Taika Waititi. What we do in the suit shop

I had the pleasure and honour of shooting one of NZ’s finest. A highly acclaimed writer, director, actor, and now fashion model, from his humble beginnings having arguments over who left the $2 on the pool table to maybe directing Thor movies in Hollywoo (a horse stole the D), Taika Waititi is mercurial to say the least. Patient, energetic, courteous, polite, he’s one of my favourite subjects that I’ve ever shot and worked with and since this is NZ there’s zero ego or bullshit when a major deal in the film-making world walks through the door onto your set and shakes your hand. I really liked Eagle Vs. Shark btw, that one flew under the radar despite it being brilliant in a Napoleon Dynamite, misfit kinda way, and if you’re not counting horses on bus trips you ain’t living.

That’s an inside joke/reference, it wasn’t some random copy/paste from a different post.

This shoot was styled by the mighty fine dudes at NZ Suit Source. Mike and the crew are god-sends on shoots like this. They have an inexhaustible supply of suits and paraphernalia, props like pipes and vintage boxing gloves, parachutes, spectacle frames, sweet leather chairs with just the right amount of patina. Plus they know how to make people look good which makes them very helpful people to know. I’ve worked with them a couple of times and am in there again shooting Shihad. Mike (the owner) is one of those people who is always willing to help, and throws ideas into the ring and frequently has exactly what you’re looking for, be it a fedora with a ribbon around it or a vintage Brownie camera so Taika can take a selfie. Cool guys. here’s a link:

 

www.suitsource.co.nz/
I heard this shoot may be up for contention for a magazine cover (it ended being featured on the front cover of M2 Magazine with a lengthy feature article inside) which typically means a white background unless otherwise instructed. If you don’t supply the background some poor bastard has to sit there and manually remove something from what could be a very busy background. I don’t really have a  backdrop per se, at least not one of those big contraptions with 2 stands and a rod in between off of which hangs a sheet of coloured fabric. No sir, I just improvise with a big light source which kills 2 birds with one stone. My octabox is a monster. I call it The Mama because it’s the oldest modifier I have and it’s also the boss. Anyway. It’s huge, puts out tremendously soft wraparound light across a very large area and basically it’s the best thing I’ve bought in terms of lighting gear. The octabox makes rounded catchlights whereas softboxes make square catchlights? What’s a catchlight? it’s that little reflection you see in people’s eyes under bright light. You can change the shape of them to add some interest if you’re cool.
So it lights a large area. In this shoot (and other shoots where a white background is required) I set up the light around head height (their head height) and pointed it right back at the camera. You fire it and it blows out white. There’s your white background. Then you put the subject/object in between this light and the camera. That thing is now backlit. But won’t that make a silhouette? Why yes, it does, which is why you need another light around the front to light the person’s face. The octabox in the back also has the added benefit of adding some wrapping around light around the subject so it looks like a rim light in practice. You could throw some more lights around the front but one will always work. In this case I used a silver umbrella (Westcott collapsible) camera right, pretty high and pointed down at Taika. Silver umbrellas are more contrasty than white ones and they’re also more efficient and hotter. For dramatic stuff this is good, for beauty portrait stuff, not so much.
looks like this

looks like this

That means that OOC (out of camera) it looks like that. It isn’t 100% total coverage of the background but it doesn’t need to be. There’s a clear distinction there of pure white around Taika so you can just go in with literally a white brush and paint away the  edges where you can see the box.

Then it looks like this:

t blog (24 of 51) t blog (23 of 51) t blog (15 of 51) t blog (14 of 51) t blog (2 of 51) t blog (1 of 51) t blog (3 of 51) t blog (4 of 51) t blog (6 of 51) t blog (8 of 51) t blog (7 of 51) t blog (18 of 51) t blog (19 of 51) t blog (27 of 51) t blog (26 of 51) t blog (25 of 51) t blog (16 of 51) t blog (17 of 51) t blog (21 of 51) t blog (22 of 51)

