Brutal architecture and portraits

I have an admission to make… I love shooting portraits on cloudy days around concrete buildings with urban skylines. There, I’ve said it. As a photographer I find brutal architecture and grey winter days both challenging and creatively stimulating. Combine the two and you have a blank canvas for interesting images – as long as you have a cooperative subject.

©Neil Turner, February 2009

This portrait is of an academic working at a central London research and teaching institute. The building is a classic modern brutal concrete one and I have shot pictures there dozens of times over the years. I have never managed to get access to the roof before and I have always imagined that it would be a great place to shoot, with decent views of the surrounding skyline.

It was a windy and dark February day and so I wanted to find a spot out of the wind. The roof features a couple of large concrete towers which contain lift machinery and other services and the southerly one has a short walkway running through it. On a sunny day this would be perfect shade in which to place your subject. On this day it was equally perfect shelter from the wind and probable rain. There are also railings which are perfect for attaching lighting stands to so that they don’t blow away.

The picture above wasn’t the first that I shot. I had tried quite a few angles to get the London skyline in but the wind forced a retreat into the covered walkway. I decided that being out of the wind gave me the chance to shoot with a 24″ x 36″ (60cm x 90cm) Chimera soft box on my Lumedyne flash head. The softbox is old and has both the inner and outer diffusers permanently sewn in and I wanted to make use of it’s softness so I placed it as close to the subject as possible. In this frame it is about three feet (90cm) from his face off at about a 45 degree angle to the left of the camera with the bottom of the softbox about level with his chin.

I always try to start with an available light reading for the sky which came out at about 1/250th of a second at f5.6 on 200 ISO. I wanted the sky to be darker and so I decided to shoot at f8 instead. This meant that I had to adjust the power output on the flash to give me the aperture that I wanted and that meant 1/4 power (50 watt/seconds). The first test shot told me that I needed some separation between his hair and the dirty grey concrete and so I set a second flash (Vivitar 285 HV) on a stand directly behind him on 1/16th power to give him a fairly aggressive hair/rim light. This isn’t a technique that I use very often but in this case it made the difference between a muddy image and one with some real edge. The combination of the big soft light and the hard hair light gives the portrait a particular mood which compliments the sky and the architecture.

Like many of the techniques that I use, this one needs to be used sparingly so that it has maximum effect when it does get used.

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