20 Stories, part V

Continued from Part IV

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Above and Beyond

I am used to having two kinds of clients: the first type tends to want things that have already been done before; they don’t want to take risks because previous photographers might have over promised and under delivered, or they lack the imagination to see something that hasn’t been done before. Or they simply are unwilling to pay for creativity over duplication. These are the kind of shoots that never go into your portfolio because it’s not the kind of work you want to be known for, but we pros have to do because they put food on the table and keep us in business; hopefully for long enough to get the chance to work on a project where we have full creative control and feel the pressure of our own limitations. It’s the kind of project where the client is willing to seriously consider your crazy ideas and trust your ability to deliver them.

My introduction to Koenigsegg came through Hasselblad and DJI. I suggested to Christian (von Koenigsegg) that we combine a bit of everybody’s technology: long exposures on a moving car to show dynamism and suggest a journey; high speed flash to freeze the car to make it distinct; very large prints and expansive compositions to fully use the camera’s resolution – and then top it off with an aerial perspective by putting the H6D on DJI’s largest aircraft. Execution would be tricky as there were a lot of moving pieces to coordinate and a very small window in which ambient daylight would be sufficient to see the surroundings, but not so much as to overpower the car’s lights. It would require a long exposure and a stable aerial platform. Honestly, I wasn’t 100% sure we could pull it off – and there was a backup documentary shoot within the factory to detail the construction process for the times of day where ambient light wasn’t suitable for the outdoor car sequences.

In the end, the shoot only produced five images – each one requiring a couple of hours of setup, test positioning for car, lighting and aircraft. We had to have a coordinator in touch with air traffic control and override codes from DJI HQ to allow us to fly as the Koenigsegg test track was on the edges of a live airfield. In the end I landed up triggering the lights manually with the trigger in one hand, a radio in my ear to direct the driver, and an ipad with the camera gimbal controls in the other – with the pilot next to me. The only time I’d had to do multitask more heavily was during another automotive shoot – a TV commercial where we added a crane car and crane operator to the mix.

I always feel mentally fried at the end of these shoots – but in the good kind of way where you know you’ve pushed your limits, the team’s limits, the hardware’s limits, and come out with something really unique. I’m just grateful there are still clients like this giving us photographers the chance to keep pushing.

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20 Stories, part IV

Continued from Part III

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The 14th Century Jedi

I have a close friend who previously used to shoot for National Geographic in South Africa, but has since retired and just makes images for himself. Those tend to be the opposite to the very serious material he made professionally; as he says, he needs to have a means of decompressing at the end of what often turned out to be very dark or heavy assignments.

His personal work deliberately seeks out an element of irony or humour or whimsy; somehow, these compositions come naturally to him. I’ve tried to do the same myself, but somehow the elements don’t come together for me. Maybe it’s what one is conditioned or trained to see; maybe the laws of attraction manifest different things for different people.

I had just finished a session with my final student of the day and was walking back over the bridge to my hotel in the Old Town. I turned around to see if anything interesting was left behind – turns out I nearly missed a medieval Jedi statue doing a little gardening with his lightsaber. I like how this composition manages to blend my usual formalist structure (reducing scale elements towards the bottom of the frame, also increasing in brightness, darker, more open areas framing the outsides) but add that little surprise.

This frame always makes me think of that friend and the subconscious creative influences a photographer exerts over any and every person who has seen their work; we cannot un-see things. All creative work is derivative; it may just not be from near proximity or even the same field. But it would be extremely arrogant of us not to acknowledge the work of others who had gone before to allow us to shortcut the creative process and take things even further.

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20 Stories, part III

Continued from Part II

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Land’s end, part I

It’s amazing how different two nearby cities in the same country can feel – take Lisbon and Porto, for instance. Both are in Portugal and on the Atlantic seaboard; both have old world charm, the beginnings of a renaissance and the visible effects of entropy. They are blessed with interesting architecture and the kind of topology that makes for both burning thigh muscles and interesting perspectives. The weather was great in both places when I was there. Yet whilst I instantly fell in love with Lisbon, I felt this underlying sense of unease and being haunted whilst in Porto. At the risk of simplification, Lisbon was happy, and Porto was sad – I don’t think I ever managed to figure out why, either.

On the last day I was there, a friend and I took a short ride out to a town on the coast called Foz do Douro. In summer, it’s known for its beaches; in winter, its spectacular waves. We were there sometime in between, and the sea was frothily moody, if not quite fully enraged.

