This summer I took a little break from work and shooting and used the time to catch up a bit on my personal life. In all I think it was about 3-4 weeks away from a camera in any serious sense. Towards the end of my break, I was starting to itch for my camera again. I set up a shoot with friend and model Diane Hope and got my friend Juan to come along and help out. It felt good to have the camera in hand again, but at the same time it felt really awkward. I felt kind of...lost. It's a good thing that I decided to do a "fun" shoot with friends after taking such a long time off instead of diving right in to something where I could really disappoint a paying client!
Well, it wasn't all bad. I was definitely rusty and took a while to get into the swing of things, but it eventually came back. After this shoot I was warmed up and ready to start clicking away again!
A concert musician (and I don't remember who or where I read this - but is stuck with me) once said in an interview when asked a question about the importance of practicing:
"If I don't practice for a day, I notice.If I don't practice for 2 days, the critics notice.If I don't practice for 3 days, the audience notices."
Although this may be somewhat of an exaggeration it's really not too far off. It stuck with me because it reminds me how quickly we get "rusty". I was a competitive athlete all through high school and college and know this to be true first hand. Take a couple of days off and you have some catching up to do when you come back. The same is true for photography.
I watched a video on Kelby Training not too long ago where Scott Kelby takes a day to walk around New York City with Jay Maisel and photograph whatever they find interesting. When Scott comments that he is taking the same walk but isn't seeing what Jay is seeing, he replies: "Are you doing your visual push-ups?"
What a great expression! Visual push-ups. Exercising our creativity and photographic eye. That was exactly what I was missing - or rusty on - for this shoot with Diane.
I had Diane on this pretty deck over a lake near my house. I was digging through my gear to get my flashes set up, checking camera settings, etc... when Juan tapped me on the shoulder and said. "Just shoot natural light." The sun was setting behind the buildings and there was this gorgeous shaft of golden light peaking through and hitting Diane's face. I completely missed it! Thankfully Juan had been doing his visual push-ups.
We were losing the sun fast at this point, and I was tripping over myself all over the place trying to keep up with the ambient light. I was pushing the ISO, increasing flash power, lowering shutter speed... It wasn't until after the shoot when I was going over the scores of blurry, underexposed images that I noticed my camera was set on f8 the entire time. Here I am with a 50mm 1.8 lens, complaining about losing ambient light, pushing the ISO upwards of 800, and it never occurred to me to open up the f-stop!
When I was taking flying lessons back in college, the instructors always said: "You have to stay ahead of the airplane." That means you know what to expect next and you are ready for the situation when it comes. Otherwise you are just reacting to the situations as they happen and are never free to look ahead.
On this day I let the shoot get ahead of me. Instead of being ready ahead of time for the diminishing light, I just kept noticing my images were dark, and by the time I made adjustments the sun was down some more, pics are still dark, I'm pushing the ISO, shutter speed is getting too low to hand hold...
"I need more power from the flash"
"She's givin' all she's got captain..."
And just like that, the light was gone. We took a break. We had some dinner. We went out shooting again.
This time it was dark and I was ready for it. Well sort of...
I knew I wanted to play with shadows and the clubhouse where I live has some great french doors - which were all locked by the time we got there of course. Luckly it also has a nice fence with vertical metal bars which could also cast some interesting shadows. We moved a bench over near a wall where we could throw these shadows and set up a bare SB800 with a warming gel (CTO) to make it look warm. The wall was red so the whole theme would be warm. I wanted it to look kind of like a sunset - remember it's pitch dark outside by this time, a fact that will come to bite us very soon.
I set the bare SB800 at a hard angle to the model to cast long shadows on the wall. I added another flash with a shoot through umbrella almost directly in front of Diane to control the shadows and light up the wall some. Once the lighting position was figured out, it was time to work on the exposure. This is when the darkness came into play. As I took my first test shot I realized that I had left my small LED flashlight back at the house! A killer mistake for shooting at night because it really hinders your ability to focus! There wasn't really enough light to even use manual focus properly.
We ended up using the SB800 modeling light feature (thank you Nikon) to throw a quick burst of continuous light on the scene just long enough for the AF to tune in.
We got some very decent shots there but were not able to fully explore the location since it was late and a work night!
This shoot was anything but smooth. I was definitely rusty with my problem solving skills, which made me nervous and led to more problems. Fortunately it was a shoot among friends and so nothing was catastrophic. It was a great way to get back into shooting mode and despite all the problems, we still got some good images for our efforts.
The most important things to take away from these kinds of shoots are the lessons learned. Take some time after every shoot, failure or success, to reflect on the events. What worked? What didn't? Then try and come up with ways to make the next shoot better.