How I Shot It: War of 1812 Re-Enactor Portraits

On almost any given weekend somewhere in the world there are bands of brothers recreating battles from our history, honouring the lives of the men, women and children and who fought for their land, their homes, and their ideologies.

Every year, here in Hamilton, Ontario, a dedicated group of re-enactors head to Battlefield Park in Stoney Creek to recreate the Battle of Stoney Creek that took place during the War of 1812. These men and women do their best to stay true to the authenticity of the period they are representing; they don clothes made authentic to the period, pitch tents to make temporary homes, and cook meals by campfire.

The Photos of 2014

Last year, I ventured down to Battlefield Park with my camera in my first attempt to capture some portraits of war re-enactors. I got some great shots but I learned a few things about the process of shooting in near complete darkness that I just hadn't taken into consideration at the time, things like: cameras can't focus in the dark; how quickly these re-enactors want to get out of the heavy wool clothes in 30 C heat after the re-enactments are finished for the day; and, that many of them haven't had a professional photo taken of them in their uniform, in which they've invested considerable time and money. They want to photographed.

These are some of the images I took last year:

The images I took turned out pretty good... considering — considering I was still only a few months into being a professional photog; considering I had never shot on-location at night before, never mind with a battery pack and a single light source. However, if you look closely at the images, you'll see their flaws.

The focus is slightly off on a couple of the images. Many of the images I never ended up processing because the focus was just too far gone. In the field that night, I learned quickly that the camera wouldn't focus. Our solution at the time was to hold a phone in front of the subjects face, focus on the lit-up screen, lean-in slightly, then take the shot. Since the screen was in front of their face, the camera wasn't actually focusing on their face. I would lean forward a few inches to compensate for the distance, but this method was obviously not 100% effective.

Also, the composition of these images, the placement of the light source, and the perspective of the camera is pretty much the same in all of the shots. Each image can stand on its own merits, but as a collection, they fall flat and lack personality. The collection itself becomes boring. This is a result of not having a ton of experience, knowledge, and confidence, having only been shooting professionally for a number of months.

That being said, at the time, I was extremely pleased with the results. I learned a ton and ended up with a selection of images that quickly landed themselves at the top of my portfolio and on the front page of my website. These images also opened a number of doors for me, even though they have since been removed from my website in favour of more recent, and, I believe, much better images.

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The Re-Shoot of 2015

If you look at my work, you will see I like my images clean and crisp and exuding personality. Since the first trip to Battlefield Park, I had a year of learning, growing, experimenting, refining, knowledge, professional development, and confidence boosting, among many other things, under my belt. I had a lot of time to look at the images, think about what I had done wrong (due to my lack of experience) and what I could do better (with my gained knowledge and experience) given the opportunity.

I wanted to reshoot the re-enactors. I needed to reshoot the re-enactors. The collection of last year's images felt stale, boring. I wish I had varied the composition, the perspective, and the placement of the light. And I just couldn't get past the focus issue.

Sometime around January, I checked the Tourism Hamilton website for the dates of the re-enactment and added it to my Google Calendar. One thing I got right last year was shooting on Saturday evening after the last battle re-enactment. For the months leading up to the event, I made sure nothing else was booked that day. Then I started planning.

At the forefront of my mind was how to address the focus issue. Since you can't (or really shouldn't) use a modelling light with a lithium ion battery pack, I needed a way to land accurate focus. I decided the simplest solution was to use my iPhone, which we had done last year, but instead of focusing on the phone, we turned on LED flashlight and used that to illuminate the faces of my subjects.

The process went like this: I would compose the shot, my assistant for the evening, Richard, would shine the phone's LED flashlight on the subject's face, I would focus and re-compose, and Richard would position the light — a 250ws light in a double-baffled Westcott Rapid Box 48" Octa XXL, mounted on a backdrop light stand pole, held in place by my human light stand, Richard — then I would take the shot. Actually, I would take a few shots for safety. Occasionally, I would accidentally hit the AF button with my thumb (I use back-button autofocus) and we would have to go through the flashlight focus process all over.

