A Dream and an Awakening: shooting the surreal for real with new Nikon D810

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This year I found myself with a golden ticket: to be the first fashion photographer to shoot with the new Nikon D810, and commissioned to cook up two photoshoots of a Willy Wonka-esque deliciousness where Matthew and I went to town on putting the craziest things from our imaginations into reality.

Being given carte-blanche to road-test a brand new DSLR is a dream job by any photographer’s standard, and we were thrilled to be selected. Soon began a dialogue with Gen from K&L Tokyo, during a series of Skype calls confidential under NDA with the camera referred to only by its code name, where the fairly open brief was set with one caveat: no Photoshop trickery allowed. This was to be Real Surreal.

What we called ‘White Witch Awakening’ and ‘Deep Sea Dream’ were soon in embryo, jigsawed together from mine and Matthew’s imaginations over tea, walks and deep dream-filled sleeps. What I love about this job already, I thought, is that Gen and his clan really wanted to hear our ideas, the narrative behind them, the ‘fine-art’ in the ‘fashion’. First we presented 4 concepts then unanimously chose the best 2. Their methodical, sobering demeanour gave way to a glint in their eyes as we talked of commissioning a 7-foot tentacle, hiring live animals and shooting in water with their precious prototypes. It all built a palpable excitement at the PDF moodboards sent to and fro: the first shoot would have a sleeping woman in a sea-filled room invaded by a tentacle and mermaid; inspired by Mert & Marcus, Gregory Crewdson’s water-filled bedrooms, and B-movie style creatures of the sea. The second shoot involved a white witch conjuring stuffed animals to life: inspired by white and bright powdery Tim Walker fashion, Narnia and snow queen imagery, and the eye-widening addition of real animals (Matt: “we just have to have a vulture, soon vultures are going to be ’in!’”

The first shoot would be in an underwater studio, with a set we’d build and install with furniture, fabric ‘wallpaper’, mirrors, ornaments, a chandelier, right down to carefully-sought nautical details of storybook Thrills of the Seven Seas and a Jules Verne diving helmet. The second shoot was to take place in a location we were already fond of, the quintessentially English, utterly bizarre, Aynhoe Park; a mansion that gives you auto-LSD vision, a living hotel museum-cum-stately home where a polar bear in goggles greets you and a giraffe hangs suspended by balloons in the Orangery. And we were to dine in, sleep in and dominate maniac mansion itself. Yes, this was a golden ticket indeed. 

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We had an illustrator promptly sketch each scenario and the weeks of production planning and model casting began. Shipping in green silk from India, a redhead from Germany, French furniture from the local village, and recruiting our neighbours to build a plywood bedroom wall along with a team of divers to get it into place; hairstylist Tati Zarubova who’s long worked on our London shoots, Elbie van Eeden for makeup, our trusty assistants Tim and Bernard, and Johnathan Clover for extra BTS. From the start we knew stylist Leonid Gurevich’s colourful imagination was the one for the job, so we flew him and his assisting sister Marina from NY to bring our mermaid, sleeping beauty and white witch to life. Staying over with us to enjoy the environs of rural Kent, naturally, so I could make him wear my dressing gown and brew them both lavender tea nightly.

On a solid level Matt and I find commercial assignments a cinch compared to the full-on intensity of running our Fashion Shoot Experience productions. Getting one model styled instead of 6, focusing on one brief instead of 11 clients, and having one main mission to complete. But on this shoot, in some kind of wicked masochistic manner we threw in big challenges for ourselves: working in water and shooting with live animals; each with highly stylised sets, the usual styling rigmarole but with divers, animal trainers and total of 5 people from client/agency overseeing a tough four days – but four days that stretched our minds like a happy kid pulling plasticine. After all, if you’ve been reading my tumblr since the beginning you’ll know that challenges have been on our agenda… giving us a taste for making the impossible possible, and making the most of the moment. You can resist difficulty, and shrink back; or you can say: I will take you on, and you will build my muscles.

