Photographers' Blog

Gear for a gecko portrait shoot

Rochester, New York

By Adam Fenster

When I got a call from one of the publicists in University Communications a couple of weeks ago asking whether we should try to find stock art or make our own photos to illustrate a recent paper by University of Rochester PhD student Daniel Scantlebury, I immediately jumped at the chance. I had read that the paper, which describes a slowdown in the rate at which species form on Madagascar, involved obscure gecko species and, as an occasional photographer of frogs and other critters, I thought it would be a great opportunity to make some interesting studio photographs, push my photography skills and at the same time help to publicize a critical scientific study.

GALLERY: MADAGASCAR GECKOS

I emailed Dan, explaining what I wanted to try and emphasizing that the comfort and safety of his geckos was critical. I had been told he had a collection containing some of the animals in the study but was distressed to learn upon meeting him in his office later that he had given them away. Fortunately, as someone with close ties to Rochester’s “gecko community”, he was able to put me in touch with Thomas Wood, a local expert and aquarium store owner who possesses a large collection of the same leaf tailed gecko species that were part of the study.

After we set up a time to meet at Tom’s house I tried to figure out how I wanted to photograph these animals. I had long been inspired by the work of National Geographic contributor Joel Sartore, particularly this photo. But when I saw the stunning gecko photos of Shikhei Goh I knew exactly what I wanted to try (minus the kung fu part). I sourced a piece of black plexiglass from a local plastics company, then made some test shots in our office combining the plexiglass on a small table with a black backdrop and two lights: a Paul C Buff Einstein with 35” gridded octobox, placed camera left and another Einstein with a grid spot at upper back right. Gridding a light source minimizes light spill and maximizes directionality, which was important in getting everything to go solid black to create contrast to set off the unique features of the geckos. If I were to do this again I’d use even smaller light sources as there was still a bit of spill, or I’d move the backdrop a little farther back. I triggered the lights using the newer Pocket Wizards (radio transmitters) that allow for power adjustment on the fly with a little gadget that clicks into the camera’s hot shoe. This proved helpful as some animals frequently changed their distance to the lights in addition to having various hues that required more or less light to photograph suitably. The results were about what I had hoped for so I packed everything back up and waited for our shoot day.

I drove with Dan to Tom’s house and after introductions were made I was led down to the “Gecko Room” in Tom’s basement. I had been expecting perhaps a handful of old cages containing a small sampling of species but was greeted instead by the sight of literally dozens of vivariums filled with live plants inside which held some of the most fantastical animals I have ever seen in person: bizarre-looking, bearded and bumpy, and almost invisible with their perfect camouflage. I’ve been to zoos and pet stores that do not have the equipment and species variation in that room. After more introductions to the various species we settled on five or six that we thought might best lend themselves to being photographed. After that I set up my little studio in Tom’s living room upstairs, did a few tests and we then began to methodically photograph them. Tom and Dan handled and positioned the geckos while I photographed, manipulated lights and made species IDs using voice tags on the back of the camera. After about three hours (and a growler of local microbrew) we were done. Tom and Dan did a masterful job in selecting and handling the creatures and I can say with complete authority that no geckos were harmed in the creation of these images.

As far as camera gear goes, we’re a Nikon shop here at the university and we just took delivery of a D4 earlier this year. It’s a great camera with speedy autofocus and a beautiful file. We also have a D800 which offers a bigger file but doesn’t seem to do quite as well with autofocus speed and accuracy, which proved critical for this shoot as some of the animals like to move around. Many are also very small which required macro equipment and the resulting focus tolerances are very narrow, even at the high apertures I was using and again rendering autofocus accuracy critical. For the first animal — an 8-10” Henkel’s leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus henkeli) — I was able to use a 70-200mm lens but for all the others I reverted to a 50mm 1.4 coupled with my personal Canon 250D closeup lens. While not ideal for this sort of work, the combination did just fine.

Stretching the Olympic portrait limits

By Lucas Jackson

Over the course of three days Reuters, along with several other prominent outlets, was given a space and (almost) guaranteed time with every member of Team USA that was able to attend a media summit in Dallas this past May, in order to take portraits of the team members. It was a win-win situation for all involved. The athletes were able to take care of a great deal of their media availability in one weekend and members of the media were not required to travel all over the US in order to get portraits of these elite athletes before they head off to London for the 2012 Olympics. As the photographer from Reuters assigned to this portrait marathon there was only one issue; how to take a single space along with extremely limited time with each athlete to make unique, interesting, and ideally self-explanatory images of dozens and dozens of athletes.

It was a daunting task to say the least but I started with a simple lighting setup that played off of several portrait collections I had seen, including Douglas Kirkland’s, and work that tends to appear in either men’s health or sporting magazines. I finally settled on a dual setup where my first setup would use a simple grey background and light to enhance the muscle tone of the athletes. My second setup was to use a large American flag (given to me by my brother as I arrived in Jalalabad, Afghanistan) to take photos of the athletes who were involved with sports that did not lend themselves to the flexing of muscles or shedding of clothing. I wanted to use ProFoto lights as they have a remote controller and trigger called the “Air Remote” that I could put on my camera to control the light’s power output from the controller mounted on top of the camera. This would save me precious time as I wouldn’t have to physically go to each of the four lights to change their outputs depending on whether I was shooting on the grey seamless backdrop or the flag.



FULL FOCUS GALLERY: TEAM USA

I cannot think of a single athlete who was not gracious and accommodating in the time we were given. Some of the times were shorter than others. The uber-popular yet incredibly bouncy gymnasts gave us between 30 seconds to one minute. Overall, everyone was up for whatever pose or idea that you could come up with. Some of the competitors brought the tools that accompany their sport like racquets, rifles, bows or fencing swords.

