I'm on a longer than usual college assignment this week, four days at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. It's an under-appreciated gem of a school, filled with students who really want to make something of themselves, and with none the sense of entitlement that I sometimes see at the more elite colleges. The kids who choose this school tend to be really glad that they did, even if they had other options. One of the students I photographed today, a pre-med (this school has one of the highest proportions of students accepted into medical schools) was also accepted at Barnard. She chose NJIT.
The gig is mostly student and faculty profile portraits. Environmental. One light, a 580EX on manual through an umbrella, let the ambient fall where it may. Something I've done hundreds of times. I fell into a rhythm the first day, and continued it into the 2nd. I was starting to fall into a rut, which is not good. So today, without consciously knowing I was doing it, I started making my portraits harder. If there was an easy way to set up the shot, and a hard way, I chose the hard way. Instead of my Speedlight as the main light, I'd make the strobe an edge highlight source. I'd use the 3x5" LED light as my fill. There were a bunch of crookneck lamps on the lab benches--I used them to light my background. And a half hour later I'm on to the next shot.
I am an improvisational shooter. I really don't know how I'm going to set up a portrait until I'm well into, and sometimes past, the time allotted for the session. I need a little bit of stress to make something happen. The point is to be comfortable, even relaxed, with the sensation of stress and cluelessness, and not let it leak into my attunement with who I'm photographing. All the while that I'm in conversation with my subject and drawing them out, I'm scanning the environment for where to shoot, and placing the lights in my mind. I'm genuinely curious, and most of the jollies I get out of this work is the connection I get with the people I photograph. By the time I've gotten the backstory and we've made a relationship, I know where we're going to make the photograph and how I'm going to light it. Most of the time I couldn't tell you how I arrived at those decisions. They're just obvious to me.