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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Craig Pulsifer: The Barley Station

At first glance, I wasn’t sure if the guy in the tattered Harley jacket would flip me the bird or laugh like St. Nick. His sunken eyes shone bright with mischief beneath a hedge of jet-black eyebrows, themselves contrasted by a great silver mane of hair and beard that ringed his face. I was soon to discover the many faces of 63-year old Larry Barker.

Advance Reconnaissance

The gig was a combination product/portrait for the Barley Station Brewpub featuring a pint of their most popular pilsner, outtakes of which I hoped might also fit my portfolio. The trick was that schedules dictated that it had to be done during Wednesday night rush hour. To avoid monkeying with lights and exposures in the thick of it all, we pre-staged things as servers prepped the restaurant. This gave everyone a chance to stake turf and consider workflow so that we didn’t mix drinks with electronics.

It was a case where the subject dictated location and location dictated equipment. The old biker would roll in after his shift at the local plywood plant when happy hour at the Barley Station brewpub would be kicking into high gear – so, we had to think small.

Based on stories about Larry, I wanted to create an image that let us to look deep and long into a face that had lived some pretty wild years – and to hear what that face was saying. After a few experiments in my own studio, I chose clamshell lighting with a diffused overhead light striking a reflector mounted below the subject’s face. As a one-light system, clamshell can shed a large, forgiving area of even light for a model to move within. The mainlight sets the exposure and the distance and angle of the reflector can then determine the ratio of fill to main light.

The Tool Bag

Given space constraints, the Photoflex extra small OctoDome nxt was a shoe-in for the main light. Only 18” (45 cm) across, this octagonal softbox sheds a curtain of light that is much like a beauty dish - directional enough to catch contour and texture but diffuse enough to wrap around facial features, like an eye socket and the bridge of a nose.

Rather than use power packs and cables of studio lights, I grabbed a boom stand with ballast to mount a Canon 580 EXII flash unit into the OctoDome using a Photoflex Adjustable Shoe Mount system.

The trade off for portable flash is a slower refresh rate between flash bursts, but Larry enjoyed the pace (with a pint of Barley Station pale ale just off camera). The entire assembly – OctoDome mainlight and reflector – were then mounted on a boomstand with shot bags for ballast and a multi-arm to hold the reflector.

A word about boom stands: until everything is balanced, everything is off-balance. I like to lift the stand slightly off the ground by the center column to learn which way it wants to fall and adjust the weight or boom length until the entire unit hangs upright.

Hit the Bar

For camera, I went to my favourite portrait combo: a Canon 5D Mark II with 70-200/2.8 IS lens. (I would later switch to a 24-70/2.8 because of space issues.) My assistant positioned the extra small OctoDome about 2 feet (60 cm) above and slightly in front of the model’s face and set the flash to manual ¼ output to have room to adjust it later.


A handheld test shot in Aperture Priority at f2.8 gave a ½ second exposure. A nice combination of subject and background lighting levels where there, but the slow shutter speed would definitely create motion blur. Upping the shutter speed to 1/200th would freeze motion within the sync range of my camera and strobe, but of course the higher shutter speed would kill all ambient light influence. My only recourse was to add a remote strobe back behind the bar, triggered by a radio slave. A diffusion globe on that flash unit would help spread light to the ceiling and adjacent walls – especially the shelves of glassware that lined the back wall. Enter Larry the Biker!

The Shoot

Stepping into the set, we began to work a series of simple, straight-faced expressions but this soon got more animated. Shooting tethered from camera to computer turned out to be a great decision. The immediate feedback helped Larry become more involved in the process and that trust and confidence registered in ways that can only be seen to be appreciated.

For final output, I saw this image in black and white from the very beginning, perhaps because the lovable biker brought back fond memories of medium format 120/220 Kodak Tri-X film. However, having shot the job digitally, I wound up turning to Nik Silver Effects Pro 2 to run a series of trials to pattern the velvety richness I love about that film and produced a pimped up version of their FineArt profile to boost overall image contrast and bring detail a really great beard.

Philosophizing over a Barley

So much of our craft is about relationship. We can study portrait masters, like Karsh and Avedon and breakdown their lighting scenarios, but there’s something in the way they related to their subjects that transcends the schematic behind it.

In the case of our biker, the minimalist approach to classic beauty lighting has offered us a glimpse into the life of a guy who has “been there, done that”.

So, here’s to winding roads and wind in your face, Larry! Thanks.

Written and photographed by Craig Pulsifer


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