One of the reasons to fear location photography is the inevitable terror you experience when you first see the space you have to work with. The sun may be in the wrong place, the site may be difficult to reach, or the environment may be cramped. But solving those challenges is what can also make location photography so deeply satisfying.
I was recently commissioned to create some portraits of musical artist Thurz in a beautiful hotel room in Hollywood. Thurz is an amazing artist with facial features and a fashion sense that makes him very easy to photograph. The project was for the music division of Red Bull and the portraits were made to cooincide with the release of his new album. The assignment came my way through my friend Marv Watson—who is also an amazingly insightful photographer and editor. Knowing that he had recommended me for this shoot meant I absolutely had to deliver the goods.
The elegant hotel was chosen as the location because it would give us a more intimate feeling than a studio might deliver. The 15th floor room was addorned with a four poster bed, a small couch, two chairs and a small writing desk. Unfortunately, all of that furniture was shoehorned into a small footprint—and that was before we added eight cases of gear, five of us on the production side, and Thurz himself. Still, the room provided plenty of opportunities to make pictures.
Because of the tight quarters, light control was critical if we were going to have any chance at nuanced lighting. For a space like this, the Profoto D4 pack is an ideal lighting companion. The D4 essentially functions as four separate power packs — each with its own 1/10th of an f-stop power control. This allowed me to place lights wherever they were needed and then simply vary the power in order to get the desired value from each light.
When a space is this confined, light tends to find it’s way to areas that shouldn’t be receiving light. So, controlling each source becomes critical. Using grids, barn doors, small soft boxes, and even fabric grids on soft boxes are powerful ways of achieving that level of control. Keeping the light constrained helps to make the room feel intimate rather than seeming as though light is coming from every direction.
The first shot we decided to make was of Thurz wearing a beautiful black coat while sitting in a corner on a simple chair. I loved the convergence and two-toned color of the wall, so I used a 24mm lens to accentuate that convergence. The shorter lens would also to make Thurz feel closer and more intimate to the viewer. We used three lights for this shot and two of them were kept very small to control the spill of light. The first was a 3-degree grid that provided the light for his face. The second light was mounted on a boom and placed above and behind him to create the illusion of a light recessed into the ceiling. The final light was a very large soft box placed several feet away. It’s only purpose was to provide some tonal value to the areas that the other two lights weren’t illuminating.
The second image was made with the natural light of a window combined with a small Chimera Super Pro Plus Strip Softbox and a 20/60 grid affixed to the front of the box. The grid was used to control the direction of light as well as reduce the possibility of spill in such a tight room. I had originally planned to use the strobe in the soft box to match the existing daylight entering the window, but I decided to shoot this particual image without any strobe and simply use the modeling light instead.This would give the light a warm quality because of the color temperature difference between the window light and the tungsten modeling light in the softbox. It would also permit me to use the camera motor because I wouldn’t need to wait for the strobe to recycle. To be certain that everything remained tack sharp, I used a Really Right Stuff MC-34 Monopod and an MH-01 Pro Head for support because of the relatively slow sync speed.
We made several other images that afternoon and two are of particular note. The first used the same wall for a background as the first image, but the small strip box with the grid was repositioned to nearly the same axis as the camera lens. Thurz was seated in a high-backed chair and the light was aligned so it would feel almost documentary—like an on-camera flash.To enhance the light just a bit, we added a second head with a 10-degree grid positioned to light only part of his pants and feet.
The final image was a black and white of Thurz leaning against the wall. It was made with the same small strip bank with the 20/60 grid still affixed to the face that I used in the shot near the window. Using the small source created more of a moody light and also created a nice shadow on the wall. We filled the rest of the room with a large softbox reduced 3 f/stops from the main exposure to provide a minimal amount of fill.
A project like this is incredibly satifying. The challege of being on location leaves you with few options except to find a way to make it work.The environment will always dictate the possibilities, but inspired solutions is what the client is counting on to be delivered. You might need to move hundreds of pounds of gear, rearrange furniture to free up space, and apologize again and again to everyone as your bodies collide in a traffic jam of purpose. But, the end results—and the solutions that got you there—are what makes location work such a deeply satifying specialty in photography.
Joey Terrill is a Los Angeles-based photographer with clients that include American Express, Coca-Cola, Disney, Golf Digest, Major League Baseball, Red Bull, and Sports Illustrated. He teaches workshops and speaks at seminars including the Summit Series Workshops, WPPI, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, UPAA Symposium, World in Focus, and Nikon School.