Feb 192012

If I had to guess, I’d say that easily 97% of the work I do is on location. And I’ve had the opportunity to shoot in some pretty fun locations. On occasion, those locations have included hallways and spare rooms backstage at concert venues. I’ve shot in a musician’s manager’s office that was so small, once I was set up, no one could enter or leave the room until we were finished shooting. I’ve set up in hotel rooms in New York, Toronto & California. I’ve even set up against the side of a tour bus in Rochester NY back stage at a Buckcherry/Papa Roach show.

I’ve also had the distinct pleasure to be invited into the homes of some very cool musicians including those of Jack Irons, the founding drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers who was later a member of Pearl Jam, Gilby Clarke and Matt Sorum, a couple of former members of Guns N Roses and Chino Moreno of Deftones (who invited me to hang around for a beer and to watch the Giants v 49ers game after we wrapped our portrait session).

Recently, that location was likely one of the most unusual I’ve set up in to date; the showers in the hockey dressing room at General Motors Centre in Oshawa, Ontario when I had the opportunity of a portrait session with venerable rock and roll badass, Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister.

From previous experience, having photographed him once before, backstage at Toronto’s Kool Haus, when Motorhead came through on a headlining tour in 2011, I knew two things; I needed to be prepared and I needed to be fast. The first time I shot Lemmy, I had him in front of my cameras for 91 seconds from first frame to last before he and his then assistant Alan Hungerford walked back toward the dressing room, but that was okay because I was ready.

This time I was even more ready.

Lemmy’s assistant Steve Luca picked me up at the GM Centre box office and led me through the hallways under the stands into what turned out to be Motorhead’s dressing room; the visiting team hockey dressing room. There’s not a lot of space in there once you drape off large sections of the room and add catering tables & leather sofas. I stuck my head around one corner and low and behold, a room roughly 10’ x 25; plenty large enough for that night’s studio…with the added bonus of being all tiled in slightly off-white for LOTS of soft reflected light for fill. The showers.

I set up in about 10 minutes (the beauty of that portable lighting kit!) and waited. About 20 minutes after we walked into the room Steve asked if I was ready and brought Lemmy in; it was on.

I showed him to his mark and away we went. A new record; 83 seconds and we were done. Only fitting I suppose that my fastest ever portrait shoot should take place in one of the more unusual locations I’ve ever set up in.

Jan 252012

I recently described the parts that go into my portable lighting kit. This is what it looks like in action. On location outdoors, a single Nikon SB900 with an appropriate modifier works wonders in open shade and is the ideal tool to fill in those shadows. Add in a couple of additional lights and create prefect subject separation from the background. Here you can see the setup I used when I photographed a series of portraits for Alex.

I used two Chimera 9×36 strip lights, one on each side, slightly behind Alex and the beauty dish camera left as my main light. I first dialed in my ambient exposure to determine how much of the background I wanted to see, then added in my lights; main light first, then the two strip lights, to balance everything out. My goal with this particular portrait setup was to be fairly subtle with the strobes; I wanted them apparent, but I didn’t want to overpower the entire scene. With the Pocket Wizard AC3 directing the Flex TT5s , I was able to easily tweak the output of each light right from the camera without having to physically go to each flash to make any adjustments.

The real brilliance of this system is that it’s small, light-weight, battery-powered and super fast to set up; In the length of time it took Alex to wipe down his bike, I was ready to shoot.

Jan 142012

My Musical Ink book project is in the home stretch. Musical Ink is a collection of black & white infrared portraits of musicians and their tattoos. Looking back, it seems like I started working on this forever ago.

After nailing down the technical quirks of shooting portraits in infrared with my good friend Christian DeArmond, the next subjects I shot were Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith in the spring of 2008 in a suite at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel. Now, three years, many repeat trips to cities including Los Angeles, New York & Atlanta and setting up countless make-shift studios backstage, in hotel rooms, homes, recording studios and management offices later, Musical Ink is almost a wrap.

Musical Ink came from a combination of my love for music, a long-time interest in the art of tattoos and some really cool portraits that photographer Tom Dahlin had shot of some Minnesota Timberwolves players in 2006. He shot them in infrared and I put that idea in my ‘I might use that some day’ file.

The main thing that makes this project unique is the use of an infrared-converted Nikon D2X camera body. I purchased a special filter from LifePixel and had them make the swap for me. My D2X now shoots infrared full time.

The difference between infrared and a regular color image can easily be seen in these two images of Atlanta singer Bernadette Seacrest. Bernadette is an awesome lady and we spent well over an hour shooting at her home (which is very rare for this project; I usually get about 5 minutes), and then we went out for some killer barbeque. Both of these images were made under identical conditions.  Same lighting, same dress, same everything.  The only difference is the camera; the color image was made using a standard Nikon D3, the black and white using the infrared D2X.  The skin takes on a very ethereal glow and the tattoos are very well defined which is no small part of what I’m trying to accomplish with this book.

I’ve got less than six months before my July 1st deadline and a couple more trips are pending; at least one more to LA, New York and possibly one to Florida. Many more musicians will see my camera-obscured face before I’m done, but the book should be on shelves this fall.

More info can be seen on the Musical Ink web site and you can follow the Musical Ink Facebook Page for updates on the book’s progress.

Jan 122012

Before we even get started, let me say this; This is not a review. There is no measurable technobabble to follow. Not talk of megapixels or battery capacity or memory card formats. This is my first impression of a pretty kick-ass camera. With that out of the way, let’s go…

I had the opportunity to sit down with my good friends at Nikon in Toronto yesterday to have some hands-on time with the new D4 body. It was a pre-production sample and one of only three in the country.

