Monte On Stage At New York’s PhotoPlus Show; Improvisation, Agility, And Going With What You Know
Monte Zucker
• Posted Mar 1, 2005

Photos © 2004, Monte Zucker, All Rights Reserved

Picture this: You're in the golden era of your life. You're at the top of your professional career. Your reputation as a significant portrait photographer and teacher is as solid as ever, even after being in the profession for over 50 years. You're appearing in New York City for Canon at one of the year's biggest trade shows, PhotoPlus Expo. In your hands is one of Canon's latest and best new digital cameras--their EOS 20D. You have two gorgeous models ready and waiting to pose for you...and there are literally hundreds of people sitting and standing around you. They're all hanging on your every word and watching each of the images that you're creating appear on a myriad of screens surrounding the stage on which you're appearing. How good is that?

Of course, you need to perform. You need to come up with images that knock the socks off the audience. You need to hold their attention. This is where technique, experience, and creativity all come into practice. You have five lights mounted on ceiling tracks, keeping all the cords off the floor. Sounds great, but the ceiling area is so small that when you move one light they all move. Not good when you're trying to create precision portraits, but it's not an impossible situation. You just need to have help holding some of the lights in place when you're moving the others into position. Improvise. That's what you have to do as there is no room on stage for a lot of props.

A bar stool turned with the back of the chair facing me was the base for this picture. My first model, Allison Doss, faced me, straddled the back of the chair, and leaned her elbows on top of the chair's back. Before she sat down I positioned the chair at a 45Þ angle to my camera to keep her shoulders at a slight angle to my lens. I used Canon's 24-70mm lens because I knew that with it I could come in as close or as wide as I wanted. The camera was set on manual, exposing for the main light. An ExpoDisc was used to white balance the images quickly and efficiently. Focus was on automatic. The camera performed beautifully on automatic, even under the low-light conditions that we had on stage.

I had her bring both hands up to her face, keeping them off the front of her face so that they wouldn't be an obstruction. She turned her face to the 2/3Þ angle. The main light was moved to approximately a 90Þ angle to the camera so that I could achieve my traditional, modified loop lighting that you see in almost all of my portraits. A fill light was low, aimed toward her knees. Only a small portion drifted up toward her face, but it gave me a glow from below that does wondrous things under a subject's eyes, nose, and chin. The stronger catchlight came from my main light, but the low fill light brightened the lower portion of her pupils beautifully.
An Elinchrom wind machine blew her hair up and out, creating a contemporary flair to my classic posing and lighting. To keep all the attention on her face I darkened the bottom of the portrait by creating an extra layer in Photoshop, Image/Adjust/Curves--pulling the highlight end of the curve all the way down to darken the upper layer. Then I erased the upper portion of the layer and adjusted the opacity of the second layer to allow her arms to darken gradually.

My second model, Kate Gorney, came out with lipstick matching a brightly colored boa and headdress. I kept the lighting as it was and brought the feathery boa up to frame her face. You can really see the lower catchlights in her eyes here. Until I began working with other Canon Explorers of Light on stage I'd never heard of a fill light coming from below. Douglas Kirkland, one of the world's greatest glamour photographers, first showed me what a great effect the low fill could be. He also got me into the excitement that can be generated with the aid of a wind machine and even a fog machine. Now, when I look at all the magazine covers in the grocery stores I can see that the commercial portrait photographers have been using these tricks for ages.
All my photographs, by the way, are cropped in the camera exactly as I want them to appear in the final print. Certainly, many of them could be cropped to more traditional sizes, but I prefer to keep them in their original format.

As you might have figured out by now, I tip my camera quite often to enhance the composition. Most of the time I tip the camera toward the high shoulder, creating a 45Þ angle to many of my compositions. I create the high shoulder by keeping my subjects' bodies at an angle to the camera and leaning them forward at the waist. Quite often when I turn a woman's head toward one of her shoulders, I lean her body in the opposite direction. This also enables me to achieve high/low shoulders.
For this portrait I wrapped the model's head in a piece of fabric; another fabric wrapped around her shoulders. I cropped the portrait to include only a small portion of the golden fabric, so that the color would not detract from her face. I added a kicker light from behind to highlight the left side of her head and bring out some of the texture of the fabric.

Yes, the camera was tipped toward her left shoulder. When she looked back at my lens from the corner of her eye I instinctively cropped the image, keeping her to the left of the picture. That gave her room to look back into the photograph. Notice, too, that in all these close-ups the subjects' eyes are about 1/3 the way down from the top of the picture--the strongest place in the composition for them to be.
To illustrate the sharpness of the EOS 20D and the incredible ability the camera has to place the point of focus just about anywhere you want it to be in the composition, I moved the focus point to upper-left, used the automatic focus built into the camera, and came in to just a portion of her face. I brought her hand up to her face to give the picture balance and to show how her colored shirtsleeve matched her eyes.

Within minutes after shooting these pictures many of them were sent over to Canon's W6200 printer for 24x36" prints that were displayed while I was still shooting. Prints came out of the printer in less than 10 minutes! Everyone (including me) was amazed at the clarity and brilliance of the images as they came right out of the camera--even before retouching! You can see each strand of her hair more sharply than if you were there in person looking at her! And just look at the detail in the iris of her eye!

Clay Blackmore, another of Canon's Explorers of Light, was often on the stage with me. We get a big kick out of working together. Clay pushes my buttons to make me stretch my imagination and go beyond what I normally do. This was one of those instances. He carries an enormous amount of props with him for portrait accessories. For this picture he gave my model one of his fans.
To complete the "look" I had two assistants hold up another piece of fabric in the background and draped it to work with the composition. Yes, of course I tipped the camera--just notice the angle of her earring! How do you know how much to tip? I just do it out of "feel." It'll come to you, too, after a while. You just have to be careful when you have an earring like this or if your background has verticals that will "tell all!"

When I posed the two models together it felt completely natural for me to position a profile over the 2/3 view of the second model. I began by figuring out how to get one person just a little higher than the other. Lips to eyes usually works well for a non-romantic picture. Lips to lips works for a more romantic approach to this pose. In this instance I seated one of the models and stood the other.

I turned the lower model's body directly into the camera, the body position for a 2/3 view of a woman in the feminine pose. When I turned her face to the 2/3 camera position, there was space in which to bring the second model's profile directly over her. The placement of their eyes is up to you. I had them both looking downward, but at a slight distance so that it wouldn't appear as if their eyes were accidentally closed.
Notice that for this portrait I brought the main light all the way around back to light the profile. Using the track lighting, I simply switched what was the hairlight to become the main light. That lit the right side of the lower model's face. The shadowed side of both of their faces was lit by both a reflector (positioned to block the profile light from flaring my lens) and the fill light.

With the two models in the same position it was a natural to turn both faces toward the camera, keeping their faces at a 2/3 camera position and having them bring their eyes back toward the camera. Of course I had to bring the main light back around to a 90Þ angle to the camera to get back to my regular lighting position.

Does the same lighting pattern on almost all of my portraits bore you? I hope not! It just simplifies everything for me and allows me to concentrate more on my subjects, rather than have too many things to think about each time I create a portrait.

A hairlight coming from behind spilled over onto the shadowed side of the upper model; does it bother you? Again, I hope not! I saw it, left it, and loved it!

It's not my regular "thing," but like I always say, "If you like the way it looks take the picture!"

Here's another variation of the two models together. The main light is again in profile position. This time I positioned one profile over the full face of the other. Lips are closer to the same level, but not exactly. With the two of them looking in different directions I feel that the two of them do not appear to be attached to the other. Instead, I feel that it is simply a statement of two beautiful women.

I felt as if the bare white top and bare shoulder of the front model was a distraction from their faces, so I again darkened most of the lower portion of the portrait in Photoshop.

On the final day of the PhotoPlus Expo Clay pushed me still further when he saw both models come out of the dressing room wearing headbands. I laid the two of them on their backs, bodies going in opposite directions. The lights were placed directly overhead.

The final touch was to place Clay's crepe paper flowers all around them. The effect couldn't be seen from the audience's viewpoint out front of our stage, but when Clay snapped the shutter and the image appeared on all of the video monitors out front, there was an audible gasp and then an incredible applause. It was a great way to finish off our shooting session.

But, knowing me, you can believe that it didn't end least, not for me! I just had to have one picture of me with Allison and Kate. Chip Pecere, a New York photographer who is an invaluable assistant for everyone who shoots for Canon at shows like this, took the picture.