Friday, December 23, 2011

Magic: The Dynamics of Volume Shooting

Covering All Angles. D3/50mm. 1/200, f/4.0, ISO200.

Introduction to Volume Shooting
As the second part of Magic, I want to set the stage with one of the key ingredients; volume shooting.

Volume shooting doesn't mean you shoot willy-nilly and indiscriminately hold down the shutter release button. Rather it's about getting the most frames out of the most usable moments that your model gives you.
Holding down the shutter release button will yield a frame rate limited by your camera's ability to write files to your memory card (after you've filled the buffer). And that's not a very fast frame rate. At best you'll get 1fps, 2fps if you're lucky? And while you're waiting for the memory card to clear each file from the buffer, you're going to miss a lot of potentially magical moments. Instead, you should increase your odds of creating evocative images by being selective about when you increase your shooting volume. This is also known as burst-fire.

But in addition to burst-fire moments, volume shooting should employ a brisk baseline rate of capture. We will explore the dynamics and reasoning behind this later.

Please understand that volume shooting is not a stand-alone concept. It's a shooting style that requires good model interaction, proper model selection, proficiency with lighting, familiarity with dynamic adjustments and more. The goal is that when you pair volume shooting with good preparation and real-time actions, you yield more frames that are emotionally evocative. My goal with this post is to navigate you through the pitfalls of volume shooting and reveal the benefits of volume shooting when performed correctly.
Some Objections to Volume Shooting
But doesn't volume shooting make photographers lazy? Absolutely. If you rely only on volume-shooting and neglect all other preparations, then you will become a lazy photographer. Hell, not only will you become a lazy photographer, you will also be an unprepared photographer. One that has reduced his/her chances at capturing great images. Volume shooting is not a standalone concept. Volume shooting should be combined with great pre-production legwork such as finding the right model, concept, location, storyboard, makeup, wardrobe, etc. It's a small portion of a larger framework; a framework that does not include a predetermined look/concept/pose.

But doesn't volume shooting make a photographer less precise about specific looks and set poses? Let's be clear. There is and always will be a time and a place to shoot set poses. For example, if there's an art director looking over your shoulder holding a storyboard, and that storyboard clearly states the exact pose of the shot, then you should probably shoot that exact pose for the shot. But just as there are orchestral masterpieces written by the classical masters, there is also the unwritten freestyle of improvisational jazz. And if you look far enough back into the history of classical music, even the classical masters left cadenzas in their concertos for the soloists to improvise in free-time. The key is knowing when you're the soloist and when you're just a part in the orchestra. There is a time and a place for shooting single frames to nail a specific pose and there is also a time and a place for shooting hundreds of frames to get capitalize on great flow to create something totally unscripted.

One is not better than the other. Being able to perform an improvised solo isn't better than being a part of the orchestra. Similarly, being able to create an unscripted look isn't better than being able to shoot a set pose. They are simply different parts, requiring different skill sets. Being able to perform both is best! Dogmatically dismissing one or the other eliminates the potential positive outcomes you could experience. Positive outcomes that might change your entire perspective of photography. Positive outcomes that might even generate new sources of creativity.

Volume shooting occupies more space on data storage solutions. Without a doubt, shooting more images means those images take up more space on your data storage solutions. But whereas volume shooting with film was cost-prohibitive, digital photography allows photographers to shoot much more volume at marginally greater costs. Long-term cost per GB trends lower as new technologies and greater storage capacities are introduced to market. Perhaps more important than the increase in space is the increase in time associated with reviewing and processing all these images. A good back-end workflow for volume shooting is paramount for successfully managing the increase in images.

Volume shooting is not better or worse. It's simply a different style.
Let's first examine some of the principles behind volume shooting:
1) Volume shooting creates an endless loop of positive reinforcement. Essentially when you shoot more frames, the model takes that cue as positive reinforcement and believes that he/she is doing well. This provides the model with more confidence to do "more". As the model does "more" you shoot even more frames thus propelling the vicious cycle. It's really a self-fulfilling prophecy so to speak.

2) Volume shooting increases the probability of capturing emotionally-charged moments. What's an emotionally-charged moment? What kind of looks are you specifically waiting for? We'll talk more about this with the Magic: What You're Looking For but usually you're looking for fleeting moments. Often these fleeting moments occur with motion. So you will want to capture the dynamics of turning, strutting, jumping, hair-tossing, wardrobe movements. And while you can't control these motion-driven elements with precision, it's precisely these elements that aid in the creation of emotionally-charged images. Since you can't control these elements, you'll need to increase your probability of capturing these moments by shooting more frames.

Again, this doesn't mean you should shoot indiscriminately by holding down the shutter until you run out of memory buffer/card. Instead you should be judicious in your selection of moments to burst off several frames but maintain a high rate of fire/tempo overall (e.g. 0.5frames/sec as a loose rule of thumb). Essentially you're waiting for emtionally-charged moments but in between these moments you should still be maintaining a constant rate of capture. Why? More below...

3) Volume shooting creates a fast-paced posing environment. Unless of course you're trying to capture a sad and languishing look, I recommend keeping an upbeat and high-energy environment while shooting. Maintaining a brisk shooting tempo maintains the momentum between poses and this momentum specifically pushes the model to pose quickly and encourages fluidity (we'll also talk more about fluidity later Magic: Model Interaction). Models are much less likely to fall into a posing funk or give you stale poses when the rate of shooting is brisk. Essentially you're using the rate of capture to maintain high-energy and keep the model's poses moving along. Without the base-rate of capture, models lose the constant positive reinforcement that gives them the confidence to give you "more". So between the burst-rate moments you helps to keep a brisk baseline rate of capture.
Now that we've discussed some the principles behind volume shooting, let's examine the setup for volume shooting because the proper setup (based upon your particular equipment) will determine your maximum rate of burst capture. Everything I use and the way I use it is geared towards this method of volume shooting. While I still shoot RAW files, I set my camera and lights in a way that allows my equipment to keep up with my maximum rate of capture. Here are my main considerations:
1) Fast memory cards. The faster my cards can write files, the less I have to depend on my buffer for "holding" unwritten captures. The less frames I have in the buffer, the more (and faster) I can shoot. Ideally there exists a card that could write as fast as you shoot so you would never need to rely on your camera's memory buffer at all. This would imply that you would never have to wait for your camera to write files to your card. Of course even if such a card existed, it would likely be cost-prohibitive and that speed could exceed the camera's throughput speed anyway.

