I’m a bit… sorry, a LOT slow. I wish I’d had Lightroom back in 2011. Soz… Samantha Grace at Casa Dracula.
I’m a bit… sorry, a LOT slow. I wish I’d had Lightroom back in 2011. Soz… Samantha Grace at Casa Dracula.
This is part twenty-two in a series of blogs on my photography adventures at ZoeFest X, in Todos Santos, Mexico.
You’ll recall that my decision to rent a car for the duration of ZoeFest X was turning out to be a fine choice. Before leaving Chicago, I had imagined that I might have only used it for driving the two hours from the airport at Los Cabos up Federal Highway 19 to our temporary home in Todos Santos, and then back again at the end of the trip.
However, it was really handy to be able to explore Todos Santos when scouting locations and picking up and driving models to our shoots. The added bonus was that no matter where I was headed, there was usually a model or two or five who needed a lift to the same place. Sometimes we just ran errands. For someone experiencing his first ZoeFest, it was also the perfect way to get to know everyone in the short time we were together.
I really do find that my photos of anyone are usually better the more I know them as a person. I always try to find something interesting about anyone I’m photographing beyond their obvious physical beauty. That little added connection really does make all the difference when capturing the essence of someone.
One day, near the end of our ZoeFest adventure, I was relaxing between shoots at the Hotelito when Rebecca, Ella Rose and Candace Nirvana (whose blog entry is coming very soon – promise!), asked me if I wanted to explore a little vintage shop up the dusty road between the Hotelito and Casa Dracula. It sounded like fun so we piled into my rental car and set out to find it.
Rebecca said she was pretty sure she knew where it was. And soon enough we spotted a little unmarked driveway that was near to where she thought it might be. We had found it, although you’d really have to know it was there to find it. I had driven past it nearly a hundred times during the week and never noticed it. If there was a sign, it was very bashful.
We parked and walked into the slightly organized main room piled high with used clothing and discarded flea market fair as only a shop like this can accomplish. The trio set about rummaging though racks and racks of clothing looking for those finds that can only be uncovered by picking through everything. One by one they brought out armfuls of potential finds to where I happened to be standing, near the only semi-full length mirror in the place. And of course, the mirror was for sale as well.
The parade of first holding up the potential find in front of the mirror and then quickly trying it on if it made the first cut proceeded as I stood by, offering my best honest opinion to the, “What do you think,” stream of questioning.
I have a long history of rather enjoying clothes shopping with women. I’d have to admit I’d rather find myself in a small upscale boutique than a sports bar. It’s one of the few quirks in my man wiring that makes me more comfortable in the Chanel store on rue Cambon in Paris over the ESPN Zone. I know. I don’t know why either, except I’d rather be looking at a pair of strappy Guiseppe Zanottis than looking under the hood of… well… any car, I guess. I’ve stopped asking myself.
I have a good reputation for actually helping with my point of view when asked. I remember a few years ago when a friend of mine was in the very early stages of a new relationship and it had escalated to a weekend getaway that required swimwear. She was panicking. After a desperate phone call, I found myself in the women’s dressing room of Marshall Field’s as my friend auditioned many swimwear options.
When she walked out in a particularly flattering deep blue one piece, my natural reaction of, “Wow!”, resulted in several heads popping out of the doors of other nearby changing rooms. The women all wanted to see what would hereafter be referred to as “The Wow Suit.”
Back in Todos Santos, it was more miss than hit. Sometimes the find you’re hoping is in this rack somewhere, simply isn’t.
I took a short break from being mirror attendant to take a phone call from a friend of mine who was inviting me to dinner without realizing I was 2,500 miles away until we were a few minutes into our conversation. When I gave him a brief report on my photographic adventure in Baja, he laughed. “Of course you are!”
My friends are hard to surprise anymore.
After about 20 more minutes, Rebecca, Ella and Candace felt satisfied they had not overlooked the find of the century. They had found a few things. Worth the trip, but not quite the treasure trove we were perhaps hoping for. We piled back into the car for the short drive back to the Hotelito.
I’m sure I looked. I would never back up without looking first. Perhaps I was distracted. All I know is that I hadn’t moved the car ten feet before I heard a sickening crunch.
I pulled forward and got out of the car, angry with myself for not being more careful.
Wow. I really had crushed my back bumper. The trunk was also pushed up a inch or two.
Luckily, the van… yes, it was a great big giant blue van I backed into, was pretty much undamaged. Although my relief only lasted a few moments before the owner of the vintage shop, having heard the crunch, ran out to the parking lot waving her hands above her head in great distress. Her level of upset was a little out of proportion to the actual damage to her van, but I find it’s best to let people get it out at full volume before we can bring it down a few notches to calm and reasonable.
Eventually she realized my car was in much worse shape than hers was and the little mishap was relegated to just being one of those things. She walked back inside the shop and we drove away, a bit more cautiously this time.
Our car ride was a little on the quiet side for a minute, until I revealed my philosophy on things like my little accident.
