Award-winning portrait of a modern-day explorer

When an extreme adventurer came into our studio for some commercial clothing shots, my favourite picture happened when we ventured outside of the brief…

Alex Bellini is an adventurer, speaker and ‘mental coach’. He’s rowed 35,000km solo across two oceans, walked 2,000km through polar routes and ran for 20,000km on different terrains. He’s an absolute legend, and an all-round nice guy, too. Alex booked in for some images earlier this year, but little did I know that they would turn out to be some of my favourites. Here’s what happened.

Straying off the brief

Alex actually commissioned me to create images on behalf of a company who had given him a high-tech lightweight and weatherproof coat. We spent an hour or so spraying him with water (you can see the water droplets on his cheek and in his beard) taking pictures) and taking photos of him wearing the coat.

Towards the end, I asked if we could take just a few pictures without the coat. I had noticed the incredible sweater he was wearing and it reminded me of the kind of outfits explorers wore in those iconic trips such as Scott’s expeditions in the early 20th Century. Alex’s beard was still wet but I asked him not to dry it off, as I felt it added some intrigue to the shot.

Lights and action

The lighting for this shot is incredibly simple: there’s just a single softbox to the right of the image (as we’re looking at it), at about 45 degrees to Alex.

I positioned Alex and the light carefully so that some of the light faced towards the black background. Since it’s a paper background, some of the light is reflected back, whereas if I’d use material like black velvet, it would absorb almost all the light that fell on it, giving an inky black background. Instead, I wanted just a little tone in the background, rather than it being flat shadow.

This technique works best when your subject is wearing dark clothing that absorbs light. If they are wearing a slightly lighter outfit then use a proportionately lighter background.

Then it’s about expression. In fact it’s nearly ALL about expression. I simply chatted to him, asking him questions and interacting with him. At the moment he looked straight down the lens with this expression, I knew everything had come together and I hit the shutter release. Alex’s eyes just drill right through to your soul, don’t they?

This picture was my instant favourite, from an incredible shoot with an incredible guy!

If you’re interested, this is what the judges said: “The stunning tonal range throughout the photograph and the intensity of the subject’s piercing eyes draw you completely into Paul’s compelling portrait. A powerful image.”


Lighting Diagram

Camera Settings

  • Focal length: 122.0mm
  • Aperture: f/6.7
  • Shutter speed: 1/180 sec
  • ISO: 100