Alan & Gretchen is a successful photographer duo with a list of top brand clients that is as long as it is impressive. We talked to Alan about their setup, their workflow and how to get what you want out of your images as a professional photographer.
How to get what you want
Their New Zealand birth and upbringing may have contributed to Alan & Gretchen’s remarkable vision as photographers. Alan explains:
“Growing up in an environment of dramatic landscape with unique animal and plant forms, close to nature, has set a tone for both of us and remains a source of inspiration.”
Both were born artists, knowing from a young age that they would follow a path that came naturally to them; both their families were engaged in the depictive and written arts -- it was just a matter of finding the right tools to use in their exploration of art theory and practice. Photography was a logical choice.
Today, with a steady stream of assignments from top brands from Europe & North America, their choice of gear is key to their award-winning work.
“We use tiny pocket cameras for our preliminary and research work. For landscape, people and cars, we depend the resolution and quality of the Phase One digital backs and Capture One software. Our clients have extremely high standards; we test constantly and choose from the best technology available to support this.”
Ready, set, go
“For static shots, cameras are supported by lightweight and very stable carbon fiber tripods with magnesium alloy heads. If the subject is moving, then it depends on many variables as to what will work best. The cameras are mounted by a quick release system. Camera “A” is a technical camera with a 60 or 80 mp Phase One digital back mounted onto it.
“We combine this set up with a second one -- the Phase One 645DF camera body and lenses. The Phase One backs switch between the two cameras, when required. The 645DF is quick and light, perfect when we need to move quickly or when we need high sync speeds for flash – it’s really great.
“These camera systems are the perfect combination for our digital work. The Phase One backs are consistently reliable -- that’s essential. We’ve shot with many different versions, starting with the P45, through the IQ180, and are glad to see the long exposure back in the IQ260; it’s very exciting. Whether we are on location in the middle of the Australian Outback or in New York city, Phase One backs have proven themselves again and again to be incredibly well designed and dependable.
The finished files are between 15,000 and 17,000 pixels wide, made from 5 to 7 plates, and hundreds of layers that capture all the nuances of the car, its movement, light, smoke, water, reflections, talent . . . the list goes on. It is complex, and we rely on great producers, crews and kit to make it happen and ensure a great result. To say there is a lot of work is an understatement. We love it, enjoy pushing boundaries and we go through a lot of damn fine black coffee!
“So, the less we need to shoot the better, that requires accuracy and planning. Even before we get the camera on the tripod or rig, we’ve done days of research and gotten the scene all worked out. We make tweaks on the day and are very responsive, but most of the critical decisions have already been made. We plan our work carefully and have a very good sense of what we want from the preparation. So then it’s a matter of getting the most out of the conditions, people and subjects.
“Ultimately, we end up with fewer files to look through to simplify editing. Then Capture One Pro 7 does the rest and we make full use of the digital darkroom within the software.
“We normally shoot tethered; the digital tech is watching like a hawk as the files come in. A strong rapport is essential here to make selections, notes and ratings as the files come in. All of that information is put directly into the files (naming and numbering). This process is key, as it’s important to structure the sessions so that during and after a shoot it’s simple to look through and assemble our first impressions quickly. The main advantage of this workflow is that we’re able to reduce human error and get prepped, labeled and organized images out quickly. Then we’ll know exactly how to get back there to process out tweaked high resolution.
“We don’t do a lot of color adjustment when shooting, though we do make sure both camera and software settings are optimized and consistent. Once we decide on final color and contrast in low res, then the files are fine tuned in and processed at 100 percent in Capture One Pro 7, and that’s when we use as much of Capture One Pro 7’s digital darkroom functionality for tweaking and getting the best out of each capture. Efficiency is vital as time can be very short at this stage.”
“Our retouchers also use Capture One Pro; so when we hand files over, they have a reference file with all of our notations, and they can get started working straight away.
“We started using Capture One Pro back in 2008. We have tried other software, but found that Phase One’s Capture One Pro 7 works the best for us and is the most stable. It’s intuitive -- if you want to shoot tethered using a combination of cameras, Capture One Pro 7 is the one software that does everything we need -- especially now with the catalogue feature.
“On big shoots, when we’re creating something that needs our full creative attention, we’re taking our aesthetic into a bigger team to create something magic. It’s fun and the pace is very fast, so we love the fact that everyone uses and understands Capture One Pro 7. We don’t have to worry about this aspect at all -- Capture One Pro 7 is highly regarded among the professional photography circuit.
“Capture One Pro 7 is a very exciting upgrade, because the processing engine is a huge leap forward and make our files look more organic -- the new bayer interpolation algorithm is really impressive, and made a big improvement to processed files. Images appear far more analogous to my eye -- that alone counts for the huge difference between versions 6 and 7. The new catalogue feature is making our digital asset management more simplified; it’s great to be able to mark up work when traveling and know the originals are safe and well organized at the studio.
“Key features in Capture One Pro 7 for us are the ability to recover highlights and shadows and then color balancing as we often mix street or ambient lighting with kinos, HMI, flash and daylight. Our use of color allows for fluidity and realism to see what we can do with ambient and then we’ll start to look on screen to see where we can go -- looking for a subtle departure from reality yet maintaining intrinsic photographic quality and color.
“Having the ability to create very clean and convincing color is important to us. We like to see fresh, vibrant and natural color. We also use a light pre-sharpening preset. If a file is on the edge of being sharp and needs pulling in, then Capture One Pro 7’s sharpening tools are applied as an adjustment layer and brushed on where needed. We are testing the new clarity tools, LCC, adjustment layers, noise reduction and customs presets at the moment and will be integrating them into our workflow imminently.
Planning for success
“Knowing what you want is vital. We can always see when a lot of energy, time and concentration has gone into a photograph/image. The beauty of location photography is that anything can happen. Sometimes we get it right away, and sometimes we have to puzzle it out when conditions are changing. We like to approach every assignment differently. The constant is our preparation and the energy that goes into a shot, combined with the often serendipidous twists that nature throws out -- it is clear when you see the finished image.”
We asked what in his opinion sets a pro apart from an amateur.
“Obsession! – Most artists/photographers we meet are completely obsessed!
“If I were to give advice to an aspiring pro photographer, I would say, ‘get surrounded by people who are doing photography now; get out there; go to exhibitions and see what’s happening; be inventive, study the masters, where photography and the depictive arts have come from. Remember what is important and unique to you. Work hard, work smart and have conviction and confidence to keep going if it gets tough or someone does not approve. Your intention and voice are important in both personal and professional development. In its short history, photography has proven itself to be a irresistible, shifting medium, go for it!”
“Deconstruct what you know about photography and rebuild it, experiment and play around. The processes we use are constantly changing, as are the possibilities to present work. It’s these initiatives that keep the medium progressing. You can learn a lot by observing what is around you. It is very much a personal thing and takes effort and time to develop -- if you’re working on something that’s really important to you, or is new, push it as far as possible, work hard and it will pay off.
“When you think of Ansel Adams -- his invested time into educating photographers and artist through a meticulous approach. He narrowed it down to the camera, the film and the paper. Today I think there is just as much need to understand your tools and what they can do for you. Maybe it’s not so much about getting some generic “best” from them, but knowing how to get what you want from them.”