Pagitica Outtake 04

[Outtake with Zelda on the bar pestering Fitz.]

This is a continuation of the previous post, on my photo shoot for Pagitica magazine.

This was our first shot of the day, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at the bar together.  In it’s original iteration, Fitz was working at the typewriter at the bar, and a bored Zelda was dancing in the aisle behind him (she was a ballerina in her youth).  Our concept called for selective focus, and a capture of each character in turn: Fitz hard at work with Zelda and the cafe out of focus behind him, then the same photo again, but this time with Zelda in focus as she danced, and Fitz soft in the foreground.

We shot that photo, as you can see in the unedited version below, but while the idea sounded good on paper, once we had it setup and captured, we realized that Zelda’s shot didn’t give her the presence she needed – she was too small in the frame.

Thankfully, our models knew just what to do, and next thing we knew Zelda was sitting on the bar next to Fitz, pestering him as he worked, and we had the shot above – the shot that we really wanted without even knowing it.

[Outtake showing the original idea for Fitz and Zelda at the bar.]

[Outtake showing the original idea for Fitz and Zelda at the bar.]

This shows better than anything the importance of giving your models a story, as opposed to basic posing direction.  In this case, I told Zelda something like, “Look, you came to the cafe with your husband, and he got really into what he was writing and now he’s ignoring you.  You’ve sat here for half an hour with your coffee and now you’re just bored.  So you get up in the aisle and start dancing, just kind of twirling around, because you’re bored and just need something to do.”

In my experience this works much better than saying “Okay, now put your arm here, tilt your hips like so, and smile.”  Plus, when we realized that the original concept wasn’t working out as planned, it was easy for Zelda to improvise with her story as a guide – she jumped up on the counter and started pestering Fitz, just like we all imagined a bored, somewhat mischievous Zelda would do.

[Another outtake version of Fitz and Zelda at the bar.]

[Another outtake version of Fitz and Zelda at the bar.]

The other setups all used some variation of this first pose, with the octabox flying overhead and either parallel to the floor or, more often, at a slight angle towards the subject.  My octabox doesn’t get out much – it’s a big modifier that only works well in larger spaces.  It also uses two speedlights which, prior to this shoot, was half my supply (I added a used SB-24 to my kit just before this shoot).  Plus, accessing the flashes to adjust settings is a bit of a pain, since they are inside the octabox.

[Hemingway, used in publication.]

[Hemingway, used in publication.]

Of all the characters and interactions we photographed, Hemingway was one of the more complex.  We began with the same basic principle of flying the octabox at an angle overhead, and added a second flash with a shoot-through umbrella behind, to pop some light on the wood wall in the background.

The multi-layer lighting was looking good, until we added the hat to the mix.  And then we started to lose Papa’s eyes beneath the brim.  (Actually, we used two different hats, as we couldn’t agree on which looked better – so we shot with both and picked the winner later.)

The solution here was to grab the 24×24 softbox with another speedlight and position it so that it would kick a little light on Hemingway’s face, and especially his eyes under the hat.  I don’t know the exact ratios, since we did it all by look, but the softbox was running several power levels below the octabox, adding just a touch of extra light where it was needed.

[Front cover, used in publication.]

[Front cover, used in publication.]

Our apex concept for this shoot was the cover shot, where we hoped to do something unique: a cover photo that wrapped around the full cover, front and back.  Aaron and I couldn’t think of a time when we had seen a magazine do this, probably because most magazine back covers are taken up by advertising.  But as Pagitica has no advertising, this isn’t an issue for us, so we figured we’d go for it.

The concept here was to have all five characters at the same table in the cafe, interacting with each other, with some sort of natural division at the mid-point that would work for the spine of the magazine.  We turned two tables 90 degrees and joined them end to end, and put our models behind them so that we could shoot face-on to them group.

[Cover shot outtake.]

[Cover shot outtake.]

The octabox flew overhead on the boom, parallel to the floor, while a speedlight in a shoot-through umbrella added light from both camera right and camera left (the camera left umbrella pointing at the far camera right subject, and vice versa, for an even spread of light).

The real trick to this shot would be getting both the size and resolution necessary to make two covers worth of content, and we decided to shoot multiple frames to be combined later.

This is where things went sideways; my original intent was to make a panorama, with the frames physically stitched together in Photoshop.  Unfortunately, several constraints worked against that.  To get the models in place at the table, I was shooting, in a squatting position with my back pressed up against the underside of the bar rail, moving from side to side and trying to match my position as I shot the different frames.

At the same time, the models are trying to interact with each other at the table in an organic, believable way, without getting that strained, posed-too-long look, but at the same time without moving too much.

The end result is that Photoshop was utterly unable to combine any of the shots into a panorama.  Some pairings simply refused to line up and blend at all; other times Photoshop would manage a panorama, but half of it would be so skewed, the perspective and proportions so off, that I wasn’t able to fix it.

In the end we simply decided to make life easy for ourselves, and used one photo for the cover and a second photo for the rear.  This way we still got all the characters in place the way we imagined, and the photos were adjusted so that the relative sizes of the models, etc, was the same.  The perspectives just don’t line up exactly, and if you hold the magazine open from the outside, so that you can see both covers and the binding at the same time, it’s apparent that it’s two separate photos, not one continuous image. [In the final publication, the rear cover shot was dropped and only the front photo was used anyway.]

