I started out as a painter. The inspiration for how I think about lighting comes primarily from Old Masters like Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Caravaggio, as well as more modern painters such as Edward Hopper and Giorgio de Chirico. They were all masters at using light in an emotionally expressive manner, and this is what I am trying to do in my photography. I have also been influenced by lighting techniques from theater and cinema—I want the light to act almost as another character, illuminating the inner lives of the subjects as well as their physical forms.
All of the backgrounds in these images are dollhouse-size sets and dioramas that I built, lit and photographed in my studio. The human models were all lit and photographed separately in the studio, one at a time, and then composited together with the diorama shots in Photoshop. I like the control this technique gives me over all aspects of the composition and lighting.
MY GEAR M.O.
I have the Nissin Di866 Speedlite tethered to my Canon 7D camera with a 25-foot sync cord, and any additional speed lights or strobes are slaved to that, like my Yongnuo YN560 speed lights and AlienBee B400 strobe.
The Potato Eaters
From my series “Once Upon A Time In Kazimierz,” a photo novella about a Jewish family living in Kraków, Poland, in the year 1930, this is based on Van Gogh’s painting of the same name—a poor family eats their meager supper under the glow of a single kerosene lamp. I created a subtle tension with the lighting: a moment of sustenance and fragile warmth amidst a harsh life of struggle and privation.
The Portraits: The figures were photographed in my dining room, sitting at a table lit by a single overhead continuous standard fluorescent bulb diffused by a standard lampshade.
The Scenery: The key light was the standard dollhouse chandelier in the image. An off-camera speed light, placed about 18 inches to the left of the table at low power and diffused by a piece of tissue paper placed over the front of the light, was shot through a window in the diorama—you can see shadows cast from this light in the right corner of the room.
Green Bedroom (Morning)
This was taken for my series “Hopper Meditations.” I wanted to emulate the light from one of Edward Hopper’s most famous paintings, Morning Sun. One of the challenges was properly balancing the light inside the room with that outside the window—the exterior had to be believably bright but clearly enough defined to depict the urban environment.
The Portraits: The model was lit with two side-by-side off-camera speed lights bounced into a silver umbrella about 7 or 8 feet off the ground and 10 feet away to the right of the figure. The light on her back is reflected light bouncing from a wall on her left.
The Scenery: The key light was an off-camera speed light placed just behind and at the top of the building model seen out the open window. It was pointed down into the window and slightly diffused by the plastic diffuser built into the speed light. Another speed light was placed to the left of the open window and pointed straight up, bouncing off the ceiling to provide ambient and fill light, and especially lighting the building model seen out of the window.
Couple In The Street
In this scene from “Once Upon A Time In Kazimierz,” which takes place toward the end the story, this couple is on the verge of splitting apart. I wanted the overall scene to be pretty dark with the figures lit from the side in sharp contrast to the background, casting long shadows to underscore the mood of loneliness and isolation. This lighting effect is especially influenced by the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.
The Portraits: Each figure was lit the same way in my home studio. There is a white wall about 6 feet to the right and an opposite wall about
8 feet to the left. The key light was an AlienBee strobe placed a foot away from the wall on the right, about 7 feet high and pointed to where the wall meets the ceiling. An off-camera speed light was placed next to the strobe but pointed directly at the figure to provide some hard fill.
The Scenery: A single Nissin Di866 speed light was placed a few feet to the right and above the set with a grid modifier to provide some fall-off. I had a reflector set up on the left of the scene to give some fill on the dark side of the building. The window light in the building is another speed light placed inside the building with a warming gel, backlighting the small cardboard cutout figure.