Gary Parker is one of my favorite photographers and he’s also one of my mentors. His work in his Genius and Gurus gallery looks like the who’s who of high tech and features the best shots of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs I’ve ever seen. He’s a flexible and creative photographer who can be thrown into the worst situation and come out with a great shot – guaranteed. I know this to be true because I’ve witnessed it firsthand at my own house, but I’ve also enjoyed his many stories through the years. Now I thought it might be fun to have Gary share some of those stories with you as this is what really happens in the “real world” to get the big money shots.
If you want to learn how to get more creative – this is it, so enjoy!
In Gary’s Own Words
Which dog breed is like a basketball with legs and has a face so gorgeous, it looks like it ran into a brick wall at high speed??? Which dog breed is SO ugly it’s stunningly beautiful? Specifically, that would be Piggy, my favorite English Bulldog, a professional model/actor I’ve shot for several advertising campaigns.
Piggy’s a pro mainly due to the fact she’s mellow and super easy going, a trait of many “trained dogs” - who actually do no tricks. Most professional cats & dogs are simply malleable, cooperative animals who will allow you to position them as you wish... We call these “behaviors” on pet product shoots – not tricks. For Piggy, a great “behavior” might be sitting on a stool – without jumping off. For a cat, ANY behavior is special...
During this large advertising shoot of about 45 cats & dogs, I looked forward to shooting Piggy most since she’s just SO beautiful and cooperative. When we got to Piggy, we began with dignified shots of Piggy hanging out on the deck, first sitting properly with her lovely model owner. At some point I asked the model for a bit more dog love – more intimacy with her loving Piggy – whereupon Piggy’s HUGE tongue actually went into the model’s mouth at least a couple times. Excellent!!! The very experienced human/lady model just kept right on modeling! Hey, as a model, french kissing a bulldog is just part of the gig... Lay it on me, Piggy!!!
Once I knew I’d nailed all the “proper” shots of Piggy behaving nicely with her model/human, it was Piggy’s turn to do whatever Piggy wanted to do. First she stood in a chair where she howled for fun – utterly hysterical – with the posture of a singer. Then, worn out, Piggy got down on the deck where she promptly passed out, dog tired from frenching the model – must have been exhausting work.... I dropped to the deck and start shooting the sleeping Piggy - at Piggy’s eye-level. Part of shooting pets successfully is moving slowly and in being very patient so I just lay there, mostly waiting to see what an animal might do. One “secret” in this biz truly is patience yet at times you find yourself in absurdly awkward positions where my assistants have to put pillows under me, wherever it hurts most.
When you lay on a deck flat on your stomach, looking up while making pictures, it takes about 5 minutes for your neck to start aching so I came up with a more relaxing idea for both Piggy and the photographer. I reached out to the sleeping Piggy and simply rolled her, like a basketball, onto her back. Piggy didn’t blink or pay attention at all. Rather, she was 100% cool lying on her back, dozing, as I made frames til my neck was killing me. The fact Piggy cooperated with me spontaneously rolling her onto her back was remarkable, a big thrill to a guy who loves playing with cool dogs.
Then it hit me! If Piggy can model while lying on her back, why can’t I make pictures while lying on my back – not my stomach – so I could shoot this “worms eye view” more comfortably? So I rolled over and began shooting while lying on my back – rolling my head so I was looking backwards – which was MUCH more comfortable. Piggy didn’t seem to care either way, though a couple times gravity caused her to roll to one side, whereupon an assistant jumped in to roll her onto her back again, again with no protests from Piggy! What a great model!!!
An important part of my way of shooting these days - both with animals and people – is never to plan and, hopefully, not to think much. For me, after years of study and practice, it’s now better if I simply bounce off whatever my human or animal subject does or says, reactively, making pictures based on what feels cool or right, without a shred of thinking or a plan, if at all possible. I call this technique “calculated spontaneity” since for years I was very calculated, yet now much prefers being totally spontaneous. It’s a fact I get the best people and pet pictures by simply showing up without a plan, a backup plan or a shred of a clue what I’m going to do. (which makes the shoot much more exciting!) I prefer being “struck” by a graphical or visual element I simply encounter on location, rather than planning or bringing that element with me. This technique makes things much more “real” since then the photography truly IS real.
This picture of Piggy was published for about 18 months in a long list of magazines including Martha Stewart Living, Oprah, Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Day and a list of others. It was a very successful picture for my client since it stopped people on the ad!
Since this was a major ad campaign shot on a series of bright, sunny days, the harsh light had to be managed, modified and controlled.
The lighting for this shoot included:
- 20x20’ silk mounted over the deck. (also another 20x20’ silk over the yard for other pics)
- 8x8’ silk used as a reflector and with one 500 watt Lowell hot light directed through the silk as fill on Piggy
- 4x8’ silk just out of frame – as close to Piggy as possible – with two 500 watt Lowell hot lights shooting through the silk as main fill
- Several reflectors and at least one gobo to block a beam of direct sunshine
I’m a serious strobe shooter but, in this case, the Creative Brief called for my own flavor of shallow depth of field and over-saturated color. With continuous lighting like the Lowell Hot Lights, I could easily shoot at f2 or f2.8 for minimal depth of field with the shutter speed being unimportant. This made for a very successful photograph of a dog in a very unusual, eye-catching posture.
Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 50mm f/1.2L
Exposure: f2.8 at 1/2000 sec
PS: Why ISO 800 on a bright sunny day? Because the previous shot was indoors and I forgot to change the ISO…
I’d enjoy knowing if you liked this article and if you would like to see more like it. It would also be interesting to know if you have any ideas on how I can make future articles like this even better.
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