Just prior to Thanksgiving I spent two weeks working on an island in The Bahamas - an island approximately a quarter of a mile at its widest and about three miles long, where in early November the weather was consistent sunshine and daytime temperatures in the mid-80’s. After two weeks in a place and you really start to adapt, to both the lifestyle and the climate. So it was a bit of a shock when after two weeks of island life I returned to New York (“The Grinder,” as a good friend of mine calls it), greeted by snowfall, sub-freezing temperatures, and a flurry of bustling holiday activity. I brought back a healthy tan and a catalog of street photos I’d taken on my free time on the island. The continuous food coma of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend provided a prefect opportunity to pick through some of the images I made on the trip. I thought I’d share a few.
The past few weeks I've been out several times to photograph strangers on the streets of NY. While street photography is an enormous genre in the city and there are tons of photographers who capture fantastic images, I'm a portrait photographer, not a street photographer. I'm interested as much in a person's face as I am in the scene, so to capture the faces of New York in the best way I know how meant bringing lighting on location. With a pretty minimal setup and the help of a friend we made some portraits of just a few of the characters willing to take a minute out of their day to pose for a photo.
As a photographer who grew up in the digital age, keeping up with the latest technological advancements in the field has been a simple fact of life. In a constantly changing technological landscape it can be too easy to get caught up in the coolest and latest tech instead of focusing on quality imagery, but utilizing the latest technology is nonetheless important if I want to stay ahead of the competition and offer my clients the best possible images and the easiest and most enjoyable shoot experience possible. While I'm comfortable making great images with the lighting equipment I own, when Dan, the product manager at Hasselblad Bron (the US distributor for Hasselblad and Broncolor products) got in touch with me and offered to let me test out some of their latest products I was excited to see what was possible with the new technology. Wanting to put some of the advantages of the spaceship-like Siros L flash unit to the test, with the help of my friend Jason I hit the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side, Chinatown, and Greenwich Village neighborhoods to photograph some strangers.
Photographing strangers on the street can be both awkward and incredibly rewarding. Unlike most street photography which uses nothing but natural light and can often be captured without the subject's knowledge, using artificial lighting means that we needed our subjects to consent to posing for what some people might see as a pretty grand production. Still, the people who gave us their time were frequently fantastic. We met a lot of really interesting people, and made a few new friends.
When you ask a serious photographer today who’s work has been the most inspirational to them, a few names pop up so frequently that they become nearly cliché. For those who prefer a contemporary photographer, Annie Leibovitz seems to be the icon of choice, but for those with a preference for the previous era of portrait and fashion photographer, the doyens of the time seem to be Richard Avedon (1923-2004) or Irving Penn (1917-2009). I am certainly no historian of photography. I studied chemistry, not photography, so my formal education on the topic is nonexistent, but I have a growing interest in the historical roots of photography. Take what I say with a grain of salt, but even for a layperson such as myself, the influence of the work of Penn and Avedon on modern photography is undeniable, which is why the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current special exhibit, Irving Penn: Centennial, the most comprehensive exhibition of Penn’s work to date, is such a gift. For anyone who appreciates great photography, the Penn exhibit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The exhibit covers all aspects of Penn’s work, from his early photographs of street signs, to still life, portrait, and of course, fashion, where is work in Vogue launched him to fame. From the exhibit’s synopsis:
I have had the pleasure of seeing the exhibit twice so far. It is striking to notice how much influence, either consciously or subconsciously, he has had on modern photography. Whether or not Penn was the first to incorporate the various stylistic elements into his work that still show up today it is hard to say without a more complete historical background, but it seems like even if Penn’s photographs drew inspiration from other work, his notoriety and adoption of these concepts into such publicly visible and respected work make them mainstream and prevalent in the work of countless photographers going forward.
One of the iconic features of many of Penn’s photographs is his backdrop, which he used frequently in fashion work that appeared in Vogue and portraits of famous and influential people of the day. Penn likely wasn’t the first to use such a backdrop, but his use of it likely cemented the aesthetic into the culture of portrait photography in a way that makes canvas backdrops of that style sought after by countless photographers today.
You will hopefully recognize the use of canvas backdrops in my work, and recall a previous post I wrote about the making of the backdrops. There is something undeniably appealing about a simple textured background. It gives portraits a painterly quality that is more raw and authentic than a solid color, yet it still focuses the viewer’s eye on the subject by eliminating a messy or distracting background. Fortunately for us, the curators of the exhibit chose to display one of Penn’s iconic backdrops.
As a portrait photographer, the exhibit of Penn's work provides a fantastic opportunity to study what makes a great photograph. Penn's use of lines and shape in portraiture is impressive, and likely reflects his skills employed in his early career as a graphic designer as well as his passion for still life. The natural quality of light and the casual way in which the edges of the frames of images sometimes show pieces of the set gives his photos an authenticity to them that is too often missing from studio photography. Penn had a talent for putting people in an artificial environment and directing them to artificial poses yet somehow making the final image feel natural. This is a quality that I'm always striving to achieve in my own portraits.
