John Keatley: Lighting Strikes Twice

On Monday I pointed to the blog at Redux Pictures as a great stream of visual stimulation that you can have delivered to your RSS reader almost daily.

Today, we chat with Seattle-based Redux photographer John Keatley, who photographed for two different magazines a hacker named Dan Kaminsky. You may remember the name -- Kaminsky was the guy who recently discovered a security hole in the entire internet.

This, and links to John's other recent work, after the jump.

Same Subject, Different Day

John originally shot Kaminsky for Technology Review magazine, and then shot him about a month later for WIRED. You'd think, with those kind of publications backing you, that you'd have the subject at your beck and call for several hours.

You'd be wrong. John's first obstacle was convincing Kaminsky to stick around long enough for him to set up a light or two.

Okay, well, how 'bout a glamorous setting then? Can we at least get a really tech-looking environment?

Nope. How 'bout a sparse, mostly empty apartment with rented furniture. Say, a folding table and a couch.

But you're still shooting for a pair of very visual publications, so you have to step up and do something cool with it. Which is exactly what John did.

Dan Kaminsky, Take One

So Technology Review calls the day of the shoot to guide John toward shooting a simple head shot. Which is cool, because John has a thing for head shots.

John arrived at Kaminsky's apartment to hear that his subject had a meeting at Microsoft in, like, 45 minutes. Which is news to John, of course. But a little negotiation bumped his available time up to about an hour.

That still meant that he would have to tone down his normal approach, in which he uses about six lights to sculpt his subjects. But it was something, at least.

So he instead broke out four lights and in the end wound up using only three. He sat Kaminsky on a stool with a couple of blue kickers and a frontal key coming in from above the camera.

The fill light in the photo -- reflecting both the key and the blue separation lights -- was a pillow with a piece of paper on it being held by the subject. Hey, any port in a storm. And time was short.

(Click for bigger in a new window.)

"It was kind of a funny picture," John says. "He was sitting on a little stool, with about four couch pillows on his lap and a piece of paper underneath it. And I am controlling him to the millimeter."

Not exactly the picture of a glamourous set you might expect when shooting for the national mags, but it gets the job done.

John says that Kaminsky was really generous with his time -- what little he had. He tried to make good use of the limited time by coaching Kaminsky through a series of expressions. And in the end it was the wry, sideways glance that carried the photo.

"I shot a lot of stuff," Keatley says, "but this is the one that jumped out at me."

Dan Kaminsky, Take Two

A month later, when WIRED did a story on the security breach, John again got the call. Same bare apartment -- save a couch, card table, some guitars, etc. -- and the same subject.

John was doing a little straightening up for the WIRED photo and saw the dumbbell in the corner and decided to leave it in. Every little detail left in the photo is part of the narrative. The router, for instance, is being held together by tape. Perfect.

Kaminsky, again, said he had a meeting with Microsoft in an hour. Which was a little disconcerting, as WIRED was looking for several options as opposed to just a nice head shot.

To make things more interesting, this was his first shoot with a new MF digital back. You know, just to make things a little more complicated.

So he began working through different looks for the room, moving things around. (Good portraits are said to be 10% photography and 90% moving furniture.) John said he moved his environmental elements around until he ended up with a photo he could sit back and look at with contentment.

That's a great way of articulating it, really, as your photos are either going to make you content or pissed off later. And it all depends on how well you take care of the details before you make the picture.

Okay, so the top picture is a little more flashy and has that great expression going for it. But I have to say that I really love the WIRED shot above. The sparse environment, the lost-in-thought expression, the nuanced light. (Click to see it bigger in a new window.) These are the kinds of pictures I spend serious time on when I see them in a magazine.

"Typically what I do is I start with my key," John says. "I decide the shaping that I want. For this one I was using a spot grid to create shadow."

The gradients are all from the light -- not Photoshop. The gridded key is coming in from hard left. For fill, he used a soft box coming in from over his left shoulder, and the finished out the fill with a couple of umbrellas for a total of four lights.

