kyle cassidy (kylecassidy) wrote,
kyle cassidy

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Top Sekret No Longer! Behind the Scenes Philadelphia Weekly Cover Shoot with Milkboy

Q: What do Lana Del Rey, L.L. Cool J, Kanye West, Queen Latifah, AC/DC, Miley Cyrus, Tori Amos and I all have in common?

A: We've all taken the elevator up to the third floor Milkboy recording studio high atop the Electric Factory in Philadelphia -- though not all at the same time.

I was doing it in the middle of the night on the coldest day in recent memory. And from the third floor up even further to the roof which overlooked the city, glittering behind us like gems. And even further, up an iron ladder to the very top of the world, for the cover of the Philadelphia Weekly.

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(You can read the cover story and see more photos here)

I wasn't sure how to photograph Tommy and Jamie, the owners of Milkboy -- I knew the obvious way would be to put them in front of the mixing board in the studio and I wasn't very keen on that. Fortunately, they weren't very keen on it either, they showed me a wall of photos of themselves in front of the mixing board. "We'd rather do something different," said Jamie. "We'll break stuff if you want," added Tommy.

"Great," I said, "Can we get up on the roof?"

When shooting for the cover of a magazine like the Philadelphia Weekly you want something big that's recognizable from ten steps away, because that's how people see it -- you want something that will make people stop, reach in & grab the paper.

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The way I tend to approach assignments like this are to first grab a fast, easy, safe image that way if your subjects get busy or bored or your shoot gets shutdown you have something and after that do your creative images. I usually try and do four different setups so there's something to choose from. Skipping the soundboard we'd gone right past the easy, safe image into the fun stuff. Though it wasn't so fun on the roof.

I'm pretty good at setting up lighting gear and usually from bag to first shot is under five minutes, but it was freezing cold on the roof -- there were sheets of ice up there and gusting winds. I had an sb800 flash shooting into a double fold 36 inch umbrella -- this was the fast, easy, lighting setup, but by the time I had the light figured out I couldn't feel my fingers anymore. Greg, Milkboy's hapless intern was on the roof in a flannel shirt holding my lighting stand and was faring worse than me most likely. After a few exposures, the fine motor skills of my fingers wouldn't actually depress the shutter button anymore but I was able to push the camera up into my closed fist and take a photo.

I did a series with different shutter speeds to get different looks from the city lights.

In this situation you have two separate lights in the same exposure and they're controlled differently. The city lights are controlled by the camera's shutter speed, so you set up the camera to get the background exposure you want. (In this case it was f 3.8, 1/5th second iso 1600 with a 29mm lens.) 1/5th second made the city lights pop and the slow shutter speed gave them a little motion blur (I tried it with more motion blur too) -- the second light is the main light on the subjects and that's controlled by the flash power, (in this case I think it was 1/32nd). If you want the city brighter, you slow down your shutter speed, if you want the city darker you increase your shutter speed, if you want the people brighter, you increase your flash power, if you want the people darker you decrease your flash power. Changing the f-stop brightens or darkens both. Balancing two light sources is one of the "ah-ha!" moments that brings your photography up to the next level.

I was pretty happy with the rooftop image, I was shooting with a 36 megapixel d800 which gives a really big, easily croppable image, but I still wanted to get some coverage, I still didn't have anything that said "recording studio" and I didn't have anything that said "super hip business owners" -- the studio itself is pretty epically wonderful with couches and gold records and a kitchen with a car grill on it. I figured I'd do something in the kitchen, then end up in the studio -- there was a grand piano and other things that would get across the recording studio idea without using the big mixing board.

I brought three lights with me (you can read about, and see a photo of, absolutely everything I brought along with me in this blog post here) and used them all for this shot. I wanted to light the car grill as well as Tommy and Jamie but not too much of the kitchen. So there's one light in a reflective umbrella (to control bounce and make it more directional) lighting them, one light with a grid hitting the car grill and one light with a snoot behind them drawing (hopefully) an interesting line across the wall behind them -- this serves to separate them from the background and give it some depth.

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Ultimately I felt like there was a shot here but I didn't get it -- not sure why or what's wrong, but it wasn't working like I'd hoped, so I skipped into the studio.

I did a couple of two light setups in the studio with one light in a reflective umbrella on them and one with a snoot on the wall behind them. I used a few locations in the studio, one being the grand piano (which got used in a giant shot inside the paper) and one with a microphone.

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Finally I wanted to do a big closeup headshot but not two guys looking at the camera. By this time Tommy had picked up the cowbell and started playing with it "I want to be holding this cowbell," he said, joking, but there was really something there -- the cowbell is kind of funny, it's musical, Tommy and Jamie were both funny and musical and the cowbell was just The Thing. I shot it with one light in a reflective umbrella up against some acoustical tile, it took five minutes, maybe less. When I sent the shots in to the weekly it was immediately the one that jumped out at them. It was big, you could recognize it from ten steps away.

On the choice of the cover photo, editor Stephen Segal had this to say:

"We loved that rooftop beauty shot and would have used it, but the cowbell was just too much fun, too full of personality, to resist — not to mention the built-in pop-culture reference to record producers, via Christopher Walken's famous SNL skit. And the piano shot on the inside — it was a great portrait of the two in their musical space, with their character shining through; it just seemed a little quieter and more reflective, and thus better for the interior."

There's your cover gents.

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