Saturday, July 18, 2009

Taking great kid pics

By Lynne Eodice • October, 2005

Children are among the most appealing photo subjects, because of their seemingly limitless energy and cute expressions. Their playfulness and spontaneity is a joy to record. Some are bold and will clown around for your camera, but you can capture great images of a bashful child as well. Whether you’re photographing your own children or those of a friend or relative, there are a number of points to keep in mind for a successful photo shoot.

Children make great subjects for candid photography because of their playfulness, energy, spontaneity, and cute expressions. Spend a little effort to keep your small subjects interested, and you should get some great pictures.
Reader photo by Mike Mallory, Houston, TX

Experiment With Camera Angles
It’s important to experiment with different camera angles and levels when photographing kids. You’ll usually get the best photos by moving down to the child’s level, even if this means getting down on the floor. Your portraits will be more intimate, and you’ll render the child’s facial expressions and bodily proportions in a more natural-looking perspective.

If you photograph children from your eye level while standing (or at an even higher level), you can purposely show how small a child is in an adult’s world. There may be times when you’ll want to stand back and depict a child in his/her environment, but be careful about including extraneous clutter in your photos.

Reader photo by Ben Newton, Kilgore, TX

Keep It Interesting
Children have notoriously brief attention spans, so consider photographing them with a favorite toy or engaged in play. You’ll find that a colorful toy can also serve as a pleasing photo prop. You can get some great pictures when the child is unaware of the camera or has become accustomed to its presence, so keep your camera handy.

It sometimes helps to engage your young model in conversation, or have someone stand next to you and make funny faces. If a posed portrait is what you’re after, shoot for brief periods of time and take lots of breaks. Just remember that photo sessions should be fun for both you and the child, otherwise he/she will learn to run in the opposite direction whenever you reach for your camera.

Reader photo by Lisa Kazelman, Dover, OH

Keep Your Distance
Even while playing, children will be more relaxed if you’re not too intrusive. If your camera has a built-in zoom, use a moderate telephoto setting to put a little distance between you and your subject when shooting close-ups. If your camera accepts interchangeable lenses, something in the 80–105mm range (or its equivalent with a digital camera) is ideal for portraits. You’ll want to choose a telephoto setting that will allow you to stand back and still get a full frame shot of your child, and perhaps a close-up of his/her face.

A moderate telephoto will also render your subject’s features in a natural, undistorted way. This is not to say that you should never use another focal length. Experiment with wide angle to normal lenses for different effects. For environmental portraits of a child in a play area, for example, a wide angle lens will enable you to encompass a broader scene.
Lighting/ISO Settings
Your camera’s built-in flash will come in handy, whether you’re shooting indoors or out. Inside, of course, flash is often required because of lower light levels. When shooting outdoors in harsh sun, you can use fill flash to open up dark shadows on a child’s face.

If you’re shooting indoors without flash, consider using high-speed film or a fast ISO setting on your digital camera—perhaps in the 400 to 1600 range. Outdoors, ISO 100 is often a good choice, but a higher speed (sometimes combined with flash) may give you sharper results if you’re photographing children in active play.

Reader photo by Kim Peck, Peterborough, NH

Parent & Child
Portraits of a parent and child together can be very endearing, although you’ll need to consider the child’s age when setting up such a portrait. A young child may naturally move in close to the mother, while older children or teen-agers often prefer to assert their burgeoning independence. In any case, whenever photographing two people together, make sure that the head of one—in this case the parent—is slightly higher than the other for a visually pleasing composition.

When a parent and child share a strong resemblance, you can emphasize their similarity by shooting a close-up of their faces. To reveal a mutual bond, take a few pictures of them looking at one another rather than directly at the camera.

Reader photo by Judi LaBelle, Bonita Springs, FL

5 Tips For Kid Pix
• Try different camera angles and levels.
• Engage the child in a favorite activity.
• Use a moderate telephoto lens to get up close.
• Experiment with fill flash.
• Shoot some parent/child portraits.

Send Us your photos!
Readers are encouraged to submit photos to our monthly Back To Basics feature. Please refer to the table of contents, which lists the location of the entry coupon and more information on monthly topics.

Portraiture Important Milestone Photographing The High School Senior

By Steve Bedell • March, 1999

This is a pretty traditional head and shoulder pose that has had a little warmth and design added to it by using a tapestry background that I bought at a fabric store for about $20 and added an amber gel to the background light. A little warmth is also added by amber gelling the hairlight. (Bronica SQ-A; 150mm lens; Kodak VPS 220 film; diffuser; f/5.6. Model: Melissa Whitney.)
Photos © 1998, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

I’ve been doing photography of high school seniors for over 20 years. When I first started, I wasn’t that much older than they were, but, of course, they stay the same age every year while I get a year older with each new batch. Seniors are a big part of my business, and hopefully I’ve learned a thing or two about the market over all these years. The two biggest things I’ve learned are:
•Your marketing should be directed toward the girls.

•You must make substantial changes each year (poses, backgrounds, props, etc.).

Let’s look at the marketing end of things briefly before we focus on the photography. About 80 percent of the seniors I shoot are female. Why? Because, generally speaking, the girls are the ones willing to make an effort to come to my studio, spend more time, and spend more money. Many of the guys are quite content to get in line at the school and have their four minute session done by the contract photographer. Think of it as the path of least resistance.

On the other hand, many of the girls are much more concerned about how their photos will look and understand that the senior portrait is not just a picture of their face, but a reflection of who they are at this important milestone in their lives.

First of all, our typical session has three to five outfits, studio and outdoor shooting areas, and about 25 different poses to choose from. I’ll shoot close-ups and full lengths and everything in between. A couple of shots may include the family dog or a “buddy” picture. Depending on the time of year and my schedule, I have to shoot all this in 60-90 minutes. I’ll shoot five or six sessions a day like this during peak season (August in the Northeast). Done right, it’s demanding and difficult work. It can also be very rewarding, both financially and artistically.

