Rewind: A Clear Canvas

Members of the group Mariachi Acero pose during a promotional portrait shoot on Frenchman Mountain in Las Vegas. The group, based in Las Vegas, is comprised of area youths led by instructor Erik Ramirez (third from right).

Just to my left, the view outside the window of the 737-700 aircraft I’m currently flying aboard offers a never-ending view of white, flat-topped clouds. Some 40,000 feet over Denver, the sun is fast on its way to setting, leaving the tallest parts of this cloudy expanse dabbed with crisp, warm light. As with the last time I traveled to Las Vegas, nature is once again reminding me that the visuals out this way are just a little more special.

I don’t know what it is about sunsets in the desert southwest of the United States, but they usually end up being a visual artist’s dream. Perhaps it’s the dust that swirls high into the sky, helped aloft by strong, arid winds? Perhaps mother nature simply shares a penchant for bold colors, just like this photographer? Her paint brushes at sunset in the desert drip heavy with intense color saturation and texture, painted upon a clear canvas broken only by mountains a million years in the making (and made a million years before the cameras I often use to capture this spectacle were even a consideration).

On one of my last visits to Las Vegas in April, 2012, I was asked by my longtime friend and Las Vegas resident Erik Ramirez to create a promotional portrait of his youth musical group, Mariachi Acero. The group is mainly comprised of high school students who’ve learned the mariachi music discipline at the school where Erik teaches. While I could have just knocked out a quick photo at the school and called it a day, in true Guy Rhodes fashion, grander visions began to dance through my mind.

Members of the group braved a steep climb up a rocky incline in slippery boots (large instruments in hand, no less) to reach the location for the shoot at the base of Frenchman Mountain.

On previous trips to Las Vegas, Erik has been quite helpful in assisting me with scouting great locations to make beautiful images of Las Vegas. From Betty Willis’ fabulous Las Vegas sign on the southern end of the strip, to airport observation areas on the fence line of McCarran Airport, Erik has been instrumental in providing locations from which to make great images, both for work and entertainment.

When the idea of the mariachi group portrait was presented, one of my favorite past photo locations, Frenchman Mountain, immediately came to mind. As its namesake implies, the mountainous area on the extreme northeastern edge of the Las Vegas metro area offers a great elevated perspective of the entire strip, flanked by additional mountains just to the west. With several ridges just a short hike uphill from the road, the Frenchman Mountain area would give me a great place to compose the group with their home city as the backdrop.

I decided to set the call time for the group to arrive at the location one hour before sunset, and I’d roll the dice and gamble on mother nature adding in one of her desert sunset spectacles with my already great perspective of the city. Luckily for me, and even luckier for my excited photo subjects, she didn’t disappoint!

A stiff breeze at the location vibrated the strings of group member Joey Manzano’s harp the entire time we were shooting. Between this, and the eerie sounds of fighter jets streaking high overhead from nearby Nellis Air Force Base, the location had an unnerving energy as the group posed for me in otherwise complete silence.

All it took was one glimpse of my camera’s LCD screen by the group of the great results I was getting once the sky started to explode with color, and I had their complete and total cooperation for the rest of the shoot. Here, I lit the musicians with 2 Vivitar 285HV battery operated flashes atop small, portable light stands. The flashes were triggered with Pocket Wizard Plus units.

This is one of those accidental images that only I typically love, and my photographer friends typically hate. My front light flash wasn’t completely recycled, and didn’t fire, creating these ghostly silhouettes.

By the time night fell, the location had fallen into almost complete darkness. This made it very difficult to adjust my lighting angles on the rough terrain, so there’s a few harsh face shadows here. This was compounded by the lack of modeling lights in the Vivitars. Still, the city lights behind the group look kinda cool.

Even though night had fallen, the guys still wanted to do some quick single portraits with the Las Vegas lights in the background. Because of the darkness, the autofocus on my camera was useless. Manually focusing was out of the question as well, since I couldn’t see the subjects through the viewfinder. To combat this, I had each group member hold their lit up cell phone as they stepped up, so my autofocus would have something to “grab” on to. This technique has saved my behind on numerous occasions.

The nighttime single portraits wrapped up our session on Frenchman Mountain.

Posted in Photography, Rewind, Tips And Tricks by Guy Rhodes on April 8th, 2013.

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