Remembering where I came from

By Shannon Stapleton

Throughout my career I have covered my share of despair caused by senseless killings, war and natural disasters in other countries and within the United States. You become kind of jaded and realize that when you get the call to go cover one of these assignments that you are going in as a journalist and your job is to cover the reality of the situation no matter how bad it is. Little did I know that I would someday be covering such tragedy in a place around 25 miles from where I grew up.

I received the call on Tuesday to get on a plane to Chardon, Ohio, a blue collar town of 5,000 outside of Cleveland a day after the senseless shooting of five high school students, that ended with three dead by the end of the week. I boarded a plane as soon as possible and arrived in Akron, Ohio around 5:00 pm where I drove for an hour to make a candlelight vigil honoring the victims of the shootings at St. Mary’s church in Chardon, Ohio.

When I arrived at the church there were thousands of people that had gathered inside and outside dressed in red to honor the victims. I got quickly to work and was amazed at the outpouring of support from throughout the community and the other schools nearby. Kids had their school name jackets on from around the area and everyone had candles listening to the church service outside in the cold. When it was over people hugged and cried and walked hand and hand back to their vehicles. Walking back to my car was when it really hit me. I hadn’t been back to Chardon in 25 years when I played one of my last high school football games on a field that had now been replaced by a newer one with Astroturf.

The man behind Mao’s portrait

I was honored and excited when I first heard that I would be joining the TV team for a story which Reuters had been chasing for 2 years – photographing the one and only painter at present who draws the giant portrait of Chinese late chairman Mao Zedong hanging at Tiananmen Square.

Ge Xiaoguang, 58, started learning large-scale portrait painting from Wang Guodong in 1971, and since Wang retired in 1977, Ge has been the author of Mao’s portraits at Tiananmen Square.

We arrived at the entrance of Ge’s studio before 9:00 a.m., a 10-meter-high red building located between the Tiananmen Gate and the Forbidden City. Millions of tourists pass by every day, but most of them would never find out what has been going on in this building.

Five minutes with Hugh Hefner inside the Playboy mansion

The Playboy mansion was hidden behind huge gates and a thick hedge on the hilly roads below Sunset Boulevard.

Two men ogled for a closer view outside and one pointed his camera towards the gate. I drove up the winding driveway and a voice from a speaker hidden in a rock asked what I wanted.

Hugh Hefner, of course. I was promised five minutes to photograph the playboy of all playboys. “Hef gets impatient when having his photo taken,” his publicist said. The fans stepped back as the gates parted.

Ten minutes or less with Taylor Lautner

Actor Taylor Lautner, who stars in the upcoming movie 'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse', poses for a portrait in Los Angeles June 12, 2010. Picture taken June 12, 2010.  REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Reuters had been approved for a ten-minute portrait session with Taylor Lautner, the heartthrob of millions of teenagers, my editor Sam Mircovich informed me the day before the shoot.

Reporter Alex Dobuzinskis had a one-on-one interview with Taylor scheduled ahead of the premier of “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.” Before the release of a film, the production company organizes press junkets in which the cast is available for media interviews and occasionally for a quick photo session. Photo access is rare so whenever it’s granted to us, it’s welcomed.

Not unlike other press junkets, this one was held at a prestigious hotel in Los Angeles. The hotel had been rigged and retrofitted for these types of media events.

One minute with Justin Bieber

Singer Justin Bieber poses for a portrait in New York, June 3, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

This portrait session came about because our entertainment reporter, Christine Kearney, noticed that one of the several PR pitches that came across her desk was a small event where Justin Bieber was going to give the winner of a contest a bouquet of flowers. Normally this isn’t a story that we would be interested in because it doesn’t have anything to do with any “larger picture” type of story. However, because it was Bieber, Christine decided she would ask for a few minutes to interview him. One of the hardest things for us to do is gain access because a lot of musicians, actors, or television personalities have very specific images that they want to project so access can be incredibly tight. This restriction to access can make my job difficult because as a photographer I would love the opportunity to document what these public figures lives are like on a day to day basis. The next best thing for me to get is a little one on one time with whoever allows it. Luckily, the PR officer said yes to both the request for a private interview and a quick portrait session, as long as I was low key and quick.

PEOPLE-BIEBER/It was a hot day and hauling a large rolling suitcase around with a single set of strobes, along with my backpack full of camera equipment, was enough to make sure that I was panting by the time Christine and I arrived at a small non-descript flower shop in Lower Manhattan. As we walked in I was surprised to see only about a dozen people inside, a couple of television cameras, and one other still photographer. At most events where a celebrity as popular as Justin Bieber is attending there are dozens of photographers and television cameras. I was heartened to see that it would be a much smaller crowd for this. The woman organizing the event told me I could set up my lights in the back while a television station interviewed Justin. Once that was finished Christine could interview him while I moved my lights to the front of the shop where Bieber had to remain seated. I have to admit, I wish all of my portrait shoots could take place in flower shops because it was a welcome break from the usual portrait venue of a hotel room. Not only was the air conditioning on high but it smelled nice and flowery. I think this put everyone at ease as I didn’t have any issues whatsoever setting up my lights, moving them to the front room through a small crowd, or shooting a quick portrait.

As Christine was finishing her interview the organizer of the event came up to me and the other photographer to ask if we could both get our shots in the 3 minutes they had allotted for photos. I asked if we could get more time but Bieber was scheduled to be somewhere immediately following this event and the timing couldn’t be changed. I struck a deal with the other photographer that I could have the first minute and he could have the second and third as he was hired by the organizers of the event and needed multiple people, angles, promoters, etc in his photos. I knew that if other people crowded around Bieber it would be difficult to separate them in time and I just needed single photographs. Christine introduced me to Bieber and after mentioning that I had seen him perform a few months ago with a cast, I went to work.