Coming on the heels of Flag Day, I got an update on a story from a wonderful writer at LIFE books, Dan Levy. We had worked together on a book project about a group of veterans who were in combat together in Vietnam.
It was not a famous battle, but it was a deadly and dangerous one. It happened near a small body of water dubbed Finger Lake, and at the end, only 12 of the 35 members of 1st Platoon escaped alive or without being badly wounded. As a unit, they give credit to Lieutenant Lawrence Wilson, whose cool direction under fire enabled them to survive. They get together yearly, to recall and reflect. I had a memorable day with them, hearing their stories, and photographing them. Now, prompted by Dan’s prose and the pictures that ran, they are creating a memorial film of that long day and night, years ago. The Go Fund Me page is here. Below is a fundraising poster.
So, on assignment for LIFE, very typically, I had to figure out how to photograph these five gentlemen, as a group, and individually, in about two hours. I had never met any of them, but they were a good bunch, and made my job easy. Likewise, on the technical side, I doubled down on the easy side of things, and used one Speedlight, and one softbox for all of the individual portraits.
I had nothing to work with. Basically a parking lot with a few military vehicles. It was, in short, a background that needed to be really out of focus. So, welcome to high-speed sync and f/1.4. I have written of this job before, some years ago, when I shot it, but I’ve received a number of queries lately about shooting wide open with flash, so I thought I would revisit it and offer a tip.
F/1.4 (or f/2) is the wild frontier, right? It can be spectacularly beautiful the way it renders a scene, but the critical focus aspect is a bear. The DOF is so slim, even the finest of autofocus systems can be fooled or pull the wrong punch. You have to think of AF systems on cameras as a teenager with ADD, or, perhaps, an adult like me. I can concentrate, concentrate like crazy, and then all of a sudden, there’s this bright….shiny….object. And I wander. AF can be the same way. Here’s a method if your AF system is struggling, and they all do, periodically, depending on the scene. I credit Cali, our studio crew chief, for introducing me to this method.
Work on a tripod. Frame the scene. Go to manual focus. Go to live view. Magnify the hell out of what you are looking at, getting right down to the near eye. Critically focus, with your finger on the shutter, and the split second you have that focus, make the picture.
Lieutenant Lawrence Wilson, with a map of the battlefield.
Corporal Leonard Calderon, with the boots he wore, who charged a tree line filled with enemy soldiers.
Corporal Jerry Dumont, with his enlistment photo.
Navy Corpsman Bernard “Doc Mac” McNallen.
Rifleman James Keene
The gear used here is as simple as the approach. 24mm, 35mm f/1.4 and 85mm lenses. (No longer use the 85mm, have gone resolutely now with the 105mm f/1.4.) One Nikon Speedlight (SB-910). Ezybox hotshoe softbox. Done. Not a time and place to get fancy, just a time to move fast and tell a good story, and do well by your subjects.