Friday, November 29, 2013

Portraits From Nothing, Sometimes Easy, Often Hard

When one of my magazine clients assigns me to create an environmental portrait, the first few minutes on location are the most nerve wracking for me. I’m thinking, I have to make somebody look great in this location.

I see blank walls, florescent lights and another drab conference room. I worry about how to set up my lights and compose my portrait in order to make something out of this nothing.

Geeze Louise, what am I going to do?

When I arrived to photograph Miami, FL, financial planner Linda Lubitz Boone for Sean Barrow at Rep. magazine, I began with the location below.

After working down my check list: 1) set medium softbox at left, and placed strip box at right for rim and hair light. 2) Color temperature on camera set to tungsten 3200 K, making window light blue. 3) Slow shutter speed exposed for outdoor light. 4) Gelled left strobe full color temperature orange,  and rim light full CTO + 1/2 CTO more.

In these moments I try to tell myself that pain and angst are part of the creative process, and I must work through this challenge by methodically coming up with a photographic solution. As I work through my mental check list, I travel from panic to confident :

- What’s the story I’m telling with this portrait? Is my subject powerful, so I want to shoot upward? Are they sympathetic, and I want soft lighting and a warm color palette?
- How can I use the environment to help the story? Do I want to show the developer looking over a grand city, or Is it a personality profile where location is not important?
- Will my art director run a large photograph so I can shoot wider, and do I need to shoot tight also for secondary use or table of contents? Horizontal, vertical, room for cover lines and copy?

- Will this space allow me to place my lights where I need to?
- How can I make limited lighting gear work here?
- And I check off the details: How long may I keep my subject in front of the camera? How long may I use this location? Will my cables and stands be in the way? May I turn the overhead lights off? Will my extension cords reach? When do the lawn sprinklers come on? Will the strobes mess with the fire alarms? Does my executive wear glasses? Does he have hair or is he bald?

Scouting locations at Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers, FL, I just had to photograph Rebekah Wells in the dramatic light streaming in the library windows, a rare gift. Shot for Bob Fernandez at the ABA Journal for a story on "revenge porn". A very interesting read, as is Ms. Wells' site Women Against Revenge Porn. 

Very simple lighting: 1) medium soft box on right is main light, no gells 2) strip light on left gelled full CTO 3) small beat up umbrella at lower right provides fill at 2 - 3 stops under, no gells 3) regular daylight shutter speed to expose for sky and clouds.

As the pieces come together and I fire off a few test frames to check on the back of my camera, my photograph begins to materialize from my imagination. By now I know that when my subject walks on set my environmental portrait will be a success.

Very important tip, nobody want’s to hear their dentist say “oops!”, so while your creative mind is panicking and stumbling, keep it inside and don’t let ‘em see you sweat.

I must admit, every once in a while I walk into a location and immediately see a terrific solution. Wonderful sunlight and shadows cascading through magnificent windows, or a grand interior with soaring architectural details. Or maybe just a prop will make my day, a model airplane or basketball, whoopee!

I accept these occasional gifts with grace and enjoy not having to torture myself on the way to making one more photographic portrait out of nothing.

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