“Whenever something like that happens, something involving a thing, be it a car or a camera or a some other thing, I always imagine, what if it hadn’t been a thing? What if it hadn’t been a stationary van I backed into? What if it had been a child playing behind the car? Or one of them? I would be so wishing it was just a fender bender. I would be wishing I could give anything to turn back time. A thing can be fixed. Replaced.”
I’ve had a few camera mishaps in the course of my career. My beautiful Hasselblad dropped into 12 feet of water during a pool shoot. (It lived after a trip to Hasselblad repair.)
A $3,500 lens slipping out of the backpack of one of my assistants on location and crashing four feet to the ground onto pavement. (It also lived but the protective UV filter did it’s job and was sacrificed.)
I’ve always reacted the same way. I imagine that it always could have been much worse. Something living and irreplaceable. We agree to have learned a lesson and to be more careful next time. And we move on.
Besides. I had purchased the maximum amount of insurance the rental car company offered.
Always buy the insurance. Always.
Then you simply hand the rental car agent your keys, apologize and take the airport shuttle to your gate.
Next time: Models with Cameras and why that’s perfectly okay with me.
This is part twenty-one in a series of blogs on my photographic adventures in Todos Santos, Mexico.
It was almost exactly a year ago as I write this that my ZoeFest X adventure began. You’ll recall I received several emails from the incredibly talented photographer, Zoe Wiseman, about her annual artists retreat that would be taking place in Todos Santos, Mexico in the Fall.. After agreeing to her invitation, I clicked over to one of Zoe’s websites, ARTnudes network and began to investigate the portfolios of some of the international models who were also invited. I had some research to do and names to learn.
One of the first portfolios that jumped out at me was the work of Australian model Anne Duffy. It’s not exactly that I have a type of model I prefer to work with, but one look at my own portfolio reveals that I do have a penchant for photographing brunettes. Something about the contrast of hair and skin that rings my bells. And Anne is the brunette-iest of brunettes. With lovely porcelain skin. She immediately went to the top of my wish list months before I would arrive at ZoeFest.
When we all arrived in Baja six months later, I’ve mentioned that we all got a chance to meet and re-meet for those ZoeFest veterans, but the Aussies were delayed a bit coming from the other side of the planet. So late in fact that I was walking out of the party, just as they were all walking in. But a flood of mental snapshots flooded to the front of my brain as soon as I picked Anne out from within her group. Every bit as lovely as I imagined. Even for being jet-lagged.
A few days later, we caught up under less noisy circumstances and firmed up our plans to shoot together. Anne and Anoush, who I had photographed a few days earlier, were staying at Casa Bentley, another of the boutique hotels in Todos Santos that our group had taken over for the duration of ZoeFest. It was a lovely paradise, just down the road from where I was staying at Todos Santos Inn.
Driving to meet Anne at her hotel, I realized I had lingered a bit longer than I probably should have with Brooke after our tremendous shoot earlier in the day and arrived a few minutes late for my shoot with Anne. Luckily, she was also running a bit behind and I had a few minutes to catch my breath and collect my thoughts before we would begin. We were all of us, slowly melting into Baja-time. Always a few minutes late, but arriving in a delirious state of peace and relaxation.
Anne invited me into her beautiful little room snuggled under a huge shady tree. When I walked through the door, I had to laugh. After shooting with nude models all week, I was surprised to see what looked like a collision between two wardrobe trucks spread out from wall to wall. Anne caught my amusement and reminded me that she and many of the other models had arrived at ZoeFest, mid-world-tour, and they basically had to bring everything they owned to be ready for anything that might transpire at their gigs before and after ZoeFest.
Ah yes. I stood corrected.
And since I was standing ankle deep in some lovely couture, it seemed like a good idea to deviate from the literal meaning of an art nude shoot and consider accessorizing for a something different. So Anne and I started hunting through everything, looking for things that I thought might be interesting to work with. It was difficult only in that Anne has excellent taste and my sorted “good pile” was quickly becoming more of a mountain than we could possibly shoot in one afternoon.
Eventually we narrowed it down to a more reasonable collection. Now, what to start with?
I had planned to take Anne back to Casa Dracula to photograph her there, but since I had barely scratched the surface of Casa Bentley as a location during my shoots, I wanted to find something there before we moved up the road to Casa Dracula.
I started to focus in on a vintage black lingerie set that we had put aside. Then I noticed a period lounge sofa near one of her windows. Anne was reading my thoughts as she pulled a string of pearls out of one of her cases. And there it was. Our first set up.
I took a few meter readings and adjusted the blinds a bit to even out the light. I switched to a shorter lens that had been giving me some trouble a few days earlier on the trip, but was the right focal length for the size of the room. I decided to fight through it’s ill-tempered nature and try to make the best of it.
Anne reclined on the lounge and suddenly I was in 1940. She was stunning. I framed up a composition of her looking up and back over her shoulder… and… click…
A quick review of the first frame was perfect except for the fact that it was completely out of focus. I was shooting wide open with a small depth of field, but literally nothing was in focus in the entire frame. Another frame was the same. Hmmmm. It was going to be a battle I could tell. Perhaps it was the sand or the heat from a week of shooting Mexico, but this lens was not cooperating.
However, sometimes you can take a bad situation and turn it into a good one. I flipped off the autofocus, which clearly wasn’t communicating with the focus point I was selecting in the viewfinder and switched to manual.
