Chris Crisman on Self-Investment, Reinvention and Reductive Lighting

It's Monday, and that means another guest post while I'm out on the road. This week's entry is from Philly-based photog Chris Crisman, whom I finally got to meet a few days ago during our stop there.

Kinda psyched, as Chris is writing not only about going out on a limb to add a new branch to his portfolio but also about changing up his lighting process. And this exact technique is something I have been wanting to try.

Better to let him explain it...

I suppose I just want my work to be great—I can definitely see greatness in the work of others, and I strive to reach that level with every picture I take and every opportunity presented to me. Coupling this idea with my personal mantra to enjoy this life, I set off to Florida with my crew to build a brand new lifestyle portfolio. It was a bit of a gamble investment, but it’s pretty late in the game to start behaving conservatively.

My decision to develop an exclusive lifestyle body of images came on the heels of a number of missed commercial opportunities in 2010. On several occasions I’d been up for assignments where having a body of lifestyle images was crucial. In these situations, the agency was onboard with my work and excited to move forward, but the end client was not able to make the leap from the mood, style, and subject portrayed in my current portfolio, and needed to see something that translated more literally. At the time, this work just wasn’t on my menu. So naturally, I decided to expand that menu.

With the help of my fantastic team, we started to pull the pieces together. Florida was a natural choice for our destination. It was still winter on the East Coast and I knew there was a chance I’d need to head to Clearwater for MLB spring training anyway (see the Philly Mag shoot). We ended up finding a huge villa on the Gulf of Mexico that we jokingly referred to as The Real World: Clearwater house, and began building our project around the idea “young, and in love.”

Being that this was my first foray into this type of photography, I felt keeping the parameters tight was a must. I knew it wasn’t possible to capture every lifestyle variable: seniors, children, professionals, couples, couples with senior children, etc. Having a defined set of parameters would help keep the images more cohesive, and possibly help corral our production time and expenses … a bit.

Before I delve into the lighting particulars, I wanted to take a moment to address a discussion that stemmed from my interview with David in the fall of 2010. In the article we spoke about the consistency in the look and feel of my work, and how I’ve developed this over time; my personal style, if you will. For me, it’s the combination of how I use my cameras; what lenses I work with; how I mix light between ambient and strobe; how I choose my subjects, and how I interact with my them; where I choose the location for each shot; how we process and finish my photos in post, etc. I could go on.

As you might imagine, I am of the opinion that one’s personal style should transcend the work, no matter what you’re shooting. These decisions define you, the artist.

Back to lighting, I’ll talk a little about how I treated this new body of work in contrast to my portraiture. For the better part of my career, I’ve approached making my photographs from darker to lighter—I started by visualizing my images against a black canvas. Using this method, I added light as a means to shape the image; this process could be called additive lighting. In this new body of lifestyle work, I decided to take the opposite approach, lighting reductively. Instead of adding artificial strobe to shape and build up my images, I was taking away the light from a white canvas.

To illustrate, take a look at the image above. In this instance, we had a relatively overcast day to work with. I placed my models with the diffused sun behind them, facing the camera. This created a gentle backlight on them, which in addition to being flattering, also served to create separation between them and the slightly darker Coca-Cola sign in the background. To maintain an exposure balance with the building and give the models some defining shape, I used one Dynalite 2040 head with Photek Illuminata Octabank as the modifier. The process was simple and subtle, but effective.

If I had instead used an additive light method in this photo, the result would have been much different. My key light, although stationed in the same place, would have been dialed up about 3 stops brighter. I would have added a second Octabank to fill in the shadows created by the key light. My background building would have ended up much darker and would have read more as a blocky shadow presence, and the sky would have come down revealing that it was a cloudy day. The result would have changed the mood of the image drastically, and not supported the motivation, theme, and direction of the shoot.

This reductive process wasn’t employed for all the photos on this trip. But as a rule of thumb, I tried my best to employ the white canvas analogy in creating these images. When trying to develop any new body of work, keep these rules in mind:

• Stick to your guns in regards to your personal style.
• Take the time and effort to develop your game plan and approach to the shoot.
• Make sure you enjoy and value the work you are making.


