Location Lighting Improvisation

Location Lighting Improvisation

If some of you are reading the title of this blog post and thinking, “duh,” I’d have to agree with you. It’s a redundant title to be sure, let’s call it a title for those who don’t make a living with a camera in their hands, that work? Location photography is hot mess of ducking, dodging, and weaving light as we work for those magical shots our visual cortex is lusting after. For a photographer to tell you location lighting is anything but a completely fluid environment, well… they would either be lying through their teeth or really not have a proper clue about what they are talking about, and should go back to ‘lighting 101.’ To be blunt, location photography is a crapshoot, a hard-learned lesson a photographer gets the pleasure of experiencing over and over again and in just about every form and fashion where they are asked to roll a photographic Yatzee against all odds. It’s easily comparable to the historic Tyson vs. Holyfield boxing match, with the photographer as Holyfield and the location wearing the Tyson gloves. It’ll simply bite your ear off without a care in the world, all the while you are left there wondering what you should do next. You can plan a shoot for a week, heck even a month, but when it comes down to it, a location can have it’s way with ya and toss every detailed part of your plan out the window. Of course, it’s always great when things go according to plan… boy it’s nice. It’s those times when it doesn’t go exactly to plan, and honestly, it’s more often than not that some part of a finely orchestrated plan goes screwy on ya, and you gotta improvise. The usual culprit is the weather, but there are countless hicups that can spring up in a shoot, like an equipment failure, and there is no where else in which a photographer’s skills can be pushed  than when they are out on-location, out in the elements, left with what they have there to get the job done. As in, get the job done right now, kind of a situation. It’s as fun as it is scary. There isn’t a location shoot that comes my way where I don’t wake up that morning with at least a couple butterflies fluttering in the stomach, ’cause I know that there is a very good chance that I’ll be changing some portion of the shoot on-the-fly. Most of the time it works out and speed bumps are handled accordingly. Sometimes the dynamic on-location environment lends an unexpected variable that takes your envisioned concept even further. One thing is for sure, rarely ever do location shots pan-out exactly as you envisioned (if you got that detailed in your concept planning). It’s one of the love/hate characteristics of location photography.

It’s the reason I may plan on using one light for a particular shoot, yet my car is stuffed to the gills with additional backup gear. Why? ‘Cause I know better at this point in my career! And I couldn’t find a better case in point than the one I’m sharing with you today. Here’s a moment in time when I’ve been blessed with AMAZING weather for 50 straight days, the forecast calls for no change in that, and yet I wake up the morning of a very important shoot and… yep, greeted with a big fat curveball of a nasty day.

Mercedes-Benz of Tacoma contacted me a while back, seeking a photographer to capture one of their flagship cars, the Merc SLS AMG. With gull-wing doors, a hearty blend of vintage and modern Merecedes body design, and a quarter-million dollar price tag, it was sex on wheels. Heck, the motor alone was a 600-horsepower, $60,000 sport-tuned block of racing science. An uncontrollable smile washes over a man’s face when they hear this car rev, much like a 5-year-old waking up on Christmas morning. When you are in the presence of a super car, every bit of it is overwhelming, including the price tag, yet you understand it’s justification and experience a scary urge to find a way to finance one of your own. It solidifies your concrete belief in consumerism at every depth… You. Must. Have one. If it wasn’t for the James Bond movie franchise being so partial to Aston Martins as of late, I wouldn’t be surprised to see 007 discharging his pistol out of the window of an SLS in the next flick. This was the car I was asked to photograph it for a local, upcoming advertising print campaign targeting their elite car-buying customers. No pressure.

My typical shoot involves planning, sketching, scouting, and testing. For this shoot I’d go a little bit further, both for professional and personal reasons… I wanted a steady, new client AND I love sports cars. I wanted to know this car every way I could before I was asked to photograph it. I didn’t want there to be a curve on this car, an angle I was unaware of that I couldn’t take advantage of. You better believe my time would be limited when the opportunity came to capture it, so I had to be selective. I visited the car at the dealership and took some shots for to further develop concepts, but I didn’t stop there. It just so happens my favorite racing video game (I mentioned I liked sports cars, right?) had this car model, and I could actually spin this car 360 degrees in the game to find the perspectives that spoke to me best. When shoot day came I probably knew the angles on that car better than the lucky Mercedes employee who drove it there.

