BUFFALO SOLDIER: The Making of "Presidential Suite"

This post will be about the second installment in my photo series, “Buffalo Soldier.” If you missed the first installment, you can go ahead and click here.

Presidential Suite |  Click Here for Prints.

Presidential Suite | Click Here for Prints.

Presidential Suite was a very different undertaking than making “Sacred Land.” Particularly from a lighting standpoint, I went from a day exterior, which required very little of me to get an exposure to a night interior, which required a lot. The lighting is always going to be based somewhat on the location, so when I saw the hotel room that I would use as a set, the possibilities, or lack thereof, started to become more clear.

This was a location option I decided to pass on. It was much easier to see both the hall and living room, but not as interesting visually.

This was a location option I decided to pass on. It was much easier to see both the hall and living room, but not as interesting visually.

I knew that I wanted to make this space feel overpopulated with different characters, each taking part in their own portion of the story of the image. The problem was that if we just shot in the living room of the hotel, it didn’t give us enough space to craft the dense photo that I wanted. The solution was that we would shoot both in the living room and also down the hallway of the suite. It was an idea that presented several technical problems, among them was the issue that we were seeing so much of the space, there was nowhere left to light from. 

A little movie magic!

A little movie magic!

If I previously thought of putting light stands in the hallway, that was now out of the question. My work around was to cheat by putting the lights actually in the frame behind the actors. Then after we were done with the actors we moved the lights out of the way and got a clean plate shot of the background without the lights. In post-production, I was able to remove the lights and replace them with the background plate. 

The other issue weighing on my mind was just exactly how much light would I need to expose this image. Since I was planning on having both foreground and background action, I wanted to be able to stop down as much as possible to get a deep depth of field. I needed to know the maximum shutter speed I could use without getting motion blur, that way I could figure out my f/stop with the amount of light I had available. I did some tests to find out what the limit was if I used a tripod with a human subject posing for the camera. I found that I could expose as long as ⅛ of a second, but once I hit ¼ I started to get motion blur even though the subject was static. 

With that information I could determine an f/stop. The ⅛ shutter was about three stops longer than my typical exposure time of 1/48 for shooting video. That meant I could stop down three extra stops to compensate. Usually on video I would be around f/4 if I’m doing a full lighting setup, so that meant I could comfortably shoot at f/11 with a long shutter. My film was Cinestill 800T, which matched the 800 EI rating that I’ve become used to with cinema cameras. I did decide to squeeze as much punch out of my lights as possible and I rated the film at 500 EI in order to get a cleaner picture. Those settings: 500 EI, ⅛ shutter, at f/11 were all decided before I got to the set. 

In this Behind-the-Scenes picture, I’m shooting just the hallway portion of the final image.

In this Behind-the-Scenes picture, I’m shooting just the hallway portion of the final image.

Shooting the hallway and the living room together caused a problem because I didn’t have a lens wide enough to see both at the same time. Even if I did, I would have to crop out so much ceiling and floor to get a decent composition, that it wouldn’t stand up to being blown up to the print size I wanted. That’s when I decided to make the picture as a panorama by compositing a shot of the living room together with a separate shot of the hallway.

I had never done a panorama before, so I did some research into how they work. I learned that I had to rotate the camera about the entrance pupil of the lens to keep the perspective consistent. I did some tests to see just how it would work with my Pentax 6x7 camera. I was able to put together a panorama without any issues caused by film flatness, or perspective distortion, but I did notice that there was significant cropping to make the picture work. I had to take that into account when I was setting up the shots because I knew a lot of what I saw in the viewfinder wouldn’t make it into the final image. 

Unlike the previous installment, Presidential Suite had a much bigger component of performance. There were 12 actors in this shot and their actions did much of the heavy lifting in telling the story. In this way, it felt closer to movie directing because so much of my role on set was making sure the actors knew where each of their characters fit into the picture and how best to convey it for the camera. I went through more film on this picture than any other shoot particularly because I wanted to try lots of different actions. That gave me the flexibility in post-production to refine the final image down by choosing which moments worked the best for what I wanted to say. 

The downside is that it forced me to choose between different takes that each had different strengths and weaknesses. Some elements that I think focused the picture a little more were left out in favor of stronger performances by the actors. For example, the sash on the woman next to the card player isn’t legible. In fact, none of the sashes are visible unobstructed, which definitely dilutes their impact. They were supposed to be “Somalia,” “Venezuela,” and “Iran,” which were all countries on Trump’s travel ban list. Since they’re so hard to read in the takes I chose I don’t think the audience quite gets it. I found similar issues in other installments as well. Say I plan ten points that I want to communicate in a picture, maybe 7 or 8 actually come across successfully. The saving grace is that I plan to really pack these pictures with lots of content so if only 70% makes it to the viewer, it still feels full and complete. In a sense, I shoot for the moon, but usually land among the stars. So far that method is working.

-Sheldon J.