Monday, September 24, 2012

Armstrong, Eat your Heart Out!


This summer has been one hectic time!  Had many home DIY projects to do, and several shoots on the side as well as a few fun projects to boot so the blog has been a bit sparse.  Hopefully though I can get back on track with the fall and winter months coming.

Personal projects are a good way to keep you busy and sharp when not shooting for clients and also are a very good, low-pressure way to improve your craft.  I've been fortunate enough to live in an area that has a plethora of interesting folks and places to photograph.  With a little imagination, some negotiating skills and a smile on your face, its pretty darned easy to find things to shoot.  That being said, I've had an on-going project for a while now to photograph folks in my community that stand out, make a contribution to the local community, or are interesting in one way or another.  Which brings me to my latest subject...

Every once in a while (actually, much more frequently than that, for me at least) you meet someone or see a person that you just absolutely know should be in front of your camera, so much so that you can picture the image in your head just as surely if you had already taken it.  That was the case with a good friend of mine.  I have actually been wanting to photograph her for sometime but just got around to finally trying to talk her in to it.

You see, not only is my subject an avid cyclist and athlete, but she's also an accomplished photographer, and one thing I've learned is, we tend to be the hardest people on the face of the planet to get in front of a camera.  I think partially its because we know what an absolute mess we can make of a situation without a little forethought, and also because all of those years behind the picture maker has given us a sense of security, knowing that we are hidden from prying eyes that may want to dissect every single little nuance of our appearance ...wait, that doesn't really happen does it?  I digress...

Long story short, I talked Christina in to modeling for me (which most definitely wasn't an easy task) in her cycling gear because in my mind, her athleticism may not be something that others knew about her but also because I admire her physical ability and desire to excel at something that can be very difficult for others.

So we picked out a general location and set a time and date.  If you're with me this far, then you know I already had an idea of how I wanted this portrait to look, so the location and time of day was crucial in to achieving that.  I had envisioned a portrait of her, looking like a powerful, assertive athlete with a gorgeous sunset behind her, and lo-and-behold, even scheduling this a week or so in advance, we got an afternoon sky full of gorgeous, puffy white clouds... which is akin to gorgeous sunsets, that is of course until right up to the time of the shoot.  Really???

Yep, come time to snap a few photos, there were only a few clouds in the sky and since I knew the chances of me getting an opportunity to photograph Christina again might be slim to none, we decided to go with it and see what we could turn out.

After getting to the location and realizing the sexy sunset was a bust, I decided to scout the location quickly for a few other ideas.  Initially I didn't want anything in the background but the sunset, but after eyeballing the local area, I decided on a location that provided plenty of leading lines and symmetry that would draw the eye to my subject and still not be a total eye sore.  Since we were photographing in downtown Louisville on the Waterfront, its hard to not get a big bridge in the background, uhhh... because they are everywhere.  But as Christina pointed out, since she is a native Louisvill-ian, it really added more to the scene than it was a hindrance.  Sometimes its nice having a photographer as your subject!

So now that we had the location picked out, it was time to set up the lights... you knew there'd be lights right? ;)  Man oh man, was I so fortunate to have an assistant with me for this shoot, because had I not, I would have never got this photo to look at all how I wanted.  Sometimes, little details can slip your mind; for instance, anytime you shoot close to the Ohio river, there seems to be an ever present breeze, and on this particular day, it was nothing short of gale-force winds, which meant that any lighting modifier I was planning on using, could potentially turn in to a sail that could power the Santa Maria!  It was seriously windy, and I knew I wanted to use a large, soft modifier for my main light and had no sand bags with me.  Even if I did, they wouldn't have been enough to hold down my light rig.  This is where my assistant saved the shoot.

My key light was just a Nikon SB-800 in a Westcott Apollo Orb, which is basically a 43" octabox style softbox for speedlights.  So in this wind, I literally had to have my assistant keep one hand on the stand, and another tight grip on the softbox itself.  I actually held it myself for a minute and it was not easy I can tell you.  After I took my first test portrait, I quickly realized that the light was just a tad too neutral for my tastes, so I decided to add a full cut CTO gel... which quickly made my subject look like the great pumpkin!  Ok,switching gears a little, I swapped out the full cut for a 1/4 CTO and that worked perfectly.  I tend to prefer warmer skin tones in portraits so I just about always have a set of CTO gels with me.  Initially, I was thinking that my softbox was going to eat up quite a bit of light, which might also lessen the strength of the color of my gel so I went heavier, but to my surprise, the Apollo Orb is highly efficient, and reflective which meant that the color stayed pretty true to form.

Now that I had my key light set up, and colored how I needed it, I was off and running.  The sun was coming in and out of a cloud from behind her and camera left and even though I wanted the sun in the shot, it was unpredictable at best, so I decided to make my own sun!  I took another Nikon SB-800, added a full cut CTO (knowing that would work this time) and placed it back in the rear camera left to almost the same angle the sun was coming from, so now even if the sun did take a nose dive behind a cloud, I knew I could still get the warm highlight that I was looking for and that it would look reasonably realistic.  If the sun came out, it would just add that much more, and as luck would have it, it did.

On a technical note, I normally like to use CLS for triggering my lights but due to the location of my light in respect to me, and the fact that my key light was buried deep inside a softbox, I knew radio triggers were the only option.  So I used my trusty Cybersyncs, with a CST transmitter on my camera and one CSRB receiver on my key light.  Now this is where the cool part comes in.  Since the Nikon SB-800s have incredibly sensitive optical eyes (slaves), I set the rim light flash (my fake sun) to SU-4 mode (optical slave mode) and dialed the power in manually on that flash.  My key light, even though it was a small speedlight, easily had enough power to light my subject at my chosen aperture AND trigger my rim light which was about 15' away from the key light.  Since that rim light was unmodified except for the gel, I had no worries about leaving it on a stand in the high wind... almost none, but still it worked out.

Just so you can see exactly how much the speedlights were contributing to the scene, you can check out this accidental misfire where the lights didn't go off---user error on my part.  You can see that without the flashes, to get a good exposure on her, I basically would have had to blow out the background losing all of my detail in the sky.

All things said and done, I managed to capture a portrait that I really liked (even though it wasn't exactly what I had pictured in my head previously) and more importantly, created a portrait that my friend liked as well... so much so that I talked her in to another session somewhere down the road. :)

Also, take the time to check out some of Christina's photography on her Flickr page!

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