When I teach editorial portraiture I always tell people that they should shoot pictures in a strict order of priority. First of all you have to shoot the pictures that the client asked for. Next you shoot the pictures that you want to shoot so that the client sees your vision for the job. Finally you should supporting images that haven't been asked for but you can see that they will give designers and editors options that they didn't even know they needed!


At the beginning of February I was asked by a magazine to shoot portraits of the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police - Sir Paul Stephenson - in his office at new Scotland Yard. The editor was looking for an image that would go across a double page spread with the subject off to one side so that he could run a headline and part of the interview over the picture. This is a pretty common request but you never know what kind of background there is going to be and whether or not it will allow you a plain enough space off to one side.

I had about twenty-five minutes with Sir Paul and so I decided to give myself ten minutes to get the "money shot" and fulfill the brief.

This first image fulfills the clients wishes. The subject is off to one side of the frame and the background is clean and clear enough to run text over it. This backdrop is the wall covering in his office and I was happy to make use of it. I lit the picture with two Canon 580exII flash units on Manfrotto 001B stands. The flash on the left (the subject's right side) had a 40" (1 metre) shoot through white translucent umbrella on it set just above his eyeline and at a distance of around six feet from him. This flash picked up a little of the background and was balanced by a second one to his left (the right side of the picture) bounced off of some off-white window blinds about seven feet away. The flash through the umbrella was set at 1/4 power and the other was on 1/8th power. The exposure was 1/60th at f3.5 at 200 ISO which meant that there was a small amount of ambient light contributing to the overall exposure which would have been about 1/30th at f2.8 without flash. I was using a Canon EOS5D MkII with a 24-70 f2.8L lens at about 50mm.

The client also wanted a front page option and so I shot some upright pictures with more space above his head and a bit more width on the right side. I then spent about ten more minutes shooting with other backgrounds but with similar lighting rigs. I used my other 5D MkII with a 70-200 f2.8L lens to make some tighter portraits too.

I was determined to make my last five minutes count so I moved my subject back to the wall where we started and got him very close to it - in fact he was leaning back against it for several frames. I took the umbrella off of the main light and turned the second flash off all together. Pointing a Canon speedlight directly at your subject will give a very hard light but I was keen to give a completely different option and so I moved the flash closer, zoomed the flash to the 70mm setting and shot these images:

You can see the shape of the flash on the wall - a sort of rounded edge oblong. I was shooting at the 24mm end of the lens with no ambient light in the image at all. The actual exposure was 1/60th at f22 and the flash was on 1/4 power. The hard shadow was deliberate - to give the client something different to look at and possible use. I was considering these as a possible front cover as well so I shot quite a few uprights. The dark areas on the wall are, of course, where the flash hasn't covered. More importantly, they give the designer the option to use white text over the black background.

I shot several variations on this theme. Some with the subject further to the right of the frame and some a bit closer. This one is my personal favourite and the client agreed - using it across a double page spread. I'm happy that they went with my choice and there is the temptation for photographers to only give the client their own vision. I prefer to give them what they asked for first and then work on the picture I want to take. I have always considered that doing it this way is professional and that any other list of priorities is, at best, risky. If you are a photographer who is as great a celebrity as your subject then you have more leeway. If you are just another editorial portraitist then it's best to be a pro'.

© Neil Turner March 2009

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