In an era of open learning where the internet provides countless resources through endless tutorials, both technical and artistic, the workings in front of the camera aren't a mystery as they used to be in the film days.. or so I've heard given I'm of the digital generation too!
Recently I put together a portrait piece for the Queensland Museum Pedal exhibition. With the help of Pedal, we tracked down a local biking icon Paul Viner from Revelocycles, a vintage bike collector and mechanic. I always find it important to spend more time talking than shooting when it comes to portraits, and after hearing Paul's life story we then decided where and how we should take his portrait.
"This is Paul. A dedicated collector and passionate mechanic to vintage bicycles. While Paul now collects, repairs and restores vintage bikes to their former glory, he used to race them. Pictured, is his ex-racing bike, a vintage red Berretto. While mass-produced and non-repairable bike, parts and their carbon-fibre counterparts flood the market, Paul keep's true to his craft and labour of love, working with his hands on intricate assemblies, rebuilding parts and restoring vintage pieces. He's holding the first tool which started it all, something he'd have in his back pocket when racing; one side of the tool for taking off the wheel, the other for putting peanut butter on sandwiches. The red Berretto has seen it's racing days and he still rides it now and then, recently taking it over to the Italian vintage bike race 'L'Eroica' earlier this year. Now he's planning to hang it up for good, complete with dust and scratches"
I thought I'd run through a little bit about how we put the picture together and the reasons for the composition, lighting style, positioning Paul etc. Often when walking into a new location I like to follow a structure of deciding how to make a picture, taking the above as an example, after lengthy chats with Paul, we thought it was fitting to shoot him in his element, a cosy workshop where he labours away at his passion. The room is filled with vintage bikes, both his own sizeable collection and his clients and while this would illustrate the collector in him, there was a stronger picture to be had. In the corner of the room is his timber clad workspace and a bike stand. We thought it would be a nice touch to put his ex-racing bike up on the stand and have Paul in a quite moment in his surroundings. As we chatted he naturally sat down in the corner which is something he does daily when pondering and chatting to his wife. It just made sense to photograph him there. I wanted Paul facing inward to the frame, if he were facing outward, it might feel like there's something he's looking at that the viewer can't see, an element of secrecy that I didn't want in a telling portrait. I set about placing the corner of the room in the 3rd portion of the frame and had Paul sit down. To make for a strong composition and to lead the eye, I placed the central bike stand in the other 3rd of the frame, and placed a white wheel leaning against the wall. We originally had black tyres but I swapped these for white as it picks up some nice bluey colour graduations and stands out a little more. Putting all this together in combination with the lamp behind, and he had a nice triangle to place Paul in the middle of.
Now there's a nice strong composition, lighting needed to be balanced across the frame. Since this is an environmental portrait, we needed to place accent lights in the frame. As you can see in the above, we placed a strobe behind Paul hitting the wall and mimicking what the lamp would be throwing, and another to the far right of frame washing against the tools. here's a lighting diagram on how we set it all up!
Using the ambient light of the room via a few windows, I exposed for some subtle details in the shadows, this killed the lamps throw and hence why a little hidden strobe was gelled to compensate against the wall. I wanted to get some separation between the bike in the foreground and the tools and clutter in the background, so I set about placing the bike stand forwards, keeping everything gridded to more accurate light, and illuminated the bike frame from above. The background was then balanced out by a main fill 2m octabox, gridded and diffused to camera left, which would give some nice subtle light wrap to Paul while washing across the workbench area and gave nice highlights on the chrome tools.
The main light was a beauty dish, gridded and boomed over and positioned to wash off Paul and onto the top of the wheel leaning on the cabinet. All this was to keep the mood cosy, using warm lights and placing the grids to build the picture!
The Black Bee