Smoking Gangster

To start this Photoshoot section off I have decided to dig deep into the dusty archives and look for some images from a time where I had limited experience but was able to pull off a shot that I can still be proud off. Once I saw this Gangster series I knew I had to feature it as a first post because it is an excellent example where by trial and error everything came together to achieve an appealing composition.

Smoking Gangster PortraitThis session was shot in 2005, back then I have had a small range of models to choose from and most of them were girls. So for many male related themes I opted for self-portraits, which is what these series are. Anyone who ever tried self-portrait will know that it is not an easy task, the framing needs to be just right, the focus has to be accurate, and in this case, the smoke has to be perfect.
I did not have a trigger remote at my disposal so I had to use camera’s timer feature. Which auto focuses at the time the shutter button is pressed. So I had to place a cardboard box in my place, to have a general focus point and set F-stop to f/16, to have some wiggle room if the focus wasn’t spot on. I shot about 50 shots to achieve a desired pose, crop and preferred smoke cloud.

Nowadays, some people think that I got inspiration for this shot from Mad Men series but the show actually debuted in 2007, two years after I had this photo shoot. In reality I was inspired by playing a game called Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven. Once I formed a general idea of how the shot should look, I let my facial hair grow for a few days to achieve a more rugged style. I have never smoked before or after this shoot so this was a completely new experience for me, in fact, I have had such an awful experience with cigarettes on that shoot that it might be one of the reasons I have never touched those things again. Since I wasn’t inhaling and blowing out the smoke, most of it was just going into my nose. The reason I wasn’t really puffing the cigarette is because I was trying to achieve that cloud of smoke rising above cigarette look. It took me about 5 or 6 cigarettes to actually naturally capture it.

Initially, I was shooting without a hat and as you can imagine, the result was not looking very authentic. I did not have a hat accurate to the period but I did have a cowboy hat. All I had to do is straighten it out a bit and have a tight frame crop. Admit it; you would have never guessed that it’s actually a cowboy hat.

Some people have asked me why I chose a pink background for this shot. Basically I wanted to have a bright background to outline the shapes but I didn’t want it to be white, just a slight hint of a tone. My idea was to blow-out the pink just enough to have a minor color shade. I think it worked out in most of the shots in the series. This clearly illustrates that pink background is not just for feminine images, it can work just as well in masculine shots, if done correctly.

Looking back at this image, the only thing I think I should have added is a white napkin inside a pocket in the jacket. This would have created a light element in a dark corner and introduced additional detail for an eye to register.

Technical Side

This series was shot with Canon’s first Digital Rebel 300D. It was a nice digital camera for its time and it has served me well. I used Canon 50mm F/1.4 lens at F/16. As I have mentioned before, this allowed me to achieve a good focus while running to the camera and activating the timer. Shutter speed was set at 1/200 and ISO was bumped to 400. With Canon 300D I did get a noticeable grain but with some noise reduction it printed just fine on 30in X 20in paper. In fact, when converted to black and white and avoiding any noise reduction this image has an authentic 1930s feel with original grain.


The studio setup consisted of two Calumet Travelites. One had a medium softbox and placed in front, slightly to the left. Second light had no attachments and served as a backlight while blowing-out the background at the same time. In fact, this undiffused back light creates a harsh outline on one cheek while a softbox creates a warming effect on the other side of the face. This combination produces an interesting result that makes this portrait stand out.



This entry was posted by Alex Gumerov.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *