Pittsburgh business portrait

How I did it: The BodPod

I love photographing scientists. Not only do they have interesting apparatus, but the research they do makes a difference in the human condition.  This portrait is a researcher in human performance. As soon as I saw his Bod Pod, I knew I had my location. From the second I saw this white machine in the white lab, I had an image formed in my mind, complete with lighting. I wanted a dynamic picture that would stop the reader and force them to read on. 

The lighting was reasonably straightforward. A blue gel on a Nikon SB-910 was the primary light for the room. I decided on a blue light partially because the scientist was wearing a blue suit. For separation, I placed another SB-910 on a floor stand behind the pod pointing up. For maximum color contrast, I covered the floor flash with the Nikon’s supplied tungsten filter. 

Illuminating the subject is another SB-910, inside the pod, held by the scientist. No gel on this flash but the diffusion cover was attached. A Sekonic flash meter was used to determine exposure, with the blue light set for -1 exposure from the main. 

All flashes were in manual mode for ultimate control. Pocket Wizards were used to trigger the flashes. The camera, a Nikon D750 with 24-120mm f/4 lens, was tripod mounted so the computer screen could burn in at 1/15 second. An aperture of f/8 was selected to ensure both pod and computer remained sharp. The focal length was 31mm, wide-angle but without distortion. I exposed only about eight frames before the scientist decided he had enough. No problem, I expected as much, which made having everything nailed down tight beforehand critical. Never waste a person’s time fiddling with your gear. Get it set then call your subject into the picture. In the end, I had my hero frame in the third shot. 

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It's The Feeling, Not The Face

Herb Ellison was a mechanic in the Hill District. He had a story to tell, and my colleague Dan Bates and I were there to listen. My lighting was from an open door, the pose was with purpose, and the expression affirms the dignity of Mr. Ellison. 

The KISS method. Keep it simple stupid. Don’t complicate things unnecessarily. Just because you have a dozen lights doesn’t mean you need to use them for every picture. People don’t always need a cheeky smile or grin. Photograph the feeling, not just the face. 

Sometimes keeping it simple is the right thing to do.

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How I did it: Red or White?

It’s 9:00 am, and I just arrived at the location. I’ve been commissioned by a magazine to photograph wine expert Alex Sebastian at his Beaver, PA fine-dining restaurant, The Wooden Angel. Alex has one of the most extensive collections of US produced wines in the nation. A server shows me to the wine cellar so I can scout and set up. The place is extremely cramped. I barely have enough room for one small collapsable light stand, a Canon 580 speed light and a tiny shoot thru umbrella. Not my ideal lighting but some days are like that. 

A few minutes later Alex arrives. He’s a slight man with a warm and engaging smile and a firm handshake. Now, you know it’s going to be a proper assignment when your subject’s first words are, “Red or white?” It’s 9:15 am, and he’s asking if I want red wine or white wine! Red, of course. 

I’ve photographed Alex before, and I’ve been to his restaurant many times, so it was easy to establish a rapport. The wine didn’t hurt, either. After a few minutes of chit-chat and half a glass of deliciously fermented grapes, I directed Alex to where I had set up my light. Did I mention how cramped this cellar was? I could have used a tripod, but there just wasn’t room so I handheld my Canon 5D and 16-35mm lens set at 21mm for the 1/8 second exposure.

I continued to talk to Alex and coax different expressions all while practicing breathing techniques to get as many sharp images as possible. Sometimes the stars just align as they did for me on this job. The pictures with the best expressions were also crisp. I’m pretty sure the wine helped.

Because of the nature of this location, a wine cellar, I wanted to keep the photograph on the warm side. It just felt right. I could have balanced everything entirely correct, but that would have left the picture cold. And Alex is anything but cold.

The actual session lasted about a half hour. The magazine needed one picture, preferably a vertical, but of course, I still made many more images both vertical and horizontal, close-ups at 35mm and zoomed out to 16mm. As a former picture editor, I understand the importance of having as much choice as possible. You also never know, once they see how many images they have it might be encouragement to publish more.  

