How I Got That Shot: David Stuart

May 9, 2011

© United Way/Photo by David Stuart

While shooting In the studio, Stuart placed his key light with a reflector to the right of the camera, casting shadows onto foamcore. When the shoot moved to the bedroom of his home, he recreated the same lighting and shadows.

Client: United Way
Agency: Fitzgerald Agency, Atlanta; 
Matthew Sharpe, art director

To enlist public support for the community work of United Way, Matthew Sharpe of the Fitzgerald Agency in Atlanta hired photographer David Stuart to create three ads showing situations in which the charity can make a difference. In addition to a dark image of a homeless man sleeping on a sidewalk, Stuart also shot two scenarios that took what he calls “a warm, lifestyle approach”: a mother checking on her sick child in bed on a sunny morning, and a young girl in a classroom. In each image, there’s a button or a lever mounted on a plaque under a call to action, such as: “Press the lever to help her learn to read.”

Logistics: Stuart says that art director Matthew Sharpe sent him rough comps of the scenarios, but generally gave him “a lot of creative latitude” in casting and scouting locations, and also in planning the lighting. The pro bono ads had a limited budget, so building a set for the bedroom was out of the question, and nothing Stuart scouted was suitable, he says. “We ended up shooting the mother, the kid and the bed in the studio, and then I came to my house, recreated the lighting and shot everything you see—the dresser, the drawings on the wall, the toys—and composited it in post.”

The plaques and lettering seen in the final ads were actually created in Photoshop and Illustrator by Chris Bodie, but during the shoot at PTR Studio in Atlanta, Stuart placed real plaques and old levers and buttons on the end of the bed and photographed them in order to see what looked best and to create a model of how the light struck them. Stuart says, “For my money the more real things you can shoot in camera, the better.”

Camera: Canon 5D Mark II, and a variety of prime lenses, including 50mm, 35mm and a 24 mm. He says that the DSLR worked fine for shooting all the elements he needed for the composite image. “I could zoom in and focus on just one part, like the dresser, and it would fill the frame. Effectively you could create a 300 mb file.”

Lighting: The photo of the mother and child in the bedroom required the most lighting, Stuart says. “We wanted to keep this as natural looking as possible and not have it too stylized,” Stuart says. “The key light was off camera right. I used a Profoto 7A pack and a regular reflector, and I popped it through blinds” which he hung from a stand.

“Obviously we had to maintain the same shadows throughout all the images, “ Stuart says. So in the studio, he measured off the size of the room, and set up large pieces of foamcore where the walls would be. The shadows from the blinds, the mother’s body, and toys on the boy’s dresser were then cast on these. (Stuart notes that Morel Studio Support donated the rental gear to the pro bono shoot.)

Next the shoot moved to Stuart’s own bedroom, where he created the same lighting, and once again set window blinds on a stand. Stylist Kate Flynn, working pro bono, styled most of the campaign, but Stuart propped the bedroom himself, he says. “I went into my son’s room and saw how he had set it up.”

Post Production: Everyone who worked on the project, with the exception of the photo assistants, donated their time and fees, including retoucher Scott Dorman, who roughed out the comps and then polished the final image, and Chris Bodie, who used a combination of Photoshop, Illustrator and some wood textures from his library to make the plaque, its screws and lettering.

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