Medusa, Elijah Blake, and a Shoot that Almost Never Happened

One of the most valuable lessons you can ever learn as a photographer, a business owner, and just… in general. That any question that goes unasked is – by default – a no. If you never ask the question, you’ll never have the opportunity to hear a yes and for most of us, asking the question is the most difficult part to begin with. We fear the rejection so much that we’re afraid to ask in the first place. As soon as you learn to accept that you started with a no to begin with so the only place to go is up, its going to free you to welcome incredible new things into your life. And asking a question is how this story starts.

I was in New York City for a photoshoot with actor Anupam Kher and since I had the space, I did a shoot with Dana Isaiah since he and Jordin were in the city at the time too (be sure to check the blog for their shoots and write-ups coming soon too!). While I was working with Dana, I got an email that the second part of my trip out to L.A. was now completely useless. The client had cancelled because they ended up having to go out of town at the last minute, and now I was spending 3 days in Los Angeles with no shoots and nothing to do but spend money and sit in an AirBnB while I waited to fly home to Houston. Not exactly the trip I was hoping for… So, I asked the question.

I knew Dana had friends and connections in L.A. through his own work and his work with Jordin and so I asked him if he had any celebrity or industry friends he could put me in touch with since I was going to be out there. I’d do the shoots on spec if that worked, I just wanted to make sure I was putting the days to use rather than wasting them all together at that point. I knew Dana could say no, but I hoped he wouldn’t because we had developed a friendship since our first shoot in LA the year before, and the worst that could happen was I was right back where I was before I asked. Instead, he hooked me up with as many people as he could think of and I knew if even one ended up hitting it would make the trip out West well worth the time and effort. But, what I ended up getting to experience was far beyond what I could have originally hoped for. Dana set me up with a R&B singer/songwriter that Jordin had worked with before. Grammy award winning artist Elijah Blake. I was stoked! I had just gone from twiddling my thumbs in LA for a few days to working with an awesome artist on – potentially – art work for his upcoming album at the time. Needless to say, asking the question definitely paid off.

By the time the wheels hit the ground in LA the next day I had listened to every Elijah Blake album I could get my hands on (Audiology has become a favorite for me! Definitely worth a listen!), I immediately got settled in and tried to start planning for the shoot with Elijah happening the next day. Not a lot of notice, but I also had no idea what the style of the shoot was going to be either. Fortunately, I was walking through Ralph’s (grocery store) when I got a call from Elijah to talk about the shoot a bit. He told me that the album was going to be based on a Medusa theme and he had done some other shoots but was still looking for the right visual to fit the idea. He explained more of the emotion and symbolism behind the theme as well as how he had his dreadlocks dyed green so they looked like snakes too. My mind was working in overdrive before I was even off of the call. I can’t tell you what I bought at the grocery store because I was already fully focused on how to bring those things to life in camera in my own style, and I’m pretty sure I ended up with the most college-kid shopping cart ever – cereal, ramen noodles, beer, and bananas – or something along those lines. Healthy eating was definitely not the priority at that moment so don’t judge me!

I scoured the web as soon as I got back to my place looking for images, studying the mythologies surrounding Medusa, and trying to find a studio that would let me get some diversity and create based upon those themes. As always, I jumped on Peerspace and found an awesome little studio with some great light, a cool vibe, and some gritty cement walls I could use as a backdrop and tie into the Medusa theme (stone!). I also created a couple of different shot plans I thought would be cool. A little abstract, but could help convey the vibe Elijah was laying out for me and stay true to my own vision and style as well. I wanted to use a couple of poses that looked statuesque, some that flowed with the mythology, and a particular use of green and orange gels to create a reptilian/creature vibe. The rest could be brought in with just a little bit of styling and Elijah working in front of the camera.

The day of the shoot came and – as always – the traffic in and around LA was horrible. We were coming from the same general area to get to the studio, but I left about 30 minutes early so I could grab a coffee on the way over and get to the studio to set up early and it’s amazing how much of a difference 30 minutes can make. Don’t ever underestimate travel times! We ended up getting a delayed start, but Elijah and the stylist – Graham – came in ready to rock and roll, so we were able to get shooting pretty quick. I set the vibe, throwing some Aries – Welcome Home on in the background and we were ready to create something special.

I was using my Phase One almost exclusively in this shoot, and I was traveling light, so my Profoto B2 lights were what I had to work with in my bag. I was also shooting tethered to a new piece of hardware I had purchased for doing more work on the road, my Wacom MobilStudio Pro. It’s a Wacom tablet and a pretty powerful PC all in one, designed specifically for this kind of work. I shot tethered directly to that computer and really liked the workflow! The screen is about 95% of the way there in terms of color and contrast – its no Eizo! – and gave Elijah, Graham, and the team the ability to react and gain confidence as I was shooting. That’s one of the main reasons I love to shoot tethered. It’s great for me to check details and see what I’m capturing on a bigger screen, but it’s even better for gaining a client’s confidence and building up the confidence of the person in front of the camera. Those two aspects of shooting tethered make it an incredibly powerful tool if you know what you’re doing!

