I had the opportunity to shoot portraits for a family recently and reflecting back on the experience I thought I would post about it here as usual, but in a little bit of a divergence from the normal short, succinct, and instructional format that I normally use to demonstrate lighting techniques and show behind the scenes logbook type information that you can use to replicate and learn another look to add to your lighting repertoire. This time I thought I’d take you through my workflow and add the technical bits along the way so you can get an idea how the image was taken as well as the reasoning behind each setup. I hope that I can get you thinking in terms of Problem Solving your way through a session since I really do consider shooting and lighting a series of “problems” that need to by dynamically solved on a continuous basis. I know that sounds a little bit strange, but hang in there, it’ll be worth it.
As your skills as a lighting photographer progress you will instinctively know the technical aspects of your camera, your lighting kit, and all of the doodads we geeky photo types lust over. It’s a glorious thing when one day you realize you don’t recall doing much in the way of camera settings, flash power, etc…it just happened, almost at a subconscious level which allows you to focus (no pun intended) on the relationship between you and your subject(s). As I have progressed up the ladder of photography skills I have come to realize that the interaction between me and the person I’m shooting far exceeds in importance any of the technical items. Not that the technical items aren’t of paramount importance, but I have shot plenty of technically perfect boring photos in my day, and it wasn’t until I worked on my shooter – shootee relationship did I start getting the photographs that I, and the subject, just swoon over. Nothing is more gratifying to me than hearing people tell me that I get photos of them that they have never seen before, or I capture a certain look from people that is unique. That is my crack. (OK, checking the ego at the door…).
Alright, let’s get started.
The first thing I think about when I want to shoot a portrait is what do I want to convey? What’s the point of this photograph? What is it for? What is the mood I need to capture? Should it be fun, bright, and whimsical? Or perhaps soft and ethereal? Maybe dark and moody for a serious subject? But for the picture to be a success, you have to choose the correct theme. For example, you wouldn’t probably split light a model’s Glamor headshots since they are probably trying to show off their features to an agency. Likewise, you probably wouldn’t shoot a bunch of hardened gang members gleefully playing on the swings in the park (but holy cow that would be AWESOME to see…I might have to write that one down…). My point is you first have to decide on the mood of the photograph before you can decide on how you are going to represent the subject with light. Stop and read that last line again, as it cannot be overstated. That simple exercise alone will probably pay bigger dividends that anything else you can do with your camera. I know that it seems obvious at first, and in some ways I think most of us do this intrinsically, but taking the time to actually stop and pontificate on this point is massive.
Once we know the mood we want to convey, I like to start thinking about the photographs I want to end up with. I want to really try to see the image in my mind’s eye, after all, you need a goal to work towards. This helps me start the problem solving process in order to get my mental photograph onto the LCD of my camera. This helps me pick a scene if I’m shooting in a studio or choose a location that will allow me to build that image into reality. I know this sounds a little strange at first, but bear with me, it’s worth it. Again, it’s all about context and all of the elements play an important part in creating the mood we’re after. The elements I tend to think about, again, it’s dependant on the photogrph I’m trying to create, are of course the lighting, the scene/location, the subject’s look and expression, the wardrobe (not to be understated!), all play an important part of creating that mental image and meeting our goal.
Once I’ve decided on the mood (again, the mood will dictate the lighting) and the location/scene, I start addressing the problem of building the lighting to meet my needs. How will I need to light my subject(s) to create the desired mood? What light sources do I have available to me, such as sunlight, strobes, reflectors, reflections, light modifiers, direction of light, etc, and how can I use them to achieve my lighting goal? This is what I mean about problem solving! Sometime you have to work with the equipment you have on hand, know how to make the light work for you. Do I need to hide the light sources? What about mixed lighting scenarios where I have florescent, tungsten, and natural lighting? How will the ambient light effect my lighting goal? Will there be undesirable reflections? There are more things to consider that I could possibly outline here and every single shoot will have it’s own unique challenges to overcome, but the point is when you have a lighting goal you can work through (dare I say problem solve?) every single barrier to that lighting goal to wind up with what you want, or at least get close.
I know it sounds like semantics here, but when you start to think about photography in these terms you really allow the mind to work miracles on your behalf. Trust me, or at least humor me.
There are other things to consider when deciding on the overall goal of the image. What’s more important, the look and mood of the photograph, or the subject? Let me explain this in a little more detail. The lighting of the scene to set the mood doesn’t always light the subject in the most flattering way. For example, I recently shot a portrait that was supposed to be very dark and serious. The woman I was photographing was older and didn’t have the skin of a 19 year old model by any means. I could have used a very broad and soft lighting technique to deemphasize the wrinkles and really flatter the subject, but that would have been in direct conflict with the mood of the image that we were trying to create. She would have looked great but the photograph would have failed to achieve my goal of the image.
No two shoots will ever be the same, but using this process and having a goal image in mind will allow you to problem solve your way to the images you want to create. Once you internalize this routine you only have to set up your lighting and camera to get the look you’re after and that leaves your mind and attention free to focus on the all important photographer-subject relationship which is where the magic happens. I know this seems overly complicated, but you’re probably already doing this without realizing it, at least to some extent, you might just need to refine things a little.
Whew! Still with me? I know that was a long preamble, thanks for hanging in there! Now for the fun stuff, the actual application of the aforementioned pre-work.
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