epic portrait \\ michael phelps

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Michael Phelps – September 19th 2012

The Gear

Lens: Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2

Lens ND Filter: B+W 103

Camera: Nikon D800

Technique: 3 shot Brenizer Method

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

Light Modifiers: Paul C Buff Parabolic Light Modifier

The Goal

Create two different looking portraits of two different subjects in less than a minute in an ugly black room. To see the portrait of Denzel Washington made just before Michael’s take a look here.

The Vision

I found out I’d have the opportunity to photograph Denzel Washington and Michael Phelps the night before I was to meet them. I had no clue how much time I’d have with them or even the room I’d have available to use. Also, I only had one Einstein with me to use. I had no prepared vision.

The Story

The morning of the shoot I quickly tried to determine where I would be making my portraits. The only space available to me was an all black small studio with curtains and a giant window.

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It actually turned out to be a convenient space because I was able to turn all of the ambient light in the room completely off so I didn’t have to think about that variable. The reflective window actually gave me the perfect solution for quickly creating a very different look with the exact same light source. I setup the light to point exactly opposite the window so that it made a really cool looking refection that would be visible in the portrait background. I feathered the PLM heavily on my subjects to take advantage of the dramatic falloff and painterly effect it can give. I use the silver coated version without and diffuser to retain contrast.

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It also provided just a bit of fill/rim light on the opposite side of the subject.

I decided to keep the curtain drawn for Denzel to keep the feel of his portrait minimalistic and sophisticated… much like he seemed to me. I think his expression also compliments this look very well. I asked him to give me a relaxed and calming sense of himself and he molded a perfect representation of that.

For Michael I wanted to change things up. As the youngest person I’ve made of a portrait of so far I felt he might appreciate a more edgy look to his portrait. I also felt the shimmery bluish look of the light reflecting in the window was somewhat of a nod to the blue pool water that will forever loom over him no matter what he does in retirement. I asked him to relax just look beyond my camera.

The Lesson

Expression is the most important part of any portrait. Lighting and composition are also important but without a meaningful expression you lose the story of the image and the person it portrays. I’m incredibly happy with Denzel’s portrait and how quickly I connected with him. For obvious reasons actors tend to be pretty good at this, but it can be a challenge to somehow look beneath their facade and capture who they really are. I’m moderately happy about Michael’s portrait. I would have liked a little more time to connect with him and capture something a little less contrived in his expression, but I think it’s a well executed photo. I’m proud of how different the two photos feel considering everything is in the exact same spot with the same angle and light source.

Photography by Washington DC Wedding Photographer Sam Hurd

About Sam Hurd

Sam is a professional wedding and editorial photographer based in the Washington DC area. He photographs 40+ weddings a year, press events, commercial portraiture, and regularly hosts workshops in his Baltimore MD studio and around the world. His work has been published internationally including the Wall Street Journal, the NYTimes, and the Washington Post. He's available for commissions worldwide.

Blog Comments

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  1. Really great work Mr. Hurd
    The work you produced under such time constraints shows that you are a great, creative person! Not just technically, but personable too.
    Thank you for sharing!

  2. This is amazing!

    I just respect how you are very flexible with your environment. I always find executing idea is the hardest part.

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  1. [...] Create two different looking portraits of two different subjects in less than a minute in an ugly black room. To see the portrait of Michael Phelps made just after Denzel’s take a look here. [...]

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