Sunday, September 9, 2012

headshots 102 :: run and gun with ellis walding :: all hallow's eve

After some long hours of shooting, the film by Karol Escobar, "All Hallow's Eve," has finally, and sadly, wrapped. I was contracted by the director to work on set as the BTS photographer, documenting the events as they unfolded. Before committing to the project, I had to sign various nondisclosure agreements, in blood. Fact of the matter is, I had taken over 6000 photographs on the film set but today will not be the day that I will share that experience.

No worries my friends, they will arrive, here and on various places across the internet. I haven't got the go ahead just yet but I assure you the day will soon be upon us.

Why even mention the film? Well, today I wanted to share with you, with some added nerdiness, how I created the headshot of the gentleman you see here, actor, Ellis Walding. Ellis was in need of an updated headshot for IMDB and the director of "All Hallow's Eve," Karol Escobar, needed a proper image of the star of the film, Mr. Walding. Ellis, who you may recognize from his appearances here on the blog has also been seen on the big screen with his latest roles in the soon to be released "Backwards" and is currently working on the new Harrison Ford film, "Paranoia." With a solid acting and modeling resume, it was no surprise that director/producer Karol Escobar awarded the lead role of "Jack" to my good friend and often partner in crime, Ellis Walding.

More after the jump...

As the BTS photographer on "All Hallow's Eve," I have been documenting everything from preproduction and will be working straight through to the last days of postproduction. My work on the project began back in May, when Karol and I began scouting out possible locations for the film.

The Agenda

Time flew by and before I knew it, just a couple weeks ago, the cast of the film was to meet for one of the final rehearsals, or "table-reads," as those in the know call it. It was on eve of that rehearsal day that Karol advised me that we needed an updated and awesome headshot of the lead man, Ellis, to be used for the film's website, promotional and social media purposes.

The morning of the table-read I began to pack my gear and going against my usual instincts to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, I decided to pack on the light side. I had already been to the table-read location on multiple occasions and was well aware of the environment that I had to work. For a mid sized group of people the venue was excellent. For shooting a studio styled headshot, well, let's just say what is offered there is less than ideal. And that's putting it lightly.

The day's agenda was with little downtime and I prepared accordingly. The actors and some of the film crew were to sit and read through scripts or "sides" (more cool movie lingo). Once they would wrap in the meeting room, they would, without hesitation, move onto the actual filming location, where they would do what is called "blocking" (yep, yet another theater word). Blocking is when the actors go through their precise and exact movements, acting out their roles, while the director and DP (director of photography) and any other significants analyze and adjust before the actual days of filming arrive. Blocking is highly technical. Basically, if the actors are missing their marks or making any mistakes, they are properly torn a new you-know-what.

The bottom line is that the environment would be tense and moving at a very fast yet controlled pace. That morning, as I packed, I was conscious of what was about to go down and carefully decided what I would need to pull off a bad ass headshot with only seconds to work. Stressful? You bet.


My new large Tenba bag has been a blessing, allowing me to combine both my camera and lighting into one bag. The combination of the Nikon D4, an array of Nikon glass, strobes, triggers and accessories can be quite heavy but the organized chaos allows me to see everything in a single home, saving me time from wondering in which bag I may have placed some obscure wire. The Tenba never leaves its home without being packed to the brim.

Along with the Tenba, I also loaded up one of my other new pieces of awesomeness, the Feisol tripod system. This carbon fiber beauty comes with an awesome bag with padded shoulder strap. As the tripod is primarily composed of carbon fiber, it is barely a noticeable addition in weight or inconvenience to lug around. By the way, the folks over at Feisol are super awesome. Soon after receiving my new tripod system, I, with childlike curiosity, decided to dissect the beast. Problem was, I didn't know how to put it back together. Oops. The customer service team at Feisol emailed me factory diagrams of how the machine is put together and offered that if I was unable to reassemble that I could ship to them and they would in return, fix the tripod at zero cost. With the blueprints, I was able to put every back together. Lesson learned I suppose. Thanks Feisol!

