Lighting Recipe: Naomi Harris’s Arctic Portrait

March 7, 2013

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Naomi Harris

Editorial and commercial photographer Naomi Harris is known for her deeply saturated portraits. “I always light, even if it’s a bright, sunny day,” she says. When she’s shooting documentary style, she says, she’ll set up lights that she fires remotely. “I let things happen, but the lights are there, and they give it a more surreal quality.”

Last fall, Harris was hired by Greenpeace to travel aboard one of the environmental organization’s ships to the Arctic Circle and shoot portraits of crew members and volunteers. During the trip, volunteers cleaned up garbage that had washed ashore in areas of Norway too remote for most residents or tourists to reach.

It was Harris’s first trip above the Arctic Circle, and she prepared by packing clothes for cold, wet weather, and waterproof bags to protect her gear as she toted it from the ship to a dinghy and then from the dinghy to ice floes or beaches. As she often does when traveling abroad, she took along Quantum strobes, both the Qflash T5dR and the Qflash T2. She chose the Quantums because they have their own batteries, which can be charged from any electrical outlet, or from the cigarette lighter of a car. That was valuable when she had no idea what her access to electrical power might be.  “They’re easy to pack and get on a plane, plus they’re pretty light and pretty strong, so I can get a lot of power out of them,” she says. “If I put the camera on a tripod, I can bring the light quite low, and I can make something moody. Also they have a high output of light, so even if the sun is out I can make a bright picture.”

During a stop in a Norway fjord, Harris took a portrait of one Greenpeace volunteer from New Zealand. When she saw him hauling a dock line he had found amidst the debris on the shore, she recalls, “I said, ‘Hold that.’” She then set up her lights and had him repeat the scenario.

She set up two Quantums on light stands. To front light him, she placed a light just to the right of her camera at the height of the subject’s face, roughly seven to eight feet from her subject. She placed another light on a stand just to the left of her subject, a little higher than his head, and angled down. When the lights were set, she asked the volunteer to pretend to walk across the frame, hauling the rope. She was using a Contax 645 with a Phase One IQ180 digital back, and a Contax Carl Zeiss 45mm f/2.8 lens, and fired the strobes with PocketWizard remote triggers, “so there are no cables.”

She shot at f/8 at ISO 100 about 1/60 of a second. The sky was cloudy and the sun in October was low, she says. “By using the flash at a high power I was able to make it a moody, painterly picture. He’s illuminated, but the background is much darker.” That’s a technique she uses typically, even on sunny days, in order to make the photo look richer. “I’m all about saturation,” she says.

She moved around, trying verticals and horizontals, getting about 15 shots in all. To shoot her subject from a low angle, looking up, she had to kneel on the ice in her snow pants. Her goal, she says, was to make the crew member “look heroic, like in an old sailing painting, or like a military painting where the subject is doing something exhausting but looks very regal at the same time.”

In the roughly two hours that Harris and the crew were on the beach, she had to scout locations and frames, carrying her lights and camera, and then had a short window in which to set up. Once the crew had radioed to the boat to come and get them from the shore, she had to move quickly to break down the lights. Being able to move quickly had other advantages. “We’re on the middle of the beach with a guide who has a gun because polar bears might come along at any minute. You have to be fast.”

Shooting above the Arctic Circle presented other challenges as well. Though the weather was less severe than she had expected it to be in October—often hovering around freezing—she occasionally had to wait for her batteries to warm up. “At times, shooting on the ice, if I had to go back to the ship for something, I had to leave my camera out on the ice. If I’d brought it into the warm boat, it would have gotten misty.” Gloves were too cumbersome to allow her to operate the camera’s controls. “My solution was to keep hot packs in my mittens so they were blazing warm, and then pull my hand out quickly.”

Harris’s poppy, editorial-style images were a departure for Greenpeace, which usually uses images of its protest actions in its communications. By using light to make dramatic portraits, she hopes to catch the attention of potential donors and volunteers, and make them curious to learn more about Greenpeace’s work. “I hope the feeling is more intriguing, and makes people interested.”

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