Archive for the ‘lighting’ Category
Let me begin here by saying unequivocally, I HATE THE STUDIO! There, I got that off my chest. I love shooting portraits but I hate the studio. I am a location lover. Some folks really geek out in a plain, blank room. I don’t. A plain, blank room speaks nothing about the person you are photographing. I want them in their own environment.
That can’t always happen. We did a series of portraits of cancer survivors. The person I was assigned to shoot was asked to come to the studio. I had no intention of putting this woman in front of a piece of blank paper and making her picture. It was a cold day but I simply didn’t want some bland portrait. The photograph should speak to who she is or to what she has endured.
I took a stroll around the building then outside the building. The shadows on a fence that borders one side of the property looked good to me. The trees had no leaves so all you had were stark branches weaving this menacing patter. I figured that was a decent enough metaphor for a woman who had been through the darkness of a life-treatening disease.
I asked her if she would mind enduring a few minutes of cold to do the portrait. She was agreeable so I set up outside while our writer interviewed her in the building. I used a single SB28DX with a shoot through umbrella. I had to get it pretty close to make sure her face was light enough and I had to put her in a little spot of shade but not too close to the fence. I couldn’t have my light bleeding over into the shadows.
I rolled out a chair and placed her about 25 feet from the fence with the light nice and close. She sat down and I worked as many angles as I could to get something that felt right. She has a beautiful face and hair and that part was easy to work with. I used an 80-200 and I think I shot most nearly all the way stopped down to preserve enough detail in the background to keep the shadows in tact.
I could never have done this inside. I could have created some shadows on the background but never anything like this. I would still have preferred to have done the picture in her environment but I think this worked out okay. I didn’t keep her out in the cold weather too long and we were all happy. When you are tasked with a portrait, let the portrait speak. The photograph has a language that can be communicated with the face, the light, the environment and the pose. Use them to your advantage and don’t just settle for a quick snap in a studio when you can do something better.
Sometimes I go to work and I just know I am going to make a picture that day. I can feel it in my bones. When I went to work on August 29, I had that feeling. I didn’t know what assignments I had but I had a good feeling. I remember that feeling distinctly when I got up on the morning of Auburn’s BCS Championship Game out in Arizona. I went around singing the Black Eyed Peas song, “I Gotta Feeling.” That game was one of my best.
The assignment that jumped off the books at me August 29 was somewhat more local and somewhat less large, for lack of a better word, but the same feeling was there. The assignment was for a skydiving grandmother. The catch; she had already done the skydive on her 80th birthday the week before. What to do, what to do?
Obvious solution was to look to the sky. It was a beautiful day with high, clear blue skies. I thought I would just put the sun behind her and strobe her and I would have something. I starting plotting ways to get this person, whom I assumed to be pretty spry, in a pose that would convey the joy of flying through the sky. I drove out Danville Road filled with all kinds of hope. I was literally brimming with optimism. Then I got to the house. Wouldn’t you know it. The family lived in a secluded spot back in the woods with the house surrounded by really tall trees. There were only two spots of clear blue sky. Fortunately for me, the land was pretty hilly and would at least give me the opportunity to get below the lady.
Trudy Amon turned out to be every bit the delight I hoped she would be. She was very gracious and agreed to do pretty nearly anything I could think up. I went back outside to scout the location and set up the lighting. There turned out to be only one spot that would give me the right angle on the sun, an appropriate opening in the trees and enough blue sky to make a relatively convincing photo. I kept the lighting as simple as possible. I used a Lumedyne 200ws strobe in a small softbox. I used her grandson as a voice activated light stand.
Trudy agreed to lift her hands as if she were soaring through the skies. I had her grandson lift the light stand so the softbox was as nearly overhead as possible without getting into the field of view. After a couple of test frames, I had my exposure dialed in. Now came the tricky part. A normal camera angle was, well, boring. Painfully boring to be truthful. I started turning and twisting until I had an angle that was pleasing and tried vertical and horizontal compositions.