Now for the skimping department. My bag-o-stands/modifers is quite large. On any given day, that bag is packed with three 10 foot Calumet lightstands, three 45 inch Calumet convertible brollies, a 60 inch Calumet convertible brolly and a 28 inch Westcott Apollo. Filled, this bag has got to be weighing in around the 30 pound mark. Now, weight is not my concern here. It is the sheer quantity of gear that needs to be on a crash diet for the pending shoot. Again, with the controlled chaos of the upcoming events, I would have minimal time to grab the lead man, get a sweet portrait and allow him to continue on his way. Typically, for a portrait session such as this, I would use every trick in my bag, literally. Knowing of my time restrictions, I decided on lighting him with a single head, minimizing the time it would take to dial in exposure and light settings. With that in mind, I simply grabbed one stand and the Apollo from the bag, loaded up the Xterra and headed over to the venue.

On The Road

Along the way, I made my usual stop for a large black coffee and a bottle of Vitamin Water. A perfect balance of nothingness. Hydrating with the Vitamin Water while dehydrating with the caffeine. Isn't science beautiful? On other shoots, by this time, I'm usually pretty stressed out with my shaky hands usually kicking right about now. As I have known the lead, Ellis, for over 15 years and have worked with him on multiple occasions, I was pretty calm. The only thing giving me stress was the allotted time that I would have to nail the shot.

The ride from my hood wasn't too long. Pulling into the parking lot, my coffee was still hot and I was the first to arrive. The smarter thing would have been to scout the exact spot to shoot the actor, getting some accurate light readings, allowing me to simply direct the actor and think nothing of exposure. Yes, that would have been the smarter thing to do. Instead, I opted to chill out in the vehicle while enjoying some last minutes of peace and quiet, sipping my coffee and listening to Johnny Cash.

Time To Make The Donuts

It wasn't long before car after car had pulled into the lot. It was time to work. Mind you, not only was I there to get the headshot but also to document the day's happenings.

We all said our hellos and soon thereafter, got down to business. The table-read began in an instant, with director Karol, keeping the actors on a short leash. Ok, maybe that sounded a bit harsh but fact of the matter is, she had to do what was necessary to get everyone's head in the game. Some of these actors, some who I've known for some time, could be easily distracted. Hey, in their company, I too could have been slacking as I've gotten into plenty of trouble many of nights, with a few of the actors that I will keep anonymous. My hat's off to Karol for keeping us in line. I digress.

As everyone quickly took their seats and began working, I surveyed my surroundings. As mentioned earlier, I said the location for photographic purposes was less than ideal. Take a close look at this particular photograph where the table-read is taking place. Sure, to an untrained eye, this looks like any other meeting hall. Tables and chairs neatly aligned, large windows filling the room with fresh air and lots of daylight. A pleasant and relaxing space for work to get done, sure, now, think from a photographer's point of view.

This room would, without a doubt, be the only place I would be able to grab Ellis for a minute and create a fast and very usable portrait. Surveying the space, notice the large windows letting in lots of ambient light, the same light that is bouncing off those yellowish walls and hardwood floor. This was a technical nightmare. The key here is to think outside of the box. I had been to this room many times before and when given this specific assignment, I knew exactly what I would do to overcome this horrific setting. Again, I'm not trying to knock on the room by any means (Jim, Paula), I am just trying to speak from a lighting perspective.


The photograph of the table-read is shot at an aperture of f/6.3, with a shutter of 1/100 and ISO 1600. That's was pretty close to an exact ambient reading of the room. If I had bumped the ISO to 3200 or opened the aperture a bit, or even slowed my shutter some more, you would have seen an exact reading of the room but I didn't want the outside to blow out too much so these settings enabled me to capture a bit more balance. With that exposure in mind you can see that I had lots of creative room to work with. How so? Kill the ambient!

Here's a diagram of the room and what I planned and  eventually executed to obtain the headshot you are seeing at the post's opening. Seasoned pros may be well aware of how it was done but those newer to the game may be scratching their heads.

If you are one scratching your head, I can probably read what it is that you may be thinking. And let me be the one to dismiss those improper thoughts.

