Growing, testing, shooting, and creating are something that every photographer SHOULD be trying to do. Continually pushing a concept or their own skills to a new place or to the edge of a direction they’ve already taken. For me, that edge was an entirely different style of shoot from what I normally do.
I’ve always been inspired by great artists and I generally draw my shooting and lighting styles from great portrait photographers rather than great sports and action photographers. I have always chosen to apply it to sports because I love to be outside and active; but I also wanted to see how I could transfer that back into the studio and create simple, strong, and enhanced portraits of models and every day people. Light is light, but giving a little direction to an athlete and somewhat letting them do their thing versus interacting and directing a model or a person in a chair on a backdrop is an entirely different skill set that I wanted to improve.
Test shoots are definitely the best way to do this, so I want to take you through the entire process of how this test shoot was conceived, planned, and put together for the best results possible on the day-of.
So, I started out just looking around on the internet for cool locations where I could do the shoot and sent out some feelers to some contacts and friends to see who would be interested in modeling for me to create some cool portraits. It all came together though when I came across this sick new spot in Houston called The Houston Studio. They’ve only been open for a few months, but the space is absolutely amazing and what they’ve done with it from where it started is pretty inspiring. The space was basically unused for years and these guys built it into a studio space unlike anything else I’ve been able to find in Houston. At a reasonable rate and with a very simple way to schedule time, it was a winner and the shoot idea started to come together.
My lovely wife Sam helped me use Pinterest to create some Pin Boards (isn’t that what they’re called?) to show our models the clothing style we were thinking. I really liked a more muted tone to the images and wanted something that would allow me to shoot both models together (guy and girl) and separate, and I wanted their style to go opposite direction as well. I’m always inspired by books and shows and I was really seeing this space with a Suits or Mad Men type feel for Jason – our male talent and an awesome male model for Page Parkes. He has the clean cut, All-American look to him that worked perfect for what I was seeing in my head. For Natashia – our beautiful friend and female talent for the day – I wanted to go softer with it and use the natural window light to really create a lazy-Sunday type atmosphere. Our other outfit was a dressy-casual and came out with a great pairing between the two.
Finally, I reached back out to our good friend and assistant Lain to see if he was available to give us a hand as well. The stars aligned, all of our schedules came together, and we rented to space on a date that worked for everybody.
Now that the plans and date were all together the real work on my end could begin. In order to make sure we utilize the space and time as best as possible, I like to create diagrams and sketches to show to people so they can see what’s going on in my head. One problem with that – I can’t draw worth a crap. I wish I could, but I can’t and I accept it. I tried for other shoots but I think my stick figure sketches did more harm than good. Luckily for me, Steve Jobs gave us the iPad and Apps. Using the Photo Studio Light Setup app on our iPad Air, I was able to specifically create diagrams and set ups with exactly the powers, distances, and modifiers I was thinking and show Sam and Lain exactly what I was thinking for the images. From there, it was just directing Jason and Natashia to give me the mood, feeling, and expression to put the finishing touches on the images. I can’t speak enough to how helpful this is for everybody on the production team to make things run smoothly and give them a peek into your mind’s eye.
First, the technical since that is probably what y’all are interested in anyway, right? The shoot was done on a Canon 5D Mark III tethered into Capture One Pro on a MacBook Pro. Lighting was done with two PCB Einstein lights and two Alien Bees 400w lights plugged into the wall in the studio and fired with Cybersync triggers. Modifiers included a 69” Elinchrom Rotalux Octabox, a 39” Deep Throat Rotalux Octabox, and for the final shot I used a regular reflector on the third light for kicker. We also used a series of different sized Westcott Reflectors for bouncing light back up into the eye and either filling in or flagging light as needed. Finally, I used a Sekonik L-358 light meter to get the general lighting I wanted and then dialed it in from there to get the specific look I was going for in camera. A light meter will always give you a correct exposure if used correctly, but a correct exposure doesn’t always create the most interesting image…
Lenses included the Canon 50mm f/1.2 and the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II on the 5D and I was using a Lee Filter Bellows on my camera to block and flare light as I wanted. I first saw Joey L use this awesome little rig and for the short period of time I’ve been using it I’ve found it absolutely indispensable, and even though it wasn’t a cheap investment, it is something I wish I’ve had for years!
My general goal was to shoot at a variety of different apertures throughout the day so I can’t say that I was specific to only one or two apertures, but I remained at a low ISO throughout the day, kept my shutter speed right around 1/100th to start and slowed it down or sped it up as needed depending on the area we were in.
Now that we’re through a lot of the technical mumbo-jumbo, on to the shoot!
