Each image in Nicky Hamilton’s personal project, The Lonely Man, is a three-month labour of love and patience. What first seems like an image in a quaint location is in fact a set built, dressed, and styled by Hamilton himself. Christopher Quyen takes a look into just what goes into crafting this amazing series.
Nowadays, the world of photography moves faster than most of us can shoot. With over a billion images uploaded online every day, the thought of slowing down seems almost impossible. But for UK-based photographer, Nicky Hamilton, slow shooting laid the foundation for what would become The Lonely Man. Each image was quintessentially created from scratch; from making a rough sketch of the idea, to building and dressing the set, to lighting and shooting it.
“I wanted to change the pace. My plan was to work akin to a painter with a canvas, creating the photo, and not finding it on location,” says Hamilton. “Four years ago, I opened my own studio and havesince dedicated my time to this series and my style of creating images.” When he’s not engaged with the project, Hamilton shoots advertising work for his commercial clients.
The story behind the man
Before Hamilton shifted focus to photography, he worked in an advertising agency as an art director and spent a lot of time on shoots. It wasn’t until he decided to buy a Nikon D60 at Sydney Airport that photography started becoming an obsession. Early in Hamilton’s career, he stumbled on a documentary about Gregory Crewdson that would influence and inspire his project. “His approach to photography was so refreshingly different to the world I was working in, and such a welcome change of pace to the instant photography era we now live in. This style of ‘stage’ photography just clicked with me,” says Hamilton. A few years later, Hamilton was able to open his own studio and start crafting his own stages.
Hamilton’s father served as the main source of inspiration for The Lonely Man. The series currently includes 16 images. “For my first big series I decided to shoot a character study of my father, with the intention to understand my past and to tell the story through a tableau,” says Hamilton. By documenting his childhood with his father, Hamilton depicts the turbulence of his dad’s life: from working as a builder in his own business, to going bankrupt, to turning to a life of crime. “There’s a narrative within the series – it’s a journey through pain, fear, hope, and redemption which is a reflection of that period in my life.”
A slow and meticulous process
It takes about three months just to craft just one picture in The Lonely Man. It first starts with a sketch of the concept. Once that is complete, the sketch is transferred into a 3D pre-visual where Hamilton pre-lights the model and also tests what colour palettes goes with the scene. “I also scan in texture such as wallpapers and carpets,” he says. “Next I build the set, followed by set dressing and styling which usually takes around six weeks.”
Once the set is built, pre-lighting the set is the next stage. “I experiment with styles trying to get the balance of aesthetic and mood correct for the concept,” says Hamilton. The next stage is pre-lighting the set. Once all the components are perfected in the image, Hamilton adds in the talent and begins to shoot, allowing a full day. “Finally it’s off to post production which I often leave for a few weeks as I can feel too close to the idea and like to refresh my point of view before finalising the picture,” says Hamilton.
Working on The Lonely Man, shooting on location wasn’t on Hamilton’s mind at all. “I like the time to produce pictures without compromise, and building sets enables this,” he says, although he admits that he has little experience of actual set design. “I’m from a family of builders, so I think it’s in the blood.” Working solo for the majority of the production, he was able to construct the environment that he envisioned without dealing with the stresses of shooting with a team on location. “Not only can I experiment and create exactly the environment that I’m after,” Hamilton says, “I’m also able to spend the right amount of time going through all the options, which unlike shooting with a big crew on location tends to leave you feeling under pressure and rushed into making decisions.” Time and expense were the only downside to building, but Hamilton says that achieving the perfect scene was worth the pay-off.
Crafting the natural
Even though Hamilton utilised sets in his project, it was important to balance a sense of reality and naturalness with the heightened drama in each image. As a result, lighting was a major part of the production in order to make sets look as if they belonged in Hamilton’s childhood. “A lot of the lighting design is figured out in the pre-production 3D visuals,” Hamilton says. “I aim to make the lighting of the subjects look as if they’re lit via the practical lighting sources within the space, and I experiment with the set design to help me do this. There’s usually a lot of trickery with where lights are hidden in and around the set.”
Crafting something to look natural also meant that he had to capture a wide dynamic range across the highlights and shadows in each image, and he often shot multiple exposures for the same shot. In crafting each of the scenes, Hamilton cites films and cinematography as the driving aesthetic factor behind the work. “I’ve always been a very visual person. I’ll watch a film, pausing ever so often to take in a moment, staring wondrously at what’s stirred the emotions,” he says. Cinematography has been Hamilton’s key influence for the project. “I’m a big fan of the natural look; I think it helps translate the emotions.” Cinematographers who have most inspired him include Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki, and the late Vilmos Zsigmond.
Photography and lighting gear
Hamilton shot on either a digital medium format Hasselblad H4D60 or a Hasselblad 500 C/M with a film back. “I also usually only shoot on either a 50mm or an 80mm lens,” says Hamilton. When he was thinking about the lighting for the project, he felt continuous lighting to be a better option over strobes. “I shoot with continuous lighting for a more cinematic and natural feel,” he says. To light The Lonely Man, Hamilton used Arri M18s for key, a Kinoflow for down lighting, Dedolights for details, and Source Fours for fill. But the most peculiar gear used was in the pre-production of the project where Hamilton utilised 3D software to visualise the images he would create. “My 3D pre-visual software of choice is Cinema 4D with the Greyscalegorilla light kit plugin,” says Hamilton.
Although Hamilton shot across multiple exposures to craft each individual picture in The Lonely Man, he admits that the retouching was relatively straightforward. “My retouching is very light. The retouching and grading is performed by myself in a tedious painter-like fashion. I generally use plates to fix the exposure of certain areas within the picture,” says Hamilton. “I also tweak the hue and saturation of colours to help create a specific look and feel the final picture,” he says.
Check out Nicky Hamilton's other project, Take Me Away.
Nicky Hamilton www.nickyhamilton.com, www.instagram.com/nicky_hamilton
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