When you begin to learn how to make a photograph, you never know where the journey will take you. Hernan Rodriguez discovered this on his impressive own journey. In his narrative below, he explains how he created his portrait of Evander Holyfield and ended up making a friend. Rodriguez specializes in commercial photography and portraiture. Winner of 25 photography awards, his clients include Corona, Guess?, EMI, and Sony Records.
I remember years ago in art school, part of the curriculum was still life painting and nude life drawing. The first part of the semester was just learning to see the light. You never really imagine how just a simple concept can be so complicated. Years later as I made the transition into photography, I came to find out that’s the whole show.
The instructor I recall, would place one light across the subject to show direction of light, placing a “key” source for us to define the subject, and the shadows would fall accordingly. In hindsight, what he did was force us to expand our vision in seeing how light would behave from its point of orgin as well as from its surrounding environment, creating a value scale from highlights to shadows (0-100 in a Grayscale). This can be translated in a scale from (0-255) in the digital arena, 0 being pure black. Light floors would brighten the shadow values on my subject, while dark walls would add more depth to the shadows. Even slightly-opened doors, would bring in just the right amount of fill to the subjects. This made me very observant in how I viewed light, as I became a photographer. In order to render a realistic portrait, I would study the slightest value changes throughout my subject, looking to create dimension and depth. But how does all this translate into photography?
In a nutshell, using my Sekonic L-358 light meter, takes the guesswork out of the equation when I’m working with any scene. It helps me measure the intricacies of light mathematically, which in turn, allows me to express myself artistically. I can pinpoint the values of light, as it falls across my subject. A practice I often use when I’m building my light setups, is to place my lights accordingly, for the style of portrait or fashion shot I am trying to accomplish. If it’s a Low-Key image for instance, I might use my keylight with a narrow modifier to control the spread of light. This can be a small 12×18 Softbox or maybe even a flash head with a 20 degree grid. I place my fill light and accent lights in the general proximity where I want my highlights and shadows to fall in place. I also approximate the distance and height of my key light. Now this is when I bring in my meter.
(On a sidebar: You see, there are two schools of photographers when It comes to metering. One group meters, and the other group, because of the years of experience say they don’t find the need to meter, and might use the LCD as their guide, which really is not an accurate indicator. This LCD is very sophisticated, but only to render an accurate display for the viewer, not intended to be used for accurate mathematical calculations.)
After years of experience, coupled with lots of practice, allows me to place my lights pretty close to where they need to be. This includes, distance, wattage, modifiers and also taking note of how the surroundings in my scene would affect my shot. I’ve sometimes walked into sets with white marble floors, in which the first concern was in placing a dark tarp on the floor. Once all these calculations are made and lights are in place, I bring out my Sekonic L-358, and I begin what I like to call, my “Pop Test.”
The basic standard in metering for portraits is placing the meter under the subject’s chin, aiming towards the camera, and metering (popping). In my “Pop Test,” I like to create a visual image of what my final shot is looking like, even without taking a shot. I place the meter where I would want to be drawing my viewer’s attention, which is the face, and I pop. I continue to pop the meter down the length of my subject several times, even down to the floor at times. A great feature the Sekonic L-358 has is the wireless remote trigger. It allows me to trigger off my flashes remotely without an assistant having to hit the test button, and all done from my subject’s position. All this meter popping along my subject allows me to see where the light falls off in mathematical calculations. I am basically back in art school, where we are painting with light. So cliché but true. If my metering results are too close in number from my subjects face, lets just say an F8.5 meter reading, to my subject’s legs, F8, this indicates to me that my key light needs to be modified further in order to falloff quicker, if I’m to create my low-key portrait. You normally will not get this from an LCD view test. This is where I begin to make my adjustments and without having taken a test shot. To control my key light, I bring in some black cards (Gobos) to control the light. I place these between the light and the subject. I sometimes might place black sheer fabric clamped halfway down my soft box to cut the light. If I need to cut the light further, I flap another strip of black sheer. These techniques are helpful in creating a “cinematic” style of image.
Now I take another test of “pops” from the face to the waist. When making these type of adjustments, I normally might meter F8 at the subject’s face, F5.6 below the chest area, and F4 down to the waist. I basically have created a vignette in camera.
Note: My assistant once asked me, which I’m sure is a very common question and practice: “Why don’t you just add a vignette in post?” I’ve worked with many agencies, in which the client might be a celebrity. I can’t tell my client to just “imagine” the final images with a vignette or this way or that way. They want to see it in the shot. Especially if your shooting hundreds of images.
