On Assignment: Caleb Vaughn-Jones, Act Two

Two years ago I first photographed an outstanding young cellist named Caleb Vaughn-Jones. Caleb is exactly the type of person I partnered up with the Howard County Arts Council to meet, and I was very pleased when he emailed back a few months ago to commission another set of photos.

Nothing fosters creativity like collaborating with creative people. He's been doing some amazing work since 2010, and I was excited to get to work with him again.

Caleb is part of what I think of as a new breed of classical musicians. He is tech-literate, pretty much lives outside of the box and is focused on his music as an agent of change.

One of his themes has been to bring classical music to unusual places, and that has seen him traveling around the world to developed and developing countries. The world cultures, in turn, influence his music as much as his perspective.

Here is a piece he recently recorded as ambient music for the new video game Civilization 5. It was composed by Geoff Knorr and is an adaptation from human voice (a traditional Mongolian song) for cello, entitled Genghis Kahn Peace:

Is that kickass, or what? As a musician, I find these gender-bender mashups to be completely mesmerizing. Caleb is grounded in traditional classical music, but also plays his own classical compositions and jazz improvisations.

So my first thought was to stay away from typical orchestral environments and work with his theme of bring music everywhere.

The photo at top was kind of a found situation. We were using the concrete abutment of a pedestrian bridge as a textured backdrop (planning to light it like this) when I backed up across the street and saw the geometry of the bridge itself.

We had plenty of close- and medium-range stuff, so I overpowered the ambient by 2-3 stops and hit Caleb with a grid spot from hard camera right. The light is just out of the frame, about 15 feet away and 10 or so feet up. It's pretty stark, with some dark shadows, but I did not want to overdo it by lighting too much of him

I love the lines and tones in the photo, but even more so the experience while shooting it. He was playing the Bach Cello Suites, largely because we were shooting in public. It's a very recognizable piece, and we thought that might soothe the savage beast should anyone get irked that we were blocking the sidewalk.

As it happened a girl, about 8 years old, walked by with her mother. The girl was toting a violin, and stayed for an impromptu concert. She hung out near my light, so I didn't include her in the photo. But it added a nice layer to the already cool experience.

The second photo above was made in the same session as the top-light photo I blogged recently. But this was done with a single head in an FTX white beauty dish at upper camera left.

I used a lot of natural light on this shoot, as in the photo above. We were in an old barn for this image, with the open barn door acting as a soft box to camera left.

On a whim I shot some video of him playing. Amazingly, he had no live video of himself online. His career is young, unique and is blooming in several ways, but none of those ended up with video happening. It was windy in the barn so the built-in mic of my DSLR was useless. So as a hack we recorded the sound with an iPhone on a table just out of frame, wrapped in his wool cap as a (mostly) wind screen. Not ideal, but will do until something better comes along.

I since have bought a better sound recorder, and will be better prepared for this sort of thing in the future.

How do you get access to an old barn for shooting? It helps to have been part of a group of photographers who did a pro bono shoot on the property a couple of years ago.

We also shot in an airy, windowed great room on the property, framing him from a second story balcony overlook against the reflection of a large window in the floor.

Over the course of a couple of afternoons we were in seven locations, and ended up with a nice selection of photos for him to use for editorial handouts, promotion or whatever.

Caleb has since left for Cape Town, South Africa, where he'll be playing both in the city and out in the townships, in keeping with his goal of getting classical music to as many places as possible.

Next: Night Soprano Pt. 1


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Blogger Scott Randle said...

Thanks for the post. Beautiful photos and a nice variety too.

March 05, 2012 10:03 AM  
Blogger Ramón said...

Great post, but the pictures are really incredible. Really like the last two.
Thanks for sharing.

March 05, 2012 10:17 AM  
Blogger Dave Crago said...

Thanks for the incedible photos and post

March 05, 2012 11:09 AM  
Blogger Kevin Camp Photography said...

I love to collaborate with creative people on shoots. If you can engage them and get their ideas, it offers a tiny insight into their creativity, it also gives them some ownership in the concept and they are more involved, more likely to lower their walls and let their true self become visible. When you can take their concept, and infuse them into your ideas and technique then one of those epic images is most likely to occur.

March 05, 2012 11:14 AM  
Blogger Gene S said...

I bought the Zoom H4N about a year ago and love it. Perfect for portable recording, especially using external mics. I like hooking up a lapel mic to it and dropping that on a person while shooting interviews. You can just drop the H4N in their pocket and let them talk.

March 05, 2012 12:00 PM  
Blogger John said...

His music gave me chills! I love the fact that he's taking a "classical" instrument and doing new things with it. Music doesn't get any better.

I also really love the selection of photos you did for him. Having so many different looks has to be a bonus for him and for you. Thanks for sharing the music and the vid too ...he really is awesome.

March 05, 2012 1:36 PM  
Blogger rsprung said...

I've been admiring the photos, but hearing his music is a real treat. Thanks for sharing. Hope he gets to my neck of the woods sometime soon. That Mongolian-inspired piece is phenomenal to say the least.

March 05, 2012 1:36 PM  
Blogger Absolute and Alive Wedding Photography said...

Sensational shoot... Love the emotion in your main picture..

March 05, 2012 1:37 PM  
Blogger rtm65 said...

Beautiful Photos plus a beautiful music, man this is awesome!!!!

Thank you!

March 05, 2012 2:18 PM  
Blogger MG said...

So much fabulosity here. As a professional classical musician myself (who also takes photos of other professional classical musicians), I think that the kind of originality and "outside the box" thinking young Caleb is essaying is EXACTLY what's needed to keep it rockin' and rolling through this post-iTunes transitional period to whatever comes next.

