by Sean Setters
I'm always on the lookout for picturesque locations that can be utilized for future portrait sessions. While traveling to photograph a nearby waterfall a couple of weeks ago, a stark tree set upon the crest of a hill with dark, brooding skies caught my eye. I immediately imagined a portrait where the subject and the tree were equally prominent, yet balanced, within the composition. The kind of shot I imagined was a departure from my normal style. I typically like closer up, tighter cropped images that feature my subject against a strongly blurred, yet still beautiful backdrop. That's the kind of picture I'm most comfortable producing. But I needed to break out of my comfort zone, and my imagination was leading the way.
The location looked well suited for a portrait session because there was no fence between the the field and the road and there was a small parking area (enough for a couple of cars) nearby. I filed away the location in the back of my mind with the intent of using it whenever the opportunity came up.
That opportunity arrived in the form of a text message less than week later. Samantha, someone I've worked with on a couple of occasions, was in town and wanting a shot to bolster her portfolio. I told her I had the perfect place in mind but didn't yet have permission to use the land for a photoshoot. I told her we'd need to get permission before shooting but I didn't think that would be a problem. Trusting my judgement (and relatively vague description of the location), she readily agreed.
We met up at a gas station about 4 miles from the location and caravanned to the parking spot along the road. When we arrived at the location, I quickly assessed the situation. On the plus side, the afternoon skies had gone from party cloudy early in the afternoon to mostly cloudy later in the day. This coincidence meant that the shot I had in my head – with dark, brooding skies – could potentially be realized. One downside, though, was that the tree which had been completely bare the week before now showed signs of life in the form of small growths of leaves forming at the end of the branches. Thankfully the growth wasn't substantial enough to completely hide the beautiful shape of the tree outlined by its branches.
After parking I walked to a nearby house and acquired permission to use the land. As it turns out, the land is rented out seasonally to a farmer who grows various crops on it. However, as the crops had not yet been planted this year, there was no reason to be concerned about us shooting in the field. With permission obtained, the shoot was underway.
I set up a Vagabond II powered White Lightning x3200 monolight mounted with a Mola Demi beauty dish (with stacked PAD and Opal diffusers) as the main light. I chose the beauty dish because there was a decent amount of wind and I knew that any large modifier (softbox, octabox, umbrella, etc.) would quickly become a wind sail. I've had more than a fair share of light stands blow over in the wind (even when I thought they were adequately sandbagged). I knew the position of the beauty dish, being relatively far away from the subject, meant that the typical beauty dish look would be lost on the scene. However, I thought that the warmth and diffusion of the dish would look better than a standard silver reflector or silver beauty dish (both of which I had brought along with me). I initially only set up the monolight but later decided that I needed some fill light. Therefore I set up a Canon 580EX Speedlite, bare, on the right side (just out of the frame) zoomed to 85mm. The speedlite made a huge impact in allowing details to be visible in the shadows.
Contrary to my typical style, I chose a relatively narrow aperture so that the background did not become blurred into oblivion. The f/7.1 aperture combined with a low ISO allowed me to underexpose the scene to make it look as if it were captured at a much later time (this image was taken at 5:25pm CDT with sunset occurring at 7:21pm). I chose to use the EOS 5D Mark III paired with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art because it's an extremely sharp lens and the focal length seemed optimal for obtaining the perspective I wanted.
Below is a setup picture taken just after we ended shooting. I didn't change camera settings for the setup image but lifted the shadows substantially in Photoshop Camera Raw so that the equipment would be easily identifiable.
I had every intention of removing the power lines in post-processing while the shoot was underway. However, after removing the power lines in post, I felt like the two subjects were too isolated from one another. The picture had lost something.
I flipped back and forth between the two versions (with and without power lines) and came to the conclusion that the power lines helped draw my eye into the image. They also connected the primary subjects (the girl and the tree) in a subconscious way. Even though I typically despise power lines in landscape and portrait images, this (I felt) was an exception to the rule. Therefore, the power lines stayed.
We, as photographers, are very fortunate in that we see a world with endless possibilities and beauty. I'm sure I'm not alone in always keeping an eye out for a fresh location in which to shoot. Unfortunately, it's really easy to get stuck in a rut shooting the same types of images – in the same sort of style – over and over. So when your imagination leads you on a creative tangent that leads out of your comfort zone, take advantage of the inspiration and press onward. You may surprise yourself when you try something completely different than what you're used to, and you may find yourself questioning how you ever got in a rut to begin with.
Note: You can see a larger version of the image by clicking on the image at the top of this post.