Aida: The April Session.

Lately I’ve somewhat veered away from the technical aspects of photography in the blog, mostly posting short essays in between new Fuji gear reviews. But there is a point at which it might become too self-involved. I do realize that. So today I thought I’d break away from this and do a kind of anatomical review of one of those client shoots I never talk about, tech notes et al.

I always ask permission to do it but I usually tend to shy away from posting client assignments. And since I’m usually knee deep in the immediacy of what I’m shooting, after a few months have passed it feels somehow irrelevant; I have a fetish for the here and now… Or maybe the two days ago ;)

Last Spring I got a message via Facebook from Aida; she’d apparently been searching for a photographer for quite a long time, had just stumbled on my work and wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing a portrait session with her. We did a back and forth and I proposed that we meet to discuss what she had in mind. I don’t do cold sessions, ever — learned that one a long time ago.

We had a wonderful time and settled on doing an exterior/interior shoot… But it was March: awful weather, crappy light and not a whole lot of it. Of course, when you don’t have a choice you deal with it, you make the best of what’s there; but if you can afford to wait, why bother? So we waited. And late April, the Gods of Light rewarded our decision…


The plan was to walk around her neighbourhood in Vieux-Longueuil as long as light would permit us, then go to her apartment for an indoor shoot. Around two hours give or take. It’s important to have an idea of the location you’ll be using on an exterior session and in this case I knew the place already — Cynthia works on St-Jean street and I’d spent time walking around with my camera on more than one occasion. The other obvious element to factor in is light; you can’t control how it’ll dress itself but you can certainly choose when to show up for the date. I use Golden Hour on my iPad to get the time and duration of both the golden and the blue hour, but there are a lot of other great apps that can do the job. This golden hour timeframe isn’t just a cliché: beyond the colour temperature there’s also the angle of the sun creating shadows, wrapping itself around objects, buildings, elongating corners… It’s the most versatile, fluid light to play in, constantly changing from minute to minute. You add clouds in there and it’s quicksilver, impossible to predict. If you’re lucky enough, you get magic.

The pictures above were taken on a pedestrian overpass. And nothing was staged: I saw that guy on the skateboard coming down, the lady walking towards us and I waited. I smiled to skateboard guy and he did a move for me at exactly the right moment; I just love seeing order come from chaos don’t you? Incidentally, those images may look HDRish and processed like crazy but they aren’t. Not at all. Here’s one of those pics SOOC (I barely did a thing to it in the final version):

Nature has its very own HDR engine... FYI, first three were shot with the XF 35mm f/1.4 on the X-Pro1, aperture priority at f/8 or f/11, ISO 400. Shutter speed varied between 1/240 and 1/500. Last one shot with the XF 18-55mm zoom. Here’s two more from that same overpass, using the zoom:

Once the light began to fade in earnest I used any light source I could find or boosted the ISO, until the last exterior shot below where I’m using a zoomed bare speedlight, on the floor of the kiosk aimed straight up — X100S on the first two, X-Pro1 with 35mm on the third.


Aida and I had discussed a lot of things during our initial meeting and one of the elements I wanted to include during the indoors portion of the session was a painting that was very near and dear to her. While setting up I showed her a lighting test I’d done in the studio that I thought might be an interesting fit and we went with it. This is one of the setups that came out of my Winter Challenge with Robert Boyer last year: Elinchrom strobe fitted with a set of barn doors shot through a makeshift gobo (cut out of a piece of cardboard). I’ve used this a few times since then in various situations. The idea is to create very dramatic shadows and simulate a light going through several obstacles, bouncing around all over the place. Bear in mind that all of this is taking place in the very small living room of a very small apartment…

We ended the session with a very different look using this same space but this time with Aida lying on the couch, lit from above with that same Elinchrom strobe but this time in a medium Portalite softbox. Same room, same light — totally different mood.

I love these last images. It's like complete abandon...
There's really nothing better for any photographer than having a subject willing to experiment and trust the process completely. We had an amazing time doing these, playing with ideas and various looks. At the end of the day it's certainly about preparation...  But also about being ready to throw it all out the window at a moment's notice.

Ain't nothin' like freedom...