I’ve written and re-written a dozen posts in the past few months that focus on everything from lighting to the importance of color palettes. I’ve scrapped them all because they fell short of enough substance but I think I finally have something for you. See the image above? I’m going to break down how it was made.
First up is the back story on how this photograph came to happen. I live in Denver. The biggest magazine in the city (and I believe for the state of Colorado as a whole) is called 5280. They are the proverbial Rolling Stone of Colorado culture from arts and entertainment to fine dining and the latest trends. We have a good friend that works at 5280. I made a phone call telling them I wanted to photograph the brains behind the operation. Then, with the support and skill of my amazing staff, I did it. Simple as that.
Let’s get to the good stuff.
CONCEPT: I am a big fan of environmental portraits. Creating an entire scene that lets you get involved has always been appealing to me. The goal was to capture all eleven members of the 5280 edit staff in one set, all doing what they do best; putting the magazine together page by page until it’s perfect. More specifically, I wanted it to feel like a late night brainstorming session with a really collaborative atmosphere. Notepads, computers, and previous issues covering the table. Coffee cups and tear sheets.
SCOUTING: More often than not, a vital part of turning a good concept into a great image is knowing what you want and where you want to do it. A few weeks before the shoot I headed over to the 5280 offices to scout potential locations. It’s a beautiful loft right in the heart of Denver. As we went through there was tons of window light and open space but nothing was standing out. At the very end of the tour I came across the editing room. Here’s the shot from the scouting session.
The table was big enough to fit eleven but more importantly, the walls are where the edit work on the magazine actually takes place. Couldn’t ask for a better background to set the tone. I knew this was the spot.
TONE: The day of the shoot arrives. I have the room and the concept. My right hand man/lighting tech Brent and I arrive early to setup, test lighting, and make sure we get any kinks worked out before we have eleven people on our hands to direct. Once we nail down the best angle to capture the room we start to test poses and how the light will fall onto each individual face. In the original treatment, I wanted the mood of the room to feel energetic and exciting. With that in mind we know we can’t have everyone just sitting at the table. It won’t convey the right mood. After some experimenting we figure the ratio of sitting to standing should sit around seven to four. It’ll help break up the room and allow us to pull everyone in tighter to ensure the light hits everyone and looks authentic. To push the concept even further we’re going to create various “groups” of people talking to one another whether that’s across the table or next to one another. It’s all in the little details.
LIGHTING: For any photographer out there all I need to say is eleven people. It’s hard enough shooting a large group when everyone is facing the same direction and standing in a still pose. It’s another when that group is constantly moving, not facing the camera, and looking all in different directions. In this case I wanted to get more of a motivated light. Something that felt less “strobist” and more cinematic. I didn’t want the viewer to automatically see the tell-tale signs of an external flash. After a few minutes of back and forth between Brent and myself, we settled on a single overhead light large enough to fill the room. To get that we went with a large octabank above the table and then slightly tilted it towards the corner of the room. Here’s a pulled back shot of the set with lighting and camera specs:
Notice the low flash power and shutter speed? The reason for dropping everything that low was to find a solid balance of flash and ambient. Doing that reinforces the cinematic style lighting. Another thing I want to point out is the aperture. We cranked it to f/13 to get a really deep focus. That allowed the person closest to the camera to be in focus as much as the background 30 feet outside the door. Starting out as a photographer I was heavily inspired by the old English and French paintings of the 1800’s. They didn’t use shallow DOF. Everything was sharp across the board. I love that and always work that into shoots.
POST-PRODUCTION + THE IMPORTANCE OF A COLOR PALETTE: The shoot is over and back at the studio I begin narrowing it down to the best of the best. One thing I’ve learned over the years from both experience and fellow photographers is to constantly try to close the creative gap. In essence, the creative gap is what lies between what is in your head and what happens inside the camera. Keep closing that with every shoot and you’re in good shape.
If you follow the work, I’m obsessive about color palettes. I’ve spent a lot of time building a signature that revolves around a unified color scheme for each image. No harsh contrasts or misplaced colors that draw attention away from the image as a whole. When you look at the final shot above you’ll notice everything is warm. Muted reds, yellows, oranges, and whites. The wall color, the table, the floor, the room outside the door, the staffs wardrobe, skin tones, etc. In post I even warmed up the red cup by 20%. It’s that important. I’m able to get that look largely due to the custom white balance I set during the shoot. Had I shot auto white balance, I would have ended up with a very washed out image that fell more on the cool side. Sure you can alter that in post but in my opinion it just doesn’t look the same.
The process in Photoshop is a lot of little things. Skin touch ups, level adjustments, and pulling the colors throughout the room up and down until things look good. If you do the hard work on set you’ll spend much less time trying to fix things in post.
So there’s a detailed breakdown of the 5280 shoot. If you guys have any question throw them in the comment section and I’ll do my best to answer.
Time to get back to work.