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epic portrait // tom brokaw

Tom Brokaw – November 3rd 2011

The Gear

Lens: Nikon 50mm f/1.2

Camera: Nikon D3s

Technique: Drastic Falloff

Light Sources: 2 Einstein 640 WS by Paul C. Buff

Light Modifiers: Key light is gridded 22″ silver beauty dish – camera left. Rim light is a gridded 10″ x 36″ Stripbox – far camera right.

The Goal

Create drastic subject isolation by utilizing sharply gridded lights to provide light falloff.

The Vision

Create a portrait that touches on Mr. Brokaw’s attitude and seriousness that he relates throughout his new book which is essentially a hard look and serious discussion about America’s current state and future.

The Story

Tom Brokaw recently released a book titled The Time of Our Lives and was making media appearances all over the place. You probably saw him on a talk show or two (including one of my favs… the daily show) but one of the stops along the way was the National Press Club for a luncheon. When I learned that he’d be attending I immediately picked up his book and started reading through it. I wanted to get an idea about what he was promoting and what he had to say.

The lighting was my usual approach, but I did position the lights in a way that would basically allow the background to be completely black. I was in a bigger room so I had space to setup far from any wall. The beauty dish is gridded so virtually no light spilled behind him and the side light is also a gridded soft box. The ambient light in the room was dark enough (combined with my 10x ND Filter) that I could make it pitch black without any flash. I wanted Mr. Brokaw totally isolated with no distraction so his eyes intensely pull you into the portrait… much like his book was a hard look at America and such.

As Mr. Brokaw stepped in front of my camera he instinctively knew to take off his glasses off. It was obvious he’d done this hundreds if not thousands of times. He looked at me with little expectation and immediately gave me a forced smile. I got in pretty close with the 50mm lens and I noticed him starting to lean a bit away from me. I could tell it made him a tad uncomfortable, so I lowered my camera and told him I liked his chapter about journalism in the internet age and the need for more partnerships in the industry. I wanted to get his mind off the giant camera in his face and let him instantly know I wasn’t someone that was there to get paid and leave. Clearly I cared about the photo if i had taken the time to research his book.

Before clicking the last frame it I asked him to think about one thought or emotion he feels his book most represents. He immediately relaxed. Looked serious into the center of my lens and I snapped the last frame.

The Lesson

This was the only frame from the 6 or 7 that I made that I was happy with. I’m incredibly happy with it, but it’s the only one. I’ve now learned that photographing somebody that’s been in front of the camera most of his life can be a very difficult thing. This was actually the very last frame i made, and it’s got the x-factor I look for in all of my work. That variable that turns a photo from cheesy and boring to interesting and thoughtful.

With many of my portraits in this series I’ve been told that framing things as a vertical crop instead of a horizontal would “vastly improve the image.” I would tend to agree if these were going to be pretty head shots for a press release or personal biography, but they’re not. These images are my interpretation of  these individuals as I see them – and I see this world horizontally. The only exception so far has been ron paul’s portrait… and there is a reason for that. He’s a unique candidate and individual. His campaign defies a lot of “historical rules” and I wanted his image to stand out in that way from the others in the series.

Thinking back now I feel like I should have attempted one set of images with is glasses on. I’m guessing few – if any – portraits of him exist with his specks on, and it would have been great to capture him with a unique look.


Leave a Comment

  • I love it Sam! his expression strikes me as a calm intensity.

  • Excellent write up on this one, Sam. I liked the part about horizontal vs vertical, as well as reinforcing the fact that if all you care about is getting the portrait itself, there is a good chance it will be boring and dull — taking the time to make sure it is a thoughtful and interesting picture means it will likely be that when shown to the world, which is what you have accomplished.

  • Not much about studio lighting appeals to me, but your stuff is so unique it makes me want to try it out again. He almost has a bit of a Clint Eastwood look going on. Totally rad approach.

  • Great write-up, Sam. It looks like you are really enjoying those Einstein lights. I love Tom’s expression. I also appreciate the landscape orientation vs the portrait.

  • Simply awesome. Absolutely love it.

  • Wow, Sam, these are really great. I’m intrigued at your vision and how you’ve thought out these portraits. I’d say that the portrait is one of the hardest things to do since it’s just one person in front of the camera, a very vulnerable position. Love what you’ve captured so far in this series.

  • Wow! Really Great Post Sam!

  • Amazing work and documentation. I love these portraits! Thanks for sharing your techniques

  • Dude, you shot Tom Brokaw! That is freaking awesome!

  • Bal Sandhu

    hi i love this look!
    i was just wondering what camera settings you used aperture? shutter speed? iso?

  • Excellent work!! Thank you for sharing with us!! Tom is the man!!

  • Great shot love the behind the scenes thank you.

  • Till

    You portraits are awesome!
    And since I’m thinking about buying myself some strobes, I would appreciate if you could tell me how you liked the Einstein and how you triggered them.
    Thanks a lot!