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Behind The Camera: Jason Hill

Say the name Jason Hill in a group of Portland Photographers and the most common adjective you'll get about his photography is likely to be "dynamically lit". Jason is a Portland based commercial photographer, educator, film maker, and long time Pro Photo Supply customer. If there's one thing that makes Jason's photos stand out, it's his lighting. His portraits, headshots, and pictures of dancers are easily identifiable by his distinct dynamic lighting.

And although that may be what he's most known for now, that's not where Jason's love for photography started. Jason's very first camera was the XD11 from Minolta, which Jason refers to as the poor man's Leica. It features the same viewfinder technology as Hasselblad medium format cameras and a robust metal housing which largely corresponded to that of the Leica R4 (probably stemming from the close relationship between the two companies in the late '70's).

Although Jason still loves his Minolta, he's not shooting film as often these days. His go to workhorse cameras have been Nikon's for at least the last 10 years. He shoots most of his still photography with a pair of Nikon D850's.

When it comes to lenses, Jason typically has the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 G Lens, Nikon 85mm f/1.4 G Lens, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 Non-VR Zoom and the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR II Zoom out on a shoot with him. But his must-haves are the 85mm f1.4 and the 24-70mm f2.8.

It probably comes as no surprise that Jason's go to lens for the studio portrait work is the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 G Lens. If he's got the space in the studio, that's his first choice, even sometimes for full body shots. As he says, "it doesn't hide anything". With the 85mm, Jason finds that the compression doesn't round out peoples faces and features as much as a wider focal length would and therefore the look is more true. If he's shooting a paid job and needs something a little wider, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 G Lens gets him the sharp, high-quality images his clients expect.

Jason's other go to lens is his Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8G ED lens, which he admits is both a great lens and a not so great lens simultaneously. When he's shooting on location somewhere he's never shot before, the 24-70mm allows him to make the space work since he never knows how close he may have to be to his subject. Additionally, this versatility allows him to move within his own studio space and capture whatever angle or pose he needs without stopping to swap lenses. And as advantageous as all that is, Jason notes that he wishes that the lens was a bit sharper, and that it wasn't so easy to get lost in knowing what your focal length is while you're shooting and moving around your subject. Despite this, Jason notes that probably most of his portfolio is shot with the 24-70mm because he can just create a better rhythm of working with it.

And getting that rhythm going is what helps Jason create a better portrait or image when shooting his clients. "I think that's what it's all about having a good rhythm with people. It might work for some people to have the same routine over and over, but you can't light everyone the same. The bottom line is that if the connection's not there, the emotion's not there, then you might as well forget about the lighting." This rhythm and connection is what Jason strives to create with his clients on every shoot. "Someone's sitting there with you, to take their picture and there's a whole bunch of things that have to come together, you know, but you need that rhythm. It's everything! Someone's putting trust in you and they're being pretty vulnerable, and you need that connection to make sure that the nervousness or vulnerability is gone."

The last lens in Jason's usual arsenal is the Nikon 35MM f1.8, which he mostly uses to capture the motion and full scenes in his photos of dancers. Jason used to play a lot of sports. So it's probably no surprise that aside from portraiture, Jason shoots quite a few photos of dancers. His admiration for athletes in general grew into an admiration of dancers as "the ultimate athlete", as Jason says. The combination of speed, power, and grace that dancers possess, on top of the artistic nature of dance, all makes up the platform of Jason's interest in photographing dancers.

Jason's admiration for dancers go so far as to keep him from trying to give them too much direction. "They're the experts," he says. And that certainly is true when it comes to movement. But when it comes to light and lighting subjects, Jason shines.

And it certainly didn't hurt that Jason was going to go to school for nursing before he found photography. His years of classes in anatomy and physiology gave him the knowledge of bone and muscle structure, which in turn helped him figure out how to light faces and bodies. "It started with that," says Jason of his love for shooting dancers. "You know, they're like the ultimate athletes. It's like anatomy 101. Their bodies are all sculpted, and the way the light hits their muscles, I was like, how can I light them beautifully?"

