Last week, I took part in a group studio shoot. You may have noticed me bitching about it on twitter, if you follow me there.
It’s an interesting experience. As you may know, I am not fond of studio photography. Not that it’s not a legitimate way to do photography, of course — but it breaks a lot of what makes photography important to me, particularly the stuff having to do with the unexpected. The basic ethos of studio photography is _control_ — controlling the light, controlling the appearance of the subject, controlling the photographic outcome.
Because of this, I generally don’t enjoy doing studio work — and while I’m not _always_ incompetent at it, it would be fair to say that the results are generally uninspired.
None of that pertained last Saturday, because the lighting and backdrop were all pre-set by the instructor. And while I could (and occasionally did) give suggestions to the model, I didn’t try to compete with the 15-20 other photographers for her attention. So, I was able to approach the situation more or less as I would street photography — street photography happening in a very confined space with a whole lot of competition, that is.
And it was competition. Not that the photos we produce are going to be compared, and not that anyone is getting paid — just competition for _space_ on which to stand. Even with a substantial backdrop to work with, a cluster of lights, all with modifiers, does not provide a wide range of angles from which it is practical to work — in our case, it was perhaps a 10′ x 4′ area, into which most of the time ten or twelve photographers at least would try to cram themselves.
I worked with an RB67 loaded with TX and Delta 3200 with a 180mm f/4.5 and a D40 with a 105mm f/2.5. I spent a certain amount of time elbowing for space (sometimes with and sometimes without a tripod) and verbally abusing my fellow photographers when they inevitably wandered into my field of view. However, I generally had the best results when I abandoned the carefully lit backdrop and instead framed the subject against the black or gray gobos, or curtains on the other side of the room, or whatever else offered.
I’m not sure whether those compositions were more to my liking because they gave me more breathing room, or because they put me outside the corridor of attention between the subject and the other photographers, or simply because I like blank, untextured backgrounds. For whatever reason, they seemed to work.
(I also found that I almost always preferred the compositions which chopped off hands, arms, elbows, legs, etc. to those which included them. Something about surrounding the model’s body with empty space (whether blank gobo or lit backdrop) simply seemed paradoxically to kill a part of the vitality of the image, in almost every case.)
As for the subject, Kelsey, she was great — as a dancer, she had both excellent physical control and excellent performance instincts. Plus, she was extremely patient with the gaggle of photographers, although whether this is just her personality or something she picked up working extensively with reptiles, I’ve no idea.
Between the forty frames of 6×7 and the perhaps 60 NEFs, I came away with a few photographs that are presentable, and a couple that I genuinely like.
That being said, I still don’t feel a very strong connection to any of them. When I look at them, I am reminded of Minor White’s “thin red line of uniqueness to the man” — mine, if it is anything, must be phenomenological, the photograph as a reflection on experience. And the experience behind these photographs is a sort of microwave dinner version of studio photography — not unenjoyable, and I certainly cannot say that I would rather have done it from scratch, but ultimately not fully satisfying.
I wish in retrospect that I had photographed the other photographers more — they made a rather disconcerting visual, all huddled together, blazing away with DSLRs and 35mm cameras, and most making what I can only describe as “photographer face” — an unflattering, squinting, slack-jawed grimace which, if it occurs in the field as well as in the studio, goes a long way toward explaining why people react with such revulsion to street photographers.
Seriously, that facial expression is perhaps the single greatest argument for working with waist-level finders or the groundglass, as opposed to rangefinders or prism SLRs.
On the technical side, it was interesting to work with D40 NEFs again. They’re certainly much more pleasant than GRDII DNGs, and I have a very good feel for them from quite a lot of past experience. However, there is something deeply frustrating about working with RAW files when I know I have film to develop and scan, so I pretty much rushed through the D40’s output so I could get to the Delta and Tri-X.
I shot the Delta at 3200, because the lights were arranged around the assumption that everyone would be shooting 35mm with ISO 400. I guessed (correctly) Delta 3200 in 6×7 would provide a good tradeoff between grain and DOF, at the expensive of some shadow detail that I probably wouldn’t miss anyway. The Delta results are excellent (or, rather, any errors are mine), and those negatives are surprisingly easy to print.
I also — just for fun — shot a couple rolls of TX at box speed, meaning I was working wide open on the 180mm f/4.5. I made quite a lot of focusing errors on those rolls, and I had a few motion blur problems as well, either from my handholding technique or subject motion or both. The film held up reasonably well, despite the characteristic lack of contrast, and it wasn’t hard to get good scans of those frames where I had everything straight in-camera. I haven’t tried printing them yet; if I’m lucky, I’ll just need to go up a contrast grade or so, and won’t have to fiddle too much.
I also shot a few images with the GRD, primarily reference shots for the lighting, or photos of the room, like the one at the top of this post. Those photos show something I already knew, which is that the GRD is quite lame at high ISOs. (“High” in the old-school sense, i.e., 400 and up.)