It was little while ago now that I shot the cover for Dan Le Sac's first solo album but I thought I'd share some of the tips and techniques of the process that went into creating it.
This shoot was a little different from my normal foray into 6 lights and crazy coloured gels but that it is not to say that this setup was any less technically demanding. On first impressions the shot may look simple enough but there are in fact a few technical things specific to light that had to be contended with to make this look possible.
Dan wanted a very close headshot for the cover and remembering that album covers are square probably means no shoulders either, this was going to be a really tight crop on the face. To help add drama to this closeup shot he was employing the amazing talent and skills of special effects makeup artist Simone McDonald to create a weather-beaten antihero look. This look would certainly attract the viewers attention so now all I had to do was light it.
Now that we know a little about the brief and what the client is after we can start to plan the shot. It's worth noting that on these briefs where you get somewhat strict guidelines, it can seem confining at first, especially for those of us who shoot fashion and other portrait style shots because now you have a more regimented final image in mind. The trick to achieving this is to interpret the brief as accurately as possible by trying to help the client get the image they have in their minds-eye out onto paper. This is a lot harder than it first seems and getting as much reference material and example images of ideas off to them before you start shooting will not only cover yourself but also alleviate any concerns your client may have that the shoot is going in the wrong direction. For this particular shoot I even did lighting tests prior to shot day and sent them to the client, this pretty much guarantees the whole team is on the same page when you start to shoot.
Pre Planning the Shot
I knew I wanted the shot very close and tight and I knew that I wanted to make the lighting as interesting as possible but also complement the makeup and overall feel of the shot. It would be no good to photograph him looking like he's just done a term of mining on Mars and then stick him outside at noon at f1.8. That 'throw-away' style of lighting just isn't going to cut it for an attention grabbing album cover, it has to actually be interesting and fit the mood the artist (Dan le sac) is trying to portray.
After a little brainstorming I ended up with a few key characteristics that I wanted the lighting to have. Predominantly though I wanted it to just light the front of the face with minimal wraparound and I wanted as little distractions from the makeup as possible. To do this would mean employing a little knowledge of the inverse square law theory. Now before you all just skip ahead to the pretty pictures just bear with me. For photographers the theory means this; if the model is standing 1 metre from the light and has a light meter reading of f16 she will have a light meter reading of f8 at 2 metres from the light. In short, you double your distance from the light source you quarter the light that falls on the model. From f16 to f11 is half the light and from f11 to f8 is half the light again resulting in a quarter of the light over all. If you're still with me then lets look at why this is useful knowledge when shooting and how I applied it to achieve this shot.
If Dan was 2 metres from my light source and the front of his face read f8 the back and edges of his head would be receiving a similar amount of light and it wouldn't be a very dramatic drop-off of light. If he was a lot closer to the light source however then the drop off of light would be noticeably more significant. Take a look at the diagram I have included here with this article to better understand what I mean.
So brining the light extremely close to Dan was the first step in achieving the look I was after, but in doing so I had created another problem for myself. The problem was that there is another little rule in photographic lighting that says 'the larger the light source in relation to the subject the softer the light'. I had just brought my light source less than 50cm away from my subjects face to create dramatic fall-off of light but that effectively meant that I now had a huge light source in relation to my subject. I had to find a way to control the light in a way to maintain that drop off as well as create dramatic lighting. I introduce to you a photographers best friend; the humble black velvet. I use black velvet all the time to flag light but I had to bring in something special for this shoot so I crafted 4 A3 boards and covered them in black velvet. These four black boards would then surround Dans head, one on either side and one on top and one below.
Yes that really is as weird as it sounds but the theory was a strong one and it worked brilliantly. Essentially the four black velvet boards are eliminating any stray light whatsoever from bouncing around and filling in any shadows. What you end up with is a very quick fall-off of light and very deep shadows, perfect for the look I was after….even if the set did look a little ridiculous. I attached the A3 boards to clips and then supported them with two light stands.
Now all that is in place I had to organise how I was going to actually get my camera in these tight quarters to shoot. The key light was going to be very close for maximum drop-off and I knew the shot was going to be head-on with the subject staring straight into the lens, because of this I didn't want the light off centre or too far above. At this close distance if the light was almost directly above the shadows would not have been very flattering. One immediate option would have been to turn to the ring-flash, the ring-flash creates a very even light, I could get extremely close with it and it wasn't going to get in my way as I could literally shoot through it. I love the ring-flash but it was not going to be appropriate for this shot, the ring-flash is very bright, brash and bold and gets used with music in videos of similar a nature. Dan was going to be covered in rubble and grime and that glamour fashion lighting would definitely not have suited the shot.
Instead I went for the next best thing which was to shoot between two very close strip softboxes. I had the two Bowens Lumiair 100 strips with the egg crate/grids on the front. Having these grids on the front of the softboxes was essential as I needed to maintain maximum control of the light and reduce any fall-off, the grids help to do this perfectly.
The whole set was shot against a black backdrop to eliminate any more light bouncing but it was now too dark and I couldn't distinguish where Dan's head ended and where the background began. To remedy this I just popped another strobe back there with a grid on it to just pick up the edges of hair and give him shape.
Dan loved the resulting images and were exactly what he was looking for. He chose a few to be retouched and they were then sent to his record label for final approval. As you can see in the final album cover here the record label did in fact heavily crop the original shot even further to add even more impact for viewers. I understand why they did it and I think it looks really cool but I definitely love how the original shots look. Here they are below un-cropped and showcased all together for the first time.
Click on the images below to enlarge them...
3 x 500w Bowens Gemini Strobes
1 x 60 degree Reflector with 1/4" Grid (backlight)
2 x 100 Lumiair Strip boxes with grids
4 x A3 Black Velvet Boards
1 Black Backdrop
Let me know what you think or if you've used a similar technique. I think this idea of heavy flagging is so often overlooked but something so simple and inexpensive like homemade black boards can have a dramatic effect that will not be realised until you try it yourself. It really is crazy how much stray light bounces around on set and this technique was perfect for creating the drop-off of light I was after.
For more reading on the drop-off of light and edge transitions of shadows take a look at my article on 'Photographers create 2D representations of 3D objects'
Its not only black boards in the studio that can be incredibly useful but white boards as well. In this article I look at how large white bounce boards can create incredibly flattering portraits 'Bouncing Light'
A little look at my 'Quick Tips' page shows you several more uses for the humble Black Velvet.