Our youngest turned one year old recently and on her birthday I wanted to capture a “good” portrait. It would be her “official” one-year picture. Of course I decided to try something I hadn’t done before — a high-key portrait with a white background — which ensured it would take three times as long as something I’m already comfortable doing. I don’t have white seamless paper and I don’t have a proper background stand. So…I have a huge (12′ x 20′ I think) white polyester background that I picked up on clearance for $20-ish. I draped this over the back of a couple of chairs (with my subject being only a couple feet tall I didn’t have to worry about the height). My main light was a speedlight into a reflective umbrella at high camera left, triggered by an Elinchrom Skyport. I placed a large white reflector on camera right and used a speedlight behind the subject to light the background.
My first issue was to decide how I wanted the background to actually look. Blown out? Super smooth (problematic with the deep creases in the freshly unpackaged cloth and being draped over uneven chair backs)? Don’t worry about it and fix in post? From a quick internet search I learned that I couldn’t simply iron that polyester cloth and get rid of the creases in a few minutes. In the end I went with an aperture that blurred the background somewhat but provided a safe depth-of-field for the shots. My daughter was far enough from the background so it would be reasonably out-of-focus and I could reasonably edit it in post for a few shots if desired. The background light was adjusted “to taste”. I had planned to shoot with a much brighter background but the light was too uneven (no surprise when trying to light with a single speedlight in the center).
The shot above was taken as a test during setup. The hair and clothes are a mess (hadn’t prepped her yet) — but it’s cute and I decided that this is actually one of my favorites. The only edits were crop, slight WB adjustment, sharpening around the eyes, vignette, and the removal of a small scratch on the skin. I really like the way it turned out overall even if the background isn’t ideal.
For the second year in a row I’ve taken pictures for my daughters’ volleyball team. The individual shots were pretty much a piece of cake and they turned out great. The set up for those involved spreading a neutral-colored paint tarp on the floor to eliminate the red glow on the girls’ skin, standing the girls on a stool, setting up one speedlight (triggered with Elinchrom Skyports) shooting through a white umbrella for the key light, a strobe flashing the gym behind the girls to add light to the background, posing them with a volleyball, and firing away. These went very quickly as there was no change in setup between each girl. The gym is horrible for pictures but was workable for these individual shots.
We also goofed with some dramatic shots with the girls looking serious and got the shot above. The main light is the same speedlight-thru-umbrella held nearly on axis with the camera (slightly toward high camera left). The back light is simply a speedlight plopped on the floor. These took longer to get the girls set and posed, and as you see above, we never got the posing or the spacing quite right. We didn’t have all day so I had to take what I could get as they say. There are lots of photographic flaws but the girls and parents are plenty happy with the pic, which is what really counts.
I did some basic processing in Lightroom then headed to Photoshop to grunge out and darken the background (mostly with curves), do some very minor edits and retouching, noise reduction, and add the text.
Due to a ticket snafu with Delta Airlines my daughter was delayed by a week on her trip to Africa. The new itinerary that Delta emailed the day before her flight showed that her destination was not even in the correct hemisphere! Fortunately Delta acknowledged that it was as much their mistake as it was ours so they fully refunded the old ticket and set her up with a flight in a week without any penalty for short notice. So, she gets to be home and see friends for another week.
With the additional time we decided to try a few more portraits and play around with the lighting. My friend “B” and two other daughters acted as voice-activated light stands and reflectors. In addition to the main light we added a hair light behind her. When I fired off the first few test shots the hair light didn’t trigger. However, one of those shots ended up being my favorite of the bunch. We were goofing off and I was fortunate enough to capture a natural, joyful look. You never know what “mistakes” will bring.
Lighting was a Canon 580 EXII with a 1/4 CTO gel through a white umbrella, triggered via Elinchrom Skyports. I believe it was at 1/4 power. Post-processing consisted of using the “Sharpening: Portraits” preset and adding a slight vignette in Lightroom to get rid of a few details which showed in the background.
