I recently made a detour on my Epic Summer Roadtrip (California to Maine and back — still working my way towards Maine). Earlier this week, I drove hastily from New Mexico, across Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and a bit of Indiana, to visit some friends in western Kentucky. My gracious hosts, Greg and Cindy Yager, run a studio that resembles the functionality of a Swiss Army knife — they do everything photographic for the residents of their rural county (and also frequently run out the door as volunteer EMTs). Check out their studio site here.

As if they had nothing else to do (which clearly was not the case), the Yagers poured on the Kentucky hospitality and hauled me around the countryside so that I could photograph real folks doing real work. At the top of my list of the folks to meet were coal miners — real Kentucky coal miners. [Having grown up in Phoenix, I now recognize the excitement that tourists have when they meet their first real cowboy or touch their first real saguaro cactus. As photographers, it’s helpful to remember that what’s common to you is exotic to me.] Most of what I thought I knew about coal miners, which I learned from watching October Sky — a cinematic favorite in our house, turned out to be wrong or at least very outdated.

In the wee morning hours a few days ago, I quickly learned that the state of coal mining in western Kentucky is much different than the practices that produced the coal encrusted faces of yesteryear (and the coal encrusted faces shown by Hollywood). First and most importantly, I learned that mining technology has advanced to a point where a dusty miner at the end of a shift is the exception rather than the norm. While this was a bummer for me as a photographer, I’m glad to know that modern ventilation systems are making ‘black lung’ a disease of the past. The dirtiest miner I met was a guy who fixes the trollies that carry the coal from the face to the conveyor. Construction laborers who load sacks of cement into portable mixers get far dirtier than the miners I met.

Driving through Kentucky farmland, you’d never expect that there are hives of miners working hundreds of feet below in labyrinths that are measured in miles. When seen up close, as I did through a video, the mines resemble construction sites more than coal seams. I went to the mine expecting to find dust covered, surly miners. The people that I met were men and women who are proud of the work they do, proud of the industries they fuel, and proud of the families they support. Every face has a story to tell. I look forward to returning to Kentucky to continue learning about and shooting the Faces of American Coal.

BTS: Turning A Meeting Room Into A Photo Studio

I started my visit by stepping in on the safety briefing that happens at the start of every shift. Mine safety is everyone’s business, of course. So, for me, that meant that I could not even step outside most of the doors because I do not have a mine safety certification.

So, rather than have the coal face itself or a bit of mine machinery as a backdrop, I had my pick of several painted hallways and a couple of meeting rooms…none of which looked very coal miner-esque. So, Speedliters and Flashers, how to you make a conference room look like a suitable background for coal miners? You lower the projection screen to hide the clutter on the white board and then dim the ambient light by shooting with a relatively fast shutter.

As for modifying the flash, my goal was to light the faces of my subjects and minimize the light flying past them and onto the backdrop. Check out the pix below. For the key light (the one on the stand), I used the Stobros Mini Beauty Dish Reflector (with the center reflector disk removed) to hold the medium grid from this set. Of all the grids available for small flash, this is my favorite combination. The ” mini beauty dish” (one of the best oxymorons out there) holds the grid several inches in front of the Speedlite. I prefer to have grids a bit in front of the flashhead rather than smashed right up against it.  I think that this improves the quality of the light. Grids take the rectangular spread of flash and shape it into a cone. The circle of light from the grid can then be aimed up/down and front/back based on the placement of the flashhead.

Now, look closely at how I flagged the flash on the stand. You’ll see that I flagged it with  a Rogue Large FlashBender. I always have several of the large FlashBenders in my kit. They are versatile and travel well. Note that when used as a flag to prevent light from spilling onto the background, I turn the black side towards the flashhead. Using the white side as a flag creates problems because the light bounces off the white, then off the ceiling and walls, and then onto my subject. I needed the flag to assure that minimal light was hitting the background.

 ^ The ambient light for our set was created by warm fluorescent lights.  Exposure: 1/20″,  f/8, ISO 200. Here, Greg holds the rim light that I used during the second half of the shoot. To the right of Greg is the gridded Speedlite atop the Manfrotto 6001B stand. 

^ To dim the appearance of the ambient light, I switched the shutter speed from 1/20″ to 1/160″ — a three-stop change. Exposure: 1/160″,  f/8, ISO 200. By dialing the shutter speed faster, I could make the projection screen appear darker. By switching the shutter speed slower, the projection screen appeared brighter.

The top row of images in the opening shot above were lit with a single Speedlite — gridded and flagged as described. For the bottom row of shots, I added a second Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite with a Rogue Large FlashBender (white side forward) covered with the Rogue Large Diffusion Panel. I’m growing fond of the diffusion panel as an add-on to the FlashBender. Essentially the combo creates light that looks like it came out of a small softbox. The purpose of the second light was to throw a bit of rim light onto each face.

Syl Arena is the author of the Speedliter’s Handbook and the forthcoming Light and Lighting.


4 Responses to New Personal Work: Faces of American Coal

  1. Charleston Dave says:

    Thanks for sharing your adventure, Syl. A comment and two questions here. I know you’re a photographer, not an epidemiologist, but one quibble-black lung is certainly not “a disease of the past.” See, for example, NPR’s recent report on the resurgence of black lung at http://n.pr/MteyOM. Might you have been snookered by a friendly company rep’s presentation on how safe mining careers are? As to the photographs, what made you choose to use white backgrounds as opposed to a high-sync method that would give solid black (giving a visual hint of a miner within the mine, even though you were in a lighted room)? I found the off-white backgrounds, shadows, and background color variations a bit distracting. But thanks for an interesting piece. I’m guessing you triggered wirelessly with the new Canon radio system?

  2. Thanks (again!) for this insightful post, Syl. Very educational. Can’t wait to see more from your tour. Travel safe. ~ Mark

  3. Jon Decker says:

    Syl, if you make it to Portland, Maine try to head down to the docks around 4a. On weekdays that’s about the time the lobster and fishing boats start prepping to head out. You might even get some interesting stuff from Becky’s Diner. It’s basically the only thing open that early anyhow.

  4. Greg Yager says:

    Using a black background would not be an accurate representation of modern coal mining. The entire surfaces are kept constantly covered in WHITE lime dust to reduce explosion hazards. One step into a coal mine will reveal a scene of pure white that most surface dwellers would never expect to find.

Leave a Reply

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