He started with the key for shape, then kept bringing up the soft box and umbrella fill until he got the contrast that he wanted. The idea was for the light to be soft, and still have some contrast.

John has a mix of Elinchrom Rangers, which he loves for their power and portability. These are augmented with a growing arsenal of Profoto Acutes. It may sound excessive, but shooting with a medium format Hasselblad H3D2 at lower ISOs requires lots of light to carry depth of field.

He says has been leaning towards the Profotos lately, because he prefers the reflector mounts and their faster recycle times when compared to the Rangers. Also, the Profotos are well-represented in the rental houses, which is important when he travels.

Saving the Best for Last

John has recently begun blogging about his shoots. The blog is evolving quickly, and is definitely RSS-worthy. IMO, the more shooters doing this at John's level, the better.

If you're smart, you'll only believe half of what you read in his blog posts. If you're really smart you'll know which half to believe, as John weaves a pretty constant stream of BS. Any person who shoots serious photos without taking himself too seriously is aces in my book.

You can also see John's full portfolio on his main website, here.

Photos © 2008 John Keatley


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Blogger Heipel said...

Excellent stuff! That lone dumbbell off in the corner is simply inspired composition.

February 26, 2009 12:17 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Hey David,
Nice post. In a week, I'll be Strobist(in training) in Thailand and Cambodia. You've been a huge inspiration in ethos, photo, lighting and blogging. Link's here if you'd like to follow along.

February 26, 2009 12:58 AM  
Blogger Rey Bugia said...

Great posts. I like the no non sense look of the WIRED photo. Was the Softbox pointed at the subject as well? Wouldn't that mess up the gridded light directed to the subject's face?

February 26, 2009 1:01 AM  
Anonymous Danny said...

John's new blog is an easy, fun and informative read. Thanks for the heads up David.

February 26, 2009 1:28 AM  
Blogger Jani Sourander said...

Time is an enemy. Though it is a bit ironic, that a photographers main tools are the time and the light..

I'm press photographer and I gave myself a mission couple years ago: learn to make miracles with ambient light. Now that new flashes are quite a cheap, small and I won't need assistants with them - I've started to learn them too.

I won't do "set up the 17 flash system in 2 hours"-stuff, only the realistic "do something in 20 minutes or you're late"-stuff.

We shall see how I progress.

February 26, 2009 3:28 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

I love the fact that there's not even a 'real' guitar in there... *sigh* What has technology brought us to? Product placement for Rock Band Hero, or whatever it's called now. ;-)

And perhaps it's just me, but the subject looks cross-eyed with that sideways glance - his right eye is far too 'sideways'? I think it just seems very... rushed. (And an hour to get a headshot is quite a bit of time, IMHO.)

And when is blue going to stop being 'tech'?

Oi, I need to stop being so critical when I'm, uhm... critiquing.

David, do the majority of your posts go up at midnight-ish? I wouldn't mind an occasional lunch-break release. ;-)

I'm thinking I really like this guy's blog (re: Keatley's) as well, and as an added bonus, this site (if I'm allowed to post it) he mentions that he was featured on:

I love the 'connect-the-dots' we can do nowadays with all this knowledge and exposure to the industry...


February 26, 2009 3:56 AM  
Blogger Peter said...

exif data on the second photo says it was taken with a 5D. Does he test shoot with the 5D then take the final with the medium format or is the exif wrong?

February 26, 2009 11:16 AM  
Blogger David said...

Interesting. He was almost certainly backing up on his regular body. He would have to be crazy not to, first time out.

Pretty neat, actually -- I attributed much of the quality edge in the photo to the format. If that is 5D it is all light.



February 26, 2009 11:44 AM  
Anonymous Tyler said...

I hope they ran the wired image big. It didn't grab me until I blew it up and the details could pop out a little more. That said, I think the first image of the tight portrait has more of an immediacy of character. Interesting challenge to have to serve two different publications with two different visual treatments of the same subject.

February 26, 2009 12:09 PM  
Blogger John Keatley said...

