How I Got That Shot: Ty Cole for Metropolis Magazine

December 19, 2014

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Client: Metropolis magazine

Photo editor (former): Magda Biernat

Having started out shooting architecture, photographer Ty Cole is keenly interested in the environments in which he shoots his portraits, and likes to use the space to create a graphic composition. For “The Makers” issue of Metropolis, the magazine on design and architecture, then photo editor Magda Biernat assigned Cole to create environmental portraits of fabricators, people who make art pieces, architectural details and other designs either on their own or to the specifications of designers and artisans. “The specific assignment was to show them in their studios and the tools they use,” Cole explains.

Cole, who is based in Brooklyn, landed the assignment on the strength of a personal project he had done, making portraits of metal fabricators in Brooklyn, which he had shared via email and a printed promotion. The promotion demonstrated he could handle one of the tougher requirements of the Metropolis assignment: Creating interesting compositions in sparse or industrial spaces using the tools and materials his subjects work with. “When I shoot these things I want the environment to be as interesting as the subject,” he says. “I try to have a strong composition, so your eye moves around the scene.” In each space, he looks around for the props and tools the subjects use, to see if he can bring them into the frame. They can help him build the composition, “and if they have a personal connection to the subject, that’s a bonus too.”

After he had made two of the portraits that Metropolis needed shot in New York City, the magazine was planning to hire another photographer to shoot Jason Pilarski and Steven Joyner, owners of MachineHistories, a Los Angeles company that provides “industrial means for producing non-standard objects.”

But by coincidence, Cole was heading to California on vacation. He told Metropolis that if they could wait two weeks, he would be happy to shoot the assignment in Los Angeles. He adds, “It’s a good thing I did because it became the cover. “


As on many of his portrait assignments, Cole was photographing subjects who are not used to being in front of the camera, and needed to put them at ease. His fascination with the work that MachineHistories produces helped him build a rapport with Pilarski and Joyner as soon as he arrived and began scouting the space. “When I am looking for stuff in the studio, I get them to explain the tools they use and products they’ve fabricated, and I start bouncing ideas off of them,” he explains. “By the time they’re ready to get their picture taken, they’re already interested and ready to go.”

Cole was fascinated by a complicated spiral sculpture that was cut from wood, and he moved that towards their workspace where he would photograph the duo, placing it just to the left. For one shot (see opposite page), “I needed something on the right,” he says. He found a sheet of wood with circles cut out of it. He used this to form a wall to the right of his subjects.

“The wood cut out thing on the right moves your eye back to [the subjects]—and that was the point,” Cole says.

He noticed a tall light made up of four fluorescent light bulbs. Thinking it was an interesting object, he decided to bring it into the frame of his photo and incorporate the glow from the four bulbs into his lighting setup.

Composing the objects in the space is his first step, he says. Once those are set, his lights are set, and he’s framed his shot in camera, then he brings in the subjects. “Body position and body language are important for a portrait: How am I going to place them, how should they be in relation to each other?” He gave the two subjects minimal instructions, he says. “It’s: put your arm up, try putting your hand in your pocket. You get them to loosen up.” But most of the work of putting them at ease was already done. Cole says, “I’m setting the tone for the whole shoot. If you love what you do, it naturally comes off that way.”


To create a strong keylight, he placed a MOLA beauty disk with diffusion on a stand about 10–12 feet high at camera right. “It’s not super big or super small. It’s directional, not soft, “ says Cole, who always uses Profoto lights. The high keylight, he notes, “was going to give shape to the sculpture.”

To open up shadow areas, he placed a large Chimera softbox directly behind his camera and tripod. “You want it no higher than eye level because you want to get light under the chin and in the contours of the face.”

The final light he brought in came from the MachineHistories studio—the light fixture with fluorescent bars. Cole positioned it slightly behind and to the left of the wooden sculpture. In addition to providing an interesting graphic element, Cole says, “It provided a subtle kick light.” It helped light the wooden spiral sculpture, and also added a touch of light on Pilarski’s cheek.


Canon 5D Mark III, with a 24–105mm lens (shot at 40mm), f/5.6 at 1/60 sec. “I wanted the shutter to burn in the fluorescents,” he explains.

He shot all the portraits for the assignment on a tripod. “I’m on a tripod probably 95 percent of the time because I originally shot architecture,” he says. “I try to make sure my composition is strong and lock it down, then bring the people in and direct them.”

Locking in the camera’s settings and fixing its position on a tripod keeps each of his shots consistent, which helps when he needs to composite pieces from multiple shots. He says, “That happens quite often.” As it turns out, he needed to composite a shot for the Metropolis assignment.

Post Production

Cole sent Metropolis a small edit, noting his favorite shots and which shot he thought showed each subject the best. Among the favorites Cole has shared in his promotions and on his website is a horizontal image of Pilarski leaning on the sculpture and Joyner seated to the right.

Cole had also shot some verticals for the assignment, and Metropolis decided to use one of these as the cover of “The Makers” issue. To produce the cover image, Cole got permission to silhouette the figure of Joyner from one shot, drop him into an image where he liked Pilarski’s pose and expression, and then composite a different head shot of Joyner’s head onto his body. Because he had kept the lighting and camera settings consistent, the highlights and shadows were nearly identical in each of the shots. “The body language hadn’t changed much,” he adds, making the compositing fairly easy. The only other retouching, he did, he says, was to correct color and tone. 

Cole often does his own retouching. “I’m a control freak,” he explains. “Sometimes the easiest way to explain to someone what you want is to do it first and show them, and by then I’ve already done it.”

Though it was not Cole’s first magazine cover, he considers the Metropolis job a turning point in his career, helping him land more editorial and commercial assignments of his favorite subjects—interesting people in interesting spaces.

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