Photography assignment: The Daily Hampshire Gazette
In 2011, the Gazette sent me on assignment to take some photos of Holyoke Police Chief Scott for a story they were doing on his impending retirement. To this day, Chief Scott remains one of my favorite portrait photography subjects and this photo assignment remains one of my favorites.
Photography gear used
I didn’t have much, at this point, in terms of photography equipment. Just a Canon Rebel XTi, 580EX-II Speedlight, a Sigma 17-70mm 2.8-4.0 lens, a Canon 50mm 1.4, and Canon 85mm 1.8 lens and a basic camera bag.
No fancy lighting, no quick-setup light-stand, no portable softbox or light modifiers. Not even a cheap umbrella.
I just had some hair ties and a black foamie thing.
Meet Anthony Scott, Holyoke Police Chief
Chief Scott was no nonsense, approachable, friendly enough, but very disinterested in the whole ordeal. I managed to get a few photos of him outside the station. One of the images that got published was one where he immediately scanned the next street as one of the cruisers blew by, lights flashing and sirens blaring; the photo looked as if he was keeping an eye on the department as much as he kept watch over Holyoke. The City and Department were his domain and he kept a close eye on both.
Chief Scott’s ambivalence to getting a “photo for the paper” made it difficult to show any kind of connection that could engage readers of the Gazette. He had three basic expressions — bored, uninterested, and none — while his department was a mix of colors from red walls and beige ceilings to beige walls and beige ceilings and red carpeting everywhere.
Meanwhile, all of it happened to be nightmarishly lit by fluorescent lights above while blocking bright sunlight with blue blinds in front of large windows.
Can you imagine trying to take a decent portrait there?
The portrait comes together
Fortunately, Chief Scott was a good sport and we quickly set up an impromptu portrait studio in his office since he was packing up and retiring later that week anyway. Shuffling some boxes aside, and opening the blinds brought in enough light to overpower the gross greenish hue from overhead fluorescent lights. It’s a cliche, but we did a few shots next to the United States flag.
At no point did his expression really vary even though, by now, Chief Scott actually seemed interested in getting a good portrait taken. You can kind of see the “how am I doing?” in his eyes in this photo. Settings were simple: 17-70mm lens, f3.5, 1/200″ at iso800 and eTTL flash for fill, bounced against a wall to camera left and flagged with a black foamie thing.
Finally, we decided to go with the City of Holyoke flag as more appropriate for a portrait background, since that was the city he watched over. I used a horizontal composition for balance between the city and the person entrusted with its safety for a decade and decided to just go with his no nonsense demeanor. A couple of quick “test photos” to dial in exposure and composition later, I told him that I was going to have him close his eyes, breathe in, exhale, and open his eyes, then take his portrait on a count of three. He nodded in understanding with a very slight smile, as if to say “Good, that’s simple. I can do this,” to himself.
With that, I gave Chief Scott his final set of directions, for real: “Okay, Chief, now close your eyes and take a deep breath…Great — remember on three — now exhale and open your eyes…”
The moment he opened his eyes, I hit the shutter and took this portrait, which ended up as the front page photo for Hampshire Life, a weekly magazine published by the Daily Hampshire Gazette, in April of 2011:
The final settings were: f4.0, 1/200″ at iso800 and eTTL fill flash bounced and flagged with a black foamie thing
All told, I was originally there for fifteen minutes of Chief Scott’s time. As the photo assignment progressed, he ended up giving me about thirty minutes total and I did not want to take up more time than he was willing to give. The final portrait fell together in about five minutes.
As I thanked him for his time, he escorted me to the front door he told me that he was glad I was willing to take the extra time to work with him at getting a good portrait that he was happy with and captured what he felt was the totality of his career in a single image. I told him that it was my honor that he trusted me with the extra few minutes, because I could appreciate just how busy he was going to be, right up until the day he officially retired from the force.
He smiled, and said that he still wasn’t sure what he would do after his retirement ceremony. I told him that he could do whatever he wanted and he gave a half-laugh and said that was exactly what was scaring him. “Can you believe it? I’ve been such a hard ass for so long, but here I’m telling you how scared I actually am,” he said as we shook hands. “I’m glad I had some extra time.”
“Enjoy all the time that you have left, Chief.”
“…Thank you. I will. You too, son.”
A good portrait does not always need the best “pro level” camera, lenses, or accessories, nor does it need a studio filled with modifiers, strobes, backdrops, and an environment with perfectly controlled lighting.
It just takes the time to get to know the person in front of your lens, and making a connection with another human being who is feeling vulnerable while simultaneously trusting you to show them at their best.
It’s never easy but it is always worth the effort.