Behind the Cover of National Geographic

Written by Fredrik Franzén on . Posted in Product Photography

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Gianluca Colla Profoto Behind the Cover of National Geographic

©Gianluca Colla

Today, we present you with something slightly different: an article that was originally published in a printed magazine.

But first some background information. Photographer Gianluca Colla was recently assigned to shoot the cover for the Italian edition of National Geographic. The magazine cover (above) shows the portrait known as La Bella Principessa (The Beautiful Princess). This portrait had just been attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, which, as you can imagine, caused a rather heated debate amongst scientists, historians and enthusiastic art lovers.

Arianna De Micheli, who works as a web editor for Photographers.it and the photography sections of Italian newspapers LaStampa.it and IlGiornale.it, met up with Gianluca and interviewed him about his unusual assignment. Arianna was also kind enough to ask us if we wanted to post the interview here on our blog – an offer we were more than happy to accept.

So with no further ado we present Gianluca Colla’s story, written by Arianna De Micheli. Enjoy!

“I’ve always been a huge fan of Leonardo Da Vinci,” says Gianluca. “So when I received a call from National Geographic about a possible Da Vinci painting they wanted me to photograph, I was excited like never before. Some years ago, an art collector bought a colored chalk-and-ink drawing on vellum, which seems now to have many common characteristics with the unique Leonardo painting technique, and the story is about showing what the common points are. The only downside to this assignment was that National Geographic already had a layout in mind, so I had to make images following some directions. It didn’t make the assignment any less appealing; it just made it more difficult. In fact, I had to make a picture with two hands with white gloves holding the painting, showing the signs of time on the paint, with a black background.

“Exposed like that, it doesn’t sound tricky, but when you get on the site and you find out there are almost 8 stops of difference between the painting and the hands with white gloves, you definitely need to find a good solution. Plus, the painting was glued on a wooden tablet so instead of being dark, it was glossy. Not exactly the easiest subject to illuminate…

Gianluca Colla 2 580x386 Behind the Cover of National Geographic

Behind the scenes

“Thankfully, I was in a very big, empty room, and I could spread my equipment and experiment without any space limitations. I put up a very large velvet black background, and on the left side, a Profoto Pro-8a generator with a ProHead, a Softbox 2.2’ RF (just enough to cover the painting) and a Softgrid 40° to narrow the angle of light.

“Now, three main problems immediately showed up. 1) How do I show the cracks in the tablet? 2) The light coming from the left side was almost all absorbed from the painting, making the right side very dark. 3) As I said, the white gloves where totally blown out.

“Here’s how I solved these problems. First of all, I decided to use only one light, very lateral, kind of back lit. The generator had to run at almost full power to sharpen the cracks and show the signs of age.

Secondly, I had the man holding the painting wear a white cloth that I tailored as a dress. It meant that he reflected enough light on the painting to brighten the darker right side. Finally, to solve the glove issue, I had my friend and colleague Enrico hold two rounded black cardboards between the light and the subject, just outside the frame, to reduce the amount of light reaching the gloves.

“It meant we solved all of the problems: the light was balanced across La Bella Principessa thanks to the white dress, and the gloves weren’t burnt out due to the cardboard!”

Thanks to both Gianluca and Arianna for sharing their work with us!

Those who want to see more of Gianluca’s work should check out his website.

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Comments (6)

  • Barbara

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    Thanks for the explanation of the setup, but the photo doesn’t show the setup as it was explained. It would be helpful to see the man holding the disks, the white dress.

    Reply

    • Fredrik Franzén

      Fredrik Franzén

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      Hi Barbara,

      Unfortunately, we don’t have an image of that.

      /Fredrik Franzén, Profoto

      Reply

  • Alexia Sinclair

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    Fredrik, this is a fantastic article. Loved it, graceful as ever.
    Gianluca, I equally love the cover! Da Vinci is amazing but in contrast against the archival gloves, La Bella Principessa is magnificent. Certainly worth the effort of your bounce.
    Thanks for the post, Alexia

    Reply

    • Fredrik Franzén

      Fredrik Franzén

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      Hi Alexia,

      Thanks for the kind words. I’ll pass them on to Gianluca.

      And when will we get to see what you have been up to lately?

      /Fredrik Franzén, Profoto

      Reply

  • Gianluca Colla

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    Hi Barbara,
    you are right, the backstage photo is taken a few steps earlier the final picture was made.
    As you can see the painting is still way too dark compared to the gloves, and when this photo was taken I still had to come up with a solution..
    And by the time I did, the beautiful Principessa had to go back to “sleep” (you do not want to leave around more than needed a painting possibly worth millions of dollars) I just shot a few final frames (including the one that made the covers) and I had no time to take another shot that could better show how it was taken.

    Alexia, thank you very much for your kind words, I can assure you that in real life it it such an emotion to stare at it!

    Gianluca

    Reply

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