A park bench, soft light from camera right, silver reflector, and winning expression combine to make this shot a success. (Bronica SQ-A; 150mm lens; Kodak PPF film; diffuser; 1/125 at f/5.6. Model: Katie Galanes.)

As in any photography session, the first step to success is establishing a rapport with your subject. Seventeen year olds are very quick to pick up on any false signals you may be putting out, so don’t try to fool them at all. Be completely honest and let them know that by working together you’re going to produce the best photos of your subject they’ve ever seen. If you’re a skilled photographer, this really shouldn’t be that difficult, since at this point in their lives they’ve probably only had school and department store photography for the past several years. Your subject will pick up any “bad vibes” that may be emanating from you and it will show in the photos. The reason they came to you was because they felt you could do the best job on their portraits. If you aren’t confident in your abilities, why should they be?

The first thing I do is go over the clothing options they brought with them. I’ll usually ask them to bring more outfits than they’re going to wear. I’ll give suggestions, but tell them to bring what they like best. Gone are the days of drapes and bow ties. And usually if they’ve got tattoos and piercings, they want to show them, at least in a few poses.

While I’m checking out the clothing, I begin categorizing it. Outfit one is studio, outfit two is outdoor, maybe we’ll split outfit three, etc. If I’m doing five outfits, I’ll try to group the outfits so I’m not constantly going from studio to outdoor and back again. I’ll maybe do two inside, the next in and outdoor, then the last two outdoor only.

I’ll further divide the outfits by color so it will save me time changing backgrounds. If they’ve got two blue outfits and a brown one that I’m shooting in the studio, I’ll go from one blue to the next instead of sticking the brown in the middle. Then maybe one shot will use the same background and at least save me one background change. While we’re on the subject of backgrounds, here’s a rule that I’m pretty strict about. Don’t use the same background more than twice, and even then change the pose.

You may have surmised you need a few backgrounds. You do. I keep a traditional background that covers the wall. I then have a cable that has four muslins hanging from it that I can pull over just like a curtain.

I love barefoot poses. I asked Shannon Bostrom to sit on the floor and this is close to what she did, I just refined it a little. I usually see what the senior will do without coaching instead of telling them to sit a particular way. Many times it’s better than what I had planned. This was done on Kodak VPS but I’ve since started shooting the white background with the PPF because the higher contrast helps keep the white pure without having a light on each side of the background. (Bronica SQ-A; 150mm lens; no diffuser; f/5.6.)

Most of my backgrounds are plain, classical, or subtle. I avoid anything that may look like a department store background (like lasers) or anything corny (like “hot” or “cool”).

Same thing goes for props. I use very few props or have them bring their own so they mean something to them. I keep some chairs and pillows available and that’s about it.

As far as lighting, I use a “nailed down” four light system that I change as little as possible. My hairlight is a small flash unit that is clamped to the ceiling. I keep an amber gel on it to make hair slightly warmer and meter it so it’s about the same intensity as my main light with a seated subject. My fill is a big umbrella, my main is a 3’ square softbox, one stop greater than the fill. The light I change the most is the background light. I add and subtract light with neutral density gels and change it with colored gels. I’ll sometimes light from the side and I’ll up the power when using the white background to keep it white. The lighting is a separate column, I just want to get the point across that I try to keep it simple and keep variables to a minimum.

Let’s start shooting in the studio.

I usually start with a pretty simple head and shoulder pose. They’ve usually done something similar in “school pictures” so it’s a good warm-up. It lets me see at once if they’re relaxed and easy to pose. I ask them about school, work, future plans, family members, movies, music, and whatever else the conversation might lead us to. It tells me more about them and also relaxes them. I keep music on in the studio always.
I shoot with a Bronica SQ-A in the studio and outdoors. I use Kodak VPS 220 inside and Kodak PPF 200 outside. I use the VPS inside because I like the moderate contrast and it’s the standard for negative retouchers, an important consideration with seniors. Outside, I use the PPF because the 400 speed lets me shoot without a tripod and I like the contrast and color boost, especially if I diffuse it. Most shots are taken with a 150mm lens at f/5.6 or f/4. Diffusion is accomplished using a Pro-4 lens shade with a warm/soft filter that I can snap in and out. I have tested the new Kodak Portra films and was very impressed with them, so I’ll be replacing VPS with the Portra160NC (Normal Color) for the studio and the Portra 400VC (Vivid Color) for my outdoor shooting.

This shooting system allows me to move quickly from the studio to the outdoors. I keep a quick release plate on the bottom of my speed grip. I just switch film backs going in and out, pick up the camera, and go. On some sessions I shoot sepia prints using the Kodak T-Max 400CN film and a 35mm camera. I don’t just duplicate the color shots, but try to have the sepia prints more natural looking and mostly outdoor poses.
The outdoor poses are by far the most popular with our seniors. I think one of the reasons for this is the infinite variety. My studio is located in the center of a small city. Many outdoor photographers have specially landscaped outdoor shooting areas that are built with special attention paid to where the light will be at different times of day. I had an area like that in one of my previous locations. They work very well but can sometimes contribute a “sameness” to the photos--something to be avoided in senior photography. With the city as my backdrop, I have an ever changing variety of locations and lighting conditions every day. While it’s true that there are a couple of locations that I know I’ll use because they are sure fire winners, I strive to make sure each set of prints that leaves my studio has some unique images. I’m fortunate to have a river and grassy area within walking distance and also a few trees right next to the main street with the best light in town. But I like to mix the traditional outdoor poses with more contemporary looks that include brick walls, doorways, and architecture, and my seniors like it, too.

