Rarely run the same pic twice in a row, but publishing the below last week reminded me of one of those perilous moments we all have in the field, when the job hangs in the balance, and you are on location, and the sun’s not up yet, and the location looks like garbage, and the sky is black and featureless, and you don’t have a single clue as to what to do. The crew is looking to you to announce a great visual direction, or bark stirring orders that will lead to heroic photography and you just hope it starts raining so you have an excuse to go back to the hotel and put the covers over your head.
There’s a popular new ad campaign out there for Apartments.com, featuring Jeff Goldblum as a silky voiced TV huckster selling you the idea of the moment. “Change your apartment. Change the world.”
In the realm of location photography, you are dealing with your own smallish version of the world, trying to make whatever particular slice of the globe you find yourself standing on attractive, stunning, interesting, vibrant, or at the very least, modestly pleasing. When it’s not going well, which happens a truly stunning amount, you have to have the gumption to gulp hard, stop everything, announce that what you’re seeing on the LCD is the equivalent of a horrible movie or a really unfunny cartoon, and start over.
“Change your lens, change the world.”
The gift of a different lens is a different perspective on the scene, and, potentially, fresh wind in your visual sails.
Here’s where the photo above started.
I shot the above, and then moved in closer. I was foundering on the rocks of poor decision making and uncertainty, and was operating with zero clarity of thought, which is a prized location possession. I mean, I was damn close to the Cliffs of Insanity.
The instructional subset here, of course, is straight out of the book of Jay Maisel—“And, yea, the photographer saw that it was not good, and heard a voice in his head saying, ‘Move yer ass!” (That’s actually Jay’s voice, and it has a New York accent.)
Stop. Walk away, and walk around. Shooting really wide? Try shooting really long. That was my situation for the above. I was in close, desperately trying to include unnecessary information, getting tricky, and I didn’t need to. Thankfully, I’ve had a fair bit of sad experience with the “this is not working” category. I stopped. Pulled chocks. Walked away. Tried long glass, and Boom! I had a picture.
Now, in the new spot, I was literally shouting distance from the crew and the model. I didn’t need to change the lighting. That was simplicity itself. One Profoto B4, fitted with a beauty dish, and a warm gelled B1 as a backlight, assisting the sun and defining the windswept cape. At camera, I shot a D810, a Nikkor 600 f4, and slung the whole thing on a heavy duty Gitzo tripod.
I’ve said it before, paraphrasing Russell Crowe in Master and Commander–“What a fascinating modern age we live in.” Back in the old days of lenses, this much glass, through the dust and heat of the desert, manually focused, would have been an iffy chore, and the chrome result would have certainly reflected the limitations of the technology of that time. Perhaps I would have lost a touch of detail and contrast, for instance. But here, with dead bang accurate AF, the resolution of the D810, and the sleekness, clarity and coatings of the optics brought to bear, I’m shooting my model from literally across the equivalent of a football pitch and I can still see her pores. It’s nuts. I mean, I’m happy about it, but the tools are crazy good, bordering on preposterous.
Which in turn means it’s a wonderful time to be a photog. You can confidently take a chance, turn on a dime, step onto the tightrope of a job and not just shuffle across in conservative fashion. You can stop midway and do a trick. Try a somersault, pictorially speaking. Look at the job in another way.
And, again, as we all have experienced, once you nail that one good photo, it puts swagger in your stride. You are through the gate and no longer fearful of the job. And it’s important, given the psychology of location work, that you nail that first foray with a camera. It sets the tone for the day, reassures the crew they’re not working for a loser or an idiot, makes the models anxious for you to shoot them some more…all that flows freely once you’ve shot your first successful pic.
Confidence of the crew is important, as any location effort is done with a team of people. Billie Muller, an incredibly talented shooter in her own right, was our field producer on this job. Styling by Anna Castan Tomas, hair by Monique Lagnerious. Makeup was done wonderfully by Katie Cousins. And our expressive models, who worked their way through a 3am call and the heat of the day were Jenna and Elena, of Wilhemina Dubai.
So, trust yourself to switch it up. Trust the gear. And, you know, move yer ass!
Totally cool “move!” Thanks for sharing. (And who doesn’t love Masel?)
Jon Barnes says
Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom as always. It’s so helpful to see the original wide shot that you were going for and how it contrasts with the shot at top. It always amazes me how a distant background can be turned into layers of patterns and textures with a long lens. I also love the color palette on that photo, with its muted oranges and pinks.
What a difference!
Karen Taylor says
I saw you at The Moment It Clicks last Friday and really enjoyed the seminar, particularly your expression that as photographers we are all just human and can all realize that we just didn’t quite master a shoot the way we wanted to but then learnt from it. This blog post sort of but not completely sums up a question that I wanted to ask you but it was busy, you were busy, I saw you never took breaks when the rest of the room did! As I asked to have a selfie with you with my cell phone as you were starting back up I realized ya, he just wants to get on with it, get out and go home! (LOL, just kidding!)The question was, what are you feeling and how do you handle the stress before a big shoot? Wanting to go and hide under the covers back at the hotel room I can relate to! But how do you get passed that? I would like to know your thoughts on it. Again, thank you for last Friday, I will be sure to get out to another one of your seminars.