All shot at 85mm around f/7.1. ISO 200 ish. These are the lightroom edits but are 90% of the final version. Then it comes out like this. Due to the white background all the layout artist has to do is drag and drop the picture into InDesign and layup the rest of the stuff around it. I’m all about making other people’s jobs easier and since this was a pretty big deal and I knew there’d be a lot of looks and images to choose from, anything that speeds up the process for all concerned is a very good thing indeed. Work smarter and all that.
m2-man-cover1
That was look 1. Taika is utterly fantastic to work with. He’s that kind of guy who has about 10 million facial expressions and every time you push the shutter it’s something new. I had so much good material to work with from this one look alone that I knew it was gonna be good. You can only do so much on your side of the camera – set the lights, provide the stage for the client to walk on, and give broad strokes with the occasional direction and some encouragement along the way, but this was perfect with a gifted actor in front of the camera, an immaculate suit and wardrobe. It was good, folks.
Onto look 2. Walk out the door. Bring the giant light stand and the giant octabox and set up the ‘studio’ outdoors. One of the key things about my work is the ability to light anything, anywhere. All my studio lights are powered by a Vagabond Mini which is like 10 laptop batteries wired together. It’s awesome. It means I can take all the lights to completely un-lit locations, or locations that look a bit meh and kick their ass and transform them into a set. This adds a whole dimension of flexibility and control which I wouldn’t otherwise have if I was tethered to a studio and wall sockets.
So it’s Taika in another suit, the light, the stand, and me with a bigass camera walking down the road. You get a lot of looks and people going “is that…?” I wanted something a bit more casual, a bit looser, like after a hard day you’re a little tired of the suit so you relax it a little – undo the top button, the tie loosens slightly, untuck the shirt, that kinda thing. The lighting here is just an octabox and the midday sun which was making huge shadows and making everyone squint. If you had to use that alone you’d be limited. You could still shoot in the shade but there’s hardly any drama in there, it’s all a little flat. By using a pro light you can work with the sun and use that as a second light, and you can even overpower it if you wish so the background is darkened. Like I said, flexibility.
t blog (41 of 51) t blog (40 of 51) t blog (36 of 51)
I always like to get a mix of wides and highs when shooting because then the client has more flexibility and versatility to their layout choices. I generally have no idea what they’re thinking in terms of design or what the copy is or where it’ll go but in an image like the above it stands alone as a cool shot but if someone wanted to run it double page with some copy on the right it still works. On a shoot like this you can’t reshoot if something doesn’t go to plan or you don’t get what you need so the bases have to be covered. The lighting here is the octabox to camera left, right in front of Taika. The light and me pretty much swapped places between the other 2 shots and this one.
t blog (37 of 51) t blog (39 of 51) t blog (38 of 51)
I think there’s something in this job about reading people. Taika seems like the kind of guy who gets bored quickly. Gotta keep moving, gotta keep it going and keep it fresh and try and keep the energy up and the pace quick. It means you’re done quicker but it means you have to think fast and get what you can before you’re eating into someone else’s time.
Almost there. Back to the shop for another outfit change while I scour the block looking for somewhere we can shoot – another hallmark of my line of work is very short periods of notice. I don’t get a heads up weeks in advance to location scout, check the weather, ask local businesses etc about using a nearby space, it typically comes down to going with what you have in the vicinity of the meeting point while trying to keep it visually interesting and providing enough difference to the sets of photos so it’s not the same old stuff just with a different outfit.
I think this was down the side of some kind of printing company. I remember the road was slanted and above this black wall was an office building with wide windows and people checking out what the hell that big bright light was and hey, isn’t that that guy?
t blog (47 of 51) t blog (46 of 51) t blog (45 of 51) t blog (51 of 51) t blog (49 of 51) t blog (48 of 51)
Speaking of vintage and obscure props. I think the skis were Taika’s idea. You never quite know what he’s going to do until he does it, then it all makes some kind of sense. I think the time was very much upon us when Taika had to be catching a plane so we snapped a few shots, got out of the middle of the road, he left, I packed the stuff down and that was that.
A photographer’s job begins when they get home and sit down at their computer to go through the files. That’s when all the prep pays off and groundwork pays dividends in making everything smoother and quicker and ultimately meaning the client gets their photos quicker, and you get paid quicker so it’s a win/win. I’ve had a hard time understanding how some photographers take months to return pics. I get them in and out the door as fast as possible so I can move on to other stuff. The last thing you want is a backlog of editing to do when you could be out shooting and having Taika Waititi give you the finger.
You can do a lot with a big light in an octabox.
cheers guys. tez.

Product Photography for Vast Interiors

That’s right folks. It’s all rock n roll. Ferraris, Hilton hotels, champagne, screeching tyres and product photography.

