Ann Gabrielle Richardson is an amazingly talented and beautiful vocalist who possesses an intense passion for music and singing, but also loves teaching it to others. The image to the left is the image I chose of her, that will go into my ongoing photo series “Characters of Natchez.”

– Click on the photos to enlarge. 

In “Characters of Natchez,” I set out to photograph a limited number of local people and portray or reveal something that is uniquely them. In doing so, I use a photographic style, lighting technique, camera angle, lens choice and setting that fits them. I don’t use a one-size-fits-all approach and squeeze them into my “box” – the “box” changes with what best represents them. Harder and more taxing upon me? Yes. But, it’s also much more rewarding in the end because it stretches me artistically and creatively to fit the techniques and style to what will best reveal them. This is “subject-centric” photographing. My entire process is designed in every way to bring out the essence (or at least one aspect of it) of that person. That’s my goal anyway. Although I may shoot five hundred photos in a given session, I am working toward the one shot that best represents the person. That image … “the one” … is what I post to my portfolio’s “Characters of Natchez” section. However, in this blog I provide a few extra shots for you to enjoy (hopefully), and go into the back-story of the photo shoot to reveal a few more interesting details about the person and the session.

When I launched this series at the beginning of the year 2015, I had no idea it would lead to where it has. What started really as an experiment, is morphing into a fun journey filled with adventurous and amazing avenues that explore the unique people of Natchez, Mississippi and its surrounding environs. Ann Gabrielle is from Rodney, a small, practically abandoned ghost town north of Natchez. Once a thriving community, the river changed its path, the hopes of a railroad line never materialized, and the times changed. This left Rodney high and dry of not only the river, but many of its people … yet, not quite all … “There is one dwarf yet in Moria who still draws breath!” Ann Gabrielle loves, as I do, all things Tolkien, Hobbit and LOTR (Lord of the Rings); and, she knows movie lines, being the stage and vocal performer that she is. (The one above is from Lord of the Rings, said by the dwarf Gimli in The Fellowship of the Ring). I know enough about Rodney to know that the people from that area that no longer live there are very quick to tell you they are from Rodney. It is a proud and magical place still, even with the decay and ruin. Is there some fairy-dust that was once sprinkled over the area eons ago that left something special in the very earth and mud, forests and fields of Rodney? If so, Ann Gabrielle caught a good measure of it, for she is extremely gifted as an opera and vocal performance artist.

How does one capture an opera singer? What does that look like? I didn’t really want a performance type of shot – as if I were a Concert/Venue Photographer at a live event. How does one convey “vocal artist” and all the passion she brings to that art form? Not an easy thing to do. I felt a bit like Frodo without a Sam. Well, just one foot in front of the other is a great way to begin … so I started “the process” of working toward a final image by opting to do the unusual angle-of-view or point-of-view (known for short as “POV”). I specialize in weird, or different it seems, but that’s part of my own vision and style – to boldly go where no one else is going, and to work to go deep and explore every possibility. Earlier in the week I had collaborated with a fantastic photo assistant of mine, Morgan Mizell, on location possibilities. Morgan suggested the Natchez Little Theater as well as a couple of other possibilities. I loved the NLT idea – so there we were. But instead of facing toward Ann Gabrielle from the audience’s POV,  I chose an angle from behind her out toward the audience. The second image immediately above is one of the earlier images of the session.  It is very nicely done … but just not quite getting the essence of her squeezed out into the image yet. However, this particular shot might work well for her as part of her own professional portfolio and marketing efforts. Just not what I’m going for just yet…


