Advertising, Editorial & Commercial Photographer in Melbourne, Australia

Going ‘behind the wire’ for prison portraits

By September 4, 2011July 29th, 2018Behind-the-Scenes, Portrait Photography

One of the most interesting (and often challenging) aspects of doing location portrait photography is that you can end up in some pretty unusual locations. We love it when a job comes along that allows us a glimpse into a location that we’d otherwise never see. Like the inside of one of the country’s largest prisons.

We had a unique opportunity to go ‘behind the wire’ at Christchurch Men’s Prison to do a portrait session of a Corrections Officer and hig drug detection dog. We were super-excited about this job, firstly because it’s a great positive story, secondly because Sharon absolutely loves working dogs, and thirdly because going on location at a prison facility would be an experience in itself.

Backstory

Barry Nelsen is a New Zealand Corrections Officer teamed with drug detection dog Olesia, aka “Ollie”. Barry and Ollie are tasked with seraching incoming visitors, mail & packages, and prisoner cells to sniff out illegal substances that are attempted to be smuggled in.

The opportunity for the portrait arose because Barry and Ollie had won first place at the National Police Dog Championships for best Narcotic Detector Dog Team. Barry was rightfully proud of Ollie being the named Top Dog, and Barry’s branch of the Department of Corrections wanted to celebrate the win by commissioning a formal portrait of  Barry and Ollie to be framed and put on display.

Formal portrait of Corrections Officer Barry Nelsen and his drug detector dog Ollie

Corrections Officer Barry Nelsen and drug detection dog Ollie –
finished formal portrait commissioned by the New Zealand Department of Corrections
photography by Image Workshop

When we first met Barry, he gave us some interesting insight into the training and working lives of drug detector dogs like Ollie.

Barry is responsible for training his own dog, and as you can imagine, he and Ollie are extremely close. Not only do they work together every day, but Ollie lives with Barry and is a genuine part of the family. Sadly, we learned that working drug dogs don’t have long careers – they generally retire around age 7 when their noses start to lose their maximum acuteness. With 5-year-old Ollie facing mandatory retirement in couple of years, Barry will then be assigned a new dog to train and work with, and the system rules mean that Ollie won’t be permitted to live with Barry anymore.

Knowing that Barry and Ollie would be forced to part ways in the not-too-distant future gave the portait a specially poignent importance. Luckily, it sounds like Ollie will be able to live with another member of Barry’s family, so Barry will still be able to visit her after she retires.

Location scout

We arranged to meet Barry at the prison to do a location scout to plan where and how we’d approach the photos.  He took us ‘behind the wire’ into the main complex – the secure area beyond where visitors are permitted, to places that usually only inmates and prison officers see the inside of.

We were looking for a suitable location that gave a  ‘prisony’ context and that would also lend itself to setting up a formal portrait (space to set up lights/umbrellas, space to back up and shoot with long lens if necessary, etc.)

The prison tour was incredibly interesting, and reaffirmed the fact that it’s a place you do not ever want to find yourself in (other than for a location scout). We ID’d a couple of prime spots for photos. One was a metal barred doorway, a part of the original building complex that dates back to 1925. The second was a vacant cellblock. We decided to do a formal posed portrait in the grill doorway, and then do some ‘everyday working’ photos of Barry and Ollie in the cellblock.

The main event

We returned to the prison on an agreed evening for the photo session. The environment is fairly windowless so time of day didn’t matter for the pictures, and Barry had advised we do the photos after the evening ‘lockdown’ when the prisoners were in their cells and we were less likely to encounter anyone in the hallways or common areas as we moved through the facility.

For the formal portrait we had Barry in his dress uniform and Ollie in her official dress coat. Sharon set up the framing of the shot – positioning Barry and Ollie in the doorway as a visual nod that nothing ‘gets through’ into the prison without going through them first. Using a low camera angle meant we gave Ollie stature by being at her eye level, while also giving a heroic angle to Barry.

On location shooting portraits in Christchurch Men's Prison

Sharon frames up our hero shot. Ollie was a delight to work with –
being so well trained she’d happily pose however we wanted her.

We wanted the keep the subjects well-lit but with a certain amount of drama overall. Initially we set up a single umbrella off camera right. The space we were shooting in was fairly narrow and light was bouncing all over the place and exposing way more of the environment than we waned, so we quickly made the decision to shoot a separate dark frame to blend later in post-production.

