Barbara Fiorio – Municipal Theatre of San Giovanni in Persiceto

I am really lucky when it comes to friends. In a lineup with me and all the people that really matters in my life, I’m the worst of the bunch, but they still accept to hang out with me.
Barbara Fiorio is my kickass writer friend, she published several novels and the new one (her best yet) is coming out in april.
She’s the person who got me my first piece of professional gear (a Manfrotto tripod I still use) when I wasn’t even thinking of becoming a professional photographer: she just saw something there and hinted in the right direction, that’s just what she does. My darkroom enlarger used to be her dad’s. She’s family.
I live in constant fear of not being able to become the person she thinks I am, which has driven me to get better and work as hard as I can.
I have taken her portrait a bunch of times over the years and not only she’s always great in front of the camera -and stunningly beautiful-, she also lets me do weird stuff, like bury her in dirt or cover her face in poppy seeds, because she trusts the fact that I’ll do my best to get a good photo out of it.

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So when we were bouncing ideas to shoot the headshot for her new book cover, we decided we might as well add some of what we call “our photos”.

I’ve been wanting to shoot her in the Municipal Theatre of San Giovanni in Persiceto since 2007, when we went there to see Alessandro Bergonzoni be generally awesome. Barbara has worked in theatre for a long time, organizing stuff and managing relationships with journalists, she knows a lot about theatre and I owe it to her that I got to see stuff like several plays directed by Eimuntas Nekrošius (the beauty!). So it made perfect sense to me to shoot her in a theatre, for a bunch of reasons, and that particular theatre had everything I wanted, visually.

Thanks to Mauro Diazzi  we got permission to shoot there for a couple of hours, which is a long time, for these kind of stuff1.
We were welcomed by Geo, who’s the light technician and overall handyman and has been for 30 years. He’s also an amateur photographer, so we talked about photography while Barbara got ready and he saw my Canon and started a little banter because he’s a Nikon shooter. I looked him in the eyes and took the Fuji out of my bag, saying “this is what I’ll be mostly shooting with today, though” and he raised a single eyebrow and said: “I don’t judge” and went out to smoke a cigarette.

The available light is the theatre was incredibly dim

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top left is what you get at ISO 400 f4, 1/60
top right is ISO 6400, f4, 1/15
bottom right is same settings, but white balance on daylight, to make everything go red (because I kinda don’t give a rat’s ass about how colors are supposed to look in real life and because I didn’t like the yellow I got in the background when balancing stuff, I thought it didn’t go with the dress she was wearing)

I used a single Elinchrom with a softbox camera left, to keep things fast and flexible. After a couple of static images we started having a bit of fun with movement and ghosting. Then we took some black and white images with a different dress, because you bring two women on a stage and you have to expect wardrobe changes.

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the great thing about working in a place like this is that by simply going to ISO 400 and 1/125, the background goes black and I could shoot headshots without having to change stuff around (except for the lens, of course)

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Then I started steering thing towards the image I had in mind since the beginning. I asked her to wear a velvet cape she brought with her and pinned a little wire crown I made (her next book has a lot to do with fairytales and I wanted a subtle reference in the photo2).
I never start with the shot I have in mind right away, if I have the time, because I like to take a bunch of “warm up” photos, where there isn’t much invested. If something comes out nice, it’s great, if the subject is a bit stiff or I haven’t found my pace yet, it’s not a big loss.

This one is shot at f16, ISO 3200, half a second

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going to 4 second and moving the camera around, I can still freeze her with flash, but everything gets moody and blurry, which is me. This is my shot.

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We still had some time before we would be kicked out of this amazing place, so we stared trying different things out.
I saw a nice little corner behind the curtains and lit barbara using a single Lumopro with a softbox (that I then gridded to get a more directional light)

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We then decided to use the chairs because they looked cool. At this point we were running around like a bunch of caffeinated giggly squirrels.
Here’s how the scene looks at ISO 3200 f4 1/5

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And here’s what it looks like with a Lumopro at 1/4 power on a gridded softbox right out of the frame (and aperture changed to 1/16 because I’m lazy and changing power settings on a strobe when it’s inside a gridded Phottix softbox several meters away is honestly a pain in the butt. I KNOW there are triggers that lets you do that, I don’t need the added complication)

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For each setup I usually try to give both horizontal and vertical options, especially when I don’t know where they will be used.

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At this point we kind of went bonkers and decided to take a group photo of her multiple personalities, which was so much fun to do (and pretty easy and quick, once you place the camera on a tripod, switch to manual focus and don’t move anything until you’re done)

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We were starting to seriously run out of time, but I still wanted to try something very quickly, so I asked Barbara to move into the balcony, where she got a single strobe lighting her. I took the first test shoot and realized I had forgotten to gel it. I didn’t want ambient to go super red here, as I was going for something a little melancholic and subdued.

