Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Kid's Eye View

Early in my career, one of my mentors, the great Richard Shay, told me that when photographing children, try getting down to their level. As adults, we're generally looking down at kids from our perspective, and not only do we risk the impression that an image will belittle a child, but it's just not as interesting as trying to see the world through their eyes. I've taken this philosophy to heart when I am hired to photograph children, and while I may burn through the knees of my pants at a frustrating rate, I feel that the images are well worth the efforts. I want to make images that express the innocent, creative, genuine, and curious world that children thrive in, so I love taking my camera down to the "child's eye" view and explore with them to create imagery that isn't just a "say cheese" phony smile, but a childhood moment captured through a lens as close as I can get to their view of the world.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Look Behind the Scenes: A Portrait of Carl Bernstein

Many of my clients over the past decade have been universities. I've enjoyed working with such institutions, because there is such a variety of the kinds of photography assignments that they require, and you're generally surrounded by intelligent and interesting people.

A couple of years ago, Stony Brook University has appointed Carl Bernstein (of Woodward and Bernstein, Watergate, All the President's Men, etc. fame) as a Visiting Presidential Professor of Journalism, Political Science, History, English, Rhetoric, and I'm sure I missed some other facet of academia that he's interested in exploring. When I lived on Long Island, I did a lot of work for Stony Brook. About a year ago, I relocated to the Washington, DC metro area, and this opened up an opportunity to photograph Professor Bernstein in DC at the Newseum after he participated in a panel about the Nixon Tapes.

This sort of shoot took a fair bit of planning to pull off. First, nailing down the time and location had to be sorted out. The original plan was that he would be interviewed in DC for an article that Stony Brook was doing for their alumni magazine, and we would be doing the shoot either just before or just afterwards. It was later decided that the interview would take place in New York the day before the shoot, and that we would get about 15 minutes of his time after his panel at the Newseum.

I hadn't shot a job at the Newseum before, but I had visited in the past with my parents, and I immediately knew what I wanted to do: a shot on the terrace with the Capitol in the background and a second shot inside in their "Today's Front Pages" gallery, which is conveniently the room that you need to walk through to get out to the terrace.  My editor, art director, and designer wanted a strong vertical portrait for the cover (leaving room for type and the masthead), an extremely wide horizontal for use in the marquee space on the university website, and some other images that they can use for filler and other collateral uses for promotion, etc.

And so my planning began.  I sent along some of the snapshots that I took when I had previously visited the museum to the team at Stony Brook for approval, and they liked my ideas.  We were all especially appreciative of the fact that the Front Page Gallery just inside made a nice backup location in case of inclement weather.  Having our Plan A and Plan B in such proximity to each other was a great, and meant that I only needed one assistant to keep an eye on both sets while I went to wait for Mr. Bernstein after the talk.

I don't always do a lighting diagram for the shoots that I do, but they are helpful when there are several moving pieces and when you're working with an assistant.  Also, in this case, it helped me think of a few problems that we may (and did) encounter along the way: possible reflections on the railing behind Mr. Bernstein, and that there may be some can lights in the ceiling of the Gallery that we may want to flag off, so that we wouldn't need to worry about overpowering them or having them impact the qualities of light that we wanted to introduce to the scene.

The team at the Newseum was exceptionally helpful in accommodating us and giving my assistant (and also very capable photographer) Jeff Behm and I free reign over the sixth floor. Now came the tricky part... The program was scheduled to conclude at about 8:15pm, so we would be shooting roughly around blue hour, with rapidly fading dusky sky. Of course, this meant that because we wanted to have everything set up and ready before it was time to shoot, we were setting up at around 7pm, when the sun was still out. There was a bit of getting everything into place, and then some guess work for when we'd actually be ready to shoot. There was also some guess work involved, as Jeff, who was acting as my stand-in, is 6'5", so I brought a step stool with me to help (ironically) make Jeff a more average height when standing in for Mr. Bernstein. 

We knew that the lighting values that we would end up using would be different when we'd actually start shooting (since it would be much darker), but we were able to work out the placement of the lighting and rough ratios, so that we'd be able to dial everything in quickly once it was game time.

For the set of shots on the terrace, we were using two speedlights at a time.  We had a rim light clamped to the railing behind him, and that had a cinefoil flag on it to keep too much light from spilling onto the railings themselves.  That was one of the problems that I predicted when drawing out the lighting diagram.   We used two different main lights for some variety.  The first was a boomed 43" brolly-box (kind of a generic Softlighter).  I wanted a nice soft light, and I wanted it on a boom, so that I could shoot the wide horizontal without having to worry about a stand creeping into the shot.  We did few shots with that light, and then switched to a small softbox held on a monopod out over Pennsylvania Avenue, so that we could get some shots with light coming from the other direction with Mr. Bernstein looking out over DC.   Doing some test shots, I was able to get some sense of where the backlight was in the frame, although by the time we got started, it was a bit tricky to see it until it went off.

Inside the Gallery, we found that we definitely needed to flag off the ceiling light.  I worked out a spot for me to shoot from where the papers would give some nice leading lines and a nice space for him to stand in.  We decided to take the softbox that we used in the second series of shots on the terrace in with us and have Jeff continue to be a voice activated lightstand.  This would save on setting up another light and let us work a little faster when we moved to the inside set, as we could more quickly articulate the light to minimize relfections in Mr. Bernstein's glasses.  We also wanted to leave our options open to shoot a portrait with the Washington Post in the background, and having a mobile light would make that setup nice and speedy.

