Portrait Session with the New College President

San Diego City College has a new college President, Dr. Ricky Shabazz.  It turns out, happily, that he really likes photography and the photo facilities.  So when the request came to do a portrait I was most anxious to oblige. 

The problem is that he already has a very nice “official style” color portrait/headshot taken by a district photographer (if I knew who did it I would credit them since it really is quite nice).  It really is perfect for most directory use, PR use in newsletters, that sort of thing.  The truth is I saw little chance of actually improving on that type of shot (especially since it is not something I normally do) so was initially at a loss and in a mild panic as to what to do to live up to the hype he apparently heard when he told people he was coming here to have me do his portrait.  Needing his support for our program, it seemed to me there was a lot potentially riding on this shoot and I had no clue what was needed or what he expected since I did not know what, if anything, he had seen of my work.

So I went online and did my homework to try to come up with some ideas.  Dr. Shabazz has an impressive background in academia, one would expect that of someone hired as a College President.   But two items caught my eye that went far deeper into his personality.  He had done work dealing with Native Americans — now there was something we could connect on.  Plus he was an AVID fisherman.  And not just any, run-of-the-mill kind of fisherman, mind you, he was into bass fishing — which any serious fisherman will tell you is a whole new game.  Seriously fishing for bass is a different mind set; bass are sneaky and masters of tangling you in the weeds and being able to let you think you’ve gotten them and at the last moment, doing a spectacular leap in the air and casually spitting out the hook.

Well, the obvious thing to do is go with him out to one of the local lakes with some fishing gear and do the shots there.  He would be completely at ease there and his spirit would be more open; fishing tends to do that to folks and bass fishing can be, at once, relaxing and focussing.  Unfortunately (and I’m telling you this for the educational value in it), I was so wrapped up in the other projects over this sabbatical semester, that I had put off the research for the portrait session until it was the day of the shoot… too late to change the plans.  So lesson number one, Grasshopper, is do your research as soon as you can to leave you some planning time. 

Did I do that…do what I preach to my students?  Nooooooo… of course not.  The shoot was scheduled for 4:30 and I was reading his bio data after lunch the same day.  NOT A GOOD PLAN and an even worse example for my students!!!  But now it was too late and he was coming to the studios. And due to his schedule we did not have much of a shoot window.

What to do, what to do??? 

I decided, literally on the drive in, that if I could not really produce a better PR headshot than the one he had, nor do a nice location-based portrait, I would go in a different direction and channel my inner adulation of all things Karsh (that would be Josuf Karsh.  If you don’t know his work look him up.  He was my starting hero and virtual mentor when I got into serious editorial portraiture). Karsh’s career went into warp drive with an iconic shot of Winston Churchill shot in a coat closet with 5 minutes available.  Now THERE is a score to shoot for.  I at least had about 15 minutes and a real studio, one of the great studios in our photo area at City.  

Karsh’s style of work was far more dramatic and atmospheric than the modern typical headshot.  It is also generally more revealing of the subject’s personality and it was 98% done with B&W large format (often 8×10) cameras for incredible detail.  I asked for the same studio I had shot the veterans’ portraits for that show last year to help me set the mental picture.  With the help of the lab tech, Adriana, I roughed in some dramatic lighting around a chair and got my Canon 5DSr ready with a Canon 70-200L f4.  I like that lens in the studio because the sweet spot is closer to the typical strobe required setting of around f8 to f11.  The f2.8 version would already be moving a couple of stops beyond its own best aperture and is much heavier.

Here is the lighting diagram I settled on once he had sat down.  While I tweaked the lights and made a couple of exposure test shots, we chatted a bit, and I begin to get a feel for his personality.

lighting-diagram-shabazz portrait

Dr, Shabazz is really a very open person and we seemed to hit it off right away – at least that is how it seemed to me.  After using the exposure tests to also test some angles and “looks” I knew what I wanted and simply went for it.  An open and engaged shot where you can see the seriousness of his position but the fun and openness in his eyes.  I initially had a top/hair light in place but it made it look too much like a “news anchor” shot so I turned it off.

I took a total of 11 frames counting test shots.  This one is number 11 and I knew it was the shot when I took it.  So since we were running out of time anyway there was no reason to do more.  First, let me show you the full RAW frame right out of the camera and then we’ll talk about editing it.

SDCC President Shabazz-201709290 11 RAW for blog

For this frame the lens was set at about 85-90mm and gave me a nice working distance that let me shoot under the Key Softbox to help avoid flare from the “kicker.”. The 50 megapixel sensor and the lens’s famous sharpness allowed me to stop worrying about crop knowing I had room to play with the large files of over 100 megabytes each.  The 35mm-style full frame would need to be cropped anyway for 16×20 or 20×24 prints so I concentrated on the lower part of the shot to leave a little room for some optional crops knowing the top would go away anyway.

Once I pulled the files into Camera RAW in preparation for final editing with Photoshop, I did the following:  I tweaked color balance on his white shirt collar (it felt a little cold to me since I had left the camera on daylight setting and the strobes are somewhat cooler).  I then assigned my camera’s color profile in  ACR.  dropped the highlights, brought up the shadows, cropped the picture to fit into a 16×20 aspect ratio and sent it to Photoshop.

I had shot it fairly flat/low contrast so that I could capture all of the tones knowing I can adjust all of that in post.  I always had in mind going to a black and white final (remember my “Karsh-like” concept) but the best way to do that is create a good color image first.  There was not all that much to do: boost the contrast a little, take the background down (I had really over lit it in the studio but there was no time to play with that once he got there; all my attention was on his expression and that lighting).  I was aware that in the camera monitor the background was too light but really gave it no other thought but to fix it in post.   After that, all that was left was to do some very subtle tweaks to remove lint on his jacket.  Our studios virtually rain lint but it could have been worse, he might have shown up in a dark jacket… By the way, despite the commonly expressed fear of the 5DSr showing moiré patterns due to the removal of the antialiasing filter to enhance detail, mine shows no more than any other digital camera.  His jacket was a real world test of that…

So that resulted in this initial color version.

SDCC President Shabazz-20170929-010 color edited for blog

THe color was OK, the blue contrasted nicely with the warm tones and his tie… but it did not resonate with my now firm concept and vision for the final.  Now it was time to really channel Karsh.  I converted it to black and white, then, using the “curves” function, boosted the contrast a little more. I then decided to bring the background tone down even more since the gray value was too close to the rest of the image.  

It was beginning to look good to me and as I had conceived it, but something subtle was off… it lacked some warmth and depth.  So I applied a subtle warm duotone, tweaked it with some light digital burning and dodging, and also very slightly (3-4 degrees) canted the head angle so it wasn’t so “stiff” … and that gave me this final.

SDCC President Shabazz-201709290 11 for blog

He emailed me that he really liked the shot.  Me too.  I think it really fits with and shows off his openness and friendliness but retains the professional status of a College President.  This is a serious guy with a fun side and I think that is hinted at in this shot.  I love the expression that can work for either, “Hi there, glad to see you…”  or “You can’t possibly believe what you just told me…”

But I am really anxiously waiting for the lake shot.  We talked about it and he wants to do it.  We’ll probably be able to go for it in December.  That will make a fun comparison.





About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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