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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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