QUICK ASIDE: One of the habits I have developed over the past year is to strictly use the centre focal point and recompose. I do this for a couple of reasons: 1) I still shoot the majority of my work on a five-year old Canon 60D, which I've recently had to have fixed due to a back-focusing issue. 2) The centre focal point is the most accurate on every camera system. Since I like my photos clean and crisp, I want every shot to have the most accurate focus possible. 3) I imagine myself someday upgrading to a Phase One camera system, which historically has had a single, centre focal point. (Up until the recent release of the XF system with its Honeycomb Autofocus Platform.)

My other main concern was shooting a project that resulted in a collection of images that showcased a variety of characters, each uniquely lit and composed, with a camera perspective that best suited each image. Let's take a look at some of the images from the collection, and I'll explain the thought process that went into each image.

The Militiaman's Wife

This was one of the first shots I took during the day. You can see from the background of the image that the sun is still out. This woman was standing around the wooden fence that separates the camp from the spectators. This is the expression she had on her face as she stood facing the sunset. I was drawn in by just how stunning she looked. Obviously a very naturally beautiful woman, I wanted to capture this moment.

To me this represented an idea of hope, a stolen sunset in the middle of a war. The militiamen, not being soldiers, had to bring their wives and families to the battles. I couldn't imagine being having to live only hundreds of feet from the battlefield, in fear that your husband may not make it back to camp. This woman's look. The moment of reprieve. The glow of the sunset. This was a moment of hope.

I positioned the camera so the directionality of my subject's gaze was looking to the right, to the future. The camera is slightly below chin level to provide her with a slightly elevated, slightly superior (more powerful) position. This is a perspective I choose a lot in my work, as I rarely like to shoot my subjects — especially women — in an inferior position. The light was placed camera right and aimed directly at the subject to match and mimic the sun, to cast her in the glow  of "the sun," and to further enhance the notion of hope.

The Marshal Portrait

I saw this gentleman, along with a few others, rolling up this flag to put it away for the night. I believe they were the color guard. I saw the opportunity for a great martial portrait and asked them to stop for a minute and allow me to take a photo. I wanted to make sure the flag was the only item in the background, which means I was cropped in a little tighter than I would have liked to have been for a proper marshal portrait, but when you're on location, in a living environment, with a very finite and small amount of time, there is only so much you can do.

Again, the perspective of the camera puts the subject in a superior position. Again, the subject is looking to the right. Again the light is positioned camera right. This time, however, the light is further right to add more depth to the shadows and more dimension to the subject's face. In the image of the militiaman's wife, you can see there is very little shadow on the broad side of the face, as the light is aimed directly at her. In this image, the light source has been feathered (something I do a lot; I love the look it produces) shot across the front of the subject, not aimed directly at the subject.

All of these factors produce the image you see here and the convey the one idea that all marshal portraits are designed to convey: power. Is this the right subject for a marshal portrait? Is this someone who holds a position of power in the ranks? I actually don't know. I'm a photographer, not a war historian.

If you're shooting for a client who needs accuracy in these details, then make sure to sort all of that out. But when you're on location shooting for your portfolio, if you see the opportunity, grab it! The goal is to improve your portfolio and get clients that are concerned with such details. (Are you reading this History Channel? WINK! WINK!)

The Man Who Looks After The Horses

I can't remember what this man said his official title was, it seemed long, but he did tell me he was the one who looked after the horses (if there happened to be horses, which there wasn't). He was sitting in the biggest tent, which I assume is the 1812 version of a war room, at a large dining table. If you can imagine the commander and his lieutenants looking over maps, moving a salt shaker (us) and paper mill (them) around the maps, and making battle plans, then you have a good idea what this tent looked like. In the background, you can see one of the poles that is holding up the tent. The piece of canvas behind it is one of the interior walls of the tent. That's right. This tent had multiple rooms, that's how big it was. It wasn't circus tent big, but it was "I'm in charge of this unit and I get my own god damned private room" big.

