Luck, fire and a failed ecosystem

By on May 26, 2013

It all began with a “chance” encounter

While I was in LA on contract with my agent SJ+A and pyrotechnician DAS, I could have simply laid back and enjoyed the hotel and beautiful 23 degree weather by the poolside and play tourist.

Instead, like always, I kept a lookout for something exciting… anything.

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While hanging out in the fancy hotel, I hit up the receptionist, not with a call for room service but with a: “Hey dude, anything absolutely fabulous to shoot close to LA?” It just so happens that he happened to be a fellow photographer and knew of a magnificent failed ecosystem by the name of the Salton Sea

After a long day of pre-planning with DAS we went out to check out a random epic birthday “flow party” of a fellow by the name of Master Ong which we knew a single person from the internet – fellow pyrotechnician Sky Rockit.

This random party led to a chance encounter with Toge Manee a girl spinning a fire rope dart who just so happened to be a designer… AND who also happened to know both DAS and myself from our Epic Pyrotechnician photoshoot back in May.

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Master Ong on camera left blowing out a “birthday candle” by DAS

Once the commercial shoot was done, rather than continue staying in a hotel I went on the prowl for a place to crash with DAS. Facebook hooked me up with a fellow by the name of Phil Cha who was on his own crazy world tour (12 countries, 12 martial arts, 7 continues, 7 marathons.) and it just so happens… that he was travelling with a Profoto Acute B2.

And as I was throwing together a photoshoot to combine some fire dart and a failed ecosystem… I launched a call out on Twitter & Facebook telling the fans that I was in LA and asking if anyone wanted to go on a sporadic road trip… and by chance, I stumbled across Anthony Potgieter who made the amazing BTS and Jojo Luk who shot the BTS photographs. In a similar stroke of fate, Toge actually happened to know a couple willing to make the 2 hour drive to come and help with the hair and the shoot – Toshiki Nakamura and Vivian Jiang.

And just by chance, on the day of the shoot, as we drove 2 and a half hours out, all the way from LA without a concrete destination, we bumped into some motorists who pointed us in the right direction… with 1 hour of sunlight to spare.

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So as you can see, it was really just a very lucky series of chance encounters that led to this shoot actually happening… but that’s one perspective.

An alternate perspective is that if I hadn’t been open to the idea of shooting, of putting something together, of reaching out and asking for help… well, none of this would have happened.

While most people solely focus on the technical, there is so much more in both the WHY and the HOW that matter… so much more than the what.

The What (technical breakdown)

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The original idea was to have Toge wrapped in her dress… in flames with fire burning all around her. Perhaps have some rotation in her body to get the fire to drape around her body.

Unfortunately though, her dress didn’t quite act as how we had hoped for and we quickly realized that twirling around in flaming ropes of kevlar was not…going to be a good idea.

The rocks on fire was done using white gas purchased at a local hardware store under the watchful eye of pyrotechnician Sky Rockit. Just for the record: Don’t try this at home but if you must, at least read up on this safety article on 7 Things to keep in mind when photographing fire.

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Lighting was achieved using a Profoto B2 Acute equipped with a soft box and gel’ed orange to match the colours of the flame (as well as the sunset) and triggered using my brand spankin’ new PocketWizard Plus IIIs that I had just purchased.

The challenge was to find the perfect balance between the ambient, the flames and the flash.

There is no magical formula as the intensity of the flames and the sunlight change constantly… just the ability to chimp, adapt, chimp, and adapt some more.

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ISO 80, 70mm, f5.0, 1/80 sec shot on a Nikon D800E

For the second shot, the idea was to create the illusion of having Toge walking through the flames. This caused a multitude of problems, one of which was that the flames… were too hot for our brave Toge to walk through. She couldn’t run, due to the uneven rock surface, and on top of that the rocks were getting her dress all tangled up – not a good situation to be in!

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To compensate, we took a piece of her dress (a stripe of kevlar rope) that we laid out at a wider angle to create the arch for her to walk through.

By this time, we were running low on fuel from our previous burn and the rapidly dropping sunlight meant that I would soon have to choose between exposing properly for the flames or the sun.

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Lighting was still a simple straightforward Profoto B2 Acute + softbox pointing forward.

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ISO 200, 56mm, f5.0, 1/200 sec shot on a Nikon D800E

By the time we got ready to shoot the 3rd, and final image, the sun had pretty much disappeared beneath the horizon.

The idea was to wrap Toge around in streaks of her own flames until we got the perfect shape so it was just a continuous series of trials and error to get the perfect shape that we were looking for. To do this we used a combination of rear curtain sync and shutter drag. (if you don’t know what this is click here for a breakdown!)

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From there, all that remained to give the image just a little bit of depth, was to shoot a still shot of the exact same scene with a 30 second exposure to bring in the richness of the location.

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ISO 100, 24mm, f10.0, 3.7 sec shot on a Nikon D800E

One strobe, One trigger, One camera … and a whole lot of luck.

Special thanks to the whole team that made this possible:

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Equipment used:

Lighting Gear:

Camera Gear:

Bag:

  • ThinkTank Airport International V2.0 (best bag ever) B&H

Announcements:

  • I’ll be speaking & doing a live demo at Profusion in Toronto on the 18th/19th of June! If you’re around definitely hit me up!

4 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • Sreejit

    Excellent! Just a question regarding the rear curtain sync. Did you time the whole movement beforehand and then set the shutter speed to get the flash to pop at the very end or do you just trigger the flash manually at the end?

    • http://www.vonwong.com/ Benjamin Von Wong

      Actually I used the bulb mode so the flash fired when i released my finger from the trigger :)

    • Sreejit

      Hehe! Simple… should have thought of that!

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    The Salton Sea, especially Bombay beach is awesome for this type of work – I recognized the setting immediately…the crusty crane especially. Great work! Erik

    • http://www.vonwong.com/ Benjamin Von Wong

      awesomesauce thanks!

  • Raffaella

    Brilliant. Love seeing the technical side and creative process but really enjoyed the tone and mentality of the video.

  • Pingback: Ben Von Wong Playing with Fire | Off Camera Flash

  • J Smith

    I really admire your work. I hope we can work together one day. Keep up the awesome work!

  • Pingback: Dancing with Fire | Behind the Scenes with Von Wong

  • Nicolas H

    Great Inspiration, really congratulations.
    Q: The Last Picture just before the team group, How do you make the model be in focus? With 3.7 sec. shot, the girl not suppose to be in move (Out of focus)? Or you retouch the focus with a Post Process in PS ?
    Greeting from Argentina !

    • http://www.vonwong.com/ Benjamin Von Wong

      The girl is frozen by the flash !

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