So, we tried different looks, including an amazingly beautiful blue Japanese fan that they sometimes use in opera performances. In the image to the left, I captured Ann Gabrielle in profile, and changed the lens orientation from landscape (horizontal) to portrait (vertical). An old antique microphone was added to give the viewer the understanding of her as a vocal performer. Later she told me that opera singers project volume naturally and do not use mics! (I am constantly educated on such matters, and I love learning things like that.) I like this image for several reasons: it shows her feminine form, it captures the mic and fan beautifully, and also shows her in the theater context. It’s no accident also that I used the angle of view to also capture her seemingly gazing at the performers masks that are hung on the wall in the back of the theater. (We also had to get on ladders and remove some distracting banners.) It took quite a bit of maneuvering to get this shot, but that’s what it takes. There are no less than six strobes being used to light this scene, including two radio-controlled speedlites at the rear of the theater lighting up the back wall. Notice the effect of a kicker light on her hair (an Elinchrom mono-strobe with a snoot) that lights the back of her shoulders and her hair beautiful, providing some rim (edge) light that provides separation from her and the background. I carefully posed her, talking with her about spinal curvature and posture, her shoulders, hands and neck. She did amazingly well!

Supporting help is always a welcome. I have to mention my photography assistant on this shoot, Morgan Mizell. Morgan is amazingly talented herself (we are planning to do a really fun shoot of her), and she secured the Natchez Little Theater for this shoot location as well as being my “grip” – a lighting assistant. She also helped as a M.U.A. of sorts (a Make-Up-Artist). Ann Gabrielle actually did her own make-up, but Morgan helped with fly-away hair, wardrobe tweaks, and a million other things that involve paying attention “to the talent.” I had suggested that Ann Gabrielle bring a shimmery white or light dress, a bit of bling in a necklace and earrings, and that we would begin with her hair being up. Often a photographer is absorbed with exposure, lighting equipment, composition, flash issues, and light itself … an assistant like Morgan truly helps tremendously in focusing on other important things, and she did a really great job helping me with this shoot. Thank you Morgan! As I said: total awesomeness!

At one point, I asked Ann Gabrielle to just sing away or hum, and I was immediately struck by the ease with which she entered into singing … and how passionate she was while she sang. Her voice is powerful, rich and beautiful. Photography is very, very hard work, but sometimes I catch myself saying under my breath, “Is this for real?” I really love this shot, and perhaps this one is your favorite (or maybe one of the others). That’s very much a subjective process. I took over 500 images including test shots. There are many great images from the session (in my opinion), but I was looking for “the one” for my series. The lighting in this shot is striking, and it took Morgan and myself a lot of fine tweaking and “feathering” to get everything evenly lit, as well as some creative gels on the remote speedlites. Let us know in the comments what you think. 

So why did I choose the image posted at the top of this story? There is just something about it that reveals her passion, beauty and intensity. It is unusual to have a portrait with your eyes closed. Agreed. But, I am not going for a “wall portrait” that is the usual “look at the camera and grin” type of portrait. I just am not concerned with “rules,” “convention,” “tradition,” or what is or isn’t supposed to work with a shot. I just know what I like and what works with what I am going for, and this one seemed to me to be a cut above the rest. It is emotional, feminine, passionate and intimate. 

Thus, it was wonderful shoot with a fantastic assistant in Morgan, a chance to meet and work with Ann Gabrielle, and to also meet her mom Camella who came and helped as well. (I didn’t realize it at first but we discovered we go to the same Church – St. Mary Basilica). It was that old line when we first met up, “Say … you look familiar…” 

BTS (Behind-the-Scenes) shot while Morgan helps Ann Gabrielle take her hair down. 

Ann Gabrielle left for the University of Southern Mississippi on Saturday to begin her first year of doctoral studies in vocal performing arts. There, she will study and teach students who are undergraduates. Not only does she begin work toward her DMA this year, she will be performing the role of Maria in West Side Story, as well as the role of Michaela in Carmen. This is her biggest year yet, with much more to come in what I’m sure will be an amazing journey of her own. I (half-jokingly) told her, “Remember … I shot you first.” 


Thanks for reading this story, and hopefully you learned a bit about Ann Gabrielle and my own visual art processes.




