Red. Easy, right? There’s red everywhere. Maybe that’s the problem.
I knew I wanted to do something interesting, and I was thinking a portrait. I had the red concept bouncing around in my head for a few weeks, so I was keeping my eye and mind open as the challenge approached. On my way home from work one afternoon, I noticed a painting contractor’s building that I drive past, and the entire side of the building had a huge 6-foot wide bright red stripe along the side of the building, with a paint can on one end and a giant paintbrush on the other end, painting the stripe across the building. The wheels started turning as I thought of a shot with the wall. I knew I wouldn’t just take a picture of the wall - that would be basically “cataloging” someone else’s artwork or creativity and calling it my own. (This made me think of a photo contest judged by a well-known and not particularly well-respected Internet photo “expert”; he gave the top prize to someone who took a picture of a bunch of pottery that looked to be on display at an art gallery.)
I actually had what I thought was a great idea for a picture, but I couldn’t see it happening. It involved that wall, a naked woman, and body paint. Getting all 3 of those things lined up seemed unlikely!
I started to fall back on an idea that had been working in my head for a while. I originally thought about using a deep red knit blanket as a hood/shawl, and asking Karie, my wife, to pose for a tight headshot. As I kept working through the idea, I remembered that my in-laws had a Red Riding Hood style cape. I also knew that they had a daughter who liked acting. I decided to ask my niece, Naomi, to pose. Somehow I got the idea of working a wolf into the picture. I didn’t want it to be too cheesy, but I thought I could pull it off. I remembered some of the shots that Joe McNally created in his amazing Hot Shoe Diaries book, using shadows to add dimension and shape to create interest. (Note that's twice in 3 weeks I references that book...) I started plotting how to get a wolf into the photo.
I lined up Naomi and the cape, and I found a wolf head picture that would hold its shape graphically as a shadow. I projected the image onto a piece of posterboard and traced it out, opening the jaw a little more than the original to make it more menacing.
Once we got to the shoot, it took a while to get the setup just right. I used white seamless, knowing I could control the color and brightness of the paper by controlling the light. I set up the main background light about 18 feet away; I needed some distance to create a crisp shadow from the wolf. I set the white balance to tungsten, and I left the background flash bare; I am a big fan of a warm subject against a blue background/light. I set up the key light, which was a gridded 24” softbox feathered across Naomi’s face. (I had to keep any spill off the background, and Naomi had to be close to the background for the shot to work, hence the grid.) I put a gridded speedlight above and behind Naomi to just hit a small hint of light across the back of her head, knowing I needed to separate her from the background.
It took a lot of trial and error to get the wolf where I wanted it. Originally I had Karie holding the wolf, but I soon decided to just tape it to a stand so I could keep it in place consistently. Eventually I was able to get everything lined up pretty close to what I had in mind. I kept the background light dark so the wolf stayed subtle but clear.
Naomi did a great job. She followed direction really well, shifting from fear to confidence upon request. At one point while shooting, the hood on her left side came forward, and while I initially asked her to move it back, I soon realized that it was much better that way - darker, more mysterious, and more Red.
I did end up doing more post-processing than I had originally planned with this photo. I added the red in the top left in post; I did a bit of experimenting with getting a red eye on the wolf with another flash, but it turned into more work than it was worth, especially since I knew I could it easily in post. After some of the manipulating and vignetting in post, the background started to band pretty heavily; I ended up adding a layer of noise and adjusted the opacity just to the point that the banding disappeared. I also used a Nik Color Efex layer on the hood, which added some extra depth.
Overall, I am happy with the image, and for a somewhat unusual concept, I think it ended up working out. Here’s to Red and the Wolf!
(This image also got "Explored" on Flickr. 2 out of 3 - crazy!)