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Best of ASMP 2009

With his self-assigned series, “Manual Labor,” Darren Carroll adds an unexpected element to his portrait jobs by making close ups of his subjects’ hands in addition to their faces. Taking only a few minutes at the start of each session, these images act as an icebreaker, allowing both photographer and subject to ease into the shoot and build familiarity. From the steady grip of the athletes shot for Sports Illustrated to the cradled hands of a quilter, each of Carroll’s close ups offer intimate details about his subject’s character and way of life.

Darren Carroll


Project: “Manual Labor” portrait series that includes close-up images of the subjects’ hands.

© Darren CarrollAll images in this article © Darren Carroll

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

DC: A little over 15 years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

DC: Since 2004.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

DC: Environmental/location portraiture, sports action, reportage.

© Darren Carroll

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

DC: I know it sounds hokey, but whatever I need to best execute the task currently at hand. If I’m shooting sports action, a 400mm f/2.8 lens is invaluable. If I’m shooting a portrait, I don’t want to be without a full-frame DSLR and an 85mm f/1.8. If it’s a fly-on the-wall documentary project, I want rangefinders. And if the situation warrants, deadlines are loose, and the client is amenable, I have a shelf full of view cameras that I’m always dying to use whenever possible. I just don’t want to fall into the trap of becoming reliant on any one thing — be it a light, a format, a camera, or a lens — as a stylistic tool and having that limit what I can offer a client.

© Darren Carroll

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

DC: I have a very easygoing approach to shoots, which is the result of years of photographing subjects — athletes, executives, and so on — who don’t have a lot of time to devote to photo shoots and who aren’t necessarily comfortable being photographed. I don’t let the smallest little problems faze me — I adapt quickly and easily to unseen locations and unforeseen situations. Most of my assignments involve very minimal prep and scouting time, because most of my subjects demand a minimum of intrusion into their lives and on their time. As a result, I tend to work quickly, with a small crew (if any), and very little fuss, which I’ve found my subjects really appreciate. I think that this creates a comfort level which is reflected in my portraits.

On the other side of the coin, I can very easily work with little direction. Editors tend to tell me that they like that they can just kind of “wind me up” with a concept and let me go, knowing that I’ll handle everything without making a big deal of little bumps in the road along the way, and deliver what they want without wasting a lot of their time with things that they’d rather not worry about. “Low maintenance” is a term I hear a lot from clients.

© Darren Carroll

ASMP: What motivated you to start photographing the hands of your portrait subjects’ in addition to their faces?

DC: It was just a desire to try something a little different. I was helping a farrier to shoe my wife’s horses one afternoon and noticed the peculiar way that he held the nails in his mouth and, after looking at his weathered face for a bit, thought he’d make an interesting portrait subject. In the course of the shoeing session, I also noticed how worn and rough his hands were, and thought that they might make an interesting picture in and of themselves. It wasn’t too much of a leap from there to pair the two elements side by side.

After that, whenever I found a subject with an occupation that seemed to warrant it, I’d try to take a minute or two during the shoot to execute a portrait of their hands.

© Darren Carroll

ASMP: Do you always shoot the hand details at the beginning of a portrait shoot? What initial reaction do your subjects have when you suggest photographing their hands?

DC: Generally speaking, yes — at the beginning. There’s really nothing out of the ordinary about reactions to the idea — no one has every recoiled in shock or anything. If anything, it just presents an opportunity to engage them in a little conversation about something other than the weather, and lets them get comfortable with the process of being photographed without thrusting them right into portrait session itself.

ASMP: Describe your technique for using black velvet to isolate hands. What lighting, camera and optics do you use?

DC: It’s very simple. I use a piece of black velvet about 3 feet wide by 6 feet long, purchased at a normal fabric store. I cut two slits, about 8 inches long, approximately 1 foot apart in the fabric. I then simply instruct the subject to slide his/her hands though the slits, and use clothespins to clip the fabric to their shirt at the shoulders, Once the hands are positioned as I want them, I manipulate the fabric so that no seams show around the wrists.

