I like to do epic things, in exotic locations with amazing people – quite often on a zero budget, fuelled by nothing more than passion.
As a result, things rarely… if ever, go 100% smoothly and according to plan.
Over time, I have learnt that to be a good photographer you need to be an amazing problem solver; To expect and deal with last minute changes, problems and concerns, and to make sure that regardless of what happens – deliver the best results possible.
Even projects that take months to plan and put together can go horribly wrong last minute, and it is only the naive belief and perseverance to tell yourself “I can do this” that will get you through the hardest challenges.
TLDR: Scroll down and check out the pretty photos and BTS video.
In February this year, I was invited to speak at the Australian Institute of Professional Photography in Brisbane. Ever the opportunist, I reached out to fellow photographer and native Australian Anna Tenne, asking if there was something I absolutely had to see whilst on the other side of the world and she promptly replied that I had to go and see The Pinnacles. One glance online and I knew that there was no way I could go back home without attempting something there first.
As I do with all of my shoots, I began sourcing and collecting as many exotic components as I could lay my hands on to do a cool shoot with. I reached out to german headpiece designer Posh Fairytale Couture, and she in turn asked Spanish designer Avalon Saez.
Together, we selected the exotic Jess Yeh from Chadwick Models and I discovered in my unending pile of emails, a message from Australian based award winning makeup artist Kylie Eustace, ready to fly over from Brisbane to Perth just to work together.
I assembled a team through my Von Wong in Australia Facebook group, and reached out to Numbung National Park to get a shooting permit to make sure that my massive Broncolor Para 133 wouldn’t cause me any problems.
For all intents and purposes, everything seemed ready to go.
I was wrong.
Just a couple days before my photoshoot, I learned from Posh that we had a tiny little problem. A miscommunication between the shipping company and her meant the very headpieces that the entire project had been designed around, weren’t going to arrive in time.
This meant two choices: I could either cancel the entire project, disappoint my team ready to drive from up to 7 hours away to help assist, and twiddle my thumbs… or try to find a solution and shoot regardless.
I opted for the latter.
Disappointing people has always been one of my greatest fears.
Every time I put together a project, I make it my priority to not just capture great images but to offer everyone involved a great experience.
As a result, the first thing I did upon realizing that the entire shoot was in jeopardy was to notify everyone that nothing we had planned was going to happen but that I was going to try and make something work regardless. I immediately began sourcing alternatives – reaching out to fans, friends and Facebook to try and find something that could potentially match Posh’s headpieces, in Perth, obtainable within the next three days.
Recommendations trickled in but nothing seemed to be quite right until Megan King recommended some headpieces she had discovered from the most unlikely of places: A Samba store.
With only a couple days to spare, I crossed my fingers and sent a message to their facebook page, explaining who I was, what we were doing, and most importantly what he would be getting in return: (hopefully) Spectacular images for their social media and website in exchange for borrowing the costumes for a couple days.
Solutions & a new master plan
I managed to get Mike on the phone and to my pleasant surprise, he was enthusiastic about the idea of working together despite me not planning on doing a samba themed image. His agreement to participate meant a whole new set of logistics, as we had to figure out how we were going to grab and transport the pieces which were three hours from our location, plus another three hours to the pinnacles.
With only days remaining before the shoot, we came up with a plan. In the morning we would make the three hour drive, pick up some last minute gear, and detour to grab a tent & swags from a friend. Kylie, makeup, landing from Brisbane, would pick up supermodel Jess Yeh who had the clothing shipped from Barcelona and intercept us at the Sambadrome HQ so that we could select together which Samba pieces we wanted.
From there we would split back into two teams, with Jess & Kylie at the campsite testing out the various looks we had prepared, while Anna & I caught the last rays of sunlight to get a little pre-scouting in. Finally, we would regroup, join the assistants and have a meal to plan for our 3:30 AM wake-up call the following day.
We managed to reach the pinnacles just 30 minutes before sunset hit. After the initial awe and excitement of actually making it there faded off, I quickly realized that I was going to have to use my minutes preciously to determine where exactly I was going to set our 5 AM meeting point and which images I was going to capture.
At that moment I still had no idea what exactly we were going to create as the exact costume configurations hadn’t yet been figured out so I stripped things down to basics. These were all going to matter regardless of the clothing combinations that resulted.
- Lighting. (Which way was the sun going to rise).
- Composition. (How do the pinnacles relate to the size of a human).
- Perspective. (Which angles or lenses favoured the pinnacles).
- Schedule. (How far apart were the different locations I found interesting).
- Accessibility (Did we have enough place to move around and place lights).
Coming back with a memory card filled with scouting images, I prepared to meet my new assistants and check out the final styling decisions that Kylie and Jess had come out with. We settled on four different looks with a plan to shoot two images at sunrise, and two more at sundown. My assistants – fans I had never met before that had come from between 3 to 7 hours drive away – showed up miraculously on time and in high spirits despite the last minute changes.
Despite the rocky start, it looked like things were finally on track.
As the assistants and I headed off to the Pinnacles, we left detailed instructions with Model, Makeup and BTS crew who were to join us 30 minutes after.
“Follow the path, and look for the mountain. We should be on the right side.”
As the sun began peaking low over the horizon and the last troops flowed in, I realized with a deep sigh of relief that we had successfully transitioned from the pre-production phase to the shooting phase. Kylie and Jess had miraculously combined samba costumes and bits of Avalon’s clothing to make some amazing looks.
All that was left to do was take pretty pictures – using a camera I had never used before.
