If you aren’t familiar with this series you can check out Deconstructing The Shot: 5280 and Deconstructing The Shot: Alex Odnoralov to get caught up. The goal here is to offer an in-depth look at how images are made from start to finish. The latest is from a recent shoot with singer/songwriter Rachel James.

CONCEPT // I wanted to create a portrait for Rachel that was unlike anything I’d done to date. I figured the best way to accomplish this was by developing a heavy contrast between Rachel’s overall styling and her environment. I’ve always been a fan of the celebrity spreads in Vogue and Vanity Fair which was a large part of the foundation during the pre-production process. While Rachel is a musician I wanted to steer clear of creating a musician portrait. In other words avoid her being within 10 miles of a guitar or microphone. With that in mind I decided to scout spots that had a heavy nature aesthetic.

SCOUTING // I can’t stress it enough; location scouting is vital. More importantly, scouting during the time of day you’ll actually be on set will make the process infinitely easier. These days I tend to scout alone. It’s a chance to get away from the shoot treatment and clear my head. Thanks to today’s incredible technology the process of searching, documenting, and mapping out spots can now be done using my phone. And that’s exactly what I do. I needed a spot that felt a little surreal. A spot that wouldn’t be recognizable. I needed a lot of depth and texture. After a few hours I finally came across a creek bed. As soon as I saw the tree hanging over the creek I was sold.

TONE // I finish scouting and head back to the studio to pour over the locations. When I find what I consider to be ‘the’ spot, I spend a few hours in Photoshop playing with color palettes. I already knew I wanted to highlight blue and green tones in the final image. I also wanted the final to be free of any major shadows or contrast. Keeping all of that in mind I knew exactly what lighting setup I was going to use.

LIGHTING // Profoto 7B through a 46″ Photek Softlighter. I use this setup 98% of the time both for it’s incredibly clean light and the ability to transport it around to various locations quickly and with relative ease. The Photek/Profoto combination gets me that motivated look I have always admired in the work of others.

Back when I was still trying to learn the difference between shutter speed and aperture I watched a million behind-the-scenes videos of both Annie and Norman creating beautiful portraits with the exact same rig. At that point I figured if I’m going to steal I might as well steal from the best. Oh and here’s something they don’t teach you in photography school; Talent imitates. Genius steals.

SHOOTING // The day of the shoot we were blessed with a completely overcast sky which meant I wasn’t forced to replace the sun. Instead I could light from whichever direction I wanted without the risk of the image looking too artificially lit. Personally, there’s nothing more frustrating than an environmental portrait that has been strobed to death. Realism is key in my world. First up was the spot I had found during my scouting trip. My lighting tech and I got everything setup, dial in the lighting, and then put Rachel in position. After firing off a few frames I realized that it wasn’t looking they way I had hoped.

See what I mean? To be safe I took a few more shots and put the camera down to reassess. It can be tough when everyone is looking to you for direction but it’s vital to not get stressed when things aren’t coming together. If the shot isn’t working, it isn’t working and it’s time to move on. I took a breath and cleared my head. I decided to walk around the area and within about two minutes I came across a spot which ended up becoming the location in the official portrait.

Here’s a wide shot of the set. Gives a solid look at the height, angle, and distance of both the camera and the light in regards to Rachel. Having her simply stand still felt a little dull. Once everything was set I asked her to pick up her dress and walk towards me to get some motion. My lighting assistant would walk alongside her to maintain that angle of light. After two sets of walking I had the shot.

Sean Hagwell