HCAC: Soprano Rebecca Hargrove

It's May. Which always means two things for me: dealing with heavy allergies and beginning my next batch of portraits for the Howard County Arts Council.

The drudgery of allergies is offset by the pure pleasure that is getting to work with a group of insanely talented young people. Doing the portraiture for the Rising Stars program is one of my favorite projects of the year.

One of the first this year was soprano Rebecca Hargrove, who we photographed in the venerable Garaj Mahal Studios…


I love shooting sopranos. They are obviously talented, but also contain a (very necessary) component of diva. Simply put, you just can't pull this music off without a little extra measure of confidence.

So my job is to find an interesting—and local—location in which to shoot them. I have worked in the woods and in the middle of a field in the past. Both at night, mind you, which at least gives you an ambient level that you can easily control for adding flash.

I have even worked in the shower—with it running. Which, suffice to say, was the best concert I have ever attended. Certainly with respect to audio acoustics. (You think you sound good singing the shower? You don't.)

For each we try to do a head shot (or several) and a more conceptual location shoot. Rebecca's concept shoot is later this month. And she already had a good standard "head shot on white" if you will. So for her head shots we tried to produce a series of different looks and show a little range.

It's very appropriate, actually, as for her opera is always a possibility. Opera is just as theatrical as a play. You just have to sing your lines, which obviously amps the degree of difficulty a bit.

It helps that Rebecca is gorgeous. As McNally says, you could shine a car headlight at her and she'd look great. With her caramel skin, she could pass for being from any of a number of places. So in addition to photographing her in a cocktail dress and an evening gown, we also did a few with her covered in a semi-transparent black scarf.

Of the four looks we did, this turned out to be my favorite. It has a Scheherazade from Thousand and One Nights kind of vibe to it, which belies the actual environment in which it is shot:

The Garaj Mahal Studios (always pluralize studios—it's classier that way!) are about half as Mahal-ish, given that the garage is presently full of construction supplies as we remodel two bathrooms.

The bad news: space is cut by at least half. The good news: I used the box for one of the new cabinets as a fill card. MacGuyver for the win.

But that fill card was for another frame. Above is the setup for the photo at top. In it, you can see I am using two of my four favorite light mods: a 60" Photek, deployed like a ceiling of light, and a gridded white dish. The third mod is, um, my garage floor.

Given how Rebecca's skin is glowing, maybe I should bottle that floor up somehow. But that bottom glow is what gives her face it's luminance. The gridded dish is very subtle, just defining the black scarf and keeping it from transitioning into full shadow.

The background is, to me, a very important component to the photo. It completely changes the location of the photo as compared to a piece of seamless paper. It's there but it's very nondescript creates a vague location without being limiting. Kind of exotic without being specific.

It's a piece of fabric I picked up at the local JoAnne's that I really love. But it was a little too specific for this shoot. (It had an India vibe.) so I turned it over and used the back. Bingo.

Light sources were all Einsteins, as I was shooting at ISO 100 for the photos in this set that were shot on the PhaseOne.

The white paper you see in the back of the BTS frame was not used for this shot. It, however, was used for two of the looks, but not as pure white paper.

Here's one of the other frames, using the white seamless and both of the same light mods (Photek and grid/dish, not garage floor). But we swapped the Photek out as a key and instead used the gridded dish this time. That did several things.

One, it defined Rebecca's cheekbones a little better as compared to the giant Photek. You can really see a difference in the shape of her face, which tells you a lot about how those different soft sources act.

The fill in this case was the Photek 60", placed right on the ground and allowed to fire up at a slight angle towards Rebecca. So that's the only thing lighting the "white" background paper, too. Which is why it is not really white. Remember, the key is gridded so you are getting no BG help there. And the fill is a stop and a half or so down, so the paper is not going to be white any more.

It's also coming from below, so there is a wrap shadow being projected onto the background that is not unlike a ring light, only way softer.

First time I have used it that way, but won't be the last. I love how that soft glow wraps and fills. Which is the whole point of having an ongoing project where the freedom to experiment is baked in.

Next: Concert Pianists


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Blogger CorneliusM said...

Bravo! Encore!

May 08, 2013 4:06 AM  
Blogger Glenn Harris said...

Really like the results of both these setups but not sure about the catchlight at the bottom of the eye.

May 08, 2013 8:51 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


IMO, that's something I'd try to learn to get past. No offense, but the navel gazing on catchlights is totally a photographer thing, and is a little self-defeating.

If you are going to light (or fill) from the bottom, they need to be there. You can take them out (easily) of course, but your brain will process the scene as not being right. You don't believe me, drag the photo to your desktop and do it yourself. Just doesn't look right.

Which, if you are going to focus on catchlights, means that you could never light or fill from the bottom—a limitation I would never consider.

The only thing I'll do regarding catch lights is, sometimes when lighting from a very oblique angle that produces none, I will throw on a very low-powered ring or something from on-axis to put something there. Because the total absence of a catchlight can sometimes be a little off. (Just as it would be if you removed these).

In 33 years of shooting seriously, I have never heard a non-photographer even bring it up.

I haven't even heard a photo *editor* bring it up in literally thousands of picture editing sessions.

Ditto the word "bokeh," while we are at it.


May 08, 2013 9:29 AM  
Blogger antimatt said...

Really love all of the HCAC photos you've done (especially the cellist photo).

For a photo shoot like this, do you ever have a stylist assisting? I'm wondering because in the 2nd photo here, her hair looks so perfect. Or is that a matter of shooting a well-groomed, pretty subject with hints of diva?

