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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Punchy Plug-Free Location Portraits

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Good location photographers often have to live off the land.

That doesn't mean my colleagues and I are outdoorspeople (as in me being an outdoorsman). Mais non! That implies sleeping on dirt, something this Bronx boy will not do.

Still, a certain resourcefulness is required if one is to go to a location, size it up, and come back with not just good, but great, pictures to satisfy your client and, of course, yourself.

Baltimore-based location photographer Jeffrey Kliman has been combining his love of jazz with his love of making pictures for years now. I have followed his career – and written about his work in clubs and concert halls – and marveled at his ability to get great stuff with such basic equipment as a 35mm camera, BxW film and one piddly flash unit.

But, for a number of years now, Kliman has been making pictures at the Kennedy Center - in connection with the Terrace Theater jazz concerts directed by jazz legend Dr. Billy Taylor - and has come up with a terrific, fairly portable lighting setup that blew me away for its simplicity and effectiveness.

Infinitely better than one on-camera flash – or one flash unit held at arm's length – Jeffrey's setup uses as many as four flash units. But the beauty of this rig is that it is self-contained. Battery powered and slave triggered, this arrangement can make pictures in the Terrace Theater or the Gobi Desert.

It grew out of necessity.

As Kliman noted, the Kennedy Center is a union labor operation. "That means I couldn't put a plug into an outlet without a union electrician." Which can be a royal pain in the butt when you have precious little time to work anyway and don't want to do anything to break the concentration of the musicians who have been gracious enough to let you photograph them during rehearsals, soundchecks – as well as in performance.

So Jeffrey went rummaging through his equipment closet and dug out several portable flash units including a Nikon SB-24 and SB-26, as well as one small but powerful Dynalite studio strobe head.

"I had all that stuff and figured out a way to make it work for me," Kliman said. After all, he noted, the Terrace Theater, especially during rehearsals, can be a pretty dark place. "Black velvet (as the main stage backdrop), very little stage light, which, in turn, means no definition or separation" especially if the musicians are mostly dark-skinned.

While Jeffrey's setup could never be used in performance – at those times, he's usually in the wings, working via available light – it is perfect for rehearsals and soundchecks. The same arrangement also could be used in any number of other ways for dramatic portraits.

The mainlight – that is, the key source of light for most pictures made this way – is the Dynalite strobe head. It is placed on an extended lightstand and positioned in the audience, aimed directly onto center stage. The light has no diffusion; it is a harsh direct light, made even more directional by a grid spot attachment that concentrates the light toward the very center of the stage. Like the other strobes in this setup, the Dynalite is powered by batteries, in this case two Lumedyne portable power packs.

To supplement this mainlight, Jeffrey places two smaller, battery-powered strobes (the SB-24 and SB-26) on lightstands and positions them on either side of the stage near the velvet backdrop curtain. Like the Dynalite, these lights are pointed toward the center of the stage, and create a multi-directional cone of light for anyone standing in it.

The whole thing is virtually wireless. Jeffrey triggers his Dynalite with a radio remote, and the Dynalite instantaneously triggers the smaller strobes, via small Wein slave units attached to their bases. (A rehearsal is tricky enough, with cables and coils and who knows what littering the floor by the musicians. The last thing Kliman needs is to add to the chaos with his own wiring.)

Occasionally, as the situation warrants, Kliman also will have another flash unit on camera or held at arm's length, to add more definition, or light coming from an odd angle.

The accompanying examples show just how well this works.

The first picture, of alto sax player Bobby Watson, looks as if it were made in performance at a nightclub. The mainlight rakes Watson's face and the front of his hat as he faces his "audience," while an SB-26 at stage-left highlights the musician's braids. The other SB flash from stage-right helps add definition and separation to Watson's hat. What would have been only a passable picture, lit only by the mainlight, becomes instead a beautiful portrait, with various elements emerging wonderfully from the black background.

Photo #2, of clarinetist Alvin Batiste, uses almost the same lighting, but to different effect. This time the Dynalite acts as a rimlight, creating a halo of light around the musician. Unlike Watson, Batiste is facing away from what would be the audience, and Kliman is photographing him from upstage. A handheld flash provides the mainlight on Batiste's face, and the two SBs on lightstands provide additional light for the clarinetist and his surroundings as well.

Trumpeter Nicholas Payton from New Orleans is sometimes called the next Louis Armstrong. In this image (photo #3) he too has his back to the audience, but this time Kliman is shooting from the side. Note how the Dynalite now creates light at the back of Payton's head, separating him from the background. A handheld flash fired from a low angle shines light dramatically up into his face.

For the record, Jeffrey shoots mostly with Nikon F5s. His BxW film of choice is Kodak T-Max 400.

For the record, too, he plays his cameras the way these guys play their horns.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.


©Frank Van Riper
Elements emerge dramatically in Klimanís portrait of alto sax player Bobby Watson in rehearsal. Dynalite is the mainlight and SB flashes at stage-left and stage-right add the definition to his hair and his hat.


©Frank Van Riper
The photo of clarinetist Alvin Batiste uses almost the same lighting to different effect, with Kliman shooting from upstage. The Dynalite acts as a rimlight creating a halo around the musician, a handheld flash provides the mainlight and two SBs contribute from lightstands.


©Frank Van Riper
The Dynalite strobe directs light from behind trumpeter Nicholas Payton and separates him from the background. A handheld SB-26 flash fired from a low angle places light dramatically on his face.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Colorful Black and White

Needing the Next New Thing?

Taming Your Flash

Stieglitz and New York – A Town to Match his Ego

Traveling Light(er)

Phabulous Photographers: The Gift of Time and Teaching


"Women In Jazz" Photo Exhibit

Jeffrey Kilman's annual "Women in Jazz" photography exhibit will be held in the lobby of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater May 10-12. The exhibition, of some 30 images of female artists seen in working rehearsals and soundchecks, will provide visual counterpoint to the Women in Jazz performances held the same three evenings.

"This is not an exhibit of pictures shot from the orchestra pit of stage-lit performers," Kliman says. "This is a gritty exhibit of artists working at the making of Jazz music."




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