Creating compelling portraits is not an easy task as each subject feels different about being in front of a photographer’s camera. Often times our subjects have a negative outlook on having to have their photograph taken due to past experiences. Before we ever have an opportunity to shoot a single frame our clients are telling us how much they hate having their photo taken or that they never look good in pictures, leaving us to fight an uphill battle.
With this in mind, my primary goal when working with someone new is to put them at ease and create a level of comfort and trust before we ever begin taking photos. To do this, I rely heavily on my ability to connect and relate to each of my clients. I ask a lot of questions to get to know them and what they are hoping to portray in their photos. We talk about the location, lighting, and all of the nitty gritty details that will help us to create the overall look they’re striving to achieve. I establish myself as the expert and let them know they are in good hands and that they will end up with photos of themselves they never dreamt possible.
In this instance, Dan is a singer for a Boston-based wedding band called East Coast Soul. ECS was looking for some fresh headshots to update their website; photos that would draw the viewer in and make them want to learn more about what they have to offer. We decided to create a more dramatic look that would stand apart from the sea of crappy white backdrop or awful point and shoot style images that are so prevalently seen on other wedding band websites.
The day of the shoot arrived, and I met up with the entire ECS crew while they were laying down some new tracks at a recording studio. My initial idea was to photograph them during a break in the recording room, but as I stepped into the space I instantly knew that wasn’t going to be a possibility. They were filming video while recording and there was equipment everywhere. I quickly scouted the area and was drawn to a small room in the back with an awesome red wall. The problem we were then faced with was that this room was the staging area housing all of the extra equipment, wardrobe, and lots of other “stuff” that would make shooting in there difficult. Knowing this was the space we needed to shoot in, my assistant and I took a few minutes to clear a small area for us to be able to work unimpeded.
I brought a ton of gear with me — Studio lights, speed lights, soft boxes, strip banks, reflectors, octoboxes, umbrellas…and of course, my MagMod gear. Our goal was to create darker, moodier portraits with nice, soft light on our subjects face. This look is easily achieved with a single light and large modifier, but that presented two issues. The first was that we didn’t have enough space to set up a 60” octobox. The second issue was with only a single light source there was a possibility our subject would bleed into the background, and there would be no separation. After studying these things, I surveyed my equipment to find the best solution. What I came up with was to use two MagGrids as kicker lights behind the subject to help separate him from the background while filling in the front light with a larger light source (in this case a 26” octobox) to help keep the light soft.
After determining the basic setup, it came time to decide how the main light would work for these images. Typically when I am photographing men, I like stronger lighting styles. Rembrandt and split lighting are my go-to’s, but I didn’t believe it would work well here as split lighting would make the subject seem too rigid or unapproachable and Rembrandt lighting, while one of my absolute favorites, also had too much shadow area on the face. To ensure the majority of his face wouldn’t be in shadow, I decided to use a butterfly light pattern setup and placed the main light on a boom stand a foot or so above his head, facing at a downward angle. The angle of the light here is crucial as it casts a shadow from his nose and we didn’t want that shadow extending into his lips at all. The diagram of my setup is below.
Now that I had decided on the light setup, it was time to dig in a little deeper and make a decision on the lens and camera settings to convey the mood we wanted. I knew going in that I wanted very shallow depth of field. I wanted the focus to be sharp on the subjects eyes and fall out of focus directly behind. Most people would reach for their 85mm for portraits such as these, but again, space was an issue. I knew I wouldn’t be able to create enough distance between myself and the subject for an 85mm lens to work, so I opted for a 35mm instead.
At this point, I knew the lighting setup I wanted and the lens I’d be using to tackle the project. Next came time to determine the camera settings to achieve our overall goal. I am a big believer in shooting at the lowest ISO possible for any given situation. Noise isn’t my jam yo! By default, when shooting in a studio style setup, I start at a base ISO of 100. I know this will give me buttery transitions between light and shadow and noise won’t be a factor.
As I touched on a moment ago, I wanted shallow depth of field so I set my aperture to f/2. Enough depth to give me a little leeway if my subject moved slightly forward or backward while shooting but not enough to allow the shoulders to remain in focus. To help kill as much ambient light as possible I set my shutter to 1/200. It may seem arbitrary, but I knew I needed these settings going into the shoot. Because I had a clear idea of what we were striving for, this left only one variable to dial in before we got to the actual shooting portion, the flash power.
As a general rule, I like my light as close to my subject as possible to give the softest possible light. With this, in mind, we positioned the octobox about one foot above our subjects head and set the flash to the lowest setting (1/128) and took a test frame. From there we made any necessary adjustments to the flash power and height of the light to achieve our overall look.
Whew! Now that all of the theory, setup, and testing was complete it was time to bring in Dan. It is always our goal to make our clients look comfortable and to help with this I explain exactly what our intentions are with the shoot. There’s nothing worse than a customer not knowing if they are properly exuding the look you are hoping to achieve. So to help with this I give constant direction, affirmation, and occasionally I’ll crack some jokes behind the camera to help them crack a smile or laugh and forget they are sitting in front of a camera, if even for a split second. More often than not it’s those in between moments that I want to capture and joking around with my clients helps to bring out the best in them.
For these shots, I intentionally underexposed 1/2 to 1 full stop to ensure my highlights weren’t blown out. From there I brought everything into Lightroom and applied my a customized preset upon import to give it a look that is consistent with my style. I made basic adjustments to the exposure and contrast before taking the images into Photoshop for some heavy lifting. I retouched the images using frequency separation, did some dodging and burning, and lightened the eyes before bringing them back into Lightroom to convert them to black and white and make any final micro adjustments.
MY TIPS FOR CREATING KILLER PORTRAITS
Excellent portraits can be made anywhere. You don’t need a 1,500 sq. ft. studio space or a huge budget to make something awesome. All you need is an understanding of how light works and how to use it to your advantage. Study your tail off. Read everything you can. Dissect other photographers images and try to determine where they were placing their lights to achieve the look. Practice as much as possible.
One of the common misconceptions I find is that people believe you need a ton of expensive gear to make great photos, but that’s total bologna. Back when I started, I was using clamp lights from Home Depot and covering them with layers of tracing paper to help diffuse the light. Not that I’d recommend that to people, but I believe it’s important to hear. FIND A SYSTEM THAT WORKS FOR YOU!
MagMod has been instrumental in me being able to do what I do. Having the ability to modify a light quickly and efficiently saves me tons of time messing around with equipment during a shoot. It’s become such a huge part of the way I shoot that it’s rare I won’t use them in some fashion when I am shooting images with artificial light sources. Even when I don’t use them as a primary light source I incorporate them somewhere; such is the case with the photos from this article.
Honestly, there’s no quick and easy trick that is going to make you a better photographer. It takes tons of practice and a whole lot of mistakes. The only way to get better is to do it. With that said, stop reading, get off your butt, and go make something. Catch you later!