Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Senior Portaits: Part Two

A couple weeks ago I stumbled across a couple John Michael Cooper videos about one of his shoot's and his post-production for that shoot. It was a new idea for me, and one I wanted to try asap. Take a look if you'd like to see him walk through his shoot. Or, you can continue on and get the ten peso version (I don't have a cameraman just yet) of my own first effort at this lighting technique.

The photo above (click it to see it larger) is the big idea we went out with when we headed to shoot Haleigh's senior portraits. I knew we'd shoot something more conventional afterwards (see previous post), and would probably even shoot again the next day (just for fun), but I wanted to shoot this idea whether or not she decided to use it. She was excited about it too.

And she had a great location in mind. Several old concrete and steel buildings, or what was left of their tumbled remains, largely hidden from view in a narrow span of trees tucked between one city and the next. After we arrived I wanted to stop and shoot everywhere along our way as we walked to the place we ultimately decided to shoot. The place isn't great because it's pretty. Because it's ugly. But cool ugly.

Here's the quick rundown of the shot. Camera set two stops under the ambient during a cloudless mid-afternoon (in the photo above you can see that it was actually bright and sunny outside). Lit using only one strobe. Twenty frames, put together in post with Photoshop. If you're a quick study, the picture, and the previous three sentences are all you need to know to go and try it out yourself. If you're still not quite sure, read on.

Once we picked a specific location, I spent a few minutes composing the scene precisely. Which was different than my usual perpetual exploration of the composition throughout a shoot, as I explore the interaction of the subject and his or her surroundings, getting different angles and looking for something that works. But this particular shot required sticking the camera on a tripod and sticking with the one composition.

Next we decided on a pose. Important to get this right too, since we were essentially taking one shot. In a way this is restricting, but also refreshing to be able to make the choice, and be done with it, and focus on other things besides choosing different poses throughout a shoot.

Light the Face
Then we took several different shots of Haleigh as I held a speedlight to light her face. I was in frame, but that would be taken care of easily in post. Dang it if she couldn't sit still! She did maintain the same general pose, but she's so animated that she kept leaning forward and back up again as we tried getting several different expressions to choose from for the final image. I was concerned that her movement would make it a pain to blend her face into the final image, but it was cake, largely thanks to the darkness of much of the image, which made it easy to hide slight shifts in her overall posture.

Light the Scene
After that, she maintained her pose as I went throughout the scene and popped the strobe wherever I felt like would be a good place. Note in the photo above that I was actually in frame as I did this, but I'd be easily removed in post because I only used the flashlit portion of each frame. We took about 35 shots (some redundant it turns out), but didn't like all of them and ended up with nineteen or twenty frames that went into the final composite. As we shot, I came back and checked the camera screen after I took several shots, then shot some more.

In post, I selected the images to put into the scene, and with layers in Photoshop combined the flash lit portions of each image all into one composite image. Some of the flash pops were too bright, so I didn't layer them all in at 100% opacity. I also darkened the sky some, to help keep the high contrast of that area from being a distraction. Although I went for a low-key image, this technique could very well be used to create an image full of light.

Some notes
You can do this any time of day. Noon, sunny, whatever. Just manually set the camera under one or two stops, then an unmodified speedlight is more than powerful enough at close range to overpower the sunlight. You'll need something to wirelessly trigger your strobes (click here to learn more about speedlights, how to trigger them, and to learn a great deal more than you bargained for).

We shot again the next day, without any strobes. I think I may talk briefly about that in another post.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Senior Portraits: Part One

Haleigh wasn't interested in what is typical for senior portraits in the area she lives (often cheesy). So I presented her some photo ideas that weren't the norm, and we went and played with a few of them. In the end, she did choose to have her guitar in some of them so as to appease mom with a symbol of her talents without cheesily holding a paintbrush.

These photos here are actually not one of the original ideas I presented to Haleigh. But, after the first part of the shoot, which was more involved, I quickly scouted out this location to make a lighter and cleaner portrait from the more dramatic and moody image we shot first, thinking these would be more to the taste of Haleigh's mom (in my next post I'll cover the first part of our shoot, which I think turned out pretty cool). The series of photos in this post were shot pretty quickly, only a handful really, and we stopped when we had something that worked since she had an appointment to keep.

For both series of photos we were at an old abandoned building, what was left of it, and the wall-less second level is raised up on concrete slabs and covered in dirt and soot. Nature was reclaiming the place, and I used the upraised level of the building to get a shot of tree, sky and mountain in the background, so as to avoid the grungier post-earthquake-rubble-fifty-years-later look that surrounded us.

Being mid-afternoon without any clouds, I tamed the hard light by bringing the ambient down with my exposure settings, and filling from the opposite direction with flash. Because I was using flash, my shutter speed maxed out at 250 (the max sync speed of my camera), so I took the exposure down the rest of the way by closing down my aperture. The trick was to stop down far enough to prevent blowing out of the mountain behind, while still being able to have enough strobe power to get through my smaller aperture. To offset the sunlight coming down from camera right, I stuck three speedlights in a silver umbrella, each at half power, coming in from camera left. (I ended up at about f/11 at 1/250 sec.) Since the strobes were close to Haleigh, they were a close match to the intensity of the sunlight.

I could also have gone a bit faster with my shutter speed, which would have the flash taking no effect on the edge of the frame where Haleigh was not standing, but that's a trick I have yet to try and it wasn't on my mind at the time.

I used three light stands, one for each light. The tri-legs of the lightsands were closed up, and they were all clustered together and held by my lovely assistant, as they fired into the umbrella. If I had one, I'd have used a TriFlash bracket, just to un-clumsy the set-up.

Time for a confession. The original images were darker than these, but I pushed up the exposure in post. The slight darkness was a mistake on my part, but fortunately a small one which shooting in raw helped to be amendable. My error was in not shooting either my hand or the subject or a stand-in up close, which would have allowed me to get an accurate meter reading for the light that reflected off only her skin. Instead, I mistakenly metered from far back, thus metering for the whole scene. My histogram gave me a good read, but the mild nagging unease about whether or not the exposure on her face was bright enough didn't get through to the part of my brain that should have told me to go meter up close on her face and use that histogram to tell me how to adjust my camera and/or lights. Later, when I got the images on the computer screen, I saw I had a good exposure for the background (having taken the mid-afternoon light down to an early evening level of light), but her face was a touch underlit from what I wanted. I had adequately balanced the strength of the ambient light with the strength of my strobes, but what I really needed was to either have the strobes be a touch brighter, or to have the whole scene brighter (by opening up my aperture to allow more light in from both sources, or by increasing the ISO). A wider aperture or higher ISO would have threatened to blow out the lightest parts of the mountain, which I'd prefer to avoid. So, increasing my strobes to full power, or adding another light would have been my preferred first option at bringing up the light on her face.

In the end, with the top photo, we got something fun and that showed a bit of Haleigh's personality, while being a bit different than what she normally thought of as a senior photo. In the next post I'll talk about the first photo we made just prior to this series. It's a bigger idea that was even further from typical, and I think looks pretty cool.