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Hollywood Glamour and Noir Portraits

One of my newest projects is ramping up to offer old school style of portraits in the Hollywood Glamour and Noir style. This type of portrait was made famous by photographers such as George Hurell in the 30s, 40s and 50s.  They were a very dramatic black and white picture with very distinctive light and shadows. Many times these were shot with fresnel hot lights that normally would be used to shoot movie films. Many folks have tried to reproduce this style of image using strobes, snoots and reflectors. But while these can get close, the old school equipment has some unique qualities that add subtle but very important changes to the image.

Hollywood Hotlight Glamour

Hollywood Hotlight Glamour

Lets take a look at the one of the biggest difference between shooting with continuous lighting vs. shooting with strobes. Many photographers of the digital age have no idea what a hot light (I’m referring to continuous lighting here)  is since all they know are strobes. In their mind, who would want to use a light source that is big, bulky, can run very hot (unless shooting fluorescent bulbs ), need AC power, barn doors, scrims, dimmers and more? The “disadvantages” are many in most photographer’s minds.

There is one very important detail among everything else that the hot lights excel at. And that is the small fact that since the light is continuous,  you can shoot as fast as you can hit the shutter. So when the model hits her/his stride in providing the EMOTION of the shot, you can catch it without fear of the strobe being in the middle of recharge cycle. Most strobes require a second or two to recharge unless the photographer is shooting with multiple strobes and the power levels dropped down to encourage the faster recharge rate. Or the photographer is shooting with very expensive packs that can recharge very fast. Either way, speed costs money, how fast do you want to go?This does not really apply if the photographer is shooting posed shots where the model is set in place and needs to hold that pose specifically, I’m talking about the more organic style of shooting where the model has some latitude on the pose. In the static poses, you can afford to wait the 1-2 seconds between pops of the flash since the model’s job is to stay still till told otherwise.

Other points in the hot light’s favor, in particular, in the fresenel’s favor is the ablity to focus the beam and that the light is fairly constant over the diameter of the beam. Also,  the beam has a naturally soft edge which is great for feathering the light on the subject and the ability to very quickly and easily adjust the shape of the light with barn doors. All of this leads to a very flexible lighting solution for portraiture shoots.

One more possible advantage is that with the hot light, the photographer does have to work around the model flinching every time the strobes fire off. This is not always the case, a model used to strobes would not normally  have this issue but a new model or someone who is a non-professional paying client will not be used to the bright strobes firing off in their face every few seconds.

For my glamour project, I looked at different brands of fresnel hot lights because I really wanted to recreate the old school hollywood glamour and noir images. So I went back in time a bit and decided I would use equipment close to what was used then for my lighting. I had tried strobes and I was not at all happy with the results. What really changed my mind was a shoot I went to a few months back that used hot lights and I had very little experience then with hot lights. I had grown up on strobes so I was really curious to why we would be using such old technology. I know that the film industry used continuous lighting but I could understand that but why use them with still photography? After shooting for a few hours and seeing how I could catch very small but critical changes in pose and expression, I got it.

So I went shopping to find some hot lights of my own. I could buy used lights but the bulbs can be very expensive if you dont know what you are buying but ARRI lights are bucks. I found some ARRI clones on eBay but over at Coollights, I found the same basic clone ARRIs, scrims, nice air cushioned stands, barndoors and a good quality roller case as a package deal. The ARRI package was 1800 and Coollights package was 1,100 USD. So for a savings of 700, I have what is for all intents, three ARRI 650 frensel lights, stands, scrims and case. The big difference is the stand mount, the cut edges are not as cleanly cut as the ARRIs and the aluminum is not beaded and coated. I can live it for now. I have pictures below of both lights

So what you do with hot lights? Set your white balance to tungsten and rock and roll. One piece of advice, get a light meter. It’s far easier to meter tungsten then trying to chimp when you have ratios of lights. I also bought 3 cheap speed controllers from Harbor Freight which are perfect dimmers for the hot lights to get the lights right on the money in intensity without having to move anything. Also get some toughspun for diffusing the light.