It’s a rush.

So, product photography. It’s one of those enjoyable things where you can kick back and studiously approach the subject. There’s not much room for interpretation, you’re representing a product to look how it looks but also trying to show it off and make it look pretty darned decent – you need to have your lighting on point and even, your angles consistent (massively important), your WB up to scratch and your cutout chops freshly honed.

edit-2

Vast Interiors contacted me to shoot a range of product for e-commerce and for advertising/marketing reasons- images they could cutout and put on banners, web ads, mailshots, the usual fun places where product photos get their views. Who are Vast and what about their product range? They say: “Our premium furniture ranges are unique and exclusive to Vast.  Each piece has been meticulously created by expert craftsmen, designed to withstand generations of use. Our timber products highlight the natural beauty of the timber from which they were made and bring a sense of warmth and individuality to a home.” Warmth and individuality, people. And you thought a stool was just a stool…

edit

The lighting on all these shots was the same (gotta keep it consistent) and pretty big since I’m normally trying to minimise the amount of stuff I use. The final tweaked setup was 3 lights – one on either side, and one on a boom up above and pointing down. Everything was softened with softboxes to spread the light into a nice wrap-around softness. Most clients don’t like badass rim lighting and smoke effects in the background for some reason. The lights to left and right were at around 45 degrees providing even coverage across the front and sides of the object and they would move backwards or forwards depending on how big or small the piece being photographed was. For the most part I’m shooting at ISO 200, 1/200, and getting around f/16. Shooting with a 24/70mm or an 85mm depending on how much space I have behind me to walk back into.

Vast-for-Katev2

Once you’re setup with the lights it’s just rinse and repeat. Setup the product in the middle of the lights, click. Change product. Click. Change product. Click. We got through about 40 pieces in an hour which is basically light-speed considering the place where I used to shoot for the FMCG industry had a ‘1 product per 15 minute’ target. Smashed it.

rock n roll

rock n roll

A while back I covered some of the basics of white balancing and how it can be used for creative effect. Here it was about the opposite – the most representative colours that were true to the object and designer. Wood comes in a million different shades of brown so to get all those different shades precise I used my fabulous pocket-sized WB card checker thing and calibrated everything to it while batch editing in Lightroom. One click, ctrl+a, sync and bam, all the colours are calibrated to that little grey guy. And since every shot was under the same lighting conditions we know that the same settings will apply to all of the images. That WB card is one of the most useful things I own and it cost me less than a coffee, plus it’s credit card sized so it would even fit in your wallet if you’re that cool and can pull it off.

Vast-for-Kate-(20-of-49)-v2

 

Vast-for-Kate-(29-of-49-bgrt

 

It’s hard to write something engaging about product photography because seriously, not a lot happens, but sometimes that’s just what you need. As aforementioned it’s studios, methodical and a scientific cause/effect approach to lighting and photography where you have to indulge your analytical brain and your lighting knowledge and just photograph things as they are, not as you think they are. Keep it simple, but keep it right.

 

 

 

 

New Zealand Fire Service – the photography

Howdy do,

This is follow up to the previous article/entry on the NZFS, but this one will be focusing on the actual photography rather than the article.

First thing: I travel light. I dislike big heavy backpacks slung over both shoulders and the more I’ve been doing this, the more I’ve streamlined the gear in the bag. The first thing on 99% of the shoots/gigs is a 24-70 2.8 L. On a full frame camera it covers a very useful focal length, has a fast constant aperture, lovely bokeh, sharp as a tack, seemingly immortal, fast focusing… basically it’s been the workhorse for the past 6 years. The second thing that goes in is a fast, longer prime lens. Usually for portraits but also very handy at events for detail shots and picking things/people out of a crowd. 75% of the time it’s a 135mm f/2 L, the other times it’s an 85mm. Beyond that it’s a flash (just in case), all the wireless triggers and receivers, a white balance card, and generic stuff like spare batteries, colored gels (CTO and CTB) and that’s about it. Easy, portable.

Second thing: I use lighting on 90% of the shoots I do. The only times I don’t are at events, or things like landscapes or a rare outdoor shoot where natural is required and/or preferred. I’m a huge proponent of lighting and seriously, as a photographer, the world opens up when you can get the flash off the camera. It’s one of those whoa moments when you suddenly have the ability to control everything. Back in the day when natural light had to be used, you’re at the mercy of sun and clouds and limited to where and when you can shoot. In the commercial field you can’t call off a shoot because the light isn’t playing ball with your plans.

