Steve Sint

Digital Portrait Photography: The Avatar Studios Shoot

By Steve Sint
Published by Lark Books

How do you light a crowd of people in a beehive-shaped recording studio? Photographer Steve Sint explains the process of executing a tough group portrait assignment in this excerpt from his Amherst Media book Digital Portrait Photography.

This excerpt from Digital Portrait Photography is provided courtesy of Lark Books. To purchase the book, visit the Barnes & Noble website.

I thought it would be interesting to take you through an actual assignment step by step. I chose this particular assignment at a recording studio for many reasons; partially because it’s hard to organize a 100 subject shoot, partially because I experienced a forehead slapping moment two days before the shoot, and partially because the client chose an image other than the one I expected him to use. But mostly, I chose this shoot because it’s so different from the norm. After having read most or all of this book by this point, you’ll see how, as I stated in the introduction, every part of an assignment is as important as any other, and all aspects of a shoot (and photography) are interconnected. To pull this shoot off successfully, I had to rely on just about every piece of experience I’ve relayed to you in the preceding chapters. Let me start off by explaining what the assignment was, then we’ll get into the actual shoot (including my forehead slapping moment), and I’ll end with the surprise.

Avatar Studios, a historically important recording studio in New York City, was celebrating its 30th anniversary and, in addition to a few hundred guests, the studio's founders and the staff that built it were also invited. The studio owner hired a photographer to shoot the party. Imagine a night with a single flash on camera, shooting 2-ups and 3-ups with every subject holding a drink (sometimes one in each hand) and you’ll get the idea of that photographer’s night. The studio owner decided that a 100-subject group shot of the founders and staff that built the studio was a worthwhile addition for the studio’s archives. Rightly so, he further decided that this was beyond the organizational, technical, and lighting skills of the photographer he hired. On a recommendation, he contracted me to take the group picture and six to eight photos of smaller groups. 

Ten Days Before the Shoot

A little over a week prior to the shoot, I went to see the location and meet my client. Inside the building that houses Avatar Studios are many smaller, individual recording studios designed for specific recording purposes (a drum studio, vocal studios, etc.), but the crowning jewel of the entire place is Studio A. Studio A is shaped like the inside of a giant, hollow beehive covered in tongue and groove planking. It’s about 75 feet (22.9 m) across the diameter of its base and attached alcoves and approximately 50 feet (15.2 m) high at its center. The alcoves jutting off its base are deep (as bad luck would have it) and their ceilings are low (as even worse luck would have it). The special sound qualities of Studio A are known to professional musicians worldwide and the studio’s owner had decided that it would be the site of his group portrait. But the uniqueness of Studio A’s architecture (the walls curve inward as they rise) makes it difficult to light and impossible to use a ladder to get a high enough vantage point to include the required number of subjects. The studio’s owner was aware of the camera position problem even before I got there and pointed out a 24- to 30-inch (61–76.2 cm) square hole about 12 to 15 feet (3.7–4.6 m) up the beehive’s side wall. I went upstairs to see the view from the other side of the hole and, although it was partially blocked by the ceiling of a mid-level room on the beehive’s side, I could contort myself in such a way as to get the lens of my D-SLR to see into the beehive with my eye still behind it. OK, this was good; at least I had a difficult but workable camera position.

Back on the floor of the beehive I made some mental notes about lighting the group, the hive, and the alcoves and, thankfully, I remembered to try and soak in every detail so I looked straight up. There, in the middle of the hive, 45 feet (13.7 m) up, and suspended by two cables, was what looked like a 12 inch (30.4 cm) in diameter plywood ring festooned with recording mikes. Although I suspected the answer to my question, I asked the owner how the mikes were serviced. My face lit up when he said the plywood ring was lowered and raised on the cables. My next question was how much weight the cables could hold, because I wanted to put a battery powered flash on it that weighed a couple of pounds. I was told this wouldn’t be a problem. I was excited, told him so, assured him that the photograph would be smashing, and not to worry but I had to go out of town on a location shoot in New England and would be in touch with him the day before the party. We both signed the contract I brought along, we exchanged the signed copies, he gave me my retainer check, and I was on the road to my New England shoot.

Two Days Before the Shoot

Just two days before the shoot, I was south of Boston humming along in my Honda, and thinking about the upcoming assignment when I had an epiphany. Picture me as a cartoon character with an electric light bulb going on over my head. Forget about clamping a flash unit to the plywood circle—I was going to clamp a camera there instead! Narrowly missing running under the rear end of an 18-wheeler as I slapped my forehead, I pulled into a service area and got out my cell phone. I called Mamiya America and spoke to a tech rep about getting my PocketWizards to fire my camera and then fire my flash units. This was possible but I would need a special adapter cord. I called Fotocare in New York City and found that he had the cord in stock, so I bought one and arranged for it to be delivered to the recording studio.

This is the PocketWizard adapter cord I needed
to fire my camera and then have my flash units fire.

I then called Lens and Repro Company in New York and arranged for the rental of a Nikon 14mm lens because the widest lens I regularly carry is a 17. I then called a friend and arranged to borrow his Nikon 17-55mm zoom lens for the shoot as a backup. I did this because my single group photo had now morphed into doing two versions of the picture, and I might need an identical lens for each version and I wouldn’t be able to lower the microphone holder from the ceiling to retrieve my lens between setups. I say this because doing so would slow the change over between the two versions of the photograph to a crawl and I would probably lose the group's attention while I did it. Almost finished, I called the recording studio and alerted them to the delivery being made and got the name of the person who would accept the adapter cord from the messenger Fotocare was sending. The last item on my list was to call back Fotocare and give them the name of my contact at Avatar. I pulled back into the flow of traffic on the Mass Pike both happy and excited.