May 08, 2013 11:29 AM  
Blogger Joe Crocco said...

Excellent work! These are beautiful photos of a Beautiful woman. On your filckr stream you posted an alternate color version of Rebecca with the scarf, that I really like as well. The lighting is awesome. I noticed no lower catchlight on that version. Was your set up the same as the B&W without the floor fill?

May 08, 2013 11:52 AM  
Blogger Reed said...

Hey, I'm absolutely fine with that catch lights - no problem there.

I am looking for a little clarification on that garage floor mod though...

From the setup shot, it looks as if you have one of the Einsteins pointed towards the floor - I wasn't sure from the text if you we're actually throwing a light on it or if the floor was only reflecting the photek from above?

"Garaj Mahal" - gotta love it!

May 08, 2013 12:26 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Seriously question your methods here David. Remodeling BOTH bathrooms at the same time? Risky....

May 08, 2013 1:11 PM  
Blogger Joe Edelman said...

Great stuff as always David.

Couldn't agree more with your comment about the catch lights.

I hope you don't mind me pointing out that nearly the same lighting could be achieved with a bounce flash in a small space like a living room or small studio.

Just thought I would share since I know a lot of your readers don't have your equipment budget.

2 Light Dramatic Beauty Shot

Beauty Lighting - Who Says Bounce Flash Is Ugly?

May 08, 2013 1:18 PM  
Blogger Morne Condon said...

Garaj Mahal Studios. Priceless and also means I'm going to have to go and re-read the entire piece if I wish to retain any info at all.

May 08, 2013 1:25 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

IMO fill at the bottom need not be dominant and the main catch would still look 'natural' (as in Sun?) in the upper half of the pupil. You are right David in that we should not get hung up on these things but a century of custom is not easy to change, just like Airbus taking the joystick out of the centre and putting it on the side.

May 08, 2013 1:39 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


No stylist; she was very sharp. And I cleaned up a few stray hairs in Photoshop.

May 08, 2013 5:01 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I experimented with ~80% removing it. Completely removing it is totally incongruous. But even knocking it mostly back doesn't look right to me. It confirms earlier thoughts, and honestly I did not care enough about it to swap back.

May 08, 2013 5:03 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Reed- Yep, just blasting it into the ground. Looked neutral enough to me...

May 08, 2013 5:04 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


One two-bathroom job, but done in sequence. Couldn't hold it that long.

May 08, 2013 5:04 PM  
Blogger Cory said...

Now I really love the lower hemisphere catchlights - in both images. It's the main reason I often do clamshell lighting in a studio setting. I find it brings a satisfying vibrance and even a little dimensionality to the eye. But as you've said many times, it is all personal preference. Now about that exposure level...KIDDING!

May 08, 2013 5:19 PM  
Blogger jamesd3rd said...

How did you know you wanted to use a beauty dish along with the Photek? Did you know you were going to get that effect?

I kind of have a mental picture of the setup with the Photek on the ground. Is it just laying on the floor propped up in a way to get the angle you want?

May 08, 2013 5:35 PM  
Blogger Kip Beelman said...

As a follower of your blog (bible) since nearly the beginning, the lead image is probably one of my faves you've made. :)

May 08, 2013 8:18 PM  
Blogger lv pg said...

New to the blog, David. Got here through DigiRev. Great stuff. Because of my route here, thought all you used was the fuji. When I saw Rebecca's images, I thought..."I don't believe it." Then read the article.

Off topic, I apologize-- Been a photographer for 22 years. Just curious as to why the X100s over the X-e1 or Pro model. Been too long with multiple lenses and fear the fixed single, though something compelling about it. Thanks for any help.

Do not need to publish. Looking forward to seeing you in MD in June. Thanks.


May 08, 2013 9:26 PM  
Blogger Jay Heifetz said...

Lovely images beautifully explained -- thanks!

May 09, 2013 2:49 AM  
Blogger Dave6163 said...

David thanks for the clarification of the Einstein being bounced into the floor. You have so many cool shots with the 60" Photek just finally ordered one. Looking forward to giving it a go.

May 09, 2013 7:46 AM  
Blogger wonderlens said...

I am wondering about one thing: in the b&w photo there is a brighter line on the skin her forehead just under the black cloth. I imagine this is something to do with the floor-fill. But how could the inside of a black cloth reflect extra light on her skin?

May 11, 2013 11:20 AM  
Blogger Tony Mayo said...

Beautiful shots and useful BTS. The resolution and dynamic range of the Phase One are awesome, to the point of including a full BTS image in the lower catch light of the first image. I see the whole set-up and the photographer (Is that why so many artists wear only black?)

Not meant as a criticism; reflection in no way diminishes the impact of that great shot.

May 11, 2013 11:35 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I wondered about that too at first. It's the scarf, which is mope opaque at the edge than it is about an inch in. I found it interesting, so I left it in.

May 11, 2013 11:47 AM  
Blogger Zuzana Konecna said...

Absolutely amazing photograph!

May 11, 2013 1:11 PM  
Blogger Diego Lorenzo Jose said...

Hi Dave,

You seem to use the Photek Softlighter a lot. How would this compare to the Paul Buff PML Soft-Silver with the White Diffuser?


May 14, 2013 6:44 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Short answer: Softlighter. Long answer: Coming Friday.

May 15, 2013 11:26 AM  
Blogger Diego Lorenzo Jose said...

Thanks Dave. Also, what BD are you using on the Einstein? I'm weighing my options for a new set of lights.


May 16, 2013 1:25 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Diego- The Paul Buff dish, in white, with a grid.

May 16, 2013 2:14 PM  

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