You may be saying, “But Billy, why don’t you shoot in manual focus all the time? Isn’t that a more professional thing to do?”
Well, yes, I guess. But there are a lot of things to delegate in my head when I’m shooting. I’m looking for lines and angles and how they flow together in the composition. I’m watching my model’s face, getting into a rhythm with her as she poses and adjusts and gives me another. I’m absorbing the feeling she is emoting, making sure the photograph I’m making is capturing that essence.
I’m watching to see if the light is changing if I’m relying on the sun for illumination. Has it just gone behind a cloud? Do I need to slow my shutter speed to compensate? In fact, with the exception of focus, my camera is already set for completely manual operation. The ƒstop, shutter speed, ISO, color temperature and other camera settings are all set by me manually before I click the shutter.
Even the exact focus point in my viewfinder is something I’m choosing. When everything is working properly, I usually let the camera and lens do the math and make sure that exact point is in focus for me, so I can concentrate on everything else. Except when it doesn’t.
Years ago, when I was learning how to be a photographer, none of my cameras or lenses had autofocus. Some of those old film friends that I still occasionally use to this day are completely manual cameras. Shooting with them requires a slightly different rhythm. An extra beat to rotate the lens focus ring back and forth between each shot to confirm focus. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a different pace.
So, since I was already standing in the 1940s world that Anne and I had created, I took a breath and slowed down. Anne adjusted to my extra beat and slowed her movement down as well. We were settling in at last. And the images were in focus.
About a dozen shots into the set, I was sure I had the photograph I was imagining and I shot another dozen or so, just to see if I had missed anything, but they really weren’t necessary. Anne was perfect and we had nailed it.
We packed up the rest of the couture pile and headed off up the hill to Casa Dracula. I had spent so much time there in the last week that I had already picked out a few places where I wanted to work with Anne. We headed upstairs to the survey the large and small bedrooms. The afternoon light was coming in the windows in a very inspiring way. Bright, but not direct, so the shadows would be subtle.
One of the pieces Anne had brought along was a vintage jacket with beautiful decorative fringe. It had a decidedly Mexican feel. Staying with the accessorizing theme, we decided to have her wear that instead of being completely nude. I could tell she really liked the jacket and I did as well. It just added a little something.
I had her sit on one of the beds in the large room, close to one of the open windows. I really love the flavor of light coming from a window like that. Directional, without being too harsh.
While setting up, I had misjudged my light reading and made a test exposure two ƒstops darker than I had originally wanted. Anne was almost invisible in the frame as I reviewed it, just a suggestion of light here and there to fill in her outline. A happy accident and I decided to keep the underexposed look for this setup, knowing I could most likely open it up a bit later in post if I changed my mind.
After the less than stellar performance of my uncooperative 50mm lens back at Casa Bently, I switched to my go-to lens for making beautiful portraits, a 100mm lens. I had much more space to work with now and could use something longer. Zoom with your feet, is one of my mottoes, and it was quite easy to find just the right composition by simply changing my distance from Anne in the large room.
After only about ten photographs, I once again felt we had the shot, but decided to continue a bit longer, making a dozen or so more photographs to give Anne a little time to explore before abruptly moving on. Always good to leave a little room for creative discovery when collaborating.
For the next set up, we continued with the jacket as Anne moved into one of the balcony doorways that overlooked the rear grounds. Still using my longer 100mm lens, I stepped into one of the adjacent bedrooms and photographed Anne through another doorway to give my compositions a little extra natural framing, which I like to do from time to time. I find it can give an image depth and it creates an interesting perspective for the viewer.
Anne continued to be wonderful. She gave me a series of natural poses that enhanced her smoldering beauty. I was having a difficult time deciding whether I preferred her looking directly at the camera or averting her gaze to something outside of the frame. Both options were gorgeous. Looking directly is always a more intimate relationship with the viewer, sometimes more than what I’m looking for, but her stare is so arresting that it just pulls you into the image in a very powerful way. I decided to shoot both and decide later.
We moved to another of the bedrooms where I had mentally reserved a smallish round chair near one of Casa Dracula’s front arched balcony doorways near a very plain wall. Beautiful soft light was entering the room once again and I told Anne I wanted her to try coming up with something acrobatic on this particular chair.
She looked at the chair, thought for a moment and figured it out in short order. As she inverted herself, carefully balancing on the none to stable chair, she beautifully arranged her limbs in a complementary direction that only a model of Anne’s caliber can do without looking, and upside down to boot. Making it all feel effortless.
After a few minutes of the blood rushing to her head, I had her return to vertical again and she found more lovely subtle poses as I made another dozen or so photographs. Another success.
We moved into yet another of the second floor bedrooms near where I had photographed Keira in the red mosquito netting. One of the beds in that room was against a slightly distressed wall painted in a very dark green. I thought Anne’s beautiful pale skin would be a strong contrast for the dark wall and she continued to find exquisite positions to stand and lean as I balanced my compositions with her inspiring movement.
I was feeling very satisfied with what we had done and asked Anne if she was ready to call it a day. It was a hot afternoon as usual and I try to avoid melting the models whenever possible.
