Reflections on I am an Ironman Hawaii Portraits

Posted on January 26, 2012


I am just back from Hawaii where I succeeded in capturing two portraits for my ‘I am an Ironman’ portfolio. The process was far more difficult than I had anticipated. The main difficulty was finding suitable locations for the shoot which provide the neutral background I am looking for.

Whilst traveling I will not be able to take a background sheet and so need to find  natural background. The key difficulties are finding suitable locations in open shade. In Hawaii this was very difficult!! I had hoped to find usable hedges/walls at the house where I was staying. The truth is that on sunny days there were none. So in the end I decided to shoot inside against a plain wall using directional window light and a reflector. This worked pretty well except for the following problems:

  • the lighting on the background wall I chose was uneven – I did not spot this until post processing – schoolboy error!! I was able to correct the problem in post but this is not ideal
  • the colour temperature varied considerably across the frame with shadow areas having a blue cast and the highlight areas red. I think this was a consequence of the first problem.
  • it took me some time to get used to the Hasselblad camera I am now using. The main problem was that although I was using a tripod there was noticable camera shake due to shutter slap at speeds less than 1/125th. The solution is to cock the shutter and lock the mirror before clicking the shutter.
  • A further problem was that whilst the cream background was suitable for my first subject Al who has dark hair. For Tricia, who has blond hair it was too light! Not much I could do about this and the final results worked very well but I would have preferred a darker background for her. This again raises issues to be considered in pre-planning shoots.
  • I did shoot a few images outside in cloudy bright conditions.This was very difficult as the sun kept moving in and out of the clouds and even when there was cloud cover the conditions were very bright and Al, my subject, was squinting. Also it is pretty clear that in open shade shooting in colour it is preferable to use a flash to remove some of the blue colour cast and to add sparkle to the subject’s eyes. Whether the flash is the key or fill really depends on the background and the lighting conditions. In cloudy bright conditions the flash serves well as fill, but in shadow areas it is probably better to use the flash as the key, but only about 0.5 stop above ambient.
  • The MAIN PROBLEM though was how to plan a shoot with my subjects in such a way that I knew that I would be able to manage the lighting. With the strong direct sunlight in Hawaii the only choice I had for the type of portraits I am aiming at was to shoot in open shade or inside. Whilst I could take my portable studio lights which would enable me to overcome strong ambient light, the resulting images would be way too dramatic – dark skies and strong saturated subject – a bit like fashion shoots at the beach!
  • Using portable speedlights  is preferable when traveling but these are inconvenient to use as adjusting the output has to be done on the unit itself as opposed to the portable studio lights where the power can be adjusted remotely – a very useful feature when setting up alone! Also speedlights just don’t have that much power so are of more limited use in cloudy bright conditions.
  • Posing is interesting. I found that it is best to allow this to evolve. Ask the subject to move around a little and try more than one framing option. Asking the subject to think about what Ironman triathlon means for them seems to work.
  • To create an interesting series I will need to vary poses, cropping (some head/shoulders, some waist up, some thighs up and at least one full body), clothing ( some in race kit, some in running kit, some in post race tee shirts etc – look for signification of ironman (tattoos, haircuts, signage on clothing, tans etc). I found shooting Tricia just after she came back from biking worked well – she had some bike oil and drinks stains on her clothing.

So what lessons have I learned:

  1. Search out locations for which I can predict with certainty the lighting conditions, before arranging the shoot. This means for the most part shooting on cloudy days, using open shade or shooting indoors.
  2. Carefully consider the lighting plan making sure that the background is pretty evenly lit and even colour temperature.
  3. In open shade and in cloudy conditions outside, use flash to give the images pep and to reduce the blue cast. Determine whether to use the flash as key or fill depending on the location/light. Try whenever possible to use the portable studio lights.
  4. Inside with window light a reflector for shadow fill can work  well in some situations but most likely flash will be needed to ensure an even lighting on the subject. and is more likely to add sparkle to catchlights.
  5. With the lights try to use studio flash if possible and use the largest softbox possible. For head and shoulder shots a relector held under the subject helps provide some fill.
  6. Think about the clothing you want the subject to wear and the timing of the shoot – after a run/bike/swim.
  7. Think about the poses you want but allow the subject to determine these with little direction.
  8. Vary the cropping, backgrounds, colours poses to add interest to the series.

All in all the trip was a great learning experience but has revealed some challenges to be overcome. Here are the portraits I have completed in the series so far.

‘I am an Ironman’ series by Keith Greenough