Back in November I got a call from the fine folks at Popular Science Magazine to head over to the FedEx headquarters in Memphis to shoot some portraits of a guy named Dave Lange for their February issue.
The shot was for their Q&A page, and my contact at the magazine explained that he wanted a very particular shot of Dave for the issue - a close up portrait with the lighting rig I built for my Man + Wife series. It's always nice to get a job based entirely on work I've done in the past - in fact - nothing could be more flattering. I told them I would be more than happy to deliver the image for their magazine, but in the back of my head I was planning something completely different.
On the day of the shoot I packed up the custom light rig, along with the rest of my mobile studio and drove east toward Memphis. I knew I could get the shot they were asking for without much trouble, so my plan was to shoot that photo last. I always like to get the safety shot last. It adds extra pressure to the risky shot if you do it first, knowing you better nail it because it might be all you've got work with. I spent the entire drive brainstorming ideas for the shot, and once I arrived I had a decent plan in place.
Dave's job at FedEx is to ship literally anything anywhere. He is the guy you talk to if you need to charter an entire cargo jet to ship, say, six live elephants from a zoo in Canada to a zoo in the US, or send a tank from Virginia to the Middle East - so I wanted to incorporate this crazy concept of logistics into the shot, but also to show Dave calmly handing it like the pro that he is. When I arrived at the FedEx headquarters and saw Dave's office, I was immediately drawn to the giant map above his desk. The final shot from the first setup is below:
To light the shot, I set up the big octabank to camera left, originally with a grid, but ended up getting rid of the grid because I wanted more light to spill onto the map behind Dave. I toyed around with a few different fill light options (ring flash, shoot-through umbrella, on-camera strobe) but in the end I went with the old standby - a 5-in-1 reflector on the white side off to camera right. It's always the simplest things that work best.
At the beginning of the shoot Dave was pretty well frozen solid, but he quickly loosened up and settled into the rhythm once we started chatting about our kids. He did a great job taking direction, but he still looked a little stiff and oddly placed on the desk all by himself, so I handed him a coffee mug. It's amazing how much people relax during a shoot when you give them something familiar to hold onto.
I asked him to tell me about one of his his most complicated shipments of all time and his face slowly settled into the pose you see above. He told me about a time when he shipped several adult whales to a zoo somewhere and how complicated it was to keep them wet and comfortable during travel. He explained how they had to custom build a watertight container for each whale with a hammock for them to lie on for the duration of the flight. He looked upon these things with a sense of obvious satisfaction that everything went smoothly, and that's the look I think I captured for the photo. I also love how the map provides an appropriate backdrop to the image.
The thing I love most about this photo - the thing that I think makes it work for Popular Science, is the even tonal range across the image. Popular Science isn't a magazine where I would expect to see a lot of high-drama portraits and that's why I went with this more even style. There's hardly any pure black or pure white in the photo, which is a style I seem to be working with a lot more lately. It's not the kind of lighting you typically see in the real world, but it's sort of hard to say why not - that's when you know you've got it right.
After the first shot, I still had to get my safety shot - the shot that the art director originally asked for - so I broke down the big lights and set up my custom rig in Dave's office. Basically, the light is really just two parallel fluorescent tubes mounted to each other about 6 inches apart - the same kind of lights you would expect to see in any office building in America. I bolted this contraption onto an old tripod for extra stability and wired in a regular three prong electrical plug that goes into a standard wall outlet. The lights stand straight up in the air and I have my subject stand just inches from them and I stick my camera in between the two lights and shoot away.
The general idea with this shot is to get a raw, up-close, true-to-life photo of the subject with every detail in sharp focus (except the nose and ears). Sometimes these shots work, and sometimes they don't. It really depends on the subject. Here's the image of Dave that I sent in along with a few variations of the first shot:
It's a cool shot, I think, but Dave doesn't look particularly great here, which is the only real problem with this light setup - what you see is what you get. There's no hiding anything with this light. I wasn't a big fan of the white on white shirts dave is wearing here either - prison jumpsuits come to mind for some reason. Maybe if Dave ever gets convicted of murder I'll have a good reason to use this shot, but for now I think I'll let it let it marinate on the external hard drives for a while. Anyway, you get a sense of what the light does here. Some people really like the cat-eye catch lights in the eyes, some don't. I think they make the portrait really striking.
After I sent in the proofs, I got a call from the art director saying he loved the first shots with the map and the coffee mug, which is what they ended up running in the magazine. It's always fun to walk into a bookstore and buy a magazine off the rack with one of my photos in it. Here's the final layout they used for the February isse:
Big thanks to the folks at Popular Science and FedEx for being so easy to work with! Always a pleasure, guys! Hope to hear from you again soon!