I always like to start simple from a lighting perspective and build from there if time and flow allow. I used one of the Profoto B2 lights with the Elinchrom 69” Octa on it to camera left and a black v-flat to camera right. A simple, single-light portrait is such a great place for you and your subject to feel each other out. It means you don’t have to think about much and you can put all of your focus on creating that initial connection with the person in front of the camera. I immediately loved how much diversity Elijah likes to give and how much he emotes in front of the camera. It’s not always exactly what I would have expected, but it lends to such an enjoyable experience and so many different and interesting images that you never expected from a setup. Not only that, but Graham’s styling was on point! The greens and the textures in the clothes he picked fit the Medusa theme perfectly and it really blew my mind how well everything came together over the course of 48 hours.

After capturing some incredible images with the one light setup for about 20 minutes, I decided to change things up a bit while Elijah was doing an outfit change. I went with an overhead light paired with the single light set-up I was already working with. A very simple change (I had already added a light to the single light setup previously with a horizontal 4×1’ Profoto strip soft box for a kicker light into the eyes) but it adds a little more to the environment of the portrait around Elijah and allowed me to easily move into my third lighting setup as well. We played with setup #2 for about 10 minutes. I focused on getting a couple of cool close-ups to go along with the pulled back shots because you never really know what’s going to work best in the end for marketing purposes and variety can be the thing that makes it a successful shoot!

Once I had the close-ups I wanted, I pulled back a big and had Elijah turn his back to me. The effect was really cool because the top-down light put a lot of contrast and definition into his physique, and the main light coming from camera left provided an awesome profile light for him to play with as well. The concrete background and the green attire pulled in the rest of the Medusa/statue vibe and the final piece of the puzzle was just finding the right pose(s) to bring the concept together. That’s where I had the most fun with Elijah. He isn’t afraid to try anything and he’s been doing this long enough that he know what the photographer is looking for. It really made my job easy and the overall process a ton of fun. It was one of THE most enjoyable shoots I’ve ever been on and his willingness to collaborate with the team was a big portion of that. For the final set, Elijah dropped the shirt and took some images I feel may have been some of the strongest of that series.

For the last series of images, We pulled this dope chair over into the image and Elijah changed out into these bright green pants and put on some chains and a grill. I have to admit, this is the first time I’d ever even seen a grill up close so I had to ask about it and had some fun checking it out while they had some fun giving me crap about being sheltered lol. It was fun all around and totally changed the mood for the shoot. It went from a more fashion-forward feel to being attitude driven and Elijah flipped the switch like it was nothing. I kept the lighting the same for this set and played between pushing Elijah for even more attitude to calling for a subdued pose here and there that created some contrast between the images.

For the final set in the shoot, I showed Elijah the cartoon version of Medusa I was pulling inspiration from (admittedly the first time I’ve ever used a cartoon for inspiration!) and I could see he wasn’t sure about it at first. It took me a minute to put the gels into the lights (remember, I’m working on spec here. No assistants to do my work while I interacted with the talent…) and – fortunately – the color mix and depth created by the gels was perfect right off the bat and it only took one frame for Elijah to see what I was creating and get into it. It was a new twist for me as well having not played with gels much, and I was pretty stoked about the results as well! The chains helped sell the reptilian nature alongside the green dreads by looking like scales around his neck. Anyway, sometimes you do something and it works and whether anybody else likes it or not, you’re just pumped because you wanted to try something, it turned out cool, and you’re happy with the results. For me, this was one of those times.

We were packing up and getting ready to head out – we were already past our time and, fortunately, the host was really cool about letting us take a little more time – when I realized I had to photograph Elijah with my Heroes on White setup. He had too cool of a look and it was too perfect an opportunity to not use it. So with just the two lights, two modifiers, and one camera still out, I had him take about 15 frames for me and we called it a night. It was an awesome shoot, but even more satisfying, it was the start of another great relationship with an incredibly cool, talented artist. It’s one of the reasons I love doing what I do: Meeting new people, hearing their story, capturing them in a new way they (hopefully) have never seen before, and having a hell of a lot of fun along the way. There were so many awesome take-aways from this experience and I still have to give one help of a shout out to my man Dana for hooking us up and putting this into motion, and don’t worry, I’ve got a few more shoots with BOTH of those dudes the share soon on here so stay tuned!

Always feels nice to end on one of these!

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