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Lucky Strike


The Tamron SP 45mm F/1.8 VC lens helps bring a longtime bowling-themed dream to life for Jonathan Thorpe.


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By Jenn Gidman
Images By Jonathan Thorpe


For years, Jonathan Thorpe has had it in his head to pull off a retro-themed bowling shoot, in the style of Kingpin or The Big Lebowski. But the opportunity never arose—until Tamron asked him to test-drive its SP 45mm F/1.8 VC lens for an in-house video. "I saw this as the perfect chance to bring my idea to life, because it would be a complex shoot with a big lighting setup," he says. "It would be an ideal way to show what I do on a daily basis. Plus, with the video, I could show what goes into a fully produced shoot."

The 45mm prime lens was right up Jonathan's alley. "I tend to shoot at around the 50mm focal length for portraits," he says. "It's not too exaggerated on the wide angle, and it's not too tight where you end up losing the environment around your subjects. In other words, it doesn't tell the whole story, but it doesn't leave anything out of it, either. If I'd gone with a longer lens, it wouldn't have told as much of the story. If I'd gone wider, you would've started to see the more modern elements—e.g., the cash register or the arcade—of the old-time bowling alley we were shooting in. I didn't want those highlighted."

That environmental aspect is important in Jonathan's photos to evoke not just a look, but a feeling. "When you see the lit-up snack bar sign in the back or a cup of beer on a table, you remember when you used to head down to the lanes on a Saturday night," Jonathan says. "That's what I hope the strength of my photos is. We've all done the things I photograph. It takes you back a bit, and it's nostalgic."

The Characters
Jonathan recruited his cast for the shoot by putting out a Facebook message. "I got about 100 responses, and from there I narrowed it down to 20 people or so," he says. "I brought a wardrobe stylist in to help me achieve the looks I wanted for each character."

His main player: his friend Ben, who plays the nervous bowler in his final group shot. "Ben is a standup comic I've used in other shoots," Jonathan says. "He has that relatable look, like a lovable loser. I like to shoot regular people and people who are relatable, then make them feel larger than life in my photos."

© Jonathan Thorpe
45mm, F/5.0, 1/40 sec, ISO 160
Click image to view larger

Using everyday people like this brings out a certain authenticity that's hard to find with pros. "The funny thing about using friends and people you know for these kinds of shoots is you generally get a better result," Jonathan says. "Professional models may be trained and set in their ways in how they pose and act on a shoot. But with your friends, they want to produce a really great photo, just because you're friends, so they'll go whatever extra lengths you ask them to so you get the best results."

The Location and Setup
The shoot took place at White Oak Duckpin Lanes in Silver Spring, Maryland. "The alley hasn't changed much since 1965," Jonathan says. "It's totally authentic to the period, which was perfect for what I was looking for, as I wanted a '70s theme."

Jonathan headed to the bowling alley twice before the shoot to scout it, check out the lighting, and determine how he was going to shoot. "I brought the 45mm with me and took some sample photos," he says. "That way, when it came down to the day of the shoot, I already had a solid idea of what I was going to do, depending on how many people showed up." Jonathan sent emails with specific instructions on what he was looking for to a few of the main players, and on the morning of the shoot, he held a quick 20-minute meeting with his assembled cast to make sure everyone was on the same page. Then they were ready to go.

The Portrait Session
One of the incentives for everyone who showed up for the shoot was Jonathan offering them an individualized portrait. "They all went out of their way to ditch work or whatever other plans they had to be there on a Monday morning, and I wasn't paying anyone," he says. "The least I could do is give them a portrait. Everyone who wanted a portrait got one. Each individual photo took about 20 minutes to shoot, with my settings at F/5, 1/40th of a second, ISO 160."

Jonathan bought the costume for his main character, the anti-hero Ben, on eBay. "It's a legitimate 1971 bowling shirt made of polyester," Jonathan says. "I also bought the ball on eBay, because I knew the bowling alley only had duckpin balls, which are really small. I didn't want him to be holding what looked like a billiard-size ball in his hands. We just sprayed him with a little water to make it look like he was sweating, got that gross little curl coming down his face, and turned him into a real character."

One shot Jonathan definitely wanted to get: an image of a surly bowling alley waitress. "I wanted her to give off that feel of a crotchety old staffer who's been working at the same bowling alley for the last 40 years," he says. "The big hair, the scowl—it all fit. We had the items on her tray taped down so she wouldn't have to worry about anything falling off and could just concentrate on her expressions and attitude."

