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In-Depth QA: Martin Prihoda Photographs Priyanka Chopra for GQ India

Long-time readers will remember photographer Martin Prihoda, who was originally based in Vancouver before packing up and relocating to Mumbai. Or as he still often thinks of it, Bombay. (Martin, on the distinction: "You do business in Mumbai. You party in Bombay.")

His recent cover shoot of Indian actress Priyanka Chopra for GQ India represents a major departure from his previous use of color and light. So I contacted him for a QA.

My questions (and his generous answers) follow, along with more images form the shoot. To see any image bigger (and other images from the shoot not seen here) click through to his blog, Atomic Safari.


Strobist: This is a huge visual departure from your previous work. You said that the brief contained a lot of specifics—using a mix of ambient and continuous with strobe, working in low light, shooting quickly—where did you even begin with this? Did you test heavily, and nail things down or just go in with a loose framework?

Martin Prihoda:This shoot brought together almost all the techniques I've learned over the last ten or so years of my photography career. It was a combination of strobe and continuous light balanced with slow shutter and stress management.

I was given the brief by the GQ team and we discussed the lighting references together at their offices. It would be an amalgam of different colored gels on both tungsten hot lights and strobes as well as a projected image on a screen in the background.

We called for various equipment, specifically 3 or 4, 5K lights and a three-strobe setup attached to a 7a pack. (EDITOR'S NOTE: For reference, a "4k" would be a 4,000w continuous, or "hot" light.)

The hot lights would actually become like actors on the set, throwing flare and giving that rock and roll ambient stage light feel. The strobes would be used specifically for the actress.

The subject was Priyanka Chopra, an A-list celebrity. The thing with shooting celebrities here in India is that they have a tremendous amount of say, and influence the creative team heavily. Also, they often come late and then give you very little time to shoot. You have to really be on your toes—especially with a full crew, difficult lighting situations, the art director hovering over one shoulder and the celebrity's publicist over the other.

The more I shoot, the more I realize what’s improving is not my ‘photography’ but rather a problem solving skill set. Photography is problem solving in a sense and this shoot was the epitome of problem solving.

Any lighting issue can be resolved eventually but the question is: how much time will you take and can you solve it with numerous stressful situations going on around you. The truth is, if you don’t have a firm grip on what you’re doing, especially with celebrities or projects with a lot of money riding on them, things can spiral badly. The greatest photographers are excellent problem solvers and they surround themselves with people who can help them.


Strobist: OK, so you're working with continuous lighting, and using gels. Did the fact that the lights were continuous help you to see and fine-tune your ideas better? How will this experience change the way you approach lighting with flash in the future?

Martin Prihoda: I love shooting with continuous lights. There’s something very distinct in the light quality, almost cinematic. Not only that but have a few 5k’s blast through the windows or backlight an actress’ hair gives a very ethereal quality to the set itself. You feel like you’re on a film set, not just a photo shoot.

Strobes have their place but at the end of the day they’re lights that just pop on and off while the hot lights create the mood and drama right there before your eyes, even before you click a frame. You walk onto the set and everything is lit and it’s a very cool feeling.

If I’m shooting on location, inside, I try use the strobes to light the model and the continuous lights to light the set and then drag the shutter a bit. (EDITOR'S NOTE: This refers to increasing the length of the exposure to allow the continuous lights to "burn in," and balance the exposure with the strobes.)

It takes some practice because you’re always balancing between the power of the lights, your shutter speed (which affect continuous but not strobe light) and aperture (which affects everything). Every shoot has its own requirements but balancing continuous light with strobes and the sun forces you to push your skill set a bit, which is always good.

I’m also directing a lot more: television commercials, music video etc. That’s all continuous light so I’m finding myself surrounded by them a lot.

Strobist: In many of the shots, there is a primary color and multiple secondary colors. They are all mixing, and absent the cover photo, there is little to no white light.

Martin Prihoda: Traditionally I've pretty much stuck to white light in my photography. Of course there would be swings between tungsten and daylight color temperatures but more or less that was the extent of it. For some reason or another I was never attracted to gelling lights.

When the GQ team showed me the references I realized I had a bit of a challenge in front of me as my experience with gelled wasn't extensive. I did however understand certain principals of light and color that would come into play, specifically in terms of exposure and saturation. From shooting underexposed skies for much of my career I knew that the more underexposed a color was the more saturated it would become until eventually it was black. The opposite was true too, the more over exposed a color the closer it moves to white.

Luckily I had some time to experiment before Priyanka arrived on set. I tested on my assistants and found the blue light to be more appealing than the red on the face. The red worked better as a backlight I felt as well.

We set up the ambient light first, the 5k's. Being tungsten lights they would have already had an orange glow but we added to that by adding a red gel. So we had to 5k's as rim lights. I took a photo and and adjusted the exposure so that the rim gave a nice red halo effect on my assistant and then we flagged them off so the light didn't leak too much into the face.

Of course you can't adjust the power on the 5k's as easily as on a strobe pack, so it took some tweaking—eg: moving the lights in and out, adding or taking away a grid of ND gel and then adding the actual colored gels.

