A lot of behind the scenes work went into this shoot, spanning a little more than 5 weeks. More work than we’ve done in any of my shoots prior to this. Granted we didn’t work around the clock, but I never walk into my conceptual projects without some degree of pre-production. Meaning.. planning, organizing, scene sketches, brainstorming, PBR, lighting tests, re-thinking everything, more PBR, post-production tests and lots and lots of phone calls/meetings/emails. I’m newer to the world of shooting editorial work, so this inherently takes up a considerable amount of my time. But letting this happen off the cuff like the Murder 101 shoot we did two years ago, can no longer occur if I want to step into this area of the photo industry with any true intention of building a solid portfolio and getting legit paid client work.
First off, lemme say this. I have a long way to go to reach my goals. The mysterious Commercial Work Fairy didn’t fly through my window around midnight and drop off magic coins under my pillow, whispering sweet nothings into my ear about a romantic photo career filled with success, wealth, happy clients and picnics in fields. I’m struggling each and every day that I wake up to find my voice, vision and pay the bills from month-to-month to keep my studio doors open. My wife and I each work full-time. We have three kids, bills to pay and tediously balance to keep our marriage intact. It’s life. It’s the true face of being a photographer in today’s industry.
With this in mind, I need to constantly remind myself that I have to push my craft to that next level so that I can stay ahead of the pack. The road is long. I know this. But with shoots such as this, I may be able to open new doors and build new relationships in the creative community. With each new shoot, comes a new starting point for me.
Personal work. It’s important to my growth as a photographer. And the shoot we did with Shear Chaos Salon is just that. Personal..
We initially thought we’d shoot this on-location in some dingy barn setting. You know, some real dark place.. Somewhere in nowhere Wisconsinwhere, WI. But we knew if we settled with shooting on-location, we’d have limited time to precisely incorporate the feel we were after. “Well, we have studio. Why not use it?” I’ve heard these words before from some great wiseman. So many people discount the use of their studio, simply to run out and shoot on-location. Of course there is a time and place to go out on-location, but if we’re paying through the bungholio to keep the studio doors open, then we better use it to our advantage and not piss greenbacks into the wind. Right?
Trevor and I have talked for months about physically building out a set in the studio. Having seen the work of Joshua Hoffine and his “Elizabeth Bathory” inspired horror shoot, we were determined to step forward with an in-studio set design. By doing so, we could take as much time needed to make this shoot everything we envisioned. The most important of which was detailing the set and dialing in our lighting scenarios, without making ourselves look like idiots in front of our clients.
Once we landed on the idea of shooting this series in our studio, so began the research. Our starting point was Google Images. We Googled terms such as “Circus Ring, Circus Ring Master, Circus Strongman, Circus Lion Tamer”, etc. We found some good inspirational photos, but mainly focused our attention to old, historic circus photos. Much of that inspiration also came from looking at paintings from the Vaudeville era of circus entertainment. After studying those images we were drawn to, we were able to compile a PDF and send them off to the folks at Shear Chaos. That way we were all on the same page as far as the look and feel we wanted with the final images. It also aided in costume design and getting the nitty gritty details hammered out.
Going into the design of the set, we knew we wanted everything to look old, shitty, weathered and all around beat-up. The entire scene needed to look like a low-budget carnival from some small town to showcase a vibe that catered to underpaid, overworked and struggling carnifolk. As this entire project was a personal shoot, we had limited funds. The money tree doesn’t quite bloom like it should..
In total, we spent a little over $250.00 to create this set. Everyone who helped us create it, did so without receiving a single dime for their work. The only pay-off here was some pizza, several beverages, friendship and walking away with a set of final photos we can potentially market to future clients. So, to give you an idea of what materials we needed to create the set I have included the below list as a basic breakdown:
+ canvas painting tarps (2)
+ paint rollers (4)
+ plastic tarp
+ 2 gallons of the cheapest red & yellow paint we could find
+ 4×8 1/4″ wafer board (3)
+ 2×4 economy studs (mangled as hell)
+ 24′ of 1/2″ electrical conduit and mounting hardware
+ zip ties
+ spray paint
+ rickety half wine barrel planter found in their yard
+ 25′ farm rope
+ star shaped stencil
+ left-over paint found in his garage
+ paint brushes & rollers
+ spray paint
+ broken axe
+ extension ladder
Jillian’s Parent’s Farm
+ hay bales (6)
+ misc rope and twine
+ old kitchen knives (5)
Steve Wagner’s House
+ extension ladder
+ power tools
Once we acquired the materials we needed, construction slowly began. The first round of business was making the circus backdrop. Simply enough, we painted leftover latex paint found in Trevor’s garage directly onto the 12×15 canvas drop clothes. We used only paint rollers to construct crude stripes on the canvas. After it had dried, Brett and I drug the tarps through the parking lot, over oil spots and a through a muddy gravel driveway to get it looking delightfully disgusting. In no way did we want this element to look clean or wrinkle-free in the photographs.