“Really?”, she asked, surprised that I was considering stopping. “I have this other piece you might find interesting.”
She pulled out what I can only describe as a inventively knitted spiderweb and held it up in front of her. No, we were suddenly definitely not done shooting for the day.
“Ooh. Let’s head back outside for this one,” I suggested.
We returned to a location I had now photographed several times already on the grounds of Casa Dracula, but as is the case in Todos Santos at these magnificent locations, the light at different times of day reveal entirely different looks depending on where the sun is in the sky. Now nearing late afternoon, the wall was completely in the shade and where Anne was beginning to get set up, a sublime soft overhead light was doing wonders for the glow of her skin. Splendid soft illumination.
Anne against the gray wall was almost already monochromatic in its look even with my own eyes. Where some of the photographs of Anne in the bedroom I definitely knew would be color images, these I knew would be B&W.
Anne continued to find lovely poses in the empty environment. Sometimes balancing on one leg in the same effortless way I had grown used to seeing. We continued to work as I changed my distance from her a few times, experimenting by adding some natural elements into the composition besides the wall. But it was clear Anne needed nothing else to create a compelling image. Once more, beauty in simplicity.
Finally, we did call it a day and I was thrilled that I finally had a chance to collaborate with the first model whose portfolio had jumped out at me six months earlier. Anne was incredible to work with. A captivating beauty with a strong sense of who she is. I was very pleased we had decided to explore her traveling wardrobe. Something different for one of my final shoots at ZoeFest.
Thank you Anne for dragging so many suitcases so many miles. It was worth it.
Next, a slight detour from shooting as I accidentally damage the rental car.
This is part twenty in a series of blogs on my artistic adventures in Todos Santos, Mexico late last year.
Sorry it’s been a while. Alright. Where were we?
I had been photographing the lovely models of ZoeFest X for almost a week and somehow I had managed to photograph all but three in a fairly short amount of time. Sometimes three shoots a day in the hot Todos Santos sun. No complaints from me, however. Every shoot was unique and special in its own way. Creatively very rewarding.
Now it was time for my collaboration with Brooke Lynne . I first spoke with Brooke about shooting at the getting-to-know-you party at Casa Dracula the night we all arrived. Brooke has a reserved quiet quality about her. She’s also got a wicked fun side and she’s a self admitted nerd of the best kind, but if you want to experience it, you have to put your time in and be patient. It’s worth the wait.
I can’t say exactly what caused me to hone in on her that very first night. I’m usually pretty good a sizing people up, especially the ones that aren’t the life of the party. I know there’s something special there. They’re not in the spotlight… yet. But I got a feeling that when it would be her turn in front of my camera, I would experience something unlike I had experienced with other model shoots in my career. I can’t explain why. I don’t understand it myself. I just seem to be good at knowing these things.
I’ve had a long standing rule about shoots. If it’s a commercial shoot, everyone has to show up and put on their game face. Whether they’re under the weather, relationship unpleasantness or other personal mishaps, we’re all professionals and everyone puts aside any issues and we get the job done.
However, when we’re creating art, taking something in our imaginations and turning it into a photograph, there is a certain level of being in the right creative space that is very necessary to make something extraordinary. Creativity is not something you turn on like a light switch. It takes a bit of nurturing. If either my model or I happen to be having a bad day, I can see it in the photos. They’re not bad, especially if I’m working with a model at the level of everyone at ZoeFest, but it’s harder to go from great to amazing if we’re not both in the zone.
Brooke and I had originally scheduled our shoot for a few days earlier, after I photographed Meghan at the dam. But when I returned to the Hotelito to drop Meghan off and get ready for Brooke, I found her in the living room, curled up in a chair, looking lovely as always, but I could see in her face she wasn’t feeling it.
So I called an audible. “Hey Brooke, how are you doing?”
“I’m okay,” she softly replied.
I thought for a moment.
“Tell you what,” I said, “Sometimes today isn’t the day, you know? And I know everyone is going to see the baby turtles tonight right around the time we were planning to shoot. Do you want to maybe postpone our shoot for another day and just enjoy the baby turtles?”
Immediately her face lit up. “Really?”
“Sure. I have some time open on Sunday if you want to move our shoot.”
She checked her schedule and she had time on Sunday as well. Done.
It turned out to be a great decision. We all got to enjoy the turtles and it gave me a little more time to prepare something Brooke had suggested a few days earlier.
As I’ve mentioned before, my room at Todos Santos Inn was in the middle of a lush garden. Palm trees stretching up toward the sky with huge slender leaves that provided such welcome shade on hot days. Brooke had asked me if we might try something with one of the giant banana leaves.
“Do you thing you can get one?”, she wondered.
I was pretty sure I could. I had become friendly with one of the gardeners at the inn and I went about asking him how I might get a big leaf without causing undo damage to the lovely garden. I didn’t think it would be right to cut off a perfectly good leaf on my own. Perhaps he could find me a leaf that was in need of trimming.
My Spanish was pretty basic and certainly lacking in gardening vocabulary, so I had to resort to broken Spanish and a lot of hand gesturing.
