Lighting Techniques

How I Got That Shot: Timothy Archibald on Making Relatable Portraits

March 7, 2019

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Client: Duncan Channon
Creative: Michael Lemme, Art director;
Diana Courcier, Art buyer

© Mark Richards

Timothy Archibald. © Mark Richards

Timothy Archibald is known for photographing people who aren’t used to being photographed. Speaking of the subjects he’s photographed for commercial and editorial jobs, non-profits and pharmaceutical companies, “Clients describe them saying, ‘Oh I can relate to them.’”

Clients still associate him with his 2010 book Echolalia, which features photos he made in collaboration with his autistic son, Eli, who was then 10. “Over the last decade, I got known for the project I did with my son,” says Archibald. “It eclipsed everything.” His commercial work at the time was strobe-lit. Echolalia however, “was very raw. There was no lighting, it looked very photo 101,” he says. One day, he recalls, “A friend who is an art director said, ‘You know, I really like your work, but I don’t like your commercial work. It all looks commercial and produced. Can you do a shoot for me that looks like your personal work?’” The request sent Archibald on “a journey” to figure out how to combine the simplicity and rawness people liked in his personal work with “the same commercial polish that a client would want,” he says.

He has developed two key techniques. Scouting locations with natural light is “my biggest tool,” he says. He likes to visit days or a week before a shoot to find a room that works, “then convince everyone we need to do the shoot there.”

He often uses a 50mm lens. “It makes humans look human,” he says. To keep the facial expressions of his subjects in focus and also capture their environment, he first positions the subjects, then shoots a grid of images of the scene in front of him. He then stitches the images using the Photomerge function in Photoshop. “That kind of panoramic technique is something I use on almost every single assignment, whether I’m shooting one person or a group. It allows me to put a lot of information in the frame” without the distortion created by a wider lens.

Archibald used both techniques when shooting a group portrait of the senior executives at the ad agency Duncan Channon, including its eccentric co-founder, Robert Duncan, who arrived at the shoot wearing a lucha libre mask and fake hair. With the rest of the team posed around Duncan, Archibald realized he had what looked like a family portrait, albeit with “a curious, crazy uncle” in the center.

© Timothy Archibald

A photo for San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which Archibald shot using a technique that allows him to capture a full scene while using his favorite lens, a 50mm on his DSLR. © Timothy Archibald


In meetings before the portrait session, Archibald was confident he could make a friendly, relatable image showing most of the team, but the challenge would be preparing for Duncan’s unpredictability. “We all knew he wasn’t a directable guy, so me telling him to have a Mona Lisa smile would be absurd,” Archibald recalls. They decided to let him do what he wanted, then arrange the other subjects based on his position. The rest of the team, wearing their own clothes, got hair and makeup, then stepped into their positions. Archibald says, “I liked the positive, friendly vibe we got from the straight players,” who “appear to be in on the joke.”

For the shoot, “We had a backdrop and we had a million lights all over the place.” Then he shot a test. “It looked absolutely terrible, like a junky, bad student project.” The room he had selected also had a skylight. He turned off the lights and used only the late afternoon sunlight and some reflectors.

The Shoot

Archibald shot with a Canon 5D Mark III on a tripod, using a 50mm f/1.2 lens. He shot at f/8, at an ISO of 800 to 1000, he recalls. In the low light, his shutter speed “was probably no slower than ¼ of a second,” which he calls “very doable for a formal portrait” when subjects are still and he’s shooting on a tripod.   

When the subjects were ready and looked at ease, he began shooting the portrait in pieces. “You tell them what you are doing: ‘We are going to take a series of photos, from left to right,’” he explains. With his camera on a tripod about ten feet from the backdrop, “I point the camera to the extreme left and take a picture, and then slowly rotate it around,” shooting as he goes. He recalls that in making the horizontal group shot, he captured 7 vertical images from left to right. Then he shot two more rows: “If I feel there’s more ceiling I want to show, I’ll do the same thing but with the camera pointed up.” With the camera pointed downward, he shot seven more images of the floor.    

Moving the camera in increments “allows me to have the beauty of the 50mm, where people aren’t too far away, and they’re not distorted,” he says. “I wanted the viewer to be able to tell that [the subjects] were relating to me.” He makes sure each subject is captured in a single frame, and isn’t bisected by an image edge. “A lot of these little details become second nature when this is your normal way of approaching every project,” he says.

He used the same panning technique to make a photo for San Francisco AIDS Foundation annual report. Creative director Roxane Chicoine suggested that the alley behind the foundation office, which has a long view to the horizon, would make a nice location. Archibald decided to photograph a man from the foundation standing alone in the alley, looking toward the sun and away from the camera. Using the panoramic technique, Archibald says, “would allow the alley to look huge but the figure would not be too far away.” Shooting atop a stool, Archibald shot four images from left to right in each row, and shot a total of six rows of images from the sky down to the street. The final composite “uses the city as a metaphor.”

Editing and Post

During the Duncan Channon shoot, he didn’t want people hovering around a monitor to preview shots, so he sent the images to an iPad over Wi-Fi using a Camranger, a device for wireless tethering. “It was done very simply,” and helped maintained a relaxed atmosphere during the shoot, Archibald says.

After he had checked the images, he brought them to his studio to process them in the Photomerge stitching tool. Archibald then uses Lightroom to smooth the uneven edges where the photos merge. If needed, he says, he uses Lightroom for color correction and “opening shadows and lowering highlights” in images. He also uses a VSCO plug-in to simulate film grain.

“When I turn a file over to a retoucher, which I do, it’s for mechanical stuff—removing wires, expanding the backdrop,” he says. For the Duncan Channon portrait, he had retoucher Laura Johnston clean up some details. Archibald notes that on today’s commercial shoots, clients are often more interested in speedy delivery than polish. His clients at Duncan Channon, for example, were eager to post the team portraits as an Instagram library. “It’s our job as photographers to slow clients down and give them their quality,” he says. The agency used the finished image on their website and in email announcement—and also printed it on some paper plates as souvenirs. Archibald includes the portrait in his portfolio.

“These folks at Duncan Channon, they were good collaborators,” Archibald says. “They were comfortable with the sense of humor and sensibility of the image.”

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