Starting a photography series is not hard, take a simple concept and run with it for however many photos it takes before you feel satisfied that it’s complete. You could artificially create a series, such as people holding red boxes around the world, then carry a red box wherever you go for a year and take photos of strangers holding it. Apply meaning to the box, such as it represents friendship or a shared experience. You could also pick a subject and chase it, like frogs on rainy days, or wild chickens. After much thought, we all like to relive our childhood experiences and I grew up watching and loving Asian cinema. The smoke from the cigarettes, the flickering old alleyway lights, the reflections in the rain puddles, the mysterious colors and the wonderful actresses and actors. I would never get to live that life, like those exciting people in those films, but perhaps I could try my hand at crafting and capturing scenes like that with my camera. To relive some of my favorite moments to some degree.
If you’ve ever watched a Wong Kar Wai film, then you’re already familiar with the cinematography of Christopher Doyle. We each interpret art in our own ways, and I read his work as using colors and textures to speak emotions and mood. As I’ve never done anything like this before, I had to make a number of assumptions regarding process. I began sketching the scenes I had in my head onto paper, drafting out a basic story framework and making notes for props that would help me tell it. This may look a little silly, but here are what a few of them looked like:
I did not want to feel held back by my environment, so I drafted out each scene and hoped for the best that I would manage to find the right locations to shoot in. Each week prior to the shoot I would scout around Singapore looking for the right spots with the right color, lighting and character.
Although I found several public locations that felt right, I was still missing the lounge scene. It’s not a Wong Kar Wai film without a smoky bar rendevous. Thanks to my photographer friend Guy Keating for introducing me to Bar L’Aiglon on Neil Road. The manager was very kind in offering to let me use their space for a short time to shoot several scenes for this series. Finding a bar was not easy, I asked several and many refused. One of them went as far as to shout at me to get out. I was always polite and honest, I got very lucky three times. L’Aiglon being the first, the other two I will talk about a bit later.
One evening I went over there to do a few test shots with my friend Diana Lim as my reference model. Diana being a fabulous photographer herself knew exactly the kind of shoot I wanted to do.
The scenes were all perfect, but the symbolic colors of Christopher Doyle’s were missing. How did he achieve those? I decided that with cinema, there are obviously no flash bulbs, so no gels or strobes. I wrote to several companies who manufacture neon lights to ask if they could quote me on a set of long neon “sticks” which I could pick up and hold. They would have to be durable and bright enough to generate the luminance necessary to fill a scene. Not a single one replied.
I was determined to figure this out, so I went over to Sim Lim Tower, the only place in Singapore that I felt would be bound to have something I could use. Sim Lim Tower is not the Sim Lim that everyone goes to to get ripped off on consumer electronics, it’s a pastel striped building not far behind it that has several floors of things like fuses, circuitry, switches, knobs, batteries and lights. In the display of one of the shops was a set of colored fluorescent lights that looked very close to what I imagined I would need. The bulbs themselves were colored, not wrapped in colored plastic. I bought two of them, in a bright pink and one in a bright yellow. The guy who ran the shop crafted two long cables for me that would plug into each light and then into a wall socket. Each bulb cost me $8SGD and each fixture cost $9SGD, including the cable. The pink one looks like this.
Since fluorescent lights use a ballast to regulate the current flow, creating a “cycle”, you’ll notice every fourth or fifth shot in a sequence being a bit darker. There’s a great tutorial on shooting with fluorescent lights here which I recommend reading. This was not much of an issue for me when shooting, as I spent some time testing the lights in my office and with Diana before doing the actual shoot.
Now I needed models. I joined Model Mayhem and started searching for someone who had the right look and would be willing to give me their time to help with this series. Luckily I met Jacky Lim first and she turned out to be incredibly cool and talented. I told her I also needed a male model to join us and she contacted her friend YQ who also agreed to do the shoot with us. I felt incredibly lucky, but also incredibly intimidated and nervous. I kept asking myself what the heck am I doing, asking two complete strangers to do this shoot with this crazy experimental light rig, and I’ve never done anything like this before…
I was still missing two things. The right pair of vintage sunglasses and a vintage car for the last scene of the shoot. My friend Michelle Tan who is in Fashion Marketing was kind enough to loan me a pair she had which were vintage from Taiwan. For the car though, I had called around town and the best I could find was a ’94 Ferrari for $500SGD a day, including a driver. That was honestly not a bad deal, but I needed to do this on a shoestring and I had no financial support for the shoot. One evening while walking home I noticed this beige classic Volkswagen Beetle parked across from my apartment. There was some crazy house party going on next door so I assumed it belonged to someone there. I asked one of the guys hanging around outside if they knew who owned it and got the phone number of Zac, a music teacher and very cool guy who would later agree to let me use his car and drive it over for me. Everything fit into place.
Now the details that often get missed. I had no idea how to power these lights while outside. I did a little research and settled on renting a small Honda petrol generator. It looked a lot smaller in the photos online, this thing was huge and heavy. I could barely lift it longer than 5-10 minutes without breaking into a sweat(I’ve been out of shape for a while so this is really my fault). When you turn it on, it sounded like revving a motorcycle and made quite a bit of sound. But it worked…
On the day of the shoot I had my friends Guy, Dan and Diana with me. We met Jacky and YQ and did the shoot which lasted from around 6PM to nearly midnight. It. Was. So. Much. Fun. Most importantly, I learned a lot from that session. Simple things like combinations of lighting colors to create different effects, and the distance of the lights to the subjects to create the right(or wrong) shadows.
I shot almost entirely with the Sigma 24mm f1.4 ART, Nikkor 50mm f1.2 ai-s, and Nikkor 85mm f1.4 AF-D on my Nikon D810. I shot nearly 2000 photos that night.
Of all the things I learned from this experience, I can distill them down to these 10 things:
- 1. Study the works of other photographers and videographers first and keep a journal of notes. I re-watched all of Wong Kar Wai’s films before doing this shoot and it was a joy, it also sparked my imagination.
- 2. Pick your locations, sketch the scenes you want the models to act out, and make sure each location is within walking distance.
- 3. I needed a bottle of whisky, sunglasses, cigarettes, a lighter, colored fluorescent lights, a portable power source, and a car. Take the time and find the right props to make the right scene.
- 4. Fluorescent lights, when held too close to a models face and if not exposed properly, can eliminate facial features like jaw lines, eyelids and noses. Keep the lights at a distance until you’ve practiced enough to have a feeling for when it’s going to work.
- 5. Without permission to shoot at a private space like a bar, you’ll miss out on making new friends with the bar owners, getting their help with the shoot, and being legit if you ever do a show with your work. Some of the venues I spoke with even offered to let me use their space to do a gallery show!
- 6. Even if your models are volunteering, anticipate a decent budget to cover food, drinks and transportation on the day.
- 7. Double check the weather forecast a few days in advance of the shoot.
- 8. Don’t be tempted to shoot everything at f1.4 or f1.2, despite having such fast lenses on hand. The car shoot was fun, but while Jacky was in focus standing outside the car, YQ who was a little further back than her and in the car drivers seat was not fully in focus. Luckily I did several shots at f2.8 which was just enough to resolve this.
- 9. Practice shooting a friend first if you’ve never done a model shoot before. Models can’t read your mind, you need to instruct them clearly about their posture, facial expressions and body language. “Chin up! Shoulders straight, left arm forward! Eyes to the right, light the cigarette but hold the lighter *this far* from your mouth.” Don’t be afraid to command them, be cool and be clear.
- 10. Be confident and try it. Photography is a great creative medium through which to express yourself. Right or wrong is subjective and a matter of perception. Experiment again and again until you find your style.