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Brad Trent on the Fake Reality of Portraits

UPDATE: Brad has dropped by to answer several of your questions in the comments.

Long-time editorial photographer Brad Trent (pictured) gets a steady stream of magazine assignments for his unique look and rock-solid dependability. And more to the point for this site, he also has a portfolio full of lighting setup shots on his website.

But they're not there for your reverse engineering jollies. They are more about his desire to add a layer of comment to the "fake reality" he is often called to produce.

Fair enough, Brad. But we really like seeing your lighting setups, too…

I caught up with Trent on one of those 15-minute phone calls that ends up running an hour and a half. He's the kind of person you could swap stories with all day. Among the many things we talked about was his long-time practice of pulling back to include the lights in some of his editorial portraits.

Sez Brad:

Over the years I have turned into a portrait photographer, where everything is set up. I am not a guy that goes in and shoots catch-as-catch-can. I am not a fly on the wall anymore.

Over the years I had to wrestle with the fact that everything I did was set up. It's good -- it's what I do. It's what everybody that does what I do, does. But it's fake in the end. There was no real reality.

You were always setting something up, creating a situation and doing that type of picture. So I got to a point where, to get over it I just started backing up and showing the lights. And I did it as almost therapy for myself. Then I started selling it to clients.

They would go, "Oh, that's kind of cool. I mean, I don't know if we can run it…"

I said, "Why can't you run it?"

For myself, I call it my Artificial Series. I literally will shoot jobs where you shoot the entire job where you see the lights. And, of course, I'll have to back it up and come in and do the regular stuff, too.

More often than not, if I can justify the lunacy of a guy standing out on the street with seven lights all around him and people looking -- sometimes it works.

It's not just a trick. It pulls the veneer away. It's just breaking down that wall. It's not like people don't know you're setting it up. It's obviously a set up, lit, very formal situation. But it just adds a little bit of humor into it.

I eat this kind of stuff up, of course. But you have to figure the puppy would eventually catch his own tail:

PDN saw some of my stuff, and they actually wanted to use it for the equipment guide they do every year. So they took the series I did with the two guys from Outkast and they put it on the cover of the equipment guide.

You can see every light in the shot -- literally, every light in the shot. And they said, "Can you do a lighting diagram for us? Some people won't understand…"

So I did this very detailed lighting diagram showing the lights that were in the shot anyway, and they had to explain them all.

Still, I was getting emails from guys asking what my ratios were; could I remember the power on the pack, stuff like that.

You take a deep breath, and you go, 'okay'…

Well, that's what you get when you share cool information. People just want to know more.

Trent is in the process of moving his portfolio to A Photo Folio. He said he is switching from LiveBooks for the dynamic resizing, HTML5-based iPad compatibility, in-house hosting and the pricing as compared to the custom site design he would have needed.

And he specifically set aside a section of his new site to showcase the "visible lights" portraits, too.

No Secrets

Trent is a fixture on the editorial scene, and will for the first time be teaching at Santa Fe Workshops this summer in New Mexico.

I really wanted to take his class, as he is teaming up with Ronnie Weil, the Director of Photography at Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Unfortunately, I was already committed for the week of July 4th.

But if you are an editorial shooter (or really would like to be) the one-two punch of a photographer like Trent mixed with a photo editor like Weil should be a killer week. If you go, report back in the comments. And from what I hear, they are planning to work you pretty hard.

Read More:

Brad Trent: Main Website (Don't miss the "Artificial" series)
Santa Fe Workshop class: Brad Trent / Ronnie Weil
Brad Trent's Blog: Damn Ugly Photography


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