Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered how your favorite photographers capture the images they take? Digital Photo Pro’s monthly column “On Assignment” is where Canon Explorers of Light, past and present, share a backstage look at one of their favorite assignments and how they delivered the goods. This month we go On Assignment with Bruce Dorn, a photographer, filmmaker, writer, and adventurer.
The Challenge: Create New Opportunities While Developing New Skills
Over the course of my career as a photographer and cinematographer – nearly fifty years at the time of this writing – I’ve watched as a parade of talented and exciting newcomers skyrocket onto the scene and then fizzle out just as quickly. There’s a reason for this. “New” is a transitory state and everything “fresh” inevitably stales.
No matter how successful you are, no matter how unique and sought-after your signature style may be, your upward trajectory is heading for an inevitable summit and will soon begin to arc downward. A great career is the result of continual creative expansion, not the mere mastery of a set of widely understood skills.
Failure to recognize this truth will torpedo even the most talented aspiring pro so what does one do to avoid plunging into obscurity? What is the difference between those who last and those who fade away? How does one create, and more importantly, maintain, a long and fruitful career?
Answer: Through a process of constant and mindful reinvention!
As a mentor to many already successful young photographers and filmmakers, I cannot stress this enough; the time to reinvent oneself is always “now.”
It is challenging to dedicate both time and resources to create new portfolio pieces when we’re busy but that is exactly when we must do the work. Making time to experiment with new techniques and to explore new ideas should be seen as an investment, not a financial drain or frivolous time suck. This ongoing creation of fresh sample work is how we convert the beginnings of a career into one that is long lived, creatively fulfilling, and financially rewarding. This is how we climb to the top of a very competitive profession.
Ideation, Planning, & Preparation
The creation of a sizzling new portfolio piece begins with an idea and is achieved through careful planning and preparation. Sometimes I find the creative spark in an intriguing prop. Sometimes an idea is triggered by the need to learn about a new specialized tool, and sometimes I find inspiration in the form of an interesting location.
In the case of this assignment, we had all three: two exciting sports cars, several nifty new tools, and a remote stretch of pristine road. The tools were a new Canon EOS R5, the Canon EF 16-35mm F/4L IS zoom lens, Canon’s Drop-In Variable ND Filter Mount Adapter (EF to EOS R), and a remotely controllable gimbal.
I’ve spent many years in Hollywood conceiving, directing, and shooting advertising content for Fortune 500 companies and I learned a thing or two along the way. My mentee on this shoot, Steve, has established a good regional business for himself by creating solid content, including some challenging action work.
I’ve captured high-risk aerials, underwater shark interaction, epic medieval battles, and, of course, plenty of high-performance car-to-car content. The goal of this particular mentoring session/assignment was to help Steve explore automotive content generation and, perhaps, start him down the path towards attracting the attention of national and international clients.
The tools for this specialized task, car-to-car shooting, have constantly evolved. When I began photographing cars in motion, we used WWII surplus wing-mounted gun cameras, hired huge truck-mounted camera cranes, or built one-off speed-rail rigs capable of carrying 35mm movie cameras that could easily weigh-in at over fifty pounds.
In recent years, after the pendulum swung towards small action-cams with a tiny footprint but marginal image quality, the hybrid stills/cine mirrorless cameras finally arrived. Since Steve already owned a compact handheld gimbal and a proper camera, I thought it would be fun to see what we could create by blending my camera-rigging knowledge – and precision driving experience – with his mastery of the gimbal and his Canon EOS R5.
Steve also uses a Canon Cine EOS C70 so everything we learned while using the R5 to capture stills would naturally apply to his cinema projects. High resolution stills, HD, 4K, or 8K; it’s all easy-peasy with the right approach.
Our camera car was my friend Eli’s fast 427 Cobra and our picture car was my slightly furious Mazda MX-5. Fleeting magic hour lighting and traffic control considerations, along with a desire to be able to gather both front and rear angles of the picture car in a rapid manner, meant that I had to design and fabricate a simple and quickly convertible camera platform.
Once we arrived at our pre-scouted location we rigged our camera-and-gimbal combo for a ¾-front angle of the Mazda, selected an appropriate lens – the Canon EF 16-35mm F/4L IS in this case – and tested all gimbal and camera functions. Eli is a great driver and followed my instructions to the letter.
He positioned the Cobra in the leftmost of our available eastbound lanes and maintained an unflappable and blistering pace of 22 miles per hour. You heard me…22mph. Sure, we ran considerably faster on our first test pass, but the Cobra’s high-performance tires proved to be way too hard for even a glass-smooth roadway.
After a review of our shaky first attempts, the terrifyingly fast speed of 22mph proved perfect when combined with a shutter-speed low enough to blur the spinning wheels but high enough to freeze any remaining camera shake. With our camera set to optimal numbers, and Eli traveling a predictable rate of speed, I drove the mighty MX-5 into a variety of flattering positions.
Steve found that the stabilization feature of the gimbal wasn’t all that important but its capacity to pan and tilt and recompose on-the-fly proved to be very helpful. Thanks to clear remote viewing – and excellent Canon autofocus – our percentage of “keepers” was very high.
That said, if a gimbal was financially unattainable, our real-world experience indicated that a small ball-head could be a viable low-cost camera platform – as long as the vehicle speeds were kept low, and the tires were…fluffier!
Once we had captured a bunch of good-looking front views of the MX-5, we returned to our basecamp and re-rigged the Cobra for some sweet rear three quarters views of my little red-hot rod. With the sun above the horizon, and the light-levels mostly stabilized, our camera settings remained remarkably consistent.
Once we were satisfied that we had numerous good angles, we wrapped, de-rigged, and safely drove home. Even low speed, low risk situations can have pitfalls – the picture car could launch a rock into the lens, for example – so we ALWAYS strive to minimize risk by quitting while we’re ahead. Common sense and good choices have always paid off for me but YMMV so safety first!
Like most people these days, I shoot in RAW. I process my RAWs in Canon’s DPP (Digital Photo Pro) software and output to an 8 or 16-bit TIFF. I usually go for a fairly flat-looking TIFF, so I have a lot of tonal range. Once I’m in Photoshop I tend to “season to taste” using layers. A bit of clarity, some work with curves…whatever the file tells me it needs. I never follow a formula.
On this occasion we were not blessed with our famous Arizona skies, so a bit of sky replacement was in order.
Energetic content with an epic feel! And for my hard-working mentee, Steve, a peek into how the creation of one-off rigs and the repurposing of on-hand photo gear can result in sizzling content and, maybe – hopefully – many exciting new career opportunities.
Remember to respect your photographic heroes but never replicate their work. Start with your own interesting idea and turn it into a fascinating reality.
Final front view
Focal Length: 16mm
Shutter Speed: 1/400th
Final Back View
Focal length: 16mm
Shutter Speed: 1/1300th
About Bruce Dorn
Bruce Dorn is a professional photographer, filmmaker, writer, and adventurer. A member of the Directors Guild of America, Bruce Dorn has won the Kodak Innovators Award, Gold Medals from the Mobius Awards, the New York, London, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas Art Directors’ Clubs, the Clio Awards, the New York Film Festival, and a Cannes Lion. His client list is a “Who’s Who” of Fortune 500 companies.
A sponsored educator in the photographic and filmmaking industry, Bruce is a Canon Explorer of Light, a Western Digital Creative Master, a Tiffen Steadicam Pro, a SanDisk Extreme Pro, an ARRI Ambassador, a Light & Motion Ambassador, and a Westcott Top Pro Elite.