What Mountain Bike asked me recently to shoot a series of pics for a new 'Mystery Shopper' feature (which involves the mag sending a willing volunteer out and about to buy various bike-related bits of kit across the UK... and report back on how the stores they visited fared). Now, clearly this wasn't going to be practical as a fly-on-the-wall affair (it would rather have spoiled the element of surprise, after all. 'Who, the guy with the camera, the softbox and the lightstand? Nah, he's not with me...'). So I'd have to stage it. And that causes its own problems.
To add to my difficulties, the brief called (not unreasonably) for the feature opening shot to concentrate on the main product area in question with the mystery shopper element 'conveyed tonally'.
Now, I know what the commissioning editor meant. Essentially, it's this: the pics had to clearly show the product that was being mystery shopped that month and the human interaction element of shopper and salesperson, but in as clear and uncluttered a way as possible and with the focus on the product, not the people. Oh, and as usual for an opening shot, there'd need to be room to drop in header, standfirst and introductory copy somewhere.
Nikon D3, 14-24mm f/2.8, 1/60sec f/2.8 @ ISO1600
Have you been in a bike store lately? With a few honourable exceptions, 'uncluttered' is not an adjective that readily springs to mind to describe their appearance.
So. One or two problems to solve, then. After some thought, I decided on a two-prong approach:
1. selective focus would be key to highlight the product area. But crap bokeh wouldn't help, because conveying the essence of the background was also important. So I broke out my best wide aperture lenses - the 14-24mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.4. I briefly considered the 200mm f/2 in a moment of madness, but realised that most bike stores wouldn't have the square footage to do it justice...
2. throwing the background out of focus wasn't going to be enough. I had to turn whatever was there into a designer-friendly selection of large patches of tone. Light tone, because no-one wants to see a dark and dingy store (even if that's the reality). And that would mean breaking one of my cardinal rules: I would not only allow the histogram to run off the right hand edge, but encourage it. Cue softbox and lots of light... not for the foreground, but for the background.
Nikon D3, 85mm f/1.4, 1/200sec f/2 @ ISO1600
In a nutshell, here's what I did: lens at or near full aperture, focussed on the main subject. Softbox aimed at background and ceiling, gelled to match the in-store light sources. High ISO to make the store's own lighting work for its keep. Expose for the shadows, not the highlights... and watch that histogram fall waaaaaaay off the right hand edge. Can you say 'clipped channels'?
It's not a technique I'm likely to use very often. Normally, I'm all about saving the right hand side of the histogram. After all, it tends to be where the interesting cloud textures live. Still, it's good to have another tool in the box.