I’m surrounded by redheads. Husband, daughter, son, mother, and father-in-law. The list is long, and I have a soft spot. So, when my editor called and asked if I’d ever photographed redheads, I thought, yes, daily. The story was about pain, specifically that redheads are more sensitive to pain and require about 20% more anesthesia than non-redheads.
Like many things I shoot for NGM Departments, often there’s no “go to” image. No event or thing to shoot. I needed to make a single, thought-provoking image that illustrates something abstract and makes the reader linger.
After some test shots on myself and friends at National Geographic, I started bringing redheads to the studio at our D.C. headquarters, to see what I could make. Over the course of a month, I invited 30 people of all ages, skin tones, and shades of red hair to come to the studio. I shot each of them with a huge Octoplus soft box that had a 5-foot diameter, in-close, using a shallow depth of field to bring focus to their primary features. Then, I moved each subject to another setup where I used hard light from far away, to create dramatic shadows that I filled with a second hard fill-light directly over my camera. This light was turned way down but created a catch-light in people’s eyes, which gave some life to the shot. If you look closely, you can see my setup—and me—reflected in the subject’s eyes. I was shooting tethered, directly to my computer with a Hasselblad H2.
When the project was over, I’d photographed two co-workers, a woman my husband recruited at a cocktail party, and a Lebanese man who is the only redhead in his family. I photographed a girl I met in the produce section of Whole Foods, my two-year-old daughter who sat for exactly three frames before running away, and my son who insisted on holding his school mascot, Larry the Lion, in nearly every shot.
In the end, we settled on a simple image of a young woman with long, curly, dark red hair. When she walked into the studio it was obvious that she was going to be the one. Imagine someone with the most beautiful red hair you’ve ever seen. That’s her. The photograph is straightforward; a close up on half-of her face. Probably the simplest route I could have taken, but sometimes after all of your planning, that’s where the project takes you.
Becky Hale’s portrait of the young woman above is featured in the June issue of National Geographic. You can read the story here.