Three harrowing tales of shoots that were saved by ingenuity, quick thinking and a little luck.
Few cauldrons burn as fiercely as a studio shoot, fueled by sky-high client expectations, impatient art directors and intense deadlines. From within this crucible, some of the world's most extraordinary photography has been created.
Yet even the finest of plans can shift subtly and go awry in an instant. How does one overcome adversity within the studio? Moreover, how does one transform an unraveling shoot into a great success?
Perhaps the key is to think of the studio as a laboratory. Photography could be called the greatest amalgam of pure science and fine art, wherein all great ideas can be tried and tested, and all concepts can be recorded for future analysis.
Sometimes success comes down to that most magical of quotients: luck. However, many of the best photographers say that luck does not happen by chance. Although the shoot may look as if it's going down the tubes, the right combination of opportunity and preparation can help avert disaster.
The digital age of photography brings new perils and more than enough challenges to the modern photographer. Take a recent shoot by Phoenix photographer Dave Siegel (siegelphoto.com).
Interface had hired Siegel to shoot an advertising image of 11 elite IT executives who had just flown in from all parts of the globe. The ad's concept was that these execs would be turned into superheroes – one guy would fly, one would move at supersonic speeds, lightning would jump from another's hands, one exec's arms would stretch to impossible proportions and so on – all thanks to the wonders of modern postproduction and the powers of Photoshop CS-2.
Siegel shot with a Canon 1Ds, burning the images onto a Mac G4 using Capture One software. About 225 images and seven ITs into the shoot, the glitch happened. A little box popped up on his monitor saying, "Out of memory." Following Siegel's instructions, his assistant deleted three older projects to clear some room and emptied the trash.
Upon restarting the computer, much to Siegel's horror, the 225 images had disappeared into nanospace without a trace.
You don't think it's going to happen to you, but it's musical chairs. It will happen sooner or later.
— Dave Siegel
Closer examination revealed that the two images that Siegel had just shot were the only ones that remained. One of the models (an IT guy, of course) was a computer wizard, but only for PCs. He placed a quick call to a friend who was conversant in Mac, but the Mac tech couldn't get there until the next day.
To add to the pandemonium, the art director was making like an elastic superhero, bouncing off the walls and ceiling of the studio.
With time slipping away and frustrations building, Siegel decided to use a copy of Disk Warrior and found the photos. The RAW images popped up on I-View, but were oddly corrupted when viewed on Pho-toshop Bridge. Then inspiration struck; Siegel screen-shot the images from I-View, rezzed up the errant images using Photoshop CS-2 and saved them.
So why did this work? Apparently, Canon embeds a 1,500 ppi JPEG within their proprietary RAW file. Siegel was able to extract the JPEG image and give his client a product that was optimum for its usage. The AD finally calmed down, and Siegel finished the shoot.
In doing so, he performed not unlike one of the very superheroes hze was shooting: He saved the day. He was extremely fortunate that this project was destined for the almighty web, and not a billboard or double-truck ad requiring a larger file.
What he learned from this experience was the power of redundancy. To safeguard a shoot, it is imperative to back up work. Saving a project while shooting onto alternate and multiple drives would have alleviated the potential loss of his shoot's imagery.
As Siegel mused sagely in afterthought, "You don't think it's going to happen to you, but it's musical chairs. It will happen sooner or later." So it seems that a little paranoia is a healthy thing.
Don't eat your props
San Diego photographer Michael Balderas (http://www.balderasphoto.com) has been fully digital since 1999 and hasn't lost a shoot yet (knock on wood). Balderas believes fully in redundancy and is always tethered to his external 100G LaCie drive, burning files to both his camera and the diminutive LaCie.
However, Balderas still has a few clients who appreciate the excellence of his 8×10 studio camera and the brilliance of an 8×10 transparency.
Big City Bagels hired Balderas to create four set shots. After reviewing about five bushels of bagels, Balderas found the "heroes" that would star in his shoot. The props were bought, and the set built and lit. His assistant loaded the film. The day went along smoothly, moving from one variation to the next. Balderas' assistant loaded and unloaded the unwieldy large-format film numerous times.
Balderas called home just as his brother- in-law was putting the pick of the litter to the ultimate test with his morning coffee. "Stop! I need my props back!" Balderas cried.
Early the next morning, Balderas returned to the lab to view the test. Much to his horror, the test was double-exposed. He rushed the rest of the shoot through the lab, but discovered that the same double-exposure had happened to all four parts of the project. Apparently, the assistant had accidentally reloaded shot film, and Balderas had reshot over it.
The catastrophe didn't end there. Where were those handpicked bagels?