First, I did not bring in my seamless black background rig. Nope, if you've been reading, I packed light. I thought about loading that bag but knew setting that up would take up too much space and much too much time. The 12 foot background rig remained behind.

Lastly, and this goes to lots of doubters out there in the photography and design world, IT IS NOT SHOPPED! I'll say it again my friends, this is not a Photoshop composite of Ellis placed on a black canvas. Sure, there was some final processing done to the image but I do promise you that the headshot of Mr. Walding is, for arguments sake, straight out of camera. That head is really getting itchy now, isn't it. Let me cure that urge to scratch.

Refer back once again to the table-read photo and the exposure settings I chose to create the image. At a hefty ISO of 1600, the room was not as brightly lit as you may think. The sun was bright and the skies clear that day but at that hour the sun was probably sitting above the roof of the building, creating a darker environment. What does this mean?

To get the headshot, I wanted to kill the ambient and work only with my a single flash head and the 28 inch Westcott Apollo, a medium sized softbox. How to kill that ambient? To do so, I wanted to get an exposure that would give me nothing but a black image on the D4 LCD. For that exposure I dropped the ISO from the highly sensitive yet clean 1600 down to a noise free ISO 100. Tripping the shutter once and I can already see that the ambient was well into the black, nothing to see in the room, not even a hint of the subject in the frame. Darkness, exactly where I wanted to be. I dropped the shutter (shutter controls ambient) to 1/60 so that I would just barely be able to make out that there is a human in frame. The background was still nice and black and if need be I could have dropped to 1/40 on the slow end or went a bit faster if the ambient began to creep in. I began with an aperture (aperture controls flash) of f/5.6, a nice starting point to add in the speedlight.

Take a look at the diagram, what you are seeing are the windows on either side, the brick representing the back wall with the yellowish closets, the subject, Ellis, and my setup. I put my rigs towards the right as I wanted to keep the gear out of the way of the other actors. Now, notice the placement of the softbox in relation to the camera and subject. Very very tight. Let me begin by saying that I chose to use the softbox to mod the light for a couple of reasons. First, the light that comes out of the Apollo, with its recessed front is highly controlled, minimizing the chances of any strobe contaminating the room. Second, and just as important, I just freaking love the quality of light that it produces; soft, wrapping and beautiful.

The reason the softbox is in so tight to the subject is a calculated decision, being very aware of the Inverse Square Law. I'm not getting into a physics lesson today but let's just say that it is wise to understand, when lighting, the properties and predictability of light. Having the light in so close minimizes the flash to subject distance and therefore requires less power from the head to expose the subject properly, while at the same time, avoiding the spill factor. It may seem a bit confusing when I discuss but when used in practical situations, repetitively, the concept becomes instinctual. I promise.

At this distance, I knew that I could set the strobe to 1/4 power and tweak from there. By tweaking, I mean opening or closing my aperture in either direction or moving the light in closer or further away, depending on the quality and quantity of light that I would get from my initial exposure.


The table-read was complete and it was time to head over for the blocking portion of rehearsal. This was the moment that I needed to grab Ellis and squeeze in a minute or so of shooting. I didn't even need to get his attention as he knew too, that this would be our time to work. Ellis walked right over to me and asked where I needed him. Again, we have worked together countless times in the past, be those projects personal or professional, we kind of read each others minds. Corny but true.

I began with my preconceived exposure settings, fired a test frame and chimped the LCD. Pretty close for my first frame. I didn't like how his right side was shadowed so I moved the Westcott around a bit to get some light on that side of his face. At this point the softbox material was actually touching my glass. Now that's tight!

I tweaked my settings ever so slightly. The final exposure was at ISO 100, f/4.0 and 1/60. From beginning to end, I may have ripped about twenty frames in under five minutes. The pressure was on but the shot was a success. I had more than a few that he and Karol could choose from, both for "All Hallow's Eve" and Ellis' IMDB page.

I broke down the lighting equipment and continued to document the day's events. The stress levels had dropped significantly as the big task of the day went off flawlessly.

That's A Wrap

Once again, the actual filming has wrapped just a couple days ago. It was a super experience to work with such talent. Stay tuned for that epic story!

Until next time...