But the technical aspects of Jason's lighting aren't the only element that make his style so distinctive. "I just get so bored if I do the same thing over and over, you know," says Jason about his desire to always create something a little different with his lighting. "I do a lot of headshots. So, you know, I don't get too fancy with those. But if I shoot anything else, I'm just always doing something different, depending on someone's face or whatever. I always want to know what someone's going to be wearing, it's especially important if I want to play with color. I always have a color wheel when I'm tethered up and shooting so that I can refer to that." From there Jason breaks out his vast collection of Roscoe gels, and starts creating. Sometimes he'll have gotten some inspiration from a photo on Instagram and try to figure out how to do it his way. Other times he's collaging together multiple light schemes he's seen and liked. "I always think of post production as well. I mean I try not to do too much in post, but with colors, I know I can nudge them a little to better fit something like a split complementary color scheme if that's what I'm after."

Instagram isn't the only place Jason draws inspiration from. He also draws a lot of inspiration from movies. "I'll watch an interview on television and be like 'how'd they light that interview!'" says Jason of his inability to turn off his passion for light. "I watch a lot of movies too. People almost can't even watch movies with me, 'cause I'll watch a movie, even a bad one, and see they've lit one side of the face and they'll change the angle and the light changes."

Jason's quest to constantly evolve how he uses light in photography comes a lot from watching videos on lighting. You might assume that these videos are other photographers showing various lighting techniques, but that's not the case. "I don't really watch photography lighting videos, I haven't really for a long time. Sometimes you'll hear a photographer talk about light, and sometimes they're just not that passionate about it. But I'll just see some regular video guy, and they're talking about crazy lighting stuff. I think that it's just kind of different."

The Aperture YouTube Channel is a frequently watched source of inspiration for Jason. And while Jason doesn't own any of their lights or know a lot of the creatives in their videos, he says that they put out really quality content about lighting. And when it comes to still photographers, Jason really admires John Gress, a photographer and director of photography out of Chicago. "You watch somebody like John, and he's moving things like centimeters and millimeters, and it's like, 'oh wow'. He shows a lot of behind the scenes, and he's super, super picky. His work is just really super precise". Jason also admires Andy Batt's work, "he's also really precise." Jason notes that he feels drawn to both of these photographers' work because of that preciseness. "That's where I'm trying to get with my lighting. I like to be as precise as possible and I practice quite a bit, so when it comes time to shoot, I'm not all over the place and I can have fun."

And Jason's knowledge of lighting has followed him as he continues his expansion into video as well. He cites the hours of his teacher drilling how loops appear on noses and how shadows fall on a face as a crucial component of getting the lighting right in his video work. When asked what it's like learning video to add to his client work, Jason said, "the biggest hurdle when learning video is that I can't go back and change it or manipulate it as easily. Like with photos, as long as I keep my colors consistent, whether I'm shooting strobes or shooting outside, I don't have to worry about setting my camera's white balance and whatnot, I can go back in post and manipulate or change it. With video, it's not like that. I want to set it up every time and just be a little more dialed. Even with framing you know, in video, you start losing more resolution if you crop in post, whereas with pictures, you sometimes can get away with it."

With a lot of Jason's work these days coming from corporate headshots, adding the ability to do video in the last few years for his clients, like Travel Portland and Prosper Portland, seemed like a good entry way into that world. But it also meant entering into a different set of gear as well. Jason jumped right in and picked up a Sony FX 6 and FX 3. "Learning video and getting into the video world, the autofocus was just necessary for me," said Jason, since often he shoots solo or in a small team and having someone just to pull focus wouldn't be really possible.

And while things like using ND filters or dual based ISO's weren't initially inherent to Jason, he's gotten to the point where he'll typically set up the video first for his hybrid clients, and then find a good place or point to take a photo. When setting up the video component, Jason utilizes lighting techniques and styles just like he does in his photography. He might just put a warm or cool colored filter on his continuous LED lights to give the background some more interest and depth. Or he might use his new Nanlite PavoTubes to add a little warmth to the left side of his subject.

Adding these colored LED lights to his video to give them a pop, mimics how Jason uses them in his still photography as there's usually a mix of continuous and strobe lighting. Depending on the shoot, Jason might be using his tried and true Paul C. Buff Einstein Flash Units, or he may rent one of the light kits from Pro Photo Supply's rental department. Renting allows Jason to shoot with the Profoto B10+ or D2 lights that offer just another level of reliability than his own personal strobes.

