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Brett Harkness: Extraordinary Carnival Portraits with Pentax, Elinchrom

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

Speedliter's Blog is thrilled to feature extraordinary carnival portraits by UK based photographer Brett Harkness. Brett has mastered many photographic genres including photojournalism, wedding, and fine art and he draws on those styles to create brilliant, imaginative images for his clients.

Speedliter's Blog: Brett Harkness Card Thrower Carnival Portrait with Pentax, Elinchrom

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BRETT: The Pentax 645z medium format is one of my favourite cameras especially for my portrait work. The dynamic range is awesome and more importantly the camera slows you down & makes you think. Its not a camera you can rush with. This means that you give it the best you can and in return it will do it back!


BRETT: I tend to choose the Pentax 90mm lens for most of my portrait work. This lens is super sharp and lends itself perfectly to my imagery. It's roughly equivalent to a 60mm on 35mm format. This works for me as my main lens on 35mm is the 50mm.


BRETT: I have used Elinchrom lights for almost 15 years now, preferring them over more expensive rivals. I use the ELB 1200 packs, ELB 400 packs, and a couple of old Ranger RX Speed AS packs. These packs have been with me for well over 10 years and have never failed me!

SPEEDLITERSBLOG: Brett controls his lights with five Pocket Wizard Plus II units (link to III as II is no longer sold but can be found on eBay).


BRETT: My favourite location modifier is the Elinchrom Rotalux 135cm Octabox. The light quality it creates is very directional and can be feathered to great effect. Another one of my favourite modifiers is the Elinchrom Indirect Litemotiv Octa 190cm . The quality of light it creates is second to none. It is great indoors or outside if I’m not fighting ambient light. The size means I can feather a great deal and flood the subject with an ethereal soft light. I also use Elinchrom 44cm Softlite Reflector & Grid Set. I use these a lot for separation to give dimension to the subject or to create an interesting background.


BRETT: I am lucky enough to be Manfrotto Ambassador so have always used Manfrotto stands and bits. I love my (although heavy) C stands. They stay upright in the worst winds and give me the security and reach I need.


BRETT: I use a smoke machine quite a lot on location to give my back lights something to light! I also use Lee Filter ND filters and various colored gels also.

What was on your mind as you planned and executed this session?

BRETT: Working on location isn’t for everyone but I thrive on the challenge of dealing with whatever the elements throw at me. The indoor shot inside the tent was challenging but at least we had very little ambience to deal with. I plan in my head as much as I can but you never know what the elements will throw at you so I often just get to the site and take it from there changing things as I go.

What challenges did you face during this shoot and how did you navigate them?

BRETT: I shoot with ND filters because, until recently, the Pentax 645z had a top sync speed of 1/125 sec. So to combat this I use ND filters of varying strengths. This also means I can shoot say at 100 ISO 1/125 sec F4 instead of F8! I like the painterly feel this gives to my portraits. Even though Pentax has introduced flash triggers for different lighting brands to enable high speed sync, I will still shoot this way as it has become a big part of my style. Shooting with ND filters isn’t always necessary but outside I usually use them. It isn’t for everyone as it can be hard to actually see the subject through the lens!


Speedliter's Blog: Brett Harkness Aerial Acrobat on rope with Pentax, Elinchrom

SETTINGS: 1/100 - F3.5 - ISO 100

GEAR: Pentax 645z Medium Format, Pentax 90mm 2.8, Elinchrom ELB 1200 with Elinchrom Indirect Litemotiv Octa 190cm as key light, Elinchrom Ranger RS Speed AS with Elinchrom square dish camera right as rim light, two Elinchrom ELB 400 with Elinchrom 44cm Softlite dish as back lights with blue and orange colored gels

BRETT: The shot above was 3rd in line on the day. I already knew that the tent was pretty dark inside meaning that we had no background to use behind the subject. So we fired up the smoke/haze machine and let it drip across the frame behind the subject. Then I lit the smoke with two lights, one with a blue the other with an orange gel to give the background definition. Using the large indirect modifier, I just wanted the light to touch her very gently. My rule is that the bottom of the soft box should be level with the subjects face. In order to get a little more light on her I lowered it a little and feathered it towards me. I often let the subject do their thing without too much direction. I also setup a light camera right and slightly behind the subject to throw a little light on her face and give a little more depth and separation from the background.

Speedliter's Blog: Brett Harkness Melancholy Clown Portrait with Pentax, Elinchrom

SETTINGS: 1/125 - F5.0 - ISO 100

GEAR: Pentax 645z Medium Format, Pentax 90mm 2.8, Elinchrom Ranger RS Speed AS with Elinchrom Indirect Litemotiv Octa 190cm as key light camera left, Elinchrom ELB 400 with gridded Elinchrom 44cm Softlite dish as fill camera right

BRETT: This image was actually taken in between sets as the clown was taking a break. The carnival was reenacting late 18th century carnivals and clowns then were originally meant to be quite sombre. So I told the clown not to do anything but stare at the base of the light. It worked a treat. I got down in the grass and shot with the 55mm lens. I chose to keep the ambience quite bright without going under to much. The softness off the image is beautiful with the large 190cm indirect very close to him.

Speedliter's Blog: Brett Harkness Card Thrower Portrait with Pentax, Elinchrom

SETTINGS: 1/125 - F3.2 - ISO 200

GEAR: Pentax 645z Medium Format, Pentax 90mm 2.8, Elinchrom ELB 1200 with Elinchrom Rotalux 135cm Octabox as key light, Elinchrom ELB 400 with gridded Elinchrom 44cm Softlite Dish and orange gel camera right to create orange glow on the grass, Elinchrom ELB 400 with gridded Elinchrom 44cm Softlite Dish camera right as kicker for separation

BRETT: For this image I decided to go a little darker with the ambience. Putting on a couple of stops of ND made sure the ambience would stop down nicely whilst still keeping my aperture fairly wide. I knew I wanted the subject to throw the cards but I didn’t have too many chances as the cards were starting to bend! We got it on shot number 4! Even though the shutter speed was only 125th the duration of the flash froze the playing cards nicely.

Behind the scenes footage from this location:

What software and tools/processes did you use for post-production & retouching?

BRETT: I always start of with my TIFFs in Capture1. It doesn’t recognize raw files from the Pentax so I shoot TIFF. Then I transfer them to Photoshop. I softly color grade in the curves channel using R & G & B and then desaturate a little in the blue channel of channel mixer. A little sharpening and generally thats it.

Any final thoughts on the session or client feedback?

BRETT: The client was, in their words, “ blow away” by the shoot and said that the feeling of the images transported them back to the time of the original carnivals. I have another shoot with this Carnival coming up in May so am very much looking forward to that.

Check out more of Brett's work at his website or on Instagram at @brettharknessportraits or @brettharkness. Brett also offers photography training. Check out to learn more.


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