Greg Koch Photography

Dental Hygiene/Hijinks

I spend an inordinate amount of time coming up with weird ideas for photo shoots. I don’t do it on purpose, mind you, it just kind of happens. Case in point: today’s post. I’ve no particular affinity toward teeth or brushing (at least not anymore than the rest of us), but I do like crazy, silly photo shoots. In fact, I keep a long list of funny and wild ideas, and I was deep into that list when this idea popped into my head one evening while, you guessed it, I was standing in front of the mirror brushing my teeth.

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As far as I know, there isn’t anything inherently amusing in brushing one’s teeth, at least not aside from the obvious act of staring at a your reflection with your mouth agape.  But that night something just clicked. I’ve learned enough to follow my gut when it comes to crazy ideas.

It wasn’t long before I put in some calls and pulled together the cast and crew.

We prepped the studio with all the essential gear, plus the addition of a large plastic sheet. This proved to be essential.  In hindsight, a spittoon would also have been nice.  Word to the wise.

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While working on all the preparations for the shoot, I spent a lot of time considering the direction I intended to give the subject, Yusef.

He is a comedic actor and so I knew I really only needed to point him in the right direction and he would run like a thoroughbred. The idea, as I saw it, was that he was an ordinary bloke who awoke one morning and was going about his bathroom ritual when he realized that the tooth-brushing experience had somehow changed.  No longer a boring, utilitarian act, this brushing episode was euphoric, tantalizing, sensuous.  Here, I’m explaining a bit of the process without making eye contact.  (That’s important when working with models.)

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And here is the result.

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As we progressed through the shoot, I asked Yusef to go deeper into the pleasurable sensations of running sharp bristles back and forth across the enamel-covered blocks in his oral cavity.  After that, it was just a matter of evolving the emotions through each shot.

 

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During pre-production, our M/U artist, Lisa, struck on the idea of using baking soda and vinegar to enhance the visual experience.  We had started with toothpaste, but soon made the switch and, within about two seconds of application, Yusef was foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog.  I had difficulty shooting the pictures between fits of laughter.

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This is the beauty of personal shoots. The only limits are one’s imagination. Below, I’m saying as much to Si, who was shooting our behind-the-scenes material.

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Here you can see some of the expelled foam. Don’t look too closely; it’s not pretty.

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At some point in the process, we switched out the baking soda for whipped cream. It proved not to have quite the necessary consistency, but it was far more palatable to Yusef, which I believe he appreciated.  Here we see Lisa sticking it up his nose, because this is what we do to models on our sets.

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Then again, some times the models get hungry.  Here, Yusef feeds.

 

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In the end, it was a day of laughter and messiness and fun images.  I couldn’t ask for anything more.

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Of course, collaboration is key.  Without my incredible cast and crew, none of this would’ve been possible.  Thus, my thanks to Ken for the assist and the behind-the-scenes photos; to Lisa for the M/U, baking soda, whipped cream and wonderful feedback; to Si for the BtS footage (to be released on my main site soon); to Jason at Two Dark for the studio space; and to Yusef, for helping us to fulfill every dentist’s worst nightmare.

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Fitness Shoot, from Conception to Completion

All of my images begin as ideas with varying degrees of vagueness. Whether the genesis is a product of the client’s vision or my own, I always try to see the image in my mind before the day of the shoot. Story boarding helps a lot.  Even with substandard art skills.

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In the case of this shoot, I was working on a personal fitness project (thus, no client) in which I’d be shooting trainers working out. I ran through several ideas of what I wanted to focus on.

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(Something having to do with a rope, no doubt.)

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(Uhhh…I don’t know.  I think those are supposed to be arms, but I might have been doodling too late into the night on this one.)

Having worked with one of the trainers, Creig, in the past, I knew that I could pretty much ask for anything I liked. That’s a pretty cool—and fairly unusual—freedom to have.  It’s also why I love personal shoots so much.