I raised both of my arms in front of me and made a kind of giant scissors pantomime and said, “Uno palm, por favor?” I didn’t know the word for leaf. I then made the universal taking a photo pantomime of holding both of my hands up to may face in a box shape and clicking the imaginary shutter.
“Oh, sí, sí, señor. Uno momento,” he replied and walked off toward the garden. He returned with a large menacing pair of gardening shears.
I laughed, “No, no, señior. The leaf. Uno leaf.” I grabbed the edge of one of the giant banana leaves, trying desperately to make up for my language inadequacy.
He smiled. “Ah, sí.” And he grabbed the leaf as well.
“Mañana?”, I asked, thinking it might take him a bit of time to find me a leaf that was out of sight or nearing the end of it’s life. I really didn’t want to deforest the lovely garden.
He nodded. “Mañana.”
Sure enough, when I woke up the next morning, right outside my door was a giant seven foot tall single banana leaf. Perfecto!
I barely managed to get the enormous thing in my rental car without bending it, but I did. It basically was my passenger for the short drive over to the Hotelito to see Brooke.
I knocked on the main door. “Brooke? I have a surprise for you!”
She opened the door and I walked in with the massive leaf.
“Oh! This is wonderful!”, she exclaimed. “Where did you get it?”
I explained my little story with the gardener and we agreed we were going to have fun with this.
“How about we find a bit of shade to shoot in. Brooke was completely on the same page. “Yes, shade would be excellent.”
We found a wall in the outdoor courtyard that the sun hadn’t reached yet and decided it would be perfect. A simple little texture, but Brooke and her new leaf friend would be the focus. Nothing else would be needed. Simplicity in composition.
I should mention at this point that Brooke is a bit of a pretzel. In the best way. She really folds herself into whatever environment she happened to be working in. Boxes, ledges, railings. She becomes part of the scene like a gorgeous chameleon.
As I began to take my light readings and select a lens to begin with, Brooke investigated the leaf like it was a piece of haute couture. If there had been a three-way department store mirror, I could have imagined her holding it up in front of her like a designer dress. She rehearsed standing in front of it. Behind it. Wrapping herself up in it. She was playing and it was incredible to watch her figure it out.
We were both in the zone. Well worth the slight postponement from the other day.
We began the shoot working vertically, with the banana leaf and Brooke both standing as she evoked a bit of a fan dance. Limbs springing forth from behind the leaf in surprising ways as I composed my photographs. We were off to a great start.
We took a moment to review of a few of the frames and both wildly happy with our beginnings, we decided to change it up a bit.
“Let’s try some with you on the ground with the leaf,” I suggested. I got on the ground with her, shooting along the cement patio floor at the same level as Brooke and watched her continue to experiment, this time horizontally. Even though she couldn’t see what I was seeing, it was amazing how she was able to contort her body to follow the lines of the leaf with very little direction from me. Occasionally I would tell her to arch or stretch to get her body and the leaf lined up, but only occasionally. She’s just that good.
Finally I moved a bit closer and made tighter compositions. And Brooke found more interesting ways to work with her new green friend. All the while balancing on one foot while holding the leaf in position. Not as easy as it looks, I can tell you.
I hadn’t yet exactly given Brooke the opportunity to do her pretzel thing, which she’s so good at. But towards the end of the shoot we decided to have her work in front of the leaf and bend herself forward in her trademark style. She has such beautiful balance and symmetry when she does that. A real joy to see as a photographer.
After a few hours we both knew what we had accomplished what we had set out to do. It’s such a great feeling when you see an idea make its way from a fuzzy vague vision in your head to a photograph. We reviewed a few more images from our collaboration and then took some time to unwind in the beautiful Mexican sun.
We talked about art and life and travel. All of those wonderful things I love to discuss with anyone I’m working with. Brooke has such a soulful quality about her. Sometimes quiet, always observing. Really taking in her world at any given moment.
She told me she was preparing for a two month stay in Paris for a few months, working as an art model. I was at the same time both jealous and thrilled for her. She’d be perfect in Paris. Finding inspiration in a city full of inspiration.
Our post shoot conversation was a wonderful afterglow to an inspiring shoot. I always find my photographs of people who I have spent some time with always have a little extra special sauce in them. It’s not that I can’t simply appreciate the external beauty of my subjects, because I do, certainly with all of the ZoeFest models I had the pleasure of photographing. But I really believe that if I understand a model’s point of view, where she’s coming from, what she’s about, that always helps me capture a more meaningful representation of who she is.
I packed up my camera gear, wished Brooke a pleasant day and walked out of the Hotelito courtyard with the biggest smile on my face. My collaboration with Brooke and the Big Leaf was so well worth the brief wait. It certainly was better than showing up with a large pair of garden shears, although I’m sure she would have found something creative to do with those as well!
My next shoot was scheduled in a few hours with the lovely Anne Duffy and I was in the perfect creative space and looking forward to finding another round of inspiration with her. I drove off down the dusty road toward Casa Bentley.
Some shots of international super model Paco, accompanied by Candace Nirvana.
This is part nineteen in a series of blogs on my recent artistic adventures in Mexico.
