Chris Crisman Finds Inspiration at Home

Paging through a recent issue of Fast Company, I came across a Chris Crisman photo similar to the one above. I loved the light, and got in touch with him to talk about it.

As it turns out, the light wasn't even the interesting part.

The subject of the photo above is a neighbor of Chris' from his hometown of Titusville, PA. Now working out of Philly, he periodically makes the ~350-mile drive back home to document the people and settings in his hometown.

The work he has produced from Titusville has caught the eye of art directors, who have hired Chris to make similar photos in other settings on assignment. So rather than shooting only for pay, he is also taking the time to shoot what he knows and loves. And the resulting photos are getting him assignments that are much closer to his creative center of gravity.

"The personal work has turned out to drive almost everything we do," Chris says. "My hometown is just this massive inspiration point for me."

Looking at Chris' portfolio, I was struck by the simplicity and authenticity of the photos. As it turns out, many of those same images were the self-produced ones -- or the paid work that was commissioned as a result of the self-produced images.

If you can concentrate your efforts on exactly what you really want to produce, good things are much more likely to happen downstream. And nothing is more powerful that shooting what you know and love.

On his approach to photographing people, Chris says, "I feel like anyone in any position where I am going to be photographing them, they're being photographed for a reason. They have had some point of passion in their life -- or drive, or aspiration or inspiration -- and I feel like I might have a takeaway from that."

And even on the more buttoned-down corporate shoots, he tries never to hold back and go for something too safe.

"Honestly, I try to make a portfolio picture every time I go out to shoot," he notes. "Part of our business plan right now is to really not accept shoots where that is not possible -- unless the money is so high that it can pay for a few portfolio shoots."

On the technical side, Chris is working on his craft to develop a signature look. To that end, he is doing things like trying to always work with a tripod when shooting people. That may feel a little anal-retentive, but rather than restrict him it actually gives him options he otherwise would not have.

For one, it allows him to nail down the composition to free him up to concentrate moment and expression. But it also allows him to keep an exact framing should he, say, want to remove his lights from inside of a frame. (Just move the lights a little, shoot another frame and you can layer and erase the lights in the original shot.)

With that consistency, he can also easily extend the frame and pixel count (of his Canon 1DS Mk III) by panning over to the side and shooting more image for stitching later. Speaking of that, he has also decided to work with the same retoucher all of the time so she can help to develop a level of tonal consistency across many different subjects and lighting styles.

As far as the light goes in this photo, he used Dynalite packs and large octas. He has stuck with Dynalite 1000 and 2000ws packs and generators because they have been very reliable for him. In fact, any failures have "involved water," he says a little ominously. (Which I can only imagine must be quite exciting when it happens.)

Here, the key is an octa at camera left, with the fill coming from another octa directly behind the camera. That fill is sort of like a ring light, but not exactly. Since Chris is standing in front of it, some of the light from below axis is blocked, leading to the shadowing on the underside of the fill.

He is working very close to the ambient level -- mostly reshaping the light without introducing a harsh ratio. This gives many of his photos (especially the outdoor ones) a painterly feel. Just because you have the ability to overpower the ambient does not mean that it is always a good idea.

If you have a moment, page through his work and you'll quickly see how his personal hometown images are not only leading to, but also informing his commissioned work. Personally, I am very much looking forward to seeing exactly where the Titusville stuff goes, and where else it takes him.

Portfolio: Chris Crisman Photography
On Twitter: @CrismanPhoto


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Blogger Athena Kalindi Photography said...

Wow! Stunning images, what a MEGA talent!

October 28, 2010 2:11 PM  
Blogger Potomac Digitek said...

I am absolutely blown away by some of those images.

On a Baltimore note, did you notice the one with the girls tromping up Federal Hill?

October 28, 2010 2:47 PM  
Blogger DAvid said...

Yes this is a fantastic photograph , the most important starting point. Technology has just augmented the artists hand. Bravo.

October 28, 2010 3:32 PM  
Blogger davidheadley said...

He certainly has an interesting and consistent style in his work that is very appealing and lends itself to being recognizable. Helps with his branding to have that consistency too. Thanks for the pointer to his portfolio.


October 28, 2010 3:35 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Interesting take on things - however, I find the lack of variety within his portfolio as a detraction, not an addition. It's all lit and processed so much the same that every photo seems to blend together and lose the individual character. The lighting seems to overpower the field images, making them look studio lit and "stuck" into the scene. Just an opinion of course, but I prefer a softer mix when lights are used, such that the viewer doesn't immediately think "That was lit".

October 28, 2010 4:13 PM  
Blogger Holly said...

I cannot see the portfolio here at work (tho I will look as soon as I get home), but Titusville is just to the south of me. It's a tiny little town, and it's amazing what you can find there.