All told, I had two weeks to plan and schedule this shoot. When picking a location for this, I wanted it to be identifiable with the Tacoma area, paying recognition to the city where the dealership is located. I decided on the Museum of Glass for it’s fun architectural lines and being an unmistakable icon of Tacoma. Concept approved by Mercedes, models identified, MUA’s and wardrobe in place, and location permission and permits secured, all that was left was the shooting. Days prior to the shoot, I went out and did some car light tests at the exact time of day and light angles and forecasted weather which I’d be working with the day of the shoot. I was all dialed-in for a clear day, knowing the exact angle of the sun and how it would be influencing the scene, which would be my primary light source (a rarity in my work). All my ducks were in a row, I was happy with the prep work, that is until I woke up the morning of the shoot and the weather was gloomy gray. Awesome. Forecast still called for clearing a couple hours prior to shoot time, so hope was still alive that the original plan of attack for lighting was going to pull through. As I stood on-location hours ahead of the shoot, starting to setup, the sky remained one solid, giant sheet of gray, boring, undramatic cloud cover. It was on the verge of raining. A far cry from the conceptualized imagery I had planned on making that day – dramatic and hard shadows which would perfectly compliment all of the angles on this car, and even give our models some edge. An intense scene for an intense car, and that… that wasn’t going to happen, not with these conditions. ‘Operation Improv’ went into effect, and like I’ve already stated, pretty standard protocol when shooting out in the wild.

I was asked to tell a story with this car, and it was to involve a man and a woman in and around the car. Very much your familiar story of a confident looking guy with an amazing car and an attractive female not too far away. Nothing too crazy or fantasy-like, but still eye-catching with your everyday kind of believability. Cars are challenging to light because they are large objects, while also having highly reflective surfaces. Then you have the exact opposite with portrait models, a subject matter with flat, diffused exposure properties. It was going to be a hard enough task (with the original plan utilizing the sun) to properly photograph a car and people at the same time, as each subject matter typically require completely different lighting approaches when shot individually. In other words, it was already a compromised lighting setup, and the bland overcast day didn’t help with that. This shoot just went from a planned 1-2 light setup, with lighting utilized as shadow fill and car highlighting, to a 6 light fiasco where my flashes were now my main source for the exposure. I put all of my “backup gear” to use, and could have used more. Any drama in these shots was going to have to be manufactured with flash, and that’s exactly what we did.

Lights given specific tasks, some dedicated to the car, some to give the models some shape, all the while watching my reflections in the car’s paint. Some reflections can’t be avoided, but a watchful eye used at time of capture used to catch/adjust would-be eye sores here and there can save you gobs of time in post production. With every change of shooting composition was a furious session of lighting ballet. Fighting the gloom of a boring day and racing against the rain which could start falling at any moment, we worked-in quite a few different looks. As the very last composition was wrapping, the rain showed it’s face. The signal of the end of our shoot, we had to get that super car out of the weather.

It can be downright maddening watching all of that prep and organization go down the drain because of an unexpected change in environment, but you gotta work past it, think on your toes, and improvise. Sure, I could get totally hung-up on the fact that the sky in my background is the same color as the cone-shaped architecture, therefore really killing a lot of the dramatic effect that was conceptualized. An envisioned background of hard shapes and shadowy accents fell flat against an equally bland sky, resulting in images which didn’t translate with nearly the impact I wanted. Photography is interesting when looked at as an “artist” profession. There sure can be a lot of problem solving, and on-the-fly decisions to be made. It’d probably be comparable to asking a painter show up on-location, ask them to paint the landscape they see in front of them, but at the last minute take away one of the primary paint colors from their arsenal. Often in photography it becomes less of creating that perfect vision you’ve planned and more about improvising with the world spinning around you as you make art with the elements provided at that moment. Bring. It. On.