Sunday, December 18, 2016

To Zoom or Not to Zoom- Cowboy Portraits with Zooms


Joshua Jackson is shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art at 35mm. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/160 at F8, ISO 100
 

(A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on the Sigma lens site. You can see it here.)

I shoot a lot of portraits. My work for magazines, annual reports, advertising and personal projects has relied on portraiture for years. I use prime lenses for most of these, but for certain kinds of projects, zooms might work best. This article tells about one such situation.

In the spring of 2014 I was talking to an acquaintance and our respective weekend plans came up. She mentioned that her husband was going out of town to compete in a rodeo. She was African American so, at the risk of seeming nosy, I asked if her husband was black, too. She said, yes, and my surprise and curiosity led to a long conversation where she told me that there was a whole series of rodeos catering to primarily or exclusively black cowboys.

That night I started doing research on black rodeos and cowboys. I discovered that the history of African American cowboys and their role in settling the West isn’t that much different from the history of other African American groups- it’s been largely ignored by historians and the media. Estimates are that African Americans made up as much as 25% of the cowboys responsible for the movement West. 

There are, however, people working to battle this ignorance. A number of groups around the country celebrate the heritage of the black men and women who herded cattle, farmed, and built homesteads across the West. With rodeos, trail riding associations, and community outreach groups, contemporary African Americans work to keep these traditions alive and make the public aware of this history. The photographs in Black Cowboys (and girls) are intended to support these efforts and allow the faces of the participants to be shown with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Tyshun Cook is a forklift operator from Lakeshore, AL and is shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art at 35mm. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/160 at F8, ISO 100.
 
Often, my first impulse when I start a project is to shoot portraits. They seem to be my most immediate entrance to a group or individual. I find that by shooting portraits, I’m given permission to spend some time with a person, ask them questions, and learn something about them. It gives me the confidence and them the trust to get closer to the heart of a story. This piece was no different in that regard.
Tailgating before the rodeo is an important part of the atmosphere.  Some of the attendees come prepared like Curtis Parham, shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art at 35mm. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/60 at F8, ISO 100.

As I said earlier, most often, I use primes when I shoot portraits. I plan to write about that process soon, but for Black Cowboys (and girls) my lighting scheme is somewhat different than what I usually use. I’m shooting with a Elinchrom ELB battery strobe with a beauty dish off camera, but with issues of bright sunlight, hats with large brims, and dark skin, finding a solution for a fill light was critical to seeing my subjects’ eyes. I decided to use a ring light on camera. I was able to turn the power down significantly, thereby opening up the deep shadows just a bit, without ruining the effect of my main light.
Aaron Kidd and Todd Morris shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art at 35mm. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/200 at F11, ISO 100.
Behind the scenes showing set up of above photograph.

My problem was that if I shot with primes, I found that when I wanted to change my composition, I had to either take the time to change lenses- a slow and tedious process with a ring light- or, if I moved closer or farther away, I had to take the time to take an additional light meter reading, since changing the distance from the camera and ring light to my subject changed my exposure, not to mention the effect of the fill light.

When shooting environmental portraits, I find myself most often using either a 24mm or a 35mm prime lens on my full frame Nikons. Occasionally I’ll go as wide as 20mm or as tight as 50mm, but my 24 and 35 get the most use. With the Sigma 24-35 F2 Art, I get the best of both without the hassle of changing lenses or having to adjust exposure. I can stay in one spot and zoom in and out as needed to reframe my subject and show more or less of the scene. The fast F2 maximum aperture is a help when I’m shooting in the low light of arenas.
These last two images show exactly what it looks like as I zoom in from 24mm to 35mm. It clearly changes the feeling of the image to a more intimate look and, even with the ring flash, I didn’t have to change the exposure. It allowed me to work quickly and efficiently with Willie and his horse without spooking the animal anymore than I already had with my flashes.


Willie Green is shown outside the arena before the Southeast Rodeo Association event in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25, 2016. Shot with Nikon D600 and Sigma 24-35mm F2 DG HSM | Art. Lit with Elinchrom ELB and Quadra Hybrid. Exposure 1/80 at F7.1, ISO 100.

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