My brother Rich’s house has the feel of a museum. There are paintings, photos, and sculptures throughout that you could spend all day inspecting. His house is truly representative of their personalities. Collections of my nephew’s hand-paintings are mingled with the art and ephemera of their lives, almost as if the space has been sublimated from their combined influences and artistic inclinations.
Rich and his family, have managed to create a kind-of pastoral oasis in the middle of the city of Columbus. They have the sensibilities of modern, urban homesteaders, but not really in the Hipster sense. Just people that value self-sufficiency and a bit of peace and privacy. Their yard is a green and flower-accented enclosure. Even though you can still hear the traffic, it is a retreat within the city’s walls. I have always wanted to shoot a portrait of my brother surrounded by the artifacts of his life and now it seems it would be my last chance.
As I write this, they are in the process of a move to a slightly less urban location. I wanted to capture my brother in the last days in his home, while trying to bring out the complexity of his personality in a photograph. Recently, I have been heavily influenced by the lighting of Yousuf Karsh, so I wanted to add a bit of drama to the shot by using hard, directional light.
This means I needed to use small, direct light sources, with little to no diffusion. The ideas was to sculpt the subject’s face and selectively highlight the areas of the environment I wanted to see. The perfect tool for this type of job is small, manual flashes with good control over power. In this case, I needed the lowest power settings possible because of the low-key look I was after and the small space being used.
My go-to lights for this type of work are the LumoPro LP180’s. It is still my favorite small flash, and I use it to light just about anything. The fact that this powerful little flash can go all the way down to 1/128th power, in 1/3 stop increments, really helped add just a touch of light where I needed it. Not a lot of flashes allow you to get to that low of a power level, but the LP180 is all about fine tuning light.
I just got a couple of the new multi-functional light stands from LumoPro, so I wanted to give them a go. The situation was perfect for compact and sturdy stands- small space, no assistant and little time. The LP605M will be familiar to anyone who has used the original LP605 Compact 7.5’ Light Stand, but there is a whole new twist with the ‘M’ model. LumoPro has added a fluid monopod base to lighten your load on location and when transporting gear. You can use your monopod as a light stand and your light stand as a monopod! You can also attach a ballhead (or whatever type of head you like to mount your camera with) to it or just use an LP633 umbrella swivel to attach your speedlight. This really comes in handy when you are shooting without any assistance and taking everything with you on location!
I also got my hands on a couple of the new flash cases from LumoPro. The LP742 is this flash case’s given name, but you can call it The LightSwitch. This is a convertible flash case that takes the protection of your flash a step further, by transforming into a highly functional light modifier. The case unzips to become a reflector, a bounce card, or a flag. It seems that LumoPro has put some serious thought into the amount of gear that photographers need to bring on location and came up with some good solutions to lighten that load.
Personally, I’m a big fan of having items in my bag that can do more than one thing. If there is multiple uses for a piece of equipment, it has a much better chance of making it onto my gear list for a shoot. Both of these items really make you think twice about what you are going to go on location with. It’s kind of like the difference between a fish-eye lens and a 24-70mm. The fish-eye will only make it in your bag if you have a reason to use it, while the 24-70mm lens will be in there no matter what, because it is so versatile. A light stand that can be used as a monopod saves a couple of pounds, makes room for other items, and serves an alternate purpose.
For this shoot, the first problem that needed to be solved was the limited space, in addition to the very limited time. The LP605M came in handy right away with its small foot print and light weight. It allowed me to still get the lights where I wanted them, even though there were moving boxes and vacuum cleaners everywhere. Looking at the diagram below, it may not seem like the space is super limited, but it was. Extremely. Limited.
The idea of the portrait was to show selected bits of the background and highlight certain areas. With the compact size of the LP605M, I was able to stash the light stands pretty much anywhere I wanted. Remember, we only had a space about 6 feet wide and 10 feet deep. To camera right, there was a couch with moving boxes on it, and to the left, a bar with more boxes. This really limited my options of where I could place my light stands.
For the main light on the subject’s face, I modified the LP180 with the Rogue 3 in 1 Grid to control any spill and to focus the light on the face. Using big, diffuse light sources for fashion and beauty shots can make it relatively easy to shoot consistent exposures frame to frame. The subject can move a bit without totally changing the way that the light is falling on them. Not so with a gridded or snooted light! If the subject moves the slightest bit, the angle and amount of light falling on the subject changes. The light is so focused and small that it is very important that the subject sets a position and sticks with it. Not always the easiest thing to do- especially if your subject is holding a heavy shotgun.
Like I mentioned earlier, I needed to minimize the amount of light coming out the flashes for this look. For most of the shots, the flashes were at either 1/128th power or 1/64th at the most. Because of the lack of space, the flashes were placed very close to the areas being lit, making a low power setting even more important. Once I got the lights about where I wanted them, as far as power and angle, it was then time to look around a bit more to do some fine tuning.
The idea of an environmental portrait is to convey a feeling or story about the subject. It is up to the viewer to decide how they perceive it- for better or for worse. All of the objects that are visible in the photo should be included on purpose, because they are important. Besides testing the lights, the most amount of time was spent making sure that the frame included the right information for the story of the photo.
One challenge in the composition was to shape the shotgun in silhouette against the dartboard, while also lighting the barrel slightly so it didn’t disappear into the shadows. I was shooting a bare flash on the right side of the frame to hit a little bit of the light on the wall for a touch of texture and to illuminate the hand sculpture at the same time. I just had to make sure that the barrel was in the path of the flash. I used the LightSwitch to flag the flash on the right to prevent the light from spilling onto the curtains on the right wall, and over-exposing the background. Definitely a more elegant flag solution than cardboard and gaff tape; worked like a charm and only took seconds to configure.
The objects in the photo all contain symbols that contribute to the story of the subject of the photo. The day of the dead skull, the hand, the dart board, and the shotgun all tell something about the character and environment of the subject. For me, environmental portraiture is extremely challenging, mostly because of how much attention to the details in the frame to properly tell the story. After you get all the elements in the right place, then you have to put your stylistic twist on the photo to make it yours.
In that way it is one my favorite challenges to undertake. I recommend to any photographer to shoot environmental portraits of friends and family, not only for practice, but to also capture them at that moment in time. This becomes more and more important as time goes on, things change, and sometimes people aren’t around to photograph anymore. Always shoot the people closest to you, they are easiest (sometimes) and most important subjects you have.
Here is the final shot with all the elements in place.
To say the least, I am really impressed with the overall usefulness of the LP605M and the LightSwitch. I know that they will be in my bag for sometime. The LightSwitch is a case that modifies the light that it protects- that alone is reason enough to have one. Although I didn’t have time to get full use of the monopod functionality for video, I can see that this stand will be useful as a lightweight alternative, or as a back-up monopod.
Things like light stands and flash cases are like the unsung heroes of photography. They may not have the curb appeal of a new digital body or lens, but they do what they are supposed to do very well, while adding a bunch of functionality and space savings. These two products are all about double duty and efficient use of space, and we can look forward to what other products are released from LumoPro that allow the photographer to do more with less.