Cheng Han is the type of person who once he gets something into his head, he won’t let it go until it becomes real, at least when it comes to photography. And the funny thing is, up until not that long ago, photography for Cheng Han was merely a function of recording domestic life.
A visit to his website reveals an artist who is serious about the visual quality of his end products. His environmental studio and location portraits simply cannot be glossed over – each of his multifaceted images requires a careful once over… maybe two.
Putting the geek and emotional sides together is the gist of Cheng Han’s photographic personality. “I’m basically a geek and the geek side of me likes puzzles. The creative side of me really enjoys producing surreal images that generate emotional responses… at least on my part, and I hope on the part of others who look at my pictures.”
Cheng is fascinated in creating technically challenging photographs, but when he decided to take his photographic odyssey underwater, he had no idea what he was getting into. (According to Cheng, his notebook contains over 200 production notes.)
Right off he knew he wanted to include swaths of fabrics entwined around and/or about his models. eBay turned into a good source of fabric samples, not to mention lighting manufacturers he called on to see how their diffusion materials and backdrops would hold up underwater. He then had to see which of these fabrics were color-fast because the last thing he wanted was to tie-dye somebody’s swimming pool. (His first attempt with a red surplus parachute almost resulted in a nasty red stain along the lining of the pool ,which fortunately dissipated before Cheng had to drain clean, and refill the pool.)
Cheng Han’s goal was to create environmental portraits complete with models, make-up, costumes, backgrounds, and lights just as he would in a studio… but all partially or entirely underwater, utilizing the unique ethereal effect of weightlessness underwater in ways that cannot be replicated on land.
Cheng readily acknowledges outside influences. ‘Together’, an image of a woman wrapped in swirling silky material while floating embryo-like in a blue void of fabric and water was inspired by a scene in the movie ‘Gravity’, when Sandra Bullock enters an abandoned spacecraft and momentarily floats curled up as if she was in the womb.
In a bid for camaraderie, Cheng goes below the surface with the models in all of the underwater pictures. “It wasn’t easy for anyone – take a breath, go underwater, get into position, avoid hitting the lights, pose, open eyes, focus, shoot, and resurface – all while not breathing.”
The camera and lighting part of the equation is equally challenging, the biggest problem being wireless communication between electronic flash systems positioned both below and above the waterline.
“There’s a lot of information available about underwater flash for photographing sea life and wireless flash on land, but there’s not much information about syncing studio flash above water with underwater flash simultaneously. And then one day Jean Bruneau, the tech advisor for Aquatica, suggested I look into PocketWizards”.
In conventional underwater photography, the Ikelite underwater flash units would be hardwired to his camera’s Ikelite underwater camera housing and mounted in a series of cumbersome & heavy arms. The challenge was triggering the Elinchrom Quadra flash units that were poised above water along the flanks of the pool. Standard optical and radio remote procedures proved erratic if they worked at all.
Cheng’s solution was to run a hard-wired sync cord from his camera’s Ikolite flash housing up above the waterline where it was coupled to a PocketWizard Plus III Transceiver. Each Ikelite underwater flash and one of the Quadras were also individually connected to PocketWizard tranceivers via sync cords also above the waterline. The signal from the camera’s transceiver could then trigger all the lighting simultaneously. Any additional Quadras were triggered optically.
In most of the images the Elinchroms are the main lights and the underwater Ikolite flash units, which are often gelled for atmospheric effects, are for fill. In other cases, the Ikolites are the main light source and the Elinchroms are used for fill. The setup Cheng used allowed total freedom to position lighting with the same freedom you would have in a conventional studio.
Currently Cheng is trying to further push his boundaries by attempting to construct even more complex sets for use underwater with the goal of making the underwater aspect of the photographs secondary to the look and flavor of his photographs.
And a box of donuts says PocketWizard Plus III Transceivers will be an integral part of his lighting system.
To learn more about Cheng Han’s work, visit his website.
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