Forget Mr.White, today we’re Breaking Clay!
I am a long time follower of Clay Cook, and one thing that always amazes me is his softly lit group shots. I mean soft light for one person is easy, but a group is a whole other story. I sat with Clay (well, virtually sat with Clay) and asked him about his workflow.
Hey Clay! I can see a lot of interesting factors here that I think the readers will want to know about.
Let’s start top and work our way through.
Can you talk us through your lighting setup with regards to the unit / model you use, is that important to you, or is a light a light?
Light is light. However, having a good build quality and versatile strobe is extremely important. I highly recommend Profoto and their large array of modification. Their product can be an investment, but well worth the price tag. I’m firm believer in purchasing quality equipment, so you won’t have to buy it twice. You get what you pay for.
I can see you’re shooting that light straight into an octa above the group, and it appears to be rear facing! Do you notice a difference between rear facing and direct shot strobes?
There is a clear difference between a direct light and a bounced light. I usually prefer a bounced light, it’s softer and pleasing to the eye. A direct light, depending on how it’s modified, can be very specular and hard, which can be stunning with the right concept and subject. At the end of the day, it’s important for me to get as close as possible to natural light. Although, we’re in the studio, I think many photographers “over-light,” and it can look poor. My goal is to mimic how the sun would fall on the subject if we were on location, whether that be hard sun or a soft overcast.
It’s an interesting one to me, because if the size of the light isn’t changing relative to the subject, all that’s happening is more or less diffusion (power loss) in the light? Or am I missing something here?
With the use of the 60” Photek Softlighter umbrella, you’ll definitely have a loss of light since the strobe is pointed away from the subject. Also, in this particular setup the light is travelling through two levels of diffusion with the 6×6 1.25-stop fabric. In addition, I was photographing a group, so my aperture was closed to f/14 to guarantee that all subjects would be sharp. A powerful key light was an important piece of the puzzle.
This scrim setup seems to be VERY common in modern photography among Felix Kunze, Sue Bryce and yourself among others, where did you pick this up from? I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark and assume it was born out of love for our dear Annie?
It’s commonplace in the photography world because it provides the ability to control natural light and/or mimic it in the studio. I’ve always admired the work of Annie Leibovitz and the use of diffusion panels such as the Lastolite 6×6 Skylight Rapid. I initially purchased the scrim for on-location editorial work. If we were stuck with a hard sun, I wanted to option of diffusing the sun and over power it with artificial lighting for a more dramatic look. Since then, I’ve found dozens of methods to use the scrim and fabric to my advantage in the studio. It’s by far the most versatile piece of equipment I own, as it can be used for both modifying light and bouncing light. I’ve even seen photographers go as far as using it as a background.
How is this rig supported / put together? Because it’s a very clever idea having a light source so big and so portable. It looks like a pair of C-Stands but then how is it clamped etc?
The Lastolite 6×6 Skylight Rapid Kit is supported by two Avenger C-Stands which attach to the frame of the scrim using two Avenger Grip Heads. It’s heavy duty, very durable but also extremely portable. The scrim can breakdown into a small bag which we often pack into our travel kit, which we take on projects all over the world.
You’ve also got some gridded spots at the back there, why did you choose to do that?
The kick lighting provided a small subtle separation on the group from the dark background. It was a light that was much needed, otherwise the group would have just sunk into the dark background, which is a look I didn’t want. The grid on both strip-boxes provided more control and gave me the ability to direct the light where it needed to land.
So how portable would you say a rig like this is? Is it heavy or just a lot of parts? Is it something anyone out there could aspire to own and cart around with relative ease, or is it something you find requires more of a production / crew behind it to make it easy to work with?
Fortunately, this entire setup, with exception of the 4×8 V-Flats, everything can be separated and broke down into a nice portable kit. I have travelled with this rig to many remote locations all over the world. The biggest issue is usually weight, but if the equipment is consolidated and packed correctly, I’ve always came under the maximum weight limit for travel. If you’re without an assistant, it could take sometime to put together and rig-up, so I always recommend ample time for staging and pre-lighting.
With a group shot like this, what’s a go to starting point for your aperture? I know I’ve been terribly guilty of whacking a camera to f/1.4 more than once only to realise that even at f/5.6 multiple people can miss the focus plane.
I always make sure to shoot groups between f/8 and f/16 to guarantee that every subject is sharp. Often, you must pose a group shoulder to shoulder in the same focus plane to get a razor-sharp photograph. Unless you’re going for a specific concept, I never start with a wide-open aperture.
For a shot like this would you pose people specifically or just get people to do their thing and tweak and go?
Before the group arrives, we spend hours pre-lighting and pre-posing. We have a clear idea of the concept and make sure that the lighting is spot on before I snap the shutter. We often use gaff tape on the floor to mark positioning and posing. Once the group is positioned it’s really up to the subject to lock in the expression and look, but I make sure I direct and lead the mood, whether it be sombre or cheerful.
How long would you expect a session with a group like this to last? Would you be shooting individual portraits too or just main group shots?
It depends on the final output and amount of images you’ve laid out. For this project, we had a clear vision and knocked it out within three hours. We delivered four final images, two per look. We decided not to do individual portraits for this session.
I know you’re an American based Photographer, so any plans to head to the UK?
We have spent the last several months working hard to finally take our workshops to an international level. It requires a lot of logistics to pull off an event outside of the United States. But, I’m happy to say, we’ve made it happen. In partnership with high-end retoucher Jordan Hartley, we are flying across the pond to London, England on August 13 and 14 for an exclusive workshop. The workshop will take place at the gorgeous Camden Park Studios, located in the heart of Camden Town. We have over $1500 in giveaways from brands such as Phase One, Profoto, SmugMug, BlackRapid and more. More information can be found on my website.
Ahh that’s awesome! I’ll definitely look into seeing you there! With that, I think that’s most everything for an image breakdown, thanks for your time Clay!