All the above is basically a crash course in senior photography and many of the individual elements worthy of their own discussion. But to be successful in this venture requires you to go beyond basic posing and lighting. You must interact with your subject and show them for the beautiful, self-assured, young women that they are. You must go beyond cheesy smiles and develop a trusting relationship to find the true expression that lies in their eyes.

Here are a few examples of recent high school seniors I’ve photographed during the summer of 1998. The self-assured look they all share must come from the confidence they feel in you, the photographer.

If you’d like to learn more about high school senior photography and are a full-time professional photographer, contact Senior Photographers International, PO Box 07399, Ft. Myers, FL 33919; (941) 590-0560.

Think Flash Shooting Portraits Outdoors By Rick Sammon • November, 2001

Photo enthusiasts often ask me, "What’s the most important accessory I need for professional-quality outdoor people pictures?" I reply, "A flash unit, of course." Then they ask me for my best tip for using a flash. My advice: Think flashy outdoor pictures, that is, think about how a flash can be used outdoors to turn snapshots into great shots.

Now, some of you are probably thinking that a light diffuser/reflector is a very important accessory for outdoor people pictures. You are right! It is, and I use one a lot. However, if I had to choose between a flash and a diffuser/reflector, a flash would be my choice. Why? A few reasons: I can use it without an assistant. It’s good any time of the day or night. It saves the day when a distant subject is in the shade, or when his or her eyes are in shadow.

But you can’t simply slap a flash into your hot camera’s hot shoe and expect to get professional quality results. You must think about what you are doing--the result you want to achieve.

In high contrast situations, in which the man’s dark face is surrounded by bright colors, a flash can save the day by reducing the contrast range of the scene. The flash, set at -1, brightened the man’s face, especially his eyes. (Canon EOS 1N, 70-200mm zoom at 200mm, Canon 540 EZ flash, Lumiquest Flash Diffuser, Kodak Ektachrome E200.)

Here are my top tips for great daylight fill-in flash pictures. After you check them out, try them out in the backyard or at the local park before you want to--or have to--take some serious pictures.

1) Get the right flash. For the best results, you don’t necessarily need the best flash, but you do need a flash that offers what’s called "Variable Flash Output (VFO)." Flash units with VFO let you control the amount of light the flash delivers, over and under the automatic/recommended setting.

2) Go down under. For most of my people pictures, I take several exposures under the automatic setting (with my camera set on program). I start at -1 and work my way down to -2. Using that technique, I get a good daylight fill-in flash exposure. I have found that pictures taken at the automatic or "0" setting tend to look too harsh and washed out.

This picture of a woman at the annual St. Maarten’s Carnival is my all-time favorite example of daylight fill-in flash. To get the perfect exposure, the daylight is balanced to flash output. I took several exposures using the flash’s variable flash output control. The -11/3 setting produced the best results. A flash diffuser softened the light for the natural-looking photograph. (Canon EOS 1N, 70-200mm zoom at 200mm, Canon 540 EZ flash, Lumiquest Flash Diffuser, Kodak Ektachrome E200.)

3) Use a flash diffuser. On-camera flash units produce a harsh light, even when those little, plastic, built-in diffusers are popped into place. To soften this light when working relatively close to a subject, I use flash diffusers that attach to the flash head with touch fastener tabs. You can use a piece of tissue paper to create a similar professional effect, but you will not look like a pro when you are shooting. Flash diffusers not only diffuse the light, they spread the light. In doing so, they reduce the maximum working distance of your flash. Keep that in mind when shooting. To compensate for the reduced working range, you may want to use a faster speed film (or use a higher ISO setting on your digital camera).

4) Take it off! That’s right, when it comes to flash pictures, you have to take it off--take the flash off the camera, that is. If you get a coil cord and swivel bracket (available at Adorama,, you can take both vertical and horizontal shots with the flash positioned above the lens. "What’s so great about that?" you ask. Well, when the flash is above the lens, the shadow from the flash will fall behind the subject--and not next to the subject, which can be annoying and unflattering. What’s more, with a coil cord, you can hand hold your flash for creative lighting techniques, such as sidelighting.

I photographer this Huli Wigman in a remote village in Papua, New Guinea. I used a flash to bring out the bright colors and details in his face paint and headdress. When a subject is in the shade, as this man was, I often use a flash to increase the color and contrast of the scene. (Canon EOS 1n, Canon 17-35mm zoom at 35mm. Canon 540 EZ flash, Lumiquest Flash Diffuser, Kodak Ektachrome E200.)

5) See the light. When taking a daylight fill-in flash picture, think about what your flash is doing. It’s filling in the shadows. It’s adding controlling contrast in the scene. It’s bringing out the natural colors of a subject, especially when a subject is in the shade (when green leaves may act as a green filter and make a subject look green).

In addition, think about where the light is falling, which is especially important when hand holding your flash. I’ve seen more than a few photographers holding their flash above and off to the side of a subject, not knowing that the light from the flash is missing the subject--because they did not look where they were pointing. So, position your flash carefully, and see where the light will fall before you shoot.

6) Pack extra power. If you use daylight fill-in flash as much as I do, you’ll need lots of extra batteries when you are in the field. I use rechargeable batteries. They save money and they help to preserve the environment.
Good luck and have fun!

Simple Lighting Makes For Effective Portraiture It Is All About Highlight And Shadow

By Monte Zucker • April, 2002

Before we delve into portrait lighting and lighting techniques, it's important to understand what portrait lighting is and why it's an invaluable tool for three-dimensional photography. In trying to create a three-dimensional effect on a flat piece of paper, one has to create the illusion of depth with highlights and shadows.

An on-camera flash and/or lighting that comes from directly in front of the subject's face does nothing except to give a rendition of the subject, but with no feeling of actually "being there." So, a photographer who is truly looking for lighting that actually does its job must understand how lighting can and should be used in portraiture.

