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Anatomy of a Project: Miller Mobley's Re-enactors

When I worked at The Sun, a lot of emphasis was put on always having multiple projects in the hopper. Self-generated projects are the lifeblood of any good paper, and they promote exploration and serendipity.

Since I have gone out on my own, I can honestly say projects have the single most important vehicle for developing my photography. I always have at least one on the front burner, with a couple more in the on-deck circle.

When my friend Miller Mobley tweeted last week about his series of U.S. Civil War re-enactors, I reached out to him to see if he could give us a little BTS — not only into the photos and lighting, but into the process of his project as well.

Since we last talked you have moved from Alabama to NYC where you have set up shop as a commercial/editorial photographer. So naturally, you decide to do a piece on re-enactors — which I tend to think of a skewing rural. How did the idea develop?

I wanted to do a project that was a series of portraits that explored a distinct and specific group of people. I wanted these to be photographed on a neutral background so that everything was stripped away except the subject.

I found it interesting that these men transform themselves to become another person in another time - and to them it’s not a costume, it’s serious. One of the re-enactors actually told me that what they do is not a hobby, but a lifestyle.

Another reason that I decided to focus on re-enactors was because of the stimulating visuals I knew I could capture. It’s hard to go wrong with all those beautiful textures and colors in the clothes, not to mention the props, hats, and facial characteristics. I’ve formed a pretty good habit of writing all my ideas down, and this was just one of them that was in the pile - so I decided to run with it.

Once you had the project in your mind, what was your plan of attack? Did you reach out to local groups and do a cattle call? This being a personal project, how did you approach your subjects? Did you offer them prints?

I reached out to the director of a Civil War park in Alabama. I felt that he might have been a little hesitant at first, but after a few back in forth emails explaining my vision and offering prints he was on board. He informed a bunch of his men about the project and we set a date for shooting.

I showed up to the park with my lighting and a grip truck - I wanted to be prepared for anything that came my way and also have anything I needed as far as equipment at my disposal. My assistant and I spent about 2 hours building a small outdoor studio and powered all the lighting from a generator.

The lighting and palette tie the images together beautifully. You were able to light faces without worrying about the hat shadows by using just enough fill for legibility under the brims. Can you talk a little about your specific lighting choices, and why? No worries on the BTS pics.

Thanks! I knew from the beginning that I was going to need to light these in a way that could really bring out the colors and textures in the clothes, but still have great shadow fall off and drama. I wanted there to be a strong definite key light, but I also really wanted to be able to read into the shadows.

I decided to use the Profoto white beauty dish as a key light with my fill being a Profoto ring flash (fired by an Acute2 1200 generator) directly attached to the tripod. I then had a medium Photoflex soft box above and behind the subject that served as a shoulder/hat light.

My last light was just a Profoto head with a reflector attached positioned right behind the subject - which obviously served as the background light.

[Ed Note: Miller's diagram generator did not include a ring flash option. So you'll just have to imagine it sitting there on the generic camera thingie…]

You used some post to bring the images tonally into line. Is this something you planned before the fact, or did it develop as you were working on the photos?

It had always been a goal from the beginning that these photos would have a distinct look in regards to the color, tone, and contrast. Once I looked through all the images and edited down my selects I began to really start experimenting and playing w/ the images.

I think I went through about four different looks before arriving at the current one. Honestly, it’s just a mix of dodging, burning, curves, color balance, and contrast.

Civil War re-enactors are a great choice for the palette and textures in the uniforms. You talked about this being an ongoing project. As in more Civil War folks, or other eras?

I’m not really sure about it ongoing or not. I would like to think that there is a chance I would continue shooting more re-enactors, but I’m the type of person who get’s bored pretty quickly with long term projects - I’m already on to the next one.

Miller has a history of using self-generated work to jump-start his professional development, which we have written about here before. You can see all of the photos in this Civil War re-enactor series on his blog, where you can also find Twitter/Facebook links to keep up with him.

(All photos ©2012 Miller Mobley)


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