Away from the world, the city, and the light pollution, I stood in a green forest where the breeze couldn’t even penetrate the trees surrounding me. It was an area that only existed to me in imagination from multiple times of poring over Google Maps and allowing my mind to wander. Off in the distance I could hear the low rumble of a slow moving freight train struggling to climb up the hill that I had perched myself on. As it got closer, I could see the treeline in the distance interrupted by the heat haze cast off from its exhaust stacks. It was at this moment I could calculate my exposure, as I had a visual reference of its speed. And then I saw the locomotive break the vertical silhouette of the trees. It was, in a way, foreign to the landscape that surrounded it, like a metallic dinosaur crawling through some uninhabited land, miles away from civilization. It was an opportunity that I had only seen when I daydreamed, but became possible all due to… a bike.
The tracks begin to ring.
I listen closely with the engine roaring louder and louder as each second passes and ready my camera…my finger resting steady on the shutter.
The forest; the leaves; the freight train tearing by and then slowly fading; everything falling quiet again — it all makes me think of Riley. After his passing, my therapy was walking along these tracks, camera in hand. Many times I would never even take a shot, instead preferring to immerse myself in the stillness and color around me.
It was my first year in college. I was going out everyday to teach myself photography, Harry Potter had just come out in theaters (although I wouldn’t see it for a few more years) and Canon entered the digital photography world with their very first fully backed flagship, the Canon EOS 1D. At the time, I was shooting on the Canon EOS D30, and didn’t see any way in sight of affording the 1D, but also didn’t think I really needed it either. Then came the moment that I first held one…
In ways much like the chicken and the egg, it is tough to distinguish which came first, my love of photography, or my obsession with optics.
As a young kid, I would go to the local sunglasses stores and grab all the promo literature they had and take it home to read, sometimes even putting it in my backpack so I could look at it during lunch recess. Saying I was a sunglass nerd is only wrong in that it is past-tense – I am still a sunglass nerd. I can still remember saving for months of my earnings from mowing people’s yards and delivering the penny saver papers so that I could buy my very first pair of Oakleys (original Mumbos with a sweep lens in smoke). I had extra silk cases for them and would take them apart and clean them almost daily. It is not an exaggeration to say the routines I use to clean my cameras and lenses started with how I cleaned sunglasses when I was 10.
While the broad strokes of what is wanted on a camera usually revolve around the imaging fundamentals (resolution, ISO performance, AF, etc), there are some functions of camera design which have significant impact on creating that often can be overlooked. The aspect that I want to discuss today is that of balance.
By balance, I am talking about how the chassis works together with the lens in a way that makes creating more fluid to the photographer. To be honest, this was an issue that hadn’t been on my mind all that much over the years, as I mostly shot camera bodies that had a built in vertical grip or were medium format and therefore larger. However, with the emerging dominance of mirrorless bodies, size and weight have come under so much scrutiny, and that has been at a cost of balance.
It was a quiet evening with a brilliant red sunset visible through the tall pines of Flagstaff, Arizona. I was sitting with my neighbor in my front yard, each of us enjoying an Old Fashioned and toasting to another hot summer day. As the sun passed below the horizon line, and night set in, we noticed some smoke to the south that had more form and definition than what we were used to. I brushed it off as another controlled burn and retired to my house for the evening. After getting my daughter to bed, I took to washing the dishes, including the glass I had just had my cocktail from. To my surprise, there were ashes in it, a sign of things to come.
It wasn’t that the phone hadn’t rung for an entire year. It was that the shoots were always too risky; my urge to be on set was always overruled by my commitment to ensure that making art did not lead to someone contracting COVID. Yet once the vaccine began to make things safer, I knew that it would only be a matter of time before I was behind the camera once more, and with that I wanted it to be an automotive photoshoot. In a way it was like dipping your foot in to test the waters before taking a plunge by putting a celebrity or athlete in front of the camera.
One week before what would be my only photoshoot of 2020, I received a phone call that broke me emotionally. My producer, friend and all-around incredible person, Eric, had taken his own life.
Eric had been diagnosed with an aggressive case of ALS last summer, which had taken him from super fit gym rat to a state in which he was unable to swallow solid foods in a matter of months. While the disease had physically debilitated this man that so many loved, it never took his humor. In his suicide note (which you can read here), he is as proud, funny and happy as we ever knew him. His death was one out of many good friends and family I lost in 2020, but it was the only time I let myself cry.
If there was a theme in automotive advertising photography for 2020, it would be minimalism. This not only applies to aesthetics, but also (and more importantly) to production. We have seen some campaigns attempt “socially distanced” productions, but the approach can sometimes go wrong, and with a vaccine so close it simply is not worth it. A few months back we found out what a virtually collaborative photoshoot looked like with a Porsche Macan. While it made for some great images, and good laughs, it still felt a bit, well…distant. However, there were some aspects from that production that we wanted to take to the next shoot; one in particular being the iPad.
Has COVID-19 impacted the look of advertising campaigns?
Maybe – but probably not by as much as you might think. What is impacted, however, is the way that a commercial photography set operates for the foreseeable future.
As an advertising photographer, you are responsible for everything that happens on set while shooting a campaign. This can range from not just the lighting scheme, but the choice of using craft services versus having a chef on set, choosing the appropriate camera and related equipment, and most importantly the safety of everyone present. This isn’t to say that there are not safety officers on set, or form specific trainers when we photograph professional athletes, but that the buck always stops at the photographer. For those that do commercial photography, we know that there are never ending insurance certificate pulls happening just to step foot on set. But how do we create when it comes to an unseen virus, and what will those campaigns look like?