Depending also in the look I’m trying to capture, or the lighting ratios I’m intending, I will measure my key light and fill light separately. Metering and knowing the relation between the key light and fill light is the whole game. I can also do this in a crunch by simply pulling back the dome sphere in my Sekonic L-358, and aiming the meter towards each individual light with complete accuracy. It allows me to now make all other adjustments when adding accent lighting and/or background lighting. I often like placing a spot on my background behind my subjects’. I also like to know that there isn’t any falloff from other lights onto my background, so I meter as well. This now allows me to place a separate light, often with a color filter onto my background. I sometimes find though, that my background my still meter F5.6. This tells me two things. Either my key light needs to be feathered away from the subject and background, or the subject is too close to the background. Now I simply adjust and re-meter.
NOW I JUST MIGHT TAKE MY FIRST TEST SHOT
Almost always, the visual picture I painted with my “Popping” test is the image I first see in my LCD. All I need to do now, is the fine tuning of light to create the style of image of my choice. If I’m working with beauty lighting for instance, in which the ratios are a lot closer, maybe just 1/2 stop, If my key light meters F/11, I might use 2-3 lights as fill. This is where metering becomes very crucial for me. Each light I meter F/5.6, with a cumulative meter reading of F/8.5 for all three. This also allows me to decrease the fill if I need more shadows. I cannot just wing this with my LCD or experience, when my client is forking the bill. Metering keeps a consistency in my images, especially when I have a full day of shooting. When working with beauty lighting, metering the accent lighting again, is very important. If I’m adding an accent light, I take a meter reading with all my lights on. Let’s say for instance it meters F/11.5, now I just place my accent to be around 1/2 stop brighter than the F/11.5. Increments of light add up. It accumulates, more so when using over five lights. I might start with the key light at F/11, but after adding four more lights, you might add 1/2 stop of light to your exposure. This is why I re-meter and make adjustments as needed.
WORKING WITH EVANDER HOLYFIELD
Through my journey in photography, I have had the honor of photographing many great people. Some famous, some not so famous. In this journey I have become not only Evander Holyfield’s personal photographer, but also his friend. In one instance, he called me to meet him at the W Hotel in Hollywood on his way to the airport. I was to capture a few shots of him in some True Religion Clothing, and also personal images for his Web site. My lead photographer Nathan York and I, came equipped with three portable flash heads, two reflectors, a gobo, 2 continuous Ice Lights by Westcott, and our Sekonic L-358 meter. What did we have time to set up? Not much. Evander had only ten minutes to shoot. Pulling this job off with accuracy weighed a lot on my light meter. I looked around to assess our surroundings and the quality of light we had to work with. Shooting on location is very unpredictable, but sometimes very magical. Things just happen. What was there was dim moody light. I didn’t find a reason to over-power the available light but to add to it. There were three types of light sources which would produce the shot. Natural light, incandescent light, and daylight balanced continuous light. In the lobby was a set of large white steps, which were set back from a large bay window. The sun was setting low and quick, so the light coming through was weak. The ambient meter reading in the steps where Evander would be sitting was F/4 at 1/60th of a second, ISO 500. Behind him was a large staircase mirror, recess lights, and night lamps. This area registered too dark at this setting. I metered in that region at F4 at 1/30th of a second. Some spots were even brighter at F5.6, which would add interest and separation in the final shot. Now what I did for the final shot, was to use two Ice light sticks (continuous lights) three feet above Evander, and right out of my picture frame. This light added one-half stop to one stop, depending on the distance. It also brightened his face and eyes, and did not affect the scene whatsoever. I now took one last ambient meter reading with the addition of this light. My readjustment and final meter reading was 1/30th of a second at 4.5. I took another variation placing a second Ice light low and in front of Evander for a added fill. This light metered F2.8 1/2. There was a week fill that metered F2 from the bay window as well. As the sun dropped, this meter reading varied. I also used the option of increasing my ISO for adding brightness.
Note: For proper white balance, we used an 18 percent grey card, filled the frame with this shot, and designated this for a custom white balance setting, as we had a mix of different light temperatures – Kelvin.
LENS: I also used my Tamron 70-200SP 2.8 with the vibration compensation. It allowed me to shoot hand held at slow speeds. I also shot close to 200mm to get maximum compression, which kept all the attention on Evander.
Now just imagine if I didn’t have a clue of the amount of light produced from the various sources, or if I simply used my built-in camera meter. We probably would have produced a glamorous snapshot. From the outside looking in, it seemed that way. Flat indoor lobby lighting, and a person holding up two light sticks. Having a vision for what we wanted to produce, and the L-358 to guide us there, was a perfect combination.
All images and quotes in this post are used with permission and ©Hernan Rodriguez, all rights reserved; story is ©Sekonic. Please respect and support photographers’ rights. Feel free to link to this blog post, but please do not replicate or repost elsewhere without written permission.