The other challenge was the projected light in the background. It was very low light coming from a basic projector. We ended up having to gel the 5k's even more to bring down the light and then drag the shutter even longer to get a decently exposed background image. Too long a shutter, too much flare from the hot lights, too fast a shutter and we'd start to lose the BG projection

Once that was set it was time to set the strobe, a Profoto head with beauty dish. The beauty dish was on a boom stand and we covered it with at least two pieces of blue gel. Setting the strobe was relatively easy as all we had to do was adjust the power. Less power, more saturated blue, higher power the blue came closer to white light.

Finally we were ready. I had the strobe offset to the right, not straight on and the flags were working well to block out the light leak and minimize flare.

Then Priyanka came out. She sat down on the couch/chair that was the prop. I asked her to shift more in my direction and she very politely asked me if I could shoot from the other side of the axis as the current position was not her best side.


Two hours of setup and testing gone. Luckily I knew the direction we were going and how to get there. We basically re-shifted the boom and strobe to the other side of the axis, adjusted the projected light in the background and reflagged the 5k's. It took about 20 minutes to re-jig.

Once we had our first few shots in the bag with this lighting, everyone loosened up a bit. This allowed me to take Priyanka aside a bit shoot various frames in between the hot lights, in this case the blues and reds would merge and spill a bit but it was looking good.

Near the end of the shoot as things were rolling, i just picked up my 5d Mk II and asked Priyanka to stand in front of the projected image. I set the camera to 1600 ISO at 2.8 at about a 1/60 on my 24-70 and started firing away. Yes they are a bit grainy but it worked with the story.

Most magazines I’ve worked for like to shoot a safety cover, something on a neutral background as well as a more dynamic cover. In this case because we were limited on time we decided to shoot Priyanka on a red backdrop. I lit her very simply, just a beauty dish 45 degrees above her and maybe 8 feet back and used the modeling light.

The exposure on the PhaseOne P45+ (w/ 80mm lens) was 1/80 at f/3.2. I started off using the strobe but it was looking harsh. I turned the modeling light up on the pack and had enough light to shoot at 1/80 which gave the right amount of drag to see some of her hair blow. If you look very close you can see there’s a slight blur to the skin, which I think really worked.

As for the light, we decided to keep it a single color for the cover and then mix different gelled lights for the inside story. Editorial teams are funny people, while we photographers focus on what looks great, they focus on what’s going to sell the most covers. And sometimes those two visions clash.

Strobist: You did a lot of mixing of strobe and hot lights. What caused you to add strobes to the mix?

Martin Prihoda: I was concerned that the ambient continuous light would not be enough to freeze her in place and that the shutter drag would be too heavy. It was a correct assumption. Even with the hot lights flaring in the back we were low on light at an acceptable shutter speed and I don’t like to go above 200 ISO on a medium format camera.

Using gelled strobes allowed me to get the natural cinematic flare from the 5k’s and the projector while managing to freeze her face in focus and without too much blur, which is pretty important.

Near the end of the shoot when I knew I had the story covered, I just grabbed my Mark 2 and started firing off shots at about 1600 ISO, it allowed me to move around her quickly. Using just the hot lights I ended up getting a few really cool editorial/journalistic type shots. Some were blurry and some ended up making it into the story.

Strobist: . Now something completely nontechnical: On your blog, Atomic Safari, (ED. NOTE: most excellent and worth a read, linked below) you are as likely to be talking about your philosophy of life as you are about photography. You were already pretty laid back when you were in Vancouver. How has Mumbai changed you?

Martin Prihoda: I think my skin has gotten thicker. Mumbai is an intense, intense place to live and work, but I really have grown up here as a photographer and a person in general. I’ve learned to do business within a field that’s challenging in a city that’s ruthless.

The laid back guy is still there but he’s definitely different from the one that left Vancouver five years ago. I’m much more comfortable dealing with larger crews and delegating. I’m also much more at ease walking into an agency and showing my work or presenting my thoughts at a pre-production meeting or even just sitting and discussing ideas with the editor or art director of a magazine.

Those things were all foreign when I was in Vancouver, shooting modeling portfolios, head shots and personal work with the occasional small editorial job. I feel as though Mumbai threw me into the big leagues with real players and real budgets. I suppose the most important thing for me is that I answered my ‘what if’ questions: what if I moved out of my comfort zone and went somewhere crazy and tested my skills, would I succeed?

If I died tomorrow I can say to myself that I did and that’s a good feeling. Of course, I’ve got a bunch of new ‘what if’ questions and some of them need to be answered in new places.

Since I live with my wife and son in a city that’s an island with 20 million other inhabitants, things can get cramped. Yoga, meditation, they’re tools for creating inner mental space. Its vital for me to stay balanced in this madhouse called Bombay.

Not only that but I really do think the concept of a meditation practice is moving out of the social ‘fringes’ and into mainstream consciousness as an actual tool for enhancing life.

(All images ©2013 Martin Prihoda)

Next: Flute Duo


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