Ed Note: If you'd like to see a couple dozen other images Chris made on this shoot using the lighting technique described above, check out this video from the trip. There is a little BTS info in it, but it is primarily intended to be a promo vid for potential clients. Plenty of finals from the shoot at the end, tho -- he came back with a lot of new work.

Many thanks for Chris for the guest post -- especially for one that is sticking so many ideas into my head as is this one. For those of you interested in following light-oriented commercial photogs on Twitter, Chris deals out a steady stream of BTS nuggets and notices of new work. Definitely worth a follow. And take a minute to look at his portfolio to see how these airy new lifestyles images both expand and compliment his other work.

The palette may be different, but the style is consistent. (I'm such a geek about this kind of stuff…)

:: Chris Chrisman Portfolio ::
:: Chris Crisman's Blog ::
:: Follow Chris on Twitter ::

Next: Brad Trent: Ocean Master Pt. 1


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Blogger Dan said...

Very nice work Chris. Thanks for sharing.

April 18, 2011 2:28 AM  
Blogger Brendan said...

I gotta say that Cris Crisman's work is a breath of fresh air in a sea of overlit self conscious photography. He's a BB King in an ocean of Yngwie Malmsteens.

April 18, 2011 3:07 AM  
OpenID chotaurl said...

Such a simple technique. Can't wait to try it out. Thanks, Chris.

April 18, 2011 4:28 AM  
Blogger Jared said...

Great article and definitely made me think about lighting in a new way. It was cool to think about how additive and reductive lighting changes the image as a whole.

PS... Thats an awesome name... I tried convincing my wife to name our little guy on the way Ross Rossman. I've reiterated several time, "He is going to be good at SOMETHING!"

April 18, 2011 7:33 AM  
OpenID damnuglyphotography said...

...tryin' to wrap my head around Brendan's BB King/Yngwie Malmsteen comparison.....!

April 18, 2011 8:58 AM  
Blogger John said...

Great set of images from the trip. Looks like it was a success and best wishes in your transformation :)

Hopefully this will spur others into "just doing it".

April 18, 2011 9:04 AM  
Blogger Glenn Harris said...

Great post and BTS. I am assuming this was a self-funded project. Very inspirational stuff.

April 18, 2011 9:05 AM  
Blogger Craig M. said...

Thumbs up for the images. He pulled all this off on his own dime you think?

April 18, 2011 9:14 AM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

Great and timely for me personally. When you say -1 stop on the octa, you mean in relation to metering the ambient, right? There are many newbies on this list.
Thx Cris!

April 18, 2011 10:00 AM  
Blogger killy said...

I am really enjoying these 'guest bloggers'.

- killy

April 18, 2011 10:08 AM  
Blogger killy said...

I am really enjoying these 'guest bloggers', David.


April 18, 2011 10:08 AM  
Blogger Nick Collura said...

HEY! I recognize at least three of the models from the video. I shoot for an advertising agency in Milwaukee, WI and one of our clients is the St. Pete/ Clearwater Travel and Tourism Board. I got to work with a bunch of talent and production crews from that area. Great work!

April 18, 2011 10:43 AM  
Blogger Kyle said...

Amazing work, Chris.

I am wondering how much of that desaturated color/high key effect (if that's a good way to describe it) is a direct result of the lighting and exposure, and how much is a result of post work?

How do you prevent overexposure? It seems like you must be so close. Is the ambient being used as main, the strobe as fill/accent; as opposed to the strobe as main and the ambient as fill? Is that what is meant by additive lighting?

April 18, 2011 10:53 AM  
Blogger Kyle said...

Amazing work, Chris.

I am wondering how much of that desaturated color/high key effect (if that's a good way to describe it) is a direct result of the lighting and exposure, and how much is a result of post work?

How do you prevent overexposure? It seems like you must be so close. Is the ambient being used as main, the strobe as fill/accent; as opposed to the strobe as main and the ambient as fill? Is that what is meant by additive lighting?

April 18, 2011 10:54 AM  
Blogger Kyle said...

What I meant to say: Is that what is meant by 'reductive' lighting?

April 18, 2011 11:06 AM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

I'm also really impressed by the video, as well as your portfolio. Was it professionally produced by a production company? Not done with a 5dmark2?

