How I Photographed a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Writer

My recent shoot with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Mitchell S. Jackson turned out great but was not without problems. Join me for a detailed look at how it all went down.

I have photographed Mitch many times in the past and long before he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for his essay in Runner’s World about the life and death of Ahmaud Arbery. When Mitch first contacted me for this photoshoot, I asked him to send a mood board consisting of images that are similar to the ones he would like to create on our shoot. I knew he would not be able to post an actual gallery of images since it is unlikely he would have the necessary hardware for doing that, but I did expect him to email me some photographs that would represent his vision for the shoot. I have photographed Mitch several times, and my photographic goals have been different for each shoot. Once, we traveled to his hometown of Portland, OR to get documentary-style images for a film he directed. I have been to his home where I have photographed his writing process. For this shoot, Mitch wanted images for his branding. Mitch is very into fashion, and the images would need to reflect that.

I booked a studio in lower Manhattan that I have used many times in the past. The location is only good for photos on a cyc (white backdrop). When I finally received the sample images, it was only a day or two before the shoot. Many of these images incorporated textured walls, chairs, and couches. I knew the studio I booked would not work for these shots, so I canceled the Manhattan studio and used Peerspace to find a more suitable location in Brooklyn. I mention this as an example of how things don’t always go smoothly on every shoot for me, and you shouldn’t expect them to go perfectly for you either. Obviously, the better communication you have with your client, the more likely it is that you will reduce these problems.

Mitchell S. Jackson photographed by John Ricard. Nikon Z 6 with 24-70mm S lens.

My first setup in the studio was on white seamless paper. For me, these images are crucial because they allow the viewer to focus solely on the subject. They also give a clear view of the subject’s styling and features. These images are also useful for any media outlet that needs an image that conveys who this person is. These images might be used on a digital flyer promoting Mitch’s appearance on a podcast, and the photograph would be placed alongside text and other images, so this image must be uncluttered. I had brought my ancient Elinchrom Octabank (now known as the Elinchrom Indirect Litemotiv Octa Softbox 75”), but the space was equipped with a Profoto RFi Octa Softbox. Since the light quality from this modifier was close enough to that of my modifier, I felt it easier to just utilize the Profoto Softbox as Mitch’s only light source. I used two additional Profoto heads bounced into umbrellas that were aimed at the white seamless to avoid dramatic shadows behind Mitch. Since this wasn’t an actual fashion shoot or catalog shoot, I was ok with the background not being 100% white since I could adjust it in post for the handful of images that we might use from this setup.

Mitchell S. Jackson photographed by John Ricard. Nikon Z 6 with 24-70mm f/4 S lens.

I asked Mitch to select the music, and I was deliberate about setting a mood that allowed for a lot of talking, laughing, and dancing even. My goal was to create as many images as possible that would not look posed. This is difficult when the subject is standing on white seamless with nothing specific to do. If you are photographing a model or music artist who is comfortable in their skin, this will be only a minor challenge. If you are photographing someone with a more normal career such as a banker or police officer, it is best if you learn some specific poses and you direct your subject into those poses.

Mitchell S. Jackson photographed by John Ricard. Nikon Z 6 with 24-70mm S lens.

Mitchell S. Jackson photographed by John Ricard. Nikon Z 6 with 24-70mm f/4 S lens.

We then moved to incorporate some of the props in the studio. Initially, I used two umbrellas placed at 45-degree angles to create soft lighting. This setup ensures that the shadows are minimal and the subject’s skin is smooth. This is a flattering look for any subject, but it may result in a portrait that is ordinary rather than extreme. Still, it is good to capture shots like this. After photographing with the umbrellas, I asked Mitch to stay with the same wardrobe as I rearranged the lights into a more dramatic setup. Using a Profoto beauty dish placed 10 feet away from the subject, I was able to create shadows. These shadows help make for a more interesting portrait overall, but note the potentially distracting shadows on Mitch’s face. I wouldn’t want to turn in final images from a shoot where all of the photographs had shadows under the eyes or across the cheeks.

Mitchell S. Jackson photographed by John Ricard. Nikon Z 6 with 24-70mm f/4 S lens.