The frame I settled on as a favorite was a horrible twisted framing somewhere between horizontal and vertical that wasn’t really either; although, I obviously position the frame as a horizontal. You can actually rotate this frame to either a horizontal or a vertical. It gives me a bit of vertiginous feeling either way so I figured that was about the right way to do it. I left the assignment having met an enchanting woman and having fulfilled that feeling that I was going to make a nice picture that day. So I guess me and the Black Eyed Peas pulled one off out in the Morgan County countryside.
This is the twelfth installment in the Twenty Moments 2011 series.
A storm 37 years ago that killed two family members before she was born helped save Jennifer Adair’s life. The April 27th EF5 tornado completely destroyed her house with her inside. On April 3, 1974 an F5 tornado smashed homes on Ingram Rd. in Limestone County killing her aunt and cousin. The lessons learned in that storm were passed down to her. Jennifer found herself in an eerily similar spot after almost four decades when the massive tornado bore down on her.
At some point after the storm I had written in my blog that no one was home in the houses along Camden Court that were completely destroyed. I wrote that because one of the residents told me that. Jennifer read the story on this blog and responded that there were indeed people home in those residences and she was one of them. We agreed to meet at her destroyed home. The house had been leveled to the floor. Nothing above the floor was left standing.
On the day the storm hit she hid in an inner closet covered with every pillow and blanket she could find. The tornado’s most intense section hit her house. The eye of the twister literally passed over her. She remembered reaching up to grab a rack in the closet over her head to help her get up. There was nothing to grab. The only thing above the floor that was left was Jennifer. The storm had blown her house away and left her laying right where she was.
I remember arriving early to the assignment not having any idea what to shoot. I walked around and looked over the remains of the house trying to figure something out. The sky was great. I remember thinking that I would use that sky and underexpose it and use a strobe to light Jennifer. I used the remaining time to assemble a small softbox and rig it on the head of a Lumedyne strobe.
When Jennifer arrived she walked me over to the spot where she had been hiding. I had her kneel there and then the breeze blew that strand of hair across her face. I shot and I knew I would not have to shoot another single frame. I had the shot I wanted. I did shoot others but I knew in my heart that I had the shot. I think this is, if not my best portrait ever, my favorite portrait ever. This shot also set in motion in my cranium the idea to do as many survivor portraits as possible and I have endeavored to do that ever since. I don’t know what I will do with them yet but I have a nice set of portraits of storm survivors.
This is the tenth installment in the Twenty Moments 2011 series.
I was driving around the tornado disaster area in southern Limestone County on May 16, three weeks after the storm struck. I was looking for stories and pictures but, in all honesty, I didn’t expect to find anything. I know that is a bad mindset. Three weeks is a long time to invest in a single topic in the newspaper world. Three weeks and all the damage begins to look the same and, I really hate to admit this, but the stories start to sound the same too. It is a real effort to find a new angle and keep a fresh mindset. Everyone’s story deserves my best effort. The public had certainly not lost interest yet and editors were pushing for new material.
I drove around that day in that unproductive state of mind. I wandered down Bridgeforth Road in the Beulah Land community in Limestone County. This area was the first part of Limestone County hit when the tornado crossed the river from Lawrence County. It is not densely populated but the storm had smashed most of the homes in the area. The day was overcast which made the job of finding stand alone photographs even tougher.
As I drove down the road I saw this small, American flag stuck on top of a broken power pole. I have no idea how it got there. I assumed some power company lineman stuck it there. None of this registered. I passed it by looking for a story or a photo. Something about that flag on that pole just wouldn’t let go of me so I turned around and came back to it. I immediately saw the jagged pole with the flag against a stormy looking sky as something beyond a photograph. If I handled it right the photo could be a metaphor for the unbroken spirit of the people who endured the storm.
I decided on a low shooting angle. That was obvious. I knew I would need to strobe the picture because the light was flat and what light there was came from the sky which would silhouette the flag and pole when the sky was properly exposed. I set my lights to cross light the pole and used a 17-35 zoom. I crawled down in the ditch to get the lowest angle possible.