Could I have done this better?  Probably.  A tripod would likely have helped, although I’m not sure there’d have been enough room to setup the tripod and still get behind it to see the display.  A tripod with a real panorama head would have been even better.  Although even then, you are dealing with merging complex frames, with five human models, and compensating for the inevitable movement between them.

[Hemingway tells Christie a hunting story at the bar - the barista is Aaron, the magazine's founder and editor. Outtake.]

[Hemingway tells Christie a hunting story at the bar – the barista is Aaron, the magazine’s founder and editor. Outtake.]

As I think I mentioned in part one, this was one of the biggest, most complex shoots I’ve ever done, second only to the Pride & Prejudice promotional shoot from two years ago (where ironically I think we had less physical space and three times as many models).  I definitely learned a few things along the way, and would offer the following advice to anyone about to embark on a similarly complex shoot of their own:

  • have a schedule and be prepared to amend it: from working with (and being friends with) the theater crowd, I know all too well that when they say they’ll arrive at 9, that really means maybe 9:30, or even 10.  Which is strange behavior from a group of people who manage to keep strict schedules during performances, but I guess when they get off-stage, it all goes out the window.  The same applies to the talent and support staff for a photo shoot;  if you really want to start shooting by 9:30, tell them to arrive at 8.  The support staff will probably be there by 8:30, and the better talent before 9, which might leave enough time for the models to get through hair and makeup so that you can start shooting (nearly) on time.
  • speaking of stylists, they are invaluable: this was my first time working with a team of professional stylists.  We had an individual doing hair, another doing makeup, and a third doing wardrobe/general spot-checking.  And they were a totally awesome team, and I now understand why so many photographers insist on having stylists on-set with them.  These folks worked hard and made everyone look great, which makes my job that much easier.  How awesome were they?  After all the initial hair and makeup work was done in the morning, the stylists continued to do spot-checks and touch-ups all day.  If we started shooting and they spotted something wrong, some hair a little out of place, they’d kindly interrupt us so they could step in and fix it.  Invaluable.
  • take care of your team: Aaron had this covered, with more food and beverages than the team could possibly have consumed.  There were bagels, fruit, cookies, chips, soda, and bottled water.  There had even been plans for a pizza lunch, although we scrapped that along the way, when we fell a bit behind.  But even without pizza, we did take a mid-shoot break so that everyone could sit down and recharge for 15 minutes.  I’d say that the water is the most important part of this – every single photo shoot should have bottled water.  The talent gets thirsty, the photographer and crew gets thirsty, and nobody wants to be dehydrated.
  • put it back like you found it: in our case, the Mansour’s owners were very generous and gave us the run of their restaurant on a day they were closed.  We moved tables, decor, and anything else that wasn’t nailed down.  I think we made them a little nervous when they checked in on us at one point.  But when we were all done, the entire crew pitched in and we put everything back the way we found it, right down to the flatware on the table settings.  It’s the absolute least you can do when folks are kind enough to donate space and ask nothing in return.
  • collaborate on the editing: I shot about 400 photos during the day, across maybe 15 different setups.  How many of those will actually get used in the magazine?  Maybe 8, at most?  Editing all of them – even after I toss the crap shots – would take days and would be exhausting.  Instead, I shared some-mid resolution copies with Aaron for review and selection, and only edited the photos he choose to use in the magazine.  He got quick visual feedback on how the shoot went and was able to plan his layouts, and I didn’t spend the next week in front of the computer editing photos that wouldn’t be used anyway.  Win-win.

[Model group shot - all the famous actors at the bar together with Aaron.]

[Model group shot – all the famous actors at the bar together with Aaron.]

Gear Info: for the technical-minded among us, here’s the gear list for the day:

  • 2x OM-D E-M5 bodies
  • Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 & Lumix 35-100mm f/2.8 lenses
  • 5x speedlights (3x YN-460 II, 1x Nikon SB-24, 1x Olympus FL-50)
  • 5x YN-603 radio slaves (4x Rx, 1x Tx)
  • 3x lightstands, various brands
  • 1x boom stand
  • 1x octabox
  • 2x shoot-through umbrellas
  • 1x 24×24 softbox
  • backup batteries for cameras and speedlights

I also brought but didn’t use the background stands and two backdrops (more for blocking unwanted window light or for providing privacy for models, etc than for use as a backdrop), the beauty dish (didn’t end up needing it), and an assortment of additional lightstands, brackets, and clamps.  The back of the Jeep was loaded and it took a couple of trips, but this kind of shoot was definitely a “better to have it and not need it” situation.

So there you have it, the completion of the first major project of the year, and a heck of a fun time to boot!  I was thrilled to see the photo appear in print and had an absolute blast working with Aaron and the rest of the Pagitica team, and can only hope to work with them more in the future.

Final note: this is one of the rare times that I’ve shared un-edited outtakes on the web.  These images are jpg versions of the original RAW files, which had little or no editing done to them whatsoever. 

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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