With the sky as the limit, I knew I wanted to show athletes in training, as opposed to standing around with their arms crossed. I wanted dynamic visuals that not only would say something about the subjects but that would also showcase the type of work I really enjoy. I also knew I wanted a very dramatic lighting that highlighted the energy and appeal of these fitness professionals.

While the trainers were getting suitably warmed up and sweaty, my awesome assistant Ken and I rigged an 8’ Profoto Deep Umbrella with a silver lining.

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Here’s Ken on an early lighting test.  (Sorry, dude–I had to do it!)

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I already knew I wanted to avoid diffusion; my goal was a hard light with a bit of specularity that would show the trainers in their edgy environment. We also placed two lights with standard reflectors on either side of our subjects and slightly behind them, giving them a nice rim light. The last light was an overhead Profoto Softlight Reflector with a 20 degree grid that would act as a hair light. Halfway through the shoot I swapped it out for a larger 1×6 gridded strip as I changed out the 8’ umbrella for the beauty dish.

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I generally step into a session slowly, and this one was no exception. I like to give the subjects time to warm up to me and vice versa. The initial back-and-forth serves not only to break the ice but also to solidify our vision.  Since every shoot is a collaboration, I asked the trainers what they were interested in doing. Because they know their own strengths and weaknesses better than I, their ideas were incredibly valuable, and they helped rein in my otherwise extravagant wishes. That said, I knew Creig had at least one special move in his pocket—he could do a backflip. After getting the lighting tests out of the way, we went for it.

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A high shutter speed speed (1/1600th) coupled with a short flash duration allowed us to capture the shot with no motion blur. This was key. I wanted a precise look to each image, as if it were cut with a knife.

Following that amazing display of antigravity, Creig showed me something called the “Bulgarian bag”.  I still don’t know much about what it is, but I know it’s heavy and it looks cool!

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Of course, no fitness shoot would be complete without cold iron.  So, we grabbed the barbells and got to work.  Rocco started with a dead lift, then moved into a clean-and-jerk.  Here’s a Before and After comparison.  Initially, I’d seen this image as a squat, but Rocco’s personal touch led us elsewhere.

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We finished it off, naturally, with some good old fashioned curls.  Another Before and After.  (…I think I really need to work on my drawing skills.)

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At one point, I adjusted the key light and in the process turned it off. I neglected to turn it back on while Rocco was doing some shoulder presses and…well, let’s just call it a happy accident.

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My next victim–I mean “subject”–was Cheri.  She was a lot of fun to shoot because she was so genuinely excited to be working out. You could see it on her face.  Here she is just jumping rope with all the giddiness you’d expect of a schoolgirl.  She couldn’t stop laughing as she did this.  I really enjoy meeting folks who love what they do!

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Here, Cheri is explaining to me how she can handle any weights I can throw at her.

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When I asked her what she wanted to do next, her eyes lit up and she answered with two words: “The sled!” I had no idea what this meant, of course, but soon enough she was stacking plates on this big metal beast and shoving it around the floor, grinning from ear to ear.  There were several points where I couldn’t get the shot because I had to stop to laugh (laughing is permitted during personal projects).  As you can see, we applied liberal amounts of chalk to the scene, with Ken and Creig standing just out of frame and throwing it over her head.

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Hard work has never been so much fun.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t lie down on the job every now and then.  Thanks to Ken for the unflattering photo–I guess we’re even now, huh, dude?

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Next up was Zack, who had the unusual ability of balancing on a ball while throwing ropes. Can you say “core strength”?  Unfortunately, a lot of dynamic moves don’t naturally look good in a photograph because they’re movement-based.  But, with a little work and some more flying chalk, I think we came away with something pretty cool.

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Last up was Creig’s encore performance. I’d had this idea of people jumping in the air while throwing around a medicine ball. Why?  It was just one of those strange visions that popped into my head. Creig was willing to play along with my odd requests, though, so we stacked some crash pads while Ken threw the ball over and over…and over.  (How’s that shoulder, buddy?)  In the end, though, it was all worth it.

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Here’s a behind-the-scenes shot that, of course, dispels all the magic.

