a problem but the truly amazing Janina(pole dancing teacher, model and truck driver) certainly was not, climbing up onto the simply enormous moose with great poise and confidence, and believe me it is along way up onto the back of a adult bull Elk.

I was looking down the barrel of failure of some 3500 mile-8 months of planning-one week of my life proportions.

This needed a radical rethink and fast.

First distract the other Elks which ended up blowing a lot of the food supply of bananas(Elk love them), luring our 'star' Elk (biggest with biggest antlers) further into the forest where there was a whole load of natural light flooding in, this meant I could use this as the backlight and just concentrate on one light, if the Elk stood in the wrong place we only had one light to move, not four.

There was then the issue of the wind, this was causing huge problems for James who was on smoke machine detail with the truly excellent Mini Rocket battery powered smoke machine from Peasoup.

The wind kept changing so when the smoke was drifted in, it frequently did not go where I wanted it to go, so this took many attempts.

As a foot note, I have since discovered you can make the Mini rocket a little more affordable(saving around £100) if you choose to delete the battery and cradle -neither of which I use anyway, as I just attach it to a car battery. It also makes the machine tiny - perfect for shipping.

I shot in the new location with one light using the sun as the backlight and picking up some ambient light at 1/60sec.

The lighting was excellent but I stared to realise, that though I was getting something it all looked static and stiff, rather like a taxidermy example, after all for the sake of safety, the Elk could not be moved.

The food supply ran out, the shoot was over and I did not have the shot.

Then the magic happened, the Elk walked forward, which was potentially tricky for Janina, so she had to jump off into Christer's arms pretty damn quickly.

Just before she jumped I got the shot - The majestic primeval Elk walking with a slightly unsure Janina riding it, pin, pin sharp, with a hint of movement on the moose which I'm very happy about.

I have not mentioned the Phase One IQ280 so far, and I suppose I'm saving the best till last.

Do have a look at the detail in these 100percent crops, in my opinion, it is the very pinnacle of what can currently be achieved  photographically.

I intended to use the WiFi and iPad setup which works so very well, but I had no time before the shoot to set this up-at all. So in trying conditions I reverted to a firewire cable and laptop (I have used the IQ280s Wifi since and I have to say it is child's play to use, fast reliable and simple, something which often is not the case with WiFi, right?)

If you have ever previously considered a medium format back and not quite pulled the trigger, this might be worthwhile looking at. It is the best, most complete, fantastically engineered medium format back ever built.

So next week I travel to China to hang the Elk and all his friends at PIPF 2013 in China, a great honour and big deal for me, I feel it has all been worth it.

'Why did I shoot the forest series?' asked Johan after the shoot.

I can't remember what my answer was, but thinking about it, I did it because I could, because I wanted to do something exceptional, which will perhaps outlive me.

Photography should be about adventure and discovery, that is why I chose photography as a profession 35 years ago.

'Never say never' as they say, but the moment I'm leaving the forest behind, for a while at least, and may never go back there again.

What next? I have always been about reinvention and I'm in the process of doing that right now, it will still be photography,but in a completely different genre, which has been driven but this remarkable digital age we live in.

The shoot could not have happened with out James Mitchell, Jan Christiansen, Micke JohanssonChrister JohanssonKristofer Lönnå  

I also wish to thank everyone else who contributed to this series, all over the world.


Unknown said...

This post yanked me loud laughter at almost midnight here in Brazil, lucky me there is a bunch of guys working on a big whole in the asphalt in front of my building.
Just imagining the Elk with a softbox tangled to the anglers, trying to understand all the situation with the Profoto strobing like crazy.
But for real, what a girl, jump up the Elk's back and remember to put the hair in place lol... amazing, congratulations!

Unknown said...

A big hole I meant ;)

Anders C. Madsen said...

I really ought to spank you for not stopping by for a cold one when passing through Denmark - by my calculations you passed my fridge by no more than 15 miles. :)

Iden Pierce Ford said...

My first reaction was to the resolution. Even though its a web photo you can see the dynamic range in action and the sharpness of the photograph. It's rather thrilling to see. My favourite remains the water buffalo. But the effort you made to gt this photo is just outstanding. I shoot with all Profoto gear now, never would I go back to any other lighting system. It is the most reliable lighting kit out there, and there is something called qaulity of light which from my limited experience, Profoto has no competition. It will be interesting to hear about the print you make. Owning a back like this is quite out of reach for many of us. Perhaps someday.

Unknown said...

How did you remove the light stand and other unwanted pieces from your final photo? Or did the elk just move away from everything when you caught the final shot?

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