Call it an exercise in restraint. For this session right here for newly engaged lovebirds Neil and Mia, I had to go back to basics. That meant no fancy clothes—just a plain black button-front shirt and a pair of dark blue jeans for him, and a simple black skater dress for her. And no fussy accessories, either—just a year-round sports watch and a workaday black belt for him, and hand-me-down necklaces and bangles and earrings for her (from her mom and sisters). We also weren’t going to be transported to some fantastical, out-of-the-way location—the whole thing was to take place on the front yard of a friend’s apartment, which happened to be just a stone’s throw away from mine; and because I did not own one of those swanky studio background equipments (not even a simple muslin backdrop), we used a makeshift backdrop made out of flour sack linen suspended from a high clothesline. And none of the monumental, impossible props that you know me for, too—just an inelegant bunch of baby’s breath (at Mia’s request, because that’s her favorite flower, and she wanted something to hint at the décor scheme of the wedding to come) and, of course, the engagement ring; Jenny, our props master friend, was on site, but her only tasks were to suspend the backdrop and to hold the reflector. Speaking of reflectors, there was no fancy lighting equipment/setup, either—just natural afternoon light, augmented by that ever reliable collapsible reflective surface in Jenny’s hands. No need to switch lenses, too—just the 50mm f/1.8 all the way. Lastly, and perhaps more shockingly, we had to mood board, too—no references or tear sheets to guide us, no pretold story frames to sample!
It was pretty nerve-racking for me having to walk into this shoot; our shooting location may have only been a mere 30 steps away from my apartment, but that walk turned out to be one of the longest ones I’d ever taken. Usually, when I’m en route to an assignment, and I know all the things I love are waiting there for me—high-wattage styling, heavy-duty props, drop-dead location—I’m like a ball of fire, and I can’t wait for the shoot to start. This time, I was practically dragging myself, desperate for a reason to delay the whole thing (the only thing that propelled me through this halfheartedness was the thought of Jenny preparing avocado egg rolls for snacks). I guess that’s what happens when you’re used to the pomp and circumstance, to the excessively complicated: you’re given a simple plan and then—swish!—it twists your stomach into knots. If I were to liken it to a, um, life situation, I’d say it’s kind of like moving out of your parents’ house where everything is handed to you on a silver platter, and then moving into a place of your own where you have to fend for yourself—sure, you’ll get used to it in the long run, but taking that first step is always scary! Don’t get me wrong, though: departures from my creative process are not uncommon, and I welcome the occasional variance in execution. But where it’s one thing to take out one element from the equation (like, say, the location element), stripping me off of everything is a different story altogether! To make matters worse, couple of dark clouds were beginning to hover over us as we were getting ready to start, as if to remind me this wasn’t going to be a shining moment for me! But the job had to be done; there was no backing down now.
Happy to report, though, that I survived that day and came through that risky (for me!) business unscathed! Not to say I did an absolutely immaculate job, though. Couple of missteps here and there—like not draping the backdrop properly so as to minimize the appearance of creases (assuming it could be “fixed later” with Photoshop), or moving around too much even though I didn’t exactly have enough room and wasn’t on wide-angle, or using the gold side of the reflector vs. the silver or white surface (orange skin!), or showing up without an extra SD card (assuming one was going to be enough)—but nothing too drastic, so we’re fine. Kind of went over the allotted time, too (what I’d thought would only take two hours actually took four or five), but thank goodness Neil and Mia were patient with me—they knew this was something new to me, so they let me off the hook there. Pretty scary at the onset, yes, but once I got to the middle of it all I realized there was beauty in going back to basics, after all! One thing, because nothing else is in front of you but your subjects, you get to pay attention to them more—like, do their poses look natural and spontaneous, or do they look awkward? or, how is the light hitting them? or, should I move them around to cast out unwanted shadows? It was amazing for me to finally be able to consciously think of these things. In heavily-styled sittings, you see, I tend to put more focus on the clothes and/or the props, and that leaves me with very little time (or energy) to zero in on the subjects’ placements/level of comfort, or on the direction of the light. Not having a lot of elaborate equipment can be pretty awesome, too, ‘cause then there’s very little to distract you from the most essential equipment of all—i.e., your camera—and so you actually have the time and the free hand to explore and experiment with the features that come with it that you’re used to overlooking or putting off for later! In the case of this shoot right here, I decided it was time to give double/multiple exposure a shot. It just hit me, you know: I had a plain, (almost) white background that was easy to “blow out,” so I figured I should just take advantage of that and take a stab at the double/multiple exposure thing. Largely trial and error, and the resulting photos aren’t perfect (I’ve posted some of them on here, so you all can take a look for yourselves), but they don’t look too sloppy, either, so I can live with that. At least now I know what keys to press to maneuver to that feature quickly, and how to expose the base images correctly (it’s in composing and finding the right mix for the overlay image that’s the tricky part!). It also felt good to finally be able inject something from my Dad’s legacy into my own work—yes, my Dad was a photographer back in the day, and doing double/multiple exposure portraits of us was his favorite thing in the world to do.
So, you see, there’s something to be said for scuttling out of your comfort zone, after all! It gives you a creative clean slate to work with. It makes you uncover things/skills you didn’t know you had, or rediscover stuff at your disposal that you’re used to letting fall between the cracks. How has it taken me this long to figure that out? Should’ve taken a cue from the singer-songwriter/producer Cattski Espina when we were working on the photos for her solo album 0:00:00 some two years back, and she told me the story of how this new release of hers was inspired by “nothingness,” and how this allowed for a very “prolific exploration” because there was nothing there—no old music to sample, no old formulas to stick to, etc.—to discompose her. Should’ve learned this lesson then!
As you might have already guessed, these photos that you see on here aren’t the couple’s final engagement photos. Well, some of them are probably gonna end up in the final selection, but what will ultimately make up the slideshow to be presented at the impending wedding ceremony are the photos from our second session. Yes, we would have a second session a week after this shoot, this time with me regaining all the “drama”—the styling, the props, the location—that this first session right here deprived me of! I mean, come on, you didn’t think I was gonna put all that behind me, did you, after just one taste of this back to basics business? Gonna take a lot to drag me away from my “trademark” creative process! As what they all say, “Old habits die hard!” I guess now is the time I’ve got to come clean: this first session right here was really just for “practice” purposes, as far as the fiancé is concerned—a bit camera shy, that guy, so we’d decided to do a preliminary sitting in order to prepare him for the main event. (It worked perfect for me, too, because then I got the chance to know him better, what his personality was like—until then, you see, all I’d ever talked to was Mia.) I am beyond excited to show you the photos from our second sitting, but I can’t publish them just yet, so you guys will have to bear with me a little bit—as soon as I get the green light from the couple, I will put them up on here right away! For now, just look at these photos and, if you will, let me know if this back to basics approach is a good look on me. Because now that I am aware of its benefits, I just might consider doing more of this thing every once in a while!
Jose Neil Sanchez and Mary Rose Bacolod | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Cebu City, Cebu, on August 4, 2013 | Hair and makeup by Raby Montecillo | Special thanks to Jennifer Hortillosa, Monique Rosal and Jaedon Gomez