How I Got That Shot: Putting a Ring Flash to Unexpected Use

August 1, 2012

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Max Hirschfeld

Chakaia Booker's sculpture, made of matte-black rubber, needed strong illumination. To see an outtake from this shoot as well as other images from the campaign, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Photographer: Max Hirshfeld
Client: WiT Media
Principal: Clint White
Art Director:
Sean Keepers

Clint White, principal of WiT Media, an ad agency in New York City that specializes in working with arts and culture organizations, hired Max Hirshfeld, a DC photographer, to shoot a campaign promoting the twenty-fifth anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, with ads in newspapers, bus kiosks, magazines and outdoor banners. White, Hirshfeld and art director Sean Keepers came up with the idea of creating a series of environmental portraits of artists and art lovers. One of the first portraits Hirshfeld shot shows sculptor Chakaia Booker in front of her enormous wall-mounted sculpture located in the museum’s contemporary art gallery.

Hirshfeld recognized a technical problem he would need to solve when he scouted the gallery and saw Booker’s sculpture, titled “Acid Rain,” a large and intricate weaving made from rubber tires. “The main challenge with this was getting detail from the sculpture’s intense matte-black materials.” Without strong illumination, he says, “It’s going to stay black but really it’s going to look dead.”

He knew immediately he wanted to use a ring light. Though he typically uses a ring light in what he calls “a supporting role,” in this portrait, it would take center stage. “What it does technically better than anything is to fill shadows and bring information into the middle of the range of illumination,” he says. “I couldn’t have come up with a better solution to get light into those nooks and crannies.”

The museum’s contemporary art gallery is a large space with high ceilings. “There’s enough space so I could pull back and work comfortably.” Hirshfeld set up his camera and tripod more than 15 feet from the sculpture. Though there is ambient light from a bank of windows, “It didn’t affect this shot,” Hirshfeld notes.

“What I usually do is shoot a few frames without any lighting,” he says. Shooting digitally, he checks his lens and setup. “Then it becomes an additive process.”

A large piece of black felt he had brought along to use when shooting other parts of the museum, and to cover glass on paintings that were reflecting light, proved handy. The last step in setting up his portrait of Booker was to lay the felt over the “not unattractive beige carpet,” tucking it under the sculpture. “I knew that the floor areas not covered by the felt could be cleaned up in post production.”

Lighting: The ring light, developed for medical imaging, has gone in and out of favor, first adopted by fashion photographers and then by portrait shooters. “The look of a ring light isn’t everyone’s favorite because it’s harsh,” Hirshfeld notes. “I tend to dial it up slowly so you can see the effect of the ring light, but it doesn’t become the dominant light.”

The ring light illuminated most of the center of the sculpture, but the outer corners needed more light. He chose to use two 2400 w/s Profoto packs, both bare heads, which matched the illumination of the bare ring light. He positioned these on camera left and camera right, about three feet from the sculpture, and placed them on stands about 14 feet above the floor, “aimed pretty close to the white wall but aimed down at 45 degree angles.”

He notes, “With the ring light and the other lights, it was enough to illuminate the wall behind [the sculpture], so I had some white to pick up on when I went into post.”

Before the shoot, Hirshfeld had been told that Booker would be a shy subject. “I love it when I shoot portraits and I get to talk to my subjects,” the photographer says. To put her at ease, he asked the clients to leave the set, and gave his subject directions, asking her to walk and move in front of her piece. “I could put her in different points of the frame. With the ring light setup, I didn’t have to say, ‘Chakaia, stay right here.’” The lighting, which illuminated the sculpture, gave her a range to move around in. “It allowed her to be anywhere in the frame and still be in the illumination of the ring light. I think because of her shyness, it helped.” The lighting also showed her face and the texture of her trademark headdress.

Hirshfeld’s favorite shot in the series shows her gesturing towards an invisible viewer.

Camera: Hirshfeld used a Canon EOS-1D Mark II on a Gitzo tripod with a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM lens at 27mm; f/11.

Post Production: The client chose eight to ten favorite images from the shoot, and Hirshfeld did his own Photoshopping to clean up details. “It was not a complicated post production on this but a necessary step.” He cleaned up and extended the black felt in spots where beige carpeting was visible. “In post, I had to go in and clean up certain areas where the ring light died off.” The 50 mb files were large enough to work in full-page newspaper ads and outdoor advertising. Hirshfeld is currently shooting more images for the campaign, which will eventually include 25 subjects, in celebration of the museum’s twenty-fifth anniversary.

Related Article:

Max Hirshfeld Photo Gallery