This gentleman, who needed his cane to walk, was sitting at the table, looking out over the smoke filled field where the battle had just taken place. This is a proud man, as you can tell by his stylish outfit and well-kept top hot, who is battle-worn and who has seen far too many good men die at the expense of a salt versus pepper mentality.

The camera is positioned at face level, neither inferior or superior. This character is not a man of weakness, but it also not a man with a lot of strength of purpose left in him. I positioned the light in the direction of the battlefield and instructed him to look out over the field where the battle had just been fought. The result is an image of a man who sits quietly contemplating what lies ahead. How much longer is this war going to last? How much more death does he have to witness? Have all the horses been fed?

The Soldier

When compiling my shot list for this collection of images, I imagined what an art director might need to promote a TV mini-series on the subject: character galleries, key art, promotional stills, etc. One of the things every good piece of key art needs is copy space. You need to show that you understand the needs of your target client. If that client is (to pick a random example) The History Channel, then that might mean posters, magazine ads, billboards. With this image, it's easy to imagine where the title "1812" would go and that a tighter crop would provide some great negative space for copy about the mini-series.

By now, you have probably already noticed the placement of the camera gives the subject a superior angle. The subject is shot in profile and looking to the left, to the past. Maybe this soldier is reflecting on the events of the day. Maybe he is thinking fondly of his family back home. The light is positioned in front of the subject and ever so slightly on the far side of him in order to sculpt out the the structure of his face. Look at how the shadows fall around the nose, eyes and cheeks.

One thing I try to shoot for in my personal work is authenticity. Because these re-enactors put so much effort into the authenticity of their presentation, uniforms and life in camp, I try to capture what I feel will come across as authentic. In one of the shots we got of this soldier, he had raised his musket over his shoulder. I didn't chose to use it because it seemed inauthentic to me for a soldier to be standing in the encampment at night. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm conditioned by what I see on TV and in movies. Maybe when the History Channel hires me to shoot their campaigns someone can correct me. Either way, for now, it didn't feel authentic, so I chose to use a shot that did, with musket resting on its butt on the ground, and the barrel only slightly peeking up into the frame.

The Enemy

As every knows, we, the British (us, prior to becoming Canada) won The War of 1812. Hell, we even set the White House ablaze. That being said, some good men from the USA fought for their country and lost their lives in the war. Stories, however, need villains. And from Canada's perspective, as it pertains to the War of 1812, that means the USA. You know, because the bad guys always lose in a good story. (For further reference, please refer to the actual War of 1812, the American Civil War of 1861–1865, and the 1996 blockbuster hit Independence Day.)

This American soldier only had a few moments to spare. I knew I wanted an American soldier shot straight on and cross lit to suggest the notion of having to look our enemies square in the face. Again, for the purpose of key art, it's easy to image the title "1812" (get with me on this now, History Channel) written across the bottom, or even just the word "Enemy." I want to note, I asked him to raise his musket and aim it just over my shoulder but, to this guy's credit, he refused. Safety first. Try to get the shot. But be safe about it.

The camera here is positioned dead square to our subject, around nose level. Again, I wanted to convey the idea of facing the enemy straight-on, so that dictated the camera position. The light was placed camera left and slightly behind the subject. I didn't want any light spill filling in the shadows on the face. If I recall correctly, Richard had to keep stepping back a few inches until we got the lighting it just perfect. This shot nailed it.

I could say we placed the light camera left to have the right side of the face fall into shadow and suggest a dark future for our enemy, but really we only had about 20 seconds with this guy. Not a lot of time for options. Still, this is one of my favourite shots from the evening, so I'm very happy with it.