There are times when vision just clicks and the frames compose themselves; in the two hours we spent at the start and end of the seawall, lighthouse and the places in between, I probably shot more frames than in the previous two days in Porto city proper. The light was dynamic and changing as fast as the sea conditions; the waves hinted at the power of the ocean and the other gathered to watch only put that even more clearly into context. Every frame held a different mood – dark and moody to ethereally backlit; this particular photograph freezes the sea in a position reminding the onlookers it is not to be trifled with, yet with the same onlookers in defiant poses suggesting the spirit of exploration. The water itself is frozen with texture and delicacy, in contrast to the scale of elements; I probably wouldn’t have blinked if a caravel came into view over the horizon, but lamented not bringing my 250mm.

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20 Stories, part II

Continued from Part I

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Glitches in the Matrix

Limitations can sometimes turn into catalysts if they force you to find creative workarounds, or give you another tool in the arsenal to work with. This tale is one of regret – that I recognized the limitation, but came to be so annoyed by it I sold the tool instead of being mature enough to recognize the opportunity.

Almost all large sensors – including most of those today, and certainly all of the high resolution ones – have a gated electronic shutter that requires a certain readout time. Light collection is limited and governed by the mechanical shutter, ensuring synchronization of exposure of all parts of the image – but the actual capture time may go on beyond the closing of the shutter. It’s fast enough now that high frame rates may be sustained, but you can still see these artefacts in electronic shutter modes as a distortion from top to bottom of the frame of any moving elements (or moving camera).

The CFV-39 was a bit different: not only did the CCD have an extremely long readout time – I believe at least a second – but the camera portion and the digital portion were only synchronized by a button; the same pin that advanced the frame counter on a film back also started and stopped the digital back capture (and actual sensor on time was much longer than the shutter-governed exposure).

The upshot of this is if your fingers were fast enough to cock the crank and hit the shutter, you could fire off two frames in less time than the CCD required to read out completely. In effect, this disrupted the readout process with a fresh signal onto the sensor – it appeared something like a double exposure but with some other strange and unpredictable artefacts. I learned to count to three before firing the back again to avoid this, but there were times of peak action where one or two very strange frames such as this one were produced. Between the color, the subject matter, and the alien feel – I couldn’t help but think of the déjà vu scene in that 1999 cult classic movie…

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20 Stories, part I

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Introduction

Today is the first of a series of five posts from a long-form feature written for Medium Format Magazine earlier in the year (some of you may be familiar with my philosophical musings from my column in the magazine In Pursuit of Transparency). This series will be a bit different to anything I’ve done before on the site; usually we tend to focus on either a sequence of images with minimal commentary – in the form of a photoessay – or detailed discourse around a single topic. This series of images are from personally significant points in my medium format shooting career. They have had to pass curation not solely for being visually interesting and having a self-contained narrative, but also having a back story that is often more interesting than the photograph itself – and without the creator to tell the story, there’s no way you’d get to hear it.

Sometimes it’s around an idea or a particular inspiration; sometimes it’s around the execution; sometimes it’s about serendipity. There’s planning and there’s luck; there’s preparedness and there’s the mad scramble. There’s the behind the scenes peek into the chaotic life that’s necessary of a modern photographer – much less of it is about making pictures than building relationships. More often than not there are stories about the people involved – subject, client, production. It has not been easy to select these as there is always a strong emotional attachment to your favourite images – and there tend to be a lot of them if you’re prolific. It’s almost as bad as asking a parent to select their favourite child.

Let me know what you think. If the response from these posts is positive, I’d like to do more of this in the future…MT

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On Assignment photoessay: Automated building

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Some time back, I was given a rather interesting commission by a large local industrial conglomerate: to photograph their automated building facility. The factory uses an automated system to lay up wall, floor and ceiling units for modular buildings according to plan; these precast slabs are then simply installed on site, with reinforcement, connections, conduits for piping and electricals etc. all laid up and ready to go. The surfaces are finished during the production process, and unlike cast in place or brick-types, do not require additional plaster or skimming for a very consistent and precise finish. Interestingly, I was told that below a certain scale this is a more expensive process for building than traditional manual labor, but the overall quality is much higher (and it begins to make sense for large developments). From a photographic standpoint, the completed slab stockyard was very enjoyable – no end of shadows/ geometries/ strong colors/ details and all of the things that make for interesting vignettes and artistic experimentation; the factory was much more challenging due to the lighting.

