Friday, October 30, 2009

Natural AND Flattering....And All You Need To Do Is Lie

My mother is one of the most difficult people to photograph. She hates having her picture taken and it shows when you force her to smile for the camera. Well I was thrilled that this one turned out. And how did I get it? Easy, I lied.

You see, when you are an amateur you have some built-in excuses. People expect you to fumble around and take time to "get things right". Do you know how many killer shots I have gotten by saying "Just hang on, I'm getting some light readings, don't worry, we're not starting yet". YEAH RIGHT! I scored this one by telling my mother that I was just refocusing and not actually taking a picture. HA.

I am not suggesting that you need to lie to be a good photographer, but whenever you can disarm your subject, you get a much more relaxed and natural look. Try some techniques of your own to get those candid portraits. We all have the Uncle Marty that smiles at the camera like a dope every time you go to a family function. Try to get a picture without them knowing. Candid portraits (or at least not "posed" portraits) are almost always my favorites.

This all goes to the importance of having a comfortable relationship with your subject. Even if you met them the day you shoot them, talk to them for a few minutes before the camera even comes out. Tell them briefly what you'll be doing and that it is EASY and will be FUN. That alone goes a long way.

I remember my first paying client. I had no idea what I got myself into and she had never been part of an on-location photo shoot. Not only was it my first paying client, I knew it would be published on a magazine cover. First thing I knew I had to do: lie. If I was nervous and she was nervous (because I was nervous) it would have been a disaster. As it turned out we started off by just chatting. And when we started shooting I told her things like, "Stand here, this will look great!" Half the shots weren't great. But it didn't matter. She was having a good time and was relaxed. It was all I could ask for. That assignment taught me so much about getting your subject to be at ease. You should have fun and so should they. If that isn't happening in your shoot, you are doing something wrong. You're an amateur, you aren't getting paid so you better at least have fun.

The shoot, by the way, was a success. I'll post the pictures in a future post.

>> On the photo above I converted from color to B&W and increased contrast. I hate OVER-post processing, so I do the bare minimum....hmmm sounds like a future post.

Sun Worshiping

If you asked me what my favorite light source was when I started in photography 15 years ago, I'd immediately say the sun. If you asked me today, with over a decade more experience, I'd still say the sun. It is very pleasing for skin tones, it's large and even, it's often available when you're outside, and it's free! It is almost perfect. Almost.


So remember 30 seconds ago when you read that I love the sun? Well I do, but I rarely, if ever, use it directly. Especially for portraits. It falls under the theory of "too much of a good thing". It is often too harsh and the shadows it casts on the other side of the face are just not pleasant (and hard to get rid of in post-processing. So how do you get the best of the sun, without the negatives? Move into the shade. Not too far in, just a few feet. The shade of trees, a house, a building, whatever is around. In the photo world this is called open shade.

One of the biggest reasons to be in open shade is so you can use a bounce to fill in any shadows. That is because the bounce can be placed in the direct sun. In the photo above, we used a bounce card, held in direct sunlight just below and to the left of the subjects. This way all the lighting CAN be from the sun, just from different angles and diffused. It provides good balance to the lighting and a soft natural effect. I actually didn't use any fill flash for this shot.

Bounces can be purchased online in multiple sizes designs and colors. Bounces are typically white, silver and/or gold. There are reasons for this and you should search Google for the reasons why (I don't want to waste the time doing so here, but it is important to know - bouncing is the Holy Grail of photography lighting).

Though I own one, I also made a mini one for my Speedlite flash. In a big room with a tall ceiling, it is priceless. If you are interested, there are plenty of Youtube videos and Google posts that show you how to make ones of different shapes and sizes. If you want to play with the idea of using a bounce, buy a large piece of foam board from the craft store and go crazy.

One last tip for shooting in the sun: Never shoot mid-day. Shoot within the first two hours of sunrise or wait until late afternoon, within a few hours of sunset. The color cast of the light is warmer - more yellow/orange. It is great for skin tones. And never forget that some overcast days can offer good lighting too. No shadows to deal with! Try taking some portraits outside on sunny days, overcast days, early morning, mid-afternoon (eek!). See what you can learn from your own experience.