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So I decided I’d switch to black and white. I also got the Canon and the 100 macro out of the bag, since it was the longest lens I had with me. I took a couple of test shots and, even though I liked the way she looked, I felt like the narrative was missing, so I asked Christian (amazing editor and insanely interesting and funny human being. Also, one of the most clever people I have even met) to stand in as a prop and I got a shot I really liked because I feel there is something going on there, a little hint of a story.

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Squeezing every second we had left, I did something I often do, which is going back to the very beginning and shoot a similar concept again. I feel like the subject is way more relaxed at the end and it often leads to unexpected nice photos. Plus, I really loved the blue slip she had brought with her and we hadn’t shot it.

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We finally wrapped things up and Ale started packing my stuff while I thanked Barbara and Mauro. Geo came to say goodbye. I heard him say that he didn’t have any photo of himself, so I stopped Ale and asked him to set up a light again very quickly. I felt like Geo would appreciate a portrait of himself with the theatre he has been working in most of his life as a background.
I took the first shot and it came out great, but then I saw that the crown was sitting on a table, grabbed it and gave it to Geo, who understood immediately what I was going for and gave be the most amazing pose. His face is incredible.
He was super stoked about the photo and I made sure I sent him a high res version of it as soon as we got home, so that he can hang it next to crown that I left with him.

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We then proceeded to have the most amazing lunch here. We had 3 desserts each, and I was on an adrenaline and sugar high for the rest of the day.
This is why I love shooting people I love, over and over. It never feels like work.
The photos I get in the end are only the byproduct of the amazing time I spend with them.

 

  • 1. Which is why I got him a big bottle of Grappa and took him to lunch. I strongly believe in the power of "thank you" and I believe in booze and great food even more.
  • 2. I have a soft spot for villains, because usually the "good" characters in fairytales are really dumb. My all time favorite is the evil Queen from Snow White, a fairytale I read as a cautionary tale against hiring unskilled contractors. Huntsman? You had one job.

Stuff I did while I wasn’t here

Apparently I’ve been busy doing stuff and then not writing about it. Blogging is mostly dead, which is why I have decided that it’s the perfect moment to start doing it again and using it the way I have been using a blog since 1999: to keep track of stuffno one cares about but me1.

Anyway:

1. I wrote about being shot by Zack Arias and Bernard Brand on Dedpxl.com. It was awesome and I miss those people. If you’re interest in taking photos of people, go stand in front of someone’s camera.

2. I also had to decide who to give an Hasselblad to and I couldn’t say “give it to me”. That was cruel.

3. I am teaching in Dubai again in March! One of my workshop is sold out, the other has limited spaces, but the two I think are the most fun (self portraiture and mixed media) still have places left. GPP also asked me to write about the BTS of one of my self portraits, so here it is.

4. I ended up in a book about running. Really? Really. If you are thinking about training for your first 5k that is what you need. Honestly: those women got me to run a marathon.

5. I was interviewed for BBC radio, with people like Gregory Heisler and Diana Scheunemann. My plan of always being the worst person in the room seems to be working great!

  • 1. This is going to be super-useful when I'll finally commit some major felony and I'll need to remember where I was on friday, jan 23rd 2015. "Blogging, that's where, officer!". And then I'll rot in jail.
  • .

All work and no play make Sara a dull girl

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For the last few months I have mainly worked and worked and worked, on stuff that pays the bills. I’ve also helped other people with their own projects for the last edition of the GSFP. I’m super grateful for both things, but I need to work on my own stuff to function properly and lately I haven’t.
Even after all these years, photography is what I do to keep the pieces together.

When I need to unwind and have fun, I usually work with the same people, who might need photos for their portfolios and trust me and let me play as much as I want. What I wanted to do, among other things, was to actually test my Canon 5DMark III against my Fuji X-T1 in the same situation and see what works for me and what doesn’t.

I honestly don’t care about the gear-bukkake and the side-by-side comparisons with charts and numbers and tech-specs and all that stuff that can be found basically everywhere. I have two cameras and wanted to see how they behave when I do what I do, knowing that the Canon is the girlfriend I grew up with and the Fuji is still a moody mistress sometimes. I also knew it would be unfair to shoot with my favorite lens on the Canon (the 100 2.8) and the kit lens on the Fuji, but I can only use what I have: feel free to send me lenses. No, really: do.

Where the Canon wins, for me:

1. It’s perceived as a camera from the person in front of you. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, but I don’t shoot candids and that little uneasiness in my subjects is part of my process. I like that they are aware of me and the camera and that at some point they need to decide to let me in. I’d probably use a large format if I knew how to operate one.

2. I’m not 100% sold on the EVF: each time I shoot it goes black for an instant, while with the Canon there is no interruption in what I see when I look into my eyepiece. I guess it’s a matter of getting used to it, but still. Generally speaking, the Canon is faster.