Todos Santos Inn is a lovely place to live for a while. It’s a cozy, secluded and lush bit of paradise in the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. I had been staying there for almost a week as part of the artists retreat group of ZoeFest and was really beginning to feel at home. Waking up to the sounds of birds and wind whispering through the giant palm trees above as I walked down my little garden path from my apartment to the main house where a cup of delicious coffee was always waiting for me.
But with the exception of the pool and some of the garden, I hadn’t really done too much photography at the inn itself. Sometimes it takes me a while to find the handle on a location. Todos Santos Inn was such a place for me creatively. Many lovely areas, a little library off of the main office and a nice bar as well. But after walking around it all for nearly a week, I still hadn’t quite decided how to work with it photographically.
It was the lush leather chairs that finally began to strike my creative muse. Chairs in the library and chairs in the bar. There was definitely something there.
After my Saturday morning shoot with the lovely Stephanie Anne, it was time for my shoot with the first of two gorgeous Australian models that were along for the ZoeFest ride.
Anoush Anou is based in Melbourne and a woman whose work I was familiar with before our Mexican meeting. Like a few of the models I was working with, I had been aware of her for years. And since the fine art photography world can be a small one, it’s usually only a matter of time before we would end up working together.
Anoush has a striking physical beauty about her. But there is also a haunting mystery to her in photographs. She has a completely emotive face. Sometimes somber. Sometimes sophisticated and sensual. Yet always revealing a story unfolding in your mind as you ponder what she has created.
But she is also joyful in person. Silly fun and wonderful to hear laugh. A model with great positive energy even when her creations are slightly somber.
My mind was still a bit preoccupied with my mother at home in Chicago, still recovering in the hospital and I knew I was slightly less prepared that I would have preferred for my shooting time with Anoush. And once again, with a model of her caliber, she met me more than half way. It took me a while to find the correct angle and set up in the library where I wanted to begin photographing Anoush. She patiently waited until I had found it, giving me the extra mental space to figure it out.
That was the beauty of ZoeFest. We all wanted to create incredible art while we were there. And as artists, we all knew that creativity is not a switch you throw on when the clock strikes one. Sometimes the muse arrives fashionably late and as long as everyone involves respects it, something wonderful does eventually happen.
Not wanting to make her wait on set until I was happy with my vision, I began by photographing an empty chair in the library. There was wonderful indirect light coming in from a nearby balcony door. Soft and delicate. The library was a small room and even with a 50mm normal prime lens on my camera, I determined the best angle to photograph Anoush from, was actually for me to be outside of the room itself. I could use the doorway to the library as a bit of a framing device, which I like to do sometimes. It adds a slight distance in mental perspective from my subject. Not exactly voyeuristic, but not quite as intimate. Found beauty.
By the time I brought Anoush into the library, she needed very little direction from me to find the moment. Like the other models at our retreat, she has a complete sense of who she is from the first click of my shutter. And I found a familiar sensation wash over me as you have when you finally have physical proximity to someone you’ve long been aware of from a distance.
Just posing while seated in the chair, she was lovely. Every limb a coordinated effort of beautiful flowing lines and curves. Every purposeful point of a foot or toe completing a perfect composition.
And then she turned the world upside down. Literally.
“How about I try some like this?” she asked with her lovely Aussie accent, as she laid her back on the seat of the chair, her long hair cascading toward the floor.
As I continued to photograph her, she began to rotate herself until only the small of her back was on the seat, completely inverted as if her support was no longer the chair, but a trapeze, or maybe thin air for that matter. Creating the most interesting compositions in my frame.
One of the great things about our arrangement with the four boutique hotels we were all calling home during our time in Todos Santos was that if we saw a room or area that felt particularly inspiring we could secure it for private shooting very easily. I had my eye on the bar ever since we had arrived and now it was time to utilize that space in whatever way we felt like.
A quick check in with the bartender and the bar was “temporarily closed” while the lovely and undressed Anoush followed me into the room. I knew I wanted to do something with the chairs that were group along a windowed wall of the bar. I quickly began redecorating by rearranging the chairs in a way that made no sense for would be bar patrons, but made so much sense from a visual photographic point of view. I also tried to remember I would need to reassemble everything the way I found it when we were done.
I only made a few dozen photographs in the bar because Anoush and I were on a roll and she quickly interpreted what I was looking for. The light coming in through the sheer curtains was perfect and in short order we had created what I was hoping for.
We thanked the barkeep and allowed the bar to reopen once again to the public and walked out back to the veranda, another area I had been looking at every day while having my morning coffee and daily photographic editing sessions one one of the many tables we would all congregate at during the day.
The brick arches of the veranda were visually interesting to me, although the low afternoon sunlight was creating a fairly severe contrast with the shade Anoush was posing in. We had to be careful to keep the harsh shadows off of her an that location and we found a spot for her in the first arch that had a bit less direct light.
We began with her standing and using her strong fingertips to hold difficult balancing poses that looked more effortless than they certainly must have been. I was still fighting the contrast of the bright arches behind her, not really satisfied with my composition even though Anoush was holding up her end of the collaboration bargain spectacularly.