Nikon has long ruled the ergonomics game, but the D4 makes their previous cameras look like bricks. This thing just fits as though it was molded for my hand. All of the controls seem to fall right under my fingers. Most notably, I’ve always had an issue with where the vertical AF-ON button was located. Over a year ago I had a conversation with Toronto’s Nikon Professional Services (NPS) wunderkind Amanda about it & even sent her a picture of where I thought it should go…which is exactly where it is on the D4. Where do I send my design invoice?

I’m not really a sports shooter any more, so crazy-fast frame rates don’t get me particularly excited. I do like that with the D4 the native ISO range is now 100 (in the D3-series it was 200) which is great for my portrait work, to 12,800. This range can be extended on both ends from 50 on the low end to 204,800. I grew up shooting film in Nikon FM bodies and it was a pretty big deal when Kodak announced their ground-breaking T-Max P3200. It was an incredible breakthrough for shooting indoor sports and in other low light conditions. But 204,800? That’s approaching superpower-see-in-the-dark range. Somewhere in the middle will be the ideal ISO for shooting live music even in the darkest of small venues.

Oh, and how about a carbon fibre shutter rated for 400,000 cycles? Or how about a Silent Mode? And it’s not quiet. It truly is silent. Like check the back of the camera to make sure it actually took an image silent. Now granted Silent only gives you a 1920×1080 pixel frame capture, but there will definitely be uses for it. There’s also a Quiet Mode that locks up the mirror and uses Live View for framing. It’s still much more quiet than a standard shutter cycle because the mirror flapping up and down is taken out of the equation.

There is one especially cool feature built into the D4; it has a Timelapse Mode. You dial in your exposure interval and how long you want it to run. When it’s done, it assembles all of the images and spits out timelapse .MOV file right in the camera. That’s cool.

There are a lot of new video-centric features in the D4. I’m not a video guy and I don’t play one on TV, but some of the new tools crammed into the D4 make me want to shoot video. For example, when Nikon introduced their first full-frame DSLR body, they kept the ability for the user to effectively use a cropped, or DX sensor (the sensor that is in the D2-series, the D300 bodies and most of their prosumer and consumer models). Shooting video with the D4, you have that option, but you also have another one; a 2.7x crop. Here’s the thing…shooting stills, when you go from full frame to DX-mode, you lose resolution simply because you’re using less of the physical sensor. When you’re shooting video with the D4, you retain full 1080p HD resolution regardless what your crop setting is. Now that is crazy. It also has on-board audio level meters and a headphone jack so you can monitor the audio that’s being recorded.

I wasn’t able to shoot any images with the camera that can be published because Nikon is still updating firmware to make little tweaks and functional refinements & they’re very strict about it – every single image that is published out of a pre-release body has to be approved by Nikon in Japan.

I’m really looking forward to getting one out of an office at Nikon and into my makeshift studio to shoot a backstage portrait. Or in the pit at a live show. Or, well, really anywhere outside of an office at Nikon.

This camera is something sweet. My bank account is nervous.

Jan 042012

Like many photographers, I am often asked what gear I use.  Specifically, I’m most often asked about my lighting kit.  I shoot quickly, frequently under very tight time constraints and nine times out of 10, I work without an assistant.  Whether I’m shooting a musician back stage before a show or a CEO in his office between a conference call and a board meeting, I need to have a kit that’s flexible, compact, light and easy to set up & tear down.

With that in mind, I’ve refined my location portrait kit to the point that it (almost) all fits into a Mountainsmith Reflex II – XL camera bag.  Loaded into this bag is:

5 – Manfrotto 5001b Nano Stands.  More than sturdy enough to support a Speedlight, these stands are ideal for this kit.

5 – Nikon SB-900 Speedlights.  These are Nikon’s flagship strobes. They pack plenty of punch and recycle quickly.

7 – Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 transievers.  These units are quite simply brilliant.  They allow full TTL control of the SB-900s in three separate banks; I can have a main light on one bank, a couple of rim or hair lights on a second bank and blow out the background on a wall or seamless with the third and can control all of that right from the top of the camera and each of banks or zones can be independently controlled with…

2 – Pocket Wizard AC3 Zone Controllers which are in the left front pocket. I carry two of these because I often shoot with two cameras (particularly when I’m working on my Musical Ink book, with one color camera and one infrared camera).  These units allow each camera to have totally different flash exposures set up without having to touch the flashes.  These are the units that adjust the flash output in the individual banks I mentioned above.  In the right pocket is a small bag with gel filters for color correction or special color effects and a Honl grid.

2 – Chimera XS (16”x22”) softboxes.  These are standard off the shelf Chimera boxes (silver interior).  To mount them to the stands and in turn to mount Speedlights to them, I’ve taken two Lastolite EzyBox brackets and modified them with standard Chimera softbox speedrings.  This allows me to use virtually any standard sofbox with my Speedlights.

All of this is packed into the Mountainsmith, which is no bigger than a standard large camera bag.

The (almost) parts I mentioned at the beginning that don’t fit into the Mountainsmith are my 19” beauty dish, pictured here with the rest of the kit and a Lastolite collapsible 6’x7’ white/grey background.  The beauty dish I put together with a few machine screws, a small aluminum plate and a 20qt stainless steel bowl.  The outside is painted black, the inside painted white.  With a single SB-900, the results are amazing; something like a cross between a softbox and an umbrella.  When I’m shooting an environmental portrait, obviously the background stays packed, but when it gets pulled out, the resulting images are virtually indistinguishable from having been shot in a full-blown studio with big lights and a cyclorama.

There it is.  My location lighting kit.  Light, compact & fast.  I have flown with this kit (without the background or beauty dish) as a carry-on and along with my camera bag (a ThinkTank Urban Disguise 60), have been able to get right to work at the other end without worrying about lost luggage or needing to rent lights.