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John Keatley's "Best in Show" Christmas Card

Ed. note: Today's guest post is from Seattle-based photographer John Keatley, who will shortly suggest you give yourself permission to blow $50 building your own set...

I know by now many of you are missing David while he’s off driving around the country, flashing people from a bus.  Not sure how he convinced his wife to give him the okay on that one, but to each his own.  I would encourage all of you to turn the other way, or shield your eyes at the very least, if you happen upon the Flash Bus.  But seriously folks.  It’s great to be back on Strobist and I hope you find what I have to say interesting.

More and more, lately, I have been emailing and meeting with photographers who are just starting out, and have questions about taking the next big step toward photography as a career.  What I love about these conversations is the lessons I am reminded of myself as I try to guide others.  In those lessons, I have been reminded of one thing above all others.  Practice what you preach.  But to be more specific, work hard and go after it.  

This could be said in many different ways, but the point I will focus on today is this: do what it takes to make your vision a reality.  This applies to just about everything in photography, from landing that first job with your dream client, to making the ideas floating around in your head a photographic reality.  

The Creation of "Brown Town"

Via Twitter:

@strobist- “Please tell me that brown room is real. I want to believe.”
@johnkeatley - “It was real David. It was very real. And then I had to tear it down. Never stop believing.”

Last fall, I emailed photographer Jenny Jimenez about taking some pictures of my family.  I love how genuine and honest her work is and how easily she captures everyday life.  After talking, we decided to do a photography exchange.  In exchange for our photographs, I would do a photo shoot for she and her husband in my quirky style, similar to what I have done with my family the past couple of years.  I looked at this as an opportunity to have some fun with creative people, as well as a chance to add something new to my portfolio.  We talked a lot about different concepts for the shoot, and eventually decided on casting them as dog people who are a bit obsessive.  

In the past, I would have possibly done the photo shoot at Jenny’s house, or maybe looked around for another location.  But I had a very specific idea in my head of what I wanted the picture to look like.  I decided building a set was the only way to ensure that vision would become a reality.  Too often, the outcome of a photo shoot is left to chance.  Hoping your lights will fit in the room, or that the walls will be the color you want, or that there won’t be an ugly mirror on the wall.  

There are a million little things like this which have an effect on the outcome of your final image.  Do you cross your fingers and hope the people you are shooting happen to have clothes that go with the concept you have in mind, or do you find the clothes you know will work before hand?

I am sure some of you are already rolling your eyes, and thinking you can’t afford to do anything like this.  But really, it’s more about preparation and resourcefulness than money.  I had a simple set constructed with materials costing less than $50, and the furniture was all borrowed.  Jenny and I also talked quite a bit about wardrobe and she was able to provide several options along the lines of what we discussed.  


So what about the lighting?  I used a GE Photoflood light bulb in the lamp on the side table.  It is the same shape as a normal light bulb but it’s 300 watts and daylight balanced.  This allows the lamp light to balance with the strobes, and you won’t get an orange cast as you would from a standard household bulb.  

The next thing I thought about was the key light.  I chose a Profoto Giant 5 foot Silver Reflector on camera right for the key, and a Profoto Giant 7 foot Silver Reflector to camera left for fill.  The Giant Reflectors create beautiful soft light with an edge, and without the hard shadows you get from smaller reflectors.  

Because the image is monochromatic, I wanted to create a sense of depth and separation between the back wall and the subjects.  Another great benefit of building a set is your lights are not limited by a ceiling or walls.  It could prove difficult to place hair lights into a shot like this if you were working in an actual house or apartment.  

Two Elinchrom Ranger battery packs were placed behind the wall with one head on each pack.  The heads were raised up above the top of the wall and each one was equipped with a 7 inch grid reflector with 30 degree grids.  These lights create the subtle highlights you see on the shoulders and tops of the heads allowing everyone, even the dogs, to stand out clearly from the back wall.  The lights were also angled down slightly, so the center was pointing on Robin and Jenny’s backs just below their shoulders.  The grids cause the light to become less intense as it falls off from the center, and the fall-off is what I used to create the rim light.    

Beyond Lighting

I used to think the more lights in a shot the better.  I was always trying to add as many lights into a setup as possible.  Thankfully I have changed my approach to lighting in recent years.  Rather than using many lights with small modifiers, I have shifted toward using fewer lights with large modifiers.  Despite the fact that there are five lights in this image, it seems like the norm for me is to use only two lights for most of my work these days.  The reason I mention all of this is simply because I feel it is so important to internalize lighting once you get to a point where you have a good understanding of what you are doing with it.  

Rather than set up tons of lights and pose my subject like a statue, so as not to ruin the lighting, I find it is much better to light in a way that allows for more freedom and experimentation.  By using larger light modifiers, your subject can turn their head without effecting the light too much.  Suddenly both the photographer and the subject have room to explore and allow the image to grow beyond what you thought it initially could be.

What makes an image great isn’t just the lighting, but the attention to detail, putting the extra effort into production, and working with your subject(s) to convey the right expression.  Lighting alone can’t save a poorly produced idea.  Think through what it is going to take to make it perfect and do it.  Give yourself permission to build a set if you think that will give you a better end result.  Focus in on what it is you are trying to say with your image and give yourself the tools to tell a complete story.   Do what it takes to make your vision a reality.

I hope this encourages some of you to start exploring what else is possible with photography by putting more into your planning and production.  It doesn’t have to be expensive, just convincing.  Combine this with the lessons in lighting you learn on Strobist and I may have to look for another job.  

I would love to see this post turn into a discussion in the comments, and I will do my best to check in often to answer any questions you may have.  Thanks for having me!

Ed. note: If you are looking for a good photographer to follow via Twitter or via RSS on his blog, I highly recommend John. I enjoy following him through his various channels as much for the wry humor as for his photos and behind-the-scenes posts.

:: John's Portfolio ::
:: John's Blog ::
:: Follow John on Twitter ::

Next: Chris Crisman: Self-Investment


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