Have you ever had one of those days when things took a turn for the better?

                             Fun Test Shot with a friend.

I'm out of practice.  I tried to keep shooting portraits as last year devolved into one of the circles of Purgatory but it's hard to keep the creative wheels turning when doom and gloom looms all around you.  My portrait lighting skills were starting to take a hit.  Then I ran into Selena at a coffee shop and she needed a headshot and I wanted a model.  I think we both won.

We met last week and spent an hour working on posing and lighting.  I ended up using my big Octabank and my Elinchrom Ranger RX AS pack with one head for the main light.  My studio is all white so it's pretty "live".  I'd been lighting my fill too much lately, no doubt because some corporate client I took on in a moment of self induced desperation bitched about my shadows being too dark.  I remember the conversation so well.  It was short and it went like this:

Client: "What's wrong with the light on Bob's face?"

Me:   "I'm sorry, I don't understand.  What do you mean?"

Client:  "Well, it's a very nice picture but the light on his face isn't even.  It gets dark over to one side!"

Me:  "We call that modeling.  It's a way of adding some dimension to peoples' faces.  Makes portraits look more three dimensional.  Gives the light a sense of direction."

Client:  "Can you fix that somehow?"

Me:  "Well, it's supposed to be that way.  It's a creative thing."

Client:  "Is there some way to fix it in Photoshop?  I'm pretty sure Bob's not going to like being uneven...."

Me:  "But that's the same style that's in most of the portraits on my website...."

Client:   "Hmmmmm.  So you don't think you can fix it?"

It's exchanges like this that make me appreciate my wife's adamant rule of "no guns" in the studio.  But it's weird how a few toxic clients can subtly shift that line that makes an insecure portrait photographer dilute and devolve their own style.

Before Selena came over I looked over some of my favorite work and the work by some of the photographers I really admire.  I decided to aim my taste meter in the right direction and to resurrect what I liked with the hopes that it will find its audience.

When I set up the lighting I re-acquainted myself with a favorite old tool, subtractive lighting.  I grabbed a black panel and put it on the opposite side of her face from the main light.  I brought the black in pretty close because I wanted deep shadows.  I grabbed a little Alien Bees ringlight that I use all the time for a background light and put it on the gray seamless at a really low power.  MMMMMM.  Just right.

Then I shot with a longer lens than I've used in a while.  I'm happy with the light and the skin tone.  When we finally decide on an image I'll fix the stray hairs and the few wrinkles in the shirt.  But count me happy with my lighting and the general look.  And I think her expression is just wonderful.

My portrait lighting is back and it's really changed my mood.  It's devastating when your mastery takes a vacation without putting it up on the scheduling board.  It's always wonderful when it comes back home with a nice tan, a few pounds lighter.  I don't know if Selena likes the work we did.  I haven't talked to her yet.  But for a change, the only validation I was looking for was mine.


Daniel said...

What is the process you use to fix the wrinkles in her shirt?

I like the look as well and the lighting is really nice. The shadows are deep and it compliments the image really well.

What size is your black panel? How close is it to her face (I have not yet worked with black/subtractive light)?

The only thing that seems a little distracting to me is the low cut shirt, but that could be cropped out (if you so choose).

Raianerastha said...

Kirk, sounds to me like the client in your story wanted the "Wal Mart Portrait Studio" look LOL.

It's probably also the influence of TV and video, which generally requires flat, even lighting.

It seems to me that the combination of cheap portrait studios and everybody's uncle owning a "professional quality digital camera" that people's appreciation of truly creative, evocative portraiture has declined.

Kind of like how a certain demographic thinks that any old zinfandel is a fine wine...

Me, I love shadows, because without them light gets boring.

The Photophile said...

You have cute friends.


Mandáš said...

Kirk, believe me if i say i understand your grief 100%. i have been through the same, last year...Watering down the style to satisfy the client's expectations is the start of the end.
If you allow me, this shot above is one of the best I have seen from you in the last year (speaking of new pics), so i think we should really always stand up for our style, because that is our capital both in the art and in the trade.

Mike said...

So, you're not going to fix the shadows on this one?

*Ducks to avoid flying coffee cup*

I keed, I keed . . . great shot!

Kurt Shoens said...

Wow! I like that portrait on so many levels. Is that really straight out of camera, resized for the web? She is an extraordinary subject.

I really like the background treatment, too.

It's funny about people's reaction to lighting ratios. I do wonder if our point of view is different from a conservative client's. We see portraits all day every day. Our own, those from contemporaries, and historical ones. Our subjects don't have that background. They see other people's faces as our eyes see them, not as a camera sees them. Therefore, they're accustomed to much less contrast. High contrast looks unnatural to them.

Pat Morrissey said...

I dunno, man. He who pays the piper, and all that. Is there so much difference between, "When we finally decide on an image I'll fix the stray hairs and the few wrinkles in the shirt." and "Is there some way to fix it in Photoshop?"

Tyler Rogers said...

Very well done, I have no doubt she will be happy with them as well!
I agree with the above comments, it's sad how many people don't understand the 'less is more' aspect when it comes to lighting and portraiture.

And I think we all find that at some point we all need to be true to ourselves and our own style (assuming we know what that is)

I did a session with a couple of friends this week that fits in to that category. Very dark, lots of shadows and just one light. I know everyone's not going to like them, but we do, and that's all that matters.

Keep doing what you do, because it's great.

Robert said...

You can't fix it if its not broken. We have two ears and one mouth for a reason. When we listen twice as much as we talk we get so much more accomplished. Its a wonder that a client like that gets anything accomplished. Are you sure he had ears?

neopavlik said...

Sadly it seems the business mindset is that shadows might indicate someone that is untrustworthy or "shifty" or whatever.

Boring is safe. Safe is acceptable and mediocrity is encouraged.

Once you have what the client wants , go crazy ;)

Philip said...

Maybe the client wanted a passport photo? Should have broke out the Polaroid passport camera. I had a client try to play director of photography once - very annoying.

theodicy said...

I understand exactly what you are trying to do with the lighting, and if I were a portrait photographer, I'd want to emulate your style.

Honestly, I find the evenly lit portrait shot as bland as egg whites, and would never, ever want to do something like that to a person. Though I must admit I do like the soft, even lighting of a cloudy day for outdoor portraits, but that's another thing altogether...

You've got a great style with portraits. For those who want something evenly lit, just send the off to the nearest J.C. Penny.

As for your wife's maxim concerning keeping the guns out of the studio, I totally disagree...best to keep a whole Texas sized armory in there. ;-)