Poster child


My friend Eddie is writing a book. His book is currently in the second revision of edits and is coming close to completion. The designs seem to be largely done, but if you look at the book cover design the author photo is a sad grey rectangle. This will not do and Eddie thinks so as well.

When he contacted me asking about shooting his author photo, I was flattered and excited, but also nervous, since this is a pretty serious shoot, the fruits of which will be actually published. So I went to work looking for what other authors do for portraits. The first thing that came to mind was the portrait that Kurt Vonnegut uses for his books. This is a great photo, but I wasn’t sure if it would work for Eddie’s book, since he’s not a science fiction author; this is a book about business. The harsh shadows and the drama from the single source are great, but it’s very ‘I’m a novelist’. Moody is not necessarily what I needed to convey. So I set up my softbox, a backfill light and my little reflector in front of my black backdrop and this is what happened:

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Take 1: black background, softbox in front right, bare flash back and to the left.

Not bad. I figured I could pull the hair out of the black background in post, but it looked too dramatic. It was a little too ‘art school’ and not enough ‘business author’. Eddie is not an actor, or a science fiction author; this will not do. If you look at the background closely (and I left it unedited intentionally) it’s all wrinkly and looks the opposite of great. I have a white background, but it’s stored very much in the same fashion, which means that not only will it have the same ugly creases, but they will be substantially more pronounced. So I can’t use that either. What do? But then I remembered: one time when I needed a quick backdrop for a portrait i wanted to shoot and I used my giant reflector. I tried it here and it worked splendidly. I took off the outer liner and used the diffuser. My reflector stand was in use, so I plopped the diffuser on top of a guitar stand I happen to have. Propped up against the black backdrop it became a gentle gray. There we go. This is a background that I was looking for. It’s not dramatic, it’s not too bright, overpowering the subject; it’s just right. And, man! I am so glad that I went with this. I tried pulling Eddie out of the black background in post-production and it was a nightmare. Note to self: black hair on a black background does not make for an easy edit.

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Almost. What's happening with that shadow, though?

Now that I had the right background, all that was left was a little tweaking here and there. The background was good, but I couldn’t shake that shadow behind his head. It really bothered me because it throws the composition off and makes the left side way heavier than the right. I tried moving the fill flash, but that changed how everything else looked, so I had to put it back. Finally, I took the 3rd flash that i was trying to use to get a bit more of a catchlight in his eyes and wedged it underneath the backdrop-reflector, lighting it up from behind. I used a similar technique in my QuoteWizard photoshoot. They really wanted that wall to read, which meant that I had to light it up. Another nice thing about firing a flash at a background is that it creates a natural ever-so-gentle vignette around the subject, helping him/her become the focus of the photograph.

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The final image from first shoot

This was the only vertically aligned image I took during our session. I was going by the book cover design, which had a landscape placeholder, but I’m glad I took this one. We were playing around with some silly ‘author’ poses where he was doing ‘the thinker’ and the hand-on-the-chin, but for one second he leaned on the chair we were using as the rest in front of him and I took the shot. As a sidenote, the best photos were the ones where, as in this photo, he is leaning forward. I think it’s because of the shadows that fall on his neck that create a sharp separation and because his body goes out of focus.

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The final image from the second shoot

Several days later, Eddie and I decided that while the images above are pretty good, they’re not quite what he was going for. He wanted something a little more approachable and friendly and the final shot form round 1 is a little too serious, even if it is good. So we got together on Monday and did a second round of portraits. This time, the light setup was already decided and we just needed to take the photo. With a little smile practice (and a beer) we have a winner.

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The setup. Softbox on the right, bare flash in the back on the left, little reflector in front left, large reflector with a fill flash behind it as backdrop.

So here we are: 2 shoots, 2 finalists. Let me know in the comments which one you think Eddie should use.