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My thanks to Creig, Rocco, Cheri, Zack, and Ken.  A shout out as well to ClubSport Fremont for providing the venue and the personnel.

What makes a successful corporate portrait session?

I ask myself that question every time I get a new job, even though I’ve done this many times.  Of course, it’s different for every company, and depends on the setting, the mood of the subjects, the technique, equipment, etc.  But there are a few factors that universally help turn an “okay” session into a good session, or a good one into a great one.  It certainly isn’t about all the equipment.

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Visual Identity

I can’t say enough about this.  And it makes a world of difference.  When I’m hired for a corporate job, one of my first questions is, “How do you see yourselves?”  A version of that might be, “How does your company choose to present itself to its customers?”  The operative word here is “choose” because many companies, I’ve found, understand the importance of visual identity, but they don’t necessarily have a clear sense of what theirs is.  Or, they might know what they want, but they don’t like what they currently have.  That’s where I come in.  And with me I bring adjectives: powerful, energetic, helpful, professional, cost-effective, best-in-class.  When I start throwing around these terms, I keep an eye on the client’s face.  If s/he smiles or nods when I mention one, I know we’ve hit pay dirt.

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What does this tell me?  Several things.  The first is this: If a company wants to be seen as powerful, I will light and compose the shots accordingly.  For example, we might use back lighting or rim lighting, and we might shoot from a lower angle with a slightly foreshortened effect.  This gives a sense of presence to the images.

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It also tells me how the company thinks.  If adjectives such as “blood-curdling” or “hysterical” come out during our discussion (for the record, they never have), I can get a sense of how easy it might be to work with them.  Clients who can take their work seriously while maintaining a sense of humor are very easy to work with.  To engender camaraderie, my on-set banter tends to steer toward the convivial; if I can put the subject at ease, so much the better for all of us.

 

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The goal of all photographers is to remain low-key and friendly when shooting.  I don’t try to push an agenda, and if I feel that the client is trying to do so, I know that’s often a sign of discomfort.  Perhaps a break is needed, or a compliment, or a silly joke.

Of course, dialogue should never feel contrived, even when it is.  And that’s the rub: Sometimes, you have to fake it.  I won’t say when I’ve done it, but everybody has at some point.  “You look great, don’t worry about it.”  The objective isn’t to convey false information to the subject as much as it is to put the subject at ease.  A bit of flattery never hurts, as long as it isn’t over the top or, worse, creepy.  The point is that when I’m shooting someone, I’m far from the most important person in the room.  It’s all about the subject.  Be honest, be nice, be happy, be thankful.  In short, be a people person.

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Creative License

Photographers get hired both because of who we are as individuals and who we are as elements in a team.  Sometimes we get a chance to express ourselves but we need to learn to accept that this isn’t always possible.  If we’re lucky, we can find a happy merging of our creative interests and the client’s.  It doesn’t always work, but when it does it can turn an ordinary job into a fun job—and that means a lot.   When a client is open to ideas, I try to come up with at least half a dozen.  Many ideas are pitched in the pre-shoot meetings.  Some come about on set and are implemented in post-.  In the case of these images, the client’s existing branding suggested several creative approaches, and I offered a few.  If and when I’m attempting such things, I try to do it in a way that is not off-putting or at odds with the client’s vision.

In a way, a portrait session is like a date.  Should I go out with him/her or shouldn’t I?

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The trick is to establish rapport, don’t make off-color remarks unless you’re certain they’ll be accepted, ask questions rather than making statements (unless they’re compliments, in which case find a happy middle ground).  Oh, and never eat onions.

My job as a photographer is not to reinvent the wheel.  The glory goes to the client that hired me.  My goal is simply to help show to the world how great the company is.  If I’ve done that, then I’ve done my job.

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Silly Faces!

So, there I was, surrounded by a bevvy of five-year-olds.  They were as patient as they could be, given their age.  But I knew I had to step it up a notch if I was going to hold their attention for more than three seconds.  The answer came quite easily: silly faces!

