The AZIZ Salon’s grand opening was my biggest challenge of all the 2012 Austin Fashion Week events. I did my first blog coverage last week, where I captured a very excited and joyful model. It’s always great to see someone having so much fun and many of the visitors to my blog from Facebook seem to agree. I also mentioned in that piece that I found the event challenging to shoot and that I made some mistakes along the way. I’m happy to say the images turned out a lot better than expected and I’ll talk about some of these challenges I had at the end. I want to start with the event itself and how AZIZ organized a first rate grand opening and a terrific night of entertainment.
I arrived at the new AZIZ Salon in the upscale Arboretum shopping center in North West Austin. I was there about 30 minutes after the doors opened and it was already packed with a long line out the door. It probably took 15 minutes or so to get in. Of all the Fashion Week events I’ve gone to this year and in the 3 previous years, this was the most crowded. The salon did a masterful campaign to get the word out about their grand opening.
Once inside, the airy split level multistory interior was a buzz with activity. They had a generous supply of drinks, free makeovers, food and music. The event had a good vibe and everything was professionally done. I met my photographer friend, Steve there and I joined a few other photographers and talked in the corner. The fashion show was still more than an hour away, so we settled in to have a good time. I shot some guests and met the owners and had a drink. I attended the AZIZ event last year and I was pleasantly surprised that they remembered some of my images from that event.
The makeshift runway started from the front door, down a short flight of stairs, all the way to the end. The crowds formed a natural enclosure. What sets these salon fashion shows apart from the serious raised catwalk events is seeing the crowd interaction. If you look at my images, the ones with the model by the front door are not nearly as personal and interesting as the one with the audience around them. The audience’s reaction to the model is what I find interesting just as much as the models themselves.
I noticed that the most popular camera seems to be the iPhone and there were a lot fewer point and shoot cameras. No big surprise there. It also seems like all the big cameras, the DSLRs are used by the men, including yours truly. It’s wonderful that so many people have cameras these days. Go back 10 or 20 years ago and I’m sure the scene will be entirely different. Perhaps they might have had one professional photographer covering the event and maybe a few people with point and shoot film cameras. The world of low-cost digital has a democratizing effect on seemingly everything these days. More people are partaking and creating their own content. No doubt a bunch of their images were shared on Facebook.
On the flip side, I wonder what kind of quality they are getting. While the salon looks well-lit to the human eye, it’s not really so for the camera. Even using a “serious” camera like my Canon 7D, it’s not a slam dunk to get, well exposed and sharp photographs. I’m sure my expectations of image quality is higher than the average iPhone shooter but here is why this environment is a bit harder to shoot that you will first expect.
The first thing you have to realize is that you are taking action shots in an interior setting, always a challenge. Getting a blur free, sharp image of someone who is posing for you is one thing, try doing that for someone who is walking at a steady pace down a runway. I kept my shutter speed at 1/200 of a second to minimize motion blur. I didn’t want to aim the flash directly at the models so I used a bounce flash instead. Direct flash shots usually don’t work very well indoors. Bouncing the light off the ceiling gives a softer illumination to the entire area rather than just the model. Even if you have an expensive camera, those direct flash shots give you that typical and less desirable “yes I used my flash” type look, which I try to avoid.
While I wanted to include the background and I really didn’t have a choice given the setup, I wanted to deemphasize it somewhat. Having the audience in the background is great but when they too are in sharp focus, it detracts from the subject. The background and foreground compete and you end up getting a very cluttered image. To make the background out of focus, you need to use a lens with a big aperture, setting your F number to the lowest available. In typical kit lenses your F number may go down to f3.5. On pro zoom lenses, down to f2.8. I used my 50mm prime lens which allowed me to take the Aperture down to f1.4. Here is where it gets tricky. How do you balance the aperture size, the light coming from the flash bounced off the ceiling, stopping the action with a high shutter speed and get everything in focus? This is why shooting in the place like this is a bit more challenging than it looks. At least it is for me since it’s something that I don’t do very often.
It took me a few minutes to get the settings dialed in correctly. And even then, I wasn’t entirely sure the images were coming out. I had to change several variables very quickly to adjust to the environment and situation. That is why shooting in these places can be fun, challenging and frustrating all at the same time. After fiddling with the shutter speed, aperture size, flash exposure compensation I hit upon a recipe that seemed to work. I wasn’t entirely sure at the time but it turned out better than I thought. While I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode (the A or Av setting on the dial) I always use Manual exposure in these cases. My final settings, after all the experimentation, ISO 800, a shutter speed of 1/200 second, an Aperture of f1.8 to f2.2 and my bounce flash exposure set to a negative 1 stop. Of course there are always compromises. Having a non-zooming 50mm made it tougher and more restrictive in my framing. The shallow depth of field created by the f1.8 aperture made it more critical to focus and shoot quickly. At this depth of field, less than a step of movement taken by the model will throw her out of focus.
So what was the big mistake I made? It was at the beginning before I ever shot the camera. I chose to position myself in the middle near the steps, at the halfway point of the runway. Consequently, I was always forced to shoot models in motion. When they passed by me, there were too close and moving too fast for a good shot. I ended up taking pictures at either the doorway, where they started or near the end of the runway when they turned and headed back up. Catching the models when they are stopped is a whole lot easier to do. What I should have done was to position myself at the end of the runway where I can catch the models facing me and paused before they head back up. If I did this, much of the technical struggle to have a fast shutter speed and extra fast and accurate focus would have been reduced. All was not lost however. Because of my position, I undoubtedly got compositions that were different from the others. I also got the fun challenge of figuring out my exposure on the fly; forcing me to adjust and learn. The challenge made all the more fun since I ended up with images that I liked.
Please make sure to click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure details.