[Side note: The Elinchrom skyports work 100% reliably when everything is connected properly. However, the transmitter has no means to tighten it on the hotshoe -- it relies on friction. Quite often a slight bump move it enough so that it does not make contact and things don't fire. It's not always visually apparent that the transmitter is not seated correctly. Still worth the money I think (otherwise excellent performance and "reasonably" priced). There's my Elinchrom Skyport review...]
Last Friday evening I joined Alex Suarez, Steve Wampler, and Sylvia Brogdon for an impromptu photo shoot outside the Palmer Events Center. They had just spent the day in the Flash Bus seminar put on by Joe McNally and David Hobby and wanted to practice what they’d learned to help cement it in their minds. I was not able to attend the Flash Bus event but I wanted to join in and learn what I could and get some practice myself. Our models were “Eight” and my daughter Evelyn. The location was the grounds of the Palmer Events Center in Austin, TX. It has many architectural features which lend themselves to unique portrait settings and there are different backgrounds to choose from on each side of the building.
As we got started, Steve talked about how David Hobby “lights in layers”. This is the process of building your setup one light at a time. Assuming a fixed shutter speed (at or below your max sync speed), start by picking the aperture which gives you the ambient light exposure you desire. The correct exposure is quite subjective of course — just find the one *you* want. You can darken the background somewhat or allow it to blow out. Next, add your main light and get it to the f-stop you want and in position. Finally, add fill as necessary and maybe even a rim light to light the hair or shoulders if you want.
We stuck with one or two lights and assisted each other by holding lights as we took turns shooting. I actually have as much fun helping with the shoot as I do taking the photographs and always enjoy the company too. We started out near the southwest corner of the building — very challenging due to the setting sun. The positive side of a situation like this is that it forces you think about solutions to the light problems, some of which equate to just going with it and trying to make interesting images with the light that is there, be it harsh or soft. The image at the top of the post was taken here with my daughter standing in the shadow of a large pillar. Shooting someone with very dark skin provides additional challenges as you need extra light to balance out the ambient and bring out the facial features. This extra light blows out light clothes (had that happen a lot) and sometimes other features like the pillar next to her. I shot in manual mode at 1/250s (max sync speed), did a few test shots without the strobe to pick my aperture (f/8) then began experimenting with light position and power. This shot had a strobe camera right, bare other than a 1/4 CTO gel, triggered with Elinchrom Skyports. I used my 70-200mm f/2.8 IS for all the portraits (love that lens for these situations).
We moved to the northwest corner of the build for a bit and I got the shot below. No strobe used in this portrait. Alex used a silver reflector to direct the sunlight to Evelyn’s face and I shot from down low to get a reasonable background. Aperture priority was used with an f-stop of f/4. The light was literally golden even off the silver reflector — made her skin look great.
Another mass migration of gear and bodies occurred as we relocated to the north side of the building. There was great shade and many choices for backgrounds including the Austin skyline. I shot this final portrait (below) at this location. I chose an aperture of f/9.5 and set up two lights. The main light was again a 1/4 CTO gel’ed bare strobe at camera right. The fill was a bare strobe (I didn’t have tape or velcro for another gel) placed on the ground in front of the camera. I placed the strobes on different Skyport channels and experimented with each separately to adjust them to taste. I had to lay out on the ground (see the pic by Alex Suarez at the bottom of the post) to get the composition I wanted (Evelyn + The Austonian + TX flag). I was somewhat limited due the angle required for my composition and the locations of some trees which blocked the flag if I moved out of this position. I would have liked the wind to blow the flag up a bit more but I took what I could get. Someday I’ll work on perfecting this shot. I would try two things for starters: (1) use a shoot-through umbrella with an assistant (no assistant was handy for this shot and it was too windy to set it up without an anchor) and (2) try a stronger CTO gel to warm up the subject to match the background better. I prefer the darker backgrounds but I think I’d experiment with backing off to f/8 or even f/7.1.
