A little light work

One of the main reasons that I became a photographer of people and their personal worlds was to go places and learn things. I accepted a long time ago that although I’m a pretty smart dude I didn’t and can’t know everything but that I was gonna try to learn something every day that expands my world in some manner. Thus it’s quite often that I get an assignment and I get excited not just at the opportunity to possibly make photos that I’m proud of but to learn something truly interesting.

As some may know a big new trend/fad/fashion in eating is the gluten free diet. I’ll skip all armchair quarterbacking on this topic thank you but I will say that I like my pasta with extra gluten! Yummy. Anyhoo the deal is that the gluten free movement has opened a lot of new horizons for people both the eaters as well as those who produce what we eat.

I got an assignment to photograph a small company north of Fort Collins Colorado who is making gluten free malt for making beer and they are doing well with this. Most gluten free beer is made from a sorghum syrup but that makes for a pretty tasteless product. The people at Grouse Malting are using millet and have found a way to malt and roast the grain to enable brewers to make a gluten free beer with real flavor. Huzzah! For me the great thing is that they malt their grain in house with a classic process called floor malting. They built a big room that is temperature and humidity controlled to allow the grain to begin the process of sprouting which converts the starches inside into more simple sugars that the brewers yeast can convert to alcohol. It’s an art/science blend as they have to manually turn the grain with shovels and inspect it to know when that batch is ready. This is a pretty cool thing that they are doing as there are very few floor malting facilities in the US and to their knowledge Grouse is the only one who has figured out how to do this with millet.

Thus, I had to photograph the malting room! However I quickly saw a number of things that I’d have to overcome to get an interesting photo in there. Problem number one: it’s like a sauna in there with all the humidity. Steamy! Problem number two: it’s lit by a single wall mounted light. Problem number three: it’s dark as heck and I needed a malter dude at work. How to pull this all off?

Easy! Almost. First step was to find my composition and that meant my Nikon AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8 on my trusty Gitzo G1320 tripod way down low to show the malt on the floor. Just shy of 24mm did the trick and f/11 would hold the foreground/background sharp enough. I mean let’s face it, I was shooting in a steam room so infinite background sharpness just wasn’t gonna happen folks. ISO 400 gave me an exposure of one second which was enough to accomplish two things: enable my malt dude to pour some malt from his shovel to show motion while he himself stood still and the other was to light paint him and the malt in the shovel with a flash light.

What? Yep a flash light. I used my hand around the lens of the Inova X2 to produce a thin beam that I could use to light his face and the malt in particular to make them pop out of the steamy darkness. I always have a flashlight with me for a number of uses and this is a great reason to always have an additional and flexible light source. That said I put my beloved problem solver the Nikon SB-800 pointed towards the far right corner and triggered it wirelessly from the built in controller flash of my Nikon D700. This gave some separation and kept the gloom at bay.

Less than a dozen frames and we got this:
Grouse 6

BTW I love to learn from other photographers and am quite curious as to how they solve their particular problems. I picked up the Inova x2 by recommendation from the amazing photographer Robert Seale. You can’t have too many options when it comes to lighting things.

The birth of an idea

I don’t try to think too much about my work. By that I don’t mean that I don’t care, far from it. Rather I try to not spend too much time in my head. I want a gut feeling. An organic, spontaneous, “where did THAT come from!?”  I used to think too much and that would stifle my ability to be creative. Learning to not think is hard but it helped me be receptive to the quiet inner voice of almost crazy from where interesting things come.

I do find though that once an idea presents itself I need some kind of framework to put it in for it to finally have it make sense so that I can flesh it out. A working title often is my method to do this. Even if this notion has little to do with the way that people will relate to the final image or project that’s ok because I get the depth of understanding that I need.

Case in point: my story about the wresting team. It started out as a simple profile that I wanted to do about a wrestling coach and how he relates to his team in such a different way than just about any other kind of sport. I did the interview with the coach before the photos and that ended up being critical. During the interview the coach mentioned that he was the new coach but he wanted “to create a dynasty” with the team. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t a team in a sports sense but a team in the warrior sense. So I knew that I was going to have to shoot the project in B&W and to show them as a finely honed elite military squad who relied on each other for survival. It turned out that I was right about that in more ways than I would have expected when I started the project. A simple profile turned into a 12 week and 5 part multimedia project.

I’ve been doing a portrait series of chefs that I respect and that project came from the idea that I was going to shoot them on my YashicaMat twin lens medium format camera with one light. Nunno why but it just came to me. I wanted to be limited by the fixed lens, the slowishness of film and all that was a great creative push from being able to use loads of lights at levels of sensitivity from the digital capture world that is just not possible with film. Oh and I’d only give myself a single roll of 12 frames to get what I need. Just to make it harder on me. Why not?

Then a bit ago I realized that I want to do a series that shows my respect for and love of craft brewers. But I didn’t have any notion of how I was going to show them. As a homebrewer and occasional competition beer judge I am intimately familiar with the craft.  One of the reasons I so respect what the masters of the brew craft can do is that making sublime beer is very very hard to do. That knowledge was a help but only to a degree. That is all “thought” stuff. I didn’t have a feel. A way to emotionally support what my brain will eventually have to turn into imagery.

Thus I did what I often do when there is neither client nor deadline: nothing. Just let something come to me. If I have nobody to satisfy but myself I can afford to take my time. But lo and behold over the last month I got a number of assignments to photograph a number of breweries and brewers. Lucky me I got to photograph Adam Glazer the head brewer of Fort Collins Brewing. I happen to personally know Adam from his days not very long ago when he was just a guy who was winning a lot of awards for his homebrew. Now he’s pro and doing quite well thank you.

Where was I? Right what to do with the brewer portraits! So I was making photos of Adam for a story about water quality, since beer is mostly water it’s quality is critical. While we were up on the scaffolding where he was overseeing a brew in action in the kettle I decided to get a shot from where I wasn’t. I just stuck my camera out at arms length and fired a few frames while he was looking at the young beer boiling away.

Here is the full frame, no cropping.

Adam

I realized when I got back to process my images that that one was the winner. Not for the client but for me. And it had to be B&W as the subtle colors in the scene didn’t bring anything to the shot. The mood is there, all the steel and light and steam. It hit me: while I’m trying to show the chefs as artists of edible performance the brewers are alchemists working with big machines to transform 4 simple ingredients into a myriad of liquid experience.

So now I know how to proceed with this project thanks to Adam, a properly framed instinctive shot and the environment that he was in to make me see past myself and what I know so that I can visualize a feeling.