Yo, I’m all over this one

As intimated in the previous post, spring is indeed being difficult this year, behaving like a child saying, “green light red light!” then giggling maniacally. Which means yes, it’s snowing out there. I didn’t sleep well last night and the sinuses are bothering me this morning, so this is a perfect time to start posting, right? Ah, but today is another holiday – no, not the vernal equinox, that was yesterday – way to be on top of things, there. No, silly, today is Relate An Obscenity-filled Story Day. Now, if you know me, you know this pretty much means every anecdote that I might have at my disposal – I will never be hired to speak at a day-care or pre-school, that’s for shit sure. But, perversely, the particular story that I’ve chosen is not really filled with obscenities – there’s a few, but less than, for instance, some posts. However, you know that they were there all the same; you can just hear them ring out frequently throughout the tale, and can imagine the air was deep blue by the end.

I recently re-discovered this one as I was doing site updates, since I’d posted it on a webpage for the benefit (or whatever) of others. To set the scene, back in 2004 I was participating in an exercise among regulars of the rec.photo.equipment.35mm newsgroup (ask your father,) where each week or so we’d be given a challenge to fulfill, usually something simple, and we’d have to present a photo that illustrated or exemplified the challenge topic. At the time I was sharing a crowded apartment in Florida, and decided to do a ‘studio’ photo to squeeze as many examples as I could into just one frame. So, this is where we pick up, with some slight editing for clarity:

How to spend way too much time fucking up a shot: The trials and tribulations (okay, only trials) of an elaborate “studio” photo.

Hmmmm. “Tension.” Surface tension, spoke tension, chain tension, guitar strings, and emotional tension. One frame left on film roll in the Olympus. I can do this…

Stand up mattress to have room against only blank wall in entire apartment that has access to it. Roll in bike. Position carefully. Clean noticeable areas of grime off spokes and frame. Try to clean spokes with old steel wool pad from kitchen – too rusty, making things worse with rust dust. Nice patch on carpet now. Ignore, carpet not in view. Clean bike again.

Prop guitar against it. Shift umpteen times. Keeps sliding down. Brace with boxes.

Bring in glass, play with reflection. Stick boxes and book to bring to correct height. Shift guitar twelve more times to reflect in water surface.

Angle halogen light to illuminate guitar and bike, get good highlights, reflect in water. Tricky. Eventually realize glass is refracting and distorting image through it. Block back with white paper cut to shape of glass. Good, but too bright with light angle. Light cannot move or reflection will go away. Kick over measuring cup with extra water to raise level in glass. Fetch towel to prevent 1/2 cup of water from soaking into carpet.

Cut black plastic instead of white paper to go behind glass. No good – plastic adheres to damp glass and creates patches of deep black where it touches. Stuff plastic inside glass. Perfect! But it floats and tends to lift above edge of water, becoming visible. No prob – it takes a moment to shift, so I can push it down and get the shot before it rises again.

Place mirror in background. It reflects window light into lens. Not good. Hang black sheet from ceiling as backdrop. Takes several tries with pushpins.

Float needle on water. Plunks straight to bottom. Water level too high to stick anything in there to get it. Carry glass into bathroom, dump out. Use tape to hold plastic down in glass. No good. Use camera filter in glass to pin down plastic, catch needle closer to top. Play with needle until it floats (requires coating it with wax and lowering it onto surface with toothbrush). Go back into room, refill glass. Float needle. Remove cat hair (which also floats) from water for sixth time.

Set up camera. Olympus lenses only go down to f16. Want more; tough shit. Adjust focus meticulously. DOF Preview does not work in split-image portion of viewfinder, very dark and indistinct in other portions. Play for a couple of minutes until I’m as sure as I can be. Camera height too low for cheesy tripod, stuff too tight together for versatile Bogen. Get out micro tripod and stack on books and boxes. Leg spread keeps slipping over edges. Finally get it right. Exposure under halogen at f16 is going to be 1 second, must use cable release.

Glass is tilted. Stuff folded paper under one corner so water level doesn’t look stupid. Guitar shifts yet again. Fucker. Float needle, carefully. Unless aligned a certain way, it disappears against dark plastic backdrop. Tap gently. It tends to rotate slightly back into position. Goddamn thing’s mildly magnetized, I just made myself a compass. Now I know what to do if I get lost in my bedroom.

Go sit in position, cable release in hand. Tap needle gently, grimace and grab hair (not an act by this point). Trip shutter. Can see needle moving.

RESULT: Total shit. Too busy, too damn many reflections, needle moving and indistinct, should have shot it vertical, framing bad, spokes out of DOF, too much of bike visible, not enough of guitar, and I look like I’m smiling.

elaborately staged and still pathetic 'studio' shot
I learned a fuckload about studio photography doing this, but the primary lesson is that I don’t want to do it again. Ya gotta admit the black plastic trick worked like a fucking charm, though. And I can see the merits of light tents and movable black backdrops.

But I went archive for “Tension”…

… which means that, having blown the one frame on the roll that I had to devote to this, I wasn’t going to load and shoot another whole roll of film to meet the deadline, and instead went with a photo I already had in my stock. The digital camera that I’d had on loan, just a few months before, had been shipped off to its new owner by this point.

Note that you can also see the rust dust still present on the bike frame, and one of the boxes peeking in at lower right. And of course, the scratches on the negative that I wasn’t going to bother with by this point. Also, my appearance in the frame came courtesy of that aforementioned mirror, since I didn’t have the room nor a long enough cable release to be in that position in the background.

It’s easy to believe that studio photography is fairly simple, since everything is controlled and set up just how you like it. The reality is often something different – and I don’t even do this routinely (obviously.) Reflections (look at how complicated the guitar seems just because it reflects everything around it,) backgrounds, light angles and hues and intensities, to say nothing of the one angle that illustrates what you need it to – which I even had to play with in the previous post, so the softbox and focusing light addition are clear. Sometimes we don’t realize that our perception of something comes from our ability to see it three-dimensionally. I was approached by a glass artist who wanted her artworks photographed for advertisements, who stipulated that she wanted it clear (heh!) that the pieces were glass – it wasn’t always evident in the photos that she’d had done previously. I knew it would be a tough job, because most of the impression that we get of depth and transparency comes from seeing such a piece from multiple perspectives, noticing how the different layers and surfaces shift separately as we turn our head or walk around it – something that obviously wasn’t going to be demonstrated in a still photo. Truth be told, I wasn’t really qualified to tackle it, but she was looking for a bargain rate, so I quoted her a price with the stipulation that she would only pay if both she and I were happy with the results. The price I quoted was probably one-third or less what a professional studio would have charged, and it was still too much for her tastes, so yeah, best of luck with that…