Lighting Chameleons: Austin Hargrave on Creating Versatile Portraits with Minimal Adjustments
September 15, 2016
Working in a 10 x 10-foot tent at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, Austin Hargrave used one key light with three different backdrops to get three distinct set-ups for each subject—a backlit silhouette effect (DJ Khaled), a classical portrait (Rachel Platten) and a warm glow on a split backdrop (Keke Palmer).
For a shoot with rock band Biffy Clyro, Austin Hargrave got two different looks by adding a blue gel to his key light and a red gel to a strobe illuminating the background.
Austin Hargrave’s portrait of Nick Jonas and Demi Lovato, part of a cover shoot for Billboard.
Hargrave’s diagram of his lighting for the shot, which used a softbox and a reflector with a red gel.
Celebrity photographer Austin Hargrave prefers a classical portraiture lighting style that either uses or mimics natural window light. But subjects, locations and other variables of his assignments are unpredictable, so Hargrave is always prepared to fall back on his ability to light in a variety of different styles. “I would say I’m a lighting chameleon,” he says. “Sometimes you have to bring the magic in with the lights, because the subject isn’t going to do anything special for you.”
He recently had the chance to demonstrate his lighting prowess at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards. Billboard assigned him to shoot portraits backstage. “It gave us access to a lot of talent,” Hargrave says. As musicians walked by, he asked them to sit for portraits. They gave him anywhere from 15 seconds to 15 minutes, he says. There was no way to predict or plan things, such as what backdrop might suit their outfits, or how cooperative they might be. Adding to the challenge was that Billboard wanted different image options—not just a single portrait—of each subject. Their plan was to archive the images for use with future stories about the subjects.
The usual solution would be to create several sets, and move the subject from one to the next. But event organizers assigned Hargrave to a 10 x 10-foot “studio”—a makeshift tent constructed of steel tubes and covered with dark cloth. Getting three distinct portraits of each subject in that space “was a matter of making every square foot work,” Hargrave says.
His solution was to put three different backdrops in three different corners of the tent. When subjects came in, he positioned them more or less in the middle of the tent. “I used the same key light and changed the background by spinning the subject around to a different corner,” he says. “I got three totally different pictures with one [strobe] head.”
He repositioned himself (and his camera) accordingly. But the key light stayed put, behind a 12 x 12-foot polysilk cloth that he hung parallel to one of the tent walls. The key light consisted of two heads on a Profoto Pro-8a power pack. Hargrave focused one head with a medium Elinchrome Rotalux Octa (soft box) and diffused the other head with a white umbrella. The double key light “gave me more power and fill,” he says.
When subjects turned their backs toward the first corner of the tent, Hargrave made classic portraits, with a soft, even, directional light. He achieved that by hanging a neutral gray backdrop in that corner, and positioning his subjects relatively close to the key light just behind the diffusion cloth.
For a second portrait, he placed his subject roughly sideways to the polysilk, and shot toward the key light, achieving a backlit silhouette effect. To avoid losing the detail on the side of the subject closest to the camera (i.e., the side in the shadow of the key light), “I was bouncing a little bit of light with a card to fill in,” Hargrave explains.
For his third setup, Hargrave photographed his subjects against what appears to be a split backdrop: one half of it is dark. The other half reflects a warm glow behind the subject. Hargrave achieved the background effect by taking the dark cloth off one side of the 10 x 10-foot tent, exposing some backstage lockers to his shooting area. He clamped black foam core on the partially-opened door of a locker. That created the dark half of the background for each portrait. To get the glow on the other half of the background, behind his subjects, he directed a strobe into the locker, bouncing the light off the wood surface inside. “The warm glow is from the color of the wood,” he explains.
Meanwhile, the key light, off to the right of the camera, casts a somewhat harder light on the subject, compared to the soft, even light of the first portrait. The difference, Hargrave explains, was due to the relative distances between the key light and the subject: closer for the softer light of the first portrait position, and further away for the harder, more contrasty light of the third portrait position.
For an assignment on a very different scale, Hargrave photographed members of Scottish rock band Biffy Clyro in a Los Angeles warehouse. For that shoot, he was experimenting with a 360-degree camera. “The challenge is that your [lighting] equipment can’t be in the shot,” Hargrave says. But natural light alone wasn’t enough. He took advantage of natural light streaming through a skylight to light one band member who was lying on the floor. To light another band member, he used a 4 x 4-foot mirror—made for use with movie set lights—to bounce sunlight through a doorway across the warehouse. “I used a hazer/fogger to hide and diffuse [the mirror] bringing light from outside,” Hargrave says.
Hargrave says he taught himself how to light portraits after moving to LA about a decade ago from the UK, where he started as a newspaper photographer. “I know how I want [a portrait] to look, so I learned to do it,” he says, adding, “I made a lot of mistakes on the job.”
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