Drew Gurian is a young, up-and-coming portrait photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. Each month, he’ll be bringing you a behind the scene perspective, navigating the freelance marketplace of one of the busiest photo markets in the world – New York City. This is the second part of his story, in which he shares some advice on how to adjust ambient light to work in your favour.
Although I grew up just outside of the city in northern New Jersey, until January, I had never actually lived in the city. Sure, I’ve spent tons of time here over the years, but I really enjoy being able to consider myself a New Yorker for the first time in my life.
I moved here for a few reasons. It’s one of the largest markets in the world, which means that there’s always room to grow and evolve as a photographer. I’m surrounded by tons of other creatives who inspire me, and I’m now right in the middle of this thriving community. Being here also enables me to be around these friends more, meet tons of new people, and sooner or later, it will lead to new work.
Part of being in the midst of this very social scene includes finding a great local bar. Back in January, I was introduced to The Manhattan Inn, which has quickly become one of my favorite bar/restaurants. Several nights a week, they have someone playing piano in the back room, and I absolutely love the atmosphere.
One performer in particular, Ethan Leinwand, used to play there every Friday and Saturday night. His self-described style as a preservationist/blues/boogie-woogie player was the perfect fit for this place, and I went to see him play anytime I was in the city on a weekend. His vintage look was seamless with the music he played, and I knew I needed to photograph him.
We exchanged cards, and after a few months or trying to align schedules, we finally made it happen a couple of weeks back.
The room itself was really dark, and the only ambient light was the hard sun hitting the piano from the skylight. If I exposed for that highlight, I knew the rest of the room would go almost completely black, and the showing the atmosphere was really important to me.
When the ambient light isn’t working in our favor, we can either dial it out completely, or modify the light to make it usable. Since I tend to try and light in as natural of a way as possible, I picked the latter, and instead of totally covering the skylight, I turned it into a soft fill light with a shoot through Umbrella Shallow Translucent M. If I had a ladder with me, I probably would have gaffed a bed sheet to the entire skylight, but a c-stand and umbrella got me by just fine. Sometimes a set needs to look pristine (ie- when a client is present), and sometimes it looks like a battle scene. All that really matters is what the final photo looks like, and nobody needs to know how much improvisation is done on the fly to make a photo happen.
Even once the skylight was diffused, the difference in exposure between the foreground and background were still far too much. Once I dialed in my main light for Ethan, I added a second light to bring just a bit of detail into the background. Based on the warm nature of the scene, I added a 1/4 cut of CTO (color temperature orange) to warm up the flash a bit, and blend it in as seamlessly as possible.
The last element which helped to softly blend the scene together was a hazer, which was hidden behind the piano, and aimed towards the back corner. Fog machines pump out really thick white smoke that can be tough to control. Hazers, on the other hand, are much more natural looking and can be a beautiful element in a photo- especially in a case like this, where I’m trying to emulate a smoky bar.
I set up, shot and broke down in about two hours, and kept it simple enough that I could work on my own to make it happen. Ethan is such a great guy, and I’m really happy to be able to provide him with photos for his own promotional use.
More than a personal shoot, opportunities like this let me connect with my community through my work, and it’s a win-win all around.