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Lighting Recipe: Payam's Portrait With an Art Installation

By Conor Risch


Kevin O'Callaghan portrait by Payam
© Payam

When artist and designer Kevin O’Callaghan was inducted into the Art Directors Club (ADC) Hall of Fame this year, the ADC enlisted Payam to make a portrait of O’Callaghan and photograph some of his work, which was installed at the ADC’s Manhattan headquarters.

O’Callaghan is known for his three-dimensional design work (he is the chair of the undergraduate 3D design department at the School of Visual Arts). The ADC asked Payam, a portrait photographer who assisted Norman Jean Roy, Mark Abrahams and Miles Aldridge, among others, before setting out on his own, to photograph O’Callaghan with a large art piece that was constructed to resemble a carousel full of pop culture icons (an abbreviated version of a complete carousel O’Callaghan had built previously).

The shot presented a few challenges. “I was doing an environmental still life, trying to do a photograph that did justice to the piece itself,” Payam recalls, while at the same time lighting a portrait. The carousel installation was essentially immovable, and the structure was fragile, which meant Payam had to be very careful where he placed his lights and where he put his subject. “I don’t generally work with a subject where they have to be cognizant of how they are sitting because they might fall through the floor,” he explains.

Another challenge was the depth of the space and the restrictions imposed by the surrounding environment. Payam wanted the shot to look realistic, as if we were looking at a complete carousel at an amusement park someplace like Coney Island. “In reality there’s only maybe eight feet of depth on the set itself and [the art piece] was against the wall, so there was very little depth that I could work with in terms of placement of light behind it,” Payam explains.

He lit the scene “backwards to frontwards,” he says, in an effort to create depth and to “challenge the mind to look differently” at the scene. “[People generally think] light is from a source that’s near the camera or off-axis to the camera,” Payam explains, “and it casts a light that falls backwards and whatever happens to the light in the back is in the back, unless you have some natural ambient light burning in.

“My interest is challenging the mind of the viewer and my own mind to perceive light or to become more cognizant of light,” he adds.

Payam started with two heads with grids and one-stop diffusers behind the set. At back left he placed a head with a 21-inch Chimera Lantern ten feet high, with two skirts facing down at the subject and gates open to flood the room. To the left of the subject, off-axis, he placed one head with a Mola Demi 22-inch beauty dish with a half-stop diffuser and a 35-degree grid. To the right of the subject, off-axis, he placed a head with a Chimera Small Strip 40-degree grid. To the rear left and right of the camera, Payam placed two 8 x 8-foot Griffolyns at six-feet high and 45-degree angles to the subject. The Griffolyns each bounced light from two heads. All of the heads in the setup were powered by Profoto 1200 Ws power packs. Payam shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 30mm, ISO 400, exposed at 1/100 of a second at f/5.6.

The Griffolyn, which is primarily used for film and video lighting, is “a really nice source of light that I use a lot to fill the environment,” Payam says.

Through his lighting setup, Payam created “pools of light” in front of and behind O’Callaghan and elsewhere in the scene, which provided separation between the subject and the objects in the frame. “My goal and my challenge [in lighting something] is to create that canvas where I can create lots of pools of light coming from different directions to give the shot some body,” he says.

Lighting the scene took roughly 45 minutes. Once O’Callaghan came in they collaborated on the final shot, and the photographer notes that it was a pleasure to work with someone who has a high level of visual literacy and was enthusiastic about creating something. “It was great to work with him and build something together.”

“There is no one solution, no one formula” for lighting, Payam says. “Formulas should be learned and thrown in the garbage, because they limit you, the way you see things.” He singles out lighting ratios, which are great in theory but “go to hell” when an environment complicates a setup, as a perfect example. “Light doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Payam says. “I always tell my interns that.”

Payam's lighting diagram from the shoot:

Payam lighting diagram

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