I have been working in customer service for the past 17 years. 17 years of having people calling me with problems in need of a solution or direction to solve it. Some problems can be real pain in the rear end, some can be real challenges, others are walk in the park. I love those. Don’t get me wrong, a challenge is very self-rewarding and pain in the butts are often recognized by peers but a no-brainer, once in a while, I can deal with that.
I should not call any situation a no brainer. What I call now a no brainier now was a challenge not long so ago. It was probably a pain in the butt too at some point. Basic lighting might be a no brainer for me now, it remains a challenge for a few.
A friend of mine, Christina, was asked last week to shoot a portrait for Kate, a real estate agent’s publicity (cards, boards and such). Since Christina was a good friend of the Kate, she could not refuse. The day before the shoot, Christina pulled out all her lighting equipment, prepared her studio space and then started to wonder how to light Kate.
I went to Christina’s house on Sunday to help her out. I was greeted with a nice coffee and a banana-chocolate home-made muffin, still warm from the oven. Right there I knew it would be a great day. Kate arrived, all real estate nicely looking, along with Jenifer. While Kate was getting prepared, Christina and I went to the basement to look at the setup. We are talking of an 8X10 floor space with 7ft of ceiling clearance; not your average studio. This means you will be shooting really close to your subject, lights are going to be in their face and you will be very limited on shooting angles. A no brainer…
A studio is 4 walls, a floor and a ceiling. You have that, you have a studio. -Zack Arias.
You see, my all-time favorite lens I have in my kit is a Canon 17-40 f/4L USM so there are no other options than shooting close. Many would not even consider it for portrait, with very valid reasons. My reason for using it all the time: it is my only decent lens. Christina was also using low power studio strobes she bought on eBay as a kit. I had never tried those and was quite curious to see the results.
So Kate sat on the modeling chair and we started. The 1st thing I suggested was to get rid of the camera tripod. If you want some dynamics in your sessions, you got to be ready to move with your subject. It demands a bit more concentration because you are then constantly re-framing your shots but this way, if your image is not framed right, it is not your model to be blamed for.
The 2nd thing was “we are going manual”. We tested her light remote to make sure we knew what was the maximum sync speed of it. We had a big dark band in the frame when shooting at 1/320th, indicating that the rear curtain was pulling down as the flash was going off. At 1/250th the band was still showing; not much but enough to turn post processing into a real nightmare. At 1/200th, the light coverage was perfect. We set the lights to their minimal settings (1/16th) and gave it a try at f/4. Too bright. Since we could not lower the light anymore and the light could not be pulled away from the model (remember, very small space), we changed the aperture until we got the desired exposure which was f/8. From that point forward, this does not change; f/8, 1/200th of a second.
The 3rd thing was shoot while interacting. Chimping at the camera once in a while is not a bad idea but you have to avoid the temptation to do it all the time. Every time we look at our cameras, we break the flow of the shoot. By shooting between 6 and 10 frames in a row before looking at the LCD screen, you get your models building on their last pose. The smiles become more natural, the head positions more comfortable, the stances more daring and imposing. Feedback is very important as the model will rely on that to know if he or she is going in the right direction. After all, the photographer is the one who sees the frame and should have a previsualized idea of what the image will look like. The photographer should tell the model when something works and when something doesn’t.
The 4th and last thing was until the model/photographer confidence level is set, don’t expect masterpieces. Your best images are going to be toward the end of the memory card. This is when the model knows you are doing everything possible to capture the best images. This is also when you know the model is doing her or his best to give you the best performance to work with.
So Christina went on shooting Kate for a while, trying different poses, head and hands positions, sitting angles, until she felt she had the image. Jenifer stepped then in.
It was the very 1st modeling shoot for Jen. 14 year old Jen started looking a bit stiff and uncertain of what to do. It is very normal. She had to pose for a first time in front of her mother, a friend, her friend’s mother and a stranger who looks like a tug. Christina’s interactions with Jen got through and this is when Jen started to shine. You could see that slowly, the only ones in the room were Jen and a photographer. After a few minutes, Christina handed me the strobe remote and told me to pull out my camera. Jen and I worked for a while, trying different light settings, going from 1 light to 2 lights, filling the frame with close-ups, telling her how great she was going, directing the different poses, always keeping in mind she is only 14. That last part might sound silly but I have seen too many photos of young aspiring models being exploited by photographers by showing them as what they aren’t and I don’t want to ever fall into that category.
Shooting close-ups of a teenager often means skin touch-ups. It happens also with older models; no one is perfect. I knew while shooting Jen that skin cleaning would not be too hard. This is the very 1st ting I did in post, after selecting the keepers. Although there are skin smoothing techniques, tools and pug-ins, they all work better if the skin is cleaned 1st. Using the healing tool in Lightroom, I “fixed” the various area where skin outbursts were showing more. I also removed reddish skin zones because once the skin is smoothed, these skin coloration starts looking more like smudges. Once this is completed, it is post-processing as usual.
After the skin touch-ups, I adjusted the light a bit. We were shooting against a white fabric background. Given the size of the available space, Jen needed to be relatively close to it, making it difficult to blur the ripples. I increased the overall exposure so the background would then turn brighter, eliminating the background shadows. Doing so also affected my model exposure.
Using the Lightroom bush tool, I brought back details into Jenifer by darkening her back to her original exposure (give or take a few adjustments that would have been done anyway after). This was done by using the exposure, brightness and contrast sliders in the brush tool, all separately to retain overall control.
To give dimension to her hair, I slightly increased the hair highlights and shadows with the brush tool. I try as much as possible to retain original highlights and shadows area and not create new ones. Turning an area brighter when it was not bright to start with makes it look unnatural.
Next step was to make sure the skin was smoothed a bit. This was done in 2 stages. The 1st smoothing was done on the face. The 2nd was done on the neck and upper chest area at 50% of what the face was smoothed at. The 2nd zone did not really need any smoothing but not touching it made the transition to harsh between the face and the neck.
The final image was cropped to give a bit more direction for the viewer. By leaving some empty space in front of Jen and cutting out some of the back of the frame, the viewer wanders less through the frame.
It was a great shoot and Jen did amazing for a 1st timer. After watching Christina shooting, I realized I am really just a messenger; the info I gave her was a summary of information gathered all over the place. Kelby, Hobby, Arias (especially Arias) were part of what I was giving Christina. Nothing to be ashamed of; to show you must have learned somewhere first.