Canadian photographer Derek Galon has always been fascinated with classical painting. But it wasn’t until a friend of his had a crazy idea that he realized how to use flashes and softboxes to combine his fascination with painting with his love for photography. Here is the story of how he did it, in his own words.
I love old paintings and have been fascinated with them for many years. But only recently, after decades of photographing, did I feel confident enough to try and recreate the type of light and mood such paintings have. It started with a suggestion by a friend, professional model Michael Ward, who wanted to shoot a Bacchus scene similar to those painted by Titian. At first i thought it may be an overwhelming project, but I decided it will be a fine challenge worth a try. All next shoots followed thanks to this first one being a success.
I’ve been lucky to have access to a large studio necessary for such multi-model setups. The studio is owned by my friend, a brilliant photographer and a lighting wizard: Jon Hoadley. Thanks to his kindness I also have access to high-end lighting system: the Profoto D1 Air and plenty of Light Shaping Tools. Without his generosity, none of these images would exist today. Casting models for this series has been easy for me. I mostly use my friends as models, experienced art photographers along with some younger aspiring models and friends from art industry, a stage makeup artist, costume designer, a fine painter, and so on.
The whole Painterly series is rather diversified, but several images are shot in style of old Flemish paintings. The one we use here as example for my lighting, is my homage to Adrjaen Brouwer – a fine painter who specialized in rough tavern scenes. He was well respected and one of Rembrandt’s favourites. To create image with distinctive feel similar to these paintings, one needs to study them and analyze separate elements. I would use a somewhat simplified list of these elements: styling, the whole scene composition and micro-scenes, plot and interactions, and lighting.
By styling I mean finding models fitting the desired theme, dressing them in properly looking clothes, applying professional makeup and other body effects, and finding the correct props for the scene.
This can be quite a task, but thankfully I do have access to a costume rental shop, and I work with a fine makeup artist, who became with me great with “uglyfying’ my models as needed.
Next, the composition. I need to imagine the whole scene as if it was a ready painting. I need to see in my imagination how people are composed, their expressions, what happens on the whole stage. That goes hand in hand with micro-scenes. When you study old multi-model paintings, you will notice that often bigger scenes are created by several smaller scenes put together. The same goes for this image that I shot – you can split it into micro-scenes. The woman serving the sitting man and accepts his crude flirtation, they make a fine pair. Young maid tries to tame an aggressive redneck fellow. That’s another separate scene. The drunkard on the front, dog sniffing through rubbish, and three background characters (one being the impersonation of Brouwer) are another group. Then, there are further micro-scenes done with props. The still life with bread and knife is set in such way that it can be a separate, fine image in itself. Details around the front drunkard make him set in another micro-scene, and so on.
3. Plot & Interactions
Closely related to these scenes is the plot and interactions. Looking at the scenes you know that the lady now is flirting with the sitting man, but she just served the drunkard spilling his drink. You can imagine that the aggressive brute on the right may be simply jealous of that flirt on the left side. Is the younger girl (my makeup artist “uglyfying” all models) just trying to avoid a scuffle, or she may actually have a soft spot for the brute (and some power over him)? Whatever happens, it can’t disturb the front drunkard who is too intoxicated to care, or the old man dozing off (my friend-photographer Jon Hoadley) in the back, clearly after a few drinks too. The musician (myself) has to play whatever happens, and the guy in the corner paints the scene, clearly enjoying the rough folklore of it. You can guess he is not really one of them, but they got used to him and don’t really notice him any more. Such interactive plots are typical of many old paintings like that, and give lots of narration detail for your imagination. That makes the image rich in a multilevel story.
The last element is the lighting, which helps building the scene in the proper way, showing you what is the most important in the whole plot. So, the strongest, brightest spot is on the drunkard, a separate light goes on the flirting couple and the painter, yet another on the brute and the girl, and the background is visible thanks to the ambient light filling the whole tavern.
But how exactly was this scene lit? Well, the final image has been composed of seven separate photos. Me playing fiddle, the best of all pics showing the left group, the best of all pics showing right side trio, the best of the dog, front barrels and background barrels – which I just happened to have from some previous architecture shoot, and lastly the spilling drink which i photographed in my garden later on.
First, we shot me acting the role of the fiddler. I had a large Softbox RFi 5´Octa with a Softgrid on the righthand side, set to a low power. This was the ambient light, the fill. Then we had the second fill light: a smaller Softbox RFi 3´Octa, also with a Softgrid. When the lights were set, I had Jon photograph me while I was playing the fiddle.
Next, together with Jon lending me some of his lighting expertise, we had to set lights on the whole group. The large Softbox RFi 5´Octa was once again our ambient light. We had a smaller Softbox RFi 3´Octa on the lefthand side lighting up the flirting couple, set from a distance and at a higher power. This light was spreading enough to also cover the painter in the back, and feather the dozing man and the dog, broom and still life on the table.. Another Softbox RFi 3´Octa with a Softgrid was placed even further to the left (look at shadows of dog and shadow of drunkard’s leg and you’ll see it) also from a distance, but a bit closer, so it would lit the drunkard but fall off a bit on the brute and the girl. Additionally, there was a fourth, tiny Softbox RFi 1×1.3′ with a Softgrid on a boom on front/above the drunkard, set to low power and giving just a bit of extra detail on him.
The main idea behind this setup was to use the smaller softboxes to separate the scenes from each other, while using the larger softbox to tie it all together. Of course it was not perfect from the first photo, and tethering on a large monitor we had a chance to correct and improve lighting and scene details. I took a dozen of photos, then checked them on screen, did some lighting corrections, and shoot again.
Using small gridded softboxes is absolutely vital for such images, to avoid light spillage and bouncing, which could ruin the whole setup. It is better in my opinion to have more dark spots than a light too widely spread over all scene. Only with well-controlled light you can create that painterly feel, chiaroscuro with lots of deep shadows. Don’t forget the background separation too.
Here is the final image:
Shooting such painterly multi-model scenes has lots of challenges. One of them is the simple fact that it is hard for all models to perform at their best on a single photo, so I usually have to combine best scenes from several photos into one. But perhaps the biggest challenge here is the lighting of all characters on a tightly packed stage. You think all is ok, and then it turns that someone’s hand will put unwanted shadow on another model’s face or torso. This takes the most fiddling around. Sometimes you can move a model or prop a bit, sometimes you need to move your lighting around. Look again at dog’s shadow and drunkard’s shadow. You will see the light on drunkard comes from farther left than that on the dog. We had to move the light, as drunkard created too much shadow on the couple behind. Painters can and sometimes do cheat, softening or modifying shadows, camera has no mercy.
Creating the whole series is a real challenge, steep learning process, and fun, and i hope to do several more images in this style. I hope you enjoy seeing them. Thank you!
See more of Derek’s work at his website.