The Perfection Of Imperfection

Patrick Shipstad is one of the most consistent photographers we know. Shot after shot, he absolutely nails lighting, exposure and composition. Lately he’s been wanting to shake up his process a bit and, if you’ll forgive the Star Wars reference, “unlearn what he has learned.” Inspired by some older photographic processes, Patrick has been doing some shoots recently that stray from his normally super-clean, polished shots and is producing work that, though in some cases not as refined, is every bit as engaging. Patrick was kind enough to share one of his recent shoots with us, with his friend and model, Rana McAnear. Enjoy.

When I was a kid, I was always taking things apart, seeing how they worked and then (sometimes successfully) putting them back together. That curiosity, mixed with a knack for deconstruction, has carried through into my adulthood and definitely into my photography. I think almost all photographers try and reverse engineer shots they see… wondering how it was lit, what it took to make it, etc.

Lately I’ve been inspired by the perfection of imperfection. When I look at photographers like Paolo Roversi, Ellen Von Unwerth and old camera photography (large format Polaroid, wet-plate, etc) I realize that it’s not always about tack sharp focus, pixel peeping and noiseless imagery. It’s about capturing a mood and crafting something that evokes an emotional response. That’s subjective of course, but that’s the intent.

So, I grabbed my Canon 5D (the original, not the MkII or MkIII) and I set out to shoot something very different than my usual style, borrowing from some current fashion trends as well as some old school techniques. As always, I like to get most of it at the lens with lighting and the right lens choice. The Lensbaby, selective focus lens played a big part in the shots that had vintage looks, and then the Canon 70-200L 2.8 and 24-70L 2.8 for the cleaner look. The lighting ranged from a simple two light set-up, to a bit more complicated four light set-up.

I teamed up with my good friend Rana McAnear (also on Facebook), who is an amazing model and was up for a day of experimenting with some new looks for both of us. Rana is widely known as the face of Samara from the Mass Effect game series. Her fans will definitely see another gorgeous side to her in these shots. Rana brought along her good friend Nick Harris (email Nick here), who single-handedly took care of the beautiful styling, make-up and hair. This shoot was about collaborative teamwork all the way.

We first shot the clean look, which was a 4 light set-up consisting of a beauty dish and a white foam core reflector (for clamshell front lighting), along with a backdrop light with a 40°grid spot to create an in camera vignette. I also used two side strip boxes with fabric grids for shoulder/hair rim lights to separate her from the background and give some dimension to the shot. I went between the 24-70L and the 70-200L for the clean looks and shot at ISO100, 1/125, f5.6. I wasn’t looking for too shallow of a depth of field so f5.6 seemed like the right choice.

The fabric grids for the side lights were a great investment, as I can now shoot with the lights angled slightly at camera from the rear without them flaring into the camera or having to then set up two more stands and flags to avoid light spill. Love those grids! As I mentioned, the background light is on a stem that’s screwed into a flat board, just behind Rana and pointed at the up at the background. The 40° grid spot creates a nice vignette on the background, giving her a halo effect, all done in camera. The beauty dish is about 3-4 feet away, angled a little down as to kick some light into the foam core (bringing light into the eyes and under the chin) and to also keep light spill off the background and let the backlight do it’s thing. I could always grid the beauty dish, but sometimes that makes the light a little harsher and would take light off of the foam core, which I needed. The front and back lights were metered at f5.6 and the side lights were seasoned to taste but somewhere around f4 or slightly over. Rana is very fair skinned, so her shoulders took to the light beautifully but,then, the hair ate up the light, so I angled the side lights high and down to compensate; a little hotter on the hair and a little less on the skin.

Next were the Lensbaby shots and it got much easier from here. No side lights were used, I kept the backdrop light on the floor and I switched out the beauty dish for a medium soft box with a fabric grid; again, to keep the light on her but off of the background. I switched to a medium soft box because I needed a slightly broader and longer light as I was lighting more than just her face and I wanted a nice soft light source. I did use the foam core for the tighter shot between myself and Rana (not sure it had a big effect) but then I obviously took it out for the 3/4 shot.

I chose the f5.6 aperture ring for the Lensbaby to get the generous amount of blur around the edges. The simple lighting with only one key light (plus the back light) is what’s important in these shots since, if they were lit any more, they’d look too polished for the effect I wanted. Less here is definitely more. Both lights were metered at f5.6 and again I was at ISO100, 1/25. Nick would shine a Mag light into Rana’s eyes (sorry Rana!) so I could get enough light to manually focus the Lensbaby sharp on her eyes from about 10 feet away, then he’d take the light away and I’d shoot. And that’s pretty much it for the on set production.

Another good friend of mine, Angela, made a custom tea stained canvas back drop for me (50 bags of PG Tips, two pots of boiling water and a washing machine are the magic ingredients), that helped me get that authentic old school backdrop look that does not look like a cheesy bed sheet hanging on a wall.

Post Processing
Now on to the post. For the sitting shot, I used RadLab (one of my new favorite plug-ins) and the Mos Eisley recipe from one of the Faded + Blurred Recipe Packs, to get that yellow faded, dreamy look and then added some texture maps in PhotoShop, set to Soft Light blend mode. That helped to drop out the color but leave the texture. I dialed the opacity way back and did a layer mask around her face to make sure no textures were giving her lines in her face.

For the standing shot, I used Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 to help give me that old wet-plate mixed with sepia kind of effect. Texture maps were applied the same way as before. Remember, all of that blurring is done totally in camera with the Lensbaby.

After all this, I think we came out with some pretty nice shots that added something fresh to all of our portfolios. Again, big thanks to Rana and Nick for bringing their game and helping me try something new. Now I’m inspired… what to shoot next?!!