I’m waffling.


 

The lighting.

It’s so utterly simple. One light. One lens. One subject.

lights nzfs

 

That’s a big octabox to the camera left at around 40 degrees, camera with a 135mm and the person looking right down the barrel. The light is a bit above head height and set so it throws some light on the background. The scene naturally shot would be underexposed -1 so there’s some ambient light coming into the scene but the light’s job is to light the entire subject, a bit of the background and look good doing it. I try and point the very centre of the light just off-axis to the person to hopefully avoid the hot-spots that generally come along with pointing the centre of the light at someone. You can get around this with a second diffusion panel inside the diffuser, but I lost the one for this octabox years ago.

The above lighting diagram looks like this:

 

Senior Station Officer Jake Kennedy

Senior Station Officer Jake Kennedy

 

Shot with a 135mm at f/2.5. It’s a gorgeous lens, it even makes this guy look good. Nothing fancy to it at all. Which was deliberate. Me and Geoff the video genius from 2dProductions wanted to keep it natural looking, not glitzy, or processed or glamourised, just an honest portrayal of these great people. That objective in mind determined the lighting style and setup for the shot. That background was picked to set the scene, not a plain white background, or a plain wall, but a setting unique to the fire station with a colour palette that totally fits in with what we’re shooting. If you think about it, some other backgrounds wouldn’t make a lot of sense but this one just fit the bill and I also dug the diagonals receding into the distance. If this was a more commercial shoot, or more stylized, I would have thrown some rim lights around the back sides to provide some hard edge lighting – something you see commonly in sports photography, or action movie posters – it’s a great way to add an instant badass look to someone and like all things, sometimes it fits and sometimes it doesn’t. It probably would’ve looked pretty cool here but to me that would be getting away from what I’m there for. So, one light pointed at a firefighter.

firecrew-(1-of-42)

 

The detail shots, and shots inside the truck, we’re all done with the 24-70. It focuses pretty closely so for closeup details it’s great.

 

McCartney on the radio with dispatch

McCartney on the radio with dispatch

 

That’s the old watermark. Ha. Anyway. I shot this from the observer’s seat (fire trucks have 5 seats – 4 for crew, one for the observer) which is facing the rear view mirror. Kev was speaking with dispatch in code, I shot this at 70mm, around ISO 1600. Just picked up the camera and blam. It’s the only shot I have from the cab, the other work I did was recording some video for the NZFS vid I hope you’ve checked out.


 

Editing.

I made a post a while back about white balance and how it can be utilised for effect. Warm, cold, desolate, summery, you can implant a feeling into a photo with colour tinting and white balance is one of the ways to do this. I generally shoot most things quite warm, around 6000k. A little thing I always seem to do is to add a very very very slight tint to the whites of an image to warm it up slightly and smooth everything out. Obviously this wouldn’t work for product photography or other projects where colour reproduction and accuracy are imperative but it really helps skin tones. It isn’t frequency separation or anything hardcore, but it’s a finishing touch I apply to most of my images containing people.

Senior Firefighter Dean Olsen

Senior Firefighter Dean Olsen

The method is again really really simple and I’ve done it so many times it’s autopilot for me. Push ctrl+j, then ctrl+u. This duplicates the layer and opens up the good ol’ hue/saturation palette which will only affect the layer you just made. Set it to ‘colorize’ then input 52/11 in hue and saturation respectively. It turns everything kinda brown. That’s good. Push ok. Set that layer to colour and roll back the opacity to around 8% or thereabouts. It’s subtle but I find it really helps even out the tones and apply a little tonal augmentation. As with all things in Photoshop there are a thousand ways of achieving the same result, this is one I’ve found that works for me.

firecrew-(26-of-42)

New Zealand Fire Service: Everyday Heroes

When a firetruck screams by you on the road, where are they going? The guys on board, who are they? After they’ve done what needed to be done, what do they do then? What made these people become the firefighters they are?

I spent a day at Silverdale Fire Station trying to find answers to these questions and to hopefully uncover who these people are underneath the skellerup and the fireproof jackets. What I found was humbling, compelling, and left me with a great deal of respect that people like this are out there putting themselves in harm’s way so others don’t have to.