We changed to her sitting instead of standing and it created a slightly more relaxed feel. Her compacted shape also allowed me to compose a bit tighter which helped my slightly too bright sunlight issue with my composition. She began to emote something a little more somber as well in her facial character, which I really liked.
When our time was up, I felt very good about what we had created. One of those shoots where you can’t wait to get back to the computer to see what you have. Working with the various chairs at the inn and the natural light really was all I was hoping it would be and more with Anoush’s beautiful collaboration. She really brought what I felt was a classic beauty to the images and we had a great time while creating them.
A perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon in paradise.
As always, more to come.
I asked Merrique to give me some pathos…..and managed to get some lovely images, but of course I just can’t help myself….and had to faff with them in photoshop….
Apologies, Merrique! (Bet you didn’t know you were a redhead!)
I even made an iphone cover!
Soak up the light at Todos Santos Inn – shot with my home made bendy lens.
This is part sixteen in a series of blogs on my recent artistic adventures in Mexico.
I’ve been writing a lot about how I decide whether the photographs I create are going to end up being in black & white or color. Perhaps it’s time to share my opinions on that further after the last entry about collaborating at ZoeFest with the lovely Keira Grant and the images of her in both B&W and color.
It used to be that decision had to be made when choosing what film I was going to load into my film cameras. I used to travel with two camera bodies, one loaded with B&W film and the other with color. It allowed me the flexibility to instantly decide whether the subject matter I was standing in front of would be more pleasing to me if photographed with or without color.
If I happened to be traveling with only one camera body, it was more complicated. If I had color film in the camera and wanted to make a B&W photograph, I would note the frame number on the roll of film that I was currently shooting, carefully rewind the film until I heard it release from the take up reel, but not before the film edge wound back completely into the film canister. Then I would remove the color roll from the camera and load a fresh roll of B&W film.
When I wanted to switch back to color, I would do the same with the partially exposed B&W roll, carefully winding it back, removing it and then loading the previously exposed roll of color film back into the camera. Then, with the lens cap on, I would fire off the number of frames I had previously exposed, plus a couple more to make sure I was past any exposed images, and continue shooting on that film roll.
Yes, it was painful and time consuming. Sometimes the scene I wanted to photograph might be gone before the film swap could be completed. And sure, I could have just shot color all the time and put the color negatives in my darkroom enlarger and made B&W prints from those, and I did on a few occasions. But the results were never pleasing. There was something muddy about the B&W prints from color negative.
This was long before Photoshop and film scanners were readily available to me. Everything was chemical based and analog.
When I began to shoot with early digital cameras, I had to wrap my head around the idea that everything I would shoot would now be acquired in color, no matter whether I was planning to end up with a B&W image or not. In some ways it was freeing to not have to make that decision until I was sitting in front of my computer, but I found myself a bit confused when composing my images in a digital camera format.
Let me explain. As I began learning about composition with my first film cameras, being self taught, I wasn’t even aware of the concept of composition. I just knew if a photograph felt right to me. In my head, I thought of it as balancing the various objects in the frame, so the resulting image didn’t feel too heavy on one side or the other or top or bottom. Almost like the elements in the frame had physical weight to them and once in a frame on the wall, the picture frame would tend to rotate clockwise on the wall if there where too many “heavy” objects on the right side of the photograph.
It sounds a little crazy, but that’s how I looked at composition back in those early days. If there was something “heavy” in the image, it would have to be balanced by what I would later learn was negative space in the rest of the photograph. An area of elements that felt lighter in weight (not necessarily lighter or darker in luminance). A heavy element could be something dark in tone or large or something your eye naturally gravitated to when viewing. A heavy object had, what I liked to call, visual gravity.
So what does all of this have to do with the question of B&W or color?
Everything, it turns out.
B&W is shades of gray and color is… well.. color. When I look at a B&W image, it’s all about shapes and how they balance with each other from a brightness point of view. With color, in addition to the shapes, you have the visual volume of color. Some colors are just louder than others. They are heavier. They have more visual gravity.
I don’t usually let thousands of people into my digital darkroom at once, but let’s take a look at what I see when I’m deciding B&W or color.
The image on the left is the color version with a little post processing for color temperature, contrast and vibrance. It’s a perfectly fine image. But when I was shooting it, I knew I was going to process it in B&W and so I left a lot of negative space at the bottom, the blue water, that I knew I would filter towards black in post.
In color however, it’s not really negative space. It’s a very loud color. So loud in fact that as lovely as Carlotta is, her loveliness is fighting with the blue for your eye’s attention.
In the B&W version, the blue water becomes dark negative space and now Carlotta really pops! Your eye goes right to her and perhaps the palm leaves to her right which have been filtered to be brighter. It’s all getting your eyes to the top half of the photo, where I want them to be.
Of course, Carlotta has her own sense of visual gravity, so she really didn’t need much help from me!
Additionally, in the B&W version, her skin becomes very bright and in order to make a visually interesting composition, I like to add something in the frame that balances it out. The dark tone of the water does that perfectly. And the palm leaves give me a medium weight. Your eye goes to them, but only after you find Carlotta.
