Is it important to know your subject when shooting a portrait? Cartier-Bresson didn’t think so; he famously turned up on the doorstep and shot the picture the second his subject opened the door. I honestly wish that I could sometimes have the courage to do this but I am afraid I am like many photographers, in that I want to maximise every possible second and shoot as much as possible because I know my clients would prefer it that way.
Heston Blumenthal had given me an unprecedented four hours in four locations and as he would be working while I shot around him, the shoot would be more reportage than sitting. Having spent a fitful night’s sleep in a rented cottage a few doors from the Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, I stand chatting to Heston over coffee in the kitchen. It’s 8.30am. He’s relaxed, which puts me at ease, and we continue to talk for another 30 minutes. This wasn’t the first time that I’d met Heston and while I could hardly call myself a friend I do feel that I have come to know him reasonably well. Our first meeting was a year earlier and over the past few months I had pursued a personal project in and around the Fat Duck which had led to a food test shoot for a proposed new book. This had led Heston to ask if I would shoot a series of portraits of him in and around the Fat Duck. I felt prepared and yet very nervous. The anticipation is something I have become used to and if I get a good night’s sleep before a shoot then I’m lucky. I suppose it’s the fear of failure, or more precisely not meeting my own expectations. Of course this disappears when the shoot begins. Earlier that morning my assistants and I had set up a series of HMIs of various powers, from 650s to 1.2ks, in and around four locations with the main emphasis on the hub of all activity, which is the development kitchen. Here we added a whopping 2.5k along with a 1.2k, all with lots of frost. HMIs have become my standard for continuous light in conjunction with available daylight. I love the fact that I can light a situation and then shoot around the subjects without bothering them with flash. In addition I am shooting what I see, varying the amount of light then frosting, flagging and switching from stills to video in seconds. Cameras and lenses? No surprises to regular readers. Canon 1DS MkIII, 5D MkII, 85mm 1.2L, 50mm 1.2L and that’s it! My biggest concern now that the day had finally arrived was how to photograph an A-list celebrity and someone who is seen in the media every day. Or more precisely, how do you do it differently? I hadn’t even considered this until now and yet as the shoot started it crossed my mind that my pictures might look no different to anyone else’s. After all the planning and preparation, I found myself shooting instinctively and as has happened so many times before I have learned to put faith and trust in this and let the morning unravel around me.
I use the 5D MkII and the 50mm 1.2L to shoot several short video sequences of Heston in the foreground and the team moving as abstract backgrounds. This set-up runs the risk of being predictable more than any other and yet I couldn’t resist. I wanted to shoot what I term a ‘moving portrait’ and will then combine this with sequential stills to create a short film.
Heston chats about how he had recently wandered into a famous London department store and asked a girl in the menswear department to help him choose an outfit. Her advice pays off as his Dolce & Gabbana shirt has great texture and interesting detailing. I ask him to add the jacket and I shoot around him putting it on and taking it off. I get the distinct feeling that it has taken Heston a long time to become comfortable in front of the camera especially when it’s within one metre as mine is, and yet we manage to have fun and even a few laughs.
As he starts to feel more comfortable I move in closer still with the 50mm (a devastating close-up portrait lens) and this gives me some of the best shots from the day. Heston takes his glasses off slowly.Without the glasses he takes on a totally different look, his eyes are intense and searching, yet appear kind and honest. The more I shoot portraits the more I am fascinated by people’s eyes. Melissa Lyons, Heston’s events manager, keeps checking the time as we have a schedule to keep, and we move from the cottage to the historic kitchen down the road. Billy and Dave head off to tweak the lighting and I jump in Heston’s BMW. When we arrive I spend several minutes shooting portraits through the car windows and Heston starts to look a little different. I can’t decide whether it’s the car or his casual clothes, but as the winter sun hits the glass it is both strong and yet soft, giving a cinematic quality to the scene. I play with abstract reflections and block out almost everything but his glasses. He looks cool in the car and I’m really pleased with the results. The kitchen sits in a leafy business complex alongside other companies. As we approach, the sun casts Heston’s shadow on to a white wall and for a moment there’s a perfect silhouette. I ask if he would mind if I shoot this and we stop momentarily. An audience has appeared in the adjoining business and we move on.
The kitchen isn’t the best location of the day but does have the redeeming feature of a large window with soft light and we boost this with a 1.2k HMI and a makeshift reflector. Heston and his head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts (‘Ash’) taste slow-cooked meat and then they pass the food to us willing food disciples. He explains in detail just how this is cooked for 72 hours at 53C in a water bath which allows the chemical properties of the proteins to break down.We are like three rabbits stuck in a car’s headlights and for a moment I completely forget why I’m here. The next location is the Fat Duck restaurant and as we enter 30 minutes before service starts it’s like the opening night of a West End musical. There’s a buzz in the air and although I’ve been here dozens of times the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation is always the same. Heston chats to the staff and then I sit him at the window table. I shoot wide and then move in close to capture him in conversation and the light is beautifully diffused through delicate netted drapes.
We move into the kitchen and Heston joins the team and starts plating up several dishes as I shoot and Billy moves around with a hand-held 650 HMI. There’s a brief moment as I shout instructions to everyone and Heston stands serenely in focus as all around him create a soft and shapely bokeh (shallow depth of field). It comes and goes but is logged and one day I will revisit this and create a much more beautiful and considered portrait. The last stop is the development kitchen.We walk across the road and along the narrow walled drive and I shoot wide shots of Heston as he approaches the building. It’s here that I really crank up the light and play with the idea of white shapes set against white backgrounds. For this I use the 5D MkII and the 50mm 1.2L to shoot several short video sequences of Heston in the foreground and the team moving as abstract backgrounds. This set-up runs the risk of being predictable more than any other and yet I couldn’t resist. I wanted to shoot what I term a ‘moving portrait’ and will combine this with sequential stills (an advantage of shooting a lot of stills) to create a short film. The development kitchen didn’t give me as many usable stills as I expected. However, there were a few surprises, such as Heston’s shoes and several shots taken into the light of a 2.5k, giving him an ethereal quality as he tasted food from a clear plastic spoon. There are certain similarities in what a chef and a photographer do. Ultimately we both want to be different, to stand out and to please but it would be a lie (on my part anyway) to say impressing the client and others is high on the agenda. In post I distanced myself from what had been previously shot of Heston and moved towards desaturation along with black and white conversions, with colour monochrome. In addition I dodged and burned with varying degrees of gamma and exposure vignetting. I liked the look and thankfully so did Heston. Unlike Cartier-Bresson I shot well over 2,000 frames and would have kept going. I’m not saying there is necessarily a right and wrong way to shoot but there are still many things we can learn from the masters and one is to sit and wait for the moment.Yes, keep shooting through it, but it is still there nevertheless and to varying degrees. Cartier-Bresson would shoot one frame or, at most, a handful, but I wonder how long he had spent thinking about the person, the light, the location and the composition – in other words the preparation and trusting his instinct to shoot the right picture when the time came. The great thing about this business is that no two shoots are ever the same. The work is varied, challenging and fascinating and I wouldn’t want it any other way.