On Assignment: Political Portrait

NOTE: As I continue to bask in the abject glory of Florida's stunning upset of Ohio State to win the NCAA football championship, Ohioan Gary Gardiner has written up an "On Assignment" about his portrait of Ohio Governor-elect Ted Strickland. Check it out for a look into Gary's thought process while making a really cool photo in just a little time with his subject.

Oh, and check out Gary's other work on his website, too. Nice stuff.

And congrats to OSU on a great season. They'll be back.



I knew there would be little time for a formal photo of Ohio Gov-elect Ted Strickland during the half hour interview with a reporter he'd scheduled at his inaugural headquarters. The photos would have to come at the beginning or end of the session. I'd been there before when photos were seemingly secondary to the purpose of the interview.

Strickland, a Democrat, was coming into office after a Republican disaster in the election. Gov. Bob Taft was leaving after two terms, ethics violations and criminal charges against some of his close associates. Strickland would be the first Democrat in the office since 1991, as would most of the newly-elected statewide officers.

It's easy to shoot during interviews. I'd done it for more years than I'd like to remember. The reporter asks questions while the subject has a serious look as if they are really listening. Intense eyes, little movement, hands to the face. They then answer the questions, also with seriousness but more movement and hands that fly over the room. It's rare to get great photos from this setup but I always try.

The best images came from moments where I have been able to better define my interaction with the subject. CEOs, governors, and entertainers are the most difficult because they want you in and out in a hurry expecting you to shoot and run, usually without their worrying about the photo. I didn't want that to happen this time.

I once about five minutes to shoot Wendy's owner Dave Thomas at his original restaurant. I arrived early with an assistant that matched Dave's size, walked him through and around the restaurant, camera and lenses in hand, marking the floor and sidewalk where I wanted Dave to stand with his tray of food. The shoot took less time than was available. We got to eat the food and had enough time to talk to Dave who was surprised how efficiently I'd photographed him. I later was on the receiving end of a personal note from Dave telling me how much he liked the photos.

The plan was similar for Strickland.

Again, an early arrival to scout location and background for the portrait I'd hoped to shoot. I also wanted time to shoot secondary photos of workers and the headquarters atmosphere.

Most of the staff returned from lunch as I assembled two SB800s with Pocket Wizards on light stands, an SB24 on a short stand with the strobist cereal box snoot to splash a streak of light up the background and made a few tests.

I pulled a worker aside, handed him a small optical slave unit I've had for about 15 years, demonstrating how I wanted him to cup it in his hands for a quick lighting test. It had been a few years since I'd used the strobe and despite the guide number rating sheet I'd pasted on its side, I'd never used it in the cupped hands of a subject. This was a new experience.

The SB800s were moved into position slightly behind a second Strickland stand-in and in front of the U.S. and Ohio flags while I tested their exposure with the background light. Her blond hair was too light sucked up the light making the test inaccurate. I used a third stand-in that better matched Strickland in height and tone. I adjusted the SB800s, raising them higher for better spill across the temples and shoulders, zooming them to a narrower beam and testing without and then with the slave.

There were several major concerns.

The wall behind the flags had a broad diamond pattern that became more obvious with the stronger light from my flash. I dialed it down but still was bothered by the pattern. I decided to eliminate the background light. The SB800s hit the flags strong enough to separate them from the background. The flags, moved closer together, made a good background.

I chose a high ISO so there would be sufficient depth of field to keep foreground to background as crisp as possible. I thought it important all the objects in the frame be well defined.

Hand placement needed to be below the lips, at a minimum. The strobe, a half-dome with reflective background, needed to point at Strickland with his fingers spread just enough to allow light to pass through his fingers. The light lower than his face required that he tilt his head down to prevent a sinister look. The shape of his hands needed to be relaxed. He needed to look comfortable, as if he genuinely was pleased to be holding a glowing orb that represented the hope of a new generation in the Statehouse.

A final test with my last stand-in (just above) and I was ready when Strickland finished the interview.

I chimped him the final test frame so he'd know what I was attempting to do. He understood my instructions about hands and face. I chimped him and his PR guy the first frame. Fired six more frames in the next 79 seconds, thanked him for posing and asked if I could reset my gear for another location and a second sitting.

He agreed but I knew I already had what I'd come for.

By Gary Gardiner

(Feel free to comment on Gary's photo here.)

Camera: Nikon D200
ISO: 400
Strobe(s): Two SB800s with Pocket Wizards
One SB24 with pocket Wizard (discarded as background light)
One Morris Mini Slave Wide (15 years old)
Lens: 17-55mm f2.8
Exposure: 1/250th, f20


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