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How to create an action portrait in an alley

This was a really fun shoot, but a little dangerous. We scouted for an alley that looked grungy, old and really cool looking. We came across this one. It’s not in the best part of town. We made sure we were in and out as soon as the smoke bomb started to fade. Here’s what we did. We lit our assassin hero — and the lady friend he’s protecting — with a beauty dish, just above his head level pointing down and slightly feathered close to them. To light the wall behind them and down the alley, we used speedlights with blue and red gels. This added color to the wall and backlit the smoke bomb we set off to produce a fog effect.

Designing the set

The set is a location, an old alley. Look for texture: broken windows or bars on the window. In other words, look for an abandoned area that won’t draw too much attention. If you plan on using a smoke bomb, fog machine or prop gun, contact your local police — non-emergency, NOT 911 — and explain what you’re doing. This way if someone calls 911 the authorities will be aware of it. Sometimes — if they are not too busy or are curious — they may issue an officer to stand by and watch. In some cities, a permit is required. In our city, permits for these types of shoot are not needed. Remember, a permit is always better than begging forgiveness. A permit opens doors, calms police and makes things run smoothly. Asking forgiveness can get you arrested.

Lighting setup

When working with multiple lights, I find it easier to start with the main light then adding additional sources one light at a time. Reference this quick tip article, “Meter one light at a time when working with multiple lights,” for more information.

The main light

Use a large 44-inch beauty dish without the diffuser, add a blue gel to keep the light harsh and directional. Position the light just above the subject’s head, pointing down, and slightly feathered close to them. Set the power of the light to achieve an exposure of f/8 with a shutter speed of 1/30s at the lowest native ISO, typically ISO 100. Dial these settings into your camera. A tripod is recommended to avoid motion blur.

An aperture of f/8 will keep the detail in the subject’s outfit and a slower shutter speed will help balance the ambient light in the alley with the flash.

Adding accent lights to light the alley

The light from the beauty dish only lights the subject. To light the wall down the alley, we need two speedlights. Since we are placing them on the ground, we can use the shoe stands that came with them. If you don’t have the shoe stands, a Platypod or baby plate work great.

Space the speedlights down the alley with a red gel on one and a blue gel on the other to give the scene a styled look. Slide out the hidden plastic diffusion panel to spread the light. Normally, this will automatically set the zoom of your flash to 17mm. If not, look in your flash user manual to set the flash zoom. Start with the power of the flash at ¼ power. Meter the flash to achieve an exposure of f/5.6 at 1/160 at the lowest native ISO, typically ISO 100. Increase or decrease the power of the light to create a darker or lighter scene. Adding a smoke bomb between the light and the wall will add to the dramatic scene. The higher shutter speed for this reading ensures that only the light from the flash is metered.

When working with flash photography, keep in mind shutter speed controls the amount of ambient light. Use this to control how light or dark the alley looks. Lower shutter speeds will add ambient light. The more ambient light, the more pastel the colors will be.

Create emotion in the scene

To get the model into character, create a story. This will help motivate the model to act out the emotion you’re looking for. For this scene, we created a narrative for our models, Derrick and Bridget.

Imagine you are an assassin that fell in love with your target. You disobeyed orders and now you are on the run from your previous employer, who also leaked your identity to the police. Other assassins and the police are on your heels. Determined to save the girl, you use your evasion skills to get her to safety.

This invokes an action scene where the couple appears to be running. The assassin has a look of confidence, anger, and determination while the woman has a look of shock, nervousness, and confusion as if to say, “why is this happening to me!” To make the couple appear running, position them on their end mark and then take a step back. Yell “action” to signal them to quickly move to their mark as have the hero pull the woman.

Challenges we faced

The main challenge was finding a safe alley where we could set up before it got too dark. We had to anticipate what the proper exposure would be so once we had the lights in position, we took a few test shots to help the models rehearse and ensure our lights were hitting their mark. After we got the initial shots we wanted, we added the smoke bomb, knowing once we set it off it would only last for a minute. We packed up and rushed out. In our town, permits are not required, but I would have gladly paid to have a police officer standby. This would have allowed me to focus more on the shoot and not on who’s watching.

Above all, experiment, learn new tricks and create the shot!

Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

For more shooting ideas like this, check out the How to create series here on Photofocus.


Gear list

This was the gear used to create the shot. Although it’s easier to create this look using the same gear, you can substitute pieces of gear with what you have. Think of gear as ingredients to a recipe in a cookbook. Usually, you can alter or add different ingredients without changing the recipe too much. However, if you’re making Chicken Cordon Bleu and substitute steak for chicken, the outcome will be totally different.

The same goes for lighting. If a narrow strip box is recommended, using a large 3-foot by 4-foot rectangular softbox won’t work — unless you modify it. Feathering or flagging the light with black fabric can turn the large light source into a narrow strip box. Learn to become a “MacGyver”.

Lighting Gear

Set Accessories

  • Smoke bomb

Wardrobe and Props

  • Black leather top and pants
  • Black boots
  • Gun
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