The end of the movie

After three years of intermittent work, several rounds of shopping and a great many rounds of battery recharging, my One Frame Movie series came to an end last Sunday with what I feel to be one of my best results. Where previous images have focused on tricks and techniques for bringing special colourful effects into the image, the final image is muted, almost monochrome and simple in concept.

I’ve decided to take the experience I’ve gained through shooting for the series and continue to create conceptual images, but I’m lifting self-imposed technical constraints from now on, to allow myself a wider range of possibilities. Where the One Frame Movie series was intentionally shot on the basis of a movie still, limited to the 16:9 widescreen format, future photos will be formatted according to their individual concept.

(I’m continually on the lookout for volunteers and collaborators, so please check out the details of collaborative work and get in touch if you’d like to take part.)

The series has been hard work at times and frustrating on a few occasions, yet it has yielded a range of photos of which I can be proud. Aside from what it has brought me in terms of learning and the opportunity to extend my portfolio, I’m glad that so many people took part. Each of them has now gained from my learning process by getting copies of some unique and special photos.

I primarily shoot for myself and to enjoy the process of taking photographs, collaborating with subjects and assistants, and to be proud of the results. I wanted to get past “pretty” portraits which began flooding the Swiss Strobist groups in 2008 and do something more creative with light.

Being a long-standing fan of Annie Leibovitz’s photography, I wanted to try and emulate her results; highly composed and beautifully lit people photographs, unusual and theatrically conceived ideas, and a qualitative level of post-processing to embed the subject in the scene. Thence came the first real breakthrough in my people photography for several years.

CHOO CHOO, Bern Strobist day

The real kick-start to the series was in 2009, when I created the image above with the help of friends at one of the previously mentioned Swiss Strobist meetings. By adding dashes of light to the scene – an idea which came directly from Nick Turpin’s series of thriller author portraits – the picture comes alive. By then selectively editing the photo to remove everyday detritus such as cigarette butts and graffiti, the picture becomes slightly other-worldly and almost fake; facets become even more obvious when viewing the images at their full sizes.

Since my first successful attempts, friends, family and colleagues have all volunteered to take part and I am eternally grateful to them all. Assistants at some of the shoots have also earned a great many thanks: most recently Joscha, who helped me create the final image featured at the top of this article. All of my helpers and volunteers have, in their way, helped to push me forward and try to make better and better images.

At the risk of making this sound like an awards ceremony, I want to thank Jo for not only taking part in some of the photoshoots, but also for giving me much appreciated and valuable criticism which has helped me to see past the lighting geekery to the importance of the subject matter itself. Throughout my development in this series, she has given me honest feedback and helped me to concentrate more on the people involved and how they interact with the camera, rather than being consumed by the lighting and technical aspects. Thanks to her, future conceptual portraits will continue to improve: not just as technical but also as creative exercises.

Jo, ETH Strobist Day 2010

It’s all too easy to get carried away when you finally figure out, after years of vaguely wishing, how to create a certain effect. I made the transition from “easy” photography – essentially point-and-shoot work with a DSLR – into highly complex and time-consuming preparation. The shot above of Choo Choo, for example, took a little over an hour to set up and get right, whereas previous portrait shoots could’ve been completed using natural light in a fraction of the time. Whilst this is fun and a great challenge for me, I am continually learning how to optimize photoshoots and to spend time on the right aspects of the image. Concept and pre-planning is an important part of the process, so that the photo shoot itself runs smoothly and successfully. (More on this in a future blog post.)

Part of my process has been to try and create as much of the image in the camera as possible, whilst more recent shots have also been aimed to test and extend my post-processing capabilities. Someone said to me recently that they liked the shots which “weren’t composed in Photoshop”, and it would interest me to know whether they realized just how few actually were fakes.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the series is how difficult it is for lesser experienced volunteers to act the part I ask of them. On my side, it’s a continual challenge – one I haven’t always conquered – to find a new expression for the subject and a new emotion to put at the centre of the image. The darkness and theatricality of most of the shots make it easy to choose fear as the main goal, but I feel that too many of the series have focused on this idea. I want to expand on the range of ideas and by moving away from a series with a fixed theme, I hope that the range of styles and effects will become wider.

I have also found that where a truly theatrical effect is the goal, photos tend to work better when there is more than one person in the photograph. The better shots (and comparably, many of my more constructed studio portraits) work much better in my eyes where there is more than one person in the image. That doesn’t mean that I’m only going to photograph couples and groups from now on, but, as with many of the other techniques and principles I’ve learned, that I’ll be paying more attention to the concept and little details of each photo in future.

Habi and Nina