My normal lens for studio portrait photography is 85mm. For environmental portraiture, I favor a 35mm because it allows me to incorporate some of the backgrounds into the photograph. For my next setup with Mitch, I wanted to highlight his green shoes, so I used a 24mm lens positioned close to these shoes. This had the effect of making the shoes appear unnaturally large in the final shot. By keeping Mitch’s face near the center of the frame, I was able to avoid having a lot of perspective distortion on his face. I would not normally photograph a writer in this manner, but since this was a branding shoot for a very fashionable writer, I felt comfortable shooting this way.

Mitchell S. Jackson photographed by John Ricard. Leica M10 Monochrom with 24mm Elmarit.

I have never been a black and white shooter, but I purchased a Leica M10 Monochrom recently. I am cognizant that there are many advantages in using a color camera to create black and white images, but I wanted to embrace the limitation of having a camera that was incapable of taking pictures that looked like the ones I have taken in the past. On every shoot, I try to find ways to utilize this camera. This day, I used it to capture candid moments. I tried to squeeze off a few frames whenever possible while Mitch waited for me to adjust the lighting or when Mitch was preparing himself for the next shot. I also engaged him in conversation and used the Monochrom to capture authentic smiles. I did make a point of letting him know that any images I turned in as black and white could not be provided as color photographs.

Mitchell S. Jackson photographed by John Ricard. Leica M10 Monochrom with 35mm Summicron.

Mitchell S. Jackson photographed by John Ricard. Leica M10 Monochrom with 24mm Elmarit.

The entire shoot lasted five hours. I used Photo Mechanic to make my selects, and I prepared a gallery for client delivery in Photoshelter. When I looked over the final shoot, I realized that I had not taken enough shots in the headshot composition. I had been so focused on capturing some of the fashion elements that I had neglected to create tight portraits. I am not proud of this mistake and I expect better from myself, but I point it out as a caution to you that even when your client is approving images as you are shooting, you are the person who needs to be certain that you capture every potential photograph that your client might expect when you deliver the final product.

Mitchell S. Jackson photographed by John Ricard. Nikon Z 6 with 24-70mm f/4 S lens.

Mitchell S. Jackson photographed by John Ricard. Leica M10 Monochrom with Helios Helios 44-2 58mm lens.

I contacted Mitch and told him I had made a mistake and that we should book a second session just to capture headshots. I offered to do this session at no cost since the oversight was mine. We booked a studio in Manhattan shot for about an hour. I knew I could get a perfect headshot using the Nikon Z 6 and 85mm lens, but I wanted to get at least one more artistic shot. I used the Monochrom with a Helios-44-2 58mm lens that I bought for about $50 on eBay after seeing a YouTube video about the dramatic out-of-focus elements that the lens creates at f/2. Because the focal length is under 85mm, there is obvious perspective distortion on Mitch’s face. I would not turn in an entire shoot that has this effect, but I knew we had covered ourselves by shooting the majority of the headshot session with the Nikon 85mm lens. Therefore, I was ok with turning in the Helios images that had intentional distortion.

In summation, this shoot was a success, despite having some problems before and during the shoot. The key to fixing these problems was my willingness to acknowledge my mistakes immediately and take steps to correct them. With each shoot, I strive for excellence. It doesn’t always happen, but I am always moving in that direction. I suggest you do the same.

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6 Comments
Michelle VanTine's picture

Ouf that one w the green shoes. Amazing angle. Love it. Is that your studio? Very cool

Deleted Account's picture

It is distortion caused by the lens, when using a wide-angle lens for portraits. Something many would consider a mistake. As it results in body parts being distorted. But maybe the subject wanted to get such a result, don't know:)

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

It's a creative decision, not a mall photographer just pressing a button decision. Wide angles are common in literally of all people photography, and yes, that includes portraits.

Michelle VanTine's picture

I do that all the time. Was it the 16-35 lens? I love it

John Ricard's picture

24-70mm Nikon S lens.

John Ricard's picture

It's a rental in Brooklyn. NYC studio prices are out of control. I had a studio in Times Square for many, many years, but I was glad when I finally let it go.