Here’s the published story. All images & words by Tez Mercer. Video by 2DudesProductions – Geoff Carlaw and Tez Mercer.


 

EVERYDAY HEROES:

 

“The call comes in. A siren woops across the quiet firehouse. The Scania fire truck rumbles into life and

sirens blaze. The call is for an MVA (motor vehicle accident) has occurred, a man is stranded and in peril.

The 4 firefighters at the Silverdale, Auckland station were in the truck quick as a flash, everyone in their

designated seats, every one focused, every one professional. 5 minutes before they were attending to

various tasks: Qualified Firefighter Kevin McCartney was refilling the breathing apparatus cylinders,

Qualified Firefighter Becky Wood was handling some paperwork, Senior Station Fire Officer Jake

Kennedy was on the phone and Senior Firefighter Dean Olsen was cleaning his gear.

 

firecrew-(15-of-42)

 

“We’re like a coiled spring. When you go, you go, but when it’s quiet you’re alert, but relaxed”. says McCartney, a recent

addition to this station which is manned by 4 full-time firefighters and some 35 volunteers. “No point

burning yourself out trying to be alert all the time, you can’t do it”. On the truck it’s like watching a

choreographed scene: the fire-retardant jackets come on effortlessly, marks of soot, ash and oil around

the FIRE RESCUE sign emblazoned large on the back. The gloves slide on, the overall trousers go over the

standard issue navy uniform and the impression is that they’ve done this 10,000 times and this is so

routine for these guys that they’re on autopilot. “How do you do that so fast?” I ask Olsen who’s seated

behind the driver, he just smiles at me as he’s pulling up his Skellerup boots as he listens to more

information crackling out of the radio up front.

 

McCartney on the radio with dispatch

McCartney on the radio with dispatch

 

This type of call is regular. The actual putting out of fires is thankfully a slim minority in a firefighter’s

workload. As people become more educated about fire hazards and smoke alarms become more

prevalent, the outbreak of major fires is a lot less than it used to be- in 1985 there were 7 fatal-fire

injuries in NZ workplaces, in 1997 that number was zero. Senior Station Officer Jake Kennedy says that

the majority of a firefighter’s workload is out in the community checking smoke alarms, giving talks in

school educating kids on fire safety and on what to do in case of a fire, helping people who have had a

MVA; installing smoke alarms, liaising with NGOs to implement efficient and safe fire protocols in new

builds. “We’re a service, we’re part of the community and we’re here to help” he says.

 

firecrew-(23-of-42)

 

Kennedy has been a fireman since the 1970s. He saw an ad proclaiming the NZFS as having the highest

job satisfaction rate of any job in the world, and based on that he signed up. And is it true?

 

Senior Station Officer Jake Kennedy

Senior Station Officer Jake Kennedy

 

“Absolutely.This is the best job in the world” and what makes it so good? He gazes out the window thoughtfully for a

moment, turns back and says “there’s a bit in there about helping people you know? Being a people

person and wanting to assist other people when they’re in trouble. And then there’s the camaraderie,

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. There are the elements of excitement, but it’s always about

helping people”. These sentiments are echoed by the other full time staff at the station. Being a fire

fighter is not about the money, the glory, or the prestige, it’s about doing good for the community we’re

all a part of.

 

Firefighter Kevin McCartney

Firefighter Kevin McCartney

 

McCartney, who became a firefighter 3 years ago after serving in the NZ Army, says “I was

looking for something different, I couldn’t sit behind a desk all day. I need to be doing something… when

I joined the job I really enjoyed helping people and getting that satisfaction from helping people”.

Fire fighting is a profession that has changed dramatically over recent years and is shifting still. As fires

become less and less frequent through education and a more safety-conscious society the NZFS is

adapting their role to also become medical first responders to provide medical care until the paramedics

or ambulance crews can arrive.

 

firecrew-(38-of-42)

 

Becky Wood, the youngest firefighter in the station at 27 is also a trained

medical responder: “I’ve been on more medical calls than anything else, and as we get better and better

trained there will probably be a lot more… We’ll turn up to jobs and the ambulance crews love us as we

can attend to the CPR and first aid while they attend to the more severe injuries”. Becky Wood is also

the only woman on the crew amidst a changing landscape in the Fire Service which is shaking off its old

stereotype of the ‘Old Boy’s Club’. McCartney explained the benefits of having a diverse workforce: “It’s

a great asset to have a woman on the crew as sometimes, women relate better to her than they do to

us.”