The backdrop was then suspended 12′ off the ground in a corner of our shooting space on 24 feet of 1/2″ electrical conduit and secured into place with zip/cable ties. This was Steve’s gig. I don’t do ladders. By backing the set into the corner of the shooting space, we had a natural curve to suspend the conduit and allowed us more room to shoot without disrupting the day-to-day activities around the joint.
The circus ring itself was constructed from 1/4″ wafer board cut into two 8 foot long strips, held together with screws and a chunk of 2×4. By using the 1/4″ board, the piece was flexible enough to bend into shape giving it that ring look. No need to bolt either side into the walls. We discovered that the tension from the bend made it stay in place perfectly after being tucked into the backdrop. Once painted yellow, we used a stencil from Hobby Lobby to make the red star details. After it was semi-dry, it too was dragged through our parking lot, hit with sticks and crunched with old charcoal from the studio’s Weber grill. Yes Trevor, that’s right. It belongs to the studio now..
With some leftover remains of the 1/4″ wafer board and 2×4 studs, Steve and Trevor went to work on creating the target. We knew that the target would not be able to support Addey’s weight, yet it needed to stand upright. (In the final photos of Addey against the target, we actually hid Brett behind it to make sure she didn’t fall backwards. In the same token, she wasn’t actually tied to the thing, in case she lost her balance and fell forward. Safety first people.) We actually painted the target twice. The first time it was red and white, looking a little hack. We needed the target to stand off the background. So with a little backwoods geometry and leftover paint, we came up with it’s final design. We also needed to weather it down. Dragging it through the lot was rather unsuccessful. Knowing it needed to look like it was previously struck by an intoxicated knife-wielding maniac, we discovered that hitting the backside with a roller-less paint roller that we could punch holes in the target with ease. It gave it the perfect look. That also allowed us to sink our knives in it, giving the shots their finishing touches.
After the main pieces were put into place, we brought in 6 bales of hay. Two were used to cover the floor (and lemme say that it was a freakin’ mess. Even worse to clean-up afterward). I initially wanted a dirt floor. Aside from being vetoed instantly, I soon realized I would be walking into a logistical nightmare. The remaining bales were then used in the background of the set. To add finishing touches, we hung two 25′ lengths of heavy duty farm rope (anchored with concrete blocks) to mimic tent support ropes and threw in a rickety wine barrel planter for the ring master’s podium. Due to it’s crappy appearance, we didn’t even bother to paint it.
LIGHTING & TEST SHOTS
Going into the shoot, we knew we wanted to have (a) dramatic and directional lighting and (b) a multiple lighting set-up to bring our subjects and set together as seamlessly as possible. Shooting the whole production in-studio afforded us time to get our lighting perfect before bringing in the “talent”. If we didn’t, we’d be stuck standing there like douchebags moving lights around like a chess board.
I knew it would take some time to properly dial in the lighting, given the fact we were using upward of 4-7 strobes at a time. The set-up needed to match what we perceived as actual circus-type lighting, yet maintain a certain darkness and depth to the final photos. (Albeit, we haven’t spent hours upon hours hanging out with creepy carnifolk, counting healthy sets of teeth and studying the inherent fire hazards of their dangling light rigs. But hey, we used our imaginations to think it through.)
Ideally this would have been a fast process. But it had to be right. Or at least, close. So it took some amount of time (a hour or so each day leading up to the shoot.)
During out first lighting tests, my main focus was to get the lighting on the background right. We started with an AlienBee 1600 with a 40 degree grid spot shot directly forward onto the hanging canvas tarps. When we shot those, the light was too broad and lacked that texture we spent so much time weathering down. We quickly moved to setting it up tight against the right wall, using a 10 degree grid spot shot from a very high angle. In doing so, it brought out the shadowy dramatic spotlight appeal we saught.
Background shot with 40 degree grid spot.
Background shot with a 10 degree grid spot. Light moved far to camera right, up high and directional.
Once we figured out how to light the background, my attention turned to the main light on the subject. Using a 47″ Paul C. Buff octabox with the inner diffusion baffle removed, I knew I could light my subject using the very outer feathered edge to attain that dramatic light. With the baffle removed, the AlienBee would throw out a hot spot in the center. In doing so, it cast the hotter light on the ground just in front of the subjects. It was the perfect fit to creating that overhead spotlight feel.
Test shot with Tobin, using only the main light.
Keeping my camera settings consistent, I then turned off my main light and introduced the side lighting using 20 & 30 degree grid spots on a pair of AlienBee 400′s on both sides of my subject. Doing this allows the person to pop off the background and gives the image more dimension.
Then it’s back to turning the main light on, verifying the exposure in-camera and making some final tweaks. Since we had to test numerous lighting scenarios, we made sure to take careful notes of the light placement, modifiers used and power settings so we could easily transition back into the proper look and feel on the day of the actual shoot.
OK. Let’s take a closer look at the lighting set-up of the main shot for Tobin, the Ring Master. Using these photos and diagrams, you will get a better feel for how they were lit.
This is the layout for the human target.
