As promised, this is the first in a series of behind the scenes posts I will be doing for the photoshoots that I do. Why am I doing this? Simple. Because sharing is caring. Moreover, in this day and age, nothing is secret anymore. Way back when, we used to look closely at the catchlights in the subject's eyes to decipher the lighting setup used. These days, there are tutorials for pretty much anything one wants to do in terms of lighting. Therefore, I am under no fears that I am "Losing" something by talking about my lighting setups. In fact, I look forward to "Gaining" something through constructive criticism and feedback that may come via the comments. All that said, let's begin.
Gustavo Vazquez is from Mexico. He's Aztec by blood and is a talented artist. He draws, paints, sculpts and yes, occasionally plays the guitar. He has a phenomenally charming smile and is quite the ladies' man. Despite all this though, he has never been properly photographed. I wanted to do a shoot for him that would make him look larger than life and also highlights the artistic side of him. Through my conversations with him, I understood that he's a fan of Latin rock and especially, Carlos Santana. We decided on doing a shoot that's a loose tribute to Santana. By loose tribute, I meant that I didn't want Gustavo to dress up as a Carlos Santana impersonator. I wanted him to be his own man, but with the influences being quite evident.
Shooting with me was my buddy Srikeerthi K.S. who is a phenomenally talented photographer himself. Besides, he's a Canonian, which brings all sorts of interesting dynamics to the shoot as yours truly is partial to the gold ring brand. Helping out with the lighting was Sylvia Seow and Sushma Sridhar.
We did a reccee for possible locations and zeroed in on four. After doing some quick planning, we decided to use a 5 foot octa as our key light (Which it was, for all but one location,as you will see later), lit with a very reliable and affordable pack 'n head, the Jinbei Discovery 600. The reason for this was that the octa is an immensely flexible light shaping tool. With both baffles installed and up close to the subject, it delivers beautiful, soft light that wraps around them. With the outer baffle removed and/ or an eggcrate installed and backed away a bit, the light instantly gains some direction and hardness, but still softer than a bare bulb. Great for our purpose, then!
Gustavo has a strong face with strong character lines, so we didn't want the light to be too soft. Also, we were working in some very tight spaces. For this reason, we decided to keep the eggcrate on as much as possible.
I found an old, worn down painter's stool in the apartment that I wanted to use as a prop. When we saw some red grilles that protected the power switches and a fire extinguisher, we immediately knew where that stool belonged. We decided to use the octa with the egg crate here, backed away a bit as explained before to deliver a hard-ish light and also prevent spill to the background. We did a classic placement, high and pointing down 45 degrees. I quite like working with one light at a time and getting it right before we add another light to the scene. That said, we are actually adding two light sources to the scene with this. See the giant white wall to Gustavo's right? That would be our fill light. Be careful with this technique though, if your wall is anythig but white, the light would take on that color as well. Sometimes, this delivers interesting results. Other times, not so much.
Next step of course, was to get the lightmeter out and take a reading. Dear readers, if you're interested in studio-style photography, do yourselves a favor and get a lightmeter ASAP. The lower end Sekonics start at a couple of hundred bucks or so. Lightmeters are brilliant and take all the guesswork out of your shoot. Your eyes may deceive you, but a lightmeter never lies. We settled on an exposure of 1/200s @f/8 because the Canon doesn't sync above that (lolol).
Now, it's time to fine tune the light a bit.
After the first few shots, we realized that the background, only lit with ambient now was a tad flat. Also, there wasn't too much of a separation between the subject and the background. Obviously, we need to introduce another light to the scene. This is what many photographers call a "Kicker" or a hair light". Typically, this is placed behind the subject, high and pointing down. It's usually hard light, sometimes snooted so that the separation isn't diffused.
As you can see, we didn't have a lot of space to play with, so we decided to use a speedlight here. I brought out my trusty SB-900, which I set in SU-4 mode. This means that it will fire automatically as soon as it "Sees" another flash. And I do mean ANY flash. Even the one from the tiny Sony RX-100 that was being used to shoot the behind the scenes images! Here's a nice capture by Sushma showing how the SB-900 blinded me while she was taking a BTS shot!
Apart from acting as the kicker, the SB-900 also fulfilled another important role. Subtly lighting up the background and creating some interesting shadows on it from the grille. We will see this later.
We fixed a gorillapod beneath the SB so that we could mount it to the grille. This is again another useful accessory whose value in the field, I can't stress enough.
Once that was done, it was time to shoot.