Also, gotta say: pretty cool knowing the locations of the shoot, even before you identified them. The minute I read the word "barn" I thought, "Hmm...." and, sure enough... :D I particularly like that in the context of a different kind of shoot for publicity pictures, you also gave him a kick-ass traditional headshot... that isn't entirely traditional. Great stuff!!

March 05, 2012 2:58 PM  
Blogger Skipper said...

Okay, first post here (after a couple of years of reading) but I live near Cape Town and I think I'll make the effort to go see him!!

March 05, 2012 2:59 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Great images and fabulous music!!

March 05, 2012 3:16 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Shock and Awe
I am shocked by this young mans musical brilliance and in Awe of your capturing it photographically.

March 05, 2012 3:33 PM  
Blogger As Seen by Janine said...

Wow, wow, and just more WOW! And I mean to the man, the music and your photos of him. WOW to the 3rd power! Regards, Janine

March 05, 2012 5:15 PM  
Blogger Jay Heifetz said...

Great story and marvellous shots. Thanks so much!

March 05, 2012 11:13 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Great photos of course, as always. Let's just get that out of the way.

That kid is good. I've watched that video 7 times now. There's... hold on...(ok 8 times)...something mesmerizing about that piece he's playing in the barn. It's just...(9 times)...different.

Great post, Caleb is going to do great things.

March 05, 2012 11:31 PM  
Blogger shmazo said...

I am a newcomer to the blog which is great reading and very helpful as I learn my way around using off camera light.

This post is the one that finally got me to type up a comment mainly because I love the music, and am especially impressed with the use of the iPhone voice recorder - WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT?

So thanks!

March 06, 2012 1:22 AM  
Blogger David Ritchie said...

Nice pics David but Cape Town is two words not one.

March 06, 2012 6:48 AM  
Blogger Liz Kaye said...

Beautiful shots David and beautiful music.

March 06, 2012 8:14 AM  
Blogger Mobile technology said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

March 06, 2012 8:16 AM  
Blogger paul said...

very very nicely done. I listened to the music while reading your post, phenomenal! I love the photo of him walking away...

March 06, 2012 8:29 AM  
Blogger David A. Harvey said...

Nicely done Dave. Great photos and post.

March 06, 2012 10:09 AM  
Blogger paul said...

wonderful story beautiful photos. i listened to the music as i read, like they were made for each other!

March 06, 2012 10:26 AM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Nice improvisation with the iPhone, David! Since you mentioned the H4n in your post, I wanted to offer a quick comment. After borrowing one extensively, I was on the brink of purchasing a Zoom H4n for mobile interview, video, and soundscape recording. Then I stumbled upon the H2n. Having now used both recorders, I want to make a plug for the H2n as a possibly better option for most of your readers. Although it does not have the H4n’s XLR input or 4-track recording capabilities, the H2n does have a mini-plug input that can be used to connect a mic (including an XLR with an adapter). That mic can then be recorded as the sole track or alongside a second track from the built-in mics. And it's the built-in FIVE mic configuration that really sets the H2n apart. The mics are very high quality and allow for in-unit stereo, surround, and mid-side (blending of on-axis and side pickup) recording. For those who haven't done mid-side recording, it allows you to focus on a given sound source such as speaker or musician while retaining various levels of the ambience/background. Much like camera raw, it even gives the option of recording in mid-side raw, which allows you to adjust the mix of front and side pickup in the recording after the fact. Finally, the H2n is cheaper and smaller than the H4n and runs forever on two AA batteries, which makes it easier to fit into the budget and the camera bag.

March 08, 2012 12:38 PM  
Blogger Michael McMullen said...

Yeah yeah yeah, lighting is great. But I am *stoked* to hear not only that Civilization 5 is coming up but that Caleb's music is in it! I've been a Civilization fan since Civ II and the music has always been one of my favorite elements.

And that piece he plays in it is gorgeous.

March 09, 2012 1:01 AM  
Blogger Chris Leventis said...

David...just curious, we're the above pics with your medium format rig?


March 09, 2012 11:04 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


The first two photos, yes.

March 09, 2012 2:15 PM  
Blogger Steven Erat said...


Have you found that performing artists require certain types of photography (composition, light, style, expression, w/ or w/o instruments, etc) for professional usage?

Take for example actor headshots. Typically actors deliver the images to casting agents, and the casting agents are said to prefer, say, natural looking lighting, little or no make up, little or no retouching, tight crop on head and shoulders, few distracting background elements, and so on.

I have an opportunity to photography a pianist and a cello trio at a Boston music school, and they would like to use them for self promotion such as sending to concert hall managers. But the artists aren't able to articulate what kind of photography they want. So is entirely up to a creative collaboration that can go in any direction, or should I aim to produce images that meet certain criteria for that industry?

Thank you in advance,
Steven Erat

March 09, 2012 2:31 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

If someone has specific style needs, rather than have them try to articulate it I just have them bring good examples from others.

March 09, 2012 9:47 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This is one of my favorite posts I have read on this site. Thank you for sharing!

March 14, 2012 11:17 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Just a minor quibble—"gender-bender" basically means bending traditional gender roles, which I don't think was your intent. Perhaps "genre-bender" would have been a bit closer to the point?

March 15, 2012 8:37 AM  
Blogger Mohaupt Photo said...

I love your stuff... And am thrilled to see you used some Medium Format stuff for this shoot too... Shoot more film!

March 15, 2012 7:47 PM  

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