This is Part 1 in a series. Click here for parts [2], [3], & [4]

Apple Distinguished Educators Conference in Singapore

As many of you know, I spent a couple of weeks last month in Singapore and Hong Kong. I was invited to Singapore to speak at the Apple Distinguished Educators (ADE) conference, an event hosted by Apple in which recognized educators are invited to apply for one of the few cherished seats at this event honoring some of the region’s top educators and designed to help them further their abilities within their field. All told there were, I believe, about 60 attendees, each ranging from grade school teachers to university professors, school administrators and faculty, and a pretty good collection of “teacher’s teachers”. They came from schools all over Asia, although the demographic was global; we had educators from every continent represented.

The Gig 

It was quite an honor to be asked to speak to the ADE’s, and I was initially asked to present a one-hour keynote presentation on my own photography and how I used the Mac in my business, and also to lead a 90 minute seminar on photography and video on the dSLR. The theme of the event was developing your personal brand, and other than that I didn’t know much more about it going in, and to be honest I was a little nervous on arrival that I was walking into this woefully unprepared. I assembled a keynote presentation that I was pleased with, elegantly tying in discussion of my personal brand and how it’s evolved over the years, but the concept of the 90-minute seminar still eluded me! I boarded the flight to Singapore (via LAX to SFO to Hong Kong to Singapore… ugh) having not slept for nearly three days prior as I scrambled to finish the Aperture training video for MacCreate, and by the time I landed in Singapore at midnight Friday night, for a conference opening Saturday evening, I was definitely questioning my sanity in accepting this responsibility!

I also was under the impression that I was one of many speakers presenting throughout the week, when in fact that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Other than the two Apple hosts, there was only one other presenter, Ms. Rebecca Stockley, a world renowned “improviser” who was there to lead them through a large part of the conference. On Saturday night, the four of us sat down to discuss what I would be doing—and on Saturday night, we turned everything upside down and reemerged with something truly special and unique. (Which just goes to show… you simply can’t rely on telephone and email and video-chat for everything. There’s still no replacement for getting on a plane and sitting face-to-face with your colleagues.)

Opening Day

The theme of the week as I mentioned earlier was “personal branding”—building the brand of “you”. None of the students (and I use the term students generically here, as the attendees were all adults and professional educators) knew the program before Sunday morning, so the tasks ahead of them came as a surprise to all. You could see by the looks in their caffeinated early-morning faces that some were excited by the challenge—and some mortified. “Talk about… me? Sorry, what?”. Cultural differences among the calico group may have never been more apparent than during the opening 30 minutes of that early Sunday morning!

My inaugural segment came up quickly. Once the basic premise was on the table, my role for the week needed to be explained. Part of their assignment in building the personal brand was to craft a webpage about themselves, and on that page, they needed to include a photo representing their persona and their brand. Furthermore, they were going to be involved in a group branded video-making project. They had a lot to do in four short days!

I opened by explaining the requirement, then the basic concept of an environmental portrait. Once explained, as planned the night before, I selected a volunteer from the room to walk them through a brainstorming process—in front of everyone. Following that, as a group the plan was to shoot a portrait of the volunteer. No sweat, right?!

I ask for volunteers. Hands shoot up. I select a younger looking guy with cool hair and a bold shirt—Declan. The exchange goes something like this:

Me: Good morning Declan! So who are you?
Declan: Well, I’m an I.T. specialist at my school. I run the labs, the school’s I.T. infrastructure, and support the students and teachers. I teach people how the systems work.
Me: (Pause… thinking… nodding in that way that Doctors do when they pretend they know what that growth on your face is but aren’t sure if they should tell you or not…)
Declan: You want to pick someone else, don’t you?

And so the exchange began! It actually went very well… within about 5 minutes, with the help of the class asking more questions and offering ideas, we came up with a basic shoot concept. While Rebecca took over to take them through some brand-building exercises, I scooted off to location scout.

The working premise was that Declan is seen as being everywhere at once, and is of course in charge of I.T. The concept we initially wanted required a hallway with doors down both sides, the idea being I’d do a multiple exposure montage of him running in and out of classrooms with a laptop under his arm. He’d be standing at the front, stoic and powerful, while behind him multiple images of himself would be seen going in and out of nearly every doorway.

Unfortunately no hallway we had access to was built that way. Also the thought that the entire class would be standing behind me watching in a crowded hallway was quickly losing appeal. In my wanderings I came across a huge computer lab, and suddenly it all came together in my head. I’d put the students in the seats in the lab, so they could ALL be in the picture! I’d turn off the lights, turn on the computer monitors, and do a long exposure illuminating their blurred faces! I’d shoot a series of flashed photos of Declan helping individual students at their computers, and paint them all together in Photoshop! Yeah, what a great idea!

Personal note: never conceptualize a complex shoot in front of a room of 60 people smarter than you and say “yeah, I can do that…”. No pressure.

