Behind the Scenes: 31 Days of Halloween Portraits
One of the best things about taking photos for the Yakima Herald-Republic’s arts and entertainment publication, SCENE, is that we get to flex our creative muscle and have more freedom than we do shooting for the daily newspaper. For example, we’re able to have complete control over how food looks, and we’re able to take the time to shoot creative cover photos. This month, we got to explore another realm: portraiture. And not just any portraiture: we shot portraits of 31 people with props and costumes to illustrate their favorite horror film.
Reporter Miles Jay Oliver approached us with the story idea in late September. He was interviewing 31 different people, asking them what their favorite horror film is and why. Miles wanted to publish one interview a day throughout October. We wanted to do all the portraits in the Herald’s studio so there was consistency, and that allowed us to use different colored backdrops and a variety of controlled lighting set-ups.
We set a few ground rules for ourselves:
1). Each portrait would be a diptych, with one photo being more of a portrait of the person and the other a detail of a prop or the person’s costume. We felt this would make the collection have more impact on the viewer.
2). While we wanted to keep the portraits consistent in look and style, distinguishing each portrait from the other was crucial. Like all portraiture, we needed to make each portrait unique, creative and engaging.
3). Have fun and don’t worry too much about making a mess in the studio with lime Jello or fake blood.
We’ve selected a few of our favorite portraits and detail below how we set up and shot the portrait. While we don’t have behind-the-scene photos for each portrait we included a few that we have so you can see what kind of space and lighting arrangements we were using.
Jake Parrish: I’m not a big possession-movie fan, but “The Conjuring” is cinematic and freaky as heck. Herald reporter extraordinaire Molly Rosbach chose this film, and thought it’d be cool to recreate a scene from the movie for her portrait. After watching the scene online, I knew exactly what we had to do, but it would be a little tricky and may involve setting the fire alarm off in the building.
The scene in the movie seems to be lit only by a single match the mother is holding in front of her face, so I wanted to do the same. This is the only portrait in the series using “natural” light. I didn’t want the lose the edge of Molly’s head against the black background, so I positioned an LED light panel behind her and set it to the warmest setting and on very low power.
To shoot the portrait of Molly, I asked her to light a match and hold it close to her face without singing her eyebrows off. I set the camera on a tripod and, using an ISO of 640, f-stop of 4.5 and shutter speed of ¼ of a second, shot a few frames as Molly lit match after match. After getting her facial expression to have a curious but scared look, we were ready to move to the next element of the portrait: the disembodied hands clapping behind Molly’s head.
For the hands, I had chief photographer Shawn Gust model his hands. Leaving the camera exactly where it was for Molly’s portraits and using the same settings, shot a few frames of his hands lit by a single match held by Molly (she narrowly escaped this shoot without any injuries).
Now that I had the portrait photos shot, I needed a detail. I thought it’d be interesting to have a pile of spent matches surrounded by black, so Molly helped pile the matches up. We needed a way to light the pile, so we lit one match and dropped it onto the pile. We then used a LED light panel and filled the scene a touch with the panel set on the warmest setting. I handheld the camera this time, and shot it with these settings: ISO 640, f/2.5, 1/125/second.
In Photoshop, I edited the photos individually, and then simply added Shawn’s disembodied hands into the frame, then toned them to match Molly’s portrait as close as possible.
Jake Parrish: I’ve done a couple photo stories on drag kings and queens, and love the personalities that they all have. When I heard Emily Brazil, a drag king I met on assignment a few months ago, was coming in for a portrait I knew it was going to be a fun one.
She picked the Japanese horror film, “Infection.” There are nurses in the movie that become infected with a mysterious illness that makes them spew green slime from their mouths. So Emily went all-out and wore a nurse costume with a wig, and brought lime Jello. We put her on a red background to make the Jello and her blue cardigan pop. Herald photographer Jovelle Tamayo helped a lot with the shoot, and held a beauty dish with a speedlight above Emily’s head and in front of her face. We then lit the backdrop with two LED light panels, and I put a bare speedlight on the floor behind Emily to create some hairlight. For the portrait, my camera settings were as follows: ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/20th of a second.
(Here, the bare-bulb hairlight is actually set up for the detail; in the portrait, the light was on a stand directly behind her, pointing up at her head).
Emily was an amazing model and toughed out putting the Jello in her mouth, even though she hates lime Jello. As I was firing every 2-3 seconds, she slowly let the Jello fall out of her mouth and onto the studio floor. We did some shots with her eyes looking forward and others with her eyes rolled in the back of her head. I saw that in one frame with her looking forward, the beauty dish flash froze the Jello in perfect form. We liked the look of her eyes rolled in the back of her head, so I knew I would have to Photoshop the “good” Jello pieces into the photo where her eyes were looking “good.”
When the Jello looked good:
When the eyes looked good:
Final portrait image:
For the detail photo, we wanted to give a sterile, almost flashlight-like look that incorporated the spent Jello on the floor. So I took the beauty dish off the keylight and zoomed the speedlight to 200mm and set it to a medium power. Shooting straight down, I fired some frames off and the effect we were going for was achieved. I used the following settings for the detail: ISO 100, f/16, 1/40th of a second. I stopped down that much so there would be a lot of detail in the slime.
After Jovelle and I cleaned up the disaster that was the studio, I edited the photos. The shopping of the slime was pretty simple; I just quick selected the good Jello and brought them into the good eye photo. After editing the detail photo and putting both finished photos into a diptych, I tried flipping the detail photo 180 degrees so it changed the perspective of the viewer to that of Emily and liked the final result.
Shawn Gust: I was able to participate in the Halloween portrait project for a few sessions. My favorite result was simple, but had impact. Nick Takahashi dressed as the main character from “Hellraiser,” Pinhead. Takahashi’s makeup was great and I wanted to highlight the work put into it. To do this, I set up two LED video lights on either side of Nick, one with a yellow gel filter and the other with red. These colors created an interesting effect, almost a contradiction of color while, at the same time, accentuating the depth and shape of the face structure. With a painted on grid and dripping (fake) blood, the result was unique and sort of creepy. I arranged the scene to allow a pretty safe exposure of ISO 400, f4 and 1/200th second. This gave me enough depth of field to direct the viewer without losing context and a fast enough shutter speed for a sharp, hand-held image.
Below are some other portraits from the series. To see the full collection, please check out our arts and entertainment section, “SCENE,” by visiting www.yakimaherald.com/scene
Thank you so much for looking! We hope you enjoy. If you have any questions or want to know more about how a portrait was shot, feel free to write us a comment.