For this shoot, I had an A7r, Sony’s latest 36mp mirrorless system. As a permanently travelling photographer, I’ve been trying to progressively shave off equipment weight from my carry-on luggage, and the A7r seemed like the perfect solution to all my problems. It was the first time that I was going to be using it for a photoshoot and I was quite excited to see what it could do.
I opted for the wide Zeiss 16-35mm and a downward angle, carefully placing Jess so that the sun would give her a nice rim-light and cast beautiful shadows on the rock formations down below. I placed the Broncolor Para 133 slightly off to the right side of the shot to fill Jess with a beautiful front light, matching it’s intensity to the ambient exposure of the environment as my assistants Nelly and Jo struggled desperately to keep the light in position while the winds battered us.
After my initial tests, I felt like the shots needed a little bit more magic and drama. A little movement in the ground, I believed, would help add movement to the rest of the shot so I got Anna and Meghan to toss sand directly at Jess.
This is where things started getting a little bit complicated.
The Sony A7r has a shutter lag of 0.163 seconds when prefocused. And while it may sound fast, a d800E has a shutter lag of 0.043. Almost 4 times faster which is a world of difference when it comes to capturing action.
Despite a calculated countdown, every single shot I took in the early stages didn’t capture the sand.
Rather than figure out how to improve my reflexes, I eventually gave up waiting to see the image appear on the LCD and simply pressing the button ahead of time to capture a moment.
It worked and I finally breathed a sigh of relief.
The first photo of any creative series I do usually dictates the look and feel of all subsequent images.
In order to maintain a certain look and feel, I tend to use similar focal lengths and lighting setups in subsequent images to keep a strong overall look and feel. In my case that meant a clean backlight, directional fill light, wide angle lens and lots of wind so for the second shot, we simply migrated a couple meters down the hill and strategically placed Jess in the shadow of one of the Pinnacles.
By this point the sun had risen fairly high and we were racing against the clock to pull off the shot. The position of the lights were determined by the tight rock formations and we wedged the Para 133 between two rocks and slapped on a grid to ensure that we wouldn’t have too much spill on the rock formations which were considerably lighter than Jess in her black dress.
This time around we replaced the neckpiece with a headpiece that threatened to blow over – but Kylie eventually figured out how to anchor the piece in place using a series of headpins that would give me just enough time to capture the perfect shot.
By the time we completed our first two shots, the sun had already moved quite far up and the shadows on the pinnacles began to look fairly uninteresting. My poor a7R was also covered in sand and we decided to call it quits, regroup and take a quick nap before resuming the photoshoot for sunset.
Better to conserve energy and reserve it to maximize the best results at the optimal time.
6 hours later, we were back in the park getting ready for part 2 of the photoshoot. By this point, all the stress of shooting had pretty much faded. I knew that all we had to do was bang out more of the same, which meant simply finding a couple of other locations that looked equally good, get nice and low, and to create a human-powered sandstorm.
The sun, by this point had migrated to the opposite side of the globe and so I used two lights this time in order to maintain the same setup. One Para 133, gridded to avoid spills on our model… and a second with a simple reflector to add a bit of shine on the feathery shoulder piece.
Fine-tuning the lighting to avoid hitting the rocks meant not only gridding the light but also feathering it just enough so that it would kiss the model’s face. Anna and Meghan continued to toss sand as Greg, Danny and Jo continued to wrangle the Para and for the first time, I truly began to appreciate having a tilted LCD and kept my face as far from the flying sand as possible.
And just like that, we had arrived at the final shot of the series. Jess had to put on the remaining headpiece that acted as an oversized windsail while trying desperately to hold her footing, wedged between a pair of rocks. Regardless of how many hairpins Kylie rigged up in poor Jess’s hair, the headpiece would not stay on so we finally settled for Jess to hold onto it with one hand as she looked off towards the light.
On my end, the lighting setup this time around was a simple two light setup with Jess sandwiched in between. The Para 133, coming in from a slight angle to highlight her beautiful silhouette and a reflector, bringing in a kiss of light on the shoulder pieces.
Capturing images close to sunset is typically quite a big pain as the ambient lighting is constantly changing. It’s the best time of the day (and most frustrating) to learn how to use a flash, but once you’ve nailed the basics, being a quick thinker, adaptable and persistent has always been the best way to capture the image you have in your mind.
To me, photoshoots like these are always interesting.
They prove that if you surround yourself with great people and approach the situation with a good attitude, even when things go completely awry, you can still come out with great results. A quote that comes to mind from Sun Tzu’s art of war:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
Although I didn’t get the shots that I had initially set out to do, I did come out with a great story, nice images, new friends and an amazing experience – all of the reasons I do photography in the first place.
Challenge yourself, you never know what might come out of it.
- Photography: Von Wong
- Model: Jess Yeh from Chadwick Models
- Makeup/Hair/Styling: Kylie Eustache
- Dress Design: Avalon Saez
- Assistants: Megan King, Nelly Hort, Dean Ing, Danny Alagh, Jo Black, Anna Tenne, GGun Ratnontanat
- Video: SirGlaxar and Vestiige Productions
- Head & Shoulder pieces: Sambadrome.au
- Newly updated Von Wong Swag store if you’ve always wanted a VonWong shirt or Sweater
- I’ll be giving a workshop in Fiji at the end of October and hope to see you there!
- Thinking of moving to San Francisco – Know any good places to live? Join my California group!
- I gave Pratik a beauty shot to edit, check it out here.