Go Chrisman Photography!

October 28, 2010 4:25 PM  
Blogger David said...


Yeah, I kinda feel the same thing about Dan Winters...

All kidding aside, at Chris' level you are not looking to have a ton of variety. It is not a "Jack of all Trades" type of thing. The goal is to develop a personal style and get known for it. People are recognizing that style, and hiring him to repeat the style overlay onto their own assignments.

As far as getting you work, "variety" is highly overrated.

October 28, 2010 4:34 PM  
Blogger Jason V said...

I love most of the photographs. Somewhat nostalgic.

I was thinking to myself "looks like a portable strobe setup with 2 octabanks", and yep, there it was. A little like Joeyl's work.

I love how it's "In his own backyard", just like the book "Acres of Diamonds". Reminds me to get off of my duff and work around here and stop dreaming of travel. :)

Instead of $4,000 worth of strobes and octabanks, I'm thinking "use the beauty dish and umbrella on small strobes that I have" though.

October 28, 2010 4:41 PM  
OpenID yo-sarrian said...

Fantastic work! I'm totally inspired! Thanks!

October 28, 2010 4:47 PM  
Blogger Barry Khan said...

@Matthew I like the consistency throughout his portfolio. Consistency in quality. Lighting in shots may be similar, or use the exact same set up or processing, but for me the subjects are all unique, I feel the subject should give individual character to a shot. The lighting adds to it, and the environment they are shot in gives the shot context.

Thanks David for bringing this inspiring talent to my attention.

October 28, 2010 5:54 PM  
Blogger J.W. Ramp said...

I'd be interested in the process that goes into making images like this after the capture. There's obviously a lot of depth of field - the result of small aperture plates composited behind the strobed images of the subjects?

I really like that smooth, yet sharp look that he (and his pp'er) is able to get.

Any insights?

October 28, 2010 10:08 PM  
Blogger Fenix Fotography said...

Amazing stuff!! Thanks for turning me on to Mr. Crisman's work.

I recently found out I'm moving from Denver (which I LOVE) back to Charlotte, where I'm from. I was a little worried about the dearth of subject matter, but this reminds me that there are wonderful subjects all around us. The trick is to see the extraordinary in the mundane.



Fenix Fotgraphy |

October 28, 2010 11:06 PM  
OpenID damnuglyphotography said...

Ya know...I was looking at Chris's website just last week (I haven't checked it out in quite a while) and I gotta say, he's really got it goin' on! I am seriously impressed with how he's taken what he was doing a short while ago and elegantly amped it up to a new and very exciting level. I suppose there those who might find it easy to lump him in with the hipsters who think that all you hafta do to be trendy is desaturate your colors and get your subject to look bored, but those of us who do this for a living know that what he's putting out there is kinda special.

Major props, Chris!


October 29, 2010 2:36 AM  
Blogger tim said...

a lot sinking in from this, and his work, muchas gracias. the farm/country shots are awesome, and quite frankly, really make me want to shoot my hometown some more. been working on a farm project of my own and this helps with a few ideas i've been stuck on.

October 29, 2010 4:22 AM  
Blogger Sharna said...

Wow! Chris has amazing talent. I love some of his hard look photo's where the light seems to come from no where but has it's own entity.
Excellent stuff.

October 29, 2010 8:36 AM  
Blogger Mark n Manna said...

Thanks for pointing me/us to Chris's portfolio,David.
His style is nothing short of amazing.

October 29, 2010 9:14 AM  
Blogger Chase 'n Kell said...

I love Chrismans work, thanks for taking the time to share it with the world.

October 29, 2010 10:45 AM  
Blogger Will said...

Chase Jarvis has said the same thing for such a long time in terms of shoot what you want to be hired for.

We all get into that rut of just shooting what we are hired for and sometimes letting the personal work fall to side, but what we've got to realise is that we all got into this because we love it, are passionate about the image and it should ALL be about your personal work.

you should always have a project on the go, it fuels creativity and it will always show through in your commissioned work IMO.

Photography is truely an art form, let the artist inside you out and get painting with light :)

October 29, 2010 1:28 PM  
OpenID neillwatson said...

A good wake up call for personal work. All too often, we won't pick up a camera unless there's an invoice. That's a BAD thing, as some of my best work has been off the back of personal projects that I wanted to do, then realised that actually, there's a client that wants these images.....
Sometimes I need to remind myself to go with my gut instinct. It nearly always pays off....

October 30, 2010 3:24 AM  
Blogger Lola said...

what do you mean by "working close to the ambient"? does that mean he is only slightly underexposing and adding in a bit of key and fill?

October 30, 2010 7:08 AM  
Blogger Kevin Housen said...

This really is amazing. Thanks for the post David.

So, how does he do this?

October 30, 2010 7:21 AM  
Blogger j45 said...