 

Senior Firefighter Dean Olsen

Senior Firefighter Dean Olsen

 

The NZFS has been undergoing a change in terms of its image to try and recruit more women, more

Maori, more Pacific Islanders, more Asian firemen to better represent the community. “Same for if

you’re Polynesian or Asian… we’ll go to someone’s house or workplace and their English might not be so

good. If you speak Mandarin or Korean or something you can get on their level straight away”. The old

stereotype is fading away to be replaced by a modern, progressive, and inclusive organisation: Kennedy

explains that “for many many years, the service was a male-dominated organisation, however back in

the 90s the Labour government were pushing for a more diverse workforce, across all the services, so

there was a push to recruit more women, Maori, Pacific Islanders and Asians. We now have more people

that can relate to communities better than ever before. We’ve become a lot more community-focused.”

 

firecrew-(20-of-42)

 

As it stands today 10.4% of the NZFS are Maori, around 4% are Pacific Islanders and around 3% are

female. When compared to the 2001 figures of 5.3% Maori, 0.9% Pacific Islander and 0.9% female it’s

clear to see the landscape is definitely changing as the Fire Service stakes its claim at being a leader in

recruitment processes and recruiting from all parts of the community. The recruitment procedure to join

as a firefighter is involved to say the least. Whereas in an everyday employment interview an applicant

would sit with HR, answer questions about their work history and go through the “tell me 3 things about

yourself” routine, the NZFS adopts a multi-faceted approach to recruitment which can take months to

not only test whether an applicant can do the physical work but whether they can function in a group,

take orders, adapt, and spend time in an enclosed space (the fire station) with the same people.

 

firecrew-(1-of-42)

 

The road to being a firefighter begins with an online application, then there’s a cognitive ability test,

then a physical test ; followed by a practical assessment course. After that comes the formal interview,

followed by medical and security checks. The formal interview is more situational than directly related

to the procedures of fighting a fire. Instead of asking “what would you do if there was a fire in an oil

pan?” the questions are more along the lines of “after a fire is extinguished, a Samoan man is distraught.

What would you do?” questions like this capture applicants off guard and also test how they react to

new information, or unexpected turns of events, which on a call could occur at any second. This also

highlights the awareness possessed by the NZFS of its role and place in a community, it sits within it, not

outside it. Once an applicant has been accepted through the testing phase there is a 12 week

training course in Rotorua before going on a 12 month probationary period. This long amount of time

spent working and training engenders a camaraderie and a strong sense of trust between the

firefighters in a crew: “Your crew are your safety. There’s a huge amount of trust… you have to trust that

the other guy’s going to be there. We all buy into it and live up to that trust.” says McCartney. Kennedy

puts another slant on it: “it isn’t just the trust on the calls, it’s trusting them with your life and your

problems. If someone is going through a personal problem, there’s people who will listen and who will

understand”.

 

firecrew-(18-of-42)

 

Spending time with the crew provides a tangible sense of the trust and friendship between the members

and garners a profound respect for these people who selflessly serve the community by helping others.

They don’t receive any special praise and sometimes it’s a thankless job as the men and women of the

NZFS are taken for granted. With that in mind there are a few things we can all do that would not only

make their jobs easier, but could potentially save lives when they’re on the line.

 

firecrew-(29-of-42)

 

“Obviously, we need to get somewhere quick. If a house is burning down, or if you’re trapped in your car then every second

counts. If you see the big red truck bearing down on you, pull over to the left and let us pass, that’s all

we ask” McCartney explained. Another simple thing to do is to regularly test the smoke alarms in your

home and keep them operational and uncovered: “we’ve seen them with plates taped over them or

with batteries removed because it woke someone up once. You’ve got to test they’re working at least

once a month”. In 2 minutes a fire can go from an ember in a grill pan to engulfing a house. The adverts

on TV aren’t sensationalised and there’s a real need to be diligent and responsible around fire and fire

safety to keep you and your family safe.”

 

White Balance. A stylistic choice.

This is a story of two halves. One where you need to be 100% objective and shoot what something is, not what you think it is. And another half where I’ll hopefully explain how you can manipulate the white balance to work for you in shoots to set the mood.

