It’s time for another “Anatomy of an Image” series. This time I’ve chosen 9 images from a series I shot for Ulster Bank here in Northern Ireland loosely called “24 hours of Farming in Northern Ireland”. I’ve been asked by a reader to explain some of the techniques I used to achieve the look of the series. Its a good time that someone threw me a suggestion for a new post; I’m in between projects and my mind is slightly sapped at the moment.
The project came to me from Peter Higgins at Walker Communications. I met with him and art director Pete Hanlon at their offices in Holywood. Their brief was reasonably loose, creatively, except for one stipulation, the twenty or so portraits needed to be done in the next 2 weeks; no extensions. Well, to say the least, weather in Northern Ireland changes by the minute. The saying around here is that you get a 4 seasons in a day in Northern Ireland. I was hoping this wouldn’t be true for this projects. My hopes mean nothing to the weather gods.
I wanted to make the portraits to be iconic; to resonate that the subject is larger than life and is the master of their environment. I don’t think a lot of people appreciate farmers, they seem to be understated in most cultures, and even looked down upon in others. I have the greatest respect for them and at times I’m in awe of what they can accomplish. When it came to the style I need it to be big, I mean BIG. These images were to be printed 3 metres square. I delved into my past and I really liked the style of Dan Cremin, Russell Monk and Evan Dion; wide angle portraits showing the subject as the primary point of interest in the frame and all else is secondary. It is no surprise that each of these photographers did a stint with the master, Nigel Dickson in Toronto.
Okay, to start from the beginning, all these images are shot with available light; no strobes or artificial lighting what so ever. In a few of them I have used a silver/white reflector but outside of that, nothing else. All images were shot on 35mm digital, specifically a Canon 5D Mark 2 with a 17-40mm lens, used exclusively at 17mm.
The first image is that of a feed supply owner with his arms crossed. This shot is the alt to the pick image which is him with a shovel in front of one of the feed slots area thingy place. For the arms crossed image, my assistant turn the 42″ silver/white reflector to silver to grab anything he could of the sodium vapour lights in the ceiling; to can see the light touching him gently under his chin.
This location was by shear chance just feet away from what would be the pick image. Here on this one my assistant again turn the s/w to silver and came in hard and hot from camera left to reflect in the daylight pouring in from a south facing large garage door. For some reason his striped sweater plays off so well in both scenarios; it like a pattern that is not repeated at all in either environment.
The second subject was Edgar. While out at his place, Pete the art director, and I tried a few scenarios but nothing was really working. I really wanted to get across the feeling of a true farmer, someone who has spent everyday in the thick of it, rain of shine. He was wearing his waterproofs (trousers) when we arrived and an old blue sweater. I wanted him to stand off whatever background I situated him on, so in the end a slurry spreader was chosen. The orange of the spreader, half cropped into Edgar with the blue of the sweater playing off the sky and tin of the cow shed just all worked. Take a look at the size of the guy’s hands. You know he works with them for a living.
Next up was Stephen, a neighbour from the next town over from us. He was set to pose with his bank manager in one of his fields; simple and straight forward. This shot is where shooting in the raw file format pays off. I back lit the two of them with the cows sort of meandering around them. I positioned myself low, maybe a foot or two off the ground. With the lens set at 17mm I had the two subjects position themselves with their feet slightly apart, with one pointing back to camera, leading the viewer back into the frame. A random piece of wood on the left just adds to the dimension and width of the shot. With the sun being at their backs, I needed as much from the front as I could muster so I had my assistant turn the large 42″x78″ reflector to silver and aim it at the tops of their heads so the light would fall off their lower body.
Most of these images were taken in the rain; some torrential, some just spitting. The next image of Damien in the row boot was a torrential one. This particular scenario was for farm diversification and Damien had a couple of small weekend fishing cottages on his land. Feeling that there was nothing that really stood out on shore for this I hopped in a boot with him and Pete (AD) hung off the dock, holding us with one hand and the boat with the other. Pete did eventually take the plunge and found himself up to his knees in the lake but nothing more than that. Again, I wanted the viewer to be led into the image, so his body position, feet and boat oars all draw you into the main focus of the image, him. As far as lighting, there was none. Just the available super diffused light filtering through the rain clouds. If you look closely at the water, you can see the rain splashing down.