We started with Jason in his suit-and-tie and Natashia in her dressed down outfit in The Studio’s A room. With tons of window light pouring in, I saw Jason very backlit by the windows and set the 69” Rotalux up at about 9 feet and angled down at a 45. Lain was my moving flag to keep up with Jason and me as we moved and sucked light from one side to give more depth and contrast that I like to have in an image. Jason is a complete natural and pro, so it took little direction for us to really get some cool results and variations of what I had in my head.
After a couple of rounds of shooting, Natashia was up. We found a cool chair at the space and put it in the corner against one of the old walls for some depth. No lights here, just window light and reflectors/flags to get some great shots in the chair before we moved her to the ground and used the same lighting setup as I described above for Jason. I was not expecting to shoot without lights at the beginning of the day, but with the south-facing windows, I fell in love with the natural light and how it really brought out Natashia’s natural beauty. It’s amazing how hard we work sometimes to replicate window light as perfect as this…
As the light began dimming through the windows, we moved into space B and set up against the brick wall. I wanted to shoot some simple, contrasty portraits here with the dressy-casual outfit so we, again, used the big, soft 69” Rotalux as the main light at about 8ft high to camera right and aimed down at a 45 degree angle. I then feathered it back at myself to create more interesting and soft light. Opposite the Rotalux, I set up a black flag to suck light away from camera left and then added some fill light with another reflector as needed. Both Jason and Natashia were shot with the same set-up until we brought in a hat for Natashia to play with/wear. I started losing a lot of light under the small brim of the hat, so I brought the Rotalux down a bit and added some low fill light using another light with a silver beauty dish on it at a very low power. Boom, problem solved and we loved these pictures of her and the expressions she gave while she was having fun. No matter how pretty the light is, if you can’t get your subject to have some fun and give you the expressions you’re wanting, you images are going to flop. Find something to make them feel at ease and it will go a long way!
The final set-up was the one I was most excited about and also the most nervous. I could see this shot in my head for the entire 2 weeks leading up to the shoot, but I’d never tried the lighting setup and wasn’t sure how it was going to all come together once we were in studio. The shot included both the male and female model with Natashia in a chair and Jason standing behind her just slightly offset. Natashia would be looking directly at the camera and Jason would be looking off to camera right with his hand going to the back of the chair to give some connection point between the two yet still keep the harsh shadow across his jaw line and frame.
As you can see from the lighting set up I created beforehand on the iPad and showed to everybody before we got started (which helped immensely with the time to set up since we only had about 30 minutes left before we even started to tear down the last setup and move into this one!) and we each took a different task to pull it together. I used the 69” soft box to light Natashia, feathering it towards the camera and angling it down at a 45. The 39” Deep Octa was used for the main light for Jason, set behind Natashia to act as a hair light for her as well. To separate them from the background and give a nice definition to Jason’s profile, I set up a kicker light to camera left with a simple reflector on the light. It was amazing how close everything was in camera compared to how I saw it in my mind. All we needed was a little reflector popped up into Natashia’s eyes provided by Lain and we were good to go. The results were awesome and I was absolutely thrilled by how easily we nailed the entire day of shooting in camera. Time to break down and head home!
For me, editing down the photos is always the most difficult. Sam and I scoured the images countless times and narrowed the list down to about 30 images from the day that we loved. I edited those in Capture One Pro 7 (I recently converted from Lightroom and will be writing up a post soon on why exactly but I would definitely suggest checking this awesome piece of software out!), adding some contrast, sharpening the images in their native RAW format when there is the most detail, and desaturating the images slightly to give the appeal I wanted. All images were exported in 16-bit, Adobe RGB as PSD files to keep as much quality and as little degradation as possible.
From there, each image was pulled into Photoshop CC where I did slight skin and hair retouching. I like to work with a Wacom Intuos tablet for more control and less hand cramping (I think I’m STILL using the Intuos 3 from 2007 so they are an investment that I completely support and they last!), especially for more stylized work like composites! After the initial retouches were completed, I added some curves for tonality throughout the image and did some color grading as well. I use curves for both contrast and color grading and keep the layers separate for my own sanity later on. After that I desaturate using the Color Mixer on Monochrome at a lowered opacity, and sharpen the image depending on web or print after the image has been resized. Nothing too complicated because we were able to light the images well and capture them as close to finished as possible in camera!
For a little more detail, check out the BTS video on the Ruddock Visuals Vimeo and YouTube pages. Don’t forget to share this and check us out on Facebook or Twitter for more BTS information, photography, and videos! Until next time, keep shooting and keep the emails and questions coming!