Soon it was time to go. Packing the gear took minimal effort, one body, one lens, one flash, one stand, and umbrella all in one bag. It took longer to finish the glass of wine. Let me tell you, starting your day with a delicious glass of wine is an excellent way to start. 

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Tunnel Vision

Several years ago I was commissioned to create a series of portraits for a large CPA firm. My only art direction was the portraits needed to be dramatic and unique. The marketing director wanted pictures that did not look like the typical image of a CPA. It took several days of interviewing the staff to come up with ideas that highlighted their area of expertise and also their personalities. Because of a large number of people to be photographed we needed a reliable plan for every picture. I would have a week to complete the job of photographing every staffer.

In this portrait, I wanted to convey the amount of data the CPA had to process to do his job. By stacking papers and large envelopes, I created a tunnel with leading lines. I positioned the subject between the mounds of documents and asked him to lean in. He naturally put his hand to his head. 

Lighting this picture was simple. To the left of the camera was a large bank of windows which provided rim light. The primary illumination came from an Elinchrom flash in a 39" deep octabox to the right of the camera. A ¼ CTO warmed the flash, and two layers of neutral density filters reduced the flash output to mesh with the available light exposure. 

On the Canon 5D was a 16-35mm f/2.8 lens set at 35mm. Because the composition had to be precise, and the exposure needed to be 1/15 second at f/2.8 at ISO 100 to match the available light, a tripod was necessary. A slight camera tilt was employed to add a sense of motion and dramatic effect. Thanks to visualizing the image ahead of time the picture took less than five minutes with the subject to produce.

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How I did it: Muzzle Blast from a .357

In the days before Photoshop, if you had an idea for a photograph you had to figure out how to do it in a single frame. And if you happen to work for a newspaper, that was the ONLY way to uphold journalistic ethics. A composite was out of the question.

I wanted to illustrate a story on handgun training. What better way than to get someone shooting a gun. Oh, I could have done it just fine by using a long lens from the side. Boring! My thought was to put the camera in front of the gun, use a wide angle lens and get the muzzle blast. But how? No way was I going to stand in front of a weapon as it was fired, even by someone I trusted. So the first issue was camera placement. 

The position of the camera was probably the most straightforward part of the project. The subject put hands out as if holding a revolver and I framed the shot with a 20mm lens on a tripod mounted Nikon F. This was my base to craft the image.

Next, I needed to figure out my lighting. Even with the 20mm lens, I needed an aperture of f/11 or higher to ensure maximum depth of field. I also wanted to go for the drama. That meant using hard light from my flash. In that day all I had was small shoe mount flashes, specific Vivitar 283s. So I put two on the subject from behind for rim light and one in front, above the camera at about 45º. The backlights were one stop brighter than the main light. 

Now came the most significant challenge: how to trigger the camera and lights in sync with the gun firing. Never underestimate the mind of a photographer! Years earlier from a clearance table at a camera shop, I purchased a Honeywell Sound Trigger. I did not need such a device at the time but figured, someday, maybe. Today was the day!

The sound trigger connected to camera or flash by a household plug. The motor drive on the Nikon F also had a household plug, so it was a simple solution – plug the sound trigger into the camera’s motor. I hard-wired the flash above the camera to the sync terminal on the camera and, put super sensitive slave eyes on the other lights. A few tests and I could see everything was going off together. 

But, what exposure time was the muzzle blast? Answer: as much as you could get! After testing several weapons with ammunition of different grain weights, we found the best combination (around 1/15th second) and started working. It took several tries to get the sensitivity set correctly on the sound trigger, but once we did, we nailed the picture quickly. 

Today this image would be done as a highly involved Photoshop composite of multiple images. But back then, you needed an idea, your mind’s eye to visualize the result and enough technical knowledge to put it together, on one piece of film.

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