As a personal exercise, last year I assigned myself a project to shoot 30 portraits in 30 days, the only rule being that no portrait could be lit like any of the others.
Among those I asked to sit (or in this case stand) for me were New Orleans-based musicians Luke Winslow-King and his girlfriend, Esther Rose, who sings and plays washboard in his band, The Ragtime Millionaires. Luke’s sound is a combination of pre-war blues, traditional jazz, folk and rock and roll, and I wanted to shoot portraits that reflected this sound.
For inspiration, I looked to Ansel Adams’ 1937 portrait of Orville Cox and George O’Keefe against a backdrop of brooding clouds in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. (If you’re looking for inspiration, go big.) This is a photo that Adams himself chose as one of his best works, and I thought the mood suited my subjects well. Luke and Esther liked it too, so we were set.
I don’t know anything about how Adams created this particular image, but to get that darkened sky I knew I was going to have to bring a studio light on location. Armed with a Vagabond lithium mini battery pack, an Alien Bee 1600 and a 24×36 soft box, I headed for my favorite location in New Orleans to do big wide-open sky photos like this. I arrived with my assistant about 15 minutes before Luke and Esther to determine the best spot to set up in relation to the sky.
I shot these images around 4 p.m. in early October, meaning the sun was still very bright. I knew I’d probably have to crank my light to full power, and after a meter reading and a couple of camera tests, my suspicions proved correct. In order to get the sky dark enough to establish the mood I wanted, I had to stop down to f22 and keep the soft box very close to my subjects (my iso was 50, the lowest setting on my camera).
To add a little more drama to the shots, I worked from low angles with my 24-70mm lens zoomed out to 40mm, which introduced subtle distortions. Fortunately, because of the angle of the sun relative to the camera, I look like I have a two-light set up here, but that rim light on the shadow side of these photos is actually the sun giving me a little extra help.