Dick Reillo and Stella Jimenez during an outdoor winter portrait shoot, Thursday, March 13, 2014. Special effects were used to create the snow for the shoot, which was done on a clear night.
My good friends Dick Reillo and Stella Jimenez have been asking me to do a portrait of them in the snow for months. While there’s been no shortage of the real thing here in the Chicago area as of late, brutal cold and winds have accompanied almost all of our snow storms this season. With a successful portrait under the real thing looking doubtful, I assured the couple that I’d give them a snow picture one way or another.
Calling upon my theatrical lighting and effects experience, I remembered reading about instant mashed potato flakes making convincing falling snow when used on stage. Surely, if lit correctly, the same foodstuff would work on camera just as well. A quick trip to the grocery store landed me three giant boxes of the stuff. I would have paid good money for a photo of myself walking to the register with the boxes cradled in my arms. “He must be very hungry,” I’m sure other shoppers thought empathetically to themselves.
The two secret weapons, Hungry Jack instant mashed potato flakes and a large theatrical special effects fan, stand ready.
With fake snow in the bag, the next issue I had to tackle was how to get it into the air. I considered building a rig using a plastic window flower box with holes cut into the bottom that would sprinkle the flakes down (operated by someone holding it on a ladder), but this seemed like it would only work for a very tight closeup.
To get a broader and more random, natural look, I decided to use a fan to blow the flakes high into the air first, letting them fall back down in a non-uniform fashion. An everyday box fan wouldn’t be powerful enough, so I called in a favor to a longtime theatrical client and borrowed one of their extremely powerful (and heavy) special effects fans.
The portrait was lit with three fixtures. One to light the couple, one to back light the snow in the air, and one to light a tree in the far distance. I used a 1/2 CTO gel on the couples’ key light and set the camera white balance to 4250°K. This rendered the other non-corrected strobes as a colder color to the camera, helping sell the icy, wintry scene. The lights were triggered via Pocket Wizard Plus units.
A wider view from behind the tree I had the couple stand next to reveals that the winter wonderland is actually a typical suburban street. Selective composition and lighting (along with some theatrical magic) were key to making this image believable.
I set the shot up in front of the couple’s home, which is on a typical suburban street. They were a bit skeptical when I asked to shoot at their place, citing the somewhat bland appearance of the neighborhood. I assured them that, with careful lighting and composition, people would not be able to tell their street from a beautiful forest clearing.
I purposely used a few trees out front that were covered in real snow from a storm the previous day to help “sell” our artificial blizzard. Dick and Stella’s winter clothing, of course, helped the image as well. As we got going, I directed the couple to have fun and play to the effect around them, rather than simply looking into the camera and posing. Susana Mota, who handled makeup for our shoot, was also kind enough to jump on SFX duty, fastidiously feeding our hungry fan with Hungry Jack flakes as I got a variety of poses.
Makeup artist Susana Mota, at right, does double-duty and feeds our hungry fan with the potato flakes. The back light, which was set to be two stops over my key, was critical to making the snow visible in the air. In fact, Susana was having a hard time seeing the flakes at all under the dim streetlights as she worked.
While lots of things are possible these days in Photoshop, I pride myself on being able to pull things off in-camera as much as possible. I think this shoot is a great example of that, as 98% of what you see in the final images looked this way on location.
Being able to pull images off like this in-camera without the need for excessive Photoshop work is extremely gratifying to me.
Following the shoot, as Dick kindly helped me break down gear, Stella asked, “Can you make it rain?” I can’t wait for my next shoot with these guys!