Good portrait lighting involves creating highlights and shadows that make areas of the face protrude and recede, giving the viewer a three-dimensional rendition of the subject. It is universally acknowledged by all artists, regardless of medium, that the best lighting is when the light comes from slightly above the eye level of the subject and slightly to one side. The trick, now, is to achieve that angle of light wherever you're shooing and by any means that you can.

So, whether using natural light or artificial light, the light has to be directional. Being out in the open does nothing for a subject and is not enough to attain our desired effect.

With that in mind, let's tackle a few instances where we know that we can find ready-made lighting that will do the job for us.

Photos © 2001, Monte Zucker, All Rights Reserved

Black On Black Is Easy
Still under cover, I photographed the church's Father Frank. I photographed him in black robes against a black background. My aim was to show detail throughout the portrait and separation between his robe and the background.

To light his face I posed him in an area between two open archways. The one beside him lit the right side of his face and also created specular highlights on that side of his face. The open archway in front of him became the main light, bringing light around onto the left side of his face.

Two silver reflectors were held outside the covered area, picking up direct sunshine and reflecting it back onto his face and clothing. The reflector that brought light onto his face created the crisp modeling light and the sharp catchlights. The reflector held out to his right brought light directly across his robes. That, I explained to the class, was what was creating the beautiful textures in the solid black material. A solid black Westcott background behind him was held at an angle to the outside light, creating detail there as well.

Finally, to intensify the feeling of black on black I changed the color image to black and white by selecting only the green channel in Photoshop and then adjusting the contrast in Levels.

Photographing In Bright Sunshine
Many photographers think that photographing in bright sunshine is a no-no. Not me! I love the sunshine. Most people do. Why not capture that feeling in your pictures?

Here's a picture that I made of Bryan with his family one morning out on the beach. I backlighted them with direct sunshine and used a strong flash to bring the shadowed side of their faces up to the exposure that I was using for the general background area (1/250 at f/16, setting the ISO on my Canon D30 to 200). That exposure always gets me good color saturation even in the brightest light. On another day/another similar setting I began photographing with my class late in the afternoon. The sun was beginning to go down to our right. Once more I posed our models on a sand dune, so that I could get a low camera angle and position them against the plain sky.

I used the direct sunlight as the main light, positioning him to get perfect profile lighting on his face. From that same angle the sunlight crossed over his body, defining his chest perfectly. She was in just about complete shadow. With their two faces going in opposite directions I had to use a flash fairly close to camera position.

Using a Quantum slave sync and a Quantum flash I again used the technique of bringing the light on the two of them up to the exposure for the bright sunshine area that surrounded them.

Learn From Success
During a similar beach shoot a year ago I made a photograph that I loved of a high school senior. She was also posed on a sand dune and photographed from a low angle. The late afternoon sun was directly behind her back. I used a flash to light the front of her, again exposing at 1/250 at f/16. The backlighting on her hair was perfect!

Remembering that picture, I sought to duplicate it with Bryan. I started by positioning him in a similar way. I wasn't happy with the way he looked bending over. I asked him to straighten up. When he did that he kept his arms extended. I flipped! "Hold it!"

I used a strong flash to light the front of him. Being able to see the results immediately on the back of my digital camera was perfect for this situation. I saw what the light was/wasn't doing for him. I moved my flash around more to the right side of him and continued shooting until I could see that the light it was creating was defining his body perfectly. The resulting image was one of my favorites of the day. It almost appears as if the light were coming from the sun at noontime, doesn't it?

Go Under Cover
One of the first locations I look for when I'm about to create a series of portraits is an area where the light is cut out from above and where light comes from a specific direction. The cover of a porch can create the exact situation we're looking for. Under the cover of a tree branch can do the same thing. Of course, once you've found a spot where you can control the lighting you need to see what the background will be. It should be an area that will complement the subject, give separation between the subject and the background and, finally, not have a lot of detail that will take away attention from the subject. Let's now take a few lessons from a couple of my recent classes and see how we found and took advantage of these lighting principles.

To begin with, look how we found great lighting under the cover of this porch in front of the church where I was holding my class. Bryan was posed a couple of feet under cover, all the light coming through one of the arches. I posed him so that his body would be chiseled in light, turning him away from the light source until the light crossed over his chest.

The natural light lit one half of his face. I placed a Westcott Monte Illuminator (a reflector that is silver on one side and black on the other) camera-right, aiming the silver side toward the light…not toward him. Once it picked up the light, I angled it a little at a time until it reflected the light onto the shadowed side of his face and body. That way, the light wrapped around him.

Something Special For Family Groups
Lighting a family group should be fairly simple. There's no need for a lot of lights, since you don't want to cause shadows from one person onto another. Plus, you want to be able to make slight changes without having to take the time to change your lighting pattern. One light that's fairly broad in its scope should do it all.

In creating this series of family portraits I once again came under cover, placing them where they would get somewhat of a sidelighting through an archway that was right next to where I placed them. This first picture was exposed for the ambient light with no extra light added. When printed for detail in the faces, you can see how the background simply washed out.

For this next picture I added a bare-bulb Quantum flash (triggered by a Quantum Radio Slave). I created the broad, soft light source by bouncing it off a neutrally colored wall to my right.

With the flash added (11/2 stops below the ambient light) you can get the benefit of seeing the eyes much better. At the same time, with the slight build-up of density from the flash, you also get more detail in the background. I don't change the exposure at all when I add the flash.

Of course, when photographing any family you're always going to get one person who spoils each picture. That's no problem any more. With Photoshop it just takes a couple of minutes to switch heads and come up with a composite photograph that's the best of everyone.

All of the pictures in this article were made digitally with my Canon D30. One of the things that I like about shooting digitally is that you can see right away what you're doing. That, plus the fact that it doesn't cost you anything to keep shooting…you just can't beat it. So, I just keep shooting and shooting until I've just about exhausted the group.

