While Sara Lando was in town Bernard and I both wanted to shoot a portrait of her and we turned it into a friendly little competition that I posted here on DEDPXL. I said that I was going to win no matter what. If Bernard received more votes, then that showed I was a good teacher and mentor to him. If I won then that showed I was still the grand poobah around the studio. I’d share the final results of the contest but I’d rather not embarrass Bernard like that. 😛

So… Photographing Sara was one of the most stressful things I’ve done in photography in quite some time. Sara is so talented and is such an eloquent artist and photographer. She “plays” with photography in a way that makes me jealous of her. She thinks differently about the craft. Her style of work is so far removed from what I do that I can’t quite wrap my head around it. Sara, just as a person, is one of the funniest people I have met and she’s a world class ball- buster. With her striking looks, her fabulous Italian accent, and her dark sense of humor she can cut you off at the knees and leave you speechless and rolling on the floor laughing all at once.

That said — Sara has a tortured artist side to her as well. When you get to spend some time with her you see that she creates from some deep place inside of her that’s trying to work something out. She’s a grown mature woman who is still a small girl playing with dolls. There is a deep well inside of her that she draws from. From her thoughts, to her expression of those thoughts, is a process that is beautiful and dark and playful and unique. Everyone who meets Sara falls for her. My wife, Meghan, says she’s going to marry Sara one day. Sara is that magnetic.


To be honest. Sara intimidates the hell out of me.


I told Sara that Bernard and I both wanted to photograph her and we were going to turn it into a friendly in-studio competition and she was totally up for it and started busting our chops about it immediately. We had three days to spend with Sara before our shoot and I was wracking my brain on how I was going to approach making a portrait of her. Would I emulate her mixed media style? Would I just shoot her the way I shoot portraits? Could I find a mix? I decided I needed to practice what I preach. “Start simple. Start with what you know. Get that shot done and then see where you can go from there.” Bernard and I were each going to have an hour and a half or so to finish our shoot so I had some time to experiment. I started my shoot with Sara on a white background with a beauty dish. Much like my shoot with Rabbit just with a larger white background.

(Click on any image in this post for a larger view)




Bernard and I each chose two images to be posted for the contest. The image directly above was the first one I chose to be posted.

I got that image locked down and it was time to move to something different. As I said earlier, Sara is one of the funniest people I know but I wanted to concentrate on her more serious side. I was not going to venture into a silly or humorous photo. Yes… she makes me laugh but more than that she intimidates me and I wanted that. That didn’t stop us from garden variety non serious photos though…

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 11.59.42 AM


The day before this shoot Sara had taught a workshop in my studio and we still had a lot of her props and tools of her trade laying around. She had specifically requested to have a few mirrors on hand. One of the mirrors was a simple 12 inch square mirror that I covered the back with gaff tape and then dropped it on sidewalk to shatter it. Yes. Yes. Seven years bad luck and all. It ended up like this –


That’s the mirror hanging from a C-Stand arm. I decided I was going to do two things with it. The first was to use it as a light modifier. A number of years ago I had the opportunity to assist Joe McNally on a shoot here in Atlanta. He brought a HUGE mirror to that shoot and taught me that a mirror will reflect it’s shape back into the photo you are making. Joe used black gaff tape to create a pattern on that huge mirror, popped a light into it and sure-damn-enough – that shape was reflected back into the shot. I wanted to use the broken mirror in my shot. That was going to be my tip-of-the-hat to her style while still shooting my style. You can see in the photo above that I picked some pieces out of square and covered other parts with some stuff called Cinefoil. Cinefoil is like black aluminum foil and it’s awesome and you should always have a roll of it on hand. You can do all sorts of stuff with this stuff. Making snoots and barndoors out of it are a staple for me.

I had Sara sitting on a stool in front of a white background and placed the broken mirror on camera left. I then placed an AlienBee 1600 with a 20º grid on camera right and pointed it to the mirror. I used a flag between the light and Sara to keep any stray light from spilling on to her. I then placed a white reflector on camera right to pick up any light from the mirror to give me just a little bit of fill. I played with the positioning of the broken mirror until I got a dappled light on Sara I was happy with. The little pieces of cinefoil were placed to cut certain reflections off once I had it in place. Finally, I placed a large black background (10’x8′) on camera left to block reflected light coming off the white wall that was on camera left. Here’s a diagram followed by a series of images where you see me dialing in the light.

lighting diagram

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 12.30.55 PM






I was playing one of Sara’s playlists as the shoot was going on and Treasures by Seasick Steve came on. Sara got very quiet. The air got thick. I turned the music up and just ran with it. I shot a few more images with the strobes firing and then turned the Pocket Wizard off, dropped the shutter to one second and made some images with just the light from the modeling light on the strobe and a bit of daylight sneaking in from a mostly covered sky light above the set. In addition to shooting at one second, I slightly shook the c-stand arm so the light source on her would blur. I set my white balance to tungsten. That gave me a natural color of light on Sara and let the background go cooler in color due to the daylight that was hitting it from above. Tears were forming in Sara’s eyes as she went “somewhere” due to the song. I kept shooting and this is my favorite frame from that part of the session. This is the image that received the most votes.




