Shooting Sir Ranulph Fiennes
In the last several months, I’ve been commissioned to photograph a former Deputy Prime Minister, a BBC Radio presenter and most recently, two Director Generals of Mi5. I’m always honoured to meet such interesting people, but last month, a commission came in that stood out from the crowd. I was asked to produce a portrait of a personal hero of mine- Sir Ranulph Fiennes OBE.
To say I was excited about this shoot would be a huge understatement. Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by Sir Ranulph’s adventures, and it’s probably fair to say that reading about his explorations in the 90’s inspired me to travel as much as I have.
As is often the case with this type of commission, I would have only a very brief window to get the shots I needed. I started to think about how I would photograph the world’s greatest living explorer. A man who once ran seven marathons, in seven days on seven continents. A man who was the first to cross the Antarctic unsupported. A true national treasure.
I decided that I was going to set up for a couple of lighting options and poses, then make the final call once I’d met Sir Ranulph. Despite the tight schedule restrictions, I was going to make sure there was enough time for a quick chat before I started shooting- he is a personal hero after all!
Of course, being a commissioned shoot meant there was a brief I had to stick to, but this still allowed for some creativity on my part. I had already decided what I wanted the portrait to capture, I was just leaving my options open on how exactly the photograph would do this.
Often, when you meet a person face to face, that you have seen on the television or read about in the papers, you find differences in your expectations compared with reality. I wanted my portrait of Sir Ranulph to be a representation of my impression of him once I had met him in person.
As soon as I met Sir Ranulph and shook hands with him, I began to narrow down the options of how I would photograph him. He is an extremely charming man; polite, calm and he has an excellent sense of humour. We spoke about his previous travels and when I asked him if he was planning anything else, he replied, “I’m always planning something”.
Sir Ranulph is also a keen photographer. His brand of choice? Nikon. We hit it off immediately! We spoke about the Nikon F2 and it turned out we both favoured the same film, Kodachrome 64 (which is sadly no longer produced). He was very interested in the D800 I was using to photograph him.
A few minutes later, it was time to take some pictures. I explained the type of image I was going for and Sir Ranulph was happy with my idea. I wanted the image to have a painterly feel so opted to go with an almost wide open aperture and soft, cinematic lighting. I was using Pocket Wizards which meant I could simply select the lighting group I wanted to use rather than having to walk around turning off each strobe I didn’t want to fire.
The lighting group I had selected consisted of just two lights. The main light was a Bowens Quad head with the power down low, shooting through an octo box and positioned just out of shot, high up and camera left. The second light was an SB800 with a grid that would act as a separation light on the other side. Because of the extreme position of the main light, I also had a reflector panel to hand that could be wheeled in just out of shot.
The position of the main light had to be very precise- I wanted it to light the right side of Sir Ranulph’s face and then fall off nicely without lighting the left side too much. I also didn’t want enormous catch lights in his eyes- which would be distracting. I asked Sir Ranulph to look straight into the lens and used the camera position to get the catchlights in his eyes the way I wanted them. If his chin was 1cm lower or higher, the look of the image would have completely changed.
After the first test shot, I decided to lose the separation light at the back. It was taking away from the soft, natural and dramatic light that the main strobe was creating. I could see that the main light was giving me a nice vignette on the backdrop anyway, so Sir Ranulph wasn’t going to get lost against a black background.
I asked Sir Ranulph to sit leaning forward slightly- this had two purposes; it would make him look and feel more relaxed and would also capitalise on the shallow depth of field the f2.5 aperture was offering- just his face would be in focus and everything else nicely blurred.
As they say, ‘a portrait is all about the eyes’, and when you’re dealing with a man who has commanded platoons, crossed both polar ice caps and conquered Everest, the eyes will either make or break the picture. I explained to Sir Ranulph what I wanted expression wise, and credit to him, ten frames later I had the shot.
I’m very pleased with the final results, as was the client, and it was an honour to meet and photograph Sir Ranulph. I hope our paths cross again one day. Here’s one of the shots: