Depth in the Shadows

José M. Mercado

Whether it is a personal project or an editorial shoot, José M. Mercado’s main passion is photographing people. “I can’t imagine my photography without people, as they are the main reason for my entire work,” he tells us.

How José lights his portrait images is absolutely key to the images that he takes, and it isn’t something that is just figured out on the spot; to reveal the story and character of his subjects there is meticulous planning from the very start. In fact, by the time José is ready to press the shutter, most of his work is already done. 

jose m mercado sony alpha 9 female wearing a woolly hat against a black background

© José M. Mercado | Sony α9 | Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM | 1/200s @ f/5.6, ISO 100

“A comprehensive creation process,” he explains, “lies behind each of my photographs which sometimes entails months of work. Each assignment is different, yet my modus operandi is always the same.”

During the research stage, he collects information about the theme he is working on so that he can express his point of view. He then develops drawings in the creative stage, to figure out the lighting configuration and the layout for executing the final image. And when it comes to the final execution of an image? “The work is almost done,” he shrugs, “and I simply have to transfer the photograph in my head, or in my drawings, to the camera.”

jose m mercado sony alpha 99 lady -draped in red cloth hangs from a trapeze

© José M. Mercado | Sony α99 | Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM | 1/500s @ f/5.0, ISO 400

Sony Alpha cameras make this possible for José – using a selection of different Sony cameras and lenses, each one carefully chosen for a specific task. For studio work involving photographing sportsmen and women he uses the Sony α9, which provides him with the fast autofocus and a 20fps shooting speed to freeze movements. Meanwhile, the Sony α7R III and its 42.4 megapixel sensor is used when the ultimate in image quality is required. And for his own travels and personal street photography projects, José uses his α7S, making use of its high sensitivity sensor and silent shutter.

When it comes to lenses it very much depends on the job at hand, but amongst José’s lens are the FE 70-200 mm f/4 G OSS, FE 85 mm f/1.4 GM, Vario-Tessar® T* FE 16-35 mm f/4 ZA OSS, the E 35 mm f/1.8 OSS, but the lens he uses most often is the FE 24-105 mm f/4 G OSS.

jose m mercado sony alpha 99 ballet dancer stands by a window admiring herself in a mirror leaning up against the wall

© José M. Mercado | Sony α99 | Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM | 1/60s @ f/3.5, ISO 1250

Look through José’s extensive portfolio of portrait images and you can see his style and vision shine through, and it is all down to the way in which the images are lit. There is often a careful play between highlights and shadow, with the highlights revealing the details that José wants to use to tell us about his subject.

jose m mercado sony alpha 9 base jumper leaps across the roof of the telefonica building

© José M. Mercado | Sony α9 | Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS | 1/1250s @ f/9.0, ISO 100

“I think it is important to know how to dominate artificial or natural light in a scene,” he ponders, “as well as composition. It is light that makes photography possible and the composition is what arranges all the elements that are going to form part of a photograph. As photographers, when we manage to dominate these two concepts, we can express ourselves much more clearly.”

jose m mercado sony alpha 7S female violinist posest formall against a dark background

© José M. Mercado | Sony α7S | FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS | 1/125s @ f/7.1, ISO 100

To really understand lighting, José studies the environment around him, looking at how different perspectives and sources can brighten a space or a person’s face, and how this can create shadows - something that is a feature of many of his images. “I really like light, but the truth is I much prefer shadows” he says.

In an attempt to learn more about light, a few years back, José created an exercise which consisted of looking at passersby on the tube, buses or in bars that particularly stood out because of the way they were illuminated.

“By constantly looking at them and observing the shadows, you have to guess which lights are illuminating them, what type of light it is and what angle it is positioned at”, he explains. “This really helped me to observe things more carefully and greatly improved my lighting skills in my photographs.”

jose m mercado sony alpha 99 american football player profile portrait

© José M. Mercado | Sony α99 | Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM | 1/200s @ f/11, ISO 100

Sony’s cameras give José the freedom to be creative, and it is his passion to express himself through photography that provides him with the motivation, and inspiration, to keep taking photographs. For him, it isn’t a job or a profession, it is something that he just has to do.

“I never ventured into the world of photography thinking that it would one day be my job, in fact, I still don’t think of it in that way today; I do it because I feel that I have to do it and because, without it, I feel like a part of me would die. I need to express my feelings and, right now, I do that through photography.” 

jose m mercado sony alpha 9 man leaps across a narrow canal at dusk

© José M. Mercado | Sony α9 | Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS | 1/1000s @ f/4.0, ISO 100

He continues “I don’t plan to leave any legacy; I take photographs because I love doing it and I never look to the future, I enjoy every shot and that is what makes me want to keep on taking photographs.”

Products featured in this article
α7S E-mount Camera with Full-Frame Sensor


α9 full frame mirrorless camera with stacked CMOS sensor


α99 A-mount Camera with 35mm Full-frame Sensor


Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm F2.8 ZA SSM II


Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm F4 ZA OSS


FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS Lens