Master Class
Monte On Stage At New York’s PhotoPlus Show; Improvisation, Agility, And Going With What You Know

Photos © 2004, Monte Zucker, All Rights Reserved

Picture this: You're in the golden era of your life. You're at the top of your professional career. Your reputation as a significant portrait photographer and teacher is as solid as ever, even after being in the profession for over 50 years. You're appearing in New York City for Canon at one of the year's biggest trade shows, PhotoPlus Expo. In your hands is one of Canon's latest and best new digital cameras--their EOS 20D. You have two gorgeous models ready and waiting to pose for you...and there are literally hundreds of people sitting and standing around you. They're all hanging on your every word and watching each of the images that you're creating appear on a myriad of screens surrounding the stage on which you're appearing. How good is that?

Of course, you need to perform. You need to come up with images that knock the socks off the audience. You need to hold their attention. This is where technique, experience, and creativity all come into practice. You have five lights mounted on ceiling tracks, keeping all the cords off the floor. Sounds great, but the ceiling area is so small that when you move one light they all move. Not good when you're trying to create precision portraits, but it's not an impossible situation. You just need to have help holding some of the lights in place when you're moving the others into position. Improvise. That's what you have to do as there is no room on stage for a lot of props.

A bar stool turned with the back of the chair facing me was the base for this picture. My first model, Allison Doss, faced me, straddled the back of the chair, and leaned her elbows on top of the chair's back. Before she sat down I positioned the chair at a 45Þ angle to my camera to keep her shoulders at a slight angle to my lens. I used Canon's 24-70mm lens because I knew that with it I could come in as close or as wide as I wanted. The camera was set on manual, exposing for the main light. An ExpoDisc was used to white balance the images quickly and efficiently. Focus was on automatic. The camera performed beautifully on automatic, even under the low-light conditions that we had on stage.

I had her bring both hands up to her face, keeping them off the front of her face so that they wouldn't be an obstruction. She turned her face to the 2/3Þ angle. The main light was moved to approximately a 90Þ angle to the camera so that I could achieve my traditional, modified loop lighting that you see in almost all of my portraits. A fill light was low, aimed toward her knees. Only a small portion drifted up toward her face, but it gave me a glow from below that does wondrous things under a subject's eyes, nose, and chin. The stronger catchlight came from my main light, but the low fill light brightened the lower portion of her pupils beautifully.

An Elinchrom wind machine blew her hair up and out, creating a contemporary flair to my classic posing and lighting. To keep all the attention on her face I darkened the bottom of the portrait by creating an extra layer in Photoshop, Image/Adjust/Curves--pulling the highlight end of the curve all the way down to darken the upper layer. Then I erased the upper portion of the layer and adjusted the opacity of the second layer to allow her arms to darken gradually.

My second model, Kate Gorney, came out with lipstick matching a brightly colored boa and headdress. I kept the lighting as it was and brought the feathery boa up to frame her face. You can really see the lower catchlights in her eyes here. Until I began working with other Canon Explorers of Light on stage I'd never heard of a fill light coming from below. Douglas Kirkland, one of the world's greatest glamour photographers, first showed me what a great effect the low fill could be. He also got me into the excitement that can be generated with the aid of a wind machine and even a fog machine. Now, when I look at all the magazine covers in the grocery stores I can see that the commercial portrait photographers have been using these tricks for ages.

All my photographs, by the way, are cropped in the camera exactly as I want them to appear in the final print. Certainly, many of them could be cropped to more traditional sizes, but I prefer to keep them in their original format.

As you might have figured out by now, I tip my camera quite often to enhance the composition. Most of the time I tip the camera toward the high shoulder, creating a 45Þ angle to many of my compositions. I create the high shoulder by keeping my subjects' bodies at an angle to the camera and leaning them forward at the waist. Quite often when I turn a woman's head toward one of her shoulders, I lean her body in the opposite direction. This also enables me to achieve high/low shoulders.

For this portrait I wrapped the model's head in a piece of fabric; another fabric wrapped around her shoulders. I cropped the portrait to include only a small portion of the golden fabric, so that the color would not detract from her face. I added a kicker light from behind to highlight the left side of her head and bring out some of the texture of the fabric.