This photo really spoke to me. I felt rejuvenated after shooting the image and we ran a vertical version of it on our front page the next day. I later got the horizontal one published as well in a feature we call Behind the Lens. It is a photo column written by the staff photojournalists at the paper. I really love it when a photograph speaks beyond the moment and this one did that for me.
For goodness sake, light your interviews. There is nothing that says you don’t know what you are doing, or worse yet, don’t care about what you are doing, more than shooting interviews that are poorly lit or not lit at all. Think of those interviews as a talking portrait. I would never shoot a portrait that was not well lit, either using excellent ambient, or using strobes. But wait, “I can’t use strobes to light video,” you say. Tsk, tsk, tsk! My finger is wagging at you now because you are not thinking.
If you work for a newspaper you most likely have some kind of studio set up. Grab a studio light and pack it into your car and carry it with you. If you have a softbox take it along too. If you don’t have a softbox then use an umbrella. The modeling lamp will work great as either a main light or a fill light for you interviews. We have two Alien Bee strobes and a softbox. I personally have a set of Elinchrom D-Lite2 strobes that both have modelling lamps.
If you don’t have strobes and modelling lamps then find another creative method to light the thing. I have even thought of getting one of those big gazillion candle power hand held lights and fitting a small softbox on the front. I will do that someday as a good, cheap, portable light source. Just please, respect yourself enough and your viewers enough to light your interviews! A well lit interview is essential to presenting a quality product.
When you shoot that interview do it more than once. Shoot a segment and then move your camera to a second location. Have your subject tell you the same story again. It won’t be the same. No one can do that but it will be similar and it will give you a multi-camera look. When you edit later you can cut between camera angles. It adds diversity to your video and it looks like one of those well done interviews on the big TV networks.
Add motion wherever you can. Shoot your subject walking and talking or driving and talking or doing almost anything whether the subject talks or not. This will allow you to cut the video and audio so you have motion over sound. That talking head, no matter how well he is lit, gets visually boring pretty quick. Having the subject doing something else brings some visual diversity to the interview.
Related to that, shoot plenty or “B” roll video. That is video of anything that is relevant to the subject. It is similar to shooting those crucial detail shots that help you so much in a photo essay. Say you are interviewing a priest and he is wearing a nice crucifix. Get some cut away shots of the crucifix or the Bible or his robes or his collar. The more of these details you can add the easier it will be to move the story along visually. As a general rule, you can’t have too many of these.
One thing for a still photographer to remember is how important motion is to video. Have plenty of movement in your production. Have your subjects moving around when you can. Use movement in your “B” roll. If you incorporate stills you can add movement by using zooms and pans in your editing software. The one thing that can become distracting is camera movement. You can do this a little but camera movement can also make you motion sick. When you overdo the camera movement it looks like low quality work. Use a tripod! When you have to shoot off the sticks then find a way to brace the camera. Using a Dslr this can be quite challenging. I sometimes put the strap around my neck and hold the camera out in front of me so the strap is taught against my neck. This is a light duty brace that is free and it works reasonably well with shorter lenses. Of course, you can buy a rig if you have some money but most of the ones that seem decent are also very expensive.
Don’t be boring. Shoot with different lenses and from different camera angles. Use all the tricks you learned shooting stills. Turn them around and incorporate them into your videos. I am not willing to waste one tiny bit of my life looking at bad video on newspaper web sites, not one minute. If I see bad quality in the first ten seconds I am out of there and I won’t be back. Hook your viewers with excellence. Don’t ever give them an excuse to turn you off in ten seconds. No matter what you do in video, do it well.
I believe it is a slap in the viewer’s face to post crappy video. It just tells the viewer they were not worth the time to do a good job. If that is the way your viewers feel, they will not come back. On the other hand, if you give your best effort and do all you can to create a quality product your viewers will see that too. They will recognize good work and they will come back with the expectation of seeing more good work. This is not about generating a web hit once. You can post crap and generate one web hit, a statistic. A quality product will generate multiple web hits from that viewer and create a sense of loyalty in them because they will know that they are worth your time. Don’t settle for anything less.
