I was looking through a collection of recent celebrity portrait made by The Times photography staff and came upon Jay’s portrait of Matthew McConaughey. I called him to get the story behind the session because the whole car situation looked elaborate and deeply thought out, and considering that most of the time photographers are working with very limited time, this looked very special. The results are stunning. The portrait is elegant.
Jay’s insight: Both exciting and stressful at the same time, I received an assignment last week to shoot a celebrity portrait that would need an immediate turnaround to make a page design deadline and a more-than-usual complicated setup.
The shoot would be at the Four Seasons hotel, a regular haunt for the L.A. Times, where we usually have a photographer trying to make a creative portrait, on average, twice each week. But this time was different. I wouldn’t be in the Almond banquet room, or one of the hundreds of guest rooms, I was approved to make photos in the parking garage!
Sure, the garage sounds strange, but it went with the idea the publicist and photo editor Cindy Hively had discussed, putting author Michael Connelly in the back seat of a Lincoln, the Lincoln used in the new Lionsgate release “The Lincoln Lawyer,” with the movie’s star, Matthew McConaughey. This was the second movie made from one of Connelly’s books. I was truly excited to be out of the standard wallpapered room and tackling a new challenge.
Through a few conversations, our idea was to have the two of them in the back seat of the car. I usually conjure up a frame in my head after our brainstorming and for this idea I envisioned the two of them looking out their respective windows. The trick was lighting and avoiding unwanted shadows in their faces, which involved three strobes pointed directly at them.
To the left and right, about 10 feet from the front doors, were two Dynalite UNI 250ws heads (these heads have been discontinued but you can still get the UNI 400) with 30-degree grids pointed at the back seats, one Dynalite UNI 400ws head with a 40-degree grid at the rear of the car, about seven feet up, pointed down toward the back window, and a single Canon 580exII strobe on the front seat armrest pointed toward the two, all connected to Pocket Wizards to aid in remote firing of the strobes. When working with grids, the amount of light is reduced, making the eye-slaves on the back of the monolights less effective and making the use of Pocket Wizards necessary. I hand-held my Canon EOS 5d Mark II, a 24mm 1.4, an ISO of 200, aperture of 5.6 and varied my shutter speeds from 1/3 to 1/10 second.
In most of my portrait situations, I am using strobe light exclusively, so I usually keep my shutter speed around 1/125. In this situation (garage), I knew I wanted to have some of that eerie yellow light in my frame, mostly in the windows and areas where the strobes were not lighting the scene. This is best achieved by using a slow shutter speed. The downside is that this extra “bleed” of colored light can affect the image in areas not being lit by the strobe light (see McConaughey’s hand and in the shadow areas).
The entire setup for the shoot was about 1 1/2 hours. In addition to the car scene, I also put up a black background, with one strip soft box, where I shot. Before McConaughey arrived I shot Connelly in the car alone from 7:59:14 to 8:04:16 (just over five minutes). I photographed the two in the car from 8:05:12 to 8:10:19 (just over five minutes) and from 8:11:24 to 8:16:42 I photographed singles of them each on the black background.