I joined members of The New Vintage Ensemble a couple of weekends back for a promotional shoot – this is the same group who did the fantastic production of “Pride & Prejudice” that resulted not only in a killer promo session, but also in my engagement, so it’s always a thrill to work with them.
The Ensemble is starting work on a production of Shakespear’s “Hamlet,” to be performed in January 2016, and to help get the hype going we did an early promo session. The concepts for this shoot came from the show’s Director, Casey, with some input from Conor, the actor who is playing Hamlet. While there is talk of doing another promo session sometime in December with more of the cast, this first one had to be kept pretty simple, since the production process is still young, and there aren’t even official costumes yet.
The brief for this shoot called for dark, moody black & white portraits of Hamlet in a few different poses. The overall theme was darkness, Hamlet emerging from a sea of blackness, with very limited and controlled lighting on him alone.
This poses a few issues right off the bat. These days, most of my portrait sessions are held in my living room – I shuffle all the furniture out into the hallway, pull the curtains, drape a towel over the windows in the front door, and away we go. On cloudy days, I can knock the ambient lighting down enough so that it’s a minor player at best. On sunny days, it’s a bit more dicey.
But since there was no way of knowing what the weather would be like on the day of the shoot, that was risky for a series that needed full, total blackness. And one of the limitations of the E-M5 + speedlight combos is the camera’s relatively low flash sync speed coupled with the limited power output of the flashes, which means that when I want total darkness, I need to work in near darkness.
Casey was able to get us access to a local theater that he’s a member of. Theaters are great for this kind of work, because their productions require complete and total lighting control, often with no ambient at all. Plus, their lighting boards are laid out the way we photographers like – Casey could set the lights to 60%, which is actually indicated on the board, and I was able to call up, “Nope, too much, drop them to 40%.” I wish every space I worked in had that kind of fine-tuning available!
So we setup on the theater stage, centering out chair for Conor to sit in, and dropped the house lights down. We used some black fabric – I think the theater term is just “blacks” – to cover the floor and a carpet behind the chair, and the stage already had black background curtains.
The only issue was positioning myself. I wanted to shoot with the 35-100mm, and be generally tight on Conor, but with him near the front of the stage I had to stand out in the aisle, which was lower than the stage. I ultimately pulled a few chairs out into the aisle and perched both the tripod and myself up on them, which got me to an angle just a little bit above Conor when he was sitting. It was a touch precarious, but it worked.
Lighting was simple – only two speedlights. I’m trying to work simpler with lights these days, and am finding that in all truth, multi-light setups with four speedlights and three different modifiers aren’t often necessary, at least not for the gigs and styles I’m shooting.
The key light for the shoot was a YN-460II in my homemade beauty dish, just to camera left of Conor, angled down at about 45 degrees from above, and feathered to the right. I used a second YN-460II, bare, behind the chair, pointing into its back, as a backlight. Both ran between full power and two stops down.
The beauty dish is the perfect modifier for this kind of shot – it softens the light compared to a bare flash, but it’s still got much more edge to it than a softbox or umbrella. It’s diffused but directional, and works very well to sculpt faces. With other lights for fill, you can soften its shadows and create lovely, “beauty” light – but on its own like this, it’s perfect for lighting the mad Prince of Denmark.
The backlight was tucked up as close to the chair back as I could get it, and pumped a halo effect around the back of the chair top and Conor’s head. It’s a very dramatic light, and from time to time I’d turn it off – or just shoot a second frame before it could recharge, for some variation. In general, I really like what it adds. But it did come with a catch (there’s always a catch): the theater is a dust trap, and laying down the blacks, moving around the stage, etc stirred up a huge cloud of particles that got caught in the backlight.
It looked like a starburst behind and around Conor each time the flash fired. In fact, it was so pronounced that I decided to just go with it. There was nothing I could do to stop it, so in some of the photos I’ve kept the effect, as I think it adds something. (In other shots, I simply painted the background out, since it was otherwise black anyway.)
We had four concepts we wanted, three of which were simple. The first was just Conor in the chair, to which we added a couple of props over time. The third was Conor screaming at the camera, as if in madness, which turned out to be kind of funny, because he really had to scream for it to look real, and most of his screams turned into laughter after a few seconds. The final concept was a simple portrait of him, with the words from the famous “to be or not to be” quote written across his face. This was a pretty static setup, as portraits go, and was probably the easiest and fastest of the whole group.
I skipped over the second concept above, because that’s the one that really took some doing. The concept was to have Conor in his chair, being Hamlet, while three sets of hands reached out of the darkness, one from each side and one from above, each holding a different prop: a crown from above, a skull, goblet, or knife from the sides.
It’s a great concept and a great image, but it was a little tricky to pull off. Fortunately we had enough helpers on set to get three sets of hands, although we had to scrounge a little to get enough dark fabric to block them out. Mandy had it worse, holding the crown, as she had to tuck herself down into a black, hooded cloak so that no skin showed, which left her blind and having to rely on my direction to get her hands in the right position.
The backlight only made things more difficult for this shot, so we nixed it and went with just the key light. Turns out that our prop folks weren’t able to find a suitable crown, but thankfully they did find some sort of vine-and-berries Christmas decoration in the theater’s supply that they were able to shape into a crown, at least enough for it to translate as such in the photos. Also, the liquid in the goblet is hot chocolate – a bit random, but we knew it’d translate well in black & white, with the implication that it was perhaps blood or poison.
In post, the whole series took a lot less work than I had imagined. (It helps when you get the lighting right in-camera.) I had to clean up the backgrounds in a few places, and do some work with multiple curves layers to get the contrast and tonal range to fall where I wanted it, but it really wasn’t too bad. Even the three-hands shot, which could have become a photoshop nightmare, ended up being a piece of cake.
And that’s a wrap, at least for this promo shoot! The Ensemble’s work is just beginning, and I’m hopeful that these photos will give their marketing a good boost. It was a fun shoot, as it always is with them, and the end product is something I’m very excited about. These are unlike any photos I’ve shot before, and I really dig the look.