By Ian Spanier
Pictures: © Ian Spanier Photography 2018
I met painter/artist Jonni Cheatwood through his father, who happened to be watching his grandson play with my youngest son on a local Little League team. His father and I came to sit together at most games, and he was all too proud to introduce me to Jonni, whose unique paintings are displayed all over the world. (Check out his work @jonni_cheatwood on Instagram).
Working with artists is historically a collaboration that photographers around the world have sought out. While considering a fun challenge for myself — something I recommend all photographers do in-between assignments — I thought making a portrait of Jonni could be fun.
I did a little research to pull some historical images and, in doing so, thought a nice challenge would be to shoot available light. Typical of my work would be lighting my subject with strobes and making a portrait. Often, if the location works, I will also take them outside. Being a fan of Richard Avedon since I first saw his series of Western US portraits, I always like to make an homage to him.
I had only brought my minimal amount of equipment which included a Profoto B1 head, 7’ Westcott Silver Umbrella with White Diffusion and a c-stand/mini boom. At the last minute, I also threw my Fiilex LED light in the car, just in case the available light wasn’t great, and I needed to shape it.
What I never unpack, though, is my Platypod Max and accessory kit. It sits in the middle of my camera case on every job, and when I switch to a pack, it always moves over. Every problem has a solution, and this is one of my favorites.
I almost never make continuous light portraits, and as I often preach — challenging yourself is crucial to making oneself a photographer with solutions to all kinds of situations. When I saw the fluorescent bulbs on his studio wall, I felt compelled to make a mixed continuous light portrait. One hitch, though! Unless I wanted to jack up my camera’s ISO (something I don’t prefer to do, unless there’s no other option), I needed a tripod, exactly what I had unpacked out of my light case when I repacked for this shoot.
The First Set-Up
I loved the look of Jonni’s table full of paint tubes and brushes and as long as I was going to be working with a low tripod, shooting through the table could be a way to make a more intimate portrait vs. my more typical straight forward portrait like above.
I slid my Canon 5DM4 with a 24-70mm II lens and Platypod Max onto the paint table with a cable release attached to the camera. Rather than using a high ISO, the lower setting would require a steady camera. Using the cable release would aid the camera, and Platypod Max would hold it nice and secure on the table.
Initially, I thought to use Platypod Max’s spikes, but I wanted my lens close to the paint tubes. In order to stick to the spot I wanted, I used the accessory kit’s silicon pad. This locked Platypod Max’s plate to the table perfectly. I lit Jonni as he sat, and we played around with a couple options. I shoot strobe so much because I like being able to freeze my subjects, but shooting with continuous light was a great challenge to slow down and really control my subject. I think it also offered a more natural feel versus the obvious lit feel of a strobe lit-portrait.
Second Version of Shot #1
We tried a second version of shot #1 with a painting in front of Jonni. Once he felt a bit more comfortable, I moved in closer.
For the next set, I moved to the ground. Wanting to fit Jonni under the white wall, I used Platypod Max’s spiked feet to raise the platform to the perfect height.
For the first attempt, I didn’t love the composition. Thanks to Platypod Max’s feet, I could still stay low, but I could raise the camera’s level to the desired height.
After I felt I had the shot of Jonni I envisioned, I moved to the floor. Cameras with a fold out LCD screen are far easier to use low, but I really liked the idea of making a low-angle portrait here. The first frame revealed that his head was touching the top of the studio wall- which I didn’t like. Thanks to the Max’s spiked feet I could raise the level just enough to get Jonni’s head below the top of the white wall. Success!
Just as we finished, a beam of light came down from the ceiling and I directed Jonni to step into the light shaft, raise his chin and look above my right side. He probably thought I was nuts, but then I showed him the image on the back of my camera and he understood. Finally, we stepped outside and made a couple natural light portraits just to wrap up a variety-filled shoot.