"The Einstein's are beautiful lights though. The color is great. When I shoot dancers, I use the Einstein's a lot. The Profoto's are great lights, but it's just different with the way the it sits back in those strobes with it's recessed head. Say you put 'em in an 5 foot Octabox, you might see a hot spot there. If I do the same thing with the Einstein's, the box is just filled more," notes Jason on the difference between his two most common strobe setups. "But the remote on the Einsteins, that Cyber Commander thing, it's just rough. You need to take a 6 week course for that thing. The Profoto is just the greatest remote system ever," he continues.

A crucial piece to Jason's ability to see a difference in his lighting set-ups is his practice of shooting tethered. "If I'm in the studio or on location, it doesn't matter, I shoot tethered a lot. I'm shooting tethered probably ninety percent of the time," said Jason about how important it is to his work flow. "When I shoot tethered, I'm not just tethering to a laptop, I'm tethering to another monitor too," Jason says. He prefers this so that his clients can see what he's shooting without having to look at the back of his camera and so that he can see if he's hitting focus better when he's manually focusing for part of the image.

"I haven't used Lightroom in like 5 or 6 years. I mean, I have old stuff in Lightroom, and I like Adobe, like the Camera Raw and Photoshop. But yeah, I don't use Lightroom for tethering," Jason answered when asked what software he was using to do all this tethering. "I love Capture One, the color in it, my brain just works better with that." Jason prefers the Sessions style of file management that Capture One offers as well as opposed to Lightroom catalogs.

"I'll start it in Capture One," says Jason about his post processing. "Even while I'm shooting, I'm editing. Especially if you have a client there too, I'll boost some stuff or give it a color grade, so they can see how it's going to look." And Jason likes that he can get real time feedback from his clients and have them feel more confident having seen a more finished version of his concept for their shoot.

Sharing his creation process with his clients hints at another element to Jason's photography career as well. As well as being a working professional, Jason teaches at a local college. At the Mount Hood Community College, Jason has been teaching the Advanced Lighting class and passing his knowledge on to the next generation of photographers. "I'd love to do the beginner class too. That way, I won't have to say, 'ok, what did you guys do in the first class?' Teaching, overall, is fun," said Jason. In addition to the classes at the college, Jason teaches independent workshops as well, like the one he has coming up in April with Wacom and Pro Photo Supply. "The workshops are really fun. You know, with the workshops, everyone wants to be there. The last one we did was at the Jupiter Hotel and we just set up a whole bunch of different scenes. Outdoor scenes, indoor scenes...and that was just really fun!"

Jason's effect on the community doesn't stop at being an educator. Currently, Jason has two collections up at the AUX/MUTE gallery at the Portland Art Museum. And while he briefly entertained the idea of displaying images of Bucky, Jason's dog and resident portrait companion to all those photographed at his studio, he recognized that being featured was a big deal and decided on a series called "In My Skin" and a few photos from his "A Day in Eugene" project. Working with local printer Push Dot Studios, Jason printed up both series on Photo Rag® metallic paper to give them extra vibrance and the gallery will have them up until the end of February.

"In My Skin" spawned from a collaboration with local Portland musician I$$A, who asked Jason to do some visuals for his new song "Pigments in My Skin". Jason and I$$A discussed themes of Afrofuturism, the Black Diaspora and the contemporary lived experience of the Black community in Portland. Jason decided he wanted the portraits for this project to celebrate all of these subjects as well as cultural identity and African ancestry. "I wanted everyone to be connected. You know, it's was Covid, so we weren't taking group shots or anything. I wanted everyone to be connected but have their own style and look like a superhero. I was thinking of superheros and Afrofuturism, Black Panther, and all those things." So Jason started experimenting with brightly colored backgrounds and putting a strong key light on the eyes of his subjects. While he noted he'd make slight tweaks to his process if he was to do it all over again, he was overall satisfied with the end result.

Also on dispaly is a set of images from "A Day in Eugene" that Jason shot with a few of the cast members involved in the off-Broadway showing of The Lion King. "I knew when I saw them warming up that this was a once-in-a-lifetime shoot. These images are a testament to the power and beauty that these artists possess. It was a magical day, to say the least.”

Jason's Instagram

Make sure to go check out Jason's work on display at the Portland Art Museum before the end of Febuary 2022, stay tuned for his workshop with Wacom and Pro Photo Supply, check out his website, and follow him on instagram!

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