For the next hour, each child stepped in front of the lens for some kindergarten primping.  I’m sure I’ve had more fun in my life than I had on this photo shoot, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you when.

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To see the entire gallery, click here.

 

 

Football Profile: Vernon Davis

When I received the call to shoot Vernon Davis for a local company’s new ad campaign, I didn’t hesitate. As a child, I used to sit on the floor watching the Niners (Montana, Walsh, Clark, et al), and it seemed fitting that I could now come full circle, working with a player from an organization I’ve long admired.

I was given two instructions: shoot him high-key and shoot him low-key. Other than that, it was up to me. Are you kidding? Freedom to play with a top-tier athlete?

For the sake of expedience, we decided it best to rig both a white seamless and a black Duvetyne in separate areas of the studio. That way, Mr. Davis could simply step from one setting into the other without having to wait while we re-rigged the lights. This ended up saving us a lot of time and is now something I try to do whenever possible.

When Vernon rolled in a few minutes later, I could instantly see that he was charming, energetic, and fully committed to our shoot. I was so excited to get started that I had difficulty allowing our stylist, Lisa, the necessary time to prep the subject. But good things come to those who wait.

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As with all my sessions, there’s a certain time required for me to get to know the subject, and vice versa—at least as well as we can. Is the subject friendly, introverted, gregarious, somber, etc.? And does his/her personality naturally mesh with mine? It’s a little dance that happens every time, and the key to a successful session, I’ve found, is to key into your subject and to be what he/she needs you to be at that moment. If we don’t get a good shot, it’s never the subject’s fault. That responsibility lies with me, and so the more I can learn about who’s staring down the barrel of my lens the better. Now, all that said, I can’t claim that I got to know Mr. Davis and better than I know any of my other subjects. But I did learn a few important things:

 

  1. Vernon Davis is the Man. It’s not anything he says or does, it’s just how he carries himself. He is confident, cool, caring, and capable. The four Cs.
  2. Props make every image better.
  3. I call people “Dude” way too often.*

 

*After about my fiftieth exclamation of “Dude, you look great!”, Vernon took a deep breath and let me know in a very gentle voice, “…you gotta stop calling me ‘Dude.’ ” He said it with a smile, which helped, but for the rest of the session I struggled to come up with something appropriate. Apparently, I need to expand my vocabulary. “Bro”? “Man”? “Grand Master D.”?

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Stunted verbiage aside, we progressed through a series of wardrobe changes, each from Vernon’s own closet. There are pros and cons to working with a subject’s personal attire. On the one hand, Vernon looks good in everything he owns, which ensures that we won’t get a bad photo. On the other hand, he looks good in everything he owns…so it’s more difficult to eliminate choices. After all, we didn’t have an unlimited amount of time. As usually happens, I followed my gut. The first pick is most often the right one.

We were fortunate to have some props on hand, as well—a football and a briefcase. You might not think those two would go together so well, but you’d be surprised. Vernon pulled it off.

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Now, you should know: Because I’m just kind of twisted, I always like to mess with my subjects a bit. Sometimes I’ll ask for a serious look, then do or say something designed to draw a chuckle. It’s an old photographer’s trick to break the ice. But I’d met my match with Vernon, and now that I look back on it, this doesn’t shock me in the least. When you consider who Mr. Davis faces off against daily, both on and off the field, it stands to reason that his ability to remain composed at all times must be supercharged. My best (or worst) jokes bounced right off him. He kept cool, kept calm, and kept delivering shot after shot.

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If you ever have the opportunity to meet or to work with Mr. Davis, you’re in for a real treat. But make sure you bring your A-game and, whatever you do, don’t call him “dude.”

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*****

Thanks go out to everyone involved. Without a great cast and crew, none of this would’ve been possible.

 

Model: Vernon Davis                         (www.vernondavis.com)

M/U: Lisa Zomer                                (www.lisazomer.com)

Assistant: Brian Molyneaux             (www.brianmolyneaux.com)

Management: Patrick Powell