Sunday, April 13, 2014

From Concept to Print

The Anatomy of a Season Brochure - by Mark Kitaoka

I can easily recall my first days pursuing photography in a 'serious way.' Back then I was worried about what brand/type of camera I should buy, which lens is best for this and that. Like most I scoured gear sites and followed photographers who I admired. As I progressed I found that I focused less and less on gear and more on lighting and expressions since people were my primary focus. I still had my day job so photography was my primary hobby, hence the stakes weren't very high. If my images didn't garner me any income it was no big deal, I could still put gas in my car and food on the table. But as I moved closer to becoming a full time commercial shooter I often wondered how a professional photographer began his or her concept for any campaign. How do they determine the mood of an image? How do they locate venues? How do they figure out how to light a scene? If I really make the leap to do this what happens if the client doesn't like the work?

Before actually shooting professionally whenever I viewed commercial imagery I use to arrogantly think to myself "Oh sure, if I had models like that in venues like that I could shoot pictures like that!" Hah what an arrogant little pipsqueak I was when I had those thoughts! A very large part of being a commercial photographer is getting oneself into those situations, which is a whole different skill and may be an upcoming article, but for now I'll explain how my session for Village Theatre's Season Brochure transpired.

In December 2013 the Marketing Director contacted me and inquired if I'd assist her in developing their new 2014-15 Season Brochure. So in early January 2014 my partner and I along with our favorite freelance graphic artist met with the Marketing Director, Artistic Director and Executive Producer. They were completely open to concepts for their campaign with the only direction being "Mark, the campaign must be magical and we really want to attract new audience members while not alienating our existing subscriber base." So I asked a very simple question, "What makes Village unique in the Seattle theatre community?" After a very short pause the Artistic Director simply said "Unlike many theatres who rent most of their production pieces, we create everything for our performances. The sets, the costumes and scenery." So I replied "Well, how about if we build the campaign around Creating Art which is what you do? We can carry that theme throughout the year on social media and in print. Behind the scenes imagery of builds, costume design, etc." They agreed and we were off to the races.

This is the first time we've had so much input into a company's season brochure. Having this much skin in the game is both a blessing and a curse. Since we had complete control over the creative process with our only goal direction as "magical" imagery, the lighting and mood of each production image was completely in our hands. If the imagery didn't meet that goal then we failed and there was no one else to blame.

So I'll give you a little insight to each shoot....


One of the most important aspects of this session was to have the young lady appear sexy, but not too 'clean.' I needed her to appear as if she had been 'in the business' for some time, not a fresh new dancer. Because Seattle's weather can vary greatly in winter I needed to shoot all of the sessions indoors. After walking around their backstage area I found this fantastic scene, a metal spiral staircase located in a very dark corner of their backstage....PERFECT!

On the day of the shoot the crew was into a backstage build for another production so it was both crowded and busy. The area just in front of the staircase was the primary foot traffic thoroughfare for the construction workers and crew. I could NOT place any lighting or grip gear in front of the staircase and I was asked to make as little distraction as possible for the workers. Gulp.... since I had asked that Katy be dressed in thigh high fishnet stockings with garters and barely anything else my light placements were the least of my worries about distracting the crew!

I first began by lighting the staircase from above using a simple 7" cone reflector on an Einstein strobe. The overhead light was placed 8 feet up from the model's position. I wanted the overhead light to do several things:
  1. To give me depth and highlights to the industrial look of the environment.
  2. To illuminate the top of the hand rail which would lead the viewer's eye down to the model.
  3. To give some dramatic shadows on the wall behind the model.
  4. Give the model a more specular look to add a harshness to her character while simultaneously separating her black wig from the black environment.

I had to shove the key light behind the staircase to keep from impeding the crew's foot traffic. By placing the 39" Deep Octa just out of frame but very close to the spiral staircase center column, it prevented any shadow cast from the column itself. I only used the interior diffuser to allow for soft yet specular light on Katy.

I always make it a habit of showing the talent what I am trying to achieve after taking a few test shots so they are comfortable with the scene and know how they appear on film. I am shooting here with a Canon 1DX with a WFT-E6A wireless transmitter attached. I have my camera set to RAW plus JPG and send the small JPGs directly to my iPad2 using ShutterSnitch as my app.

The final shot on the staircase

Oftentimes images are not used and hit the cutting room floor. It's just part of the deal, but I wanted to show you an alternative shot I had done on seamless to explain my use of negative reflectors.