Every now and then I shoot clothing for catalogues and magazines: it could be editorial pieces, it could be items photographed on a mannequin, then cutout and then laid-up in the pages of a magazine. The accurate reproduction of colours is absolutely crucial to this work. If the orange is more saffron than mango or if the red is more cranberry than scarlet then someone won’t be happy and when companies depend on you to shoot their stuff correctly and accurately you have to make sure you’re white balance (WB) is on point. I did a little test today in my backyard using camera WB, Lightroom WB and a grey card bought from AliExpress for $2 (on the lanyard) to determine which method made the most accurate representation of the colours as seen by my eyes.

For transparency I shot this same frame 3 times over about 8 seconds. The sun was out, but I’m shooting below a deck in the shade. I grabbed some items lying around (namely my wallet, some clothes pegs, a Baduzzi business card, a copy of A Dance of Dragons and a box of D’Addario 11 gauge strings). The first pic was just straight up AWB in camera, the second was AWB but I added in the lanyard grey card/WB checker, and the third is the same pic shot again. So 3 images, all calibrated in different ways. All shot in Auto, exposure comp +/- 0 so right in the middle. ISO 400, something like f/8 on a 24-70 L.

Here’s the pics and results:

1st image.

Auto WB from camera

Auto WB from camera

2nd image = Lightroom auto setting

Lightroom Auto WB

Lightroom Auto WB

3rd Image = Using grey card calibration in Lightroom. WB came back as 10500k with a tint of -11.

wb check (3 of 4)

The third image is much more lifelike and is definitely much more accurate than the other two which are relying on software to judge the WB of a scene. It might be a little hot, but I think dropping the saturation to about -5 will be the final touch. For $2, that little thing is a great addition to any bag. You put it next to the subject, or under the same lighting conditions as your subject, take a pic with it in the frame and you can use that WB reading for the entire shoot. In Lightroom, or Camera Raw, or Photoshop you can use the eyedropper thing to click the card itself. It’s the same size of 3 credit cards and the lanyard is detachable. You can also spot meter off the grey card to get a precise exposure of a scene too.

I’m not trying to say it’s the single most precise piece of calibrating equipment known to mankind. It isn’t. It cost $2 shipped to my door, but for a much closer representation than the camera can get by itself, it’s money well spent. I actually have a second one coming in the mail from a different seller, basically to check for any discrepancies between manufacturing and also because then I can leave one in my camera bag and have another in my travel backpack.

But that’s about technicals where the subjective opinion isn’t required. It’s about fair and accurate representation.

There is a flip-side to the technical and precise aspect which is more psychological in nature, which reminds me of a conversation I was having with a videographer friend of mine about the uses of WB for a subtle psychological element to your photos (or video).

White Balance basically tells the camera the colour temperature of a scene. It’s something we all come into contact with daily, and colour temperature basically means the colour of the light. Light at sunset, all crimson and gold, is much different sitting under a cold harsh floursecent tube. It’s all light, but it’s different colours… or differing colour temperatures as they say in the biz. Interior designers have been playing with colour temps for years and now some lightbulbs (like the Philips Hue) can adjust their own colour temperature during the day so it’s bluer in the mornings, white in the day, and a warm orange in the evening to closer match the natural rhythms of sunset and sunrise. Pretty cool.

As you may know, I shoot a lot of bands. Mostly of the metal persuasion. I also shoot a lot of people on location for magazines and commercial clients – the white balance settings for these 2 avenues of photography are different. Essentially I shoot metal bands or badass stuff with a cooler white balance leaning towards the blues. Why? Because then it looks cold, bleak, skin tones don’t look warm and happy, the whole world looks like Mordor and I typically shoot this with a white balance setting around 4000-5000K. Portraits I generally shoot warmer at around 6000k or so (k = kelvin, that’s the measurement of white balance).

Examples. Here’s a picture of renowned fashion designer Turet Knuefermann, who owns and runs the TK label. This was shot for M2 Woman magazine.

