Lighting Techniques

Delivering on Challenging Assignments: Ramona Rosales’ Long Exposures of Chance The Rapper for Billboard

September 5, 2018

By Conor Risch

“I’m always up for a problem-solving situation,” says Ramona Rosales. As a portraitist who deals frequently with celebrity subjects, Rosales is known for her calm demeanor on-set, and for having a plan B, plan C and a bag of tricks when the best laid plans don’t work out. “There could be huge disasters happening around me, and I’m the one that’s just like, ‘Everything’s great.’” There’s no point in freaking out, she says, because she believes she can find a solution to any challenge.

But sometimes the biggest challenges are the ones she creates for herself, as was the case when Billboard magazine asked her to photograph Chance the Rapper in Chicago for a 2016 cover story. The musician had recently released his critically acclaimed mixtape “Coloring Book.” Already a fan of his music, Rosales says she’d been listening to the album on loop for a couple of weeks. She was struck by the “positive and life affirming” lyrics, which inspired her to pitch her client the idea of doing a series of in-camera effects using long exposures and colorful lighting.

© Ramona Rosales

Chance the Rapper photographed by Ramona Rosales for Billboard magazine. © Ramona Rosales

Her editor was understandably nervous, she says, because it was a cover shoot and you never know what will happen with a subject. Once you start throwing in “something a little riskier” such as long exposures and lighting effects, it ups the pressure. It didn’t help that the blackout studio they rented wasn’t blacked out when they showed up. Rosales, two assistants and the editor had to spend the first two hours of their prep time hanging Duvetyne fabric in the 4,000 square-foot studio. She had planned to test her shots in advance, but wasn’t able to test all of the setups. “We lost so much time hanging up those damn curtains that [the editor] wasn’t able to see what I was going to do ahead of time,” Rosales says. She planned to mix strobes, continuous lights and other lights to create the effects she was after. They did have the “luxury” of an hour with Chance the Rapper, Rosales says, but her client also wanted to get in six or seven setups and three clothing changes.

She was able to reference her mood board and shots she’d done in the past to help assuage some of her editor’s concern. Rosales says she always has a mood board, both for her own reference and so she can “have a conversation with a subject and to articulate what I want.” She’d already been in touch with his stylist and asked her to bring colorful clothing, and it was helpful that he and “his team were in more of a collaborative mood.” When Chance arrived, Rosales spent ten minutes showing him the mood board and references, and talking through what she wanted to do. “He seemed really into it.” During the shoot, “He was stoked when I would take the time to say, Let me bring you the camera and show you how it looks,” she recalls. A shot that involved Chance dropping LED string lights may have “seemed dumb” to the subject until she showed him what it looked like, Rosales says. “If I’m able to articulate what I want with a person and they put their trust in me as if I was a director they were working with, that’s where the magic happens.”

She had also built three to four shots into each of the setups, so moving onto the next shot was “as easy as changing the channel and we had a separate lighting situation. The subject didn’t have to move.” She also built in variations that were all strobe, not long exposures. Billboard ended up going with one of the strobe-only variations for the cover, and ran six of the other images inside and on the website. In addition to the image with the LED string lights, there were images of the musician with vertical blocks of color across the frame, a shot that made it appear that light was raining down on him, and an image of him with his eyes closed and a peaceful look on his face. The background is orange with stripes of light, and while his face is in focus thanks to the strobe, there’s a slight ghosting effect around his head, the result of his movement while Rosales’s assistant painted with light and the continuous lights shone on the cyclorama wall.

TIME Magazine picked up the image for the 2017 TIME 100 feature on the year’s most influential people. “That worked out as well, because that was a beloved photo of Chance,” Rosales says. “It was worth the risk.”

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