For part 1 of this article, click here

The Shoot—Positioning

I hit the streets with the big camera rig over my shoulder, layers of warmth, and an assistant strapped with a bag of backup gear and the pop-up backdrop. We went down early (barely dark) and hungry, so after a quick slice of local pizza we started shooting. Right away my assistant, Tom (a local college student) spotted some friends of his, so we hit them up first. It was pretty easy to convince people to pose; no commitment, no signature, no cost (now), just let me take your photo, take this card from me (I printed up 200 cards with the website address and a little reminder of what just happened… for those too hung over the next morning to remember!), and a request to visit the site in the next day or two. I didn’t commit to any pricing (and in reality I hadn’t had time to think about it), but all I told people was that they would be able to download a facebook-sized photo for “cheap”. I ended up pricing them at $4 for a 640x480 download, which is obviously a bargain and no way to make a living, but most of my subjects were probably college students with little spare cash anyway. And this wasn’t about making money in the first place.

Downtown Ashland has a little plaza at the base of Lithia Park, which is the primary gathering area in town, and is surrounded by restaurants and bars. This turned out to be the spot to hang out and do our shots… everyone coming and going or simply hanging out seemed to pass through here. Literally there could have been five photographers shooting, and we still wouldn’t have been able to get everyone that came through. If I saw some insanely great costume, I’d stop shooting and grab them, but far, far too many great costumes just walked on by.

Which brings up an interesting lesson that I learned in this. My intention for my assistant was that he would a) hold the backdrop, b) help reel people in to shoot, and c) hand out the info cards. It turns out he could only do a). Why? Because when you’re standing with your back to a wall holding a black 5’x7’ backdrop, your vision is… obscured. In fact, I had to pull people off the background a few times that were crushing my dude! (It’s hard to hear an assistant scream on a rowdy Halloween night). So, next year, I’ll need two people with me… one to hold the backdrop, and one to wrangle new victims customers subjects.

As mentioned earlier I decided to use a black backdrop so I didn’t have to go with high speed flash sync, however even shooting at 1/250th (top “normal” sync speed on the 1Ds), I still had to put a little distance between the subject and the background. A couple of feet was sufficient, but this proved to be a challenge on many levels. First, it was very crowded, so it was often difficult to get distance between a) backdrop, b) subject and c) myself without other people passing through. Shooting close and wide means you get more background—usually beyond the width of the backdrop. Shooting far and tight gives the compression you need to isolate a smaller background, but then other people would get in the way. It was a tough challenge. It was easiest shooting single people or pairs. Groups of three were OK, as long as I could get them to stand really close to each-other. As soon as the group got any bigger, then the edges of the background started to show.

Here’s a few photos showing these different challenges. These are completely un-retouched photos. Every image ultimately got a little curves and black level action, and some got minor retouching, while others had a lot of background to wipe out. I’ll get into that later; for now, take a look at straight-from-the-camera shots.

Nice solid black background, with just a few elements in the way

You can see above that the background is beautifully black, with only a few stray elements showing up. Mr. America here stood far enough away from the backdrop so it went pure black. Those are Tom’s fingers holding the backdrop that you see on the left, and some kind of street light or headlight. Fortunately all extremely easy to retouch.

The pair was too close to the backdrop. Notice the less-than-black background, and the ringflash shadow around them.

Above you can see what happens when they get too close to the backdrop. The background is not solid black because there’s too much spill from the strobe. You can also see the unique shadow from the ring light, casting a reverse-halo around the subjects. This isn’t a terrible example and easy enough to fix with a little black level raise, but it’s not ideal of course. Ultimately I wanted to shoot so there’d be near-zero retouching.

A group shot, where they’re too close to the backdrop, and the backdrop was too low

On the shot above, you see two problems. First, they’re too close to the background again. And of course with three subjects, I needed a wider background. No worries, the backdrop is 5’x7’, so just turn it sideways—but then, there’s a limit to Tom’s wingspan, so we got a lot of this. Again this is an easy fix with a crop and minor retouching, but it’s not ideal.

Also, this backdrop isn’t a solid wall—it’s fabric, which means it’s somewhat translucent. I found very quickly that out in the open, any bright points of light such as street lamps or headlights would shine right through the background. So we ended up positioning ourselves against walls as much as we could, and ultimately we camped out in one spot right in the traffic flow and stayed there. I was a little worried that the cops might ask us to move along, but they didn’t. We had quite a collection of officers right next to us, and they never batted an eye at me. Good stuff.

One more note here—when I had any more than three people to photograph at once, I got rid of the backdrop and just let the environment behind them be in the photo. If I couldn’t fill the background, then there wasn’t much point shooting with mine in the way. However I should have been more aggressive about that; I didn’t make the conscious decision that “more than three means no backdrop” until later, and so I have a few shots with bad backgrounds. Rookie mistake.

