How I Got That Shot: David Bowman Lights a Rock and Roll Portrait

September 16, 2011

© David Bowman

Brian Setzer, photographed for Guitar Aficionado magazine at the W hotel in Minneapolis. 

When Guitar Aficionado first contacted commercial and editorial photographer David Bowman about shooting portraits of musician Brian Setzer and his guitars, the assignment called for a studio shoot. But this was February, in Minneapolis, and a blizzard shut down the city, forcing the shoot to be postponed to a date when the studio was no longer available. Bowman suggested several alternative locations to associate photo editor Samantha Xu, including the W hotel, which occupies a 1920s tower in downtown Minneapolis. The day before the rescheduled shoot, the hotel gave its permission for the shoot to take place in two locations in the hotel during normal business hours. As soon as he had permission, Bowman says, “I ran down there with a camera and got in 10 minutes of scouting.”

Logistics: In all, there were ten people on location: Bowman and two assistants, Setzer, his wife and his manager, a guitar technician, a bodyguard, a wardrobe person and a hair and makeup stylist. At the shoot, Setzer’s manager asked that one of the portraits be taken in the back of the lobby, away from hotel guests. “It was a cramped, dark corner, void of any ambient light,” Bowman notes. The walls were black and shiny.
Time was limited, and Bowman was allowed only a few minutes to shoot two portraits of Setzer and a photo of his guitars. “Your job is to get more time with your subject,” Bowman says, but both building management and Setzer’s manager were eager for him to wrap up the shoot in only a few minutes.

During the shoot, which took place both in the lobby and in the W hotel’s “Extreme Wow Suite,” Bowman’s gear kept blowing fuses. Bowman guesses that the wiring in the Twenties-era hotel was not set up to handle a 2,400 watt-second power pack.

Lighting: Bowman says, “I couldn’t light the walls directly, because they reflected the hot strobe heads like a mirror. I couldn’t bounce light into them either, because all that did was give me the milky white reflection of my source.” When he tried using a shoot-through umbrella to the left of the camera, it was reflected in the shiny black wall, “So I backed that light much further off set,” he explains, “until I could no longer see its reflection in the wall.”

He decided to light Setzer from above. “I boomed a medium Chimera Pancake Softbox overhead from a Speedotron 2405CX pack,” he explains. As his main light, he set up a spotted Speedotron 8-inch Fresnel with barn doors on camera left. Thanks to the focus of the Fresnel, he was able to pull it back from his subject without sacrificing the quality of the light. Next, he says, “I placed an 8 x 8-foot white foamcore panel just off camera right,” leaning against a wall. This large panel bounced light back into the shot, and softened the shadows on camera right.

Once he had his shot of Setzer, Bowman and the assistants rushed to set up photos in the Extreme Wow Suite upstairs, and he used a similar overhead lighting set up both for the second portrait of Setzer and for a shot showing his guitars. “I also shot these with an boomed softbox overhead, and a long exposure, to capture the city lights out the window” behind the line of guitars.

Camera: PhaseOne P45+ digital back on a Mamiya RZ, tethered to a MacBook Pro laptop; Mamiya 65mm f/4 L-A lens

Post production: Bowman says the magazine handled the retouching which involved brightening dark areas, lengthening and straightening the carpet, and removing some fingerprints on the walls. For his portfolio pieces, Bowman did his own retouching on the images, similar to what the magazine had done.  

 Related stories:

How I Got That Shot: Lighting Death Row Portraits

How I Got That Shot: Adrian Mueller Shoots Reflective Surfaces (Behind the Scenes)

How I Got That Shot: David Stuart Shoots a Lifestyle Image