In November 2019 I called up my buddy Kevin Foster. I said “Bring your ‘Best Hat’ and your ‘Favorite Hat.’ I know they’re different. I have ideas.” Kevin’s kind of a local legend as that dude who showed up when the community needed a hand and decided it was time to change things for the positive. Then he kept on going with it. Funny thing is that once the pandemic hit the Bay Area and Santa Cruz County one of his photographs started getting shared tens of thousands of times. “Viral” might not be the right word yet, but the image plus the text that Kevin added to the photograph conveyed a badly needed message.
“Sometimes you have to sit back… Watch, and Observe… People will show you who they are without you saying a word.”
Now funny thing for me is that’s probably the photograph I put the least effort into. I mean there’s almost no editing there. I like to fuss. I like to draw out what I see and spend some serious time with a photograph.
After we went through my ideas Kevin had a surprise. He spends a lot of time rescuing animals and developed a love for birds of prey. He brought this magnificent hawk inside and we ran with it.
As you can imagine some unexpected things happened. Actually when I read that I suppose you could say that we expected some unexpected things to happen… making this next moment expected. I think.
I had a photo assignment from my favorite Santa Cruz website/magazine in 2015. KUSP radio had new management and it seemed like everybody was doing a story about it. I think we all knew that the closure was coming any time.
Over the past few days a handful of images kept coming back to my mind. I revisited the photographs tonight and edited them again with a different look.
Probably my favorite photographs were with Lee by the stacks of vinyl records. He would poke through, finding his favorites. We’d pause and talk about one for a while.
For the past couple of years I wanted to facilitate a simple portrait lighting workshop with my favorite local photography group, the Hwy 9 Photography Group. Ideally what that meant was that I’d coordinate with a local portrait photographer who would actually do the presentation. After a few false starts I decided OK… why not me?
What I wanted to show was that you could create stunning portraits using low cost equipment. No need for high end lighting; this could be done with speedlights, diffusers, a backdrop, radio triggers, and a hand-held light meter.
I worked out a basic outline that I thought would take 20 minutes to present. I contacted Katie to model for us, worked out times, availability, and rates. Then I worked out a deal for the exotic location of the gym at the Boulder Creek Recreation Center. Fancy, I know.
I did my best to keep my actual talking to a minimum. I get a little tired of hearing my own voice. I also don’t really consider myself an expert on much, but like I said earlier “why not me?” I wanted to give the basic idea. What you could do with one light. Two lights. Three.
It didn’t matter that none of the attendees had never shot with off-camera flash before. It also didn’t matter that none had worked with an experienced model before! I had a series of emails with Katie where I explained the situation. What I needed from her was to be herself, know where the lights were, be at ease, and mostly just do her stuff without needing direction. She was magnificent.
Next I introduced a reflector at camera right to fill in some of the shadows.
The results from just adding the reflector were stunning. Each participant spent about 5 minutes each shooting with this setup. I would tell everyone the exposure recommendation based on my meter then I’d hand my radio trigger to the next participant.
Two lights: one at camera left, one at camera right
I setup the second light; virtually identical to the first light. The only difference was that the second speedlight was triggered optically. That meant that I needed to have only the one set of radio triggers. As soon as any other speedlight would fire then the second light would fire too. The optical trigger itself was built into the speedlights. I setup the second light to be about a stop less than the main light. Now we started getting even more volume to our subject. The point isn’t just to light your subject, it’s also to provide depth.
Three Lights: gels
I added a third speedlight behind Katie and put a purple gel on it. This speedlight was also on an optical trigger so it would fire when any other flash would fire. I had a few goals with the third light:
separate the subject from the background
demonstrate that you could change the color of the background
introduce rim lighting
Another great look is a rim light. Ideally you’d setup a light higher up and pointing down from behind your subject. Here I simply turned the speedlight around to face into the camera. I left the same color gel so Katie’s hair lights up with purple.
The Popup Flash
Now that everybody was acquainted with the benefits of off-camera flash and getting a little comfortable with the idea I wanted to take a step backwards. I wanted to show where the typical popup flash falls short.
The flash built in on many cameras points straight at your subject and right above the lens barrel. The result is a flat look. There is very little volume now. Notice also the weird catchlight in Katie’s eyes. It’s right there in the middle of her eyes. It’s not awful, but we can do so much better.
Putting it all together
It was time for a wardrobe change when Jon had an inspiration. He saw a small plush chair and thought she would look nice seated in it. Katie came back out in a stunning red dress and Jon’s idea absolutely came to life.