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Chris Crisman on Self-Investment, Reinvention and Reductive Lighting

It's Monday, and that means another guest post while I'm out on the road. This week's entry is from Philly-based photog Chris Crisman, whom I finally got to meet a few days ago during our stop there.

Kinda psyched, as Chris is writing not only about going out on a limb to add a new branch to his portfolio but also about changing up his lighting process. And this exact technique is something I have been wanting to try.

Better to let him explain it...

I suppose I just want my work to be great—I can definitely see greatness in the work of others, and I strive to reach that level with every picture I take and every opportunity presented to me. Coupling this idea with my personal mantra to enjoy this life, I set off to Florida with my crew to build a brand new lifestyle portfolio. It was a bit of a gamble investment, but it’s pretty late in the game to start behaving conservatively.

My decision to develop an exclusive lifestyle body of images came on the heels of a number of missed commercial opportunities in 2010. On several occasions I’d been up for assignments where having a body of lifestyle images was crucial. In these situations, the agency was onboard with my work and excited to move forward, but the end client was not able to make the leap from the mood, style, and subject portrayed in my current portfolio, and needed to see something that translated more literally. At the time, this work just wasn’t on my menu. So naturally, I decided to expand that menu.

With the help of my fantastic team, we started to pull the pieces together. Florida was a natural choice for our destination. It was still winter on the East Coast and I knew there was a chance I’d need to head to Clearwater for MLB spring training anyway (see the Philly Mag shoot). We ended up finding a huge villa on the Gulf of Mexico that we jokingly referred to as The Real World: Clearwater house, and began building our project around the idea “young, and in love.”

Being that this was my first foray into this type of photography, I felt keeping the parameters tight was a must. I knew it wasn’t possible to capture every lifestyle variable: seniors, children, professionals, couples, couples with senior children, etc. Having a defined set of parameters would help keep the images more cohesive, and possibly help corral our production time and expenses … a bit.

Before I delve into the lighting particulars, I wanted to take a moment to address a discussion that stemmed from my interview with David in the fall of 2010. In the article we spoke about the consistency in the look and feel of my work, and how I’ve developed this over time; my personal style, if you will. For me, it’s the combination of how I use my cameras; what lenses I work with; how I mix light between ambient and strobe; how I choose my subjects, and how I interact with my them; where I choose the location for each shot; how we process and finish my photos in post, etc. I could go on.

As you might imagine, I am of the opinion that one’s personal style should transcend the work, no matter what you’re shooting. These decisions define you, the artist.

Back to lighting, I’ll talk a little about how I treated this new body of work in contrast to my portraiture. For the better part of my career, I’ve approached making my photographs from darker to lighter—I started by visualizing my images against a black canvas. Using this method, I added light as a means to shape the image; this process could be called additive lighting. In this new body of lifestyle work, I decided to take the opposite approach, lighting reductively. Instead of adding artificial strobe to shape and build up my images, I was taking away the light from a white canvas.

To illustrate, take a look at the image above. In this instance, we had a relatively overcast day to work with. I placed my models with the diffused sun behind them, facing the camera. This created a gentle backlight on them, which in addition to being flattering, also served to create separation between them and the slightly darker Coca-Cola sign in the background. To maintain an exposure balance with the building and give the models some defining shape, I used one Dynalite 2040 head with Photek Illuminata Octabank as the modifier. The process was simple and subtle, but effective.

If I had instead used an additive light method in this photo, the result would have been much different. My key light, although stationed in the same place, would have been dialed up about 3 stops brighter. I would have added a second Octabank to fill in the shadows created by the key light. My background building would have ended up much darker and would have read more as a blocky shadow presence, and the sky would have come down revealing that it was a cloudy day. The result would have changed the mood of the image drastically, and not supported the motivation, theme, and direction of the shoot.

This reductive process wasn’t employed for all the photos on this trip. But as a rule of thumb, I tried my best to employ the white canvas analogy in creating these images. When trying to develop any new body of work, keep these rules in mind:

• Stick to your guns in regards to your personal style.
• Take the time and effort to develop your game plan and approach to the shoot.
• Make sure you enjoy and value the work you are making.


Ed Note: If you'd like to see a couple dozen other images Chris made on this shoot using the lighting technique described above, check out this video from the trip. There is a little BTS info in it, but it is primarily intended to be a promo vid for potential clients. Plenty of finals from the shoot at the end, tho -- he came back with a lot of new work.

Many thanks for Chris for the guest post -- especially for one that is sticking so many ideas into my head as is this one. For those of you interested in following light-oriented commercial photogs on Twitter, Chris deals out a steady stream of BTS nuggets and notices of new work. Definitely worth a follow. And take a minute to look at his portfolio to see how these airy new lifestyles images both expand and compliment his other work.

The palette may be different, but the style is consistent. (I'm such a geek about this kind of stuff…)

:: Chris Chrisman Portfolio ::
:: Chris Crisman's Blog ::
:: Follow Chris on Twitter ::

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