His work if it continues this way will be as identifiable as the work of Norman Rockwell. Is this the next Norman Rockwell?

Fantastic stuff and what an inspiration!

October 30, 2010 8:14 AM  
Blogger BallardFamily said...

I suddenly feel very small, having just looked at Chris' site.

They say 'it's not the camera,it's the person behind the camera'. My D90 and SB-800 won't do that.

Fenix Fotography, if it's small town nostalgic you want, once you get back to Charlotte come an hour north and you'll have all you want. I live in Hiddenite, farm country. So many farms, old barns, round hay bails, abandoned buildings and friendly locals/characters.

October 30, 2010 8:42 AM  
Blogger Melissa Vannest said...

I love it! Do you think this could be done with flash? I'm curious to know about his post process work, too...

October 30, 2010 2:10 PM  
Blogger Garrett said...

Okay, Dave Hill! love the work its just to the point where the photoshop (where he isn't even at the controls of) takes over and turns it into animation.

October 31, 2010 1:13 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

Being a Phillies fan I followed Chris's blog to the article on the Phillies which had a link to BTS video on the shots of the players

October 31, 2010 2:30 PM  
Blogger Ivan said...

Pure inspiration.
It's still a long way for me to find my unique personal style though.

Lighting Journey

October 31, 2010 11:54 PM  
Blogger Brence said...

I was looking at some behind the scenes video of the Phillies shoot that he did (

For example, here is one of the finished images in his portfolio:

From the video I can see that he was shooting these as green screen with just the bench, and has obviously pulled them all together in post. (you can see this in the last 4 videos on that page, with the shoot and the final image)

Does anyone know why he would have taken this approach (with the green screen) rather than doing this on location, where he could have still shot each person individually and pulled them together?

What are the advantages to using the green screen? Does this just give extra flexibility for art directors to change up the background and exact positioning of each person? or is it just about convenience for the talent?

I imagine that there would be a bit of extra work to get the shadows of the people set up in post and to make sure that the lighting on the background was consistent with the portraits.

If anyone has actual knowledge about this technique (rather than just opinions, or theories) I would be interested to hear what you have to say!

November 01, 2010 8:27 PM  
Blogger Timorousette said...

Woohoo! My first comment in two years of lurking on Strobist!
Anyway, I really can't put my finger on how Cris' images make me feel.
I think it's the surreal mood most of his images has, but I think that might just be me not quite appreciating portrait photography, being more of a street/emotive portrait kind of guy.

I can definitely see how shooting what he loves has grown into a profession where he can still shoot what he loves. I think that's excellent, and I'm almost jealous, but I'm finding myself heading in the same direction.

Great work Cris, and great blog Dave... I've been hinting like crazy for the Strobist trading cards for my birthday :P

November 08, 2010 11:53 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

@Brence: I took the green screen approach because we were dealing with the time and location limitations of the Phillies athletes. I had very limited time with each them while shooting them in Clearwater, Florida. We had no more than 10 minutes with any player.The team was there on Spring Training and granted us the opportunity to photograph them only if we came to them. The background location used for the final images was shot 2 weeks prior in Philadelphia.

November 10, 2010 9:50 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

I found myself feeling that the lighting was too obvious - which sorta contradicts what David says in the original post about keeping it close to ambient. Most of the stuff in the Strobist pool on flickr is like this - having the light be obvious and not fit in the environment tends to make for a poor photo. But here, there's much more thought going on.

I found myself rather liking the images here, despite the obvious lighting which I normally dislike. He's really taken the lighting to a different level than what we normally expect from Strobist-style shooting. Definitely a unique style and I can see why it's in demand - it looks fantastic (though I wouldn't like it for *every* situation I think).

Most interesting to me, though, were the ideas that shooting from a tripod allows for - like stitching more image on the sides, and moving the lights and compositing the two shots. I don't think I'll try this kind of lighting necessarily, but those tripod-enabled tricks are definitely on my "to try" list now.

November 12, 2010 5:40 PM  
Blogger Luca said...

I was very impressed by the pictures of Crisman,
Some photos are exceptional, although sometimes the lights
sometimes they are too fake, however the maximum of these
Photographs of care is given by
Portfolio composition ....... beautiful


November 24, 2010 4:21 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

Just want to say that I am totally obsessed with Cris' pictures and his style. I spend hours staring at them trying to sort out the light and the processing. The fact that the detail remains and is even enhanced while the light is slightly underexposed is pretty amazing. I have been to Amsterdam and looked at the Dutch Masters paintings, Rembrandt and even Van Gogh before his bright phase and they all have a similar feel. It's dark but the light is selective and highlights just what is important.

Does anyone know if Cris teaches or does workshops? I would love to know!

January 28, 2011 5:59 PM  

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