SHOOT DETAILS AND CAMERA EXPOSURE METADATA:

Talent: Ann Gabrielle Richardson
Location: Natchez Little Theater
Photography Assistant & Location Scout: Morgan Mizell
Make-Up & Hair: Ann Gabrielle Richardson
Creative Suggestions & MUA Assistants: Camella Richardson and Layne Taylor
Photo Concept, Photographer & Post-Processing Editing: Mike Chapman

Shot 1 (Passion): Nikon D810; Lens Baby Composer Pro with Edge 80 Optic (80mm); ISO 64; f/11; 1/250th of a second; tripod mounted. This shot was my choice the moment I saw it. It was not a difficult decision.

Shot 2 (Professional Portfolio Image): Nikon D810; 50mm f/1.4 prime Lens; ISO 64; f/2; 1/250th of a second; tripod mounted. I love the lighting, and knew by this point my extensive lighting efforts were going to pay off. While this didn’t win for my top shot, I think it’s a solid shot for her portfolio. I’m liking at this point the choices I made in wardrobe, hair, and jewelry. It is a very important part of my process to think about how the various elements of my composition are working together … not only with color, but with shape, texture and gesture.

Shot 3 (Blue Japanese Fan): Nikon D810; 105mm f/2.8 Micro Lens; ISO 64; f/2.8; 1/160th of a second; tripod mounted. This pro-level lens is simply amazing. Normally used in wedding photography as a macro lens to capture rings and small items, it also makes for a wonderful portrait lens (a hidden secret). The bokeh (background blur quality) of this lens is truly beautiful. This angle is in portrait orientation.

Shot 4 (MUA Morgan Mizell assisting Ann Gabrielle): Nikon D810; Lens Baby Composer Pro with Edge 80 Optic (80mm); ISO 64; f/11; 1/250th of a second; tripod mounted. The job of a photo assistant includes many tasks. Here, Morgan is focused upon the talent – and helping Ann Gabrielle look the absolute best – attention to every detail is paramount. Sometimes we miss something – but it’s not from lack of trying.

Shot 5 (Singing): Nikon D810; 50mm f/1.4 Prime Lens; ISO 64; f/2; 1/250th of a second; tripod mounted. What a treat to hear her sing. This would later lead to my understanding of just how much she loves her art and singing, and why I chose the ultimate image that I did. I must admit I really like this one as well.

Shot 6 (Hair-down BTS shot with Morgan): Nikon D810; Lens Baby Composer Pro with Edge 80 Optic (80mm); ISO 64; f/11; 1/250th of a second; tripod mounted. Thanks again to Morgan, a HUGE help on this photo shoot.

Tripod: Gitzo carbon-fiber legs with a Really Right Stuff ball-head.

Lenses Used: Nikon 50mm f/1.4 Prime; Nikon 105mm Micro f/2.8; Nikon 24-120mm f/4; Lens Baby Composer Pro with Edge 80 Optic.

Lighting: Elinchrom RX400 mono strobe (x1) with 53″ Rotolux octabank as the key light; fill light was a Paul C. Buff Einstein mono strobe (x1) with a 41″ shoot-through umbrella – all other lights were hair lights and/or kickers (accent lights); an Elinchrom RX400 mono strobe (x1) with a snoot gelled with diffusion gels to kick light onto her brunette hair; Nikon SB910 speedlites (x3) with Magmod modifiers; Lights were triggered with Pocket Wizard radio controllers (x6) – Flex TT5’s, Mini TT1, and AC3 Zone Controller; stands – C Stand with boom, Manfrotto Nano stands, and Alzo 10′ stands. Both creative gels, as well as color corrective gels (CTO 1/4 strength) were used to help create mood and correct the color temperature of the ambient lighting. The Nikon SB910 speedlites and my Pocket Wizards are powered using Eneloop Pro AA rechargeable batteries.

Post-Processing: Adobe Lightroom CC 2015 & Adobe Photoshop CC 2015.