April 18, 2011 11:26 AM  
Blogger tduggan2 said...

I vastly prefer his older work using his additive light technique. This new lifestyle stuff looks like stock shot by anyone when his older work presents a unique mood and subjects one can connect to.

Go back to the old stuff, Cris!

April 18, 2011 11:29 AM  
Blogger Erik said...

So, is this considered using the strobe as fill instead and the sun as the main (key light) or is this different?

April 18, 2011 12:10 PM  
Blogger Erik said...

What is the difference between reductive lighting and just using the strobe as a fill? It seems that he is using the strobe for a gigantic fill and the sun/ambient as the key?

April 18, 2011 12:12 PM  
OpenID nowheremanphotos said...

Nice post, Chris! Thanks for all the inspiration!

April 18, 2011 12:46 PM  
Blogger Reine said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing! A lot of inspiration in the video :-)

April 18, 2011 1:02 PM  
Blogger James Bong said...

I love how light and airy his photos look without looking faded or washed out.

April 18, 2011 2:17 PM  
Blogger Obi-Wan said...

Very cool shots in that video. I like the results of this new venture. I dig the soundtrack, too -- I kept expecting Bono to break in with "I want to run..."

And Mr. Rossman: stick to your guns!

April 18, 2011 6:30 PM  
OpenID lucaandrei said...

Hi David, (hi all) ... I've been following your blog for a year and a half and never had the impulse to comment, until now that is.

Just wanted to thank for this post. It would have never crossed my mind to subtract light.

April 18, 2011 7:34 PM  
Blogger Germana said...

Really amazing lighting and amazing images! Thank you for your post on Strobist...I didn't your work before!

April 18, 2011 10:28 PM  
OpenID modifiedphoto said...

Interesting transition. I tend to work with additive light more also and find it hard to pull off a good look sometimes. I might have to give this more of a try. Any suggestions on metering for the scene to achieve that quality of light easier?

April 19, 2011 12:51 PM  
Blogger Ed Verosky said...

I agree that this seems to be more a matter of flash-powered fill than what one might think of as reductive lighting. There are no black flags or any subtractive elements as far as I can figure. However, I think it's still useful to the photographer as a "way of thinking" about his lighting to guide his work and use of all available light. Nice work.

April 19, 2011 4:53 PM  
Blogger jimmyd said...

So... "Reductive Lighting" is additive lighting but after it's added it's reduced down? Where's George Carlin to explain this further?

April 19, 2011 7:48 PM  
Blogger Martin Beebee said...

Great images, but I'd love more detail on the "reductive" lighting approach. Maybe just more specifics on the mental approach -- it's not as if using an octabank is "reducing" the amount of light. How is this different than just using flash for fill as opposed to the main light source?

April 20, 2011 10:39 AM  
Blogger Tompano said...

I'm not trying to be cheeky or anything and there's a very big chance that I'm a very stupid person. But isn't what he's talking about just you know... Fill light? Or am I missing something vital here?

That being said I like the pictures/style

April 20, 2011 10:43 PM  
Blogger Pixiepurls said...

I totally lov his approach and more importantly, the final images.

April 21, 2011 12:38 PM  
Blogger photozoner said...

Your explanation that your work is about lighting techniques is not very convincing. I praise you for your stand as an artist, but I suspect the truly significant part of this work is post production.

April 23, 2011 2:29 PM  
Blogger Setcamper said...

Wow, so trip to Florida, hired crew and talent just to shot spec portfolio pieces? Definitely paid off, but he's in a whole different game.

April 23, 2011 6:20 PM  
Blogger Frank Withers said...

Ditto... isn't this just fill light? Great pics, but... yeah.

May 03, 2011 1:02 PM  
Blogger jake alvarez said...

great stuff Chris! I'd like to try this technique. I hope I'd get to that soon. As far I can understand, I think yup like the others, I think this is using the ambient as key and the big thing as a fill. About the reductive lighting, please enlighten me. I maybe wrong on this but here's how I absorbed it. (after meditating about it for a while now). I think in additive lighting means adding light therefore adding more shadows. and reductive lighting as an opposite is decreasing shadows by the using the big thing as a fill to decrease the shadows.

May 12, 2011 12:45 PM  

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