However, with all of that heavy or light, negative space, color loudness and other creative data swirling around in my head sometimes I really can’t decide whether I’m making a color or B&W image when I click the shutter. That was certainly the case while photographing Ella Rose.
That, and I was very focused on keeping my camera from getting hit by a sneaky wave and ever so slightly less on the composition at hand.
Which is better? The color or the B&W process? To me, they’re both beautiful images (thank you Ella!). But again, the B&W is more about Ella and less about her environment, as incredible as it is. The color image is a little bit flatter to me. But that’s my subjective opinion. Some viewers will prefer the color and some will prefer the B&W. Which is fine. Ella is lovely with or without chrominance.
Most of the time with subject matter such as art nudes, I’m 90% sure I’m going to end up with a B&W image.
We can program our digital cameras to shoot in a sort of B&W mode, but it’s still acquiring the image in RGB color. But if you really care about your B&W conversions, you won’t have your camera doing them on the fly with it’s limited processing ability. Much better to do them in post later where you can control how the various colors in the image are converted to B&W.
If you’re shooting RAW images, it’s a moot point anyway. Even with your camera set to display the thumbnail image in your camera’s display in B&W (which I sometimes do to keep my head in B&W space when chimping* during a shoot), it’s still recording the data in color. It’s only when you shoot JPGs that the B&W version is what is permanently recorded to the camera file.
In my early forays into digital, my B&W conversions were pretty bland. I did what most digital newbies did and simply turned off the color information in Photoshop if I wanted a B&W image. Blech.
Just like learning my chemical darkroom, it took me years to learn to manipulate the individual RGB channels of color. Like putting a colored red or yellow lens filter on a camera when shooting B&W or using contrast filters in the chemical darkroom, I learned through trial and error that, just like in the film days, composing and properly exposing an image in camera was only half of the process. Dodging and burning while making prints, using different kinds of chemical developer and even the different types of film stock I was using in the camera as well as the photographic paper I was using in the darkroom all contributed to the final look of my images.
Now, I’m not going to get all, “Back in my day, you spent hours in the darkroom breathing toxic chemicals and your fingers always smelled like fixer,” on you here. There is a lot about the darkroom I don’t miss, but it did teach me a lot about processing my images, which after years of practice on my computer, I was able to duplicate in a way that reminded me of my film prints. And I do mean years of practice. I sucked at it for a long time. And I’m still learning.
And there’s another reason I usually prefer my fine art nude images to be in B&W. The human form is a wondrous shape. B&W tends to be more about the very basic shape and form of a subject. It does feel more artistic because it’s not really based in reality. Very few people see the world in B&W (I mean that literally, not figuratively!). Without color, the image does take on a more removed from the starkness of reality feel to it. To me, it’s removing everything but light and shape. And I really like to compose in that space. It’s a bit more timeless to me that way.
Additionally, removing the color skin tone from of a nude art image, and this is just my personal opinion, separates it from the millions of other more commercial color nude/semi nude images in the world, many less artistic than what we’re talking about here. Now, certainly there are some very ridiculously talented artists out there that do nude color work. Some of the photographers I was lucky enough to spend time with at ZoeFest, do amazing things with color nudes. And of course Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel in monochrome. Plenty of nude skin tones there, ironically.
But we see so much skin in the world these days. Clearly, I’m personally not against that in principle in viewing the photographic work that I create. Since the beginning of human artistic expression, I’m only #4,638,301 in a long line of artists who have decided that the human form is something especially inspiring and compelling. I’m not the first one to look at a body, devoid of any covering and be in awe. For me, women’s bodies are especially artistic.
Here’s another comparison of a color and B&W processed photograph of Keira. She is stunning in both instances, but I definitely prefer the B&W image in this case. It’s more subtle. In the color version the skin color is very prominent. There’s nothing wrong with that and it is still a very artistic image. Lovely and compelling.
The B&W version however, is definitely more about the shapes and movement. It takes the viewer a split second longer to figure out what the subject is without the skin tone instantly giving it away.
Now, that’s certainly an extreme example, but it illustrates what I feel when I’m deciding to go with color or B&W.
Even in my travel photography, I find that B&W does tend to take the sense of time out of the image. Was it taken last year or 60 years ago?
I also think B&W has a better chance of engaging the viewer’s mind. The viewer already has to consider the image without color, filling in the information that is missing and maybe that also puts them in the headspace of imagination a little more than a color image. Maybe they create a story about the subject matter in their head. A story that is unique to them and their own experience.
Oh hell, maybe they just think she’s pretty. I don’t know.
Much more to come!
*Chimping: After taking a photograph with a digital camera, the process of looking at that image in your camera’s digital display. Chimping after every single photograph is regarded negatively by some photographers, especially those who learned to shoot on film cameras and didn’t have the luxury of instantly seeing what an image was going to look like unless they were shooting a test polaroid. They had to know their craft well enough to know if the photograph was properly exposed and what it was going to look like before it came back from the lab.
Chimping can also disrupt the flow of a photo shoot as it can take both photographer and subject out of the creative moment during frequent stops to play back images. I have to remind myself of that on occasion. Make a test exposure and check it once. That’s your polaroid. Then focus exclusively on your subject.