Whether you’re in New York or would have to make a special trip, go see the exhibit before it closes at the end of July. I guarantee you'll love it, and hopefully you will learn a lot about what makes a great photograph. And if you don't get a chance to see it before it closes, I bought the book; so buy me coffee, I'll bring the book, and we can talk about what makes exceptional photography.
Have you already been? If so, what did you think, and what was your greatest takeaway from the exhibit? Leave a comment below and let's start a discussion.
I recently had the delight of photographing Brandon Bryant, the man behind the illustrious men's fashion blog Wall Street Paper. Brandon and his blog have been featured on GQ's "Agents of Style" and he is an Instagram influencer, with over 61K followers on his Wall Street Paper page. After a friend of a friend put us in touch and he saw my work, Brandon was excited to shoot with me. Through building his blog and Instagram network, Brandon has focused primarily on street style fashion. Looking to step up his imagery, Brandon was on the lookout for a photographer more experienced in shooting in the studio, so I was a great fit.
I was traveling to the studio by myself from Brooklyn to NoHo via the subway, so I needed to travel light. Well, that was the idea, anyways, but things turned out differently when I started packing. I ended up with my camera backpack and my lighting bag carrying a full camera and lens kit, laptop, 6' octa, umbrella, two studio strobes, one speedlight, three light stands, a 4' roll of seamless, power cords, and a handful of A-clamps, in all totaling probably more than a hundred pounds. (Note to self: Buy a rolling light kit bag) It's a lighter kit than I usually shoot with, but still, not that pleasant to cary for the subway commute.
For the lighting setup I kept things consistent through the entire shoot, and it was a remarkably simple lighting setup. One 6' octa camera left, and one strobe firing into a medium umbrella directly overhead. The studio was rather small, so getting any lights behind would have been difficult if not entirely out of the question. Also due to the limited space, the white walls reflected a huge amount of spilled light back into the set, reducing some of the contrast I wanted from the light. To eliminate this I brought in two black v-flats from the studio and placed them just out of frame to cut any stray light and bring back that contrast and direction to the light. I regret not taking a few more behind-the-scenes photos of the setup, but here's one of JeShaune, a friend of Brandon's who was helping out on the shoot, standing in for some shots.
I recently had a reader of the blog ask me about my lens choices, and this shoot was an excellent example of a trend I've been noticing in my own work recently: shooting with my old 50mm f/1.8D. My go-to lens for years has been the big and expensive ($2,000+) Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8. While it's a fantastic portrait and photojournalism lens and absolutely perfect for headshots, I've been pushing myself to shoot wider than I usually do. In tight spaces like the studio we were in, a 50mm lens keeps things with a fairly normal perspective without the distortion of a 35mm lens, but still is wide enough to shoot mid- or even full-length portraits in a relatively small space. One of the things I'm trying to work on in my work is to shoot more wide shots, and this lens choice is representative of that. Ironically, some of my best work lately has been shot on this lens, which you can pick up for $130, while my fancy lenses that cost over fifteen times as much stay packed away in my camera bag.
We shot three or four outfits with a few changes in the seamless to give a diversity of looks without changing up the lighting. Brandon really knows his fashion and put together some really sharp outfits.
Feel free to ask any questions about the shoot in the comments below, and share your thoughts on the photos!
A earlier this year I got a call from a client with a creative idea for a photograph they wanted to make. Michael and Will, the vibrant co-owners of Canopy, had a vision for a creative kind of staff portrait to show off the fun spirit of the staff at their salon in Moscow, Idaho. They had done their research on photographers in the region and found me as the only realistic option to bring their vision to life due to the type of image they wanted and the level of production required to bring the image to life.
From a verbal description of what they wanted I made a rough sketch of the concept. Michael wanted a photo of each employee in a line demonstrating the various services offered at the salon on the next person in the line — sort of a chain of grooming. With the five-member crew, the long horizontal image would need to be photographed in separate chunks and composited into a single image. Simply due to the size of the group spanning a width greater than a typical 8' roll of seamless and the lack of access to a large studio with a cyc wall we couldn't practically fit everyone into the same shot, in addition to the fact that shooting it in pieces made it easier to focus on capturing the perfect posing and expression for each person in the shot. While Michael and Will wanted a simple and elegant grey background for the final image, the bright blue seamless that you see in some of the behind-the-scenes photos made extraction much easier in post, similar to a green screen.
The shoot itself was a blast. The team there at Canopy is a fun and lively team and everyone was a joy to photography. They were all willing to experiment and put themselves out of their comfort zones in order to nail the perfect shot. While it was busy set, I think everyone had a fun time. But the work didn't end after the wrap. Post processing for this image was quite an undertaking. I do all of my own retouching (at least for now) and it was up to me to find a way to piece together all of the best parts of about a dozen different images to create a seamless final composition. Needless to say, post production is a time consuming process.
All said and done, I'm really happy with the way this shot came out, and I enjoyed the creative process of getting to work with a client that was passionate about the shoot and creatively invested in the project. With a simple idea and some trust from my client I was able to spin my own creative interpretation into a unique and eye-catching portrait that will hopefully elevate their brand while portraying them as the fun, energetic, and vibrant group that they are.