When I went to the Philippines earlier this year, my friend and fellow shooter JoJo Mamangun contacted me. Would I like to work with his wife, Kris, a ballerina and Cirque du Soleil dancer? I think I simply wrote back something like, “En route.” As luck would have it, she was rehearsing for the role of Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream for Ballet Philippines.
Screen shot of Kris-Belle Paclibar-Mamangun, dancing as Titania. Picture shot by her husband, JoJo Mamangun.
While there I also wanted to come up with some pix that were distinctly Filipino. From my first visit some years ago, I fell in love with Jeepneys. They are a cross between a classic Jeep and a bus, and thousands of them ply the streets of Manila everyday. They are privately owned, so there’s no one Jeepney quite like another. Some are crusty, working vehicles. Others are the technicolor dreams of their drivers set to wheels, festooned with decals, ads, sponsor logos, skulls, mascots of American sports teams, slogans, images of the Virgin Mary, you name it. A rough equivalent would be a NASCAR that moves slow and carries passengers.
I was wrestling with the notion of working a Jeepney into a picture when JoJo mentioned that Kris was 4’11’. I thought for a moment. And the phrase, “hood ornament” came to mind. The elements came together rapidly: The Jeepney, the dancer costumed as a fairy, and an urban Manila street scene. Not to mention a sublime makeup artist/stylist in Barbara Bennett, who can spin a costume out of her brain in short order.
Forget shooting a pic like this at midday in Manila. The tropical sun just bakes your pixels and your brain. We used the bad light to scout a good location, got hooked up with a local security patrol, and waited out the sun. When we were edging towards good light, we rolled the Jeepney into position. Right in the middle of the street. Unobtrusive we were not. This is what it looked like to start. Then we got to the lighting.
When you’re thinking about spreading some lighting around the streets, anywhere, it’s best to think of it in pieces, and take it a step at a time. Don’t think about the whole thing, and lighting all at once. Put up a light, check it out. See where you’ve goofed. Hopefully, fix it and check again.
Light the dancer first. Her light is an Elinchrom Quadra flash, firing into an indirect 59′ softbox, from camera left. I went with a big source as it’s a wide picture, and the light has to be far away. But, even from that distance, the indirectness and size of the box still conferred good, soft, directional light on my subject. It rests on a C-stand fitted with a mini-boom. A pile of discarded bags of cinder blocks dumped in front of a construction site sufficed for sand bags. First piece of the puzzle done.
Below, the talented Milk Mendoza, a Manila based photog and assistant, stands in for Kris.
The Jeepney as light source. In situations like this, when you are shooting wide, and lighting a scene, something actually in the photo often has to be a light source. The Filipino version of Kesey’s Magic Bus was perfectly suited to this purpose. I installed four SB 910 Speedlights in the back passenger area, and one up front in the cab, all gelled full CTO and semi-bounced into the ceiling of the vehicle. Had one wired with a PW3, and the rest fired on SU-4 mode. The glow those lights produced made a great deal of headway lighting the street.
(There are those who will question 5 Speed Lights over one big flash head. Fair question. I would submit that in this instance, spreading the light base with various small sources gave me more control over the reach of the light and the consequent spill of it onto the street. Personal preference. Also, I only had two big heads. So, as always we used the the best lights–the ones we had.)
Backlight the whole deal and then ask the barbecue shop to move their grill up the block near that flash so some smoke would occasionally drift over it to uh, flavor the light. Full CTO on a Quadra in the way back. Raw flash head. Spews all over the street. Livens the scene. Also on a PW3.
Backlight the dancer. SB-910 Justin clamped to the back of the Jeepney roof, zoomed to 200mm, and flared, hard, right at the dancer’s wings. SU-4 triggering mode, firing off the Quadra backlight. This was a concentrated light. Not a full CTO, as I remember. About half CTO.
Taillights! Two SB units, on SU-4 mode, red gelled, and played out onto the street, simulating brake lights.
Make sure you have security.
Because you know you are going to draw a crowd.
Stay focused even though there’s a lot going on around you.
Stash whatever flashes you have left in the shops. Full CTO, full power, SU-4 mode. Bounce into ceilings of the shops, to make them come alive. Work with the shopkeepers to pull any light bulb they have to the front of their shops instead of the back.
Make sure you get a couple’s portrait.
And make sure you take care of the talent.
And, make sure you drive the Jeepney in downtown Manila traffic. Always a bracing experience. Driver let me run the thing back towards the hotel for about twenty minutes. Double clutch, standard H on the floor, rolls in second gear. Non-stop fun.
Shoot the whole scene on a D800E, with 24-70mm lens zoomed to 32mm. 1/25th at F5. Hi res camera to emphasize the details of the costuming. And, we’re done!
Most production pix shot by the excellent Manila photog, Milk Mendoza. Huge thanks to Kris and JoJo, and Barbara Bennett, whose imagination as a makeup artist and stylist is endless. And thanks to the amazingly gracious people in the Filipino photographic community, particularly Edi Huang, who is the grandmother of Filipino photography. Her passion every year puts together Photo World Asia, held in Manila, and she has created the opportunities I’ve had to visit this amazing city. I was doing a ring flash demo with a model, so I asked her to step in.
What wonderful people. What a gift photography is. More tk….