UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


On Assignment: Evoking Expression

Tuesday was reasonably tense. I photographed a breakup, a drug intervention, a high school cafeteria fight and a few other iffy situations.

All told, an enjoyable afternoon. And it will probably change the way I approach my portraiture going forward.

MaryLee Adams is a local actress who has done work in theater and is more recently breaking into TV and movies. I photographed her for the Howard County Arts Council.

We had a room full of flashes set up for the shoot, but in the end the lighting could not have been simpler: it's just an e640 in a white beauty dish, overhead. There is another flash in a shoot-through white umbrella below, but it is not turned on. So the umbrella is just acting as a reflector.

The background is a projection screen in my basement office, which we let go dark with a little distance.

But the interesting thing for me in this shoot was not the lighting so much as the subject interaction. I learn so much from watching other photographers, especially when I can watch them work live. Specifically, I was thinking back to this 2010 post by John Keatley of a photo he did of a stunt man.

I loved the photo, but I loved the process behind it even more. Fast forward to 2013, and I got a chance to watch John work live in person, with the clock ticking in perhaps the highest of high-pressure environments. He was photographing Greg Heisler, with an egg timer running, in front of 350 other photographers.

It's on video, and you may have seen it when it appeared here earlier. At the 2:15 mark, John uncorks a seemingly effortless spiel:

"I like to imagine, what if things went a little differently…"

And from there, he just … goes. This was amazing to watch. Just like someone pulling a lens out of his bag, John was pulling a technique out of his pocket to get Greg lost in the moment and feeling free enough to do just about anything. And Greg, it should be known, is probably on the shy side as subjects go. Plus, he was being drawn out in front of 350 photographers, remember. Not exactly optimal.

It was fascinating. But at the same time, it didn't feel really "me." Or more accurately, it wasn't in my comfort zone. But a portrait session with an actress seemed like an ideal time to try it. And having done so I will absolutely do it again.

Is it a device? Yes. But it's a really effective device.

And even if it makes me uncomfortable, I want to keep doing it until it makes me less uncomfortable. Because I love the results.

I asked MaryLee not to think so much about her facial expressions and body attitudes, but just to remember and internally experience a variety of painful experiences. Like in this series, a breakup:

Or, to imagine herself in settings she had not experienced, such as showing up, seeing a roomful of your friends and realizing you had just been ambushed for a drug intervention:

Obviously, MaryLee is better equipped to access these emotions than a typical person. So for me, it was a wonderful way to test and experience the process.

Zooming in closer and removing the body attitude element (frankly, a big component) you are also left with more interesting tighter portraits:

Having dipped my toe in the water, I am much more willing to keep doing this, and to push my subjects who might not be so comfortable in the process as was MaryLee.

The range of facial expressions and body attitudes were remarkable — even if fleeting and subtle, and in many cases the micro-expressions I find particularly interesting. For that reason, flash power/recycling speed is a big factor. You don't want to be waiting four seconds for a beep and watching this word go by.

So move your light closer if you have to, to get a lower power setting and faster recycle speeds. Or bump the ISO — whatever. A little extra grain is not going to be a concern when balanced against more emotional content.

I am grateful to MaryLee for being such a willing and able first experience, and to John for letting me watch him do this inside the pressure cooker that is the GPP Shootout. I am definitely a little hooked.

For more on this technique, be sure to check out the second post in Sara Lando's excellent portraiture series from last year.

Next: A Scout and a Shoot, Pt. 1


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