© Jonathan Thorpe
45mm, F/5.0, 1/40 sec, ISO 160
Click image to view larger

Jonathan's friend Tiffany, the woman in the diamond shirt, rides in Jonathan's motorcycle club and is always up for doing a photo shoot. "Tiffany embodies the era so well, but she hates her picture being taken," Jonathan says. "After I showed her the individual portrait, though, she was like, 'Man, you did it. You made me feel pretty. I haven't felt like that in a long time in a photo.' That was a cool feeling, to hear one of your closest friends tell you that."

© Jonathan Thorpe
45mm, F/5.0, 1/40 sec, ISO 160
Click image to view larger

Jonathan went to high school with the girl in the yellow dress and hadn't seen her in 15 years. She just happened to see his Facebook post and applied to be in the shoot. "She wasn't supposed to be the original 'fan' girl in the finished version, but the woman we'd brought on for that didn't show," he explains. "My direction to her, in both the group shot and her individual portrait, was to just swoon over Ben. He's the hometown hero, and I wanted her to just be infatuated with him."

© Jonathan Thorpe
45mm, F/5.0, 1/40 sec, ISO 160
Click image to view larger

The guy in the Schmidt's shirt also rides in the motorcycle club with Jonathan. "His name is Mike, and he's been on a couple of shoots with me," Jonathan says. "He always wants to be involved in my photos. I'm really involved in the motorcycle community where I live, and they've been so supportive of my career and in helping me out. He actually brought all of the clothes he's wearing himself and was all ready to go. He was a natural for this shoot."

© Jonathan Thorpe
45mm, F/5.0, 1/40 sec, ISO 160
Click image to view larger


Karen, the girl with the long blond hair, is a full-time actress who lives near Jonathan. "I originally had her as a background character, but I knew she really wanted to be more involved in a key role," he says. "So instead of just having the one girl fawning over Ben, I brought Karen up to the front so she could be the second girl fawning over Ben in the group shot. For her portrait, I wanted to capture that almost starstruck, sweet look."

© Jonathan Thorpe
45mm, F/5.0, 1/40 sec, ISO 160
Click image to view larger

One of Jonathan's favorite shots: the mustachioed man with the pencil behind his ear. "That guy is the dad of one of the other women who showed up," Jonathan says. "In one of the original shots I had planned, he was going to stand on the other side of Ben as Ben was bowling, like a bad-guy opponent. The way it framed up it didn't look quite right, but I still wanted to get him an individual portrait, because he looked so genuine; that pencil behind the ear killed it. After the shoot, he stuck around and even bowled a game. That's how much he really likes bowling."

© Jonathan Thorpe
45mm, F/5.0, 1/40 sec, ISO 160
Click image to view larger

Making Like a Family
For the group photo, it took about an hour to 90 minutes to set up the lighting and slowly add everyone into the scene. "I'm more of a director than a photographer for these kinds of scenes," Jonathan says. "The camera is secondary to me: I'll pick it up and take a shot, but then break off to get more vocal and offer more direction."

© Jonathan Thorpe
45mm, F/5.0, 1/40 sec, ISO 160
Click image to view larger

Jonathan set up a total of six strobes for the group shot. "We have one giant Octabank on Ben, with two stripboxes on either side of him to place a little fill on the girls and the sides of his face," he says. "There's a large parabolic umbrella that's lighting the group that's underexposed by a couple of stops, and then at the very back are two more strobes."

The first thing Jonathan did was place Ben in the center of the frame so he could take a setup shot. "I connected my camera to my phone via Wi-Fi so I could then step back and, while looking at the photo on my phone for reference, start filling people in one at a time to fill the scene. I'd put someone on the bench, take the shot; add another person, take the shot. There were a couple of people sitting in the back you can't see, because they weren't key roles."

For the final image, the direction for the assembled cast was to act as if they were on pins and needles as Ben prepared to bowl, with Jonathan positioned midway down the lane, about 20 feet away, taking the photo. "It's a tense moment, with everyone looking on in anticipation," Jonathan says. "Obviously Ben is really focused, nervous, and sweating bullets. Meanwhile, his two super-fans, the girls on either side of him, are just all about Ben and could care less about the game. The one guy you see on his knees between Ben and one of the girls actually works at the alley. He was dying to get in the shot, so I just had to put him in there."

The best part of the shoot? Jonathan and his crew didn't stop laughing the entire time. "We were losing it," he says. "Having fun on the set is one of the most important things to me. I don't necessarily want or need everyone to be laser-focused and just awaiting instructions. I want it to feel organic and real, and to hear other people's ideas. Treat everyone like that, and you'll get fantastic results."

To see more of Jonathan Thorpe's work, go to http://jthorpephoto.com.

 

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