Rain Portraits

          Stephen’s story is inspiring.  A year ago he decided to change his physique.  And he did.  70 lbs later, he’s got a new body, a career managing one of the coolest gyms in Maryland, and a schedule rapidly filling with modeling gigs.  When the gym asked for some before and after images for a collage of physique stories, he knew he wanted a shot as dramatic as his transformation.   Oh, and he needed it within 48 hours.  We took a tour of the gym, and did some brainstorming.  A strong backlight was called for to give definition to muscular edges.  I opted for a low-key black-on-black aesthetic to lend a hip, urban feel, and to encourage the specular highlights command attention against the void of the background.  Then Stephen mention rain.  Huh? It’s not so easy to shoot in the rain, much less generate it on command.  Showers abound in a gym, but there ain’t much space to put in lighting gear.  Well, not safely, or out of frame.  Then we saw the pool, and I swear I heard a hallelujah choir when I saw the shower head standing out there, all in the open, with plenty of space to position equipment.  What’s more, the pool was drained for cleaning, thus eliminating the three-stooges juxtaposition of high-powered electronics with a million gallons of water.  But I digress.

           We set up a 9’ X 9’ background of black seamless paper, careful to allow enough room to avoid splashing the gear.  This extra subject-to-background space helped keep spill from my key light off the background, but it also required me to use every inch of the seemingly large background.  The greater the subject-to-background distance, the more the background shrinks in the frame, and any normal to wide focal length will cause the subject to extendy beyond the background.  I love Photoshop as much as the next guy, but no one likes spending a Saturday morning cloning in extra background paper. 

          Starting with the dry shots, we focused on nailing the “after” image to really show off the physique transformation.  The key here was to have a slice of hard light skim across the front of his torso.  The angle is critical: if the subject rotates too much towards the light, the troughs between muscles fill with light and you lose the definition.  Rotate too far away from the light, and the entire muscle goes into shadow, again losing definition.  Strong modeling lights are hugely helpful for navigating this balance, and I was only half-joking when I mentioned to Stephen that I should build a remote-controlled model-posing turntable.   

          That elevated backlight is also what makes the water come alive.  Lighting falling water can be an exercise in futility unless it’s lit properly.  The trick is to backlight it as much as possible, and it takes a little trial and error to line it all up correctly without getting too much lens flare.  Flags can help with this, but none were needed here because I wasn’t usually shooting directly into the light, and when I did, the flare looked pretty cool.



          With the most critical light in place, we then positioned the fill light.  Here, I used an ABR800 ringlight off-axis.  This unconventional configuration may seem like a waste of the unique ringlight qualities, but off-axis it becomes a beauty dish-sized light source that is not-too-hard, not-too-soft, and with just the right falloff for this application.  The trash bag custom-designed rain cover not only kept the rig dry, but also diffused the light a bit and elongated the source so as to provide a bit more vertical illumination.  On-axis, this light would have filled in those shadows that I had painstakingly created in order to maximize muscular definition.  I place this light to the camera right, which gives the illusion of a single light source illuminating the scene.  We’re not exactly going after realism in this setup, but I don’t want to call unnecessary attention to the light sources, and if I can pull off the one-light feel, it might seem a bit like this was lit with an overhead/rear street light.

          Lastly, I added a silver reflector to the left (subject’s right) to kick in a bit of light on the dark side of the model.  I chose a silver surface to emphasize the specular highlights, and I took advantage of that huge, shiny white tile wall to help my lights serve double duty by reflecting the light.  I chose the reflective angle carefully:  I don’t really want to fill in shadows, like I would normally do with a reflector.  Here, I wanted to do two things: 

  1. Give a sharp edge to Stephen’s right side (camera left) in order to give some separation with the background (especially important when shooting dark skin on black seamless).
  2. Create another set of shadows on the subject’s dark side, to emphasize the muscular lines. 

The placement of this reflector is critical, but not too difficult to figure out.  The main thing was to keep it way off the camera axis, almost much perpendicular to the source of the high backlight.

          The lighting setup is shown in the last photo of this set.  Click on it to get a version with rollover-visible notes.  Please feel free to share your thought in the comment field below.  Would you have done something differently?  Have you done a shoot like this?  Post a link!