Hey, if you're still with your film camera, no problem! I still find a lot of use for my Hasselblad. When you know that you really want the ultimate sharpness you can always count on your medium format camera, scan the negative and you're in the digital area just that easily!

Add A Little Something Extra, Just For Kicks
Before quitting I always try to take a few more pictures with the people involved with one another, seemingly unaware of the camera.

When doing this you need to be careful not to photograph the tops of heads. You really need to carefully direct the position of each person's head, usually telling them to tip the top of their head a little bit more away from the camera. Then, of course, you don't always get everyone to do what you ask them to do. But it only takes seconds to give directions once more and come up, hopefully, with something like this.

Throughout this entire series you can see how simply I've achieved the lighting. It's merely a question of knowing what you need and learning where and how to achieve it. You can't beat technique!

For more information about my photographic techniques check out my web site:

Get Great Studio Portraits Nine Tips To Lighting Success

By Steve Bedell • October, 2003

This photo of Molly Olson shows the wraparound effect of the form fill combined with the main light. The main light is a Photogenic Powerlight shot through a Studio Dynamics 36” round softbox. The fill is a Bogen Bo Lite with a white umbrella. The background light is very subtle, adding light to the left side. Notice how your eye goes from the light background to the dark shadows to the highlight side of the face and then back to a darker background. Background by David Maheu.
Photos © 2003, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

My strong point has always been natural light. When clients call me about weddings, I tell them I am a “natural light specialist.” I love shooting outdoor portraits and have trained myself to “see the light” in the locations that I visit. But that does not mean I don’t shoot in the studio. Living in northern New England, just shooting outside would severely limit the number of sessions I could handle. Not many people go for outdoor portraits when the temperature is below 10Þ.

I have made a concerted effort to elevate the quality of my studio portraits over the last year. I’ve completely overhauled my lighting system as a result of several seminars, including a three-day stint with Tim Kelley of Orlando whom I’ve written about in these pages, and my own practice. A big plus is the fact that I now shoot everything except family groups digitally, allowing me instant feedback and the ability to make rapid changes. Following are some tips that I’d like to share.

Form Fill Light
Use a form fill light, which might just make the biggest difference in your work. In the “old days,” which I call BD (Before Digital), photographers would usually design their studios with a bank of lights bouncing off a back wall to flood the studio with a non-directional fill light. They would then adjust power to get whatever f/stop they desired at the subject distance, and never touch it again. Most would usually base their exposure on this setup. The thought was that even if no other lights fired, you’d have a good, printable exposure. But it also has the effect of evenly lighting the entire subject with a very flat light. Trying to do profiles was an exercise in futility without changing the fill light.

This photo of Ashley Dubois looks like the light is flatter. Why? Because when I want a more even look to the lighting, I simply move my fill light to the side opposite the main light. Since I’ve metered my lights precisely, I keep my exposure the same but the shadows are “filled” more.

A form fill, on the other hand, works in concert with the main or key light to create shape to the subject. The form fill should follow the nose. Using the profile example again, if your subject is facing the wall to your right, the fill light should be placed in front of the wall he or she is looking at, not behind you. The main light will be slightly behind the subject to create the shape you want, and the form fill will help shadow detail without destroying the effect you’re trying to get. Even in traditional poses, with the face toward the camera and the head turned slightly, you’ll notice your portraits have much more “snap” by placing the main and fill on the same side of the camera.

Meter Ratios
Meter ratios precisely. Since I’ve gone digital, I have not thrown away my light meter like some pros. I now use it more than ever! By using one incident meter that I know like the back of my hand I can overcome variables such as dark and light colors and the difference between lenses and their readings. When I set my studio up, I meter each light individually. I start with the main light and base everything else on that. I like my main to be f/11, and my fill to be f/8. My background light will vary between f/8 and f/11 depending on the color of the background and how bright I want it to be. My separation or hair light will vary between f/8 and f/11 also, depending on the subject’s hair color. By metering your lights first and then making final adjustments, you know you’ll be within tight tolerances, especially for digital.

By feathering the main light, I create nice shape on Kate Bracco’s face but keep it from striking the background. I also create a soft transition from highlight to shadow areas since the front part of my softbox acts as a fill also.

Feather The Main
Feather your main light. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, by this point you can see that each light has its job to do and you want them to act in harmony, as opposed to defeating each other. By feathering the main light, you allow light to strike the subject but not the background, which you want to control independently. (The term “feathering” means you turn your main light toward the camera until just the front edge of the light hits your subject.)

But there is another vital reason. By using just the front edge of the light to strike your subject, the rest of the light is acting as a “form fill.” The light coming from the opposite side of your main light is helping to fill in shadows and create a smooth transition from highlight to shadow area. How much depends on the relative size of the light in relation to your subject. Many photographers use 6-foot long and larger softboxes up close to their subjects. By feathering a light that size, the one light is both the main and fill, so no additional fill light is needed. Smaller light sources will create sharper shadows—you need to do your own testing to see what suits your style.

In this portrait of Kelsey Call, I wanted to create a dramatic effect with a dark background and dark clothing. Notice how the separation light adds life to the hair. The hair showing back and left would have disappeared into the background without additional light.

Watch The Background
Keep light off the background. As you may have already surmised, each light has a distinct purpose and interference from other lights will destroy its mission. In addition to feathering the main light to keep it from striking the background, you should also make sure that your hair or separation light does not strike the background. I’ve seen many portraits ruined because a photographer allowed his hairlight to strike the background. Make sure it is “flagged off” properly. Do this by turning off the room lights in your studio and checking each light one at a time in the darkroom, noting the lighting pattern of each light.

