Behind the Scenes: Jason Bell Photographs the Poldark Cast for Vogue UK

Being a celebrity photographer means you have access to interesting subjects, and you may have the new and cool gear. However, this is not the key to make iconic portraits. A great photographer can get the job done with almost any gear that works properly. What would you say when you see someone shooting with natural light when they have Profoto equipment at hand?

Jason Bell is a celebrity portrait photographer who has been hired to shoot the cast of Poldark for Vogue UK. Phase One took the chance to brag about their XF 100MP camera system as Jason uses it on that assignment.

The Camera

It's not your average medium format digital camera. While we are used to hearing medium format cameras are slow, bulky, not very sensitive to low light, the XF is just bulky, but in a nice way. Jason Bell puts the camera to the test by trying its focus in low light and shooting at ISO 800 (which is a lot for a medium format digital camera). All those risks are taken on an assignment for a famous magazine.

For me personally, the double tap on the digital back to check focus is quite convenient. Anyone who has shot with a larger sensor camera knows that depth of field is much shallower, so focus checking is essential either in the software for tethering, or on the back of the camera.

For tethering they used Capture One of course. It's a Phase One video after all but from a personal experience, tethering there works quite smoothly.

The Lights

Jason Bell utilizes Profoto power packs with а few softboxes and a reflector for fill light. He also uses good old window light for one of the setups and, as you will see, it works just as great as with the strobes.

The Setups

Outside

The first setup is outside. It is strobe lit but Jason wants it to look as natural as possible. To do that he uses a large softbox on camera right and a large white reflector on the left to bounce some light back. Balancing the daylight with the strobes is critical for such a shot, and he does that masterfully. The subjects are placed in a way so they are almost equally distant from the softbox. This makes sure the exposure on each of them is the same.

Jason uses a wider angle lens here, a 55mm one. Yep, on medium format cameras 55 is relatively wide, opposed to full frame cameras, where this focal length is deemed normal.

In the Chapel

Looks like a simple shot, right? Not so much. The actual environment in the chapel interior was this one:

There are several problems to solve when photographing in such an environment. The first one is auto focus may not work well. The second is you may need to use quite a high ISO if you don't use strobes. Jason again tries to make it look natural although he uses flash. In this case the setup is almost the same as for the picture on the outside, but he also uses a flash in a softbox that is bounced from the wall on camera left. This simulates a window light which is both a key and an environment fill. The flash towards the subjects is used to give it a slight kick and they may look more dominant than the environment. There's a white reflector on camera right too.

The light is relatively far from the actors because the falloff, this way, is much slower providing almost equal exposure on all subjects. The further the subject is from the light, the darker the subject will be. In the video Jason posed them in various ways while the final image shows them in a line parallel to the light sources. This is also a way to ensure equal exposure over a group of people.

The Tiny Room

The next setup is in a small room with a window. Window light is used indeed but with a bit of help from Profoto. Jason Bell makes it look so natural but still using a softbox on camera right.

You can see how subject's face on camera left is quite dark and adding a kiss of light makes for a nice Rembrandt type of portrait.

The Tapestry Walls Room

Which one is lit with a Profoto and which one is with natural light? Hard to say, right? Shooting nice contrasty portraits with flash is relatively easy compared to using window light. The key is the placement of the subject relative to the window. The closer to the window, the greater the contrast. Finding the sweet spot is essential.

The portrait of the subject in the chair is lit with a strobe on the left as we can see from the video:

I am not sure how much from the window light was recorded in the image but the result looks very natural. Seeing the previous photos, I am more inclined to think, the strobe was used for increasing the size of the window by placing the light right beside it towards the subject.

This is the setup for the other portrait in the tapestry walls room. It's just natural light at ISO 800. Being a close-up portrait and having the subject turned towards the windows, eliminated the need of having a fill strobe. Having expensive strobes at hand doesn't mean you should use them every single time.

Conclusion

It is cool to have the latest and greatest gear when you can afford it. Surely images from the Phase One are gorgeous and lights from the Profoto are quality stuff. But what if your wallet's depth of cash is shallow? This should not stop you from producing quality imagery with even the basic entry level gear. Most of it can handle higher ISOs better than a medium format camera. You're not going to have the immense detail of a Phase One file but if you can prove you can make a great photo with a cheaper camera, you could rent a more expensive one and please your clients.

[via Phase One]

All images used with permission of Jason Bell.

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4 Comments
Derek Yarra's picture

Great share and nice breakdown of the video. Always love watching Jason Bell work.

Chris Saunders's picture

Nice shots, but there's a tree growing out of the subject's head in the tiny room shot. Beginner's error :)

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I think it's on purpose. It's a deliberately centered composition so that the tree is fully visible in frame.

Chris Saunders's picture

I was joking, I'm sure it is deliberate. I don't think it looks good though.