It is summer in Alabama. It’s so dang hot you could cook an egg on my head! That means it is basically the off season in our sports department. High school sports wrapped up in May. Youth sports have had their all star tournaments. Nothing is really in season right now. We don’t have a major league baseball team close by so we are basically in sports down time. But we still have a sports section every day to fill.
That translates to a fairly large number of stories on kids from the area who have signed to play various sports for college teams. I have done three of these recently and shooting these stories usually translates into a portrait, especially in the team sports. Here is the drill. I have an assignment to meet an athlete at a venue, usually in the worst part of the day to shoot a photo, and the writer will be there to interview the subject. Did I mention it will also be hot?
Just so you know, down here in Alabama in July there is no such thing as good light outdoors at 2 pm. There is a better than even chance there will be a summer thunderstorm thrown in the mix just to spice things up a bit. Did I also mention it will be hot? If you aspire to be a photojournalist in Alabama you should be prepared to sweat, a lot.
There are three things that you must do to make a successful portrait in these conditions. First and foremost, you must find a way to control the light. The sun will be high in the sky creating deep, deep shadows. The angle of the sun will be bad and the quality of the light is poor so be prepared to strobe it. Two of my shoots were on softball fields and dugouts can be really friendly places to shoot except they will be nasty since no one has used the field in a couple of months. Oh, and the air doesn’t move too well in there which means, you guessed it, it is going to be hot. I am not just making fun here. The heat can be a problem for both you and the athlete.
The dugout at least gives you the opportunity to control your light more. In some cases you can use the indirect light coming from the field as your primary light source. It will have a warm color cast, at least in Alabama because the dirt is red, and it is a large source meaning it will also be soft yet directional. This eliminates the contrast issue and converts the outdoor location to a poor man’s studio.
The second thing you must do is get the athlete comfortable in front of the camera if they are not already. Keep in mind, most of these kids don’t know how to behave in front of the camera so they will need lots of direction and reinforcement that they are doing a good job. This just comes naturally for most people who work with the camera all the time because you want the subjects to relax. However, sometimes a shoot just goes sideways. Whenever that begins to happen I just tell the person I am shooting that it is my fault which is often more true than not. Most of the time though, photographing a high school athlete is a great experience. All three of the ones I shot were wonderful girls to work with.
The third thing is a bit out of your control. Props help. I always ask the subject if they have a ball, bat, glove or any other equipment appropriate for their sport. They might have some gear from the university they have signed with. Anything helps. This solves two problems. When the subject is holding something they are already comfortable with they will relax more in front of the camera. Secondly, it gives you one extra thing to play around with in your composition.
I always brings lights to shoot these assignments. In my opinion, anything else is just lazy. I will also bring umbrellas, light stands, soft boxes and Pocket Wizards. I want to have every option open to me. Also, making a big deal out of the shoot can have the added benefits of making the person you are photographing feel special and it helps you sharpen your lighting skills. Nothing wrong with either of those things. Of course, when I did the portrait of Lauren Lindsey holding her bat I actually used a pair of old sweat pants I salvaged from the dugout and hung over the front of my Lumedyne to knock down the power a bit. Not sure how that made her feel! You will also notice I used some gels on one portrait. It didn’t work but it was worth a try. I should have only gelled on light but I did both so I got nothing but red. Duuuuhhhh.
Mistakes abound and I am showing you several in this post. I missed on light placement in one portrait of the gymnast and lost her eyes. I missed on the gels with another and on the portrait of Lauren with the bat I must have made half a dozen trips around the fence to adjust the lighting setup. She was very patient and must have thought I had lost my mind. I am pretty sure it was only heat exhaustion rather than a full mental collapse. Did I mention it is hot down here?
Photos copyright Gary Cosby Jr., The Decatur Daily. The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.
This is an object lesson in how to bomb an assignment and still salvage a photo from it. Well, sort of. I even screwed up the photo enough that I had to turn it into an illustration. Our managing editor Bruce McClellan was doing a piece on several people from the Decatur area who have worked on the Space Shuttle program over the last 3o years. He asked me to do a group portrait. That was my first red flag. I am absolutely irredeemably terrible at group photos. Never the less, I am always excited to work on a project to honor those who have served our country and this select group has done great service.