(Lighting diagrams courtesy of Kevin Kertz – www.kevinkertz.com)
Now when we shot the photo of Heidi (The Gypsy) behind the bales of hay looking into the crystal ball, I already knew ahead of time I wanted to light up the ball. Knowing that the crystal ball cost $100.00 and we couldn’t easily cram a speedlite inside of it, I would end up having to rely on Photoshop to bring the final image to life. At the same time, I had to think about how the glow from the ball would translate to the subject seated behind it.
We came to the conclusion of hiding a Canon 580EX II + Pocket Wizard behind the ball, under the scarves, and popping just a little bit of light back into our subject’s face. It ended up killing the shadows from the overhead lighting and giving her (er, Trevor) a realistic glow.
For the standing shot we ended up using a 20 degree grid to get that light back into her face.
And of course, getting a crystal ball to stand up on a bale of hay was tough. Seeing as Heidi is a shorter gal, we also needed to improvise.
Test shots. Lots and lots of test shots.. We only had a short time with Tobin and plenty of time with Trevor, so we needed to use them as efficiently a possible. And notice the New Castle in Trevor’s hand. Hey.. the guy works hard!
I don’t plan on going too in-depth with post-production from this shoot, but I wanted to focus on a few key points and discuss two things I did to a couple of these photos during the final edit-down. Please note however, these shots are all properly exposed IN-CAMERA and lit according to how the set was designed during pre-production.
First off, the last thing I EVER want to do as a photographer is think that I can use PhotoChop as a tool to correct shitty composition, exposure or for that matter.. “visionless” or pointless images. For me, I use Photoshop with my conceptual work to expand on the mood of the images I shoot. So getting it right in camera and trying to evoke emotion with my imagery is key. Without a clear vision as to what we want to say within our work and having a crappy photograph simply layered with pointless color correction and God-awful action sets means absolutely nothing in the end. It’s my full intention to deliver visually impacting images and convey a feeling of emotion within.
That being said, these shots have only very basic Photoshop done. The main goal was to attain a colder, almost desaturated, look to the photos. After my color and tonal contrast was achieved, I had to alter a few of the shots for final delivery.
The first was obviously the glow from the crystal ball. By duplicating the final color corrected layer, I needed to light the thing up. Here is how I did it..
Once that new layer had the Lens Flare filter applied, I had to go in and erase some of the glow and the ridiculous, cheesy looking flare “orbs”. I ended up using a really large feathered brush stroke.
With the shot of Jillian and the dogs… well, let’s just say that working with animals pretty much blows. Thank God we didn’t get an elephant in on this shoot. So to get the final look, I tried my hand at compositing two images together for the very first time. These dogs would not look at Jillian the way I had hoped. So once the “safe” shot was taken, I had Tobin and Jillian stand to the right and get their attention with treats.
WRAP-UP AND FINAL THOUGHTS
This shoot was an amazing experience and wouldn’t have happened without some very special folks who donated a lot of their own precious time to see this project through to completion. Below are the credits:
Trevor Nackers (my Studio Manager)
Cinematography, video editing, set design & construction, lighting set-up, art direction, DJ and PBR supplier
Digital tech, lighting assistant, set construction, cinematography, Polaroid-taker.
Set design, set construction, transportation specialist, ladder climber, tool hauler, screw screwer and all around shoulder to cry on.
Ladder climber, rope hanger and moral support
Tobin, Jillian, Addey, Heidi and Scott
Hair styling, make-up, costume design, set-input, whiskey distilling, humor provider, dog handling and bringers of the cirque de chaos.
Hay supplier and delivery
Financial overseer, keeper of the kids, home balance and maintainer, moral support, hug giver and kiss receiver.
When we are looking at marketing our work to perspective clients, time after time we have seen the importance of including our personal work in our deliverable portfolio. Although we are well into the early stages of re-envisioning our direction and brand as a photography studio, we look to shoots such as these as not only personal growth but as a means to attain the interest of potential clients. Granted this work wouldn’t get a second glance by an art director specifically looking to hire me to shoot bridal fashion or lifestyle work. But marketing this style of shoot along side my other bodies of work has it’s time and place within the industry.
We are very much newbies to shooting this style of editorial portraiture. I know I have a long way to go before my work gets noticed by art directors, photo reps and ad agencies. But it’s a starting point. With each new shoot we do, we are constantly keeping the end goal in mind. Where it takes us, we do not know. I however, need to continue pushing my craft, keeping my shoulders above the water and head above the dock.
There are always a few things I could have done differently with the shoot, both artistically and technically. But hind sight is always 20/20. Er, 15/10. Most importantly though, we were able to take our vision and make it a reality. We knew our clientele. We had a clear idea of how we wanted to handle the technical aspects. We handled this shoot much like any paid client gig. We were able to deliver strong final images that spoke to the identity of Shear Chaos. And we did so through a means of being honest to ourselves, staying true to who we are as creatives and never… EVER… taking ourselves too seriously.
And we couldn’t forget about this gem…..