Canned spontaneity

Basically when you get an assignment you are given one of two situations. Either are given a sort of carte blanche, go make interesting photos, or you are given a specific layout that you need to work within. Sometimes you get both with the exciting but dreaded words, “cover story”.

Most of the time I am in what I call “wind me up and let me go” mode whereby I am left to my artistic methods to visually discover my subject.  I love these because I can just be a curious kid in total wonder of the things that I discover and show how that experience effected me.

But sometimes you are trying to find that which not only is visually interesting but fits into the design that an editor or art director decided upon most likely without having met the subject or seen where the photos are to be made. These can be tough on a number of levels. First is to try and find something that even remotely looks like the page layout demand. This is often crushingly difficult. The next, and maybe in some ways is tougher, is to find a way to make something interesting happen within that limited layout. Especially when photographing a regular person who is not used to being photographed and as a result is feeling very out of their element and not used to getting direction from a photographer. Making organic moments in these situations is tough.

A little while ago I got an assignment from the Alumni magazine at Colorado State University to photograph a set of their noted past students. All-righty, good enough. Oh then there’s the kicker: they all have to be not only vertical, ok …. , and have plenty of negative space on either side of the subject so that we can lay the text of their story over that. Ugh! Wha? On location no less? Man, you guys must really trust me or somethin’.

This is the kind of situation where the easiest and maybe best way to do this is to get a room and turn it into a studio with a nice seamless/muslin backdrop. Clean and direct. But seeing that I was going to be shooting four of these for the same issue I couldn’t shoot them all on the same kind of background. I had to mix It up. So I did what any insane photographer would do: try to shoot something environmental and if that fails bring out the seamless as a fall back position.

So I head to my subjects office to find that it’s, well an office.  Not too badly designed but not much more than a cube farm. Her office is tiny too which is a shame for upper management with 20 years experience. BUT! The entry way is cool.

I’m often telling people that there is usually something interesting in their normal space that they walk by every day and never realize it’s neat-o factor. That’s my job: find the neat-o. So I set up my lights all based on three factors: 1) I’m using the edge of the wide entryway to frame the left side of her and need to have the panel on the far wall on the right do the same. She is placed in the middle of those two elements. 2) The glass wall of the conference room that is behind her is frosted so I placed a strobe with a blue gel on it will match the blue outfit she’s wearing. 3) I had little depth to work with because she is standing in a hallway. Therefor I had to light her in a way that didn’t spill over onto the glass or elements that are framing her. That meant grids. I put my new favorite light modifier a 30” octabank with a 40 degree grid on it at camera right to act as a main light and put a 7” reflector with a 20 degree grid on it down the hall a bit at camera left to give her some subtle edge definition. Technicals worked out, the rest was all about making her look interesting.

Since the composition is critical I locked my camera down on the tripod and using a cable release triggered the shutter. This enabled me to easily engage her in conversation without worrying about any wonkiness in the design. As much as I like to be able to move and react to my subject and the changing environment this was a situation where it was all about connecting with her within the visual context of the multitude of frames that I had set up.

When I do portraits I try to use our conversation to subtly guide my subject through a range of mental and emotional states so that I can get a set of different expressions and feelings from them in a short amount of time.  You have to hope for and prepare for the unexpected for when that happens you gotta get it. In this case I asked her how having such an impact on her clients world feels and she spontaneously did this which is my favorite frame of our session.


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