It wasn’t long ago that I completed my first indoor portrait shoot, and it reminded me that maybe if someone else learns these simple steps, then they won’t have to learn them the hard way, as I did. (By screwing them up, then having to try it over again)
1) Practice with someone before you do your shoot. This sounds somewhat obvious, as practicing a craft is always a good idea. But, especially when you’re first starting out, trying out new settings, new locations for the lights, and different poses for the subject will go a long way towards you not only being more prepared to succeed, but will also give you a sense of security…even if it’s false (just kidding).
2) Play with your light settings in manual mode. I learned to shoot portraits using only manual settings on my speed lights. That affords me all of the control over the lighting so there are no surprises. You want to avoid blown-out spots like the plague. Blown out spots on a face are pretty much impossible to cure, unless you’re an expert with the band-aid brush. If you have to choose overexposing or underexposing, I will ALWAYS prefer to underexpose. Modern cameras, (especially full frame DSLRS) are quite good at pulling light out of darker areas, but they still fail badly at pulling detail out of blown-out areas.
Think in terms of your histogram. Anything off the left side of the histogram will be too dark…and as long as it isn’t pitch black, it’s recoverable in Lightroom or PS. You cal pull those sliders to the right and bring detail back into the photo. However, stuff off to the right side of the histrogram is nasty, harsh, blown-out light that you can’t do anything with, unless you can clone it out. And good luck with that. As a general rule, I try to avoid cloning on the face, because sometimes you can end up with a Lego face without even realizing it. (When you’re doing the work, you lose perspective on how this would look to someone who hasn’t had their face buried into this picture for 8 hours).
To avoid a Lego face, we need to avoid blown out spots that fall off the left side of the histogram cliff. That’s where knowing your speed light manual settings really comes in.
Start out by, you guessed it, practicing. Doesn’t matter what is posing for you…a person, your dog, a stuffed kitty your grandma left you, a can of Ragu sauce…whatever. Well, whatever you choose, it should be something that is conducive to portrait photography…maybe something that’s close to being as big as what you’ll be shooting so you get similar situations.
I typically use umbrellas as my main and secondary lighting….one as a pass through (the key) and one as a bounce. That’s just my personal preference…I’ve gotten used to working with them. You will find your own comfort zone too. Well…I hope you do…it would kinda suck to do this for a living for a couple of decades and never go to a single shoot with a sense of comfort in your lighting setup. They would write books about your struggle. But I digress…
Start out with the main light on full power, just for the heck of it. Take a shot, and see what the histogram tells you. If you’re close to a good distribution of light, try moving your aperture on the camera up or down, to see how that alters the photograph.
Then drop down a stop of light on the main light, and shoot again. Move your aperture around a little again to get a feel for what happens.
Trivia question: In a situation with no ambient lighting…if you drop one stop of light on the light source, then open up your camera’s aperture by one stop (and do nothing else), what should happen to the amount of light? Generally speaking, the same amount of light should hit the sensor, assuming no one moved much during the intermittent time, and that ambient light wasn’t playing a major role in the lighting. Think about it: You dropped down the amount of artificial light in the scene by one stop…but, your aperture will now accept one more stop of light. Now, in a setting where your flash is just a minor fill flash, and most of your light is from ambient sources, bumping up the aperture by a stop will likely brighten the scene, as all that ambient light will have a wider path to your sensor.
The overall point…assuming I really have one, is that playing around with the flash level, and the aperture setting in your camera will give you VERY valuable learning tools to adjust to different lighting environments.
3) Keep It simple. Given that I know very little about how to manipulate the direction of light, I try to keep it very basic with portraits (unless the client asks for something different. Then I get all sweaty, my heart races, my throat gets all dry, and I have to count to ten to get my stuff together. And then, once I’m conscious again, I do what any good professional does most of the time…IMPROVISE!!
Want to walk away from this blog with only one truth? Here it is: Throughout life, anyone who acts like they always know what they are doing is ALWAYS full of you know what. It’s true. They’ve done studies…I read one on the internet a while back, so it’s definitely true.
