Location Lemons

Gavit High School varsity girls basketball team member Hattie Andrews poses during practice at the school in Hammond, Indiana. The 6’3″ sophomore has been playing basketball since the third grade.

As a lighting designer, one of the best things about location film and photography work is the always-challenging task of transforming an everyday space into an attractive environment for the lens. More often than not, I enter new locations flying blind, having never visited the space before. I never know exactly what I’m getting into, which often causes a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Have I brought enough equipment to light the space, and more importantly, the subjects within? For video shoots, is there enough power? Will I be fighting bright light from windows during a daytime shoot? Can I capitalize on any existing fixtures within the building to create something special in an otherwise bland location?

A recent basketball portrait at Gavit High School in nearby Hammond, Indiana, provided just such an opportunity. The photo assignment was typically non-descript: “This needs to be a portrait for a possible cover, as well as a couple practice shots.” I knew I was photographing a girls basketball player, and that’s about it. I hit the road after putting together what has become my standard “quick hit” newspaper portrait kit, which consists of the following:

• 1 Canon 550EX Speedlite
• 2 Vivitar 285HV Flashes
• 1 Photoflex Small Cinedome Softbox with Grid
• 1 Photoflex Adjustable Shoe Mount Connector with Umbrella Bracket (Mounts Flash to Softbox)
• 2 Umbrella Brackets with Shoe Mounts
• 2 K Stands
• 2 Superclamps
• 1 Pocketwizard Plus Transmitter
• 3 Pocketwizard Plus Receivers
• 1 Handful of Assorted Gels

Upon arriving at the Gavit High School gym, I was greeted with a very architecturally bland, dark room which actually lent itself more towards incarceration than education. Folded up bleachers and brick walls were my only semi-interesting options, bathed in certain areas by horrendous sodium vapor light – the orangey-pink kind usually found outside in street lights. Whoever decided these lamps were acceptable for indoor use needs a stern talking-to, but I digress.

As the team practiced, I wandered around upstairs near the school’s weight training equipment, looking for something – anything – interesting to use as a portrait background. (When photographing high school athletes during a practice, I usually like to take them away from the rest of the team for the portrait to avoid the friendly jeers and teasing from teammates that often makes the subject shy and uncomfortable.) Just when I was about to give up and settle for one of those brick walls, I saw it! A big old metal gate curved away from the stairwell I had just climbed. This would surely make a great “cookie” through which to light for an interesting background element. When the location gives you lemons, make lemonade!

I immediately fell in love with the lines on a metal gate used to lock up the school’s converted weight room area.

I used a Superclamp to mount one of my Vivitar 285HV’s to a hand rail behind the gate. I gelled the flash with two layers of Rosco 3411 3/4 CTO color-correction gel.

I fired off a test-shot to see the results, and was pleased that the interesting geometric pattern in the gate transferred nicely to the white brick wall that would become my background about 15 feet away.

I got to work setting up my softbox up front for my key light (no color), and another Vivitar 285HV off to the rear, gelled with a cut of Lee 202 Half CTB. I don’t use a light meter when shooting with strobes on a digital camera. Instead, I shoot test photos of an assistant (or, when working alone, the back of my hand) and look at the image / histogram on the camera. This gives me a good idea of my ratios and what the light is doing. Clockwise from top left, above, you can see where I raised the power of my front light, as well as flagged the backlight off my lens (to eliminate the flare). I also adjusted the angle of my gridded softbox up front to completely cut any spill off the brick wall, resulting in rich, dark shadows from the gate.

I had to make sure and keep the diamond patterns from the gate in the frame with my subject. Without the diamonds, the vertical black lines started to feel like prison bars! While this certainly would have reflected the atmosphere I experienced at the school, it definitely wasn’t appropriate for a portrait of a rising high school athlete.

Here is a wide shot of the entire lighting setup. You’ll notice my coat hanging on the metal gate, acting as an impromptu flag to cut the spill from the flash behind the gate off the front of the subject. From start to finish, this entire setup took me around ten minutes to execute.

Whether lighting for video or stills, I use grids in my softboxes 95% of the time. Without a grid, I would not have been able to keep the light from spilling all over the brick wall behind my subject, and the shadows would not have been so rich. An umbrella, for me, would simply not have been an option here. In fact, the only umbrellas I own are to keep rain off my head!

Before we wrapped, I asked Hattie to sit against the gate for another angle. While I dug the light slashing across the floor, her pose seemed awkward, and so I left this one out of my final edit.

Posted in Lighting Design, Photography, Photojournalism, Portraits, Sports by Guy Rhodes on March 30th, 2011.

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