Nick Fancher on Photographing Kevin Hart in Vibrant Shadows
February 20, 2018
Nick Fancher chose light sources that allowed him to pack light and shoot variations quickly. The simplicity of the setup also impressed his subject.
Fancher used gelled lights and shutter drag in his still life of a Bottega Veneta tote bag.
Client: HartBeat Productions; Wisdom Tucker, creative director
On a recent assignment to photograph comedian Kevin Hart, photographer Nick Fancher employed some of his favorite techniques for adding colored shadows to a portrait. The image—made with light sources gelled blue and yellow—was one of four he shot for Hart’s production company, HartBeat Productions, for use in marketing materials and merchandise during the comedian’s current comedy tour, “Irresponsible.”
Fancher, who is based in Columbus, Ohio, says he shoots a variety of subjects for a variety of commercial clients. He’s been interested in color theory since taking a painting course in college, and he often mixes colors in his photos, using colored gels with strobes, tungsten lights and projectors. He’s currently working on a book, Chroma (to be published in July by Rocky Nook), in which he explains his use of colored light sources and how he’s applied his techniques to still lifes, fashion and portraiture.
Fancher first worked with Wisdom Tucker, creative director of Hart’s production company, when she oversaw marketing for a jewelry brand. “She said, ‘Keep sending me work and I’ll send them to Kevin and his manager,’” Fancher explains. She liked the lighting effects in the photos he sent, and contacted Fancher when she needed images for Hart’s tour.
For the shoot with Hart, which took place in a studio in Los Angeles, Fancher packed two small lights and a stand. “I like to work light and travel light,” he says. “I have a small backpack. Everything I carry goes in my carry-on.” He typically travels without an assistant, he says. “I usually travel alone, because I have two small kids and any time I can get away by myself is great.” Because his regular assistant, Seth Moses Miller, was eager to meet Hart, Fancher decided to bring him along to Los Angeles.
His simple lighting setup allowed him to work fast—which proved handy, since the shoot was delayed almost 11 hours while Hart was working on a video shoot in an adjacent studio. “We did four scenarios in less than an hour: We’d do one, then do a wardrobe change,” Fancher explains. His small strobes, and the photos he previewed, impressed Hart and his entourage. “The more I can juke expectations, the more I can stand out,” Fancher says. “That’s what will get me the next shoot.”
Before the shoot, Tucker and Fancher storyboarded a few concepts based on images in the photographer’s portfolio. They also came up with scenarios playing with the idea of “irresponsible”: Hart running with scissors and putting a fork in an electrical outlet.
Fancher’s shoot was scheduled for noon. When he arrived, he learned that the cyc he had planned to use was being used for a promotional video being shot in a studio downstairs. He found a small piece of white seamless he used as a backdrop. Once he set up everything, he waited. Hart’s schedule kept changing. Fancher recalls, “I was in this dark room waiting, knowing that I had to leave for the airport at midnight to go to Charleston for a job I’d booked six months before.” Hart walked in at 11pm. The comedian had been training for a marathon, and had run drills that morning with the Los Angeles Rams football team for a video he shot for his own YouTube channel. “So he was dead tired,” Fancher recalls. “He was giving me only two poses. I had to make it as dynamic as I could.”
Despite Hart’s fatigue, he needed little direction. “He’s a professional, and these shots were for his use,” Fancher says. “He was the pilot for the shoot.” If one of the more active shots he planned didn’t work or Hart balked at a pose, Fancher was ready to move on to a different idea. (For more on portrait techniques, see “How Celebrity Portrait Photographers Beat the Clock.”)
Fancher used two Cactus RF60 wireless flashes. He put the lights on a stand about 7 feet high, placed about 15 feet from Hart, so his body was illuminated but the lighting on his face wasn’t harsh. Fancher taped a cyan gel on one light, and a yellow gel on the other. To separate the lights and create the width of shadow he wanted, he put them on a cold shoe mount about 16 inches wide, and attached it to the light stand.
“They’re 60-watt strobes, but I was using them at about 1/8 power” to get faster recycling times, he explains. He used a Cactus V6II transmitter to trigger the strobes and power them up or down as needed without leaving his camera: “That’s how I was able to get so many variations in such a short time.”
In his book, Fancher describes using one light to create shadows as “a placeholder,” then using his fill light to add another layer of color. The area where the two shadows overlap appears to be a dark, neutral color. “I’ve experimented with a fan on the hair so the subjects get colored shadows on their face. I’ve put gelled gobos up to get crazy colored shadows.”
The cover photo of Chroma shows a model bathed in blue light. Behind her is a yellow halo that graduates to a dark orange. He first lit the model from above using a softbox with a cyan gel in it. “I have to make sure the light on the subject isn’t too close to the background. I’ll often put a grid in the softbox, to make the fall-off faster.”
To create the glow behind the model, “I put a flash on a small stand behind her and hid it with her body.” The flash was gelled with a yellow-orange gel. By having it closer to the background, “you not only get the bright spot behind her, but it also causes it to gradates from yellow to orange.”
Fancher shot Hart with a Canon 5D Mark III and an 85mm lens at f/5.6 at 1/200th of a second; ISO 200.
He shoots all his portraits handheld; in his own studio, he says, he’ll move around his subject on a rolling stool. “I hate shooting with a tether cord,” he says. Instead he shot to cards, showed Hart a few images on the back of the camera, “and Wisdom has enough trust in me that I didn’t have to show her everything.”
Tucker asked Fancher to make some selects and send them to her. “After I culled the images I probably got down to 40 images, [and] brought them into Lightroom to color grade,” he recalls. The combination of blue and yellow gels added a slightly green cast to the white seamless. Fancher lifted it easily in Lightroom. “I’ve done this technique so many times, it’s simple. I’m using color curves to neutralize the white balance.”
Hart has posted the portrait on Instagram. Fancher’s shots will be used in tour promotions for “Irresponsible,” which continues through March.
11 Minutes with Bruce Springsteen