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Making Sunshine on a Rainy Day

I have said many times in the course of my career that “Cameras never lie, but photographer’s are a bunch of lying bastards.”  Or words very much to that effect.  I don’t mean that you can never trust us in the general sense of things, more that what you see in the final image may well be a far cry from what happened on the day.  Never is this more prevalent than when shooting something out of season – say trying to make a cold, wet day in February in London look like it’s bathed in sunshine.

Scholl Finished Image
This shoot was an advertorial for Runner’s World and Scholl, to promote their gel insoles, the story being that they’re make your feet so comfy you can go on all day – work, rest, and play, that sort of thing.  Our subject for the day was the lovely Sarah, who works as an intensive care nurse, and is a keen runner, so shots of her out running, stretching to warm up/down, and shots of her “at work” are the order of the day.

It’s February, and we’re in Shoreditch, North London.  It’s fairly cold, and the forecast isn’t great.  For our outdoor running shots, we head down to Arnold Circus, a spot so popular with guys like us that we had to share the space with half a dozen people scouting the location for a feature film.  You can get an idea of how cold Sarah was between takes from this behind the scenes shot:

Scholl Behind the Scenes
The glamorous life of shooting on location in the UK in February

She was a trooper that one, and no mistake.  It’s bad enough being asked to run back and forth over the same spot time after time, making minute changes to your gait, pace and expression, but to have to do it in single figure temperatures, wearing very summery running gear requires a great deal of Scottish stoicism, which Sarah has in spades.  The beautiful sunlight you see flaring into the right hand side of this shot, is of course actually a flash head with some CTO gel on:

Scholl Finished Image - Sunshine added
I’ll admit it’s not a complete winter to summer transformation, but it does a good job, just don’t look too closely at the out of focus, bare trees in the background, eh.  Adding a CTO gel is an old, old trick, which I’ve used many times in the past – sometimes for a purely creative purpose, and sometimes, as in this case, to give a genuine warmer look to an otherwise cold scene.  Determining exposure in a shot like this can be quite tricky.  I need to:

  • Freeze the motion of Sarah running
  • Not lose too much of the ambient, otherwise the environment not lit by the flash will get very dark and grim, rather than light and summery.

So it’s a case of striking a balance.  Historically I would have kept the shutter speed quite slow so as to keep some ambient light in, and then got Sarah to run through at a slower than usual pace to give me a chance to freeze her motion.  However, being the 21st century guy I am, I opted instead this time to go for some high speed sync, using what were then my new Pocket Wizard TT5’s, and a very wide aperture.  This was shot at 1/800s at F2 on my lovely 50mm f1.4.  The only real issue then becomes the very shallow depth of field it gives me – great for knocking the background out of focus, not so great for making sure I get Sarah sharp.  You may notice a leaf on the ground behind her lead foot – that’s my focusing mark, as I’m pre-focused on that spot, and simply fire when she gets to it, rather than trying to track focus with her.  Note to self – I am long overdue for writing a blog post about “trap focus”, a technique that I use all the time.  Must remedy this soon!

For the next shot we need a shot of Sarah stretching for her warm up/warm down, and the client wants this to be outdoors too.  Problem – it’s now raining.  Fairly heavily.  Plus of course, it’s February.  Ideally now we need to be somewhere outdoors, but sheltered, and better yet, somewhere within easy reach of the hire studio we’re using as our base and the venue for the 3rd shot.  The studio is 2 floors up, above Hackney Road, and accessed via metal walkways and stairs.  Not very pretty, but the best we can find – that’s not the greenest part of London, to be fair.

So, now we come to the crunch – how to make it look like a spring/summer day, whilst it’s raining and very cold.  Here’s Ben the art director sitting in for Sarah whilst we got the lighting right.

Scholl Behind the Scenes
Creeeeeak go the joints.

Note the scarf and warm jacket!  And the awesome flexibility – he lives the brand does this one.  Get ready for some bullet points, as I work through how we made the final shot, and why we did what we did:

  • First off – let’s keep the model dry.  And the lights.  Note use of umbrella on magic arm in behind the scenes shot, and plastic wrap on flash heads.
  • It’s very important to keep enough ambient light in the shot to keep the “summer” mood.  If I’d just exposed for the flash, anything beyond Sarah would go very dark and moody.  The shutter speed was a very slow 1/13 of a second.  Obviously I can only get away with this because Sarah’s static, not running, and is a real trooper.  Plus, the camera is on a tripod.
Scholl Finished Image - Sunshine added
The finished shot
  • I pushed the white balance slightly higher than usual, to make everything that little bit warmer.
  • There is more of that lovely CTO gel on 2 of the flash lights – the ones back left and back of Sarah.  The fill/front light is without gel, and is dialled quite low through a softbox to try and keep things a bit natural, rather than too “lit”.
  • Not visible in the setup shot is the 3rd flash head – it’s clamped onto the banisters from exactly where the shot was taken.  This is spilling light across the area where Sarah is sitting to make the whole thing feel a bit more natural.  I don’t think for one minute this shot looks 100% authentic, but if I’d just lit Sarah, rather than letting any of the light fall on the area around her, it would look even more constructed and artificial.
Scholl Behind the Scenes
Setup shot, note the folded up Tea Towel for Sarah to sit on, and the photographer getting wet.
  • The pot plant was spotted by Ben, and definitely adds something – compare the shot of him to the one of Sarah and you’ll see what I mean.  With hindsight I’d probably have tried to use it even more to cover the left foreground.

Now, as I say, I don’t think this is a 100% believable “summer” shot, but it’s only when you start to look closely (and are educated about how to reverse engineer shots) that you begin to see the flaws, and let’s be honest, there’s not that many people are going to do that.

Scholl Finished Image
Sarah hard at work, after a long day’s “running”

The 3rd shot was simplicity itself – we needed a shot of Sarah in her “work” environment – in scrubs in a clean white room.  For this we simply used one side of the studio, allowed some of the rapidly waning ambient light in through the window, and added fill light with a 7ft Parabolic umbrella.  It’s worth remembering that when looking through the brief for a day like this, that not every shot will require major upheaval, and the simpler ones can often be slotted in around the more complex ones.  In this case, the interior shot was obviously not weather dependent, whereas the other two were, so we made sure to make the most of the glorious weather earlier in the day!

Last but not least, whilst all this technical camera stuff might make me sound like a know-it-all, I left for work that morning very smug about the fact that I’d got up half an hour early to prepare my dinner and leave it in the slow cooker all day.  I boasted to several people throughout the day that I’d be returning home to a flat that smelled of a heavenly Thai Green curry, and then a slap-up meal that would take a few seconds to serve.  Got back to the flat to something of a lack of aroma, and discovered that whilst slow cookers are great devices, they have very little effect on the food within if you don’t turn them on at the wall.  Lesson learnt there.

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