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On-Assignment photoessay: Welders

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I am pathologically attracted to welding. It’s the photographers’ analog to a moth being drawn to a flame, or in this case either an oxyacetylene torch or plasma arc. My theory is that it has to do with a) light and b) unusual light. How often do you see somebody focusing intently on what is essentially a continuously powered, almost unidirectional flash? You can’t help but look. The radiating shadows created by that harsh light create all sorts of leading lines that force your eyes to the source: man and fire. It’s visually epic in a Metropolis sort of way; the Rocketman-esque helmets do nothing to detract from this, making the whole thing simply impossible to turn away from. It’s probably the reason my eyes have floaters, and some of my sensors have burn marks. But in monochrome it also tells a timeless story of man’s desire to build something great from the sum of much lesser components. And for nothing if that reason, we must bear witness to these things coming to life. MT

Shot over a very long period of time over a large number of construction and heavy engineering assignments, with various hardware from 6×6 film to micro 4/3 to MF digital and everything in between…

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On-assignment photoessay: Monolithic

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There’s something about the visual gravity only the deepest registers the monochrome tonal scale can provide; those zones that make or break a good printer and convey tonal richness and texture. Whilst such work tends to be more the preserve of editorial and fine art photography and less so in commercial, I can’t help myself from seeing such subjects during the course of a cleaner, higher key commercial assignment. There are always structural and physical elements of such massiveness as require these tonal registers to do them justice; I shoot and file them away for later personal satisfaction. Overcast weather may be the bane of most commercial available light work, but it matters not a bit in this case. This particular set is the curation of several assignments; there’s a deliberate change in pace between the images where the monolithic element may be the entire frame, or just a small (but visually heavy) part of it. Or it may be an otherwise light-coloured subject but still somehow that sort of chalky, textured grey… MT

This series was shot with a Nikon Z7, D850, 24-120/4 VR, 70-200/4 VR. No post processing, just the monochrome picture control from the Z7/D850 profile pack…

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Photoessay: Enter the Abyss

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The most challenging types of watch to design is where there are already rigid expectations set by the genre – pilot, diver etc. – to go outside this requires either not meeting functional requirements, or producing something that takes some acclimatisation by the market. You want to avoid being different simply or the age of being different as this inevitably leads to issues of design longevity/maturity as well as functional compromises. Our interpretation of a dive watch has had the longest and most painful gestation to date – with conceptual explorations starting in late 2017, not long after the 17.01 was launched. It’s taken us nearly two years to make something we were happy with, and in the end – we have also decided not to go to series production because it came too late in the brand’s overall design cycle. Even if we committed now, we wouldn’t see product until the end of next year at the earliest, by which time other launches with our second generation design language would have taken place and leaving the Abyss feeling a bit out of place.

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On-Assignment photoessay: gentle curvature

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On some assignments you sacrifice your favourite camera strap, pray to the weather gods to grant you favour and be prepared to shoot everything in a half-hour mad rush around blue hour if it all goes to hell. This was one of those: a last minute call from a long-standing client with barely a 2.5 day deadline to deliver completed, retouched images. Normally I don’t (well, can’t) accept assignments on such short notice, but I happened to have a free day and the subject was quite interesting. The only problem: weather up to that point had been really terrible; one camera strap later and I think we lucked out. All shooting was complete within a 12 hour window – including the night images (done late the previous evening) and aerials (the morning of). Light was good, winds were calm and a couple of aerial stitches were achievable – thankfully, as there was no physical vantage point for the angles the client wanted, and limited aerial vantage due to surrounding buildings and construction cranes. The building itself is quite unusually shaped – there are no real external straight edges which gives it a very strange feeling at ground/podium level, as well as a means to defeat site setback regulations at street level to maximise internal floor space. Not all of it was completed in time, so there was no chance to photograph inside the rooftop glass-roofed area, which judging from the drone – had pretty extraordinary shadows from the window frames and columns. As an aside, I personally found the results much more interesting in monochrome as they brought out key features and played real volumes nicely against projected shadows, but unfortunately those weren’t part of the client brief – perhaps for a future photoessay, though… MT

This series was shot with a Nikon D850, Z7 and DJI Mavic Pro 2 and processed with Photoshop Workflow III.

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