Go For A Gobo
Use a “gobo.” Talk about a blast from the past! A look at most photographers’ studios will find a collection of softboxes and umbrellas of ever-increasing sizes. While we’ve all learned that “size matters” when it comes to light modifiers, that doesn’t mean we can just aim a huge light source at the subject and get great light. We can be sure we’ll get a bunch of it, but there may be areas where “less is more.” Enter the gobo, a “go between,” in this case something placed between the light and the subject to block light. You can also use a gobo to block light from striking your lens.

In this photo of Shauna Randall, I wanted to add a little color to the background, so I added a red gel to my background light. If my main light was not feathered away from the background the intensity and saturation of the red would be lost.

While you can buy them, all you need is a reflector or piece of cardboard placed on a light stand. By blocking off certain areas like a bare shoulder or baldhead, our attention is kept on the face. I suppose you could do it in Photoshop later, but why not do it before so all the photos look good, not just the ordered ones? I still try to shoot like Photoshop does not exist. Try it—you’ll be a better photographer.

This dramatic portrait of Shauna Randall was created by using a form fill, main light, just a touch of light on the background, and a gobo. By blocking the light on the shoulder, the attention stays on the face. No separation light was used because of the bare shoulders.

Separation Light
Use a separation light. This used to be called a hairlight, but when used properly the term separation is a better fit. This light is placed above and slightly behind the subject and is usually aimed at the hair. Its purpose is to provide detail in the hair and to separate the subject from the background, as a rim light does outside. This light should hit the shoulders also. Pay careful attention to the intensity of this light. Too much and it becomes distracting and can cause overexposure; too little and it becomes unnoticed. I usually like to have mine right between the fill and main light intensity (f/9.5 in my case) and will go to f/11 for very dark hair and f/8 for very light hair. I turn it off for baldheads. This may sound obvious, but I see photos all the time of baldheaded guys with a big shiny spot on their head. Unless you’re going for a “kicker” effect, leave it alone.

Notice how in this example of Shauna Randall I’ve directed the background light to the left side and the main light is from the right. Try to picture how the image would look with the light to the right. Instead of a nice balance, all the “weight” would be on the right side of the photo with no interest in the left-hand side. Background by David Maheu.

The Shadow Side
Light the background from the shadow side. Most photographers still use a short background stand with a light perched on it and a half moon-type reflector on it that shines light on the background and keeps it from striking the subject.

Try this instead. Take your background light, put it on a stand, flag it off so it creates a spotlight effect, and aim it at the background from a few feet away. By creating a lighter area on the shadow side of the portrait you create balance by using a light-dark-light pattern in the image. The effect should be subtle, not overpowering. Start by having the background light intensity about the same as the fill and increase it for dark backgrounds. You’ll see it has a much more elegant look than just smashing a light at the background.

In this photo of Kate Bracco, I’ve used a light-colored background and lit it with my background light. By basing the exposure on the highlights, I know that I’ll be safe from overexposing the highlights in the face and the light background. Had I based the exposure on the fill light, which is one stop more, the image would be junk.

Highlight Bias
Base your exposure on the highlights. If you’re shooting film you can still get away with the old method of basing the exposure on the fill light. Try it with digital and your images will be toast. I base my exposures on the intensity of my main light and use the fill to add detail to shadow areas. Digital capture has an exposure latitude of close to zero, maybe 1/3 stop either way. You’ve got complete control in the studio, so do your testing first and there should be no reason why you shouldn’t have perfect exposures every time. I don’t bother shooting in “raw” format. I’ve tried it and find I don’t want to change anything, so I’ve given myself more work for no real reason. I realize some cameras don’t give you this option.

Here’s what the histogram of a properly exposed gray card looks like and this is what you should see on your LCD back on your camera if you’ve exposed properly.

Gray Card Test
Shoot a gray card. There have been many articles on this method of obtaining perfect exposure. Just fill your image with a gray card under your studio lighting conditions and look at the histogram. Since it’s just that one color and it’s a perfect medium density, your histogram should just have one spike exactly in the center. What a great idea! There are also cards and reflectors floating around that are divided into three colors—pure black, gray, and pure white. Take a picture of these and you should have three spikes lined up perfectly. (Frank Criccio is credited with this method.) If they’re off to one side or the other, adjust your exposure to correct.

And One For The Road
Hey, I said nine tips! For some reason, people like to have things in nice round numbers, so here’s a little bonus. Try using a “kicker” light for impact. A “kicker” is usually a strong light used to accent a feature or add drama to a portrait. How about we leave that subject for another article down the line?
Note: All images in this article were captured with a Fujifilm S2 Professional camera. They were shot in Fine JPEG mode with no sharpening or contrast boost (ORG settings). These are totally unretouched files taken with auto white balance.

Improve outdoor portraits

Photos © 2004, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

I love shooting outdoor portraits! As a matter of fact, it has become my “signature style.” During my busy season, I may take over 400 outdoor exposures in a single day, so I’d better be able to do it well and do it fast. An element of my style is that I don’t use flash. Many photographers do, and they do it very well, but that won’t be covered in this article. I’m going to give you a few insider tips that will make an immediate and dramatic impact on your outdoor portrait results. And remember, these tips are going to help you achieve great results, but rules are always made to be broken—once you understand them.

1) Watch The Background
When people ask me to look at their work, one of the first things I usually notice is that they concentrate on their subject and completely ignore the background. This is not a good thing. Your background is critical to a complete image. It should compliment, not detract, from your subject. Colors should compliment, not detract, from the subject. Watch for lines and objects sticking out of people’s heads. Probably the best way to teach yourself to watch backgrounds is to use a tripod. After you have your subject where you want them, take the time to study the background. If your camera allows it, use the depth of field preview button so you can see just what will be sharp and what will be soft at the taking aperture. Remember, you’re always looking at the scene in front of you with the lens “wide-open.” That means if you’re using an f/2.8 lens you’re seeing what the picture will look like at f/2.8; it will look completely different at f/16. Sometimes the difference can be a rude awakening!

