PHLEARN MagazineRandal Ford’s Gear for Creating Striking Portraits of the Animal Kingdom

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Randal Ford’s Gear for Creating Striking Portraits of the Animal Kingdom

The devil is in the details for Austin-based photographer Randal Ford. Having worked as a photographer for more than 10 years now, he’s well-versed in the art of collaborating with his subjects to achieve the best results. But with his primary subjects being animals, the language barrier can make communication a bit of a challenge. Randal’s unique ability to quickly pick up on an animal’s personality and showcase it in simple, timeless style has garnered him worldwide acclaim.

His photographs of animals go beyond the typical documentary-style captures – Randal’s portraits are “conscious compositions and anthropomorphisms of the animals aimed at connecting with you.” A collection of these emotive captures has been compiled into a coffee table book, The Animal Kingdom, which was published in 2018 by Rizzoli New York.

“My fine art photography is an exploration of our deep-rooted emotional connection with animals through the lens of portraiture,” he says. “I photograph portraits of all kinds of animals in studio. This deconstructed form of portraiture is intended to give us a glimpse into the soul of an animal. But what I often find is what we see is a naked glimpse at the most mystical and elusive breed of all: ourselves.”

But it requires more than just a good rapport with his beautiful subjects for Randal to create the perfect portrait. Due to the stripped-down studio style of his shoots, and the fast-paced nature of working with animals, it’s important to have the right gear for the job.

How do you go about deciding which gear is essential to your work?

Randal

My studio work requires absolute precision. And that need for precision and detail is the driving factor in my choice for equipment. Because I am photographing animals, I also need equipment that can adapt to fast-moving subjects. Which means I need lenses that focus fast and accurately and strobes that have a very short flash duration to freeze the subjects.

CAMERA

Nikon D850

45.7MP FX-Format BSI CMOS Sensor, 3.2″ 2.36m-Dot Tilting Touchscreen LCD

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Nikon D810

36.3 MP FX-format CMOS sensor, 51-point AF system

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I have consistently been impressed with the files from the Nikon D810, and now, the D850. My main camera, the Nikon D850 – coupled with my Sigma Art lenses and digital processing in Capture One software – produces images with medium-format detail that holds up on fine art prints as large at six feet.

LENSES

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens

Aperture Range: f/1.4 to f/16, Hyper Sonic AF Motor, Rounded Nine-Blade Diaphragm

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Sigma 50mm f/1.4: I am a huge fan of Sigma Art lenses. I actually don’t own Nikon lenses anymore. I use this lens, which I believe is one of the sharpest lenses out there, for most of my animal portraiture. I love how well-built the Art lenses are but, most importantly, I like the way they render the files, detail, and color. They have a crisp, micro-contrast look that fits my aesthetics really well.

I hope to test the Sigma Art 85mm next, as some of my animal subjects like horses photograph better with a longer focal length. I typically shoot 90 percent of my work between 35mm and 85mm – most in the 50mm range.

LIGHTING

Broncolor Move Outdoor

Move 1200 L Battery-Powered Pack, Weatherproof Power Pack Soft Case

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For strobes, the most important factors are fast recycling and short flash duration. And lightweight, for travel when needed. I personally own and utilize Broncolor MOVE packs and then rent Broncolor studio packs for additional power as needed.

The Broncolor MOVE packs have an incredibly short flash duration which allows me to freeze animals in movement with precision. The MOVE packs are also great because I can set up a mobile studio without having to rely on shoddy location power sources.

BAG

I’m currently using a Pelican 1535 Air carry-on case for my camera gear. What I love most about this is the incorporation of the TrekPak dividers, which allow me to customize the case exactly to fit my needs. And to dampen my OCD tendencies, ha!, I also have a Pelican Air case for my LG 4K monitor.

MISCELLANEOUS ITEMS

Another tool I utilize is shooting to a computer. I rarely shoot to card. I am tethered to a computer using Capture One software so I can be precise with my exposures. I want to get as much perfected in camera as possible, and shooting tethered to Capture One allows me to do that quickly and efficiently.

When space and time allow, I connect my Macbook Pro to an LG 4K monitor. The monitor isn’t perfect but it’s 4K, light, and inexpensive. I also use cables from StarTech.com that I find are well-built and work consistently.


On top of Randal’s recently-published book of portraits, his work has been included in a wide variety of publications around the globe – including Time Magazine, Texas Monthly, and Communication Arts. He’s done commissioned pieces for brands like Anheuser Busch, Comcast, Frito Lay, LL Bean, Pepsi, Pfizer, Verizon, and Yeti, and he has consistently been named one of the world’s top photographers.

To see more of his work, visit Randal on Instagram at @randalford or @mrfordskingdom, check out his website, or pick up a copy of his book.

Jessi Gowan

Jessi Gowan is an award-winning writer and photographer who specializes in rural landscapes and fine art abstracts, with a focus on form and composition. Her photography has been included in a variety of publications, as well as in exhibitions in Canada and the United States.

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