Join us in the studio to see how three time Portrait of Britain winner Rory Lewis captures the perfect shot.
For Rory, the shoot should be a formality. This, after all, is the man who’s won Portrait of Britain the last three years running, and can count everyone from David Cameron to Tony Blair, Patrick Stewart to Sir Ian McKellan as his subjects.
"But whoever it is, I always like to look at their face beforehand so I can start thinking early."
But that won’t prevent him preparing for today’s session with the same rigour and clarity as any other. “I like to have a bit of knowledge of the subject,” he says. “If they’re famous, I’ll go and read their book, watch their reel, give them a Google. I like to look at what other photographers have done with them. But whoever it is, I always like to look at their face beforehand so I can start thinking early.”
Today, the subject is Jay Rincon, an actor and voice over artist, star of screen (Coronation Street, Cold Feet) and stage (the shoot takes before the launch of his latest project, Annawon’s Song).
“Even when I was just starting out, the most affordable product in terms of durability and longevity was Bowens,”
Rory has three set pieces planned, using a Canon 5D MK IV. They’re variations of set-ups that Rory has been using for years. And as Jay’s an actor, they work particularly well because they’re geared for energy and movement. You don’t want an actor sat there static.
The first piece is a single-light set-up, which sees Jay in a grey suit, against a 150x210cm tobacco/olive vintage collapsible background, and uses a Bowens XMT500 Flash Head with Bowens 90cm Umbrella.
For the second, Rory introduces a second Bowens XMT500 Flash Head, to which he adds a Bowens snoot. With Jay in a dark blue shirt and positioned against an ultra-black background and black reflector, this is one of the darkest set-ups that Rory has in his armoury, so the addition of a snoot light helps to add extra detail to one side of Jay’s face (Rory then switches the black reflector to a white one to tone down the shadow being formed).
The final set-up is much brighter and more casual. Here, Rory uses two further pieces of Bowens kit to get the shots he needs – a 90cm Bowens Octabox and a Bowens 30x90cm Strip Softbox. Though the equipment is brand new and state of the art, it feels familiar to Rory. “Even when I was just starting out, the most affordable product in terms of durability and longevity was Bowens,” he says.
“Every studio I visited used it because it was resilient and simple to use, so for me it was a case of getting my own first Bowens kit to break away from the studio and shoot where I wanted. It soon became my first full lighting kit, and as I grew as a photographer, it grew with me.”
We’re ready to go, and as Jay settles in for the first set of shots, Rory explains just why he’s tried to keep each set-up so simple. “I still live by the ‘one metre’ rule of thumb,” he says. “Keep things nice and tight, with the subject one metre from the backdrop, one metre from the main light, one metre from the full light and one metre from the reflector.”
Nothing over-the-top here, then. “People tend to overthink lighting,” Rory says. “There are some key principles to photography – ‘if you put that light there, you’re going to achieve this, if you’re going to put it there, you’re going to achieve that’ – the key is being able to provide the right direction once you’ve got the set-up in place.”
It’s another reason Rory’s using Bowens lighting today. “Reliability is so important in lighting,” he explains. “These are built for photographers – they’re easy to set up, they’re intuitive and the battery life is great. You can get the set up you want and then get on with directing, knowing they won’t let you down.”
Rory’s directing style is friendly. He wants his subjects to relax. He wants to capture spontaneity, to let shoots develop organically. If a subject isn’t a natural, then that’s where the prior research comes in – he’ll have a few anecdotes or questions just in case (though he’ll always remain neutral with his opinions, even when it’s been David Cameron or Tony Blair in the hot seat!).
Rory likes to keep things moving too. Again, it helps the shots evolve. He’s always talking, always repeating phrases. It creates movement, which offers variation. This is where a light such as an XMT500 comes in handy – “they’re quick,” Rory explains. “Some lights mean you’re waiting a while for the light to recycle and it disrupts the flow, but these have an extremely fast recycle rate, which matters to someone like myself who’s quite a quick director.”
Luckily, Jay is a natural subject. During the sitting he’s asked to be a cop, a mobster, a villain, a loving father and a ‘vengeful badass’, amongst others. Rory will regularly pause to show Jay images – whilst he likes to direct at pace, he also appreciates moments to reset as well.
“Every ten or fifteen frames I’ll stop and show people what I’ve got,” Rory says. “It’s another device to help people relax and, even though I’ll know I’ve got the shot, I want to keep the subject involved – they’re paying me to do a job after all.”
Jay is predictably delighted with his shots. And after 45 minutes, the shoot comes to a close. Rory predicts that his lights still have enough power for “another two or three sessions” without requiring further charge. He’ll be taking them back to Liverpool with him for another shoot the very next day. No rest for the wicked.
After that, Rory waves farewell to British shores for a while. He’s off to Canada to conduct a large-scale project with the Canadian Armed Forces. His job requires a lot of travelling – even in the UK he’s rarely in a studio – so the mobility of his equipment is important too.
"Soldiers are really easy to direct because they’re so good at taking orders. They’re completely used to being told what to do!"
“Some people ask me to shoot in their houses, but I also have to shoot in barracks, in gyms, in car parks,” Rory explains. “I need things to be portable and reliable, which is why I do a lot of my work with Bowens.”
Having already worked with the British and Italian Armed Forces, Rory is something of a specialist now when it comes to military photography. Are they much harder to photograph, considering that soldiers, unlike actors, don’t get into their profession because they’re comfortable in front of the camera?
On the contrary. “Soldiers are really easy to direct because they’re so good at taking orders,” Rory says. “They’re completely used to being told what to do!”.
How did you get into photography?
I studied medieval history, but whilst at university I also attended a cinema club where I found myself getting into Russian silent films. I was interested in the cinematography and the way the films were presented, so I melded the two passions together and decided I wanted to create my own representation of historical figures. After university I went back to Liverpool, got my own camera, started to practice and learn…and eventually that led to setting up my own studio.
I’ve loved shooting some of the old school actors, like David Warner and Ian McShane. They’re always ready to go and always open to ideas. With David Warner, I had to coax him into a sitting, because he hates getting his picture done, but it’s the most perfect portrait I’ve ever taken.
William Shatner. I had to fly over to his office in Los Angeles for a shoot that lasted five minutes!
It’s called ‘Selah’, which recreates meditative and thought-provoking religious scenes. It features subjects such as James Purefoy, Dame Judi Dench, James Cromwell and Sir Patrick Stewart.
Does everyone have a ‘good side’?
Yes! Everyone has a good side and a bad side – it’s just how you present yourself. People have different shaped profiles; you find that different shapes can look better in diferent positions. There’s an aesthetically pleasing shape to every face.