I don’t care how smart you are or how long you’ve been doing something…you don’t know everything, and you never will. Anyone who admits otherwise is a potential asshat, and I’d advise staying away from asshat photographers. They take awesome photos, but man, they are atrociously annoying. Sorta like this blog.
Sorry, I digress again. I keep it very simple with a two speedlight setup, using two umbrellas, usually a muslin background of some sort, a stool for people to sit on, the tripod, camera, lenses, remote shutter release (a must!), and that’s pretty much it. I have gotten good enough at knowing how a two light setup affects the light on the screen…and as of yet, I have not had any reason to try any of the other millions of possible light setups.
Artificial lighting really isn’t an interest of mine within the realm of photography…I do it when clients ask me to. I enjoy doing it because I enjoy doing anything that has to do with photography, and I really enjoy helping to make a client happy. If the need ever arises to look into other lighting techniques…I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
I can hear one of you out there thinking (the one of you who’s reading this), “Well maybe by proactively learning some new lighting setups, you could make the scene look more attractive for the client, thereby helping my prime directive. And while that’s true, there what’s called an “opportunity cost” of practicing. Basically, opportunity cost means that, whenever you’re doing something, you do it at the cost of doing something else at that time. So if I take a full Thursday practicing artificial light, I lose that whole day when could have been doing something else…and you never get that day back. Use your time wisely. Especially as you get older…man, time really speeds up after you hit 40.
I remember back when I was a kid in school, it felt like a day and a half went by before a 45 minute class ended. Nowadays, I can’t do anything in under 45 minutes. Hours laugh at me as they fly by.
The only thing in my life that slows everything down for me is waiting for my computer to turn on. Regardless of what technologies may change, that one constant is always longer than it feels like it should be.
OK, enough…back to the topic, if there ever was one. Oh yeah, #3:
3) Talk to your client for a while before shooting. This is especially true for firing squadsman. Even if they are a lifelong friend…it will be a little awkward when you first start. (unless your friend is one of those kooky fashion people…I guess if you act awkward all the time, you never actually are?). I am kidding…I love all kooky fashion people…You make magazines worth reading.
If you are the kind of person who is good at disarming a tense situation, you will have a much easier time with this aspect of portrait photography…especially when shooting strangers. For those burdened with social anxiety, no matter how much you chat, there will always be a sense of uneasiness and you will probably not do portraiture for a living. If you do, please email me…I’d be incredibly impressed. For everyone else in between, it’s just a matter of getting into the “flow” of the scene. Once you get a little bit of comfort, then start out with some simple shots. Don’t forget to check those lighting settings!
Ask a lot of questions, even while shooting. Get into their brain a little, so you can start to anticipate what they are and aren’t comfortable doing. Trust them to be honest with you. Machiavelli would have been a crappy portrait photographer. Above average writer, though.
4) Don’t underestimate how important your camera height should be. Just a little too high or low, and you get awkward-looking people. No one wants to see so much of a nostril that the first question posted in the mind of the viewer is, “Man I wish I could see in there just a liiiiitttttle more so I could tell what that thing sticking out is!”
A very general rule is a chest-high tripod, and focus for the eyes. That may change for a very tall person or a small kid or for tons of other reasons…but that’s the general rule.
You can easily hand-hold during shoots, and some photographers love the freedom it allows you. Just make sure your light settings are working with you!
5) Smile. A lot. No one wants to have a curmudgeon taking pictures of them. That’s just cruel. Make sure you’re having a good time…even if you aren’t. If you don’t let your subject know that you’re having fun, it can create concern and anxiety on their part, which leads to not getting the most out of your poses. And they definitely won’t use you again.
Just have fun. Portrait shoots usually are fun, because it places people in unnatural situations, and trying out new things is always a good time. And, if someone finds out how much they enjoy being in front of a camera, then maybe you’ve found someone who can help you practice for the low, low price of free!
To put an end to something that should have ended long ago (this blog post), here’s a crazy fun shot of a group of co-workings feeling that Holiday cheer!
They were a lot of fun to do a portrait shoot with…and that makes taking pictures SO much easier.