3. A lot of people say there’s not much difference in terms of quality between a full sensor and a crop sensor and it might be true for what they do, but I definitely can see a difference in terms of detail in the skin, eyelashes and all that stuff that my clients actually pay attention to. Sure, a DLSR is no medium format, but still.

Here’s the Canon 100% crop

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And here’s the Fuji 100% crop.

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I’m sure part of it is also the lens, but I can see that the pixels are a bit squashed together in the Fuji, the way it happens with any smaller sensor. Can you see the difference when you are looking at the two images on a screen and they are not cropped? If you can you’re better than I am. I had to check the metadata (in case you’re wondering: Fuji on the right)

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Where the Fuji wins, for me:

1. It’s small, it’s light, it’s unobtrusive. I have arthritis and even if the MarkIII isn’t the biggest camera around, at the end of the day my hands and my back are not happy.

2. Jpeg quality straight out of camera. I don’t know who took care of placing inside my camera the magic gnomes who translate RAW data into jpeg files, but I hardly ever touch the Fuji jpegs. With the Canon, I only use jpegs to sort images, but it’s RAW or nothing and everything is post processed, at least a little bit. Especially when it comes to color.

3. The people who sit in front of my camera seem to be more at ease. Elena commented on how much she liked the sound of the X-T1 shutter without me asking about it. I thought I’d never use the tilting LCD (come on, it’s totally for noobs!) and here I was, using it all the time because it means I don’t have a camera in front of my face and I don’t have to squat all day. It’s like working with my Rolleiflex. Not as awesome when shooting vertically, though, it would be great if it tilted that way as well.

4. Self portraiture. Oh my goodness, would I hug the person responsible for the Fuji app! I’m an old lady and not having to run back and forth like I’ve been chased by a pack of dogs is such a nice thing. I’ll probably post something about this at some point.

So, would I sell my Canon gear and switch to Fuji? No. But I’m waiting for a medium format Fuji. Make it happen. Pretty please? I’ve been a very good girl.

And here’s why the whole Canon vs Fuji pixel-peeping-thing doesn’t mean much to me: those above are a bunch of shots that I took for Elena’s portfolio. What I wanted for myself was completely different. I used an image from the rolls I shot with the Rolleiflex, photographed it holding it on a window in my kitchen (the resulting file on the left), printed it on the little Canon Selphy CP800 and then played with pins and fire and pieces of glass and shaking the camera around.

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here’s the very complex and super professional set I was using. I could have duct taped the print on the desk, it would have been the same.

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And here’s Ale who took a picture as soon as he started smelling something burning. His face is probably commenting the fact that I have a step ladder right next to me and instead I end up balancing on a wobbly box while I use one hand to handle the lighter and the other one to hold the camera. Now that I look at it, I could have ended up burning my hair. Oh well.

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Anyway, I ended up playing around a lot and honestly for what I go for, a razor sharp image is just not important.

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US Workshops and seminars- Atlanta and Baltimore

In one month I will be in Atlanta, hugging the Arias family again and talking about photography. A week later, I’ll be in Baltimore hugging the Hobby family and talking about photography.
I’m a hugger and I rarely shut up, what can I say.

I’ll be talking about shooting people and all the little stuff that isn’t written in your camera manual: I’m not one of those people who says that technique doesn’t count. It does. Learn it. Improve. Study. Struggle. Take it apart and put it back together. Never settle.
But to me photography is like a language and technique is grammar: it makes your message clear and pleasing to read, it helps you not being misunderstood, it gives you confidence in the way you’re telling your story. But what I care about, what I’ve always cared about, is the story behind the grammar, the characters, the tone. You can make mistakes and still have a compelling story, and anyway grammar is easy to learn (boring sometimes, not always fast, but not hard at all).
Portrait photography in particular, is less of a story and more of a conversation. If you speak beautifully but don’t know how to listen, it’s going to be lousy.
And it’s never just about you.
Photographers have huge, fragile egos: we think our photos belong to us because we were attached to the finger pushing the button, but over the years I learnt that every portrait is a collaboration between photographer and subject and that the more you learn how to take care of the person in front of you, the better the picture is going to come out. That can be learnt as well.
If you’re anything like me, you’re way more comfortable interacting with a camera than you are interacting with a human being, but you don’t have to be a “people person” to be a people photographer. We’ll talk about that for four hours in the Behind the Portrait Seminar. I’ll tell you everything I know and you can come and ask about anything you might want to know. Come with a question, (metaphorically) squeeze me like a lemon, don’t go home without an answer: I’ll try to make it a good one. Or at least the best one I can.

