Epic Portrait \\ Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta

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Leon Panetta – December 18th 2012

The Gear

Lens: Sigma 35 1.4 

Camera: Nikon D800

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

Light Modifiers: Paul C Buff Parabolic Light Modifier

The Goal

Create a portrait using a lens I’d never used at a focal length I hadn’t tried in this portrait series.

The Vision

The only thing I knew about Leon Panetta was that he used to be Director of the CIA and that he’s now the Secretary of Defense. I’m sure he’s seen some serious stuff in his time and I wanted his portrait to reflect that. I’ve also been itching for a good subject to photograph in black and white.

The Story

This was a pretty straight forward portrait to make. The room was pretty boring as seen here:

Lighting setup for strobist portrait

I decided to use that collapsable wall because it was the only thing I could find that would provide a good isolating background. I knew shooting at 35mm it would be just too wide to try a brenizer method like I’ve done for the previous bunch of portraits so I wanted a background that was plain and not distracting. Looking back at my photo roll I took exactly 3 frames the whole time. One was the setup shot above, the other was Secretary Panetta’s portrait, and the third was my very scienfici way of testing epsoure seen here:

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When I do these portraits it’s always a crew of JUST me. Occasionally I’ll try to grab a random person to test the lighting, or break out my inflatable manaquen, but recently I’ve become confident enough to just use my hand, haha. That will probably change as I complicate my lighting setups, but I love the simplicity and satisfaction of doing everything myself.

Secretary Panetta was actually a very smiley man in person. Incredibly freiendly and approachable. Not at all how I expected him to be, however after I talked to him for a bit away from the VIP reception he simmered down and became serious and engaging. Overall I give him an A+ for personality, haha.

After I finished explaining the series and how I’d like to portray him I knew I could get everything I wanted in a single actuation. He just had that perfect expression, but I did decide to make it a little more interesting. You can see the black sides of the portrait are angled. I noticed when he was standing he tended to lean toward one side a lot. So… I just asked him to lean a little more, haha. It created the cool diagonal edges that make it a lot less obvious that it was essentially a vertical pillar he was standing in front of. I’m really happy with the effect that it gave and I’m happy he stood like that. It was about the least amount of pressure I’ve had on me during one of these portraits even with hoards of secret service watching my every move.

The Lesson

Don’t feel limited by your surroundings. Remember that even the most subtle change in subject placement can make or break a photo.

I enjoyed shooting with the 35mm because it simplified things for me having to make only one frame instead of 3. Overall, I love the look of the Sigma 35mm 1.4, however I think I’ll return to using a 3 shot pano brenizer method with the 50mm lens because I like that I can create both a crazy shallow depth of field and a wide 35mm focal length perspective.

I really love the look of black and white for portraits. Color becomes one less thing to be distracted by and with portrait like this I feel like anything you can do to make people pay more attention to the expression of the subject… the better.

 

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. Sam, having him emphasize his lean to improve the composition was awesomely simple and very effective. Also that is by far the best Portrait of a hand I have ever seen. You win.

  2. This is an amazing shot, and I love your creativity in asking him to lean further; the diagonal background definitely adds to this image.

  3. Awesome shot, I love that he looks like a really nice guy despite like you said… having seen a lot of hard stuff in his life. Thanks for sharing how you took the photo. Looking forward to following your work!

  4. Simplicity is beautiful. You obaviously did a great job of interacting with him and making a connection in a short time; I could feel his personality exude from the photograph, before even reading the words you used to elaborate on his ‘A+ personality’ ;)

    Good clean fun!

  5. You’re the real deal! Great portrait!

  6. Just stumbled on your site Sam. I love how you explain your setups. Your work is fantastic and I’m not easily impressed these days! :)

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