Hi Everyone.
Thanks so much for having me on here David! I really appreciate the opportunity.

Rey - I did have the softbox pointing toward Dan. I used it as a fill light, and I metered it lower than the key (spot grid). This allows the key to create the shadow lines, and the softbox controls how dark, or how much detail is in the shadows.

Peter - You are correct. That shot is with a 5D. I used both the 5D and medium format for the first month or so. Including this shoot. I didn't want to chance anything until I was 100% comfortable and confident with the new camera. I love the 6x4.5 format, especially for vertical shots. But I like how the 35mm format has a slightly cinematic feel on certain horizontal shots. This being one of them. I liked how this one turned out, and I figured there is no sense in cropping the 6x4.5 when this one is right on.
WIRED ended up running one 5D image, and one medium format.

February 26, 2009 12:34 PM  
Anonymous Alleh Lindquist Photographer said...

Good timeing I am shooting some photos of a local hacker in my city next week.

February 26, 2009 1:10 PM  
Blogger Mr. Moto said...

The second shot really doesn't do it for me. I guess it is just me, but may as well be a snapshot.

February 26, 2009 1:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish John Keatley would describe how he made the images in his portfolio, and add a caption to them. It would be wonderful if he stood back and made a snapshot of his setup for each photo! I just love his work.

February 26, 2009 5:01 PM  
Blogger David said...


Um... It's a *portfolio,* not a lighting tutorial...

February 26, 2009 6:23 PM  
Blogger cfimages said...

The Wired shot really grabs me the most, especially when viewed larger. Thanks for the link to John's blog - I'm going to spend some time looking over it before I start work today.


February 26, 2009 7:11 PM  
Anonymous Dearth said...

Keatley is a badass, I knew him a few years ago before he got sorta big - he's always been a bit of an inspiration

February 26, 2009 8:48 PM  
Anonymous MonkAre said...

It’s so nice site. We love to see more on this site. Keep on updating… MonkAreYou Bali *jkngvfvbhn

February 27, 2009 12:34 AM  
Blogger Steven W. Hopkins said...

Here's something you might want to look at. Doesn't have a lot to do with photography, but it seems like your kind of interesting.

February 27, 2009 11:21 PM  
Blogger Shaun said...

The soft light and how it is painted against the background really makes the wall look creamy and rich. Simple but plenty to study in the picture.


February 28, 2009 5:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The tight shot does it for me. However as far as the second looser shot goes,
the one pose I will never utilize is "On the dumper". People sitting in a chair with their bodies bent at the waist, especially towards their knees, looks waaaayyy to much like some one the crapper. AL's image of Obama, both of them, the one with Don Cheadle background Red, and the later version, backgound cream, look like Obama should have a handful of White House embossed toilet paper in one hand and the Post in the other. Just my 2 cents.

February 28, 2009 9:53 AM  
Anonymous Nicholas said...

Love Keatley's work. So many people look at a photographer's portfolio and don't understand how hard it is to consistently perform at that high of a level.
Doing creative, original work on a regular basis is one of, if not the, greatest challenge.



February 28, 2009 11:40 AM  
Blogger Michael Ignatov said...

Excellent find. I had to RSS his blog.

February 28, 2009 12:16 PM  
Blogger David said...

Anonymous 9:53-

Normally I do not post anonymous critical comments (see above on TOS) but I thought yours was interesting. I was kinda with you on the "library pose" thing until you just started seeing it everywhere.

Now, I'm thinking it could be more of a Rorschach test than a posing problem.

In any case, we should at least call it a "John" pose, in Keatley's honor...


February 28, 2009 3:45 PM  
OpenID paulman said...

I like how the guy who found a flaw in the entire Internet is using the same model laptop (17" Dell Inspiron 9300) as I'm typing this comment on :P

March 02, 2009 12:08 AM  
Anonymous MonkAre said...

It’s so nice site. We love to see more on this site. Keep on updating… MonkAreYou Bal *kshsg

March 13, 2009 11:55 PM  

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