TK

TK

I knew I wanted to shoot this so it looked warm and friendly. Professional and welcoming just like TK herself. This was shot in TK’s store in Ponsonby with morning light streaming in where it bounced around the shops white walls. Auto WB in camera rendered this whole scene pretty blue to make her white shirt actually white, but in photography sometimes it’s more about the mood and feeling than being technically correct. Because I wanted it to be warm and all the things I listed above I raised the white balance in camera to around 6200k. The pluses of this are a great healthy looking skin tone, a nice tint to the highlights and it’s generally very flattering. The cons are that if you’re not careful it can just make someone look orange and completely overpower the scene so you have to watch that. I shoot a lot of portraiture like this when someone needs to look like a decent human and it works great for bright scenes as well as corporate photography.

And then there’s this shot, which I shot for Auckland metal stalwarts Dawn of Azazel:
Dawn-OF-Azazel-(30)

A little bit different. This was shot at around 4500k and the saturation dropped. Instead of the warm glowing tanned skin tones and softly tinted glowing highlights looking all warm and lovely, we have the opposite. Cold, bleak, dark, harsh. The skintones don’t glow. There’s no softness. Like the band it’s unforgiving and unapologetic. There’s a blue tint to the shadows to further emphasise the ‘coldness’ and you can get away with way more contrast and crunching the midtones on colder desaturated images. Again, while this isn’t technically correct in terms of WB, it helps to portray the subject in the shot which is what this is all about and the white balance is just another arrow in the quiver to use on a shoot when a stylistic angle might work.

You can skew the white balance a million ways to enhance the feel you’re aiming for. Shooting a sunset? Ramp up the WB to 11000k. Shooting a dingy alleyway? Have a go at 4000k and roll back the saturation.

Here’s another set of examples. One shot of some rocks in the morning sun, the other on the banks of the Ganges river in Varanasi, India. One is cold and dark, the other warm and light. Again to make a subconscious impression we all recognise without recognising why.

Puja. Varanasi, India.

Puja. Varanasi, India.

Tairua

Tairua

 

For further reading/listening check out Guillermo Del Toro’s commentary talking about Pan’s Labyrinth: the scenes are split between two worlds and the colour palette dramatically shifts to psychologically set the mood of those two worlds. One is blue and green, long shadows and muted colours; the other is reds and coppers, soft dappled light and strong warm tints. Once you see this type of stylisation in one film you see it everywhere. Like in Lord of the Rings – the difference between the Shire and on the flanks of Mt Doom. And Aliens, it’s all cool tones, hard light and muted colours.

So… white balance. It’s a tool. Use it to alter the mood of your shots and make a stylistic choice.

Remember higher numbers = warm, lower numbers = cold.

cheers.

Round 5 on the blog front

WordPress, we meet again. Every permutation of blog I’ve ever had ends up being spammed to death to the point where it becomes unbearable to operate. My last blog ran successfully for 3 years before being overrun with spambots linking every article to some wholesale dick pills website, or cheaper medical insurance or whatever else people absolutely 100% did not need to see. I remember once I logged in and had something like 200 comments pending approval. “Holy shit!” I thought, maybe something had gone viral before going viral was a thing. I was excited, man. It felt good to have something that had clicked… since then I have other stuff that’s ‘clicked’ but there’s a 50/50 split between being regarded as a hero or a villain… so I checked the comments, eager to see what the waking world had to make of it. Dick pills. As far as the eye could see. Rank upon rank of rankness. WordPress back in those days could only show 12 comments at a time so you’d select all, delete, rinse/repeat a few times but by the time you’d cleared everything away some more comments had been added by the same bots.

They weren’t seen. I’d made it impossible to comment without authorisation a while back but it was like whack-a-mole, trying to stay ahead of the random things popping up. That was 2 years ago. I logged in last week to see if it had died down and I had something like 9000 comments pending approval. It seemed prudent just to shoot the thing full of phenobarbital, wish it well, and put the thing to sleep.

Now we’re here. Let’s start again. This blog is mostly about photography. I’m pretty open with lighting, editing, direction, and whatever else comes into play when working as a photoguy. When I was starting out the only way to obtain actual information was to either buy someone’s tutorial DVD, attend a workshop, or otherwise pay a bunch of money to someone with no guarantee of useful information… not like I offer that guarantee here you understand, but at least you’re not paying for it. And since it was somewhat hard to find information and everyone was like some poker king keeping their cards close to a medallioned chest, I wanted to shed whatever light I could on whatever it is I do because maybe it’ll be relevant to someone, someday and it will also mean i can address the emails I frequently receive asking how a certain ‘look’ was achieved. So…

Maybe this’ll help.