I recently did some portraits for a pair of talented young singer-songwriters: Abi Robins and Sean Renner. The Morning Bird Records artists are hitting the road this summer and needed some updated photos for their promotional efforts. As exciting as it is to shoot a big rock show in a huge venue with crazy lighting and thousands of screaming fans, I find it far more rewarding to work with my fellow local musicians and doing promo portraits allows me to flex my creative muscles much more than chasing a lunatic rock singer around the stage for 15 minutes. But both gigs have their perks!
Before the shoot, I scouted the location and came up with a couple ideas for each of the subjects so that I could plan my lighting setups appropriately. I was determined to keep things simple, mainly in keeping with the neo-folk vibe of their music. I could have thrown 4 or 5 lights up and made everything look like a Gatorade ad, but these are acoustic singer-songwriters for cripes sake. That said, I’m not exactly a “natural light only” photographer (as if you needed me to point that out).
We shot at a local nature area that allows waterfowl hunting in the fall and they recently built this weird duck blind/viewing station that looks kind of like a free-standing wall in the middle of a cornfield. I started with Sean at this location because the sun was about an hour away from ducking below the horizon and the blind would allow me to play with the light a bit.
After trying a couple flash setups that failed miserably at overpowering the sun (I was only using Nikon Speedlights, after all) I glanced through one of the peepholes in the blind and had the idea for this shot. And when I stuck Sean on the other side of the blind I noticed that the pine wood sheathing of on it was acting like a giant reflector so I didn’t even need a fill flash.
So much for not being a natural light photographer.
The next setup placed Sean back on the dark side of the moon blind. Since the sun was still cooking along nicely (it was only about 6:30 pm) there was a lot of ambient light bouncing around so I chose to include it in the shot by slowing down the shutter speed a bit. See the green leaves? That ain’t a speedlight.
To illuminate Sean, I stuck a Nikon SB800 in a small softbox to the left of the camera about shoulder high and aimed it at his head. It was angled slightly away from the wall behind him though, because I wanted the light on him–not the wall. I could have used an umbrella, but it would have sprayed light all over the place.
I also could have used a warming gel to match the color of the sun light bouncing around in the blind, but I stuck with the bare flash to keep Sean from blending into the background too much. There’s a time and place for matching the color of my flashes to the ambient light, but this wasn’t it.
For the final setup of Sean’s session, I broke out the 70-200mm lens. There is a very long elevated walkway that leads through the marsh to the viewing blind and I planted Sean at one end of it and myself about 50 feet away.
Since he was standing perpendicular to the sun, I knew there would be a ton of shadows on right side so I stuck a flash on a light stand off the side of the walkway to provide some fill-in light. By this point the sun was starting to kiss the horizon and was giving off some pretty warm light, so a 1/2 CTO warming gel on the flash would have been a good idea. It would have wrapped a nice golden light around Sean instead of blasting him with white light on one side while the sun basted him in a golden glow on the other. Oh well, these shots are outtakes anyway.
I photographed Abi second because I knew the sun would have to be going down to pull off the shot I had in mind, which is what you see on the left. The warmer, softer light of sunset always looks great on female subjects and since Sean is a dude I could get away with shooting him in the edgier pre-dusk light.
For this photo, I went straight Zack Arias-style and popped a single light at Abi through a softbox placed to the right of the camera. I did add a full CTO warming gel here and I threw an extension cord into the shot for some foreground interest.
I also spent a few minutes picking the gravel out of my knees when I got up off the ground. Some minor abrasions are a small price to pay for a nice photo, I think.
Since the sun was rapidly diving towards the ground, I didn’t waste time changing my lighting setup. I simply moved Abi and the light stand around. This shot used the same SB-800/softbox combo but I was shooting directly toward the sun so I underexposed the background a bit to bring up the colors of the sunset and brought up the flash accordingly.
A note on Abi’s pose: as cute as it was, her high-waisted top had a tendency to “bloom” a bit when the breeze was blowing and since I didn’t want young Abi to appear about 7 months pregnant, I had her tuck it in a bit with her hand in the pocket. Sorry if it kills the magic of the photo, but it’s a worthwhile tip.
Some shoots require you to manage the light more than the model and this was definitely one of those days, but if I’d missed the shirt issue I’d be facepalming big time right now.
For the final shots of the day, I kept the same lighting setup and started shooting tighter for some head shots. Again, the sun was completely gone by this point so the light was changing constantly. Therefore I had to make adjustments to my lighting and exposure every 4 or 5 shots.
Abi and Sean loved the shots they chose and I had a blast shooting with them. They will be hitting 40(!) cities on their summer tour, so be sure to catch them somewhere.