A Few Card Tricks With Penn Jillette For The Wall Street Journal

Penn Jillette

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Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to shoot some very nice features for the Wall Street Journal, including today’s entry…Penn Jillette…the larger, more vocal half of Penn & Teller. He was in town promoting the move he produced and Teller directed called, “Tim’s Vermeer”, a documentary about inventor Tim Jenison’s quest to duplicate the painting techniques of Johannes Vermeer.

The Weekend Confidential section of the Journal typically uses a portrait shot on seamless for the lead art, but I really wanted to do something a bit darker and mysterious as well. I originally thought of doing a Vermeer-like set, but limited time (and budget) kind of made that impractical. However, I did have a classical muslin backdrop that would create the mood I saw in my head. I had it painted about 20 years earlier and pull it out every few years when the need arises. With a few decks of cards, a beat up table and a World-class magician, the photograph almost made itself…

Penn Jillette

There is something truly liberating about shooting portraits on a seamless drop when your subject is as expressive as Penn. I basically threw up a big, soft light (a 47″ Rime Lite Grand Box) and we just had a conversation that I recorded with my camera. My only props were an old chair and one perfectly chosen playing card…

Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette

And here’s how it turned out…


Just a couple of Jokers…at your service!

Penn Jillette


Cuz some of you guys won’t leave me alone about how I lit the shot on the muslin drop, here’s a lighting diagram that should spell things out quite easily…


As you can see…it’s pretty simple. The ring light had the diffusion reflector on it…


…and was about two stops under the main light, my modified Desisti 10″ Fresnel spotlight…


The Desisti (powered by a Profoto Acute 2400 pack) was placed to the right of the camera and was flagged off by two long, black cards that threw the shadows onto both Penn and the back wall. I like the Fresnel spot for a couple of reasons. First, it’s very easy to place the shadows exactly where you want them because of the focused beam of light. And secondly, the light quality is much nicer than a bare head…it just has an open, sunny look to it. To get the overall color looking the way I wanted, I added about 3/4 CT filtration on the Fresnel and then adjusted the white balance back so the skin tones weren’t too warm, which put a slight blue cast onto the background and in the shadow areas.