How it Was Shot: Luke Brandon Artist Profile

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Nikon D200, 50mm f/1.8 AF, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/250sec

I love doing these HIWS segments. Actually, I could care less if anyone even reads them (just kidding, I check my visitor and view stats, like, all the time). But really, writing these posts helps me to analyze and learn from my work. In my different experiences with teaching I’ve always felt like I end up learning more about the subject by having to teach it. I’m not technically teaching here, but organizing my thoughts and attempting to clearly present them has a similar effect.

Thinking about photographing people has really changed the way I view my day-to-day environment. I find myself constantly looking for interesting backdrops and scenes where I might be able to do my next photo shoot. I try to think about who might look good where, and what vibe each location might offer. Of course, you can alter the vibe with lights, gels, depth of field, perspective changes, angle of view, and so on, but locations tend to have their own unique essence regardless.

In the case of photographing jazz musicians, it seems that almost any location I discover has potential. The key is thinking about whom I am going to photograph and how they might appear in the environment. Will the space make sense with their personality or sense of style? Will they seem out of place? Of course whether or not I get these questions right is part of the learning process.

In the case of Luke (check out his artist profile here), I found two locations within a few blocks of my house that I had been thinking about using for a while. One is an old train tunnel that forms part of the Mount Vernon Trail and the other is a section of Jones Point Park underneath the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Both locations are public which makes for easy access, but can also present problems. The biggest problem is foot traffic, especially in the case of the tunnel. The tunnel is a fairly high-traffic area especially during the morning and evening rush as bikers and walkers are constantly moving through. It’s also very narrow so there’s really no moving out of the way. The best option was avoiding those times. It was also pretty cold out so that helped to keep the pedestrian traffic to a minimum. As it was, we encountered about five people in the tunnel and it was easy enough to stop shooting for a few moments and let them pass. The bridge was an easier situation because it’s a huge space and we were able to use a rarely-used parking lot for the photos.

I thought these locations worked really well for Luke’s shots because he’s young and energetic, and so the edgier vibe seemed appropriate. I’ll get into more detail about how the settings affected the shoot a little later.

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Nikon D200, 50mm f/1.8 AF, ISO 100, f/2.5, 1/30sec

My lighting setup for all of the tunnel shots was about the same. I would have liked to do more, but it was wicked cold so we were trying to be quick! For the key light, I used a bare SB-24 (triggered by a PocketWizard Plus X) aimed directly at the stone wall to Luke’s left. The stone is grayish so it doesn’t reflect light as efficiently as white, but it’s still pretty darn good and it creates a fairly soft light source. Because it’s more or less gray it doesn’t create too much of a color cast, so that’s a bonus as well.

About 45 degrees behind and to the right of Luke is an SB-26 (optically slaved) with a CTB gel. I can’t remember the exact power levels but I believe I was going for about a stop and change less on the rim light. Throughout the shoot, I experimented with having Luke angle his body and head in different ways in order to best exploit the light and shadows. I also remember tinkering quite a bit with the location of the rim light. I did have to contend with a bit of flare from that light, and the cold was working on my fingers (and my brain cells) so I didn’t get out the gobo that I actually had in my bag. Oops.

One other issue had to do with firing the SB-26. Because I was using the key light to fire it, sometimes the position of Luke’s body would block the light and keep the flash from firing. In the end, I ended up sticking another PocketWizard on it.

As you can see in the photo info from each of the tunnel shots, I was playing around with some different looks by altering the depth of field (aperture) and ambient light (shutter speed). Another factor was Luke’s distance to the key light (stone wall). This allowed me to get some differing amounts of softness from that light. Then I’d just adjust my aperture or ISO a bit in order to keep the light level from the wall the same on his face. Occasionally I’d run back and adjust the distance or power of the rim light as well. It’s really amazing how much control you have over each aspect of the light, and it can be overwhelming when you’re trying to rush through the shoot before your subject’s face turns the color of a fire truck and his extremities become frostbitten. Not to mention the photographer’s extremities. Brr.

Now, onto the bridge shots. There are some cool arches underneath the bridge that I wanted to use as framing elements. So we hopped in Luke’s car and headed over. It’s only 5 blocks away but we were trying to warm up. We’re not lazy.

Looking back on the photos, I would have liked to shoot at this location later in the day. We got there around 3:45 pm or so and the ambient light outside of the overpass was still a bit high for my taste. I tried to crop it out most of the time when framing the shots and, in the shots where I didn’t, I had to selectively drop the exposure and highlights down in post. The light underneath the overpass (where we actually shot) was plenty dark and easily enough manipulated with shutter speed.

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Nikon D200, 18-70mm AF-S @ 70mm, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/250sec

This was my favorite photo from the set of shots under the bridge, although I wish I had centered him a bit better under the arches. I easily could have moved to my right just a tad; another “oh well” moment. Live and learn!

This is a one-light setup with the ambient acting as fill. Again, the key light is a PW-triggered SB-24 with a 1/4 CTO gel and a homemade cardboard snoot. The snoot (and some trial-and-error aiming techniques) helps draw attention to Luke’s face and upper torso, but then it quickly falls off. I was at my max sync speed (1/250sec) in order to keep the ambient fairly dark. If I had wanted it even darker, I could have dropped my ISO to 100 or stopped down to f/8 and powered my flash up a stop. I believe I was at 1/4 power on the flash and so had a little wiggle room.

The 1/4 CTO adds a touch of warmth to the key light, while the daylight-balanced camera allows the shaded area to take on a bluish cast. I really like experimenting with different colors of light and am also trying to visualize everyday light better. To paraphrase Gregory Heisler (take a look around his site, wow…), there are two approaches to lighting: you can mimic everyday light or you can light for lighting’s sake (in other words, it just looks cool). I like both approaches and can’t wait to keep experimenting and learning.

On a related note, this post on David Hobby’s blog is very inspiring in regards to thinking about natural light. It actually motivated me to start carrying my camera around with me again. I got away from it a bit, but I decided to keep it light and easy and am just doing it with the little 50mm 1.8 lens. That lens is great to begin with, but it’s also small and light. Furthermore, it forces me to think about composition and not rely on a zoom lens.

Besides the light, the other thing I like about that photograph is the perspective. It was shot with the camera practically resting on the ground (and me laying on the pavement). I expected Luke’s head to appear smaller because of having to tilt the camera up a bit, but I think my working distance (@ 70mm) helped. If I was closer it would have been much worse. Think of the distortion that occurs when photographing a tall building from up close. That being said, I have my eyes set on a lovely used tilt-shift macro lens. Sigh… some day.

All in all it was a fun shoot (as most occasions with Luke are) and we warmed up afterwards with some excellent coffee over at Buzz. If you haven’t been, they recently started serving Ceremony coffee. Mmm. But that’s the topic of another post, for another blog.

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