Balderas called home just as his brother- in-law was putting the pick of the litter to the ultimate test with his morning coffee. "Stop! I need my props back!" Balderas cried. After racing home, he gently placed all the bagels into shopping bags and sped out the door.
By the time he returned to the studio, the set had already been struck. After getting permission from the client for one more day of shooting, Balderas and his properly chastened assistant got back to work. By drawing acetates from the test Polaroids and taping the acetates to the groundglass, he was able to match the design and feel of each shot almost perfectly. They were slightly off, but still excellent.
You can bet that Balderas then ran a film test of each set before he struck the set and moved on to the next assignment.
"Don't eat your props until you get your film back" has become one of the catchphrases of Michael Balderas' successful studio ever since.
Ingenuity: The father of invention
For my own photography, I've always played every shoot conservatively, figuring that if something could go wrong, it would. When clients wouldn't agree with this philosophy, then the responsibility for the shoot would be shifted onto their shoulders, should there be a problem. Most clients, when presented with this dilemma, would agree to wait out the film, tweaking the shot and bringing it to the next-highest level.
In the pre-Photoshop digital world, my specialty had always been experimental, high-risk photography using multiple-exposed, in-camera special effects. Using film, you had one chance to get it right. I danced the razor's edge for 23 years, flirting with disaster each time.
Craig Sheumaker, an art director at Univision, a leading graphic design firm in San Francisco, had faxed me a rough comp of a close-up of a person's eye with a doctor reflected within it. Although I had never done such a shoot before, I sold the AD on the project, and the opportunity became mine for the taking.
The first problem was finding the proper tool for the shoot. I chose a highly specialized 200mm Medical Nikkor camera, complete with variable optical elements. This would allow me to stay pretty far away from the eye and still get a close-up.
I tested a number of eye models, but the AD finally selected Kim, an Iranian woman with the darkest of black irises. Rose, my wife, played the doctor. I covered her with a surgeon's mask, dressed her in a surgical gown and brought in a hospital gurney. The studio was made light-tight, shielded within from all ambient light. Likewise, I took black velvet and covered all the walls with a medium that absorbs about 95 percent of light that strikes it.
The question was: How was I going to put the surgeon's reflection dead center in Kim's eye? I had Kim lie down on the gurney. Rose straddled Kim, facing her. I positioned myself, draped in black velvet like some dark knight of Araby, just over Rose's right shoulder.
I had my assistant, James, scrim and grid the spotlight on the boom and move it into position. I needed the light to be tightly collimated. I focused the light onto Rose's face; in effect, she became the reflector, which shone light back onto Kim's eye. By moving Rose's face back and forth, I could increase and decrease the amount of fill. Any other lights would show up as a reflection onto the model's eye.
In examining the test Polaroid with a loupe, the AD and I noticed that our eye model had gone out clubbing the night be- fore, and her eyes were bloodshot. Normally, even with Visine, this would potentially spell disaster for the shoot, as all elements must be perfect in film. Fortuitously, the reddening of her eye played well to our theme of a doctor's visit, so it didn't become more of an issue.
The shot, although immaculate, still needed more dimension. For one final touch, I had James rig up a secondary spotlight and take the power down to 1/32nd. This balanced nicely, giving the effect of a light source illuminating the dark field of the patient's eye.
We shot three rolls of 35mm film, making slight variations. We gave one to the lab and held two in reserve. Snip tests were run on the first, and slight adjustments were made. Then I gave permission to run the film. Not until we had received and examined the finished first roll did we process the other rolls in sequence. With the shoot in the proverbial can, we hand-delivered the shoot to the designer. Once we had his blessing, we struck the shoot.
I like to reflect on all the unknown factors that could have killed this shoot. First and foremost was the one thing beyond my control: the model's eye. Although we had tested her, the reddening could have killed the shot. Instead, we lucked out.
After this shot, I became known as the "Eye Guy" around the Bay Area, completing high-tech shoots for clients such as KLA Instruments and National Geographic, and winning the top award in New York with a shot that was used in Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign.
Since those days, the digital revolution has brought us many things, including the illusion that every problem can be fixed in post-production. Within the 1980s-era world of film, however, post was considered the choice of last resort, a sign of a photographer's failure to anticipate the needs of the art director and the corporate client. That's a creed that many digital shooters should remember when they immediately fall back on their G4s as problem-solving tools.
As Arn Steiner, a well known biochemist, who also happened to be my father, always told me: "Necessity may be the mother of invention, but ingenuity is the father."
We cannot deny the problems that life throws at us during a shoot. But, with the right philosophy, we can transform a potentially disastrous situation into a golden opportunity.
Balderas called home just as his brother-in-law was putting the pick of the litter to the ultimate test with his morning coffee. "Stop! I need my props back!" Balderas cried.