Sometimes not having a whole lot of free time can be a good thing.
In the case of photographing drummer and composer Ian McColm, we ended up doing three different photoshoots over the course of about two months. My schedule is fairly crazy at times and, combined with Ian’s, we rarely had a chance to meet for much more than an hour at a time. Keep in mind that it’s not just time needed for shooting photos, but also for doing a somewhat extensive interview.
So how does this end up being a good thing? Well, for me, I was able to let some ideas kind of percolate in the back of my head. Instead of doing one big photoshoot and cramming in some different looks, I was able to plan ahead and think about things like environment, background, and lighting schemes (schemes… muahahahaha).
We live about two blocks away from one another so getting together to try out some different locations around Old Town Alexandria worked out pretty well. The black and white photograph was taken in my basement while interviewing him. Both the alley photo and the warehouse exterior photo were taken within a few blocks of our homes, and the drum photo was taken in Ian’s basement. I thought I’d go ahead and break down the thought process and procedure for each photo.
The above photo was pretty off-the-cuff. Like I mentioned, I was interviewing Ian and decided to try some shots in my basement. I only have the one clean wall in the basement so I positioned him on a stool about three feet in front of it. I had just built a DIY softbox (made from a diaper box) that I was just itching to try out. It’s not huge but, used in close, it is much softer than a bare flash. I also wanted more control than an umbrella which is why I built the softbox. In this way, I’m able to keep a lot of the light from spilling onto the back wall. I lined the inside with aluminum foil for efficiency and eventually covered the opening with tracing paper for diffusion. However, in this photo I had not yet gotten around to covering the opening to the box so I just shot without it. It gave a fairly soft, yet still edgy light that I was able to control fairly well. It was positioned a little shy of 90º to his left (camera right). I liked the way the right side of his face remained in shadow, yet was still separated from the background.
Finally, the photo was cropped in order to give a different composition. The original photo (seen at right) was fine, but I liked the intensity of his expression and I wanted to emphasize that. I’ll take better composition over more megapixels any day. You’ll also notice I originally shot in color and then converted to black and white. Speaking of expression though, I have been getting better with attempting to work with my subjects. I have been finding that often it’s best to engage the subject and have them just talk. Then I look for little moments in between sentences. This helps everything to feel more natural and less posed. I’m not sure if it is always the best approach but I found that it worked well with Ian.
The next two photos were taken in another session about three weeks later. After the first interview and photoshoot, I had been keeping my eyes open around town for good locations in which to photograph Ian. Ian grew up in Alexandria so I figured having some photos of him around town would be appropriate. In addition, there are all sorts of cool places around town that are just begging to be used as portrait locations.
The photo at left was taken in one of the many beautiful alleys that crisscross Old Town. Cobblestones, brick walls, old buildings. Because this was taken in the shade I was able to drop the ambient exposure a good bit in order to get a dramatic look with the lighting. I was using a snooted, 1/4 CTO gelled speedlight from upper camera left. The snoot restricts the beam of light so that it falls off below Ian’s waist, keeping the attention on his face and tattoos.
This next photo was taken with the same lighting concept in mind: drop the ambient down and use a snooted speedlight to highlight the subject. Again, notice the light falloff. I also used the side of the warehouse- out of focus- to lead the viewer’s eye towards Ian. Cliché? Maybe, but I liked the color and texture of the wall, so I wanted to include it as a visual element.
Due to our schedules, the last photo in this set was taken over a month later from the two above. After conducting one of the interview segments in Ian’s basement practice room, I kept thinking about making a photo of him down there behind his drum set. It’s a cool little space with some built-in bookshelves and Ian has a unique floor lamp down there. I knew I wanted to include all of those elements in the photo.
I was definitely thinking wide for this shot. 18mm with my 18-70 is a conservative wide angle (at 27mm full-frame equivalent), but I was hoping my Tokina 11-16mm lens would be on the money. I wasn’t wrong. I got in that space and immediately tried the Tokina at its widest (16mm full-frame equiv). With Ian positioned right in the middle, it minimized the distortion on him and amped the distortion on the cymbals and the angles of the room. Awesome.
The photo I eventually picked for the article is shown above, and the lighting was a complete accident.
Okay, maybe not a complete accident but I definitely got lucky with one main element of it. The non-accidental parts first:
1. The only real ambient light element of this photo is the floor lamp. I exposed for the light inside of the lamp, letting the highlight of the bulb itself blow out. This allows for a nice rich color inside the lamp, as well as some highlights on the cymbals directly beneath it (a little bled onto the wall directly behind it as well). Another important thing to keep in mind is that I kept my camera’s white balance on daylight and let the color of the tungsten lightbulb show as orange.
2. The rest of the light in the room is all flash. For a fill light, I bounced a CTB gelled speedlight off of the ceiling, and adjusted its power until it was underexposed to taste. Why the blue color for fill? I wanted the shadows to remain cool in color, and with the color palette I had in mind, I thought it would be more interesting to mix blue with the orange and red.
3. The key light is a gridded speedlight above and to camera right. The grid is important because it provides a very tight, controlled beam of light that I can aim. In this case, it draws attention to Ian’s face and part of his upper body but then falls off smoothly. The great thing about a grid is that smooth falloff even though it’s still a hard light source (being on a small speedlight at several feet away). The other nice thing about this particular grid (DIY corrugated cardboard) is that the cardboard warms up the light just a tad, keeping it from looking pure white. I think a pure white key light would have looked out of place in this shot, due to the other colors that I was dealing with. Looking at it now, I could have warmed it up even more in order to better coordinate with the tungsten lamp. It almost could look like the key light was coming from the lamp. That would have been cool. Ah well.
So the accidental part was the red light. I was experimenting with this third speedlight (snooted and gelled red), trying to create a rim light on the camera left side of Ian’s face, but I couldn’t get a good position for the light. Every placement of the speedlight made it visible in the photo.
Second try: place the speedlight on the floor off to camera left and aim it up at the drum set. This created the circular shadows on the wall that you can see in the photo I chose, but when I was taking the photos I didn’t like the look. Of course, I was only going on what I could see from what I could see on the back of the camera.
Third try: with the speedlight still on the floor as in the try before, aim it towards the bookshelves. This is the look that I remember liking the best when taking the photos. I don’t think it’s bad, but the red off to the left detracts a bit from the main focus, and the blank wall in the upper center and left of the frame look a bit dull to me (not that negative space is a bad thing). Once I uploaded the photos to my computer and began sorting through them, I was surprised to see that I liked the cymbal shadows on the wall. I also really liked the red highlights that showed up on the drums and the undersides of the cymbals.
Lesson learned: keep everything you shoot and keep an open mind. You never know when a mistake will end up being “the shot”.
And let ideas float around in your mind for a while. In the case of the last photo that’s exactly what happened. I didn’t plan on having two months between the first photo I shot of Ian and the last, but it was helpful to have that time to think about how I would want to photograph him. Think about the location, composition, and the light. Think about logistical issues and interacting with your subject. Then show up and shoot. Let things flow and, perhaps most important, don’t be afraid to deviate from your original plans.