Setting Up From Scratch
Perhaps the most challenging form of photographic expression is the ‘scene-from-scratch’. It requires no more skill than any other photograph of any other scene. It demands the same level of achievement. It requires the use of photographic techniques like any other photo. It may require a certain amount of experimentation like any other shot. However, the ‘scene-from-scratch’ also requires you to construct the scene itself to which you will apply your photographic skills. It is a skill that is different to the photographic process.
The picture above, ‘De Pens’, is one such ‘scene-from-scratch’. I spent days attempting to visualise how I wanted the scene to look. I raised questions for myself and wrestled with my imagination over the shot. Familiar? Well, here are some ideas to help you through the creative process and to get you to the shoot.
Crystalise your idea:
The creative process always starts with an idea. It is usually unclear and unformed. So you need a vision. Creating a picture in your head does not come easily to everyone. However, with practice you will be able to ‘see’ a scene in your minds-eye that is the vision you seek. You can develop that facility by practising the placement of each element of the scene. Start with one item. Observe it, become completely aware of all its facets – know it intimately. What is its size, weight? Is it coloured? Is it shaped how you want it? Is it the one you want or do you need another similar one? Once you know that item, then you can look at others. Is the first item alone? What is its position relative to other things in the scene? How many other things? Once you are seeing these things in your head you can move them around your scene in your head as well. Now you have begun to crystalise the scene and to create the vision. You are aiming at having a picture in your head that is the final scene you want to achieve – in glorious perfection. Once you see the scene how you want it in the final photograph you are ready to start putting things together…
Practice creating the scene:
This helps to crystalise the vision and to put the technical issues into perspective. Creating a shot, like mine above, you need to consider many things. Will the shiny plastic create nasty highlights? Will bright light cause the loss of colour? How will the pens be held in place during the shot? And, many other questions come to mind. Laying out the scene Will help your thought experiments. It will also help you to understand what techniques you will need to use for the shot. Perhaps most important – you will be able to anticipate problems.
Create the lighting:
You need to consider lighting in every photograph. After all, a photo is created only by the light. Start by trying out the lighting in your crystallisation process. So, think of these…
- Soft light – How are you going to diffuse it? How far away? What source? Shadow/blacks control?
- Hard light – How are you going to focus it? Distance? What source? Highlight control?
- Coloured light – What colour, hue depth? What creates the light? Natural, artificial, filtered?
- Other equipment… reflectors, diffusers, gels, boards, speedlites, cables, radio connectors…
Even simple shoots sometimes require purchasing in advance. I had in mind a shoot involving peppercorns. Fascinating little seeds, especially when seen close up. There are a number of species that produce peppercorns and I wanted as many types as possible. Surprisingly, it took me three weeks to find a supplier of mixed peppercorns. So consider a shopping list as early as possible or your shoot may not go well on the day!
Think about what you will need for the shoot – especially if you are on location. Some things – camera – are obvious. Some not so… I forgot a memory card only once! I was thinking more of which lenses are appropriate. Make sure you have an appropriate tripod. Is your lighting sufficient and mobile. I have a pair of 1000watt studio lights. They have batteries for location work, but not so good to take up a mountainside. Advanced thinking about what you need will help you to organise for the day. By the way, experience has taught me that on location you should always have two colours of ‘gaffer tape’ and about 8 studio clamps. Works for me anyway. Do you require any special photographic equipment? Don’t forget cables. Nearly everyone does at one time or another – and lens cloths.
Being creative is about learning techniques perhaps even developing them. However, if you are planning a shoot of some kind where you need a specific technique it makes sense to learn and practice it before you start your shoot. I was once invited to photograph a rare orchid in the wild. It was at a site of special scientific interest. I was quite excited – this was a secret location and I was privileged to be there. My friend had arranged the morning and we turned up with our macro lenses and everything we needed. What I did not know was my friend had no idea how to use his new macro lens. I spent most of my precious morning teaching him and not photographing orchids! What a waste of a shoot. He lost out too. Make sure you practice to get the standard of results you need for your shot before you start your shoot. Otherwise you may get nothing reliable or worthwhile from it.
Clothes and Props
It may sound obvious – it’s not. Weather can turn suddenly. So you need to be sure that you have what you need to stay warm, dry and safe when on location – especially if you are outside. Models or subjects need to do the same. You also need to have the clothes or props required to be able to create your scene. Often, when on location there is quite a lot of standing around. If you are the photographer you are responsible for direction AND safety. Make sure you keep everyone safe and warm. That includes making sure the props are safe (and not likely to blow over or fall down and injure someone). If out in winter you may need to lay on accommodation or shelter for anyone on the shoot with you. And, even back in the studio, you need to make sure that scantily clad models are warm and alert. A scantily clad young lady with hypothermia does not look sexy – no matter what she is wearing!
Planning for the Shoot
If it is just you and your camera, you can just have a go. If it does not work, well, you can try again. Factor in a few resources and even one other person and you have a different ball game. Suddenly you need to be organised and well set up in advance. I have always tried to impress on people that they should know what they want to do on site before they set off. So have a plan. Even if it is a sketchy one. Everyone makes some things up on the spot. Some people have nearly everything planned down to the last crisp for lunch. Do what you can – and note where you made mistakes. Keep notes and lists for next time. The actual shoot scene should always be drawn out or laid out with a model in advance so you can partially realise the visualisation in your minds-eye. Then you are ready for the site when you arrive. In the studio, on the dining room table or even on the bedroom floor, a planned scene can help you decide how to start and what you might do if it does not work out. A good starting point helps you get ahead from the off. It also helps you be more confident in changing things if you can play around with preconceived ideas on a model or drawing rather than start moving things around a lot just to experiment. So have some ideas ready for change if your first idea is not good. Make sure that your contingency plans include an alternative shoot in case the original plan is blow away by something unforeseen.
Review and Feedback
Has it gone OK? Was it a disaster? What did you forget? What did you need but did not realise you needed? Who did what wrong? What went right. What do you need to know for next time? I could go on and on… there is a lesson here. Write down all the things you need to remember. Create a list of all the things you need. Make a note of the good, the bad and the ugly. I keep a little notebook of lists for such occasions. Make sure you get feedback from any participants too. If they tell you they were fed up, take note! You may want them again. They sure won’t come back a third time if you mess up on the second attempt. So fix your ways!
The renown French scientist Louis Pasteur famously said: “…chance favours only the prepared mind.” Photographers take note. If you have properly organised yourself and prepared in advance you will be more likely to get a good result from your shoot. Unhappy accidents happen to those who rely on chance and have not prepared for an unlucky event. Clear ideas, the best equipment you can muster, planned activities and contingencies and appropriate safety precautions make things go faster, safer and more efficiently. And, you get a better result.
My Still-life Photography Adventure!