Behind The Scenes: Self Portraits in a Ruin (Part 2)


“Falsely Accused: Grooming” by D. Travis North

As we learned in part one of this article, shooting in the ruins of the Eastern State Penitentiary poses a number of challenges.  Be in the gloomy environment (which I consider to be an advantage), the low light levels or the tight quarters, all of these challenges had to be overcome in order to achieve my vision.  In fact, that is part of the fun of the project, and the experiments that have come out of this ongoing project has taught me a great deal.  Not to brow-beat everyone, but a project like this is paramount to your learning curve.  But I digress.

So today, I wanted to take a look at a few of the photos from the series and discuss, specifically, the process behind each shot.  I apologize for the fact that I don’t really have any behind-the-scenes photos.  The same challenges that I had to overcome in order to get these shots were the same challenges that would be had with a behind the scenes documentary photos.  Case and point:  Grooming (shown at right) placed the camera in the hallway shooting through a tiny 24″ by 42″ doorway – you wouldn’t be able to see the whole scene anyhow.  So I will try to document as best as I can.


So our fictional character is stuck in a prison all by himself with no human contact and minimal resources.  How does he groom himself?  His hair is kept short to keep things simple (one of the few times a year he has human contact), and he has limited running water.  But things like fingernails and toenails need to be clipped somehow.  This is my best guess as to how he would do it.  This is the basis for Falsely Accused:  Grooming, which is the photo shown at the top of this article.

The Setup

So this is one of the tiny cells, and there is no natural light at all getting into this one as the back window and the exercise yard door has been blocked over to add an additional block of cells.  The only ambient light is from the corridor, which only has a few skylights high above the tiny doorway.  So I don’t consider it a factor, I was aiming to work with nothing but strobe lights on this one, which will most likely overpower any ambient light.  Working with two flashes, I put my more powerful one – the LumoPro LP160 – in the corner at camera left at 1/2 power with a Large Rogue Flashbender, aimed at the near wall (the wall that is not visible in the shot).  For those who aren’t aware, the Flashbender works like a large bounce card.  It’s the closest to an umbrella I can get with such a small device.  What I’m really doing is expanding the effective size of the light source.  It bounces off the card then bounces off the wall, so that it bounces light all over the place.  My effective light-source size is essentially a 7′ by 7′ square (minus the door itself).  Early test shots put a flare on the camera lens, but I corrected that in two ways.  First, I changed the position of the camera slightly so that I’m now aiming into the corner of the room and the door itself blocks most of the light source.  Second, I curled the near side of the Flashbender to block some of the light like a flag.  This is why I love the Rogue Flashbenders.  So that’s the fill light, and I think the setup does a wonderful job filling the room.  But, this light alone didn’t create the shadow depth that I wanted, and the image was looking pretty flat.  That’s where the second flash comes in.

So I added a second flash, my Nikon SB-600 with a Sto-fen plastic diffuser.  With the Sto-fen, it essentially acts like a bare, soft-white light-bulb throwing directional light in all directions.  In other words, it does soften the light, but it will still cast some shadows radiating out from the light source itself.  I actually have the SB-600 tilted vertically and placed it back up against the right wall as it’s primary function is to cast light onto me.  I’m operating at 1/8th power because I’m really only using it to add depth.  The majority of the light in the room is from the LP160, and I don’t want to overpower it.  I tried a shot at 1/4, but the shadows were a bit too dark for my liking.

All of this was triggered with a Nikon infrared remote trigger (best $20 I ever spent).  You can’t see the trigger because it’s only the size of a stick of gum, and I have the camera on a 5 second delay which gives me enough time to palm the remote in my right hand.  So I click the button, get into my pose, and the camera does the rest.  The camera sends out a pre-flash to sync the external flashes (This is Nikon’s Creative Lighting System or CLS, a feature of Nikon’s cameras) and the exposure is made.  The on-camera flash only triggers the pre-flash, it does not fire during the actual photo.  It’s important to note that the LP160 is a manual flash, and so I need to set it’s power on the flash itself.  The SB-600 is fully-automated, and so I can control that from he camera body, which is passed through the pre-flash instruction set (CLS is awesome!).


Truth is that I had about a dozen shots from this setup while I built the shot.  I would chimp the back of my camera to make sure I got the flash positioning and balance where I wanted them, and maybe a few bad poses.  So of course the first step was to pick the exact exposure I liked the most.  Aside from any mild exposure adjustments and color corrections, I didn’t need to do too much in post.  I did introduce a graduated exposure adjustment spanning from the bottom-right corner so that the source of the one flash was not quite so noticeable.  And I did some noise correction.  But beyond that, there really wasn’t too much to be done.


Tomorrow:  In Part III, we will be exploring another photo.


About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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