I actually woke up at 4:30 in the morning on the day of the assignment with an idea for the group shot. It was a great idea; however, the execution was problematic. The idea was to have each member of the team hold a flash and a pocket wizard and light themselves. Problem: I had five strobes and six Pocket Wizards so I could only do half the group at any one time. My original idea was to have the people pose in a staggered line, some closer to the camera and some further away. Let’s just say I had a severe case of editor cam, my expression for having an idea with no practical application. (Sorry to all you editors!)
I could not get the engineers to line up in a straight, evenly spaced line. No joke. I kept having to move them around an inch this way and an inch that way. Having them in a staggered line would have been unnerving for both them and me. I had to do two shots that overlapped exactly, having five hold strobes in the first shot and five hold strobes in the second shot then combine the two frames in Photoshop. Problem two: they really didn’t stand still. Problem three: I set all my strobes to 1/16th power and had some that barely fired and others that were blasting merrily away at a full stop over what the others were doing. I found a new definition of insanity!
By the way, did I mention it was hot and we were standing outside under a baking sun with no clouds whatsoever? And some of the people were up in years, one even using the walker. The vice was tightening and the clock was ticking. I finally succeeded in getting two frames where all the strobes at least fired and that was no mean feat. In most frames at least one strobe refused to fire. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! Did I mention that several of the people I was photographing knew more about light and optics than I will ever discover. NO PRESSURE!
After either succeeding, or more accurately, succumbing, I was able to shoot one guy, Russ Mattox who was being featured in the story. Now this was a great opportunity. We were shooting at the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville where there is a full scale model of the Shuttle mounted on its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters. It was making a fabulous graphic in silhouette against the sky. This, at least, would save the day. EXCEPT. There is always an except, you know. Except there was a composition problem that I could not solve. The sun was in a particular spot directly behind the rocket. I had to keep the sun behind the rocket. I could not move enough to eliminate a cluster of leaves in the upper left portion of my frame and it kept from encroaching and killing a beautiful shot. Try as I might I could not move enough to the right to eliminate the clump of leaves and not have the sun in full bore from behind the rocket.
Previsualization is both a blessing and a curse. When I saw this shot I was bang on determined to get it come hell or high water. There was probably another shot but this one was knocking my socks off I was determined to get it. I finally did all I could and just shot the dang photo with a cluster of leaves in the image. I knew I would take them out in Photoshop and have to turn a wonderful portrait into an illustration. This presents a bit of an ethical problem. The photo looks just like a straight portrait. Only the most discerning Photoshop geek would be able to tell I cloned out the leaves. I then darkened the sky to give it uniformity, bumped the contrast to darken the blacks and pop the blues. The photo was lit with a single SB800 on a light stand using an empty battery box for a snoot.
To tell the truth, I love this portrait. I love it even though I had to do something that I hate doing. We labeled it a Photo Illustration in the by line. I am not sure everyone even knows what that means. Here is what I want anyone who sees that tag to know about an illustration. It is just that. It means that the photo you are looking at is manipulated to such a degree that it can no longer be called a photograph because a photograph is supposed to be an accurate, even truthful, representation of what the photographer saw. My rule is if I have to do anything beyond making color corrections and cloning out dust spots that I introduced on a dirty sensor the photo either has to go in the trash or it has to be labeled an illustration. In the interest of full disclosure, I have cloned out the feet of a light stand, one that I placed in the picture environment, and not called it an illustration.
If you are going to do an illustration then a posed photo is certainly the place for it. You are already controlling everything in the picture from the location to the pose to the lighting so there is very little “real” in it. A portrait is already an interpretive situation so if you are going to do cloning then this is the spot to do it. Never the less, this bugs me and pushes me right to the edge of the ethical envelope. Even one more little thing and I would have just tossed it.
