Life as a photographer is probably some what different to how people imagine. More often than not, time is against you, with more hurdles than a 3000 metre steeplechase. The reality often is that the weather will be the over riding factor with any outdoor photo-shoot With the weather in Britain often comprising of wind, cloud, rain and sun (often all at the same time).
I had spent months setting up the mermaid burlesque photo-shoot with Lily La Mer, she is a very talented circus, burlesque and mermelesque performer, she even has a 1st from Cambridge. She is normally extremely busy and there were only a few dates available where Lily was free and the environmental conditions considered (tide and warmth at 5am), allowing us to do a photo shoot. It is very hard to pre-book a date for an outdoor shoot, so normally I give a provisional date due to the weather and I can only confirm a shooting date with between 3 to 5 days notice.
As we were coming up to the merlesque shoot, I had been feeling rather elated, the weather for the 3 previous weeks have been wonderful. Unfortunately, this was about to change, the day time temperatures had been 30 degrees but the 5 day forecast suggested 20 degrees and 40mph winds blowing in from the north east, starting the day before the shoot. Now a daytime temperature of 20 degrees, is a nice working temperature but at dawn, we would be lucky to hit 14 degrees and with the wind coming off of the sea, the temperature would probably feel considerably colder.
Because of the tides and Lily's availability, I didn't want to cancel the shoot. I kept Lily updated but couldn't confirm anything until quite late on. In the end I waited until 2 days before the shoot to confirm the dates. The conditions were barely passable but the sky was forecast to be clear and this was an important factor and I hoped I would be able to get around any other problems.
As forecast, the day before the shoot, the weather began to change, I was out shopping when it happened. As if from nowhere, it suddenly felt a little colder and the wind started blowing down the high street. I had hoped that the forecast would be wrong and the weather would hold for another 24 hours, (It is not unknown for forecasters to be wrong). Internally I swore a few times but with everything confirmed, there was nothing I could do, so I spent the afternoon clean and pack my gear, preparing for the adventures ahead.
The basic set up was to shoot Lily La Mer on a beach at dawn, using speed lights and an octa to give her a nice soft light from the front, whilst the sun rose behind her. It is a very simple set up. Shooting in the evening was never really an option, as I live in the east of England. I decided to shoot down in Thanet, as I knew the area well and it has some lovely beaches. Shooting at 5am would also mean that there would be very few people about and we could shoot what we wanted, without much fear of interruption.
During the evening, everything went as plan. I picked up my assistant Skins, then Lily plus another performer Francisco and we headed down to Thanet around 1:40am, arriving around 3:10am. A good rule of thumb is to arrive early for a shoot, as there are numerous advantages. After several hours of driving, I could take a short break. It also gave me the chance to check out the location and if everything went well, I can set up the equipment at my own leisurely pace, double checking that everything with set up correctly. It also meant that if the location wasn't right for some reason, I could head to a different location with plenty of time.
The original location I had chosen was called Joss Bay. It is considered to be one of the best beaches in Thanet and a lovely location. My only worry was that it would be too exposed to the wind coming in from the north east. As I reached the location my worst fears were confirmed. Joss Bay was completely unusable, with 40mph winds coming straight in onto the beach and the cliffs creating a bowl effect blowing the wind around. Also the tide was much further out than I had originally thought and the sand was much wetter further down the beach.
Fortunately, several days before, I had checked google maps, as I knew that there were several other locations, which might be usable if it turned out that Joss Bay was impractical, Stone bay, was just down the road. It is a much smaller bay, with a cliff coming around from to the north. This would act as a natural windbreak, at the top of the beach The waters edge wasn't nearly as far out, though it still meant that we lost the cliffs protection from the wind. I hadn't been at the location for several years but when I walked down to see if it would suit my needs, I was pleasantly surprised. It had sand and close by rocks, which would look good for certain shots.
Due to the change in location, time was starting to run against us. All the equipment had to be brought down 3 flights of steps and then assembled, which we did at the top of the beach. Time always seems to flow faster, when I am setting up equipment, half an hour can fly by and I could see the first vestiges of sunrise appearing. Once the diffusers, were assembled, we took the 2/3 of the way down onto the beach placing it on a throw-over. we then did our final set-up close to the waters edge, where the shoot would take place.
Lily and Francisco stayed in normal clothes for as long as possible to keep warm and then changed just before we started shooting. Skins and myself set up the lighting. I was being rather pig headed and went with the large octa which was not the smartest move, as this left Skins holding the octa for the entire shoot. Whilst this isn't a big issue physically it can effect the flow of the shoot, with me having to constantly stop and start, to change lenses. Fortunately Francisco was also very helpful, as well holding stuff when needed.
As we did some test shots, Lily changed into her tail. The light in the background was really lovely with the sun just below the horizon, the soft light of the octa also really looked nice. Generally, I shoot with zoom lenses, though I had a couple of primes as well. I just prefer the flexibility of a zoom lens as I don't shoot that much wide open. For this shoot though, I mainly used my 85mm, occasionally changing to my 70-200mm. I find longer focal lengths to be much more flattering to the person I am shooting.