© Darren Carroll

I usually light the shots with a Profoto Acute head and a Chimera small softbox, set very close to the hands. I use only the modeling light (no strobe), to achieve an exposure of around 1/60 at f2.8 (the wide aperture helps to disguise any seams, etc. that might otherwise show, and causes the wrists to fade into the background evenly) at ISO 400 on a Canon EOS 5D or 5D Mark II. I use a 28-70 mm f/2.8 lens, occasionally with a 12mm extension tube if needed. There are times when, if it’s feasible, I will just use available light. The less complicated, the better.

ASMP: You suggest that the process of photographing hands gets a portrait shoot off to a good start. Explain how the process affects the subject and yourself.

DC: It’s just a good ice-breaker. Most people are just expecting “sit here, do this.” The unexpected nature of the request shifts the dynamic a little bit. And as I said above, it affords the opportunity to ease into the shoot a little, increasing our familiarity with each other.

© Darren Carroll

ASMP: You mention that when shooting the hand close-up you also include some detail that reveals who the subject is, and/or what they do. Please elaborate. What kinds of details do you look to include?

DC: Just something that’s a giveaway about who the person is or what they do. The Texas quarterback with a football emblazoned with the Texas Longhorn logo. A quilt maker with a needle and thread. A calf roper with a rope and a rodeo championship ring. Nolan Ryan with a baseball. That’s the idea.

ASMP: Have you had subjects who don’t want to have their hands photographed? How do you convince wavering subjects to participate?

DC: Honestly, I haven’t had that problem.

© Darren Carroll

ASMP: Since you are generally piggybacking a personal project off of a commercial project, have you ever encountered clients who do not want you to take the time make these images? If so, do you have a strategy for dealing with this?

DC: I wouldn’t characterize it as piggybacking a personal project — the images are all sent to the client as part of the shoot. In some cases they haven’t asked for them, but in others they have. When they haven’t requested them, editors are getting more than they asked for, more than they expected, and something truly different — while at the same time still getting an image that reflects something telling about the subject. I view it as more of an enhancement of the finished take than anything else.

© Darren Carroll

Time-wise, it’s not much of an issue. This part of the shoot takes two minutes, at most. Colt McCoy’s (Texas quarterback) picture, for example, was shot while we waited for an intern to bring a missing helmet over to the shoot. Some of the others had the hands pictures as integral, essential parts of the shoot; the baseball manager and rodeo cowboys, for example, were shot as part of assignments where the expectation was to have those pictures made (After shooting one or two test portraits, I had pitched the concept to some editors at Sports Illustrated).

© Darren Carroll

ASMP: Which clients do you feel can benefit from seeing or using this added work, and how do they react to the images?

DC: I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback. There isn’t always space for the images, and some editors have expressed interest in making this a long-term project. But they generally seem pleased at seeing someone take the initiative to try something outside the box.

© Darren Carroll

ASMP: Do you find there are any specific types of subjects whose hands are particularly expressive? Any that are particularly self-conscious?

DC: I haven’t come across anyone particularly self-conscious. I find the older the subject, or the longer they’ve been engaged in whatever particular activity is responsible for the condition of their hands, the more expressive their hands are.

© Darren Carroll

ASMP: As a result of doing this project, do you have any new insights about ways to direct subjects in using their hands during a portrait session?

DC: The only insight I’ve gained is that it’s a lot harder than it looks to get things positioned, lit, and executed exactly as I’d like them to be.

ASMP: Do you feel your hands images can stand alone, or do they need to be presented in tandem with the faces?

DC: I do think the hand images can stand alone — but I also think that presenting them alongside the portraits adds a sense of closure by revealing the identity behind this body part.

© Darren Carroll

ASMP: Have these photographs resulted in new clients or new markets for your images? Do you ask your subjects to sign model releases for the images of their hands?

DC: It hasn’t resulted in new clients yet, but it’s still a series in progress and is only just now working its way into my book and Web site. I don’t ask the subjects to sign releases on the spot, but will go back to them if there’s a need to.

© Darren Carroll

ASMP: Do you have any future plans to present the portraits and hand details outside of the context of your original shoots? Or to expand this way of working by piggybacking a personal exploration with a commercial shoot? Please elaborate.

DC: I’ve had some gallery interest in the project, and have some plans to use the images as part of a promotional series. As far as piggybacking personal work on commercial shoots goes, if it’s an extension of the shoot and enhances the final product that I present to the client, I see it as a win-win for both of us.

© Darren Carroll