We inititally tried a simple one-light setup, but the falloff was too sharp and Ollie wasn’t being sufficiently lit. We decided she needed her own light, so Brence set up a second, smaller umbrella specifically for Ollie.

Often Brence will set up lights and then jump into position as a ‘stunt double’  so we can quickly bang off a few frames and check the lighting before we get the subjects in place. For this setup Brence found himself being a stand-in for both Barry and Ollie to check the lighting spread.

 Brence stunt-doubling for both Barry and Ollie during some lighting checks. Woof!

Once we got the lighting dialled in we shot Barry and Ollie in the doorway, then a separate dark plate that we’d use later in post to blend together to get the overall look we wanted.

Straight-out-of-camera hero shot of Barry and Ollie, plus the separate dark plate.

Formal portrait – second option

We stopped at a second option to essentially reshoot the same photo just to have another option up our sleeves. This doorway is from the more modern wing of the prison, and we liked the orangey look.  We shot this with the same approach:  one frame with the subjects well lit, then a separate dark frame to blend in post.

Formal portrait, alternative option

Formal portrait, alternative option – finished version.

Working shots of Barry and Ollie in action

We proceed to the vacant cell block to shoot some ‘action’ shots of Barry and Ollie doing what they do best – sniffing out contraband. Barry changed into his usual working uniform and we swapped Ollie’s dress coat for her usual fur coat.

Again, we were in a windowless environment that’s pretty freaking dark as far as the camera is concerned. We needed to boost the overall ambient light while also directing a key light onto our subjects.

Ambient light - not much of it.

Here’s an ambient light shot. While the room looked ‘normal’ to us, the camera was not getting enough light.
We were using our max sync speed of 1/160th to minimise motion blur and f8 to maintain a deep enough sweet spot of focus. Even at ISO1000 a lot of extra light was needed.

Brence set up a flash to bounce off the ceiling to increase overall illumination in the room. Some fandangling and repointing kept wonky looking shadows to a minimum. We then set up an umbrella on-axis behind Sharon to provide a key light.

We wanted shots of Barry and Ollie sniffing along the row of cell blocks. We established where our ‘sweet spot’ was for focus and lighting (behind the sweet spot = blurry and dark, in front of the sweet spot = blurry and overlit). We then had Barry and Ollie sniff along the cell blocks a bunch of times, taking shots while they were in the sweet spot.

The lights were doing some pretty heavy lifting so the recycle time wasn’t lighting-quick, so we had them go back and forth a number of times. Poor Ollie got a bit over it all after she’s already sniffed the cell blocks a number of times, looking at Barry frequently with an expression of “Really? You want me to check this again? But I’ve already done it 10 times!”

Barry and Ollie in action on the cellblock, followed by Ollie looking at Barry incredulously while thinking “Really? You want me to sniff this AGAIN?”

A final ‘off duty’ portrait

We’d finished with everything we’d planned and were walking back along a long hallway, when we decided to do a really quick casual portrait on the spot. Sharon wanted to capture a picture of Barry and Ollie that was less formal, showing them more as buddies. An ‘off duty’ picture, if you like.

We did this shot with a really quick one-light setup. Sharon got Barry to kneel down next to Ollie to portray them as equals, capturing them as two friends rather than in their pecking order of Handler and Trainee. It only took an extra 5-10 minutes to do the shot, and it’s one of our favourites – well worth taking the time for.

Collegues, friends, and family.

The final, more casual portrait – off duty teammates and best friends.

Happy clients

Even if you’re happy with your work, it’s always a bit nerve-wracking waiting to hear what the client thinks. Did everything live up to their expectations? We were so pleased that both Barry and the Department of Corrections were estatic with the final results.

Barry wrote us a lovely email after we sent him the link to view his final pictures online:

“Had a good look at the photos with my two biggest fans: Jake, my son and Aimee my daughter, and of course Annie [Barry’s wife].  All four of us are totally over the moon – the pictures are awesome.”

We had the formal portrait in the grill doorway printed, custom framed and delivered to the Department of Corrections for them to put on display. They were super happy with the result,  saying “it looks amazing” and thanking us for a job well done.

Of course, it was Barry’s patience and Ollie’s incredible training and obedience that made the project so successful. We wish them a continued fantastic career for the next few years, and a happy retirement for Ollie.

Leave a Reply