How I Got That Shot: Tricky Lights Up

December 2, 2011

© Timothy Saccenti/Hello Artists

Just one teaspoon of water was contained in the balloon that Tricky popped. The pop triggered the strobes Timothy Saccenti used to light the shot.

Client: Domino Recording Company; Peter Berard, A&R Representative

Timothy Saccenti is a New York-based photographer and director whose commercial clients include Nike and Sony as well as many music-related companies, such as Island Records and MTV. He’s also scientifically curious, and says he enjoys working with his assistants to create “mad-scientist-type experiments.” On an assignment for Domino Recording Company to photograph Tricky, the trip-hop musician and occasional actor known for his marijuana use, Saccenti thought of a way to apply a recent experiment to a portrait. His idea was to allude to Tricky’s trademark, “but have it be visually interesting.”

Saccenti and his assistants had been testing a remote trigger for strobes that relies on sound. “You can set this so that when it hears certain sound frequencies, it sets the strobes off,” Saccenti explains. He notes that the delay on the trigger can be varied by thousandths of a second, altering “the time between when the device hears the frequency and when it fires the strobe.”  

These experiments gave him the idea for a portrait of Tricky in which the popping of a balloon would trigger the strobes. “We were doing tests where we were exploding balloons that had little bits of water or dust in them, and trying to freeze [the explosion] with the strobes,” he says. He decided to try having Tricky explode a 3-foot round black balloon containing just a teaspoon of water. “He took a puff off the spliff in his hand and, as he blew out the smoke, he used the spliff to [pop] the balloon,” releasing a cloud of tiny water particles.

Logistics: “You have to do this in a totally dark room—no modeling lights or anything—and keep the shutter open,” the photographer explains. The shot, which was done at a New York City studio, took about two hours to set up and an hour to shoot. Saccenti and his team set up a black Duvateen backdrop, tested lights and carefully adjusted the delay from the time the trigger registered the loud pop of the balloon to the time it fired the strobes. Subtle changes to the delay, Saccenti notes, created very different effects. “It would look either like a balloon with a little ripple in it, or like just a spray of water alone.” Saccenti wanted something in between, with the popping balloon still visible. He says, “This looked mysterious.”

The shoot required a lot of patience on Tricky’s part. Standing in the dark, he couldn’t move more than six inches or he would be out of focus. He had to touch the spliff against the balloon in just the right way. And with each pop of the balloon, he would be covered with water. “It was just a tiny amount of water, but the velocity with which it came out was high,” Saccenti explains.

At the start of the shoot, several things were still uncertain. Though he had tested the strobe trigger using smaller, thin plastic balloons, Saccenti recalls, “I wasn’t sure the balloon would be poppable. Or if the spliff would stay lit. And keeping the subject lucid in the unusual environment is a concern.”

Saccenti chose to put two Goddard strobes to the left and right of the subject, each with Magnum reflectors with grids. To light the puff of smoke, he used another Goddard with a blackwrap cinefoil snoot for the top light. This was on a stand, about 15 feet high. “I didn’t know how high the water would go, so I had to keep things fairly far away.” His key light was a mini softbox in front of and above the camera to illuminate Tricky’s face separately. For front fill, he used “four Profoto heads bouncing into two 4 x 8-inch sheets of foamcore.”

Finally, to make sure the whole curve of the black balloon was lit, he set another Goddard under the balloon on a turtle stand. “That was snooted to try to keep the light off Tricky.” He notes that each of the strobes was set at the lowest possible power to get a shorter flash duration.

In all, Saccenti says, he took about 25 shots, and over the course of the hour showed Tricky how the portraits were turning out. That can be a risk when photographing celebrities, Saccenti says, but he felt the situation called for it. “To be in a room that’s all black, the music blaring, with 3-foot balloons popping, and you’re getting covered in water and you don’t know why, you have to get some feedback.” Saccenti says of Tricky, “He was quite good natured about the whole thing.”

A Canon 1Ds Mark II on a tripod, with a 1.2 50mm lens at f/5.6, ISO 160.

Post Production:
None. “It’s not composited, and there’s no retouching; its just color graded. I’m very proud of that with this shot,” the photographer says. “I do a lot in digital mediums with collaborators, but I like to go back and experiment with things that require just photography and light. This photo combined my interest in the phenomenon of photography and what it’s great at, which is capturing things in time, with my love of portrait photography.”

Click on the Photo Gallery above to see outtakes from the shoot.