Hot Light Glamour Shot

Hot Light Glamour Shot

This shot was taken using a set of ARRI 650s. The shot below was taken with the Coolight ARRI clones. I could not find any difference in shooting with them or in post with them.

Hot Light Noir Shot

Hot Light Noir Shot

Above all, be careful and make sure everything is secure on the set. Use sand bags and plenty of gaffers tape to secure everything down. Hot lights are, well, HOT.. very hot and will remain hot for several minutes after you turn them off. Keep in mind your model is baking under the hot lights and so breaks every 10 minutes or so is the norm. It’s also very hard for a model to look directly into a hot bright light so dont think you will put a light head on and have the model gaze into it.

A parting trick is to get the 650 hot lights and then put in the 300 watt bulb if the 650 is too much all the time. You can always do down in wattage but not up. Also, using a dimmer to cut the output by 20% or so can give the lamp about a 50% increase in lifespan. The bulbs for the ARRIs and clones will set you back about 15-20 USD and they are rated at 200 hundred hours when used at full power. Never touch the glass of the bulb with your skin, the oil will cause the bulb to get a hot spot and burn out very quickly.

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Why spend money on the good stuff?

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We all like to save money dont we? I mean, business is a bit slow with the economy and whatnot so everyone likes to save here or there. There are coupons, deals, specials, closeouts, eBay and Craigslist.  But one place where it’s foolish to try and save too much on are your critical pieces for your business. Take computers for example. I use Macs..  I have twelve of them of various types and ages. My main computer is a MacPro dual quad. This was a three thousand dollar computer new, I bought it used off Craigslist last year from someone who bought it as a “trophy” and now needed cash. I ended up getting a great deal on it too. Why did I spend about double of a home brew clone that could have been hacked to run OSX? Because I tried the clone and after dealing with not working pieces, no support except what I could dig up on Google and spending HOURS getting it finally work right just to have it die on an update, I decided enough was enough. I could not count on it when I needed to work the most. Saving one thousand dollars was costing me more in lost time, productivity and more. It was cheaper over the year to buy the real Mac used then it was to try and save more by a hack job.

I still have my Hackintosh.. actually, I have two of them. I have a Dell netbook and my first tower with a single Quad. As it turns out, the Hackintosh works great as a media center in my office. Or it did until the EFIx card that let it run OSX died. So I ended up wasting a day putting it back together another way that did not need the card. And it reminded me why over a year ago I stopped using the Hackintosh as my main computer.

Sometimes trying to save money will cost you a considerably amount in the future. This lesson is why I buy the best camera bodies I can buy, the best lenses and the best software even though it hurts to write those checks. I get support, I get efficiency and I get peace of mind.  There are some places you can cut a corner or two and get away with it but you need to always think ahead and ask yourself, “what if”. What if your deal dies in the middle of a work day? What if your deal cant be upgraded? What if your deal turns out to be a trojan horse that ends up letting bad things on your computer (think bit torrents and the like). As a hobbiest, one  can get away with alot more than as a business person. Because as a business, there is far too much at stake ranging from your client’s images to your profits.

There are places you can save ALOT with some careful shopping. Take lenses for example, there are many high lenses for sale on eBay that are what I call “trophy glass”. Someone bought them when they were flush with cash and now they need cash. I bought my 17-55mm F2.8 for less than half of what a new lens would cost and I sent it Nikon for refurbishment. Even then, I was at a bit over half price of a new boxed lens and I had a “new” used lens. My 70-200mm F2.8 was the same way but not quite as a good deal but better than buying new by four hundred or so. One D300 was a factory refurb and the other came used from B&H and had a 30 day promise of replacement if needed. Both were several hundred cheaper than a new boxed camera. That right there more than paid for the MacPro.

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