Just like silver/white/gold reflectors, negatives are just as important to my work. Here you see my key and only light camera left with the negative reflector on the same side as the key light. You may ask why in the world would I choose to do that? Well because the negative gives me just a touch more added contrast to that side of the talent. Unfortunately I don't have a comparison photo, but trust me, the added subtle contrast is something I feel adds to the image. Try it!

Mary Poppins

This production is so iconic that I didn't want to mess with things too much. I did however want Mary to have some movement over the normal "Mary standing straight up while floating through the air over homes." I wanted a sense of movement to the shot and also wanted the final image with graphics to appear night nocturnal. So I opted to light her from camera right and about seven feet behind the talent. This would illuminate her face in profile and give some dimension to the umbrella and carpet bag. I also added a silver reflector to camera left to slightly fill in her dark dress on the opposite side of the key light. I could have used another strobe instead of the reflector, but the bounce from the silver was perfect and I didn't want to lose the shadow in case the graphics person wanted to use it in the final poster. (He didn't, but options are always good) After a test shot I also opted to bounce just a little more light off the white seamless so I used another Einstein with a common silver umbrella to give the talent just a bit more fill.

To add dynamic movement to the final image I asked the talent to gently swing her carpet bag back and forth. I had Tracy hold her scarf and the bottom of the dress out of frame and when I yelled out "Now" to let both go. I timed her carpet bag swing on the downward arc and had Tracy release the scarf and dress hem to get what appears to be movement in the shot. Adding just a little angle and houses for Mary to fly over in post production and we were all done with Mary!

In The Heights

This show is all about urban street dancing so I did one of my favorite lighting techniques to replicate outdoor sun...bare bulb strobes! Yup, no modifiers whatsoever. I first placed two Einsteins on a single light stand and took two shots. Epic fail! Even though I had the strobes very close to one another on a single stand I got a double shadow, something I did NOT want to happen. The graphics person and I had originally wanted to place the shadow of the dancers on a post production brick wall so the shadow was important. (He ended up not using the shadow, but that's part of the game too).

So I upped my ISO to 400 to compensate for eliminating one strobe and started shooting. The strobe was place about 12 feet in the air, camera right and behind me to achieve the harsh shadows and outdoor sunlight effect.

Around the World in 80 Days

For this shot in addition to what wardrobe had planned I asked for two specific props, an old fashion pocket watch and a scarf. For me the pocket watch represented time (80 Days) and the scarf would give the image movement. (Around the World, remember?)

Lit with my Deep Octa on an Einstein as the key light camera left, a silver reflector very close to the talent on camera right and a single strobe bounced into a white reflector camera right for a slight fill behind the talent.

The final shot, again adding motion by having Tracy drop the end of the scarf to create movement in the image.

No Way to Treat a Lady

I was not too familiar with this production, so I had to read the script. It's about murder and I had to photograph a gorgeous woman who appears dead. Sounds easy right? Hahahahaha! I don't have any BTS images for this session so I'll simply say that getting the key light that low without distorting the shape of the Elinchrom was not easy. I simply ended up having Tracy hold the bare Einstein with the Deep Octa by hand while I was straddling the talent on a six foot ladder to take the shot hoping with all hope NOT to drop my 1DX on her face! I used a negative reflector to camera left to kill as much ambient as possible. And yes I used a very shallow depth of field to ensure that her face was the star of the image. f1.4 on my Canon 85mm f1.2 II

Hero Shot

For the brochure cover we wanted something magical and ethereal. So wardrobe supplied me with two dresses and I ended up selecting the one you see in the final shot below. Shot with the Elinchrom/Einstein combo camera left just out of frame. Camera right is another Einstein shot at minimum power through a 3x4 scrim with a one stop ND gel to maintain shadow. A reflector was just not quite enough and even at minimum power the Einstein was too bright, hence adding the ND gel. I had the talent leap off a small apple box to gain the movement and float I wanted and to flow the garment.

Throughout this session, you may have noticed I used the Deep Octa 39" modifier quite a bit. I found that it offered me the best quality of light for these sessions. Removing the outer diffuser or leaving it on allowed me to adjust the characteristics of the light. There's something special about the Rota that I find compelling. It's not my only modifier, but for these sessions it was the perfect choice.

Final posters with graphic treatment

So here they are all finished with the genius graphics treatment. Once the Marketing Director presented the final artwork to the Board of Directors I got an email that simply said "The Board LOVES the brochure. Thanks so much Mark." Whew, remember in the commercial world, you're only as good as your last session.

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