How I Got That Shot: Inside the Creation of an International, Multiplatform Ad Campaign
December 7, 2017
For an assignment for an eyewear company that included video and stills, Simon Harsent lit a portrait in a coffee shop using a red neon light, LED panels and practical lights found on location. Click through to see more of Harsent's commissioned and personal work.
An image Harsent made on the west coast of New Zealand's south island. He's been making landscapes since the 1990s, when legendary art director Warren Brown hired him for a fashion ad that required a fresh approach to location photography.
From Harsent's personal series "Melt Portrait of an Iceberg." What his landscapes and portraits have in common, Harsent says, is his interest in color and mood.
The London-born Harsent lives in New York City, and shoots on location for clients internationally.
Harsent says his first love was portraiture, but the five years he spent shooting still lifes at the start of his career taught him “the way you light things, how you lens things, how you look at the subject.”
Ad agency: Marcel Sydney:
David Nobay, Creative chairman;
Scott Huebscher, ECD;
Jeremy Hogg, AD
“If you’re going to spend so much effort and time and energy on making a picture, you have to make people feel something,” says Simon Harsent. Harsent says his advertising clients come to him when they wants stills and video that convey a mood or emotion. To deliver that emotional response, Harsent says, he strives for realism, and wants his lighting, lens choice, casting, styling and retouching to enhance the believability of his photos. “You want people to think: ‘Wow that’s a real picture, not an ad.’”
Harsent has demonstrated his versatility throughout his career. He shot still lifes for the first five years of his professional life, a period he says honed his problem-solving skills and taught him “the way you light things, how you lens things, how you look at the subject.” He then moved on to his first love, portraiture. In the mid-nineties, when legendary art director Warren Brown, founder of the ad agency BMF (Brown Melhuish Fishlock) wanted a fresh approach to landscape photography for the fashion accessories brand Oroton, he hired Harsent. Since then, Harsent has continued to shoot fine-art landscapes for gallery shows and his portfolio. What all his work has in common is an attention to color and mood. Harsent, who used to do his own darkroom printing, now does all his own color grading. “I’m very particular about color and emotion,” he explains.
He recently shot a campaign for OPSM, the eyewear company, which required video and stills for print ads, banner ads and many other platforms. Each ad and commercial spot featured a different individual in a different location. “They’re all quirky and interesting characters,” the photographer says of the subjects. “I wanted to enter these people’s world. Their only common denominator was wearing glasses.” Working with a crew that included a gaffer, grip and DP, he created a video portrait of each character, then shot stills. His goal, he says, was to have the composition and direct eye contact with the bespectacled subject draw the viewer in: “I want to push them into the image, and for them to focus on what’s important straight away.”
Each character in the campaign had a story that was carefully thought out. These included a young insomniac sitting at night in a coffee shop, and an older man seated on a bench on a platform in a train station, dressed in a plaid vest and suit and holding a cane with a decorative handle. “Once you have a story, you can start looking at location, props, casting,” Harsent says.
He likes to be involved in casting, and usually sits in on call-backs with actors and models. For the shot of the gentleman seated in a railroad station, Harsent wasn’t finding anyone who fit the image he had in mind until his producer, Eloise Hastings, pulled out her phone and showed him a photo of a bearded man: a photo of her stepfather. He landed the job.
To help his models get into character, Harsent gave them their back stories, “who are they, what have they done, why are they here.”
Harsent shot the video portraits first. “Once you’ve had the talent perform the role and given them something to do, then it’s easier to go in and shoot the still,” he says. “When you’re directing them for film, you’ll see something—how they move or dip their head. As you’re looking you say: That’s a fantastic still. So you know when you go in for the stills exactly what you want to get.”
Before the shoot, he and his crew did a tech scout, to find power sources, plan the loading of equipment and, more importantly, work out the order in which he would shoot each location to meet the client’s needs in a tight timeframe.
The lights that Harsent used to shoot video remained in place during the still shoot, guaranteeing consistency in the visuals. Harsent notes that since his days of shooting still lifes, he’s preferred using continuous lights rather than strobes, because he finds continuous lights easier to shape and control. “I like the directness of hot lights, tungsten and Arris,” he says. “Look at the way light plays in a room: You’re usually looking at one source, which is like the sun. Then it bounces around the room. So I’m interested in how to shape the light, whether through bounce or negative fill.”
The main character in the coffee shop scene was lit with a red neon “Open” sign that was to camera right, outside the door. This was supplemented with a Kino Flo Celeb light, an LED panel that has a frame to hold colored gels. Another Celeb placed high over the subject and slightly to the left of the camera added highlights on the subject’s hair. The crew used cards to control the spill and keep the light focused.
In his commitment to realism, Harsent also likes to use practical lights as much as he can. The left-hand side of the coffee shop shot, showing a warm and cozy space with chairs, was lit with lamps that were already in the shop when the crew arrived.
Harsent shot the stills on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. He often shoots portraits and landscapes with a 95mm lens, but adds, “I try to shoot with a 35mm lens as much as I can. It’s a photojournalist’s lens. It feels real.” When using the 35mm to photograph people in an environment, he says, “It feels to me like you get the right balance between the person and their environment.”
In each shot in the OPSM campaign, the subject’s face is the focus, but in the background, other details are visible: a waitress moving in the coffee shop, a pedestrian hurrying down the railway station platform. “I generally shoot fairly wide, not less than f/2.8, usually f/5.6,” Harsent says, “so the background falls out of focus slightly. This way it pulls the viewers’ attention to what I have focused on in the image.”
He says that having a digital 35mm DSLR that’s sensitive to high ISOs suited the coffee shop’s dimly lit interior. He notes, “I tend to shoot a wide aperture, so I don’t need a lot of light.”
After making an edit, Harsent grades all his images. “I’ll actually take the top end of the saturation out of images. I’m not into high poppy colors,” he says. Once that’s done, he’ll send a JPEG he’s marked up to the retoucher. His overall instruction, he says, is simple: “Don’t overdo it.”
In the photo taken inside the railroad station, for example, some of the fluorescent lights had a slight halo effect, but he asked that they not be cleaned up, so the blur contributed to the sense of the chaos of the giant room. In the coffee shop photo, he notes that the cup on the table has a reflection showing the line where the red light and another light meet. “Some people would retouch that out. Why would I retouch that out?” he asks. “If there’s a crease in the jacket, leave it there. It’s natural.”