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.