And then in the afternoon I’ll talk about what I *really* like to do. If photography is a language, who says we can’t make up words? They put “selfie” on the dictionary, for duck’s sake, stop thinking you need to follow a bunch of rules some dead person set for themselves just because you read it in a book that one time.
Photography is child’s play. And by that I mean it’s super serious and super focused (have you ever watched children at play? You’ll know what I mean) but it’s also something that you can make up as you go.
Not if you want to be a photojournalist, I guess, but even the World Press Photo had to change the rules because people were getting a little bit too carried away. Don’t resist it: join the dark side. I am your father.
Exploring the borders of photography, that shifty space where you’re not sure you’re allowed to be with a camera, is exciting and fun and can teach you a lot about “regular” photography.
I like to consider myself a photojournalist for worlds that never existed.

And again, I’ll try not to drone on and on about the technique. The technique part is EASY.
And to prove that, here’s a bunch of little videos I made right after Magpies was published, as a reward for some of the people who donated to my Indiegogo campaign:

The Baltimore workshop is sold out, the Atlanta workshop only has 3 spots left and there’s still plenty of space for the seminars. If you want to come and watch me wave my hands like a mad italian, here’s where you get your seat.

First month: what I’ve learnt so far

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It’s been a month since I started documenting my parents, which is proving to be something I care about more than I thought I would.
For all the reasons I wrote about here, this is a project that excites me and scares me at the same time.

I’m way out of my comfort zone both because of the setup I’m using (which is wide lenses and so far no artificial lights, while I’m usually happy around 85-100 mm with a big softbox) and because this is my first time working with something that’s in front of me rather than directing my subjects for the image. I’ve never watched a documentary photographer work and honestly I’m pretty ignorant about the process: I usually just look at the final images and don’t think about how they were shot. But this is so different from commercial photography and there are a few things I’m learning along the way:

1. Being organized. I’m pretty anal retentive when it comes to keeping my hard disks in order, but even the biggest commercial gig I had so far is tiny, compared to the amount of photos I’ve been taking so far. At the end of each day I download my cards, I rename the files with a YYMMDD_001 format, I write down some notes to help me remind what I was doing or where I was or anything that might help me navigate through the images later.
I also go through the shots and assign 2 star to anything that doesn’t suck really bad (there’s a LOT of those. A LOT lot) and these go to another folder, to be printed tiny. When it comes to see how images work together, I still think having a physical print is easier.

2. Shoot now, think later. The hardest thing for me is still shooting while stuff happens. I missed a gazillion good pictures because I wasn’t fast enough and I’m left with a gazillion “a moment after something happened” images. This is frustrating. To add to the frustration, the light in my parents’ house is pretty dim and there isn’t a single white wall. The Fuji x-T1 is behaving really nicely so far, but there are a couple of shots that would really improve with a strobe or ten.

3. Learning the distance. Wide angles are weird for me to use. I always end up being closer than I’m comfortable with, so I have to find ways to make myself invisible while being on top of people. My parents don’t seem to mind having me around at all, it’s more a problem on my side. I’m also so used to normal and tele distance that each time I place my camera in front of my face I end up being too far away. At the same time, I’m finding out that being the photographer rather than the daughter means keeping some sort of emotional distance while I’m with my parents. I’m not judging anything I see, I’m just documenting it and I found myself deflating a couple of situations that in the past would have ended in a big fight (between me and my mum).
This, to me, is very interesting. I’m also learning a lot about my family, because if you stand next to someone long enough they start talking. Piecing together the stories is like building a jigsaw puzzle without the lid from a box in which several different jigsaw puzzles are mixed together, but when two pieces fit, it’s awesome.

4. Digging deeper. This first month was about testing the waters and become a little more confident with the new camera, the new project and the new process. I just wanted my parents to have me around and not freak out. I’m starting to see a lot of things here and there that are interesting, that explain a lot about the person I am and the way I think. It’s hard to scratch the surface and see my family and the house I grew in with a set of new eyes, but that’s the goal for the next months. I have a list of images that I know I want to get and I’m adding to that list each time something pops to my mind. I also need to remember that I’m trying to tell a story and include details and the surroundings.
After the first month the risk is to take pictures of the same things over and over and I need to keep looking, keep digging.

5. Suck until I don’t. I thought I knew how to take pictures. When you do something long enough it becomes comfortable, it’s easy to get complacent. Change a thing or two and the pretty house of cards you built starts rattling. Change some more and everything collapses. I had to learn how to operate a camera again. I focus on light, and framing go to hell. I frame my photo, and forget to change ISO back to 400. I have everything perfect, and the battery dies on me because I’m mostly using the LCD (it feels like cheating, but the fact that I’m not covering my face with a camera seems to work wonders in the “becoming invisible” thing).

And when I’m not shooting like a mad woman with two left hands, I’m preparing for my US workshops: if you’re in Atlanta on august 16-17th or in Baltimore on august 23-24th, come join me!