The Shoot—Focus

Focusing was probably one of biggest challenges I faced. I always have the focus-assist lamp disabled on my speedlites (I really can’t stand that red lamp shining on people), and besides with my strobe in the position it was in, all it’d probably manage to do is illuminate their chests. So I relied on street light to focus, which was definitely a challenge. There wasn’t always enough light, especially when photographing some lower contrast costumes. One guy was dressed as a shadow… I tried to get three shots of him and gave up. Notice these are also over-exposed, because I didn’t compensate for the all-black outfit in the metering. But I couldn’t get focus anyway, so chased him away without a card.

Focusing was a challenge — especially on the shadow costume (cropped but otherwise original. Trust me, you don’t want to see the rest of his costume)

So how do you fix this? I’m thinking next year, I’ll mount a video light onto the camera to shine on the subjects to focus. This will give the added benefit of slamming their pupils down to reduce redeye, and also attracting a bit more attention to what I’m doing. I couldn’t manually focus (I couldn’t see well enough!) and if the auto-focus didn’t nail it, then I got a blurry shot.

Jay and Silent Bob. Cropped to show redeye.

What I’m really hoping to find is an LED rig that will automatically turn on when I press the shutter half-way, then turn off for the shot. If anyone knows of such a device, please do let me know.

The Shoot—Attracting Subjects

This was the easy part. This is probably the only day of the year you can walk up to a half-naked woman, ask “can I take your picture?” — and get a positive response! (Imagine trying that on the beach!) Obviously being Halloween, people are out in costume wanting to be seen. The only people who refused photos were either getting dragged off with friends or admitting up front they wouldn’t buy a picture (appreciated, thanks!). Everyone else jumped at it. Most common question was “what are these for?” to which I’d reply, “they’re for you!”. Some asked if they had to pay, and of course I told them it was free to have their photo made, and they could buy the ones they wanted later. One guy did take out his wallet and try to pay me on the spot. I shoulda taken it… ;-) It took very little convincing to get people in front of the camera. This buxom beauty was probably the hardest to convince, but once she saw the shot on the LCD, she was dancing with joy.

Very few people took convincing to step in front of the lens. She didn’t want to do it, but eventually relented—and was very pleased that she did!

It was a great experience on honing people skills. Talking to complete strangers and asking them to pose for you isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world, but of all nights to do it, this is probably the easiest. Near-zero rejection rate and a lot of people that are just as happy as can be. Great combination.

The Shoot—Camera Settings

I shot in manual mode at ISO 400, 1/250th and ƒ/5.6, and let the flash go TTL (full auto). If I’d gone manual on the flash too, then I wouldn’t have had problems like I did with the shadow guy up above — the exposure would have been perfect across the board. However, since I was shooting some people closer, some farther back, some solos and some groups, shooting manual wasn’t an option. So I had to rely on the TTL, and it did a stellar job. That shadow dude is pretty much the only overexposed image, and I think I can forgive the camera for that.

I should have shot at ƒ/8 though, or maybe even ƒ/11. I have a few photos of multiple people where one is slightly soft, due to too-shallow depth of field. I don’t usually like stopping my lenses down that small, and I also didn’t want to over-tax the flash and have long recycle times, but I should have just done it. Next time.

List of Changes for Next Year

Here’s the list of changes and notes I’ve jotted down to consider next year.

  • The background wasn’t always big enough. But, the fact is that unless I get permission from the city to set up a fixed backdrop, that isn’t going to change. As discussed, I can’t step back and shoot with a longer lens, so either I go for the full setup (which really isn’t what I want to do), or just do the same as this year and get tighter shots (and just generally be more aware of the background, which will be easier with a modeling lamp).
  • I need to figure out how to be taller—shooting anyone taller than me means I need to get up a bit (I’m 5’10”—not short, but there are plenty of people taller than me!). Usually I’d just step on a box, but there’s no way in hell I’d try to manage a step-stool out there. Way too many people, and someone would get hurt. Do I wear those ridiculous boots with 8-inch lifts that you see at techno raves? I dunno, but it’s a challenge. Fortunately most people were my height or shorter, but there were definitely a few really tall folks that I would have liked to have gotten up a bit higher to shoot.
  • I definitely need two assistants out there. One to hold the backdrop, and one to seduce new subjects, help them get into position, etc. Perhaps they can trade jobs every 30 minutes; holding the backdrop definitely gets tiring, and talking to people is a lot of fun.
  • I printed 200 cards and handed out 190 of them. The only reason I stopped was because people were getting pretty drunk, and I figured it was turning into a losing proposition. But, I could have kept shooting. So next year, more cards, just in case.
  • I shot at ƒ/5.6 but will go to ƒ/8 or ƒ/11 next year.
  • I shot at 1/250th which is the max without going into high-speed mode, which eats batteries and gives longer flash recycle times. Cutting light off the background is key, so really the only viable solution is to ensure that people are not up against the backdrop. This is something the assistant can help with.
  • NO big groups in front of the backdrop. At all.
  • Mount a video lamp (focus assist) on the camera. Try to find a rig that illuminates for focusing only.

The rest of the story…

…will come in the third and final installment. I’ll discuss the photo edit and retouching required, as well as the mechanism for selling the images.