Color study

June 28, 2013 

I've been trying to work color into my portraiture recently after being thoroughly wowed by these features on Greg Heisler's portrait of Alonzo Mourning and Martin Prihoda's shoot of Indian actress Priyanka Chopra.

Aside from not having the skill to pull of such spectacular images, my work at the Herald usually needs to be a little more straightforward, and while I do everything I can to push that convention, there are only certain stories in which throwing some funky colors around even makes sense.

I tried it on a whim back in 2009, when I had to lug the studio lights on location, punching up a portrait of music group Bluzette with some nightclub-esque lighting during a midday shoot at one of the musician's house:

There are some unfortunate reflections in the window, which I probably shouldn't have included in the composition anyway, but it was an otherwise solid effort by a much less experienced me.

Earlier this year, I photographed Richland author Maureen McQuerry after her novel won a national award.

Photographing in an office space can be tricky and I started by blowing out the window just enough to light up those window sill flowers:

It needed something else, though, and since her book, The Peculiars, features fantasy and steampunk elements, I stuck a gelled light behind her computer to add a green glow that matched her top. Here's a snap of the setup,

and here's the final image:

It's a pretty subtle effect and I think it works OK. It won't knock any socks off, but it's certainly better than a lot of office portraits I've done in the past. With that minor success in mind, I wanted a chance to expand off that, but didn't have any assignments in which the technique made any sense.

Then, a couple weeks ago, I photographed Ellie Heiden and Jalen DeVine for the Herald's athletes of the year. It was way too windy, so I stuck with the studio. I wanted something simple, with some dramatic lighting and came up with this setup:

I added gels to the fill lights on the right to try and give the shadows a hint of their school colors. It didn't quite work like I had hoped and I doubt anybody noticed the extremely subtle effect, which you can barely see on Jalen's face:

Even worse, I was so concerned with futzing around with that lighting idea that I didn't do a good job of working with them for a better expression and connection with the viewer.

Just over a week later, I got a call from the lobby while working at my desk.

"Brittany is here to have her photo taken. She said she's an hour early."

Uh, what?

I looked at the photo schedule and saw that Photo Editor Bob Brawdy was supposed to shoot a portrait of the outgoing Wishing Star Foundation president an hour later. He was in the daily news meeting, though, and when I popped in to let me know about her early arrival, he told me she had a meaningful tattoo on her wrist that was prominently featured in the story.

I had met Brittany Bergsson a couple Christmases ago during a Wishing Star trip to Enecia Campos' home after the little leukemia survivor's family was burgled before the holiday.

But aside from knowing who she is, I had no idea what to do. I saw her "Hero" tattoo and came up with a simple pose and lighting to highlight it:

While trying to figure out how to liven it up a little, I decided to play off the "star" part of wishing star to splash a little color in. I grabbed my lights, gelled them and pointed them back at me:

The light stands are too close, though and catch enough of the light that's meant for Brittany. I moved her about as far as our studio allowed, rotated her a bit to minimize the armpit factor and ended up with this:

The extra distance allowed enough light to fall off, hiding the light stands, but I'm not too happy with the portrait. Despite all my messing around with the colored light placement, they still don't fill up the frame quite right. I also wish I would have zoomed the actual flashes out more to give a bigger burst and stuck some gaff tape on the flash heads to make them rounder and less rectangular.

True, the shoot was on as short of notice as possible, and it's slightly better than the straightforward portrait. But the real lesson I should be taking from the two features I mentioned at the top is that I need to do more preparation. So much of photojournalism is learned on the job, but fussing around with techniques I don't have a good grasp of on assignment is not a good idea. A poorly lit portrait with a great connection between subject and viewer is still better than a well-lit photo of a disengaged person. Messing around with unrefined skills is a surefire way to get the worst of both worlds.

As I keep getting more comfortable with the new tools in my bag, working toward those subtle, telling moments becomes more possible. Maybe it's time to go back into college shooter mode when I was constantly photographing my friends and family because as I've seen many times, the more I learn in this job, the further I realize I have to go.

Speaking of which...

PDN has a great behind-the-scenes look at an underwater fashion shoot. and The Image, Deconstructed shows how Stephen Voss dealt with a 45-minute-early appearance by FLOTUS.

Michelle Agins has a beautiful tribute to John H. White, whom you may remember as the oft-cited Pulitzer winner who was included in the Sun-Times' massive photo staff layoff. It's a testament to his character that he hasn't exhibited any bitterness after the unceremonious axe dropping, an anger that got to me half a country and several degrees of Kevin Bacon away from the situation. As for the Sun-Times, their lack of professional photojournalism is being mocked daily, and the side-by-side of their cover versus the Chicago Tribune's cover after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup is going to be textbook material.

Maybe the Sun-Times can license their laughable visual presentation for enough money to hire back some of their photo staff.

And finally, Roger Cicala has a great rundown of everything you can do to protect yourself against gear theft and what you can do if the worst should happen. It goes far beyond the usual common sense advice and is well worth a read.

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