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On Assignment: Peter Yang Shoots Admiral William Fallon

Imagine this:

You have all of 25 minutes to shoot Admiral William J. "Fox" Fallon for an Esquire Magazine feature story. They need a portrait that conveys intensity, but you will be shooting in a typical office setting.

And on the day you show up, your subject (who also just happens to be the U.S. CENTCOM Commander) is busy focusing on the fallout from the just-announced assassination of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

What do you do?

If you are A-list shooter Peter Yang, you're too busy thinking about your light to be distracted by all that other stuff.

His photo, and how he made it, after the jump.

Photo ©Peter Yang

Pictured above is Peter Yang's photo, as it appeared in a double-truck from the U.S. April 2008 edition of Esquire Magazine. Please excuse the artifacts -- it is a copy shot. I wanted to show it in the context in which it appeared in print.

Before you read any further, take a moment to try to reverse engineer the photo. The light is simple -- only one source -- but will still require some decent decoding skills. Click it to see it bigger, as it was presented by Esquire .

I caught up with Yang by telephone recently, shortly after being stopped by his photo of Fallon in the magazine.

Yang says he was a little surprised to get this particular assignment, given the subject matter and styles in his portfolio. But he had a lighting style in mind he had used on a previous multi-country shoot on atheists, so he at least had an idea of how to visually convey the Admiral's tough reputation.

"I was told by his people that I would have about 20-25 minutes to shoot," Yang remembers. "Which usually means about 8-10 minutes before you get, 'Okay, you can leave now.' "

He had three different setups ready to go in Fallon's office: One on white, one on black and a third with a more standard lighting scheme. But he quickly realized that he was going to have to use light effectively to connote a visual feel that would match the story.

Writers will frequently try to help/guide/steer into their vision of the piece, and this time was no exception. A good shooter will pay attention to these things -- visual and word continuity are important -- without selling out his or her own vision.

Yang recalls him as being a nice guy. "But there was no sense of urgency in a standard portrait," he added. "How can I make you look intense?" Yang remembers thinking.

His answer was to use the appropriate style of light.

Yang shot Fallon with a Hasselblad H2, an 80mm lens and a Leaf Aptus 75s digital back. His single light source was a Profoto 7A with the head in a gridded reflector up high and in very close.

With the light source very close to the subject (it's just out of the frame) you get some apparent size even though you are just using a reflector. But with a harder, more directional beam.

Before you go nerding out (or crying poor house) on all of the gear, understand that in essence we are talking about a single, smallish, directional light source and a normal lens. Granted, the gear Yang used is probably out of your economic zip code. But at its core, it is very simple stuff.

Actually, most really good light is pretty simple, when it comes down to it.

But, unlike a big flash in a reflector, a speedlight will not come close to this look unless you increase its apparent size somewhat. When I need to make a close-in speedlight look like a standard big-flash reflector, I like to use a little LumiQuest Softbox II, which actually is not even supposed to be used on a speedlight. It is designed for a bare-tube head (Lumedyne, Sunpak 120, etc.) but I really like what it does off-camera, in close, on a speedlight.

The "Softbox II" spreads the light out in over a ~6"x8" area, but it hot in the center. They have softboxes that have more diffusion in the center, and designed for speedlights. But I like the straight one better.

At ultra close range, you are not gonna need a ton of watt-seconds to get some serious aperture. (And you'll need it, to hold focus on the ears.) It takes a little imagination, but you can usually translate different types of light down to speedlights.

And speaking of gear, Yang backed up the shoot on a Canon DSLR (Mk II) and actually prefers the display screen on the back of the Canon to that of the Leaf for chimping purposes. He said he uses the Canon as both a Polaroid and as a backup.

The nose shadow tells us that Yang came in straight, high and close, as we have seen above. He has it aimed a little down and in front of Fallon. The grid causes the light to quickly fall off up top, creating an "out-of-the-shadows" look. Pretty straightforward, really, when you create the shadow with the light source.

If you do not have a grid, you have to figure out another way to cut the close/high light from the top of the head. But rather than spoon-feed that info, it would be a good exercise for you to think about it and experiment a little. We'll be doing an exercise on this later.

Yang dropped some black fabric in back. Nothing fancy here, though. He got it at a local fabric store and taped it to the wall. He notes that almost anything -- even a white wall -- in the background is gonna go black with this lighting scheme. The black material was just there for good measure. Remember, this all comes down to lighting distance.

The end effect was one of intensity and drama, kinda like the way you'd shoot that guy from the X-Files who was always showing up with the critical, top-secret information.

BTW, Yang had previously tried the light out on his assistant's face. The takeaway: Always test first.

Within the short time window, he also produced photos from the two other setups. Yang notes that it had great light and made for very good portraits, but they were not as well-suited to the intensity level of the story.

As for color-vs-B&W thing, Yang could not remember who first suggested black and white for the portrait. He characterized it as a mutual decision between himself and the folks at Esquire. It was captured in color, of course, but the plan was to go B&W for this one all along.

Back to the shoot itself, as is frequently the case, the handlers proved to be running a little tighter than the actual subject. They wanted to move things along to get back to reacting to the developing geopolitical news.

You can always tell by listening for those subtle little signs that tell you your time is up. Like when they are saying repeatedly, "You gotta go, you gotta go, you gotta go..."

But Yang already had what he needed -- a dramatic portrait done in a typical office setting.

He quickly pulled all of the gear -- still set up -- out of Fallon's office. But Fallon came in a few minutes later to pass out some souvenirs and talk about photography.

"He was a nice guy," Yang said. "He has a natural curiosity."

Shortly after the Esquire article was published, Fallon's now very public views on the middle east -- particularly on the prospect of a potential war with Iran -- were deemed to be at odds with those of the Bush Administration. Admiral William J. Fallon announced his resignation on March 11th, effective as of March 31st.


A Little Background

Yang is 30 years old. He was raised in Austin, Texas, where he was for a while a shooter for the Austin American Statesman. In fact, he still includes some work from the Statesman in his portfolio. That's both a nod to how fast he has risen, and how he did not let the fact that he was shooting for a newspaper constrict his style. All you newspaper shooters take note.

In fact, just ten years ago, you would have found him soaking up information wherever he could find it. I note that not to dis Yang (who a very nice guy and a heckuva shooter) but for two very important reasons:

One, to show the speed at which he has risen in the profession. And two, to point out that if you are currently hanging out in in the minor leagues on photo message boards asking gear questions, it is entirely possible that you could be work your way up to The Show in ten years.

To see more of Yang's work, take a look through his website.


Related links:

:: Peter Yang's Website ::
:: Esquire's Article on Fallon ::
:: Other 'On Assignment' Features ::


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