In this instance I used a wall for the background. I liked how the white stripes on the building echoed her white shirt and the horizontal lines create a sweeping effect and drama. I also included this one because this is one time I “broke” a rule and used a wide angle lens. Since so much background is included it’s even more important to examine it carefully so there are no distracting elements.

2) Avoid Bright Highlights
There’s an old saying in photography: Light attracts, dark recedes. To quote Blazing Saddles, and Tweety Bird, “It’s twu.” Your eye will be attracted to the bright areas. They will be very distracting in the photo, and take attention away from your subject. And while bad enough on the background, they can be downright disturbing on your subject. I have an area I like to use that has some big bushes that form a canopy. It blocks the overhead light and the opening gives me a nice source of light. The only problem is, sun can shine through the canopy, creating splotches of light all over my subject and their clothing. Very distracting. The solution? I carry a big collapsible reflector that I put up in the branches to block the direct light, thereby avoiding “the splotches.” You may not be carrying around a reflector, but always look for the splotches and move to avoid them. They’ll cause overexposed highlights. Film is more forgiving of them than digital.

Notice how I’ve got direct sun striking the leaves in the background. If that area was open and the sun was striking the river that the trees are hiding, it would be too bright and distracting. The leaves farthest to the left are turned so they catch the sun and are probably too bright. Even though that’s an easy fix in Photoshop, I still try to shoot like Photoshop doesn’t exist or if I have film.

3) Use A Long Lens
Using a long focal length lens will really make your work shine! There are three primary reasons for this. The first concerns the narrow angle of view. The longer the lens, the narrower angle of view, or the less in a given photo at any given distance. Why is this a good thing? Because most photographers (see #1) get too much in the background. Using a long lens narrows things down so you get less background. Since most contemporary shooters use zoom lenses, in many cases it’s just a case of racking that baby out. As a rule of thumb, a lens at least twice the “normal” focal length should do just fine. So for a 35mm camera, 100mm and up will work great. For most digicams that have a factor of about 1.5 when compared to 35mm, any length over 75mm or so will do. The longer the focal length, the more image magnification at a given distance, so watch for camera shake. Also, your zoom lens may not have a constant aperture, so at longer lengths you need more light.

The second reason long lenses are recommended for portraits is perspective. Try taking a head-and-shoulder portrait with a “normal” lens and you’ll find yourself 2 or 3 ft away from the nostrils, with the eyes being significantly farther. This is often incorrectly identified as “lens distortion” when it is in fact a function of distance. Close one eye, then get about 8” in front of someone’s face. You’ll see they look kind of weird. Then back off to about 6 ft. Don’t they look better? It’s a more pleasing perspective, but it’s caused by distance, not the lens. Put your camera on a tripod, take a zoom lens, and take the same photo at wide, normal, and long lengths. While some have more in them, the perspective is the same. In fact, if you cropped the wide image to match the angle of view of the long lens, they’d look identical and depth of field would be the same as long as they were taken at the same f/stop! (Note that quality would be an issue.)
The third issue, as you may have already figured out, is that people don’t like getting a lens shoved in their face. Everybody likes their “space,” and if you get too close, like the “Close Talker” in Seinfeld, people get very uncomfortable! They are much more relaxed when you’re a few feet away.

She’s standing in front of a bridge and the background is underneath it. Using a long lens narrows the angle of view so we just see the banking underneath and some bushes way in back. Notice how since Carolyn is in focus and the background is not, she stands out from it.

4) Avoid Direct Sunlight
Now stick with me on this one. I love shooting on sunny days. I get an energy and warmth from the light that I love. But I don’t use it shining directly on my subjects’ faces. I use it behind them. I use it bouncing off buildings, sidewalks, trucks, and more. I use the open shade I get standing next to buildings and trees. But I don’t use it shining on their face. Why? It’s just way too “hard.” It’s a sharp, unflattering light that will create deep shadows. It will make people squint. It’s just plain bad, bad, bad.

These images were all taken the same day, between 11:30am and 1:00pm. Who says you can’t shoot when it’s sunny? I love it! The trick is to harness that light in a manner you can use. Carolyn is in a little corner where the warm open sky is to the left and the sun is high and a little to the right.

5) Use Large F/stops
As you can see, it’s all about keeping the attention on the subject. Here’s a little experiment for you: Take a model, your camera, and a tripod to a location you like. Take a photo of him or her at f/16 and another at f/4. Take a look at the two prints or digital images. In the f/4 photo, the subject will stand out from the background. In the f/16 image, they will be a part of it. The image size you make will matter, as will the distance between subject and background. Try a 3/4 length pose and you’ll see what I mean. Ask your subject which one he or she likes better. I’m betting it’s the f/4 shot.

This image was probably taken at f/4, so even though she’s very close to the background because of the large f/stop and big image size it falls out of focus quickly.

All images taken with a Fujifilm FinePix S2 Pro camera, ISO 200, highest quality JPEG, Tamron 28-105mm f/2.8 zoom except the wide angle, which is a Sigma 17-35mm wide angle zoom. Model: Carolyn Barker.

Both in the studio and outdoors we usually try to create or find soft, flattering light. You aren’t going to find it at high noon in the middle of the mall parking lot. This article is not about the many subtle nuances that make daylight a joy, but if you can just keep faces out of the sun, your portraits will improve tenfold. Remember, our objective is to flatter.

Well, that about wraps this up. If you’re new to portrait photography or just want to generally improve your people pictures, following these five points will greatly improve your work. Remember, rules are made to be broken, and you can take great wide angle portraits in a cluttered warehouse at f/16, but follow these guidelines for great portraits that your subjects will love!

