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…
[Update: Some very important edits — mainly a shout-out to Dave Wilson — stayed on my desktop rather than making it into this post. Adding them in the second paragraph now…]
I took a photography workshop this past weekend (my first) and learned first and foremost how much I have yet to learn about photography. Teaching the workshop was Raul Touzon, a documentary photographer who does work for many big publications, including National Geographic. Thought I’d share a bit of my experience here.
The first thing I need to do is call out Dave Wilson and thank him for setting up this workshop and inviting me to it. Dave recently took a workshop with Raul and has been regularly posting images from that trip over the past few months. When he sent out a note saying that a workshop was being held in Austin AND it was very heavily discounted due to a mix-up in dates, I jumped on the opportunity. I’m extremely glad I did. Great learning experience. Great social experience as well — awesome, encouraging classmates.
Raul doesn’t mince words in his lectures and critiques and I got the definite sense that he rankled a few feathers among some students. Admittedly I was scared to death in anticipation of my first critique, and unfortunately I was the last (of 20-ish students) to be critiqued…had butterflies in my stomach for a couple hours. I did find it helpful to sit through the earlier critiques and by the end could predict much of what I would be critiqued on. I thought that Raul kept a good balance between getting in your face and encouraging you — I came away without any emotional wounds 🙂
For our photoshoot on the second day we spent the afternoon inside the Broken Spoke — an iconic Austin country bar and dance hall. We had models to shoot and were to work with the many different light sources in the place and to use off-camera flash when appropriate. We had the following general rules for our shoots:
(1) Use your widest lens — 10-20mm in my case
(2) NO headshots or plain-old portraits — if you’re shooting people make them
environmental shots. Use interesting angles.
(3) NO edits allowed — images presented for critique in front of the class had to
come straight from the camera w/o adjustment or cropping.
These restrictions were quite difficult for most of us — weren’t used to shooting this way at all.
I enjoyed shooting with the models (I can’t ever get my kids to model for more than 3 clicks these days). As the day finished up I approached the young lady in the image above (a customer) and asked if I could photograph her. She was more than happy to oblige and began to tell me about herself and some of the other ladies at the table. This is one of the shots that the instructor picked as keeper-ish out of the 20+ I had to submit. I was shot handheld with the camera in my right hand and the flash in my left.
While no one would describe this shot as “way out there”, it definitely is something I never would have shot before. Wide angle for a portrait? Would never cross my mind. Angled composition? Nope. That half sign in the background? No again. What did the instructor like? Unique angle, foreground of the hands on the menu, menu has the name of the place, the sign adds to the sense of where you are and explains the lighting on the hair, the contrast on the face. The eyes — while normally you want to get those eyes lit the shadows exaggerate the heavy mascara put on for a night of dancing. He explained much that could be improved of course but he pointed out some positive aspects that I could keep in mind for future shots.
I was certainly challenged to approach photographs in a new way. While I need a lot of work to consistently execute what I learned, I have another set of tools and more ways to approach an image moving forward.
Dave Wilson’s site: http://davewilsonphotography.com/
Raul Touzon’s site: http://www.touzonphoto.com/