Robert Caplin, Themsche Portrait
When shooting for clients like The New York Times, you have to be prepared at a moment's notice to cover just about anything: spot news, features, sports, documentary, or those quick corporate or celebrity portraits. Over the past few years I've refined my gear to be as minimal as possible so I can hop on my scooter and be anywhere in Manhattan in minutes, ready to shoot.
As usual, I received this last-minute assignment for The New York Times Styles Section for a weekly column called “Up Close,” which profiles interesting individuals in the fashion world. In this case I was to photograph a man named Olivier van Themsche, who started a popular shopping website called “The Cools.”
Back in college when I interned at the Los Angeles Times, I began shooting a lot of celebrities, which meant I usually had very little time to create a photo in a foreign environment. Over the years I've found the best route to accomplishing a solid portrait in these situations, with very little time, is to arrive early with the intention to take a variety of portraits to give my editors many options for the publication. In fact, the image The New York Times chose from this assignment was different from this photo, which ended up in my portfolio.
I try to utilize natural light as much as possible, so when I first arrived, I sat van Themsche on a conference table near a window that provided a soft, natural light source. I typically try to use prime lenses, at very low apertures, to create shallow depth of field so the subjects pop out from the background. I followed these shots with a typical natural-light headshot, again utilizing the nice window light positioned directly behind me with the subject facing the light.
At that point I knew I had some solid portraits, but I'm always looking for more ideas. Sometimes the best shots are the ones you decide to try after you feel you've already accomplished your goal. I'd remembered seeing one of his employees out in the "newsroom," sitting at her desk with an exercise ball, and I thought it might be fun to have Olivier sit on it with his employees working in the background. For instances when I opt to use artificial light, I typically use a low-profile speedlite kit that I bring along for portrait shoots, consisting of two Canon 580-EX flashes triggered by an Infrared Transmitter, small light stands, and translucent umbrellas I use as optional softboxes.
For this portrait I opted not to shoot through the translucent umbrella, which would've given a softer look and spread the light more broadly across the room. Instead, I simply used one bare speedlite on a light stand, positioned off to the left pointing down at the subject with the strobe zoomed in to reduce the light spray from illuminating anyone other than the subject.
When shooting with artificial light, I generally like try to expose so the subject is properly illuminated and the background is a hair underexposed, so the subject pops out of the frame a bit. This was the case here. The key is to let just enough ambient light burn into the sensor while letting your strobe do the work illuminating your subject. At first Olivier simply sat there and posed when I asked him to start playing around some more. He quickly realized he could start bouncing around and I started shooting, which resulted in one of the more active and fun corporate portraits I've taken.
Lighting is elementary. You don't necessarily need huge lighting kits to make properly lit and punchy images. It's surprising, the range of techniques you can use with a simple speedlite. Not only are they rather simple to use, there're inexpensive, and MUCH easier to carry around, especially in a city that's not conducive to driving (like New York City).
Whether you're shooting natural light, strobes, with small or big units, there's one more tip to making that killer portrait: bring a great attitude and a smile to every shoot. One of the first things I hit my portrait subjects with is a big smile and lots of conversation. Get them talking about themselves and excited that you're taking their portrait. The worst thing you can do is make the shoot uncomfortable, silent, and stiff. Compliment their outfit, shoes, office space. Ask them about their travels, artwork, or just the weather. Do a little research before the shoot, search their name on Google, figure out a few topics of interest you can pepper them with as you're shooting. Keep the conversation moving and the shoot evolving. Let them know how excited you are to be there, making their portrait, and great pictures will happen.
Robert Caplin is an editorial and corporate photographer based in Manhattan who specializes in documentary, travel, celebrities, portraiture, and events. He’s a regular contributor to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal, and his work has been published in National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, TIME, and Newsweek. Robert is also the co-founder of The Photo Brigade, a resource that showcases freelance photographers, as well as offering gear reviews and topics that include the business of photography, in articles and podcasts.