Now to complete my trifecta of errors, we wanted an individual profile shot of each person so we went inside and posed them in front of a mock up of the Shuttle. Everything looked great in the test and even on the LCD. When I got back to the office, EVERY SINGLE FRAME was overexposed enough to make toning and color correction an absolute nightmare. So there you go. It has been a while since I so totally screwed up an assignment. Thank God, really, for the good old photo illustration. Otherwise my goose would have been cooked.
On a final note, the 135th and final Space Shuttle mission lifted off successfully today from The Cape. Godspeed to all you folks. Have a great mission and thank you lucky stars that this photojournalist was not at the launch site. Who knows what would have gone wrong!
Photo illustration copyright Gary Cosby Jr., The Decatur Daily. The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.
The Fourth of July is a great day in America. It is the day we celebrate our independence but I sometimes wonder if, in the midst of cookouts, parties, fireworks and fun we haven’t forgotten what freedom really means. Veterans know. Warriors held captive in foreign prisons know. Those who serve protecting us from terrorists know. The families of those who gave their lives for freedom know.
The inconvenient truth about freedom is it is seldom, if ever, given. Freedom is won. Freedom is earned. To be honest, most of us didn’t earn it. We enjoy what someone else earned for us. For those of us who have not earned the freedom we enjoy it is incumbent upon us to express our undying gratitude to those who have. I enjoy the freedom to express my opinion about freedom because someone bled for that right. I didn’t bleed for it but I enjoy the right all the same.
What is really amazing about freedom is the price for freedom is paid by people from every ethnic group, every socio-economic class, every race. Men and women from important families have bled for it, died for it and they did so right alongside men and women from families no one ever heard of.
Do you know the most amazing thing about freedom is that the people who give it away are the people who did not pay for it. People who cast away their freedom did not bleed. Their relatives did not die in the quest to gain it. People who give away their freedom do so because they no longer appreciate what it cost. They fail to see its real value. They look at it like a third generation heir to a fortune. They did not earn it. They see it as a birthright. They fail to appreciate it and, worst of all, they scorn those who are willing to continue paying the price for it.
Here is my fear. We in America today are like third generation heirs to the family fortune. We look at freedom as our right but someone else’s responsibility. That attitude is what allows freedom to erode. After the 9/11 attacks, we ran to the government for protection and we were willing to give away some of our rights to feel safe. I disagree with the very idea. Safety is an illusion. It is like a vapor that takes shape for a moment then shifts, vanishes, is blown away by the wind. The truth of the matter is the government might be able to protect you from an invasion by a foreign army, might, but the government can’t guarantee your safety. They can’t guarantee you won’t die. They certainly can’t deter a single lunatic from setting off a bomb in a crowded public area. That is an illusion.
You have the right to be born free, to live free and to die free and if you happen to be safe along the way then you have something to truly be thankful for. Safety is not a right but safety can be a by product of freedom. There are no guarantees. Ask a soldier if he feels safe when he is on patrol in Afghanistan. Is he free, yes. Is he safe, no. But you are free because he has elected to put his life between you and an enemy that would kill you if he had the opportunity. That is real freedom. The very idea that someone would insert themselves between an enemy and an idea that all men should be free and that he would not value his life above yours or mine is amazing. When you think about it, freedom itself is amazing and the price of freedom, the price so many have been willing to pay, is more amazing still.
I photographed a man last week, Lieutenant General Frank Libutti, USMC retired, who is receiving the Audie Murphy Patriotism Award during the annual Spirit of America Festival on the Fourth of July. Gen. Libutti began his military career as a lieutenant on the ground in Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. In the opening stages of what would become Operation Buffalo he was sent in with a company of Marines to rescue another company that had been ambushed by the North Vietnamese regular army near the demilitarized zone. Libutti led an air insert mission to rescue the company under fire and bring out the dead and wounded Marines. He was wounded three times that day. The battle began on July 2, 1967 and would not conclude until July 15, 1967.
Libutti’s Marine Corp career ended with command of the US Marine Corp forces in the Pacific but that was not the end of his service to America. Libutti joined the NYPD as deputy commissioner in charge of the Counterterrorism Bureau. He then moved to the Department of Homeland Security overseeing intelligence operations as the undersecretary for Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection. Libutti will be honored July 4th in Decatur. He understands the cost, and the value, of freedom.