After shooting the skyline portrait, Sylvia and I were helping Steve shoot portraits of my daughter. In a moment of serendipity, Joe McNally and David Hobby walked out of the building. Our group bantered with them and Joe made a smiling comment on the order of “good luck with that portrait” as their group walked to a spot nearby. After a minute or so he and David Hobby just couldn’t stand watching us flounder so they came over, gave a few tips, and Joe McNally even held the strobe/umbrella for a couple of shots. That was cool. I think they took pity on us in the same way that we would a distressed animal — you just can’t stand watching it suffer
I had a lot of fun shooting with these folks and my daughter had a blast being the model (she’s asking to do it again). Hopefully soon…
A few weeks ago I got “B” (his nickname) to pose for some impromptu portraits (Hi, B…I know you’ll be reading this). It’s nice to have someone other than my kids to use as a subject. I used two off-camera strobes — one for B and one for the background (the shots that aren’t processed so dramatically actually show the background). The main light was shot through a 43″ umbrella for some shots and reflected from that umbrella for others. In this shot the camera is camera-right, slightly higher than the subject, and just barely out of the camera frame. I don’t remember the power setting but we were generally using between 1/16 and 1/32 power. Flashes were controlled by Elinchrom Skyports.
For the background strobe I used various gels to change the color of the background (see this post for examples with a different subject). We had fun with it. And, when you’re having fun with photography, you are more likely to be creative, try new things, and come up with something cool.
In post, I played around with the images and ended up really liking this one. I used a preset called Freebird in Lightroom (a free preset I picked up somewhere). A couple other minor tweaks and this image was done. Dark. Mysterious. I love how the right eye is lit by its own little spot of light. I like about everything with this portrait except where the catchlights are in the eyes — I’d rather have them more in the center of the eyes. Live and learn. The best thing about this portrait is that it’s simple and every step is easy to recreate if I want to do it again.
I had the privilege — and challenge — of taking some photos for my son and his friends this past weekend. I’ll let them tell they’re own story (link at the end of the post) but the short version is that they are going “on tour” for a month to sing as a quartet, do various service projects, and promote the International ALERT Academy (where they have received various types of emergency response training — paramedic and other misc certifications in my son’s case).
Our only options for shooting were a short bit early Sunday morning and then in the afternoon from about 1-3pm. We did what we could in the morning and left the rest for later. The afternoon sun was as intense as it ever gets in Texas — which makes for lousy natural light in many locations. If I was shooting only one person, had a set of great lights and diffusers, etc. I would have felt better about all this. However, I worked on making do with my single speedlight and whatever shade we could find.
The guys wanted to do some shots on the railroad tracks — no shade there. One of the favorite spots required them to be looking toward the sun, which was *mostly* overhead but off its peak just enough to create extremely harsh shadows when they faced that direction. Nonetheless, we took a bunch of shots and attempted to overcome the sun on five guys with a single speedlight…not quite successful. I told them not to tell anyone I took those pictures
In the shot with the locomotive you can see how turning them out of the sun (and using the single speedlight) doesn’t turn out too bad. While shooting the previous into-the-sun images I broke my sync cord and could no longer use my Elinchrom skyports to control the flash. So for this shot I used a 3′-ish cord attached to my hot shoe and use E-TTL with -2/3 flash exp compensation if I remember correctly. I held the flash above-camera-left as high as I could reach (I was slightly crouched to take the shot). It turned out OK — and the guys seemed happy with this one.
Of course we did the obligatory look-cool-standing-against-some-grungy-wall-album-cover-type shots. We found a random wall with just enough shade to make it work. The sidewalk in front of the wall had a slight slope which made things a bit tricky. If I lined up the frame with the brick, I ended up with a bit of grass where the sidewalk was higher…stuff like that. I think I should have worked my angles more and come up with something better. However, we had already spent a lot of time doing individual shots and various group poses and with it being nearly 100 degrees, all of us were ready to get on with it and finish up.
I had fun taking the photos. I learned a lot. I learned most of all that I have a lot left to learn. It was also fun for the guys (who are not nearly as serious as some of their pictures would imply) to be able to goof around while posing. Most importantly, they got some shots they were happy with.
Their website (still a bit under construction): http://www.servantscall.com
On facebook: Servant’s Call