The Militiamen

Militiamen were not soldiers, and as such, did not dress like soldiers. There encampment was separate from the British army's encampment, at least in this re-enactment scenario. The slice-of-life images on the left above, were shot to resemble still frames of our very fictional mini-series about this very real war. The clothes of the first two militiamen were beautifully made and far-too stylish for a war, which you can see in detail in the portrait on the right. The men in the top-left image were sitting around, engaged in idle conversation, while the militiaman in the bottom-left image was busy with the routine ritual of cleaning his musket.

Both of these images on the left were shot with the camera about one or two feet off the ground and the light (still just that single light being held by Richard) camera right. In the top photo, the light was positioned about 10 feet from the subject in order to reduce fall-off and to help achieve good exposure on both men. I had the militiaman on the left turn towards the light for two reasons: 1) to make the image appear less "posed;" and, 2) to give some variety to the way the light was landing on both of their faces. In the bottom photo, we did the opposite. Even though I wanted this image to look as though it was illuminated by the moon, the light was positioned closer to the subject to increase fall-off to provide more light on our musket-cleaning subject than on his tent.

In the portrait on the right, the camera is placed below the chin around chest level to put our subject in a slightly superior position. I asked for a hint of a smile to convey a sense of pride and an air of confidence. The choice to place his finger on the flintlock of the gun was all his, but it might be my favourite thing about this image. I wanted our light source to mimic the glow of a fire, but I also didn't want the shadows to be as deep as the previous shot of The Enemy. Here, you can make out both eyes and there is still some detail in the shadows.

Strawberry Man

This militiaman's wardrobe and tent were amazing. Check out that hat, the mug, those lanterns, everything. Shooting re-enactors on location is akin to having your own set designer and wardrobe stylist. And it costs (you) nothing. It wasn't until I was processing these images in Capture One that I even noticed this man was eating strawberries. What an amazing detail and a brilliant pop of colour that matches the red in his shirts.

The camera is positioned around waist level with a definitive, but not distracting, upward angles. This placed our very confident subject in a superior position while allowing us to show the canopy of the tent's external overhang and lanterns. The lanterns were not light but the one nearest our subject's head clearly shows the reflection of our light source. I'm fine with this, and chose not to edit it out, as I wanted the image to appear as though it was lit by the moon.

Positioning the light for a classic Rembrandt (Hollywood V) allows both eyes to be well lit, while still casting a nice shadow on the subject's face, giving some great texture and dimension. In this case, the light is aimed directly at our subject, to serve two purposes: 1) to avoid the shadow fill you would get from feathering; and, 2) to throw some light into the background, as we only had a single light source.

Colour toning this image with Capture One's new three-way Color Balance tool was a delight. If it wasn't for Capture One, I honestly believe these images would only be half as good. Sorry, Lightroom fans — and I was a die-hard LR fan — but Capture One is far superior for raw image processing. Just look at this image! I feel like I am only about 10% responsible for this result.

Finally, the shape of this man's wardrobe inspired my to get a very different shot than anything else I had done all night. The hat and coat were very unique and unlike anything else I had shot all night. Since I had a 48" octobox, and I had used this technique before (thanks to that year of experience), I asked my human light stand Richard to stand behind the subject and position the light at just the right height, aiming the light directly toward the camera.

Yeah, this is basic backlighting, but a year ago, I wouldn't have even thought to do it, even though I had backlit many other people. The way the light wraps around the subject and pulls out the details in the fibres of the jacket and hat, the skin and hair of our subject, and still acts as a rim light on the ear, nose, mouth, hat brim, and jacket lapel, are all fantastic. I just love this shot. 

It's too bad this militiaman is one of the last people I shot that evening or I would have done this for every single person. An entire series of these images would make for great key art on an ad campaign for our mini-series. Keep that in mind when you pick up the phone and call me to shoot your next campaign. (I'm looking at you History Channel.)