On Location in NYC with Gregor Halenda

Behind-The-Scenes Film: Three Days On Location with Commercial Photographer Gregor Halenda

Ever witness a photographer laying in the back of a flatbed truck, holding a $30,000 Hasselblad just inches from the pavement while photographing a motorcycle rider doing wheelies at 70MPH? Meet Gregor Halenda.

Last April I drove down to New York City to meet up with Gregor Halenda and his team. The goal - to create a compelling behind-the-scenes film that would show prospective clients what it's like to work with and be on-location with Gregor Halenda. In the weeks leading up to the shoot I was pretty nervous about whether or not I would be able to create something that would live up to caliber of work that Gregor expects for himself. Look at this portfolio and it's clear that he is a perfectionist. His attention to detail is what separates great photographers from good photographers. I had to keep reminding myself that I was hired based on previous work that I had produced. Of course I also know that what I've created in the past has no bearings on future endeavors. Back to being nervous.

Despite my nerves I knew that I had the ability. I knew my gear inside and out, had it all packed and ready to go, and just started driving. When I got to NY my first stop was to meet up with Gregor and his crew for an afternoon shoot in a parking lot along the NY waterfront. After introducing myself and meeting the crew for a few minutes I headed back to my car to grab my gear. Just like with editing, the hardest decisions are usually the first ones. In this case, it was trying to decide which gear to start with.

Not knowing much about how Gregor would be shooting this first set-up made it extremely difficult -- but ultimately I went with the 5D Mark II on the Steadicam. I figured that this setup would keep me mobile and ready for almost anything. Then once I felt a bit more comfortable with what was going on I could then change to whatever I needed at the time.

Ultimately it was the right decision as the Steadicam allowed me to be fluid and to move in and around Gregor without getting in his way. If I needed to be still, the Steadicam allowed me to be almost tripod-steady, yet when I wanted to add movement to a scene the Steadicam made sure the moves were smooth and clean.

This was a 3-day shoot for Scorpion Helmets and Gregor, along with the producer, had the entire shoot mapped out. Locations included parks, bridges, and Time Square. What made this shoot so interesting was that many of the shots were done in motion - some at 70MPH.

Once the afternoon shoot wrapped up I went to pick my second shooter, Max Esposito, at the train station. After catching up with everyone for a quick bite we headed back to check-in to the hotel. It was now about 9:30 p.m. and our next call time was around 2:00 a.m. Max tried to get a little sleep (very little), while I was busy re-charging batteries, backing up memory cards, and shooting a time-lapse out the window of the hotel. I got about 20 minutes of sleep before the alarm went off for the next shoot - our first full day of shooting.

This first day started off with Gregor preparing to shoot the motorcycle rider (wearing Scorpion helmets of course) as he drove through Times-Square. I was told that because we were shooting in Times Square we should be as low-key as possible. Because of this, and the fact that I didn't know in advance that we'd be moving, I opted to leave the Steadicam in the room. BIG MISTAKE. The shoot ultimately required that I follow behind Gregor's pickup truck and the bike in order to capture the action. The roads around Times Square are bumpy and trying to hold a telephoto lens steady while the car is getting tossed around is impossible. We made about 6 or 7 passes through Times-Square, which gave me the opportunity to learn the road. I then chose to record during small stretches of road that were smoother - or as we approached or pulled away from a stop sign or light. We shot out the sunroof of my Minicooper (talk about cramped quarters) and experimented using a jacket as a camera cushion as well as shooting free hand to use our arms as a make shift stabilizer. After capturing a few usable snippets with a zoom lens we switched to a 20mm wide, since a wide lens helps to hide the effects of camera shake. What I learned from this portion of the shoot is how important it is to be able to adapt to a situation - and to NEVER leave the Steadicam behind.

Once we finished with the driving portion of the shoot we pulled over to the curb to get some static shots of the riders wearing the Helmets. The lights from Times-Square made for an awesome backdrop and a great end to the first morning of shooting.

The next shoot had a call time of 2:00 p.m. This time we headed to Queensboro Park, below the Queensboro bridge. The space was tight, but the backdrop was beautiful - especially as the afternoon turned to dusk. Since this was a static setup I was free to use more of my gear in order to mix up the feel of the shots. I used a slider, the Glidetrack Shooter SD, to capture bike shots and reveal shots; the Steadicam to follow along with the rider as he drove toward the photographer, and quite a few shots locked down on a tripod as I filmed the rider in motion. I also set up my backup camera, the Canon 7D, to capture a time-lapse of the sunset. Once the shoot in the park was over we grabbed some dinner and prepared for another early morning call time (2:30 a.m.) while trying to get a few hours of sleep.

The next morning's shoot took place ON the Queensboro bridge. Shooting in the early hours allowed Gregor to capture the rider using just his strobe and then eventually with the morning light behind the rider. Gregor arranged to have a police escort to hold back traffic each time we made a pass across the bridge. This time around I had my Steadicam in hand and was ready for the shoot, although I was concerned about using a Steadicam with this much wind. How was I going to keep this thing from becoming a useless pendulum when moving at 70MPH? I quickly found the answer. I opted to ride kneeling in the backseat of the pickup truck with my arms extended out the rear cab window. The cab acted as a shield, allowing me to have very good control over the Steadicam, and to capture Gregor and the Motorcycle.

During one pass I mounted my GoPro to the motorcycle and was able to capture about 2 seconds of footage before the rider pulled back into a wheelie. The rider rode the rest of the way on his rear wheel, forcing the GoPro to record the sky and top of the bridge. On another pass I mounted an HD camcorder to the side of the pickup truck in order to get a clean view of the bike, and yet on another pass I rode shotgun in the Minicooper in order to capture a wide shot of Gregor and the bike as they drove down the bridge. By capturing a variety of angles and focal lengths I had much more to choose from in post.

The last portion of this 3-day shoot had to be revised on the spot, when one of the locations they had a permit to shoot at, changed their mind. This is where a great producer can save the day. In a matter of a couple of hours, they not only found a new shoot location, but also procured a yellow NY Taxi and got permission to drive the bike over it and basically use it or abuse it as needed. They even got the cab delivered to the location of the shoot, a junk yard along the water - with a Empire State Building serving as a distant backdrop.

This was another shoot where we had more time to be creative. Slider shots, Steadicam shots, GoPro shots, another cam inside the cab to capture the bike tire breaking the cab windshield, and a wide time-lapse of all the action. This part of the shoot involved a cab, tractors, dumpsters, and an overall gritty feel - exactly what shooting in NYC should feel like. Once the shoot was over Gregor gathered his team on top of the cab for a group photo and called it a wrap.

Here are a few things I learned over this three day shoot:

  • Gregor is not only a great photographer, but someone I deeply respect. He knows how to assemble a great team, has a very easy going personality, and is focused on creating the best images possible. When the last location had to changed, not once did I see Gregor sweat it out. He was calm and focused and never once showed the pressure that he might have been feeling.
  • Be Prepared. This shoot would have been a big bust for me if I wasn't so comfortable with my gear. Don't take on any professional gigs, until you know your gear inside and out. Get out and shoot with your gear - it's part of the job. Spring training, if you will. No matter how much you read and learn, you never really know for sure until you can experience it for yourself.
  • Practice. If it weren't for my experience with the Steadicam Merlin I never would have captured usable footage for parts of this shoot. The Merlin is small enough to be used in a car or, as I soon learned, out the back of a flatbed truck. At times I kneeled on the back seat and kept my arms and Steadicam out the rear window, while at other times I was out on the bed, trying to film while not tripping over generators, cords, or the photographer and grip.
  • Get inspired before each shoot. I do this with weddings and I do this with commercial shoots. Go online, watch other peoples work, and get inspired. Finding Inspiration is not only about watching great work from others, it's also about recognizing the junk that some others have done (and got paid for it).
  • Bring all your gear. Yes, traveling light is important but so isn't having the right tools accessible when needed. Plus, having your gear with you, doesn't mean it has to be ON you. It can stay in the trunk, just as long as its accessible for when situations or needs change.
  • I can do it. I think we all question our own abilities at one time or another and being nervous about doing a great job is normal. If I ever get to the point where I am no longer concerned about doing a great job, it's probably time for me to move on and do something else.
  • Love what you do. All I can say is that when you love what you do, it won't matter if you work for three days with no sleep. There were about 12-15 of us on this shoot and not once did I hear anyone complain about the lack of sleep. I was invigorated and couldn't wait to see what the next setup would bring in the way of shots and challenges. I was ready for them. "Bring your body and the mind will follow" is a saying that comes to mind.
While this wasn't my first commercial shoot, it was the first commercial shoot that fit the definition of "my dream job." Everything about this shoot challenged me as a filmmaker and I loved it. I am also proud of the finished product. To me, it feels as raw and gritty as it felt when shooting it, and hopefully gives you insight to the level of work that Gregor Halenda produces and the lengths he'll go to get the image.

Gear Used

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • Canon EOS 7D
  • GoPro Motorsports HD Hero (Bike and Taxi Shots)
  • Canon HG10 Camcorder (Inside Taxi)
  • Canon 24-105mm F/4L IS Lens
  • Canon 70-200mm F/2.8L IS Lens
  • Canon 50mm F/1.8 II Lens
  • Sigma 20mm F/1.8
  • Steadicam Merlin
  • Glidetrack Shooter SD
  • Panavise Suction Cup Mount
  • Manfrotto 501HDV with Velbon CF Tripod
  • Bogen Aluminum Tripod with Fluid Head
  • Velbon Aluminum Monopod
  • SanDisk, Lexar, Kingston, and Transcend Memory Cards

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