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High Contrast; How-To Add Graphic Appeal To Your Images

If you want to heighten the impact of your black and white or monochrome images, consider taking them higher—to higher contrast, that is. A number of filters and adjustments found in Photoshop CS3, Elements 6, and earlier versions present you with a wide range of options to simulate artistic brush effects, darkroom procedures, and printing techniques. With these, you can transform your image to look like an artwork created in a traditional art medium, or add graphic effects such as those seen on book covers, CD packaging, and movie posters.

To get a black and white photo, you can shoot in Black and White or a Monochrome mode if your camera offers those options. Or, convert any of your color digital files to black and white in Photoshop by choosing Image>Mode>Grayscale. If you have CS3, which I used for these examples, select Image>Adjustments>Black & White. In the Preset menu at the top, try all the drop-down options such as red, green, and yellow filters. Or adjust each color’s conversion using the sliders. If you have CS2, try Image>Adjustments>Channel Mixer.

The Filter Gallery
1. I wanted to add a high-contrast graphic look to my photograph of a narcissus.

2. Choose Filter>Artistic>Poster Edges to bring up this Filter Gallery dialog box. At the bottom of the window in the left panel, you can choose the preview magnification as a percentage or to “fit in view,” shown here. I recommend looking at the preview both at “fit in view,” so you can see the overall look, and at 100 percent to check details. In the center of the dialog box are folders representing about half of Photoshop’s filters grouped in categories such as Artistic, Sketch, Stylize, and Texture.

In the top right-hand panel of the Filter Gallery box, you’ll find sliders to adjust the effect you have chosen. Experiment with these settings and watch as the changes are redrawn in the preview window in the left panel. Drag inside the preview with the hand tool to move to different parts of an enlarged image.

Below the settings you’ll see a sort of stripped down layers palette where you can apply more than one filter. However, I don’t recommend it. You’re better off using the real layers palette where you can change Blend modes, vary the opacity of each layer, add masks, and so on. Once you’ve decided on the filter settings most appropriate to your photo, click the OK button at the top right to apply them.

3. Applying the Poster Edges default settings of Edge thickness 5, Edge intensity 1, and Posterization 2, produced the pleasing result seen here. The flower is surrounded by a dark outline and stippled as if it had been hand-drawn with pen and ink.

Sometimes an applied filter effect looks good but is too dark or too light. If this is the case, simply add a curves or levels adjustment layer to lighten or darken the filter rendering.

Portrait, High-Contrast Style
4. Starting with this portrait of Jamie, I wanted to transform it with a posterized look.

5. Choosing Image>Adjustments> Posterize brings up this Posterize dialog box. The only control is the number of levels which can range from 2 to 255. The 2 levels represents pure black and pure white, usually with too much detail missing. Experiment with setting of 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 to 10 or 20 for the most effective results.

6. Here I pumped the default Levels setting of 4 up to 6, for six shades—black, white and four shades of gray. The posterized portrait creates an abstracted interpretation, but still maintains plenty of detail in important areas.

Graphic Outlines
7. As the starting point for a minimalist outline effect, I chose this shot of the skyline of Central Park West in New York City.

8. Selecting Filter>Stylize>Glowing Edges brought up the Filter Gallery dialog box. Experimenting with the settings, I preferred the result at Edge width 5, Edge brightness 8, and Smoothness 5.

9. Applying the Glowing Edges filter rendered this highly stylized view, bringing out increased detail within the buildings and outlining them with a wide white line, like a neon sign. It looks a bit like the backdrop for a 1930s movie.

10. For our final foray into high contrast, I chose a shot of a subway train in a station. The architectural grid of the ceiling provides plenty of foundation for high-contrast effects.

The Litho Look
11. My goal was to transform this shot into pure black and white, as if I had copied it onto high-contrast litho film, a look that was popular in the 1960s. Like many other artifacts of that era, the litho look has found a new audience today. Well, thankfully, darkroom work is no longer required. Simply choose Image>Adjustments>Threshold and move the slider until you see the effect you want. Here I settled on a Threshold level of 170.

12. Since Threshold produced a rather dark and gritty rendition of my subway shot, I thought it would be appropriate to offset it with a brighter high-key version. So I selected Filter>Distort>Diffuse Glow. After experimenting, I settled on the default settings of Graininess 6, Glow amount 10, Clear amount 16. To my mind, this could be the next cover of a supernatural mystery novel.

Advanced Techniques For High Contrast
To convert a color original to black and white, if you used the Channel Mixer in earlier versions of Photoshop, or Image>Adjustments>Black & White in CS3, then your file is still in color RGB mode, even though all you see is grayscale. You can keep it that way if you think you might add some color to the image at some point, such as to tone it sepia, for example. However, if you plan to stay strictly black and white and you want to pick up some speed, choose Image>Mode>Grayscale after your initial conversion. Since you should be working on a copy, it’s OK to click on “Discard color information.” This cuts your file down to 1⁄3 of its size in RGB, speeding up filter processing and leaving you more space on your hard drive.

To see the effects of different filters on the same image and compare them quickly, open the layers palette and make a copy of your background layer. Click on the background layer to make it active, then choose Layer>Duplicate Layer. Now, the dialog box that comes up will read “Duplicate: Background As: Background copy, with “Background copy” highlighted. Type in the name of the filter you plan to apply to this new layer, for example, “Poster Edges,” then click OK. This new layer will now be active and highlighted in the layers palette. Run the filter you want to try, Filter>Artistic>Poster Edges, and it will be applied to the new layer. Click on the eye icon to the left of each layer to turn its visibility on or off. Now, you can quickly compare the original background layer with the filter effect layer. To add more filter effects to compare, repeat these steps for each filter. Then simply use the eye icons to turn the visibility of different layers on and off.