A date with Marilyn

A date with Marilyn

During a recent trip back to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Ruth’s hometown, Ruth and I did a senior portrait session with her niece, Alaina. The plan was to shoot some images in downtown Wilkes-Barre in the evening, then go to a park on Sunday morning and try to re-create some of the iconic Marilyn Monroe portraits.

Alaina bears a strong resemblance to Marilyn and is very photogenic. She’s got a great personality, as well, and it comes through in her sparkling eyes and great smile.

The session would give me an opportunity to apply my Fuji X-system camera and lenses to portraits rather than the photojournalism project for my next book, “Pleasure Grounds.” I used the Fuji XH-1 with the 35mm f/1.4, 56mm f/1.2 and 90mm f/2, along with a 16-56mm f/2.8 on a second XH-1. My four-month old Nikon D750 had bit the dust and required a major repair, so Fuji was the only option for this shoot. And it performed flawlessly.

I have always loved Fuji’s skin tones, and aside from taming the contrast and toning down the reds in some shots, very little processing was done to the color images in this series (I took more than 600 images over the course of the two days, tossed out 200 of them and delivered the rest). One standard W126 battery was sufficient for both sessions.

We started along the Susquehanna River about 30  minutes before sunset. The day had been overcast and the soft light continued into evening. I’d spotted a lovely chandelier hanging from the ceiling of a building with marble columns, and we started our session there. The 90mm threw some foreground foliage out of focus and helped soften the lights in the background, as well.

We moved to the front of the building, which faces the riverfront commons. The lamps on the wall provided soft lighting for a series of portraits. Fuji’s auto white balance did a superb job of maintaining the warmth of the incandescent lights without creating an unnatural skin tone.

Across the street, some teen boys tried to impress Alaina with their bicycle and skateboard tricks. When one of them fell off the bicycle, it sent Alaina into a fit of laughter.

I was using the Across film simulation setting at the time. I overexposed about a stop to create a natural skin tone.

We moved across the street to the park. When Ruth and I were scouting a location earlier in the evening, we noticed the metal sculpture and wondered if Alaina would be game for curling up in it. She took it a few poses beyond that.

The Wilkes-Barre Market Street Bridge is a stunning stone structure and would easily steal the show if included in a portrait. Using the 35 f/1.4 wide open, I was able to minimize its presence without destroying the beauty of the setting and model.

The symmetry of the street lamps that line the concrete paths on the riverfront drew my attention away from the bridge. The wind was picking up and her hair took flight.

The in-camera image stabilization of the XH-1 is incredible. I found myself comfortably shooting at 1/15th of second throughout the evening and getting sharp results.

We wrapped up at the park as the light levels had reached a level that even the IBIS couldn’t compensate for. Our destination was two blocks away, downtown Wilkes-Barre. We opted to carry the gear rather than drive and try to find a parking spot. On the way, we stopped in a vacant lot and waited for the traffic to back up at the bridge. A few frames were all I was able to get before the traffic and  its colorful lights cleared from the background. Although it repeated the previous pose, I had Alaina hold out her hair to catch the background color.

I had planned to use the Godox wireless flash system for this part of the shoot, but it failed out of the bag back at the bridge, and I went with plan B: a long softbox on a Buff Einstein 640 monolight. Ruth volunteered to carry the monstrous flash head, light stand and softbox (I think she was counting on it for a weapon just in case). Alaina’s mother carried the power pack, and I carried the cameras and lenses. We marched down the dark streets in search of golden light.

Our first stop  was the front of business that had circular neon lights in the window. Alaina sat on the iron grate under a tree (in her brand new outfit, at that) and I waited for the headlamps of a car to paint her face with light. Once again, Fuji’s white balance nailed the scene accurately without creating a nasty skin tone. The 56mm was made for this scene and light.

The marque of a theater across the street provided a warm background glow for a series of portraits lit with the softbox/monolight combination.

We moved across the street and under the marque lights for a series of moody images.


We headed back to the car, but the perspective of street lamps down a lonely street caught my eye. Ruth set up the monolight, the traffic light at the end of the street turned green and 10 cars raced toward our shoot. We scurried out of the street and waited until the same lonely scene that had caught our attention a few minutes earlier returned.

All of the monolight/soft box exposures were manually balanced with the background lighting, based upon my experience of working with the equipment at weddings. I wasn’t prepared for just how well Fuji handled the range of colors in the scene without compromising the skin tones. These are definitely people cameras.

The next morning was our Marilyn session at a park. The woods were infested with mosquitoes and one nailed Ruth on the forehead. With blood trickling down her face (OK, it was more like a little smear), we decided to move to another location, the front yard of a bank on Mountaintop, Pa., where we could use the fence and shady yard for the Marilyn Monroe reenactments. A lily from the park served as a prop.

The colorful side of a Chinese restaurant caught my eye as we were getting out of the car, and we took a detour.

Marilyn!

Next came the scene on the lawn, except Ruth protested when I suggested a strap of her dress fall off the shoulder.

Next came a few shots at the fence.

I backed off a bit with the 56mm and had Alaina wrap up the session with some playful expressions. Ruth suggested the strap off the shoulder in a few. We both wondered where she got that look from.

Sometimes it just all comes together. The light, the model, the equipment. Perhaps I enjoyed photographing Alaina so much because the backdrop options were so amazing and fresh. Or perhaps it was because Alaina’s beautiful eyes remind me of Ruth’s. Like Ruth, Alaina is super smart and wants to go in the medical field. She’d also make a great model, but we all know those careers are short-lived. I’m grateful for being the one who got to capture it if she sticks with medicine.

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