When I was assigned to shoot Steve Martin for Life, I got my hands on everything Steve-his movies, profiles, any publicity. I knew I was not walking in on a "wild and crazy guy." I was walking in on a shy diffident intellectual who would much rather I go away.
I had to give him something to chew on or act out. For me, his comedy always had a wince factor, an underlying sadness. That led to the tragic-comic masks and an in-camera double exposure.
I shot a Polaroid double of myself the night before in my hotel. This had two purposes: I could show him something and I could work the shot out-right down to the power ratios of the strobes, camera-to-subject distance, and f-stop. I couldn't waste time on location with that stuff, 'cause Martin was giving me four hours to fill six pages in Life.
Martin liked the Polaroid, so my assistant Garth headed to the basement to set up the double exposure. I tailed the comic through the house, shooting bits and pieces with available light. When the double was ready, we knocked it out in about 15 minutes.
Believe it or not, many actors/actresses are terrified of a still camera. Why? They can't act to it. There's no music, there's no dialog, there's no motion, there isn't another actor to bounce off of-just an unforgiving machine staring them in the face. That was part of the thinking for the Polaroid: it gave him an outlet, he could act.
[How to Get This Type of Shot:
The shot was taken with three strobes: two camera left, one camera right, each positioned within one foot of his face, using small softboxes (1x2''). Both flashes were positioned slightly above his eyes and there is a low box for the left side of his face, softening the shadows and filling in his expression. I used smaller softboxes to control the light-I didn't want a lot of spill. Because I wanted to blend the two photos together, I wanted the light to hit his face and then immediately fall off.
This was done with film, but now it's easier to do a double exposure in-camera with digital. For example, on a Nikon D3, it has a double-exposure mode where you make one picture, the subject turns, and you just click again-it's just not that tough. The secret to doing this (moving fast) is the focus cursors: you want the focus cursor on the eye. When he turns, you move the equivalent cursor on the left side and now you know the two faces are in register.]
Excerpted from: The Moment It Clicks. Photography secrets from one of the world's top shooters. By Joe McNally, Copyright 2008 Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders