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On Assignment: Trip Jennings

A couple of months ago I got to photograph adventure kayaker Trip Jennings for Canoe & Kayak Magazine.

Given we were fresh out of 80-foot waterfalls for him to navigate in Howard County, we instead chose the shore of relatively somnambulistic Centennial Lake at sunset…

Prologue is Past

FWIW, this is the back end of the What, Me Worry? post from a few weeks ago. Since the magazine is out, I can now publish some of the photos here.

So we'll skip the pre-production info (since you can read it in exhausting detail on the other post) and just hit the lighting stuff.

Soft Boxes Gathering Dust

I pulled out a medium soft box the other day for a head shot, and tried to remember the last time I had used it. The gaffer-taped window panes I had created on it were literally turning to dust. And the box itself had faded to a yellow that made it almost too warm to use on skin -- even without the warming gel I normally use.

It's amazing to me how indispensable soft boxes were to me for so many years, and how little I use them now. Nothing against soft boxes -- they are still in wide use -- but I am just tending toward harder light. (And when I do use soft light, I tend to go with the very packable Westcott double-fold shoot-thru umbrellas, or maybe a beauty dish.)

But using harder lights of course means harder shadows to deal with, and where I used to use soft boxes as key lights I now tend to use the circular Moon Unit soft box on an ABR-800 ring flash as a fill.

These photos of Trip are a good example, too. Since I am shooting into sunset, Trip is gonna be pure sillo if I expose for the ambient -- much less drop it down a stop or two as I did here.

So the ring fill allows me to create detail into what will be the shadows of the key light before I ever place my main light source.

Here's an iPhone pic, courtesy my friend Ilana Bittner who biked past us during the shoot and tweeted us out, real-time. Pretty cool pic, actually, with that sun creeping in from upper camera left.

The ring/box is pushing fill up into the shadows, which allows us to use a hard, gridded key without worrying that the result will be too harsh.

As always, we build from the ambient. In this case, the ambient is an exposure for the post-sunset lake behind Trip (which we underexposed by a stop or so.)

From there, we built Trip's base/fill exposure back up with the soft ring light. It reaches everywhere the camera can see, which is why I like it for this purpose. We added the key light last.

All of this is to taste -- no ratios or flashmeter come into play. The one thing I will be looking at is the histogram on back of my camera when I add the key light. I should get a spike about a stop above medium gray on a close-in test shot if my exposures are okay, as caucasian skin reflects at about 36%. (That's a stop over medium grey.)

One for Shape, One for Detail

So the ambient exposure gives us the environment, the fill gives us detail and the key gives us shape. The right-hand pic up top is what we were getting when Ilana took the setup shot above. Although, I think we had lost the warming gel on the key at this point, as we had been playing around with a tungsten key-shifted (huh?) shot earlier.

I love how much the soft ring fill lets me cheat the key. I can shape Trip however I want, with totally controlled legibility into the shadows. If you look at the tighter pic up top, his eyes are not even being hit by the hard key light -- that's all ring. And that catch light is coming from the ring, too.

That combination of hard texture and legibility is very interesting to me -- far more so that the typical soft box portrait.

This is a reverse build of the "one light for shape, one for detail" mantra that has long been many a photog's game plan. It's only within the last few years that I realized that if you build the detail first, you free yourself to take more chances with the shape (key) light.

Moving to a Softer Key

As the ambient dropped lower and lower, we chased it by dropping lower and lower on the shutter speed to concentrate. Always shoot well into that twilight mix, as you never know what those colors are going to do. You'll often get a happy surprise.

So here's a setup of one of the later shots, using a gridded beauty dish as a key. Same lighting build as before, but the key is a little softer and it is coming from more overhead. (This shot was by Linh, who was helping me along with Marc and Les.)

The result is the photo up top on the left. FWIW, the grid on the top light does not make it harder. But it does give us an edge to the beam that we can control if we want. Didn't end up using the edge of the light here, but it is a useful thing to have at the ready.

Canoe and Kayak

In the end, the AD at Canoe and Kayak chose a photo from this series and converted it to B&W for the cover, which is seen at left. They ran another photo in color inside, so I kinda got to have it both ways.

I would have loved to have been able to shoot Trip in a more appropriate environment, but his schedule did not allow time for travel for the shoot. And we really do not have much to excite him in the BaltoWash area, either.

Here's how Trip prefers to spend his time kayaking (heads-up on music autoplay if you are cubicle-bound):

As you can see, Mr. Jennings is quite insane. And I do especially like the POV shot for the last few seconds of the video -- as if the long shots were not fear-inducing enough.

You can find out more about Trip at his site, Epicocity. You can see Canoe & Kayak's story on the web, here.

Next: STB: Gus Sentementes


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