Robert Trawick has been called “the most interesting photographer in Oklahoma”, and loves sharing the knowledge, tricks and passion for the craft honed over a 30+ year career. A self-professed ‘time-traveler’, Robert has been active in the industry since 1980 and received much of his formal training during a twenty-year career as an USAF photojournalist.
The concept was to capture fire and movement in a dramatic portrait. I’ve always been fascinated by circus performers and see them as superheroes of public entertainment. The idea of a “femme fatale” ringmaster with a flaming whip wasn’t that far from my previous shoots with the “Wall of Fire”.
This was the very first time I’ve tried using a 6’ bullwhip – on fire – in a shoot. Besides the unknown of how the leather would absorb and burn, I was concerned the speed of the whip would blow out the flame. Another technical challenge would be finding a balance between ambient exposure for the background with burning whip and a single flash pop to freeze the model. Amazingly enough, after practicing our timing, the first shot was one of the best images of the 30 odd frames exposed. We could have shot longer but the fire burned thru the inner cord of the whip. We only purchased two props for the shoot.
Lighting & Setup
The setup was a simple cross light pattern to deliver enough power to light the model, freeze the moment but not overpower the dark alley. The Interfit Photographic S1 with XP PhotoGear A100 Speedbox was placed on camera left aiming slightly in front of the model. The front diffusion panel was removed to use the more spectacular silver finish – inside the modifier – to bring out the velvet texture of the ringmaster coat.
A small flash, Interfit TLi-N was mounted on flat metal downspout diagonal from the main light. Using the RapidMount SLX for the flash was crucial to proper placement without using an extra light stand and removing it in post-processing. This cross backlight helped add separation of the model and her outfit from the much darker background.
After the light was set, we practiced the timing of the whip movement and settled with a shutter speed of one second. The aperture of f8 cut the available light down enough to keep bleeding to a minimum during the movement of the model. The flash was set to rear curtain sync and would flash to freeze the model at the end of the exposure. We gave a countdown and on 3, the model began the whip swing as I clicked the shutter to start the process. The slow shutter speed exposed the flaming whip, distant background lights and some movement of the model with the final flash freezing her in a forward aggressive pose at the end of the swing.
Shooting with the Case Air Wireless Tethering System was key to having a larger monitor, in this case, the Apple iPad, to review the shots to make small tweaks and zoom in easily to judge the balance between the ambient and flash exposures. Using a tethered system helps the photographer, talent, and crew stay on the same page of the concept. When shooting with a commercial client, I find that the sessions are more productive and shoot less since content, focus and exposure are more accurately visible with a larger screen.
One note on using the iPad with tethering on site. I’ve used just about every online iPad holder and nothing is as sturdy, reliable and safe as the AeroTab. Don’t get suckered into inferior products that will jeopardize your $800 iPad. You will save so much more than money when you invest in the best solution for your gear.
The images were imported into Lightroom, culled and edited using DVLOP tone curves.
I used a curve and preset with low contrast blacks for a nice film-like look but still kept the vibrant warm tones. Using Photoshop, I layered two of the best images and blended the flames on the whip to increase the fire and visible travel trail. I also used the dodge tool for brightening the fire.
Robert Trawick – photographer & coffee drinker
Terri Trawick – fire master & grip & video
Shannon Bailey – makeup and wardrobe
Macy Statton – talent with Vail Model Management
Christian Bruggeman – fire watcher & video
John Doe – bicyclist removed in post-processing
We have a great relationship with Vail Model Management so one phone call to Eric Epperly and we got Macy onboard for the shoot. While the idea had been percolating in my brain for a few weeks, this shoot was worked out in about 24 hours. The fact our talent was a redhead, fit the ringmaster outfit perfectly and wasn’t afraid to play with a whip on fire was a bonus. I guess it’s hard to be stealthy shooting in a popular area, even if it’s a dark alley in Oklahoma City and we were spotted by another photographer Christian finishing his shoot. He was wonderful in volunteering a hand with some BTS video. Special thanks to my wife Terri for being the fire master with soaking, adjusting, lighting and extinguishing the props. Never shoot fire alone and always use someone you fully trust because the pretty dancing flames can get out of hand quickly. No one was injured on this shoot.
Insight and Inspiration: Creative Uses of Off-Camera Flash
The Insight + Inspiration Series from Tether Tools kicks off with this Off-Camera Flash guide, featuring eight articles on lighting from master portrait and wedding photographers. Go behind-the-scenes in a New York City stairwell for a portrait shoot with a ballerina, out to Joshua Tree National Park for an engagement photo session, in a dark alley for a fire whip themed shoot, and much more. Get the Guide for FREE here.
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