Monday, April 16, 2012

Luke Winslow-King and Esther Rose

As a personal exercise, last year I assigned myself a project to shoot thirty portraits in thirty days, the only rule being that no portrait could be lit like any of the others.  Among those I asked to sit (or in this case stand) for me were New Orleans-based musicians Luke Winslow-King  ( and his girlfriend, Esther Rose, who sings and plays washboard in his band, The Ragtime Millionaires.  Luke's sound is a combination of pre-war blues, traditional jazz, folk and rock and roll, and I wanted to shoot portraits that reflected this sound.

For inspiration, I looked to Ansel Adams' 1937 portrait of Orville Cox and George O'Keefe against a backdrop of brooding clouds in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona.  (If you're looking for inspiration, go big.)  This is a photo Adams himself chose as one of his best works, and I thought the mood suited my subjects well.  Luke and Esther liked it too, so we were set.

Orville Cox and Georgia O'Keefe, by Ansel Adams (1937)

I don't know anything about how Adams created this particular image, but to get that darkened sky I knew I was going to have to bring a studio light on location.   Armed with a Vagabond lithium mini battery pack, an Alien Bee 1600 and a 24x36 soft box, I headed for my favorite location in New Orleans to do big wide-open sky photos like this.  I arrived with my assistant about 15 minutes before Luke and Esther to determine the best spot to set up in relation to the sky.

I shot these images around 4pm in early October, meaning the sun was  still very bright.  I knew I'd probably have to crank my light to full power, and after a meter reading and a couple of camera tests, my suspicions proved correct.  In order to get the sky dark enough to establish the mood I wanted, I had to stop down to f22 and keep the soft box  very close to my subjects (my iso was 50, the lowest setting on my camera).  To add a little more drama to the shots, I worked from low angles with my 24-70mm lens zoomed out to 40mm, which introduced subtle distortions.  Fortunately, because of the angle of the sun relative to the camera, I look like I have a two-light set up here, but that rim light on the shadow side of these photos is actually the sun giving me a little extra help. 

tech stuff:
Camera: Canon 5D mkII
Lens: 24-70 L f2.8 at 40mm
shutter speed:  1/200
aperture:  f22
iso:  50