In 2008, I became obsessed with figuring out the "studio location." I had trained under Vogue photographer Neil Kirk for over four years, and understood the "location shoot" like the back of my hand. But I felt that it had some inherent limitations. One, you are always at the mercy of the unpredictable weather. Two, traveling from location to location was time consuming and constricts the number of shots one can obtain in a day. Three, cost. Taking a team to an exotic location, entails feeding, day fees, hotels, travel expenses, permits, insurance, etc.
The biggest production issue in working with "mother nature" is she cannot be controlled. All shot are at her mercy. If the sun goes behind a cloud or if it rains; the light on any scouted location changes every 10 minutes and is completely different each hour. When scouting location texture for your story, you must consider that your makeup will build "up" during the shoot and that the outfits correspond to this. The textures of the story line must be shot in this sequence and working with the position of the sun to the scouted location is crucial.
I must admit, I love shooting on location. It is an adrenaline rush. All the complexity I mentioned above adds pressure to "execute". I love problem solving and "winning". However, in my default "problem-solving hat", I did start to realize that post production capabilities were increasing to the point that it should be possible to shoot locations in a "studio" and save a lot of money and gain more "control". Now I know many images have composited for advertising and movie posters, and in 2008, most of these images were pretty obvious. Because the photographer was not the compositor their was a huge gap in consistency of imagery, lighting, esthetics; ie. no cohesion of vision and execution.
These images of Natalie Gal in the first three row represent the very first time I tried to test this my skills in this execution. I chose to use black and white knowing it was more "forgiving" and matching tones and color balance is not an issue. I use my "light" set up as a key component of my story telling. I create a custom light for each shoot to best enhance the story I am telling. Many photographers have one lighting technique and that is their "look". This is good for their brand, but limits their diversity. The first step in what I do is break down the lighting of the "key" images. Sometimes I start with the "background" and match the subject (like with the first images). Other times, I have the subject and need to go shoot/find some backgrounds that will work (like with the images of Gal Gadot, and Audrina Patridge in the fourth-sixth row below). The seventh row is color conceptional compositing form Candy Land. The last row is images from my Manga shoot and the Life Aquatic shoots in Genlux. Each of these stories has their own blog entry showing how they were created.
The Learning Curve
The first experiment worked quite well. I was able to create convincing "outdoor" light that matched my background plates. My post production skills included being able to drop the girl in, match the grain, balance the tonality, adjust depth of field, and most importantly, get the hair to be correct and not looked "cut out".
With this test behind me, I decided to pitch it for an editorial with Gal Gadot for Lucire Magazine. In her shoot, I went through my archive of "desert images" and found some backgrounds from Lone Pine, CA, Tucson, AZ, and Joshua Tree, CA. The distance between these are significant. This shoot would have been a four day shoot with over a 1000 miles of travel. The cost of this shoot with a team and crew would be well over $30,000.00 at editorial rate and a $150,000.00 commercial shoot. Plus, you would never be able to get a celebrity to clear four days out of their busy schedule for an "editorial shoot". The solution is to composite the "studio location".
After successfully doing the black and white shots, I noticed that the Gal Gadot color ones were not working. It was important to figure this out. I tried addressing this issue with a shoot I did of Audrina Patridge for Lucire. Determined to crack the color composite, I was able to only really get 1/3 to be satisfactory. However, I did learn quite a bit about about what NOT to do and was able to make some corrections.
The next effort was to composite a more conceptual shoot by introducing some elements created with CGI. This shoot was for Genlux's Candy issue. I was satisfied with the results of making the models exist in their background, but the background was fictional. The next two efforts were with Manga, A Life Aquatic, and Winter Fantasy (not shown here, but featured in CGI article). In these shoots I am more "fantasy" driven, pushing more aggressive composites. The most recent composite has nothing to do with CGI, but driven by placing a person in a practical, environment in a believable way. The model was shot in New York and digitally transported to Versailles. There are a few screen shots and iPhone snaps at the bottom, but best to read about this shoot in the separate article From Paris with Love... and a Laptop.
Building off this, I went a little crazy and decided to play homage to great surrealist painters (see: Sir-Realist and Hello Dali).
The beauty of editorial is that it lets me iron out these ideas, so when Fox and Time Warner Center came calling for "ad" work, I was able to deliver when it mattered. (see: the Impossible Shot and FRINGE).
Now, this idea is less foreign, but in 2008, there was debate as to if this should be called "photography". Back then, compositing was a whole additional skill set that was outside the capacity of "traditional" photography. It is still being debated, but as the newer generation of photographers move further and further away from knowing the distance past of analog film, the image creators of tomorrow will instinctively utilize the tools and technology to accomplish their vision. Photography is evolving, and so is the need of the visual communicators to keep up.