The photographic set up for the portrait was fairly simple. General Libutti’s father had painted a portrait of him at the time of his promotion to Lt. Colonel. It was near the head of a stairway which had plenty of open space to set lights. I used an Elinchrom monolight with a small softbox for my main light. I then put an SB800 strobe very close to the painting just to add light to the area of the face. I placed another SB800 in a collapsed umbrella to the left of the set to add a separation on the back side. I shot the portrait with a Nikon D3s and an 80-200mm lens.
On a personal note, meeting men like General Libutti is such a great side effect of my job. I look at the things he has accomplished in his life and wonder at how very close to death he came that day in Vietnam. I would say he maximized his opportunities. It makes me wonder if I am maximizing mine. What about you? Something to think about with your fireworks this Fourth of July.
Photo copyright Gary Cosby Jr., The Decatur Daily. The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.
I wrote in this blog following the April 27th tornado that the homes in Camden Court that were completely destroyed had no one home at the time the storm hit. I wrote that because someone I met there, and I don’t remember who it was, told me. I thought that was a great story until Jennifer Pitts Adair contacted me to let me know that she was indeed home when the storm hit and her house was totally destroyed, all the way down to the sub-floor leaving her laying in what used to be a closet. We exchanged a couple of emails and she agreed to tell her story to The Decatur Daily.
I contacted “my reporter,” Holly Hollman who covers Limestone County and we made an appointment. I arrived just about 15 minutes early to the assignment. I wanted to check things out before hand and try to form a plan. Two things struck me immediately. First, there was nothing left of the house except some debris laying around on what had once been the floor of the house. A few piles of brick and random pieces of what was once a house were laying around in the yard but a great deal of clean up had already taken place. The second thing that hit me was the absolutely awesome sky.
I have done several portraits of survivors since the storm passed and they have all been shot on clear days with deep, blue skies and harsh, direct sunlight. This sky had some cloud character in it and I wanted to bring that out in the photo. To handle the light, I would need to dramatically underexpose the sky and use some powerful strobe light to balance everything out. I felt like a darker sky, even on a relatively clear day, would convey something of the terror that came from the skies. The other unknown was I had no idea where Jennifer had actually been when the storm hit and where she was when it ended. So I composed a basic game plan and waited.
I used the time to brainstorm my light. I had a softbox that was actually made to fit on an AC powered Elinchrom strobe but I thought I could make it work temporarily on my Lumedyne which is battery powered. This is one of those “happy accidents” that I think God directs. I usually don’t carry my Lumedynes but save them for my freelance work. But that day I had them in the car. I was able to fit the Lumedyne reflector inside the mounting ring for the softbox but it was very loose and I had no tape to hold it in place and the wind was blowing. It looked like a small windmill as the wind blew and the softbox spun on the strobe head. At least it didn’t fall off. I finally figured a way to rig it so it wouldn’t spin. Now I had 200 watt seconds of battery powered storbe power to play with and a softbox. Things were looking up.
Jennifer arrived and I asked her to walk me through the day. She took me to the place where she had sheltered in what had been a bedroom closet. Jennifer told me she grabbed all the blankets in the bedroom and the pillows and lay flat on the floor and covered herself with the blankets and pillows. She was hearing the local TV weather as they watched it approach their tower cam located directly between her house and the storm. She knew she was in the path. Then the power went out. Seconds later the front edge of the funnel struck her home. This was followed by about three seconds of quiet as the center of the funnel passed over her then the noise resumed as the back half of the funnel passed over her. She reached up to find something to grab to get up but found only air. Everything was gone right down to the floor. A large dresser landed inches from her head but she came out with only a minor shoulder injury. Jennifer said when she emerged she was the only person visible. She thought everyone else in Camden Court was dead.
After hearing all this, I knew I really wanted to emphasize the sky and decided to shoot low angle. There was little left to show of the house. The first pose I asked her to take, kneeling in the spot where she survived the storm, was by far the best image. The wind was blowing and caught a strand of her long hair and blew it across her face and in that moment I felt I captured something special. I chimped the image and was blown away by the depth of the sky. I knew I had a keeper but we kept on shooting so I would have plenty of choices. In the end, this image stood out.
