Behind The Scenes

A look behind the scenes at photoshoots and film/tv productions. 

Portrait of Maureen O'Hara

In May 2012 I had the great honour of being commissioned to create a portrait of Hollywood icon Maureen O'Hara. She is the star of countless classic films (such as The Quiet Man, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Miracle on 34th Street) and is often credited with presenting Irish women on a global scale for the first time. I had my work cut out for me to direct an actress that was a long-time collaborator with John Ford! As it turned out, I didn't have to worry too much about directing. 

This was a typical celebrity portrait setup where I was given a nondescript meeting room and told I had 2 minutes with my subject. Myself and my assistant Peter spent two hours in advance setting up the lighting, doing test shots and finessing the tethered workflow. This meant that everything was standing by ready to go. I had to create a lighting setup around the restrictions that I had, which meant going for quite a safe option compared to what I normally do. This portrait was commissioned as part of her return trip to Kells, Co. Meath, where her family are originally from. 

Maureen may be advancing in years, but when she entered the room she owned it. She is sharp, witty and and the same time wonderfully warm. I could immediately see the feisty Mary Kate Danaher. There wasn't much in the way of directing that I could do- she has more experience at this than anyone I could possibly have in front of my camera. In less than 2 minutes we were finished. 

In November 2014 Maureen O'Hara will be presented with an Honorary Oscar. This is a fitting award for an actress that not only represented the Irish image of the 1950's and beyond, but also stole the show with strong female roles that changed the course of cinematic history. 

Finished portrait in my portfolio HERE

Kells Dreamscapes - Behind The Scenes

Kells Dreamscapes is a passion project that I wanted to do for some time. The idea spawned from the large scale lighting I'd used for "Pole In Odd Places"- a series of images of pole dancers in forests, on mountains and in rivers. I wanted to develop the lighting technique and adapt it for something else.

I specialise in working on location and finding new and exotic places to shoot is what excites me and gets my creative process working. I'm very fortunate that my work enables me to travel quite a bit. However, I wanted to set myself some constraints for a new body of work. I wanted to create something within my own means, utilising the tools that I have and working on it somewhere familiar and yet overlooked. That is where the connection was made between this large scale lighting and my hometown of Kells, Co. Meath.

Kells is a monastic town that is celebrating the 1,200th anniversary of it's completion this year, 2014. It was once an epicenter of creativity in the known world. It was the home of St. Colmcille and The Book of Kells, one of the finest medieval texts in the world that set the benchmark for creative expression for centuries. Today, 1,200 years later, the very house that it was stored in is still intact and standing as it did back then. The tower in which it was protected from Viking raids still stands guard over the town. How many people who live in Kells pass by these sites every day and don't soak in their significance? They are so familiar and yet they blend into the scenery of the town. I wanted to change that.

A "behind the scenes" photo showing some of the lighting setup around The South Cross, a 9th Century high cross inside St. Columba's Church ground, Kells, Co. Meath, Ireland. 

I set about scouting locations- planning angles, sketching lighting diagrams, thinking of colour combinations and being a weirdo standing in the middle of the street at 2am muttering to myself. I revisited several locations that are well known and also some that people from Kells wouldn't immediately think of highlighting. The first night of shooting was to simply prove the concept. Cian Markey and I (super-duper assistant. Hi Cian!) dived right into it... and we soon realised it's a much bigger job than we thought.

A major difficulty was balancing shades of colours for backlights and key lights. I wanted a mystical, magical feel with shades of blue, green and teal bathing the background. It took some time to experiment with different techniques- a tedious process of going through every variation of my lighting diagrams until the effect I was looking for started to emerge from the scene. The biggest mistake we made was underestimating just how long it takes to light each photograph. It takes a lot longer than we first thought- from aiming for 3 images per night to feeling delighted to pull off one image per night!  

After the first night of 10pm till 5am, we learned what we needed to learn, made some mistakes, and eventually proved the concept. We overcame the technical problems that were holding back my vision. Once we tamed the tech side of things, I could coerce it into creating the light that was in my head. 

And now- for fellow camera nerds- a technical aside. I had thought about shooting the project on medium format. I knew I wanted to print them very large for the exhibition but I needed better high ISO performance for many of the shots. It was a matter of juggling aperture (for flashes), shutter speed (for ambient light) and ISO (for both). I decided to shoot the project on the Nikon D800 with Nikon lenses. It gave me exactly what I needed- high ISO performance, 36MP resolution and the precise controls needed for the situations I was throwing at it. Once I had that, it did what I want every camera to do- melt into the background and stay out of my way. I was confident that no matter what weird and wonderful visions I had in my head, the D800 can capture them without me having to worry about it. Less time on tech, more time on vision. 

The artificial light that washes over every scene is from a mix of small flashguns for picking off details and Bowens Gemini Pro's on battery packs for the heavy lifting. 

Behind the scenes of the lighting setup for Headfort Mausoleum hidden in thick forest. Is it bad that one of my favourite images of the project isn't even in the exhibition? 

Back to the adventure side of the project. One of my favourite photographs from the project is a behind the scenes image showing the lighting setup for the Headfort Mausoleum image. I had Mark Smith from Kells Local Heroes helping me for this one (his important influence can be seen if you look very very closely at the exhibition print). He generously took time out of his own project, Kells Type Trail, to venture deep into overgrown forest with me for the night. The process for filming and photographing permits is a lot simpler in rural Ireland and I kept the local Gardaí updated to my movements each night I was out shooting. Curiosity got the better of two of them who wanted to see what I was up to. I think I made two new fans!

I was assisted by Cian for three of the photos, by Mark Smith for one, my dad for one and my ever-patient girlfriend Katie for two. I had great help in getting access to locations- Stephen Strong, Norman Ormiston and Emilie and Lucy from Kells Tourism Forum. I worked alone on some of the images and I found it oddly soothing to be out by myself in the middle of the night making the images I had in my head appear on camera.

I come away from this project with two important things.

  • Firstly, I have developed a lighting style and technique that will be among my arsenal for my commercial and advertising work. I'm comfortable with the whole process and can apply it to any amount of situations. I wanted to push myself both technically and creatively and I feel I have done that.
  • Secondly, I've learned a lesson about local community. When I'm photographing or filming in America, Europe or across Africa one of the first steps in pre-production is making contact with local organisations, groups or people that have a local knowledge of the area. This opens doors and creates relationships and friendships that have lasted me many years. When I reached out in my hometown I was amazed at the amount of work that is being done on a local level to improve the community. Not only that, I found sources of artistic creativity that I vaguely knew about before but had never sought out. I set out to open other people's eyes to the creative history of the town and yet I've learned more myself about the people behind the creative and community effort alive in the town today. 

The lighting setup for my final image, Home Tree.

Kells Dreamscapes will be on display at Hetherton's Garage, Bective Square, Kells, Co. Meath, Ireland, from June 25th to 28th 2015.
The images can be viewed in my portfolio HERE. I would highly recommend coming down to see the images displayed at A0 size. You will see the town in a new light!

All images are available for purchase worldwide through my online shop HERE.