The Shoot

Note: I got tired of trying to link each piece of gear mentioned here to more info on it, so I’ve set up a new section on the menubar above with a list of the equipment I talk about called “Gear Bag”. As I mention gear on this blog, I’ll keep updating that list. Thanks!

I grabbed my gear and a handful of assistant volunteers and headed off to the lab to set up. I only had one flash with me, because, you know, I’m clever like that. To be fair when I got on the plane 48 hours before, I had no idea I’d be doing this. So now I needed to light a large lab and multiple Declans with one Canon 580 EX, a wireless trigger ST-E2, and a handful of Honl lighting modifiers. I’d actually asked if we could scare up a few more lights the night before, but being a Sunday, that didn’t happen. Right, let’s see what we can do with one light, shall we? (At the end of the week I actually lit a group portrait of all 60 people on a spiral staircase rising three stories with one light, too. Fun.) So with my assistants I did a series of exposure tests for the monitor glow, the ambient light from the hallway, and the strobe settings for the multiple Declans. 

The room. Big lab, dark inside, bright outside, what could go wrong?

Early test shot with yours truly, before the assistants arrived. I love on-camera flash. I probably normally look this confused.

Another early test. Clearly gonna have to fill in those shadows under the chin. Too bad I only have one strobe. Plus, I want to fill in the ambience of the background and have more in this shot than just him.

Once it was all mapped out, it was time to get the class seated and our model in the power position—front and center, arms on hips, in a “master of my domain” pose.

I executed the shot twice; once with a 24mm lens and a second time with a 15mm fisheye. I liked the look of the fisheye better, but was afraid that the multiple mini-Declans wouldn’t show well viewed on a small screen with such a wide lens, so I did the 24mm one as backup. All are shot on the Canon 1Ds Mk III and of course mounted on a tripod.

The final image is a composite of two primary exposures, plus a series of shots of Declan scattered around the room.

(Shot 1) The main exposure was 20 seconds long at ISO 400 and f/22 for maximum depth of field. (Although recently I’ve been reading that you lose sharpness stopped all the way down, which makes sense, and I feel like a total n00b for not recognizing that before. My self-forgiveness lies in the fact that I pretty much NEVER shoot that way. Anyhoo, research is in order.) This long exposure allowed the faces of each student to be illuminated from the monitors, and I instructed them to all move slightly during the exposure. I wanted the blurred faces. During these 20 seconds, I had Declan standing in the power positing, and manually fired the flash to light him. Remember how I only have one flash? I needed two—one above, and one below. Hey Declan, how still can you stand for 20 seconds? During the 20 second exposure, I stood on a chair and fired the first flash, at I think ½ power, with a Honl Grid Spot attached, pointed down right at his face. Then I jumped to the ground, dropped the flash to ¼ power, slipped a red gel between the flash head and the Honl Grid, and fired up to fill the shadows (all within 20 seconds, remember). I went with red to counter the blue glow from the monitors. Actually truth be told, my stand-in had darker skin and I tested with a blue gel. When Declan stood in, who’s Irish and has the complexion to prove it, the blue made him look like the opening murder victim on a CSI show (sorry mate), so a quick switch to red was in order.

Primary shot. Our man Declan in all his glory. Two separate flash fires in a 20 second exposure; one above on a grid, and one below on a grid with red gel. In retrospect, I should have had the people moving more. Granted it was about 100˚F and humid as a pool in there, so no surprise people stopped moving. And I should have done something about the red exit sign over his head. Gotta retouch that out now, damn.

(Shot 2) The light coming in the side windows from the hallways was blowing out the windows, so a quick exposure for the windows at 5 seconds, (still f/22 and ISO 400) was in order to comp in later.

Exposure for the outside windows.

(Shots 3–10) With the Canon remote ST-E2 on the camera, and someone else triggering the camera on command, Declan and I moved around the room, positioning him in a dozen positions at different computer stations, “helping” those students. I fired a couple of shots in each position with the still-Honl’d flash at various angles, so I had some choice to work with in the final composite.

One of the mini-Declans.Another mini-Declan.

And that’s it! From here all that was needed was to select the best shots to composite, and about 40 minutes in Photoshop to put it all together which I did the following day. I Screenflowed the painting process to share with the students in my Keynote presentation a few days later, when I presented them with the final composite.

And finally… the final composite!

Final Composite. Not too bad for on-the-fly!

After the shoot, we broke for lunch and I spent the rest of the day with groups of 5 students at a time, round-table brainstorming their individual environmental portraits. It was a fantastic way to work, in these small groups. We went around the circle twice; the first time each individual explaining their thus-far conceived idea of their brand, and the second time discussing their idea of a “physical manifestation” of that brand—something that we could eventually turn into an image. After something like 3-½ hours of this creative exercise, my brain squeezed out through my ears and hid whimpering under a chair in a dark corner somewhere. I didn’t get it back until after a full night’s sleep.

This is Part 1 in a series. Click here for parts [2][3], & [4]

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