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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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