The Day of the Assignment

The day of the assignment arrived and I was ready. All of my equipment concerns (including backups) were covered and I had a plan in place—piece of cake. My assistant and I lugged our equipment in and we set up three large umbrellas and one direct flash so that they circled the area in which my 100 subjects would be positioned. Two smaller battery powered flash units were used to light the alcoves that my camera lens would see when I shot from “the hole.” The plywood donut was lowered, the mikes removed, and I mounted my camera on it. My idea of using a Bogen Super Clamp didn’t work out as planned because it upset the center of gravity of the ring and pulled the camera’s lens axis off plumb. This called for Plan B that I had already envisioned on my drive. I unhooked one side of my camera’s neck strap and wove the free end of the strap around the ring before reattaching it to the camera. We then ripped gaffer tape into 1/2-inch-wide, long strips and used them to wrap around either side of the camera’s prism, over the top, front, and bottom of the camera, and finally around the plywood ring. All the while we were careful to keep the camera’s lens hanging straight down, being sure no buttons or levers on the camera were being pushed by the tape, and making sure that we had access to the camera’s card slot. Thank God for gaffer’s tape!

Although I planned to use a Bogen Super Clamp to mount my camera to the plywood ring, that didn’t work out because the clamp pulled the camera off plumb so it wouldn’t hang straight down. I ended up using lots of gaffer tape to secure the camera.

I then set the exposure (after confirming my guess with my light meter), set the zoom ring to its widest position, and secured it in position with another, smaller strip of tape. Finally, I changed the batteries in the PocketWizard mounted on the camera because having them die in the middle of the photograph would be a major calamity. The camera was hoisted into position and a couple of test exposures were made while we checked that all the lights were indeed firing and I noted the boundaries of the lens’s field of view. We then lowered the camera, removed its card, put the card in the second camera, and made sure we had the shot, put a fresh card in the camera, made sure (again!) that everything was working, and hoisted it back into position. I then took the second camera, went up to the second floor, and shot a few images of the second set-up to make sure it was ready too. Now, all I needed was the subjects—and their cooperation!

Here are four test photos from the shoot. In figure 1, I made sure the alcoves were lit. In figure 2, I made sure the backlighting on the group wouldn’t be too strong and flare into my lens; figures 3 and 4 are from both camera positions I would be using.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Getting the 100 subjects together, many with drinks in their hands, was an assignment unto itself. Talk about herding cats! This took a bit of time but was finally accomplished when I personally invited each group of stragglers to join the group in Studio A. I climbed up onto a three-foot ladder and made a speech. In my best basso profundo voice I told everyone that we were going to try and pull off two different photographs and to make it work we all had to work together to ensure success. I asked everyone to look up and see my camera dangling overhead, told them they’d have to squish together to be included, and pointed out that, because I couldn’t be up there looking through the camera it was up to them to make sure they were looking up. I fired off 10 exposures using a handheld PocketWizard transmitter and, between each exposure, as I waited for the camera to settle down, I congratulated and stroked my subjects. Often, acting like a cheerleader is part of a photographer’s job. As soon as I felt I was starting to lose my subjects' attention I started to applaud . . . loudly, telling them they were great and how their efforts would result in an unbelievable photograph.

Before the group started to fall apart, and with camera number one still dangling above, I told them that we were halfway done and I pointed to the square opening in the wall, telling them that I was going upstairs for the second shot. I made a joke about asking them not to all leave as I repositioned myself and took off for the upstairs vantage point with camera number two in hand.

This is the final result shot from the overhead camera. I consider it a real success and it has become a permanent addition to my most shown portfolio.

I say “took off” because, in fact, I ran up the stairs to my next position so as not to lose the group’s attention. While the second shot placed a strain on my body, I was much more comfortable about it because I could see the photograph as it happened through my viewfinder. Ten exposures happened in quick succession and I ran back downstairs to once again thank my subjects and tell them to enjoy the rest of the party.

As we had set up the lighting for the large group, my assistant and I had made decisions about where to shoot and how to light the smaller groups so the changeover between shots happened in minutes and this last part of the assignment came off without a hitch. In fact, these last few images were very easy and almost anticlimactic.

This is the photograph my client chose. While I found the other image more exciting, it didn’t satisfy my client’s needs as well as this one did. It pays to get good coverage and shoot a variety of shots.

I knew the shots were a success before I even looked at the LCD, but was very happy that 15 or 20 of the subjects came over to both thank and compliment me on how easy the whole process was. But that’s the job—making it easy on the subjects regardless of the hoops you have to go through to get the image! I was even more gratified when a few pro photographers covering the event for the local media came over to compliment me on a job well done as my assistant broke us down.

Now it’s time to reveal my end of the assignment surprise. While I loved the overhead shot, my client chose the one from the less radical viewpoint! I thought about this for a long time. In the end I realized that while my overhead shot was unique, and the group of subjects looked stunning, it didn’t include any identifying characteristics of the other star of the show: Studio A! Upon reflection, I learned two things from this that are important for you to remember also. First off, the location your subjects are in can be as important as the subjects themselves. Secondly, it’s always a good idea to do at least two versions of any involved, high-end portrait situation because you can never know for sure (or might miss entirely) what your client’s real desires are.

Category: How-To
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