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epic portrait // danica patrick

danica patrick in a celebrity strobist portrait

Danica Patrick – February 21st 2012

The Gear

Lens: Nikon 50mm f/1.2

Camera: Nikon D3s

Technique: Overexposed background

Light Sources: 1 Einstein 640 WS by Paul C. Buff

Light Modifiers: Key light is gridded Parabolic Light Modifier – camera left.

The Goal

Create subject isolation and wrapping soft light.

The Vision

As soon as I walked into the room I completely rethought my concept for the photo. I decided I wanted a black and white of her against an over exposed background.

The Story

I had thought for a few weeks about how I’d photograph Danica Patrick. Unfortunately, when the day came that she was speaking at the National Press Club I had completely forgotten she was coming… ha. I had an early morning press conference and then a little time to prep and make the portrait. Un-luckily for me… when it came time to start loading up my gear for the photo I realized i’d forgotten my ND filter. It’s a pretty critical piece of equipment for me as I like to shoot my lenses wide open to maximize shallow depth of field and really isolate my subjects. Since the max sync speeds with the Einsteins is only around 1/300th and the weakest power they put out is still too much light when shooting at f/1.2 I pretty much have to shoot with an ND filter.

So, as soon as I walked into the room I was inspired about how to solve my problem. The first amendment of the press club is an awkward room to shoot in. It’s got around 3 or 4 very bright and totally different color temperatures going on… tungsten, florescent, florescenter, and daylight. Once I walked in I immediately gravitated to the isolated corner in the back of the room, where really only daylight was going to be a major factor. I instantly knew that I could blow out the bright background and essentially use the bright window as a giant ambient soft box to not only help provide a tad of rim light, but isolate her from any background while shooting at f/11, which I was forced to do without my ND filter.

strobist light setup shot 1

Not the most interesting corner, haha.

I recently purchased the Paul C. Buff parabolic light modifier and was excited in my testing about the quality of light it produces. Basically, it’s gorgeous. It’s almost too easy, haha. It’s a very big umbrella like thing and I opted for the reflective silver lining. Also, for this portrait I did not use the fabric covering as I wanted the light to still have that contrasty quality to it while still being soft.

So.. here is the setup… pretty straight forward, no?

I used the chair to stand on to get a nice perspective.

When I met Danica her handshake nearly broke my hand. She’s a fairly small person, but totally exudes confidence when interacting with people. As I took her aside to make the portrait she seemed excited to work with me for a few different frames. I took a couple of random shots to make it seem like I was “feeling it out,” but I already knew the exact frame that I wanted. She had clearly been in front of the camera many many times and knew how to give me an attractive look and smile, but I wanted to break down her attitude just a bit. I asked her to just relax and concentrate on where she was and why instead of the camera looking back at her. She looked down for a few seconds and then straight up at me. Meh… maybe a silly thing to say, but it got the look I wanted and it’s what you see in the final portrait.

The Lesson

I used to think I would have a massive amount of trouble making interesting photos at anything smaller than f/2.8 where most everything is in sharp focus. Being a DC Wedding photographer it’s usually more fun to put clients in that dreamy bokeh filled atmosphere so I’m really used to easily creating non distracting backgrounds. Thankfully, I’ve proven to myself that I can quickly work around unexpected problems AND shoot at smaller apertures than f/2.8 to create a portrait I’m happy about.

Also, I decided against the black and white, which I originally wanted to do because she looks incredible in color.



Leave a Comment

  • I love this series.. it is so awesome to hear your vision going into the shoot and how it may change throughout and after.

  • excellent Sam! perfect expression of intensity, perfect lighting, and I love the wide ratio crop.

    exif says iso 3200, is that right?

  • Hey Sam, I’m also curious about the EXIF on this one. Was the 3200 on purpose? I mean the file looks totally clean so it doesn’t really matter, just wondering more of what goes into these shots. I don’t have much of a strobist background, but I recently watched Zack Aria’s One Light, and your new series is inspiring me to test some more stuff out.

  • Yup. I should have mentioned that in the post and will add a note about it.

    Instead of using a slower shutter speed to blow out the ambient I
    decided to boost the iso to give her skin tone some grain. I was
    originally planning to make it a black and white portrait and I like
    the noise of the d3s at moderate iso so that’s why it’s unusually high
    for a lit portrait.

    I added grain in post processing too.

    Thanks for the reminder! Haha

  • Fascinating! I’m really glad you’re willing to share insight on how you’re creating these. You should come out with a DVD and sell it to photographers. 🙂

    – Josh

  • This series is downright awesome. Another great portrait, Sam. Youre rockin it.

  • love reading the epic portraits! this one was awesome.

  • I really enjoyed reading this. One thing though – the Einsteins flash duration is much shorter than 1/300s – so this one is on the Nikons. Using pw’s can helped me in the past to squeeze 1/500s from the Einsteins.

  • Thanks for sharing – I enjoy reading and learning from your thought process!

  • […] the main light casts the harsh shadows on the subjects face. It’s not soft and dreamy like my Danica Patrick portrait. Using the parabolic light modifier feathered heavily on a side provided an interesting gradient […]