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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Embrace Change

Sometimes it takes staying home to leave your comfort zone

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Krist’s lighting setup for his project.
While Peggy worked on contacting and scheduling potential subjects, I worked on my approach to the portraits. Since everyone was being photographed on the same backdrop, I couldn’t rely on including the usual storytelling background details of an environmental portrait, as I do in my travel work. To counter that, I thought it would be fun to include some kind of prop or action that indicated what the person did for a vocation (or an avocation).

The studio is a second-floor walkup, so there was no moving in a baby grand piano for our great cabaret artist, Bob Egan. Or bringing in the steam locomotive Old Number 40 for the shot of the trainmen from the New Hope & Ivyland Railroad. Or lugging up the 30-foot-long Durham boat that local historians use every Christmas to reenact Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware a few miles from here. So some imagination, not to mention a sense of humor, was needed for propping.

For my lighting, I took a page from master Penn’s book. It would be simple North light all the way. But I had to create it, since we didn’t have the right window placement. I’ve always loved the look of window light, or North light, as it’s also called, for portraits, and still had some large light modifiers in my basement left over from my days photographing executives and boards of directors.

So, out came my old 4x6-foot Photoflex softbox, my trusty Dynalite AC flash system and the big 4x6-foot Litepanels with both white and black fabrics (to act as fill cards or cutter cards as needed). In keeping with my career-long dedication to the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) principle, I’d go with the big box at about a 45º angle to the subject, a white fill panel on the opposite side and a black cutter panel to feather the light off the background right in front of the softbox (see diagram).

This setup worked for about 85% of the portraits. Occasionally, I needed an additional light on the backdrop for separation or no fill card on the shadow side. Once, to achieve an eerie-looking light for the lady in town who gives Ghost Tours (New Hope is apparently heavily haunted!) wearing a black hooded cloak, I put the box on the ground aimed up for some “ghoul lighting” and hid a small flash in the lantern she carries.

None of my subjects were media-savvy celebrities who regularly work with photographers. Nevertheless, they were amazing sources of ideas as we discussed the posing and propping possibilities for their sessions. Chatting and getting to know these folks, many of whom I had only ever seen in passing at a cocktail party or gallery opening, and watching how they came alive in front of my camera, was the most rewarding part of the assignment.

I kept the sessions short. I don’t think anybody was on the backdrop longer than half an hour. For some shots, like those involving jumping dancers or wheelie-popping bicyclists, the sessions were as short as six frames! We managed not to break any people or props (including a 350-pound brass statue), puncture any fencer’s skin with an épée or burn down the Arts Center with the huge flame of a sculptor’s blowtorch. Often, it was the first few shots that worked the best.


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