According to Wikipedia, Max Lucado is a best-selling author and preacher at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas. I know his name from growing up in a bookstore for a few years during my childhood. The guy has written over 100 books with some 80 million copies out in the world and has seen more than his fair share of time on the New York Times Best Seller List.
It’s a Wednesday night around 9:45PM and I get a call asking if I’d be interested in creating a portrait for Max. The shoot would need to happen the following day and while it’s a bit last minute, I’m in.
CONCEPT // First thing I do is find out just how much time I’ll have with him. Max is on the set of his latest video series and I would have a thirty minute window in between filming. Not too bad as I’ve done a lot more with a lot less. So now I know two important factors; I’ll be on a film set and I’ll need to work fast.
The initial thought that comes to mind is to shoot him on set. Pull back a little bit and see him inside the nuts and bolts of things. A lot of author portraits are typically headshots. Not to knock it, they need that stuff for their book sleeves and online bios, but I was looking for something a bit more interesting.
Settled. I’d shoot Max on set and pull back enough to see the environment.
SCOUTING // Ideally I prefer to scout out locations at least two weeks in advance. However, given the last minute nature of this one in particular, this was going to be a shoot where I wouldn’t have prior access to the location. While that used to stress me out I’ve learned there are ways around it. If you’re shooting outdoors, Google Maps street view. If you’re shooting at a well known interior location chances are someone somewhere has posted a photo online and Google will again be there to save the day. In short, Google.
The easiest way in this case was to show up to the set a few hours early. I arrive to the address with my producer, which turns out to be a vintage car museum, and start looking at angles.
Nope. Definitely not that. I try another angle while attempting to be as quiet as possible. They are heavy into filming dialogue pieces and every click of the shutter amplifies throughout the concrete warehouse like a megaphone.
Another miss. Aside from the giant train along the back wall, I’m really trying to avoid making the cars prominent in the portrait. He isn’t a vintage car guy as far as I know and they are far too distracting.
After an hour of thinking, shooting, and re-thinking, the set breaks for lunch. This is perfect. I now have the place to myself and can look at angles that were unavailable while filming was in progress. I walk to the middle of the set and do a 360º. One angle stands out. I grab one of the directors chairs as a placeholder and find my shot.
VISUAL TONE // I’m looking to avoid the typical author portrait. Part of my research the night before (and this goes for anyone I’m photographing) is to Google search the portraits he’s done in the past. I quickly learn that Max is always smiling. Always. I’m glad he’s a happy guy but I prefer serious or straight faced portraits. There’s something about it that feels more genuine to me personally. On top of that I want him to look comfortable and in command. He’s already in a tailored suit which is perfect. I immediately go to Pacino in The Godfather II. The scene where he takes a seat in that chair and crosses his legs, you can just feel the presence he has over the room. Obviously that reference is a little dark in contrast to Max and his reputation but the general concept still applies.
As far as color goes I’m seeing that mixture of orange/green/blue. It’s a popular cinematic color scheme and will fit right in with the environment of a film set.
Now I have the shot laid out in my head. Time to translate that into the camera.
LIGHTING // Time to decide on the lighting setup. This one is pretty common knowledge for those of you that follow the work I do. A Profoto 7b flash head inside a 46″ Photek Softlighter. In my experience, there is no better setup for portrait work. It’s incredibly consistent, easy to setup, and keeps things mobile. Here’s a look at it in action on this shoot;
Now that we’ve jumped the gun…
SHOOTING // Not a minute passes and I get word that Max will be ready in five. Fortunately the film crew is headed up by some very good friends of mine. Cory Reynolds, Bryce Drobny, and Seth Schaeffer, who have all graciously agreed to act as my crew for the day.
Bryce grabs the lighting rig while Seth stands in for Max.
It’s a little flat. I decide to make some slight adjustments in the shutter speed so that the light coming through the butterfly diffuser will pop a bit more. Something is still missing for me. I ask the camera operators if they’d be willing to man their cameras in the background. We finish light tests just in time for Max to walk on set.
I introduce myself and give him a quick look at what I’m hoping to accomplish. He seems happy to let me take control and has a seat. My worst fear comes true and he instinctively flashes a big smile. I can’t fault the guy. I’ll bet every photographer he’s worked with told him to smile nice and big. At this point I know there’s no way to get a serious look. I drop the camera from my face and we converse for a minute. I want him comfortable and relaxed. After a minute or so I ask him to meet me middle ground; a closed mouth smile. He does and I fire off a handful of shots. I have Bryce make a quick power adjustment to the light and fire off one last round. I’m done in under 5 minutes. I know I got the shot and I’m not going to waste time making unnecessary tweaks.
We wrap the shoot, shake hands, and I let Max get back to filming.
POST-PRODUCTION // Back at the studio I dump cards to the main server and begin narrowing down my selections. I find the my personal favorite and pull it into Photoshop. Obviously the cinematic grading I’m going for doesn’t come straight out of camera. I’m going to have to rely heavily on shifting color balance and curves. I get my base layer corrected for flash and then begin building the edit.
Here’s how things look straight out of camera:
You’ll notice the shot is intentionally flat and slightly desaturated. This has become a habit after directing a lot of film work over the past year or two. I built a setting in-camera and it offers me a lot of flexibility in post. Next step is to warm things up a bit. I start working with a combination of color balance layers until I get something very warm without looking oversaturated or unnatural.
I usually try to avoid removing too much from the image but that mannequin in the background looks like it’s pumping gas into Max’s head. Not a good look so I go ahead and carefully remove it piece by piece until I get a nice clean image.
90% of the edit is done. I have my base layer on the warm end of the spectrum and it’s time to bring in the contrasting green/blues. Again this is as simple as stacking up a few color balance layers until I start seeing the right combination. It can be a little tricky at first but after a few dozen shoots you start to learn your signature tones and how to get them on the monitor. Basically mess around until you like what you see. After a few minutes I land on the right look.
It’s a little heavier on the green side which gives a nice balance to the shot. The warm tones of the skin and the apple boxes mixed with the cold tones of the concrete and wardrobe are just what I had in mind. Throw in a touch of sharpening and that’s it.
On to the next one.