Deep Sea Dream

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First day was Build Day, building the set in water: including the set walls, covering them in fabric, hanging the chandelier, installing the tentacle, hanging the Priolites from above and adding accessories. We also tested the models in their costumes. Second day was shooting: positioning both models into the set, optimising composition, posing direction, and splashing of water around the tentacle (thanks to the work of Tall Tim’s toe) so it appears animated, because as the brief went, little or no Photoshop was allowed.

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Phone call overheard at lunchtime:

What did you do today Dad?

I’ve been carrying a mermaid…

___

White Witch Awakening

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This was two full days of shooting involving a series of technical briefs, one model with two looks, ‘casting spells’ around the house with a variety of stuffed and live animals, props and shadows. Much time went into setting up the scene for the main wide shot in the Orangery with the live zebra and all the taxidermy placed around, the ‘white witch awakening’ them from their spell…

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Prep was heavy, from painting the panel above the door to match the scene, to building the ramp for the zebra to even get into the room. Getting the perfect final shot of the white witch and the zebra was the tough task. It had to be right, all in camera… contending with a live zebra held on a wire by its trainer, who had to hide every single pixel of himself behind the stuffed polar bear. The model had to keep her arms raised for many minutes and look engaged with a shuffling wild animal who was more interested in the fog from the dry ice we had to put away in the end. The props were continually tweaked to make the ideal framing, the army of people behind me needed to keep every intruding limb well back, and on top of all that, we awaited the key factor: the sun to come out from the cloud to spill into the room and make the shot magical. The pressure was on, and when it all got too much there was tea on hand to help.

Close up:

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I absolutely loved working on this project and professed on twitter to find it more exciting than the prospect of the Vogue cover. It gave us licence to dream up a production that our own passion burned for, but with a real end usage that gave it commercial clout beyond the usual free reins I have in my fine art.  The technical brief kept it contained and gave me tight focus. Images would be examined on the desktop for scrutiny from a creative director, technical director and communications director and the tiniest focal issue would require reshooting till it was right, and phewing when it was perfect. As a fine-art photographer, I never felt compromised or truly frustrated, because our artistic vision was only appropriate insofar as theirs, and it gave me great satisfaction to keep trying to draw those lines between the dots of my abilities, and the dots of their requirements. In the creative industry, eloping with your ego is pointless when your client puts the bread on the table. Take corrections, know who’s boss, know why you have been hired and deliver that.

Watch Nikon’s beautifully cinematic BTS reel above, where you can also find out more about my technical experience of the D810. (There’s also another video looking more at technical kit here). When I first saw the D810’s shots the quality looked like medium format – and that was just the JPEGs. The camera has been improved from the D800E on several levels, with richer tonality and a broad dynamic range. I found the transition highly rewarding as well as seamless, like upgrading your glasses prescription. Certainly the ‘pinnacle of DSLR quality’ yet, it’s crucial gear as I go forward with making bigger and better artworks.

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I do such a mix of projects that it’s nice to work on a traditional photography assignment, where everyone was working hard on their chink in the chain to bring these final images to completion. Whilst Matt had done the majority of the pre-production planning, I took the lead on shooting direction, often barking orders just to make sure I got the perfect shot of that zebra he’d had the hair-brained idea of getting for us. Then there was the flamingo who was happy enough to sit and shake its head at falling white petals, and the vulture, with metre-length wing span either side, who would intermittently attempt to fly away from the back of the stuffed lion we posed it on. None of the animals seemed to scare the model Mimi, and with her demeanour and perfect complexion that needed no Photoshop, we knew we’d picked the perfect woman, thankfully encouraged – and not deterred – by Matt’s initial “compliment” during casting: “You’re a perfect, up-and-coming white witch”…

It all ended with a grand finale dinner at Aynhoe Park in its dining hall filled with dozens of globes and animals wearing hats, before we all went our separate ways, coincidentally bumping into K&L and Nikon at the same torrential waterfall in Iceland a few days later! 

Over the following weeks I edited the final shots (with a few tiny Photoshop allowances on the finale image from each shoot) and waited till the day we could share this blog post about our top-secret mission: the Nikon D810 is here.

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Thank you sincerely Nikon and K&L, for a wonderful privilege, and another adventure to add to life’s tapestry.

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Gently coaxing a frisky zebra into place…

Select finished shots will be posted larger on Facebook over the coming fortnight.

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