An amazing week, full of unexpected twists and turns. I’ve photographed Ginni Rometty, head of IBM, arguably one of the most powerful women in the world and at the other end of the spectrum shot a portrait of a man dressed as the Grand Poobah levitating six inches above a stone floor. In between times I photographed a deer in a forest…
The point of the trip was to attend and photograph the IBM Academy ALT Conference where the senior members of the Academy discuss the future and what is to be done with it. I prepared meticulously for the trip, only forgetting to pack my reflectors and lens cleaning fluid! The flight was delayed and immigration helpfully delayed me further. The evening light as I approached Manhattan was absolutely stunning, so inevitably the cab became mired in traffic and a further delay of an hour ensured that I reached the hotel after dark with no photographs taken. A bit of a blow given that my cunning plan was to shoot both evening and dawn over Manhattan.
To make matters worse, I was expected at the conference at 1pm on Monday, so between taking some shots of Manhattan, visiting Calumet to pick up some supplies and retrieving my car from JFK, I thought my work would be cut out. Getting up at 6am, on my way out of the hotel, I wondered if it would be worth checking out the view from the upper floors. Into the elevator and up to the 23rd. My room had a view to the skyscraper across the street. Worse than useless, but the 23rd floor was another story. Hoboken can wait, this was good enough.
After breakfast, a visit to Calumet, something of a mecca for photographers in both the US and London, the shop is amazing, the staff friendly and knowledgeable and I count myself fortunate to escape without breaking the bank – I was very tempted by that Carl Zeiss 50mm though…
At the conference, I quickly realised that light levels would be chronically and abysmally low, and my brief, to provide shots supporting a theme of celebration without the use of flash looked optimistic at best. I’m not usually found on the celebratory aesthetic in any case, but this was a job and my customer a very reasonable and likeable man. I don’t know how many of you spend time with hard core geeks, they are lovely people but they tend to do “intense” rather better than “levity”. Additionally, some of them evidently preferred not to have their photographs taken. The solution to the first problem I had anticipated, so selecting prime lenses with f1.4 capability was the right way to go. Especially since that forced me to shoot from a distance to avoid a wafer thin depth of field… the pictures are not for publication sadly, but suffice to say that free alcohol warms even the geekiest of hearts…
The next day I had to shoot the conference speakers and then edit the whole thing into a three and a half minute video. Which was to be shown at 8am the next morning. No pressure.
Fortunately the conference went without hitch and the video was ready by 7pm. I was hugely relieved as even with the lenses I had, I needed to reduce noise, the light levels were so low. The video was played to a reception resembling rapture to these European ears and I was almost immediately asked to shoot some portraits for another IBM conference in the afternoon. That’s where the Grand Poobah was involved. In case you’re wondering, the levitation was achieved in photoshop, I shot the scene empty and with the subject, cut the subject out of one scene and into the other and burned some shadow onto the ground beneath the new position, to enhance the illusion. Finally I applied an old fashioned sepia tint to complete the effect.
What have I learned? Prime lenses are fantastic. I’m definitely a convert, colours seem richer, bokeh is out of this world and low light capability is stunning. In the trade off between noise and depth of field, I found I was right on the edge of unacceptable, but judicious noise reduction cleaned up the pictures perfectly. I also struggled with the artificial light – in the same room it varied between tungsten and fluorescent, so that was a constant thorn in my side. All sorted out in Lightroom later.
The most important thing I can impart is that if your subject is lively and energetic, as one of mine most certainly was, you have two essential things to do. Firstly take lots of pictures, secondly, learn to anticipate their behaviour. You could use burst mode and select the right frames. I used aperture priority and set the ISO to the minimum required to generate a shutter speed of 1/100 seconds. That way there was no motion blur at all.
Finally, a surprise. I took over 400 shots in two days and pruned that down to about 65 for the video. I had about five spare, the rest were unusable for any other reason than parody. People walking in front of the lens, eyes shut, excruciating and unfortunate expressions used up the remaining 335. I’m guessing wedding photographers will be only too familiar with this situation.
Anyway, the surprise. I left the venue, pretty much worn out, without resetting the camera to my normal settings. As I walked to my room, I heard noises in the woods to my left and as you do, decided to investigate. The culprits were a pair of deer, an adult and a fawn, feasting on low hanging leaves from the bushes. The gloom was deep but my camera was already set. To my astonishment, the adult scarpered but the fawn remained and I was able to get within twenty feet of it to take this portrait with a 135mm prime that just happened to be still attached to my camera.
I learned a lot about luck and synchronicity on this trip. The conference? Absolutely fascinating. A fantastic experience that I’ve really enjoyed. Flying back to blighty tomorrow evening.