2) Higher ISO settings (than baseline ISO). By shooting at a higher ISO, you decrease your dependency on light. The effect is actually two-fold. First, you can now power down your strobes for faster recycle speeds and thus shoot faster. Second, you can maintain a faster shutter speed to capture faster motion without the fear of blur (especially if your only source of light is ambient). Of course with higher ISO there is more noise. And even though high-ISO noise can be well-supressed in newer cameras and digital technologies, each photographer will need to determine how much noise he/she can tolerate for any given set of capture.

In addition, if we quickly revisit the premise of Magic and the quest for capturing emotionally-charged images, it behooves a photographer to reconsider the importance of technically perfect images e.g. low-ISO/noiseless/tack-sharp/focused images. The search for technical perfection via low-ISO, small apertures, fast shutter speeds, big strobe power, might cause a photographer to miss the opportunity of capturing that perfect emotionally evocative moment between poses. How? Because if you're afraid of ISO-noise you will need to compensate with more strobe power. And while you're waiting for the strobe to recycle, you might miss that emotionally evocative moment that occurs between poses. Or maybe you're shooting ambient light and you wanted that creamy bokeh which only exists at f/1.4? So you sacrifice focus flexibility for bokeh perfection. Let's assume that your model moves off your plane of focus between poses? Now you've lost the opportunity at a great shot because you were chasing bokeh. These are for trade-offs every photographer must consider when setting up for volume shooting. Trade-offs that could impact your ability to capture those in-between moments.

Going back to the ISO consideration, I would predetermine a maximum ISO prior to shooting and then not exceed that ISO during shooting. If I needed more exposure to maintain a rate of shooting, I would try compensating with either shutter speed or aperture.

3) Open aperture (shallower depth-of-field). Similar to higher ISO, opening the aperture allows more light to hit the sensor/film thus offsetting your dependency on light. While you're still dependent on light, a larger aperture allows you to power down your strobes for faster recycle rates thus allowing you to shoot faster. Secondly larger apertures allow you to increase your shutter speed for better motion-stopping capture ability. Just remember that focus can be an issue at shallow depths-of-field. At certain apertures, the depth-of-field can be just millimeters. Therefore, prior to shooting you should predetermine a maximum aperture that you're willing to use (given your particular setup) and not exceed that aperture during shooting. If there is any flexibility with ISO and/or shutter speed, try and compensate/balance your exposure with the other camera settings.

4) Lower power settings on the strobe. Given that there is enough exposure, you should shoot the minimum power setting on my strobes for volume shooting. A lower power setting creates multiple benefits. First, it allows the strobe to recycle faster and therefore achieve proper exposure faster between frames. Secondly, a lower power setting is less taxing on the strobe because it creates less heat per cycle and is therefore less likely to burn out the strobe's components, particularly the bulb. Thirdly, a lower power setting generates a faster flash duration for stopping motion which means the model will generate less motion-blur when moving.

5) Providing models more range of motion. For volume shooting, I set my lights with an expectation of a greater range of motion. Prior to shooting, I already know that there might be some unpredictability in the model's movements. If my goal is to create a unique look via an unstructured and unscripted set, I have to give my subjects the freedom to move and the freedom to improvise. And since I want to maximize my ability to capture these motions, my lighting setups must provide the models with the adequate flexibility for motion. In other words, by building in greater tolerance for motion, you'll be able to shoot quickly with more confidence that the model has not stepped outside your field of lighting. Which means you don't have to call a timeout just to reposition your lights. While this also depends on good model interaction, creating a more motion-tolerant light setup reassures the model that there is room to experiment. This allows the model (and photographer) to then push for more unique and hopefully more emotionally evocative looks.

6) Minimize your file outputs. If you minimize the number of files your camera creates per frame, you can increase your speed of shooting. And yes, you can even minimize file size if you're willing to purposely use an evenly-lit solid color background for the sake of reducing file size. But by limiting the number of files your camera writes per capture, you can reduce the number of files written, maximize your captures per memory card, and increase shooting speed.

How does one reduce the number of files written per capture? By setting your camera to write only the single RAW file per capture. This means not capturing a JPEG (regardless of basic, normal, fine) on top of your RAW file (whether you're writing to a single memory card or to multiple memory cards). This also means not duplicating RAW captures across multiple memory cards if you have that function (RAW + RAW). The less your camera needs to output onto your memory cards, the faster you can shoot. This will not affect your ability to preview the RAW file on your camera.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the elements behind volume shooting. Each photographer will have his/her individual style of shooting. When combined with individual requirements, each photographer will face a different combination of challenges when executing their own style of volume shooting. My proposed formula uses a brisk baseline tempo with lots of short-term burst fire sequences sprinkled in between. When combined with proper model interaction, this should increase the photographer's probability of capturing emotionally-charged images. Next, we'll examine when you should execute your burst fire sequences. I'll be demonstrating this along with all the other elements of Magic at the Master Class.


  1. Charles - your writings on Magic is really awesome! Looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

    Happy Holidays!!