Urban Poet

Lazy Swiss Sunday – Urban Poet Portraits

Urban_Poet.jpgThere are many boring things to do on a lazy Sunday in Switzerland. You can climb up a klettersteig, go paragliding, chill in a coffee shop, enjoy a movie, brunch in die Giesserei in Oerlikon, tour over a glacier, vegetate in front of the TV, but if you did all of that last weekend, then the obvious option is to go shoot urban portraits in Winterthur. As a Strobist-educated photographer, it’s nice to go out and shoot with someone who actually makes money taking photographs, and has an Elinchrom Ranger RX system. So, on a Lazy Swiss Sunday Matt and I headed to the old industrial area of Winterthur, just outside of Zurich to shoot some pictures that we called, the Urban Poet series.


I’m a bit of strange guy, and when I shoot images I naturally try to infuse a bit a strangeness into the process. Dry Tooling in a parking garage, vintage glacier goggles, and hiding my beautiful eyes behind sunglasses are my thing at the moment. This contrasts wonderfully with Matt’s take on portraiture, which is influenced by his background in photo journalism and wedding photography. He captures the beauty of reality, while I try to do anything but.  Fortunately, I was able to add my hint of strangeness during the post-processing.


Our location was at the back of the Lagerplatz near the train tracks in Winterthur. Winterthur is a historic industrial manufacturing base of Zurich, Switzerland. Since the Swiss economy has transitioned away from large-scale industrial manufacturing and become focused on biotech, medical, and technology companies, the hard industrial areas of Winterthur have gone through a large transformation in the past 50 years. Lagerplatz translates from German as something like loading or inventory place, basically it’s where you have warehouses for loading trains, and is right next to the old Sulzer manufacturing area. Since it’s industrial heyday, the whole area has since been transformed into a hip business location for designers, swanky apartments, a climbing gym, and is the go-to place for wedding photographers who want to make urban portraits for high-paying clients.


The Concept


We had two ideas in mind, one as an experimental action image, and would then go do some reality based shots. For the action shot, I had picked up a toy gun at the store the day before. In addition I took along my Pelican hard case and a simple wardrobe, consisting of Levi’s jeans, a form fitted T-shirt, and olive jacket with nice clean lines. As per Matt’s direction, I kept my vintage motorcycle goggles in my pocket and wore instead a pair of traditional black sport glasses.


The Gear

Nikon D300
Nikon 80-200 f/2.8
Nikon 12-24 f/4.0
Elinchrom Ranger RX strobes
Skyport RX radio triggers
Shoot-through and silver umbrellas
Medium Elinchrom octabox

Urban_Poet-2.jpgBullets Are My Prose


The night before I had been watching Casino Royale, getting ready for the release of Quantum of Solace, so I was pretty geeked to pick up a toy version of the P99 and pretend to be an extra from James Bond, Spy Game or a Jason Bourne movie for 1/100th of a second. The occasional kid would stop to look on his way to the indoor skate park at Block, asking what we were doing, and, “is that a real gun?” For the lighting Matt alternated between hard lighting and flatter diffused looks using the umbrellas. I went with this wardrobe because I like modeling with my olive We sport coat and relaxed Levi’s, the light blue and white of the jeans contrasts well against the green of the coat. Overall it has a sort of hip urban feeling mixed with funtionality of something I actually like to wear. Additionally, both types of clothing give great definition with harder or flatter lighting schemes. The shadows from the creases along the arms give a subtle dramatic texture to the overall image with the right light. I went with my Doc Marten wing tips (model 3989) because their large soles have a very defined edge, forming a nice separation visually between the subject and the ground. Again, the whiteness of the Docs juxtaposes nicely against the coat and sunglasses. It might have been better to have gone with a lighter T-shirt, as the dark grey shirt needs more direct lighting to bring out features of the subject’s torso area. Here it acts more like a visual void in the image, or maybe this is just my science mind making too much of nothing. The gun and Pelican case were added to give some story elements, and because Matt and I wanted to experiment with different visual elements in this series.


Urban_Poet-3.jpgThe Urban Poet


For the main Urban Poet portraits, Matt positioned me well in front of one of the buildings with one of those large garage doors in the background. This renders a nice geometry to the background, without over-powering the colors of the subject. For this shot Matt used the Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 lens, which gives a nice compressed image and control over depth of field to isolate the subject from the background elements of the shooting environment. And, the Nikon 80-200 is of course, very sharp. The lighting was done with one medium Octabox with an Elinchrom head. You can see in the portrait how the light is basically hitting about 1 meter in front of the subject, and then lighting the whole person. For this image, Matt designed a very cool portrait by separating the subject from the background using his choice of lens, and by keeping a shadow on the foreground, he minimizes the tendency of the viewer’s eye to be drawn away from the subject. So, basically it means your eye is drawn directly to the subject and not distracted by either the foreground or background elements. At the same time, having this foreground an background elements in place is what defines the urban environment, and makes the image look cooler and much more interesting than a simple studio shot.


Urban_Poet-4.jpgCould this shot have been done with small flash gear, yes, to a certain extent I’m sure it would have been possible, but if you happen to have an Elinchrom Ranger RX system with a medium-sized octabox, dealing with a small flash Strobist setup is just crazy. The Elinchrom octabox combined with the Ranger strobe heads gives you beautiful diffused light, and using the Skyport RX system meant that Matt was able to control the strobes without moving from his shooting position. If you have an assistant running around changing your lighting settings, then it’s fine to use a Pocket Wizard to trigger your lights, but when working alone the Skyport RX system makes the whole process painless. The use of the octabox is what made this image possible, otherwise it would be more difficult to create this dark shadow seen in the foreground, and hence, the image would have a different character.


Shooting with Matt was a great experience from multiple perspectives.  First, being directed by a photographer and doing what models do gives one valuable experience on how best to ineract with people which I shoot in separate projects. If you’re a photographer who has never gotten in front of the lens, I highly recommend it.  When you act out the part of a model, you become more aware of you body movements, and more aware of the difficulties of taking direction.  So, when you shoot your own projects, you now have a base for better connecting with your models.  You understand what it’s like to be on stage, their insecurities, and it will make you a better photographer.  It’s also important to work with photographers who have a vision and style which differs from your own.  You understand the value of different working methods, different lighting schemes, different portrait techniques, and in the end you are then challenged to reassess your own style  and become a stronger photographer because of it.


More of Matt’s work can be found at his website:


http://www.matthewandersonphoto.com/