One final post of a shot from my submissions for the DCC Kilmainham Gaol exhibition. This one is hot off the press, having been captured last Sunday and run through Aperture for post processing last night. I’m quite happy with the result, not least because it is my first proper attempt at environmental portraiture, and I’d like to think I had some success in producing a good shot. And that’s all the more rewarding knowing that this first attempt was done under some time pressure, and with a crowd watching on.
The subject is Ciarán, a tour guide at Kilmainham Gaol, who I found at the end of his shift looking like he might agree to a portrait. He offered to follow me to the East Wing (where I had told him I’d like to take it) in a few minutes which suited me just fine as it gave me an opportunity to get a little head-start in setting up. I may be new to environmental portraiture, but I do realise that it’s best not to keep your subject waiting too long.
While Ciarán finished up what he was doing, I headed to the walkway around the East Wing that I had scouted earlier as the location for this shot. I was hoping initally for a wide angle sweep of the wing in the background, but the angles were too tight to get a good composition, so I headed for a corner of the walkway where I could position Ciarán alongside the railing, and have the railing act as a lead in to the photo. The lights in the wing had been switched on earlier, and usefully one of these would provide a little bit of back lighting if I positioned Ciarán in front of it.
Apart from the available light (consisting of that tungsten backlight and the early-evening ambient light still coming through the skylight above) I was hoping to keep things simple and use a single strobe to light the subject. I set up a lightstand with an SB-800 on top. I added a 1/2 CTO gel to the flash to warm it up a little (and to help match it to the tungsten lights). To soften the light I opted to fire the strobe through a white shoot through umbrella, which I would put as close to the subject as possible. I zoomed the flash head out to 24mm to spread the beam and diffuse the light through as much of the umbrella as I could. The bigger the light source, the softer the light, the less harsh the shadows and the more natural the end result.
Incidentally looking at this photo I am glad I opted to put the strobe on camera left with the subject facing slightly to the camera right as you’ll notice he’s wearing glasses. If the light was on my right there’d be a reflection in the glasses that I’d have had to overcome. I can’t say I consciously thought about this at the time but I’d like to think I’d have seen it and known how to overcome it if it had arisen.
Ciarán arrived right on cue, but was preceded by a large tour group making their way through the gaol under the direction of another guide. This wasn’t ideal – rule number one in the gaol is that you don’t do anything that will take attention of a tour group away from their guide. However my time with Ciarán was limited also. Thankfully the guide suggested that the tour look around and take photos themselves before he started his talk, giving me a short window of opportunity to get my portrait. In this circumstance, the tighter composition that I had settled on previously would help also as I quickly noticed many of the tourists below looking up to see what we were doing up on the walkway with an umbrella on a stand. Ciarán was unfazed by the attention though and was happy to proceed with the shot.
I had already metered the background and opted to underexpose it by about 2 stops. I wanted a wide aperture for minimal depth of field and to give me quick recycle times (time was tight!) by minimizing the power output I needed to light the subject. I left my ISO at 200 to minimize noise. I set an aperture of f/2.8 and two stops underexposure of the background was achieved with a shutter speed of 1/30.
Aperture, shutter speed and ISO set. I had two variables left to control. Setting my flash to subject distance was easy – I put Ciarán in position where I got the composition I wanted and where he blocked the light fitting behind him further along the walkway, and I brought my umbrella in close but just out of frame. My last remaining variable is the flash power. Using the D300 in commander mode I fired off a shot with the SB-800 at 1/8 power. It was actually quite close, but a little too much. A quick adjustment to 1/16 power and another click of the shutter and I liked what I saw on the screen. One more shot, asking Ciarán (who had been looking over the walkway) to look at the camera, and the shoot was over.
Total shooting time was approximately 40 seconds. Another couple of minutes to take my equipment down and pack up, and no more than 15 minutes after asking my subject if he would pose for me and I was done and dusted.
Update: This image is one of 67 photographs on display at “Kilmainham Gaol in Focus 2009″ at the gaol from now until August 2nd, 2009.