One of my favorite photographic challenges is to make a portrait under less than ideal circumstances. When I was contacted by my friend Jason Rockman to make some portraits in a comic book store, I knew it was going to be very fun.
Jason, a DJ for Montreal’s CHOM 97.7 FM radio station and singer for Slaves On Dope, is a bona-fide comic book freak. It is a passion he literally wears on his sleeves. As it turns out, British tattoo magazine Skin Deep is putting out a special edition which will focus on super-hero inspired ink and they decided to profile Jason and his superhero-themed tattoos. A good part of Jason’s work was done by Montreal’s Dave Cummings, who is an incredibly talented tattoo artist. Check him out if you need anything done!
I knew a few things going into the shoot. The store, Expert Comics, would be open for business. And though it is a pretty big store, it cannot be compared to the size we are used to working with in a studio. I knew I wanted a colorful background that complemented Jason, his tattoos and the spirit of the article. Finally, since the shoot is superhero-themed, I wanted to treat Jason to some beautiful light with a bit of an edge.
Upon arriving at Expert, I knew immediately what background I wanted. Along one of the walls was a huge rack of extremely colorful comics and graphic novels. Perfect! The biggest challenge facing me now was that the space was only 15-20 feet wide. Ideally I want my subject at least 10 feet away from the background. That just wasn’t an option here. Jason was going to be no more than 6 feet from the wall. I didn’t want the background to be too distracting, so I opted to shoot with my fast prime lenses instead of my zooms; this let me to shoot at f/2.8 and allowed the background to fall out of focus. I started my tests wide open at f/1.4, but found the depth of field to be too narrow and the background became way too abstract. Here is what the light setup looked like.
My main light was an Alien-Bees B400 strobe shooting through one of my favorite modifiers, a Photoflex 5-foot OctoDome. The beauty of the OctoDome is that it has a narrow profile; I can have a large light source that doesn’t take up a huge amount of space. I had the light up as high as I could get it without damaging the ceiling, and angled downwards to get a slight butterfly pattern and some shadow under his chin. Had the light been too direct, his face would have lost definition. I've had a lot of questions from colleagues regarding the seemingly "wimpy" strobes that I use. After all, the Alien Bees B400 is only rated at 160 W/s. It actually suits my needs perfectly! I rarely shoot outdoors in the blazing sun, so I do not need a huge amount of output for that. I also shoot at very large apertures (f/1.4 to f/4). If my lights were too powerful, I wouldn't be able to get the shallow depth of field I'm often after [without an additional neutral density filter attached to the lens], since at the lowest output, they'd likely still be too strong.
I then placed 2 Canon speedlites on either side of Jason, approximately 8 feet away and slightly behind him. I oriented the heads of the flashes vertically to give me a taller and thinner spread of light. To control flare, I attached a flag on each light that I made from an old pair of 4×5 dark slides. These lights served 2 purposes; they help separate Jason from the background, and more importantly, the light added a nice rim around Jason that helped highlight his arms and face, as well as his tattoos. It gave the photographs a nice sense of dimension.
The whole system was triggered using my trusty Pocket Wizards.
Not knowing the final layout of the magazine, I made sure to capture some horizontal as well as some vertical photographs. I also wanted to give the magazine some other options, so we shot a few other setups switching up backgrounds, as well as jumping between available light and strobe.
To see more of Tim Snow's work, visit his Pro Showcase page.
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