During a shoot I wear a similar amount of clothes as the person I am shooting. This gives me a basic idea of how cold they are feeling and how long they can shoot for before it gets too much for them. I for decencies sake, I wore a tee shirt and shorts, unfortunately, I had forgotten to bring a change of clothing with me and by the end of the shoot I was soaked, from lying on the wet sand.
Apart from my octa constantly wanting to blow away, the wind had a dramatic effect on Lily's hair which had gained a life of its own, mostly blowing all over her face. It felt like after almost every shot she would have adjust it and as soon as I went to take one photo, a gust would hit us and her hair would be all over the place again.
Most photographers, like to do as much as possible in camera and I am no different. Framing correctly is important but it takes time and if it is not perfect, it only has drawbacks. I was framing so tightly, I would occasionally chop off the end of the tail, as it is normally down at the bottom edge of the photo. Also because I was lying down on the sand and concentrating on shooting Lily, it was easy to not get horizon line straight. This is an easy fix, with enough room but much of the time, I would just not be able to crop enough without chopping off the end of the tail.
Time and tide wait for no-one but as the shoot went on, the temperature was becoming the biggest factor. Lily is a trooper but rather slight. The wind, cold and lack of clothing soon started to noticeably effect her and after 15 minutes, we had to take a break, as she was cold and shivering. We soon carried on and between each set up she would put on my jacket to try and keep warm. This helped slightly, but because she was getting colder, each set-up become shorter. This wasn't helped when Lily and Francisco went in the rather cold water towards the end of the shoot. With the set-ups only lasting a couple of minutes.
In the end, the cold and wind got the better of us. Lily was shivering and needed to change back into normal clothes. My octa had taken quite a battering and was partly damaged and we still had to clear up the equipment, which would take half and hour to taken down, packup and carry back to the car. It actually turned out quite fortunate that we did finish when we did, because the weather soon became worse, with cloud coming over and then rain.
After buying some clothes and getting a bite to eat, We started to make our way back home. I had been running on adrenaline during the the shoot but after I came down with a bit of a bump and I we to stop for an hour, whilst I got myself back together. It was afternoon by the time we managed to drop off Lily and Francisco. I then headed into London to drop off Skins and finally got home around 2:30pm. My guess is that the first thing most photographer wants to do, after a shoot is look at the photo but what they really need to really do is clean their equipment and that is what I did. Everything seemed to be covered in sand and had to be brushed, prodded and blown to finally get clean, so by the time I did that it had just gone 4pm.
It has been a long couple of days, I had been up for over 36 hours and happy and tired. I should have gone to bed but I end up editing to 9:30pm, which was when I fell asleep. Only to wake up at 2:30am, when I continued editing till morning.
Evaluation of the shoot
So, do I consider the shoot a success or a failure?
The set up for the shoot was almost as good as I could have done and there was very little I would have done differently. If I had held off shooting for better conditions, I probable would have had to wait for another year, as the weather for the rest of 2013 was never great.
Knowing the locations made a big difference and getting all my timings right, meant that I arrived with enough time to change location, when I could see how bad shooting at Joss Bay would be. Stone Bay was a far better location in general, than Joss Bay and it made a big difference shooting there.
There are a few things I should have done, in retrospect. Forgetting a change of clothes was silly and maybe having something like a wind breaker would have helped (though of course, it could easily turned into a kite, with the power of the wind). I should have also brought a flask of hot drink and some food to help keep us warm during the shoot and having a bigger coat for Lily to wear, might have helped.
As for the shoot. I have already mentioned the issues, with framing. Ideally, I would have worked slower and gotten each shot right but with the weather, I had to compromise.
I spent to long on the early part of the shoot, with Lily, shooting the first set up. I had hoped that with the sun rising the temperature would go up but this wasn't really the case. The quality of photos later in the shoot became noticeably worse, with each set-up becoming shorter and me shooting faster.
I kept telling Lily to smile more but looking back at the photos, the smile looks too forced. Different people have different looks. I much prefer Lily's closed mouth smile, which really looks nice. I also wish that I had framed for landscape much more towards the end of the shoot. It was hard to keep Lily's tail in shot and the portrait framed images, never really worked. I also wish that I had varied the location more, shooting more around the rocks and varying the angle what I shot at.
At the end of the shoot, I should have experimented using a reflector, instead of the diffuser, when the sun came up. My main worry was that the reflector would have been so bright, it would have blinded Lily and Francisco, with anything other than a white but it would have been worth trying and Skins was suggesting this to me.
So, whilst I have a few issues with the shoot, I generally think I did well. The conditions looked nice but were horrible to take a photos in. I managed to work around most of the problems and get some good shots. I suppose the most important thing is that I also learnt a lot, which I can take and use in future photo shoots. Also, next time, I might pray a little more to the weather gods, to see if they can keep the wind down a little.
Lily La Ler