I really hope you guys can go to decaturdaily.com for the Sunday edition and read her story. I can’t tell you more here but there are ties to the 1974 F5 tornado that destroyed family homes and killed three relatives. Both she and her parents lost their houses in this storm. It is a really great story. It is worth the price of a subscription.
When you shoot assignments like this, having a plan is a good idea but the best idea is to listen to the person tell you their story. So many times you find out what to shoot and how to shoot it by simply listening. Having a an ability to listen to people will make you a far better photojournalist than you could be by simply following your own ideas.
Photo copyright Gary Cosby Jr., The Decatur Daily. The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.
In February 2008 I made a photo of a man named James Devaney standing, heart broken, in a debris field following the tornado that swept through Aldridge Grove community in Lawrence County. The tornado killed his daughter, son-in-law and grandson. His story broke my heart and the photo I made of him has never left me. I have carried Mr. Devaney around in my heart for three years now and I have thought of him often. I never thought I would see him again, much less see him again as the result of a tornado.
The April 27th tornado destroyed homes belonging to both of his sons in the Chalybeate community in Lawrence County. His granddaughter-in-law emailed me after the tornado and sent me a photo she shot of him in another debris field outside one of his son’s homes. She put me back in touch with Mr. Devaney and he agreed to let us do a story about his family. I know some of you are subscribers to The Decatur Daily and decaturdaily.com. If you are please take a minute to read the excellent story by Catherine Godbey, The Lord Has Been Merciful. It will wrench your heart.
Catherine and I visited Mr. Devaney outside the remains of his son David’s house which was pushed back between 20 and 30 feet off its foundation, part of the roof blasted off and the back wall collapsed. Fortunately, both his sons and their families were safe in a storm shelter and not injured. Both their houses are total losses and both plan to sell and rebuild elsewhere. I wish I could recount the entire story for you but that would defeat the purpose of a pay wall on our web site so let me just give you a taste.
The family’s exposure to tornadoes began with his mother’s home being destroyed in 1912. James was in one of the 1974 tornadoes while working as a plumber. Then the tornado in 2008 claimed three precious members of his family and the 2011 tornado claimed his two son’s homes.
On the day of the tornado in 2008, James said he went to the store where his daughter worked. She ran a cash register and he got in her lane as he always did. The final thing she said to him that day was “I love you daddy.” I just about broke up when I heard that but if those are the last words you hear then you are truly blessed. Late that night the tornado blew apart their home killing all three inside. When a tornado was evidently on the ground April 27th James tried, but could not get to, his sons. It took two agonizing hours before he heard from them that they were alive and uninjured.
Can you imagine the anguish he must have been feeling? I guess in all the world the anguish of not knowing is the most brutal anguish of all. I have no say in the matter but if I did I would say Mr. Devaney and his family have had enough storms to deal with and through it all he is able to speak of God’s mercy. There is an awesome faith at the bedrock of his soul.
I photographed James and his son David beside the ruin of David’s home. I had them stand on the porch David built which was the only thing that survived. If you look closely you will see a Bible laying on the porch. When they came down the steps, James picked it up and handed it to David who said it was not his. He did not know where it came from. I was blown there by the tornado and there it had lain since, a tattered and now well weathered copy of the scriptures. I am thinking that tattered old Bible was pretty symbolic for the Devaney family. They have been through a lot, may be a little tattered, but they are still there.
I photographed James and David with a really simple set up which I have used more than once in really harsh daylight. I used two SB800s on light stands bare and pointed directly at them. I dropped my ambient exposure down about one full stop below the metered value so the strobes could be dominate on the men. I shot using a low angle with a 17-35 and shot at ISO equivalent of 100. By pairing the SB800s I had plenty of pop to overcome the really hard direct light. The wind would have made it difficult to use a modifier of any kind anyway.
Photos copyright Gary Cosby Jr., The Decatur Daily. The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.