What's Your Point of View?

Point of view (POV) is one of the most important aspects of setting up every shot. You need to start with that and you can build all other aspects up from there. Choose your POV (sometimes called perspective) and then worry about shutter, aperture, lighting etc.
In this shot, the subject was sitting at a table and I jumped up on a chair with flash in hand, close to the ceiling and bounced. I obviously used a very small DOF - I think 1.8. It was a one shot deal. I was never going to recreate that natural expression; which of course was her not being amused. If that shot didn't work, I would have hopped off the chair and taken a different approach. As luck would have it, it worked! The only post editing I did was slight color correction and cropped it smaller.

This shot is only as interesting as it is because of the POV. Try your shots by looking up at people, down at people. Shot them head on. Try a profile. It will add interest and often times drama to your portraits (and other shots of course). The more you practice, the happier you will be with your results.

"Professional" POV Tips: These are only jumping off points.
1. For adults, try shooting just slightly above your subject's eye level looking down. It is typically a flattering angle.
2. For shorter subjects (shorter than you) try getting down lower, perhaps looking slightly up at them. You don't want your shots to be tops of heads.
3. For kids, get LOWER. Shooting at their level or looking up at them will dramatically improve your child shots. Look at the shot below. This child is at my level and it is a very pleasing point of view. I got down on one knee. The person taking a picture behind me (a family member of all people) stood. Yes, stood and looked down. Without showing their results, just guess which one came out better.
The next time you can use a child as a model, try capturing a few shots looking up at them. Have them stand on a rock or jungle gym and put the sky behind them on a crisp Fall day. If done well the results can look very amazing. And why? We aren't used to seeing children at that angle. And that creates the interest and the drama.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Look Mom, No Shadows!

So I love DIY projects. I have created soft boxes and have fun using them to add soft lighting for portraits and objects. For the picture below, I used one of my favorite tricks but it does require using a couple of friends.

I put a 5 ft cord on my flash and had my wife hold it up on camera left at 45 degrees. I had my sister (who made the cupcakes) hold a piece of a white polyester shower curtain liner 5 inches in front of the flash. It cost me $10 and is one of my favorite ways for adding quick soft light on a an object like this. I arranged them quickly on a cutting board, used a small DOF for some added interest and shot for less than 2 minutes. This one was my favorite. Notice there is only a soft light shadow on the right. No harsh lines here. A direct flash - would have been a much different story. It works because the LARGER the light source, the more even and softer lighting you get.

So why didn't I use a bounce here? Well I used a 50mm prime lens and needed to be close, plus I wanted some shadow, especially on the texture of the icing.

So look what you can get with a flash cable, shower curtain and a couple of friends. Post work: slight saturation increase.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

OP Philosophy

My basic philosophy with the blog is to show what can be done with a minimal investment in equipment and with as much natural light sources as possible (the big yellow ball in the sky).

I have been shooting for over 10 years and use a Canon Rebel xi, 2 cheap Speedlites, a circular collapsible bounce, a tripod and a few DYI gizmos (future posts). I have a few lenses too but we'll get to that in the future. That's all I have, and I think that's all I need. It isn't to say I wont buy a few cables and light stands for the flashes I have as that would be nice for on-location portraits - but still not necessary; at least for purposes of this blog.

I try as often as possible to use natural lighting and, if necessary, I try to just use a SINGLE strobe or bounce. Natural lighting is flattering and soft, when used correctly. It is also, dare I say, the most natural. We have all seen those strobe shots that are too "washed-out" with unnatural coloring and harsh skin tones. And they are also so much more unnatural when shot OUTSIDE. There is rarely a solid excuse for that. Use a fill-flash. Try a bounce. I could go on all day....

I welcome problems, questions and ideas and I will answer them if I can. I will post tips, pictures and let you know about upcoming projects I have planned. I am hoping this blog can help you take better photos. The underlying philosophy is simple. Shoot, have fun and BE NATURAL - with your lighting that is!