JerseyStyle Photography says
Great post, Joe. Many people, I’m sure, think it just always falls into place for you. We don’t imagine you “floundering on the rocks of poor decision” (great line) but you’re a pro’s pro and you make it happen. Well, that and you move yer ass.
Another great field experience post – thanks for it!
One slight typo I found: “certainly reflected the limitations of the technology of that timhttps://joemcnally.com/wp-admin/e.”
Kelly Morvant says
Wow! I would not have even brought my 600 on that shoot. Great job! Thank you for sharing great advice!
Mark Winter says
As an aspiring photographer, I appreciated your advice, Joe. Changing your perspective is so important. That may more offen than not require a photographer to change lenses. Thanks for your advice. I’ve just subscribed to your newsletter. Awesome!
As much as I love your vision, willingness to share your knowledge, and your ability to match the impact of your words to that of your images, what I love most about this post is your use of the word “foundering” instead of “floundering”. (Pet peeve I picked up from a Journalism professor ages ago.) Oh yeah, and as always, your insight into how to make things work despite challenging conditions was pretty awesome too. Thanks, and cheers to you!
Joe McNally says
Awesome Els…many thanks!
Joe McNally says
Thanks Andor…fixed it up….best, Joe
Steve St.Lawrence says
As always I appreciate the wisdom, humility and humor in your blogs. Never afraid to laugh at yourself or to share human frailties with others. You teach far more than just photography, you share a lot of great life lessons. Thanks for being such an inspiration and generous soul.
Warre Hammling says
Heheheh. The line between Genius and Madness is increasingly diffuse. This underscores the Genius of stepping into the Mad side. I learn more from you in two paragraphs than from decades of photography classes. Cutting wormholes through the learning curve in the process.
Thank you for your generosity.
I usually skim through photography blogs but your dry sense of humor keeps me reading each and every word. Nice work on the shoot.
Jon McGuffin says
This is truly a fantastic lesson point, thank you so much for posting and sharing these images. Have casually followed you over the years (I think I own all your books) and am thankful for your help over that time!
David Taranza says
It’s amazing how you are able to navigate your way through all that location uncertainty and make things happen to end up with a great picture. That, I guess, makes you who you are.
I wonder, do you at all experience situations like shooting 300 pics on location ending up with no photo you like? Thinking for yourself “Wow, that was really bad…”?
Thanks for another great lesson. Great work.
Jeremy Sale says
I can’t remember who said it—probably you—but looking in the opposite direction is often a good idea, too. Thanks for this!
Joe McNally says
Hey David…yes for sure, what you mention above happens. I will shoot a take, and hopefully the client likes it, and finds it serviceable for their needs, but there is nothing in that take I will ever show anyone, ever. There are jobs you shoot, hopefully only occasionally, where you do good work, or maybe just solid work, and you don’t return to that take. You hopefully grow and move on.
Iden Ford says
Top photo….Elsa Lancaster redux…2015, electricity makes this photo Electric and beautiful. Creating solutions to light puzzles, yet makng artistic choices that are both dramatic and beautiful. You inspire as always, thanks 🙂
Joe McNally says
many thanks Iden!
Nigel Davis says
Thank you Joe, for your candid commentary. After years of honing your now comprehensive skills, where you could be aloof and esoteric, you still give anxiety-relieving-lets be real now about this insight into the process of solving the problems a photographer faces at a job, each new set of challenges. You remind me I’m a normal, adrenaline pumping photographer, intent on doing it right, according to my mind’s eye and my client’s wishes.
Also, I think that photo of the model, with flowing cape and sun in back is really great. The definition of the word magic is elusive at times, but you put that in there. Excellent Joe. thank you.
Regards, Nigel Davis
Ralph Mawyer says
Joe, everyone knows you travel with your own freight container in the cargo bay, but did you really travel with a 600mm, on the off chance you might need it….or borrowed/rented it there. 😉
Joe McNally says
Many thanks for the kind words, Nigel! all the best, Joe
It is not by chance that the top picture is the best one. Congratulations.
Jerome Yeats says
Dear Mr McNally,
Of course compression can be powerful, but if you are so far away from the model that you no longer have eye contact then using a 600mm could be a two edged sword. I remember shooting a Buckingham Palace Garden party from the roof of the Palace in the 1980s and I hired a 600mm Nikkor lens. It was so old that it came in two parts and one tripod was not enough to keep the damn thing reasonably still. It was a miserable shoot on the roof on a baking hot English summer’s day. Yes the shoot went ok after a fashion but shooting the tops of the crowds’ heads was imo pointless and I never hired a 600mm lens again. You will know this: if you want rapport with your model and like her then get in close. I know, a 600mm gives graphic compression but I would want to choose the models and their outfits and never use anything longer than 105mm on full frame. Intimacy beats graphic compression any day. And your good and brilliant photos of the past “prove” my point. Why not have used an Arabian model(s) in any event? Regards
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