Before I headed down to the theatre, the light dropped some, and I remembered that I wanted to gel the lights with CTOs, so that I could adjust my white balance for the warmer light from the strobes, therefore letting the background go a nice rich blue.  We popped the gels onto the lights, did a quick test, adjusted the power output of the lights, and I headed downstairs.

As with most jobs, there are some aspects that are entirely out of your control.  In this case, while the program didn't end too late (only by about five minutes or so), Mr. Bernstein had a lot of fans in the audience, and they wanted to say hello, and that took some time.  By the time we got upstairs, it was nearly 9pm and totally dark.   Aside from the obvious exposure issues that we had to tweak, there were a few unexpected issues that I had not anticipated, all relating to the fact that it was really, really dark.  I couldn't see the backlight's position, so there were some frames were it crept into the frame.  A flaw that I actually grew to like, and did it on purpose a couple of times after I saw how it looked.  There was a neat cinematic quality to the flare, and it complemented the out of focus city lights that resulted from having to shoot wide open at 2.8.  The Capitol building is lit up at night, but not as bright as you'd think - our ambient exposure was f/2.8 at 1/40th of a second at ISO 2000.  Over by us, it was even darker, and so dark that I could basically only see a silhouette of Mr. Bernstein.  My camera was giving me some trouble focusing.  The radio transmitters that I use, Yongnuo YN-622N's have a built-in AF illuminator that works great most of the time.  The scenario that it isn't so helpful is when you're shooting with a long lens, because the parralax from having the unit mounted above the lens means that it basically shoots the beam over his shoulder when you're a considerable distance away.  Furthermore, I couldn't really see Mr. Bernstein's expressions, so I felt as if I was guessing on both focus and my timing.  After a few frames, I remembered one of the best $25 that I've ever spent: an Energizer LED flashlight that has a little tripod on it and two light sources: a regular flashlight and a soft panel of light.  Kicking in a little light from the panel helped me lock focus, see his face, and it didn't affect the exposure too much to really make a difference.  I also used the panel side of the light as a sole light source for a quick portrait just by the door out to the terrace where the Capitol was reflected in the glass of the building.  Jeff held the light just outside of the frame, and it balanced well with the existing lights of the city.

Back inside, I was very lucky to be able to take some candid images of Mr. Bernstein checking out the Front Pages Gallery.  I hadn't asked him specifically to interact with the exhibit, as I knew we were getting short on time, and I wanted to get that last portrait in the bag, but I'm glad that he took the opportunity to take a look, as it yielded some fun shots and conversation.    Of course, he had to check out the Washington Post.   I had assumed that the pages would be spot lit with incandescent lights, but was pleasantly surprised to find that they were lit with soft LED strips of lights from inside of the cases, which led to a much more flattering and even light when he'd lean in close to get a good look.  After a few minutes, we moved Mr. Bernstein to his mark under the ceiling light that we had flagged off, and we made a few quick portraits using the same softbox on a stick that we used earlier outside.   I was really happy with the harder but still flattering light of the small softbox over the bigger brolly-box, and the leading lines of the papers going to and from Mr. Bernstein really sell the idea that this guy is news - it literally flows to and from his head.

We had completed our portraits, and said some quick good byes.  Mr. Bernstein saw a few of the shots on the back of the camera and seemed pleased.  He was pleasant and enjoyable to work with, which was a great relief.  I knew he had several other events earlier in the day and some travel up and down the East Coast, so I was concerned that he'd be exhausted by the time we had our shoot scheduled.  He came to the portrait session energetic and enthusiastic, and I could not have been more pleased with the results.  It took a while for the actual magazine to be printed, and while they went with a different photograph for the cover (one that included Bob Woodward), these images did run inside with the the article, and were used to promote some talks that Mr. Berstein did on campus.  I followed up with him after the shoot to share the finished images and he said that "the pics are wonderful," which I was very pleased to read.  Furthermore, has has updated his website's bio page and his twitter account to use the portrait, which has been really cool to see.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Best of 2016

Every January for the past half dozen or so, I go back and look at my photographs for the year previous and pick out my favorite 100 images.  I've found this exercise to be an important yearly ritual to reflect on the kind of images that I have made that were successful, less than successful, and meaningful to myself (and hopefully my clients).  2016 continued to be an adjustment in incorporating balance between family and work life, but new routines are settling in.  2016 also was a year that brought in some great new clients and deepened relationships with existing ones.  It's been very exciting and rewarding to see the impact of some of my clients' work firsthand, as well as hear about them at conferences.

Reviewing my previous year's work also makes me feel immense gratitude for my clients and collaborators.  From the folks who have let me into their homes and most important life celebrations, to organizations and universities that I've worked with for the very first time, and those that have been so gracious enough to invite me back - I am so honored to work with you all!
Of course, I cannot be more thankful for my family.  Lindsey and Jacob have been patient with my weird schedules and stepping up when I've had to be out of town for a job.  Sam Levitan Photography wouldn't exist without Lindsey's support and juggling her crazy work schedule and minding the home front while I'm on the road.  And nothing is better than returning home to these two.

Enough rambling, here are my favorite 100 images from 2016, enjoy!