How I Got That Shot: Benedict Evans’s Dynamic Portraits at Sundance
September 26, 2018
Benedict Evans photographed actor and rapper A$AP Rocky by using an LED light and strobe during a long exposure.
Actress Carey Mulligan photographed at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival for Variety. Evans says of his lighting setup, "By simply turning off one light and turning on another, or turning off everything but one, or sliding in a different background color, I could create a number of completely different looks."
Jaden Smith photographed at Variety's portrait studio at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Benedict Evans has shot both reportage and portraiture for a number of editorial and commercial clients. When he’s planning a studio shoot, he says, he begins with a decision: “Whether or not, for that particular picture, I want the lighting to be conspicuous, or if I want the subject’s expression or demeanor to be what dominates the photograph.” His best known portraits capture his subjects—who have included actors, writers, directors and athletes—in moments of introspection or vulnerability. He adds, “Sometimes of course, you want to create an esthetically dynamic picture, and you can allow the lighting to draw attention to itself.”
On an assignment from Variety to shoot at the Sundance Film Festival, Evans created both varieties of portraits—very quickly. “Sometimes we would do probably as many as five different looks in three or four minutes with a subject.” He enjoyed the intense pace of the shoot because he worked instinctively. “I think I have a tendency to overthink. When there’s no time, it gives you an instinctive confidence.”
In some of the portraits, he used gel lights to create a pastel palette, and long exposures to create a blur of colors. About a month after Sundance wrapped, he decided to use the same technique while photographing the young actress Anya Taylor-Joy for Vulture, the culture and entertainment website of New York magazine. He hadn’t brought the same lights he used in his Sundance setup, so he adapted window light to create a portrait that communicates Taylor-Joy’s effusive energy.
In planning for Sundance, he decided not to do the usual festival set up—a stripped-down, simplified setup that can work on multiple subjects. “I tried to do something that was more along the lines of how I’d do it if I shot one of these people a day,” he says. “By simply turning off one light and turning on another, or turning off everything but one, or sliding in a different background color, I could create a number of completely different looks without the subject needing to move.”
He enlisted friend and fellow photographer Jaka Vinšek to join him on the trip and assist. They flew to Park City, Utah, with two cases of strobes and two cases of LEDs: He used Flashpoint-branded XPLOR 600s with head extensions, Zoom Li-on speedlights and, for his LEDs, he brought Rotolight Anova Pros, which can be used as strobes if needed. He also packed a case of modifiers and gels, lightweight stands, rolls of 4-and-a-half-foot seamless, plus gadgets “that I wouldn’t want to attempt to [get] at a rental house.” In Park City, Utah, they rented more gear, including c-stands, sand bags, apple boxes, v-flats and wider rolls of seamless.
Evans spent four days shooting in an 8-foot-wide converted kitchen. He had one day to set up and pre-light, and he and Vinšek covered three of the walls with black seamless, he says, “because I wanted more contrast than we’d get in a room with white walls, but I strategically left one wall at the end of the room white so we could bounce lights off it.”
The long, narrow room was “awkwardly shaped” but it had one asset: A door that closed. Inside the room, Evans had jazz playing and when each new subject entered, they found themselves in a calm space that was shut off from the bustling film festival and helped them relax in front of the camera.
As the festival wore on, it was harder for Evans not to repeat himself, and he began trying things he hadn’t tested. He was acting on instinct, he says, and “that meant that—despite having, say, Jon Hamm in front of my camera for just a couple of minutes—I might suddenly flick on the LED, stop down to f/20, open the shutter up to a full second, and shoot a few frames, then go back to where I was before.”
For his key light, he used one of the strobes with a deep silver umbrella. He also bounced a strobe off the white wall behind the camera. This was handy, he says, because people couldn’t stand or hover behind him while he was shooting. He had more strobes near the subject: a gelled strobe “so that I could bring in an accent of color if needed; one lighting the seamless so I had the option of either blowing it out or creating a gradient with it; and an LED panel.”
He made his blurred portraits of rapper and actor A$AP Rocky and others, he explains, “by opening up the shutter and using the LED to light the subject, with a pop of strobe to add crispness to at least one side.” With the shutter open, he slightly moved the camera or let the subject move.
When Evans went to the offices of New York magazine to photograph Taylor-Joy, he shot some portraits using strobes. Once he had captured the setups he had discussed with the photo editor, the actress’s prodigious energy inspired him to make some long-exposure, blurred portraits—using a technique similar to the one he had used when photographing A$AP Rocky. He didn’t have an LED, so he opened the blinds on a nearby window, and used the reflected sunlight as a continuous light source. “The indirect sun provided a much more diffuse, omni-directional light, which made the portrait both energetic and soft, which I loved, and thought appropriate in that case,” he says.
Evans likes shooting portraits with the Fujifilm GFX 50s for a number of reasons, chief among them the camera’s tilt-up screen. “It means there’s never a huge black object in between my face and my subject’s face,” he says. “It’s like using an old Hasselblad with a waist-level viewfinder, and allows me to communicate with my subject much more directly, while never losing my framing. I love it.”
He made both portraits with the 120mm f/4 macro lens. “My base exposure for both of these shoots was 1/125, f/9 at ISO 200,” he says.
Evans rarely shoots tethered unless the client asks him to, and on the assignments for Variety and Vulture, he shot to card. He compares his method of editing to reviewing contact sheets after a film shoot: He checks 6 to 12 frames at a time, then exports his favorites to Photoshop, “where I approximate any changes I would make to the high-res” files. He sends his low-res selects to his client. When he gets the client’s picks, he retouches the high-res versions. “I then print them at 11×14 and view them on paper, and go back to the computer to make any adjustments as needed, and then re-print,” he says. He also provides his clients with prints, usually printed on Epson Premium Lustre, to use as proofs.
When time is tight, he’ll have a retoucher handle “basic cleanup and cutting of masks,” he says. However, “I’ll always do the final, creative, parts of it myself as, to be honest, I’d have no idea how to communicate that to someone else.”
Variety ran more than a dozen of his Sundance portraits in print, and more in an online gallery. Vulture ran two of his sunlit portraits of Taylor-Joy online in March.