I've been savoring my way through Gregory Heisler's book, 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer's Photographer, which I highly recommend. While I devoured the Profoto Master Series videos featuring him a few months ago, it's been fun to lay back with a big tangible book and take my time to read about his thought processes and the stories behind some amazing portraits.
I'm not sure how much I've absorbed from the book yet and some of these concepts bubble up subconsciously after nestling in amid my other neuroses. While a trip to Columbia Drive Mobile Home park was a far cry from Olympic-caliber swimming, the idea behind Heisler's video about shooting Michael Phelps for the cover of Time was lurking behind my thoughts for the portrait of Manuel Cuevas.
You can read Tyler Richardson's story here, but the oversimplified version is that the park has been largely without power since late October, and while residents were supposed to evacuate, many have had to cope with cold temperatures in creative ways. Manuel was tucking himself into bed at night with bottles filled with hot water and since we were there in the early afternoon, I had to shoot a portrait to illustrate that.
No power in the single-wide meant it was really dark inside his bedroom. Since a headlamp had become necessary for him, I wanted that in the picture. The bonus was having something to focus on in the cramped abyss. There was no room to set anything up in there, but I set my light on a shelf in front and to the left for a quick and unsuccessful test snap:
It's way blown out, but helps show what the room was like. Lighting up the whole room clearly wasn't going to work in a portrait showing the dark and cold conditions he was living in.
I found a spot in back and to the left,
The balance is still off and the lighting not only sucks, but doesn't make sense even if I had moved to get rid of that flare. Tyler had thankfully wrapped up his interviews at this point, so I recruited him to be my VAL (voice-activated lightstand). The first attempt had him standing over me as I crouched in the doorway:
This doesn't work because it looks like a weird spotlight on him, which doesn't make sense. In case you didn't click that Phelps BTS link above, the point Heisler was making is that there's lighting you do to look cool and lighting you do to make sense. In that shoot, he came up with a way to light Phelps to simulate the shimmering light that comes off a swimming pool without having any water nearby.
In this assignment, I'm trying to do something much simpler. All I want is to try and give a little taste of what Manuel is going through. The darkness and frigid late-fall temperatures are things illustrated with the headlamp and water bottles, but you can't put a face to the name in the story if that face is swallowed by darkness. The trick is to light his face in a way that feels almost natural.
Manuel was cool with Tyler standing on his bed, so Tyler move to the right and tucked into the corner:
That's much better, but the light hitting his comforter and the wall behind him needed to go. A slight adjustment to the angle of the strobe and here's the final photo:
And here's a post-shoot behind-the-scenes shot of all the lighting that went into this, which may be the strangest photo I've ever made:
For such a visually simple photo, there's a surprising number of thoughts bouncing around my head during this shoot. First, I have to figure out how to balance the ambient and added light. I wanted the headlamp to be bright enough so it would look on. It's also pulling triple duty by putting a little light on the water bottles and giving me something to focus on. I chose f/5 to give me a little focal leeway since I couldn't see his eyes to make sure they were in focus. Instead, I autofocused on the light and nudged it back just a hair manually. At f/5, I needed to have the ISO at 400 for my flash to not totally blow out the highlights, even at the lowest setting. It's gelled to warm it up slightly, since my flash tends to be pretty cool colored, and there's a gridspot to help focus it on Manuel without too much spilling around the room, which would ruin the effect. At that ISO and f-stop, my shutter speed was 1/2 sec., which is super slow. I thought about getting some neutral density gels to knock the power down, but decided against it since I had already taken a fair amount of time to get to this point and was afraid of wrecking the flow. Also, I was a little arrogant about being able to handhold at 1/2 sec. with the help of resting my left elbow on something stacked on the floor.
Here's an unsharpened crop of the toned image. You can click it to see it at 100 percent:
Not too technically shabby for a handheld half a second, if I do say so myself. But what about the photo overall? Visually literate people will know that this has been lit. The way the shadows fall on Manuel's shoulder is the dead giveaway, but I'm pretty happy with the light on his face and how it mimics where light from his headlamp could be falling. The second highlight on the right side of the bottles is incongruous with the headlamp as the obvious light source. I also used that door frame to hide Tyler in addition to anchoring the composition with something to convey the sense of a cramped space. You can see some light spilling around from either the strobe or the flashlight he was holding to supplement the light on the water bottles.
I'd like to think the average person didn't notice any of that or even care about the technical aspects of the photo. What I hope they saw was somebody in a tough position on the front page and cared enough to read their story. And though it looks like a neurotic jumble when I spell it all out, sharing his plight was the core of what I was trying to accomplish. There's no way I could build rapport with a subject if I'm totally in my head with the technicalities. Years of practicing and failing has made much of this necessary knowledge subconscious and second nature.
That's why it always bugs me when I see people marvel at a great photo and their first questions are about what camera was used or what the aperture and shutter speeds were. That's the stuff you figure out by doing. The processes, mindset and philosophy of making photographs is much more interesting and worth talking about.
Also interesting and worth talking about...
Are discussions about which photos to publish. The New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote this column about the regrettable choice to run "an emotional and sympathetic portrait of a distraught Palestinian woman." It's more explanatory than apologetic, but still an interesting look at how much visual storytelling resonates with people.
Want more evidence? Check out French newspaper Libération's bold statement on the importance of photojournalism last week. Its Nov. 14 edition is not only devoid of photographs, but instead replaced them with blank boxes to support the battered photojournalism industry. It's certainly warranted, not only with drastic total-staff cuts like the Chicago Sun-Times did. A recent Pew Research Center study found that the ranks of photographers, artists and videographers at U.S. newspapers has fallen 43 percent since 2000, compared to 32 percent for reporters and writers, and 27 percent for editors and producers.
Here at the Herald, I'd always felt lucky by comparison, with our photo desk kept intact since 2008, when Molly Van Wagner-Petersen took a buyout. In my nearly six years here, I've seen at least five or six rounds of layoffs and buy-out offers. It's hard to keep track anymore. This week, photographer Rich Dickin was laid off, reminding us all how brutal this industry is.
Who needs staff photographers when you have reader submissions, right? Well, readers are sometimes trolls, as evidenced by this hilarious SNAFU involving a doctored photo of last week's tornado. It also includes a UFO and Big Foot too.
If that technical talk in my blog didn't make sense to you, you probably shouldn't bother with this look at what it really means when a lens is "in spec."
And finally, if you somehow missed the Batkid story from San Francisco, grab a tissue and watch this video by Luanne Dietz and Mike Kepka. The San Francisco Chronicle was so mobbed for special edition papers about Batkid's big day that they had to do another press run.