Model Portfolio: Guerrilla Style!

Things come together sometimes in ways you can’t predict ahead of time. I had read and/or seen videos of a few photographers shooting ‘guerrilla style’ (Mentioned on the David Hobby’s ‘Strobist’ site here and Bert Stefani’s blog video here), which is just a fancy way of saying that you’re traveling light, finding locations as you go, and seeing what you can come up with on the spot. Jazz improvisation for photography, basically. Meanwhile, I’ve really enjoyed the commercial shoots I’ve done recently (here and here), and wanted to do more. So I finally decided it was time to actively pursue it. I sent out some inquiries to local models on, and “Ms. S” responded and liked the idea. And here are some of the results of our adventure in downtown Ventura, CA.

[click “continue reading” below for more…]

The idea was to walk around downtown Ventura with a camera, a couple of lights, a pretty model, and take some great pictures as the opportunities presented themselves. The first thing I knew I’d need was an assistant. While I could have managed this with a light stand or two, that wasn’t ideal for a couple of reasons. First, light stands are heavy. Second, I didn’t have a permit for shooting, and didn’t want to do anything that impeded pedestrian traffic or otherwise screamed “commercial shoot for big money!” And this was in fact strictly a ‘portfolio-builder’ (industry-speak for “no one’s making any money”). And third, adjusting a light stand was going to slow me down. So I asked around at the local professional photographer’s association I belong to (Channel Islands Professional Photographers Association), and Heather graciously volunteered. I owe you one, Heather!

The second thing I needed to do was scout general locations for shooting. When you improvise music, you usually have a general idea where you want to go, and how to get there. It’s the individual steps that you decide during the actual performance. So I took a few hours to wander around downtown, finding suitable backdrops. It was key to go at the same time of day as the scheduled shoot (10am), so I knew which buildings would be in shade, how they would look etc.

So the first shot, above, was taken about ten feet from where we all parked. It was a good way to warm up. “Ms. S” was incredibly professional and upbeat, and immediately went to work. If she was nervous, she never showed it! For this shot, I actually had the light positioned incorrectly—or rather, it wasn’t where I’d intended it. But turns out the light coming from the back works really well. It has a bit of drama that subsequent shots didn’t have.

For the technically-minded, Heather was holding my SB-28, shot through a 53″ shoot-through umbrella. The flash was triggered using cheap ebay radio triggers. I had an on-camera flash (SB-20), on a pretty tall flash bracket, set to ‘auto’ but cheating the aperture about three stops so it was a (usually) subtle fill. this was also triggered by a radio trigger, even though it was attached to the camera by the bracket. Keeps the wires to a minimum. I also had my Sunpak 333 with me, but never ended up using it.

Next we went over to another brick building. I asked her to peer into the windows, and to appear apprehensive. As we were shooting, a man swung open one of these windows and we all startled each other! He was concerned he’d hit me with the window. I was concerned he was going to tell us to scram, but nope! We shot a few more frames, but felt a little silly after that, and moved on.

As we walked around, we had a few people ask what we were doing. I was alert for people giving us trouble, but mostly people were just curious. One homeless man welcomed us back (!) to Ventura.

Time for a wardrobe change in the car. And now for something completely different, a short red dress and leather jacket. The above location was one I had high hopes for. I thought the painted text on the wall would add a nice touch. We would have shot more, but two things intervened: first, my camera started acting up. This was later resolved when I found out the battery-grip was misaligned. But I was losing shots for no apparent reason. And then a pickup truck decided to use the nearby parking garage as a slalom course. He came flying out of the garage, wooping and hollering, and then parked about fifty feet away from us. I got a little concerned, as we were in a back alley with a very visible model. So we decided to move on.

For this next shot, I’d picked out a wall with faded colors, and knew I wanted to do some ‘perspective’ shots with a short depth of focus. So I switched to my 50mm f/1.8 lens, so I could open up wide for the small DOF. Woops! I forgot I was still shooting on manual, and squeezed of about ten frames before I checked my images. Totally blown out. I adjusted and kept shooting. However when I transferred them to my computer that evening, there was something to the overexposed look that I really liked. With some adjustments, I got a nice vibe and high-key look that I wouldn’t have gotten without the ‘mistake’. This was the only image of this series where I didn’t use strobe.

By this time, we’re improvising and completely without plan. We start heading back, and walk past the Ventura Theater. It’s an old theater with a really cool—but dark—entranceway. Initially I’m intrigued by the diffused light coming in from the street. I place “Ms. S” in front of the black wall to highlight her beautiful blonde hair. But my shutter speed is 1/30s at ISO 400, and I’m not getting very sharp images handheld. The flash bracket is heavy and tall, making it harder to hold steady at slow shutter speeds. I decide I’m just going to have to simulate daylight with Heather and the umbrella. Heather stands off to the left, where the sunlight is coming from, and I have her fire over “Ms. S’s” head toward the ceiling. I nuke the ambient light with a shutter speed of 1/250. The colors just pop!

After a silly romp under a tree in the park, which I might post later if I can photoshop some cars out of the background, we decide on one last location. There’s a restaurant with bright yellow walls, and it’s in full sun. Shooting in full sun is problematic, but I had lots of shots, and wanted a challenge. So I repeatedly had “Ms. S” walk along the wall quickly, with her shoulder almost brushing it. The sun is to the back of her, but was positioned so that if she looked straight ahead, she got some unflattering splashes of sunlight on her face. So I told her to pretend she was window-shopping, and to turn her head slightly toward the wall. Meanwhile, I positioned Heather so that the bare strobe (no umbrella) was literally up against the wall, firing slightly outward toward “Ms. S”. The result is some great cross-lighting (if I do say so myself), with a nice strobe sparkle in her sunglasses. Or rather, Heather’s sunglasses, since “Ms. S” left hers in the car. I did the full glamor retouch on this one, as it just screams California.

So everything came together! I moved on an idea that was percolating in the back of my mind, and had a great team that resulted in a successful day. You can bet I’ll be doing more of this.

8 thoughts on “Model Portfolio: Guerrilla Style!

  1. MATT HAINES!! You’re great to work with, and thank you for everything!

    Attn Models: Matt’s a great guy to work with and keeps the energy up, so good luck finding a photographer as bright and open as him =)

  2. I just bought an old SB-20. Which ebay trigger did you use to trigger yours? I’ve heard some triggers might have compatibility issues with this flash.

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