The song finished. I felt I had my shot. I had been using my PhaseOne for these and I quickly picked up my X-T1 and shot into the mirror for a few images and then one more of just the broken light on her face.



And that was that. It was a stressful shoot and I was glad it was over. I was happy with what I made, though. I think Sara is happy with what I made. I packed up and reset everything for Bernard. By “reset” I mean I moved all my stuff and then took the batteries out of all the Pocket Wizards. 🙂

Guess what? This isn’t the end of my post.

While Sara was in town we talked a lot about life and work and balance and dreams and goals and failures. Sara is one of the few people in this world who is brutally honest with me and she had a very hard hitting critique of a certain aspect of my work. She peeled back a lot of layers and hit me right in the heart. It was shocking. I mean, I knew exactly what she was saying because I saw it myself. I never realized someone else could see it.

I’m going to leave it at that for awhile. I still have to have some conversations with Sara to get her insight on it. I have some homework to do. I have some tests I have to shoot. Sorry to leave you on the cliff but I wanted to add one more layer of A) How great of a friend Sara is and B) this critique of her’s just made the shoot that more difficult.

Tomorrow we will have Bernard’s side of the story and then we’ll have Sara’s side!


Zack Arias

A full time commercial and editorial photographer, Zack shoots everything from bands to CEOs to ad campaigns. A gifted teacher and communicator, he has an uncanny ability to meet and connect with all types of people.

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  1. Jeremy Kim

    Sara intimidates me so much in person, and I think it’s because whatever she says about me, I know it’s gonna be true.

  2. Trevor

    Hey Zack, great work. I love the breakdown and how willing you were to just go with it. Can I also say that it is inspiring to hear you speak of being so open to Sara and her energy as well as her take on your work.

    When you are so open to others, their vision and their critiques, you can only grow as an artist. Putting up walls, or allowing your ego to manifest only damages your work. I think everyone reading this should take away your attitude and accept all that comes their way.

    Too many times, as photographers, we get stuck in a vision and fail to see what is right in front of us.

  3. Axel Widjojo

    Jesus, that gaze. And I thought I had a sharp glare.

  4. Reinaldo M. Robinson

    Always great to see an artist stretching out. Really excited to hear her critique of your work and see how it changes. I think we all need that at some point to push us to the next level.

  5. Graeme

    Zack’s an honest bloke and I think that’s a big part of what makes him a good photographer. People are prepared to let him into their space and he allows himself to be touched and challenged by them. That trait shows here strongly. Very much looking forward to hearing about the critique, I bet we’ll all learn from it.

  6. Amos

    Awesome! I like all of the photos, but that one is clearly the winner of the bunch. Lastly, would you give me her number? 😛

  7. Ben W

    This is a good lesson on pushing oneself. The only way to grow is to flirt with – or outright crash into – failure. Well done, sir.

  8. Thomas

    Gorgeous portrait of Sarah (Treasures), I see in that image how she pushed you to be more creative, it really shows, that image is haunting.

    Thanks for the link to the song that helped set the mood, I really enjoyed viewing the image, listening and wondering what’s going on behind those sad eyes.

  9. Ferry

    Hi Zack,

    Have you switched to Capture one?
    I’m in limbo with both, love Capture one as a raw converter but hate the library system

    Kind regards


    • Zack

      Right there with you Ferry.

      I’m far more comfortable and faster in LR. C1 seems to have a leg up in quality of export though. I just can’t get my head around it all. I need to take some classes as I know I’m only using about 3% of the program.


  10. Jim Bass

    Loved the image using the cracked mirror to reflect the light. Approximately how large is that mirror?

  11. Filiberto

    Amazing “sort of” tutorial and gorgeous results here. I am attendig a 4 months photography course with Sara at the moment and this is priceless material for me to improve my skill in shooting. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Boban James

    Great post Zack, and incredible portrait of Sara’s out there- what a cool idea using a broken mirror!
    Always great when someone you trust gives honest and often brutal feedback.