Here's Gustavo posing initially:
As you can see, he's not a very happy camper. It's the first time he's been in front of big lights and two huge cameras and gigantic lenses and understandably, he's quite nervous. It's quite important that you take the time to talk to the subject and make them feel at ease. A professional model would pose just fine with the basic instructions (Turn to left, tilt your face down a bit... etc.) but most people are not professional models. Us photographers have to talk to them, make them feel like they are a star. We did exactly that and that eased him up immediately. Soon enough, he started giving us that very photogenic smile of his.
A quite straightforward setup and here's the final result:
After the first shoot, everyone, including the talent were in high spirits. It is important to start off with a simple setup as a complicated light set up right at the start would put everyone off.
We moved to a second location. The backdrop was a set of aluminium shutters. While we wanted to light the background with a separate light, we barely had 10 feet of working distance to play with. This meant that we had to use a single light to light the subject and background. Hence, the egg crate came off the octa. As it was before, a white wall on the other side would act as a giant reflector for fill.
Unlike the last time, the octa was positioned perpendicular to the ground for even lighting of upper and lower body. Here's a BTS shot from the octa's PoV.
Again, working at f/8 @ 1/200s, we took a few shots. Here are a couple.
This was going to be a challenging one. We shortlisted a very small pltform that overlooked the cityscape. The working space was extremely limited, but the backdrop was just too gorgeous to ignore. we decided to get a bit creative with the lights. We decided to place out main light a floor above. Thank god for radio triggers as there was absolutely no line of sight to be had here!
Within a couple of test shots, it was clear that the octa was too big a light source for the look we were aiming for. We could have taken the baffles off and used it as a sor of beauty dish, but instead, we decided to go hard with the standard reflector.
Once this light was set up, we started to think of separation. The background was very dim, which meant that we had to drag the shutter. This means that we shoot at a very low shutterspeed, which will create two exposures for each shot. The first one of the subject, lit by the flash and the second one fof the background from the ambient light. We also pushed the ISOs up a bit to not let the shutterspeed drop too low. This meant a working shutterspeed of 1/4, which in turn, meant that this was a job for the excellet 24-70 f/2.8 VC lens from Tamron.
Even with the dragged shutter, we didn't get enough separation from the background, mainly because the subject was wearing a black shirt. we introduced a second light, a "Kicker" in the scene. This was again, the SB-900 fitted with a grid. This threw a defined beam of light at the subject's back and created the outline.
Now, since the subject is wearing a hat and since the key light was from up above, his face was rather dark. To brighten it up, we placed a gold reflector on the gournd and bounced a Yongnuo YN-560 on to it. This threw some warm light on to his hands and face. The setup can be seen below:
These took quite a bit of tweaking, but we were finally happy with the setup and it was time to shoot!
...and here's the final image:
With our "Larger than life" shot done, it was time to experiment a bit. This was going to be a "Different" shot, more environmental in nature and I decided that I wanted to use a wide angle lens for it. Out came my trusty Sigma 20 f/1.8 from the bag.
We had shortlisted a spiral staircase for this shot. The staircase was rather unique in the sense that there were some stucco-surfaced pillars behind it with some air gap between them. We wanted to bring these pillars out a bit, so we went down the flight of stairs and placed a second Jinbei Discovery 600 with a wide angle reflector with a CTO gel on it there, with the beam aimed square at the pilalrs. Here are some shots demonstrating the setup:
Our key light was again going to be the octa with the egg crate again, but this time, it was feathered (Aimed slightly away from the subject instead of straight at him to create some interesting shadows) and we also bounced another flash off a refletor to throw some light at the subject's face.
A second reflector was placed below the camera to bounce a bit of light under the chin to lighten the shadows there up a bit. The below image shows this setup:
Once the lights were tweaked a bit, we were happy with the set up and started shooting. I wanted to create the ambinece, much like a music video where a rockstar plays his guitar as he comes down the stairs. Because of all the strong textures around, I decided to process the shot in black and white. The result is as below:
So there you go, that's a wrap! Here's the tired crew and talent, forcing themselves to smile at 2AM!
If you have any questions, comments or critique about the shoot, feel free to drop a comment below and I'll respond at the soonest. Remember, photography is not a destination; it's a journey. And with each step, I am learning something new. There may have been mistakes made in the shoot and certain things could defintiely be done differently in retrospect, but Gustavo Vazquez, my frind who has never been photographed professionally, is over the moon looking at his pictures and couldn't be happier. He truly feels like he was a rockstar for a day.
I guess that counts for a lot.
- Sandeep Murali