The fifth scenario was “milk collection”. Again we tried a few different set ups in the short time we had (all the subjects gave us between five minutes to an hour) and ended up placing him at the tank door of the milking parlour. He was a character all on his own; with his shaven head, Dickies styled jeans and massive belt buckle. Once again it was a drizzling day and heavily overcast; nice light for photographs, we just needed a little fill and we’d be set. For this one the assistant backed out a ways on camera right with the large silver fill. The subject was very at ease and easy to direct, so I had him position himself in the doorway, leading with his left leg at the threshold. It melds with the collection hose and leads into the subject. The camera was mounted to the tripod, down low and centered on the doorway.
The sixth image was from a farm up near Derry on the north coast. The brief stated it was to include the farmer and his bank manager, I’ll let you try to guess who is who. This was one of the toughest ones. We were to show both guys in with the cows. We first tried to incorporate the farmer’s jeep but it was all feeling a bit awkward. We finalised on just having the two of them in the midst of a large herd. It wouldn’t be difficult since his herd was very tame and calm. I had no problems moving around and getting close to any of them. Although even with their tameness I wasn’t going to chance trying to bring a large enough reflector in to light the two, so we would just have to hope for the best. I locked myself off on a tripod and hoped for the best. As you can see it all worked out well. I was never happy with the original sky, being blown out but between then and CS5/ACR now, I got it almost all back. The power of a raw file. I love it.
The next image was shot close to the last one. It wasn’t the same day because I don’t think we ever got that lucky. We wandered around this farmer’s barn with his dad and him but never found anything that fit for the scenario. So I decided, for this one time, that I would do a comp on this final image. I did a few images of him in the combine and standing around it but I always came back to the symmetry; the balance of a centre weighted image. I shot him, proudly standing in front of his latest, his new combine. i locked off the tripod and had the assistant hit him as has as possible with the large silver, with whatever dappled light was seeping through the thick clouds. I then screwed on a thick ND ( I can’t remember what factor it was) and proceeded to expose for a few 30 second frames. I’ll explain the rest in the post production section.
The final image is probably my favourite and it seems to be the favourite of most. Darren, the fisherman was very busy on the day we showed up. I think we had around five minutes so Catherine (from the agency) and I ran around the boat, playing out different scenarios but the one I always came back to was the one with the spools of fish nets. Darren was very busy that day, so when he showed up wearing his bright yellow overalls and his maroon shirt, it all just fell into place. His clothes along with the green netting and blue net motor, all complimented each other. To see the image large, blown up to 3 metres square is pretty magical. All the little tactile details; the chain in the box at his feet, the curling blue paint on the deck, the dirt on his face and under his fingernails, just add the immediate sense of reality. This image was light with available light, no reflector, facing south in the open shade of the second deck of the boat.
I download the raw Canon files into my Mac using Lightroom. I try to cover off as many steps as possible with the download by key wording, converting to dng, backing up and renaming files. I bring them all in using a developing preset; usually one with a clarity of 30, vibrance of 30-60 and a saturation of negative 10-20. From here I run through my usual workflow in LR. Starting at the top and working down on the develop menu, I set each white balance, then tonal values and then presence values. I will often go into the tone curve and give it a slight tweak if I feel that one end of the spectrum is lacking. After that its pretty minimal as far as LR goes; a little messing with lens corrections but that’s about all. From here I will export it to PS CS5 where I take my flatter than usual image and crank in some contrast and depth. I use a multitude of layers and paint back in areas on the layer masks; save them back out as tifs and back into LR for a final wringing out of the last bit. I know this last step negates all the layers I would have created in PS but the UI in LR just makes for a quick and simple solution to some minor issues that might come up. As I stated earlier, only one image was extensively comped, the farmer with the combine. For that image I simply just merged the two images together and painted him into the shot with the clouds in motion. Nothing had moved, it was just him and the combine so it was simple.
It was an amazing job to cover off the 20 odd scenarios in 14 days, rain or shine. I have to thank Peter Higgins, Pete Hanlon and Catherine McKeown for all their guidance and help and my assistants Helen French and Cathal McGeown for sticking through it all. You are only as good as the people around you.