Forgive me if I am telling you what you already know. This article is about my journey as I discovered the ins and outs of studio / portrait photography. Am I there yet? I don’t think so. I still have more to learn.
I am not a portrait photographer
Well this was never my passion. But you know that never stopped me from learning a trick or two. I think I learned from several of the club greats, Gary Secombe, Jo Tabe, Alberto Giurelli, Ashley Hoff, Chris Schultz, Ray Goulter, Les Ludgate… I learned by being told things, from watching the others and by experimentation. And it’s infectious. I love it when it works. And what I have learned about lighting really helps in other areas of photography.
The Flash is the fourth element
I remember Matt Carr saying that Exposure all boils down to shutter, aperture and ISO. These three elements determine how the camera will behave. Then I came to portrait night and discovered the flash. This is the fourth element. As soon as you add a flash to the camera you have another variable in the equation. Leaving the other three set, you can change the whole picture (make or break it) by adjusting only the flash.
Full manual control works just fine
At my first portrait workshop Gary told me to put my camera into full manual mode. What was he thinking? I left it in aperture priority and nothing worked out. The TTL on the camera was trying to out think the studio lights. The pre-flash would fire the studio lights and they were recharging when the shutter opened. The shots were all underexposed. I just disconnected my camera and walked away and gave up. I wasted the whole first session.
Next session I tried Manual mode. It was easy. I set an average daylight shutter speed and aperture and hey the cable sync now worked. I made some adjustments to the aperture and everything was nicely exposed. I left it on the same settings all night. I’m a slow learner.
Take the flash off the camera
The flash on top of the camera gives a harsh flat light. A bit like a photocopier – washing everything with the same even light. Sometimes this is just what you want. However it’s aweful for people revealing all the skin blemishes and double chins and red eyes and pink inside the mouth. Portraits need lighting off to one side so that the face has shape and nice soft textures and the mouths and nostrils are dark, not pink.
Getting the flash off the camera requires some sort of connection to the camera so that the flash will fire at the right time. In the old days this was done with a wire. More recently you can do this with optical or radio frequency triggers. An optical triggered flash is sometimes called a slave. I learned something last Thursday from Chris. The Cactus radio triggers are much more reliable than the optical system with my Nikon flashes. I might have to buy some.
Control the strength of the light
Well to get a nice classical portrait we want strong light on one side and weaker light on the other. It is important to be able to control the strength of the light.
Some flashes are stronger than others. All forms of diffuser and umbrellas and soft boxes and bounce flashes are going to diminish the strength of the flash. Also you can turn the flash strength up and down with most brands of flash. The most powerful flashes will travel the furthest distance. In fact the amount of light drops off with the square of the distance. This is when the penny drops for me. I can also adjust the strength of the light by moving the model closer or further away from the light source.
Control the quality of the light
Not all light is the same quality. What do I mean by that? Just have a look at the shadows that you create. On a bright sunny day the shadows are sharp and crisp. However on a cloudy day the shadows are soft and blurred. When the sun is setting the shadows are coloured. These are all qualities of the light.
In portraiture we don’t want sharp crisp shadows of noses and wrinkles streaking across peoples faces, We want soft blurry shadows that make people look soft and unwrinkled. We need cloudy day lighting. In the studio we can achieve this by increasing the area of the light source. You shine it through a cloud so as to speak. A soft box or an umbrella or bouncing the light off a wall will give soft cloudy day lighting.
For sometime I have had a cheap mini inflatable soft box diffuser that I can put over my flash. However recently I bought a proper full sized soft box over the internet and it wasn’t too expensive. You really notice the difference when you move from harsh lighting to soft lighting.
Don’t you hate it when the judge says that there is a branch coming out of this persons head. Of course it’s not – it’s just that the branch is behind the person. But does it need to be behind the person? Well you can control that. If you are looking at the background you can try and avoid unnecessary distractions.
In portraiture you can go black or white just with lights. It is easier if you have a backdrop. This also can be black, white or even a textured background. Whatever you do – don’t let the background stand out more than the subject.
Jen Williams sent out a poster over face book recently that was essentially a recipe book of different lighting effects. It is good to try different things. Don’t do your portrait lighting the same every time. Experiment.
Working with Models
Up until now it has all been about the camera and the lighting equipment. In the early portrait nights we just shot pictures of ourselves. Later on I was introduced to models. Models are amazing, they smile and smile and look good all the time. My family are the antithesis of models, they scowl and scorn and hold their hand up and say, “You’re not taking another photo of me”. I had got into the habit of taking candid shots. Sneaking in unawares and snapping quickly. This is how I started working with the models. I would snap away while someone else was talking to them. However models will also take direction. They are waiting for you to tell them what you want them to do. When I started – it was like “well don’t ask me, I don’t know what I’m doing.” I can quite categorically say that this approach didn’t work. You have to take responsibility and step up to the mark and be the photographer. I think if you want to get good shots it is important to work on the relationship. Tell the model what you are trying to achieve, ask them about themselves, tell them about yourself. Tell them when things look good. Show them previews of the photographs. Even a “Dad joke” or two helps to relax everyone into the task at hand.
Time to take charge
People tell me they don’t like manipulated images. I don’t think they know what they are talking about. Just look back at what I have written so far. How much manipulation have I just described. Photographers are manipulative people. They are manipulating the scene the whole time to get the shot. Don’t worry about the dark room or photoshop – a lot of manipulation takes place before the shutter opens. What do we do? I don’t think we should apologize. We need to take charge. Photography is a kind of magic. Like a magician you smile, don’t tell them how it’s done and tell them it is all the magic of the camera.