Nadav Kander is a London-based photographer known for his dynamic portraits. He utilizes dramatic lighting and dramatic composition to create some of the most intense portraits I’ve ever seen. You may have seen his recent cover photo of Barack Obama for TIME‘s 2012 “Person of the Year” issue.
Ranging from dark and moody, to borderline blown-out and ethereal, all of Kander’s portraits have a uniquely unsettling quality. The human image, his photos seem to be suggesting, can be an alien and foreign thing, even to the people whose images are being captured, and even if they happen to be photos of the most beautiful people on earth.
T.J. and I knew we wanted to try to emulate Kander’s style. The trick was to pick an image that showcased Kander’s unique style while also utilizing a simple enough setup that anybody could achieve.
David Lynch has long-been one of my favorite filmmakers, so when we stumbled upon Kander’s portrait of the transcendentally meditating surrealist (below), we knew that this would be the perfect way to kick off this series.
T.J. set up a makeshift studio in a side room in his house. We borrowed a Fuji X-Pro1, Fuji Pro1 60mm f/2.4 Macro, and LumoPro 22″ Multi-Mount Beauty Dish and Grid from the store. T.J. had three LumoPro LP160 flashes, and we fit one with the beauty dish (with the help of the LumoPro Double Flash Bracket), another with a Rogue Grid 3-in-1 System, and we set up the last one behind me to blow out the gray backdrop paper we were using and make it look white, diffusing the flash with a Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce EZ.
The main challenge of the shoot (besides me trying to get my hair to look like David Lynch’s) was the size of the space we were shooting in. It wasn’t that big, first of all, so we were limited with how we could maneuver the lights into their various setups. Secondly, there were several decently sized windows that were letting in pretty strong early evening light.
We tried several different lighting setups. Here is the setup we started with:
In order to create the shadow on right side of my face, T.J. set up the flash with the grid perpendicular to my left side (his right), and the beauty dish was on my left (his right) and at an angle. However, while there is shadow and dimension in the photo, there’s also an uncanny flatness in the Kander portrait, and we weren’t getting that with this first setup.
Then we introduced another light source, a fluorescent ring light with a diffusion panel, placed on the opposite side of the other light sources, hoping that would help “flatten” the light a little bit.
However, this didn’t really seem to add much to the other side, as the ring light was being overpowered by the other light sources.
The next thing T.J. tried was gathering all the light sources into one concentrated area, right by the camera, and drowning me in light. This caused a surprisingly dramatic shift in how the light was hitting me: still getting some of the shadow we needed to get on my cheek while also giving us that “flat” look we were going for. We had the X-Pro1 shooting through the ring light (here represented by a diffusion panel, though we weren’t using the diffusion panel at this point), the beauty dish directly behind the camera, and the flash with the grid right next to that:
T.J. shot everything in RAW, which was helpful when it came to editing in Lightroom, as it was imperative that we retained the details in the shadows and highlight, especially when it came to touching up my hair and making sure the color was as close to Kander’s as possible. Here is the final image:
The only thing T.J. said he might have done differently is to use a LumoPro Octabox instead of the beauty dish to soften the highlights, which are harder and more defined in our photo than they are in Kander’s. Other than that, we think it’s pretty close! What do you think? How would you have approached this challenge?