Thinking about art while swimming. How I like to do portraits.

I don't get why photographers aren't really excited about working with new stuff they can't wear around their necks.  I've been warming up to LED lighting panels since late Summer and I'm having a blast with them.  Look what you can do at a fifteenth of a second!  You can actually capture movement.  So cool.  I think we're way oversold on the idea that everything needs to be sharp and every photography has to have scads of detail.  I love getting it wrong because somewhere on the other side of wrong is cool.

One of the drills we do in swim practice is to swim with tennis balls in our hands.  Means you can't spread your hands and fingers out like water sails for maximum propulsion.  But it sure teaches you to do everything else right.

A quick note.  When I wrote a post a while ago comparing swimming and photographing someone suggested that the comparison was stupid and that they could go months and months without touching a camera and then, in a flash, pick one up and create a masterpiece on demand.  I thought about that for a long while.  Stuck it in the part of my brain that just chews on stuff.

I've been shooting non-stop, for myself as well as for clients, since Christmas.  I'm making fun photos to show off concepts for a book.  When I'm not on assignment lately I've been walking around in the afternoons and the evenings with the new Olympus EPL2 just getting a feel for it and seeing how it reacts to all kinds of light.  And now I've decided on a reply for the person who thought that people didn't have to actively and regularly practice and bond with the process(es)= Bullshit.  

Moving on.  I thought I'd take a minute to describe my process of shooting a portrait of a pretty girl in the studio.  I've watched photographers show off their public shooting face at tons of expos and seminars but I think the way they handle portrait sittings with an audience is largely a fictional parody of what happens when you get right down to the way most real shoots work.  I can't imagine doing the kind of work I do with an audience.  I can barely stand to have an assistant in the room, much less gawkers.  Clients are always welcome.....especially if they bring a purchase order or signed contract.

When I'm shooting something for a technical book I'm writing I still want to get some fun stuff I can put in my portfolio and my models still want stuff they can use in their marketing as well.  Most bookings are spur of the moment things.  I don't spend a lot of time looking at Model Mayhem or face books from talent agencies.  I'll usually run into someone and in the moment I'll notice how much I like their face and their energy and I'll introduce myself right then and there and ask them if they have any interest in working with me on a project.  I hand them a business card and leave the next contact up to them.  Gives  people a chance to research who I am before they commit.  Then we'll set up a date to shoot and talk about what kind of look I'm going for and what kind of wardrobe we might mutually want.

The day before the shoot I'm usually a disorganized mess because I realize that I really need to go into the shoot with SOMETHING in mind.  I'll look at my backgrounds and I'll play with different lights and modifiers.  Then I'll set up a lighting design in earnest.  I keep telling myself that if I just get one good look I'll be happy.  Just one look.  If I think the model is magic (like the last three I've shot) I'll get so nervous that I'll drag Ben or Belinda out to the studio just to do some tests and make sure I don't have to make any big changes.  If I plan on using a new camera, like the EPL2 from last week I always make sure to back it up with an existing, proven camera system.  In this case the Canon 5Dmk2.

When the model shows up on the day of the shoot I've got cameras and lenses on top of a rolling tabaret and they are all ready to go.  Batteries charged and memory cards formatted.  I think it's embarrassing if a  model has to wait for me.....

Invariably they come in with arm loads of clothes and we stand around the studio sipping tea and picking potential outfits.  I'm not a fashion guy.  I'm looking for something organic that offsets the model's face and her personality in a cool way.  Obviously I love the look of black and deep gray with most faces.  I like long sleeves but, good luck in Texas.  Even in the winter.  I'm sure that all the talent has been to my website and seen the kind of work I do but even so they always bring lots and lots of shoes.  It's a rare day when I get a pair of shoes in a portraits.

I worked with Fadya on a commercial job last year but I really didn't get to know her.  The schedule was hectic and the crew was pretty big.  The art director keep us on an ambitious schedule and she was on and off the set in less than an hour.  So the first thing we do is get make up out of the way.  Send any sort of assistants or "hangers-on" out of the building and we strike up a conversation.  A wide ranging conversation.  I remember reading an article by writer, Lionel Tiger, in which he described a portrait sitting he had with photographer, Irving Penn.  He said that once the "giant wall" of lights was set and illuminated all the people in Penn's studio left the shooting studio and the rest of the sitting was done in strict privacy.  He and Penn talked about novels, writing, art, world history and so much more.  The sitting lasted a long time and, only after a sort of sleepiness overcame Lionel, and he had exhausted all of his usual social defenses and started becoming quiet he finally dropped his defenses and stopped self-consciously posing.  That was when Penn started shooting and quietly suggesting small movements and little modifications.  Tiger said that when he asked Penn his secret for shooting great portraits the reply was that Penn "waited until a kind of drowsiness arrived."  Then he knew he'd be photographing a more sincere portrait of the real person.

I'm not Irving Penn but I've come to know that spending less time with a subject sure doesn't help the photos.  All people come in smiling.  I don't really want a smile.  Unless it's from the subject's eyes.
What I really want is a curious or self assured presentation.  And by "curious" I mean the subject seems interested and that look is reflected by the camera.  Slowing down and working at a relaxed pace makes the process a lot more fun.  I've watched to many shoots that have the affect of cooking over easy eggs.  The photographer is frantically demanding a lens from an assistant with an air of panic in the voice as though one misstep will lead to disaster.  Hardly the way to get the looks you need or want.....

My biggest issue is that the fiction of TV fiction fashion sessions where a "photographer" works with a "model" always shows the set in a constant state of movement and kinetic chaos.  The TV models move from pose to pose to pose every time the flash goes off (probably another good reason to use constant lights).  But that's antithetical to what I want as a portrait photographer.  I want to work up to the right look, hold on to it for a while.  Perfect it and capture small nuances before going off in another direction. I may be looking for just the slightest tilt of a person's head.  The barest parting of lips.  The kindest look in the eyes.  And so my biggest job is to slow people down.  To change their expectations about the process.

Feedback is also critical.  If I see something like the beautiful expression and gorgeous eyes in the photo above I make sure to feedback what I'm seeing to the subject.  But I don't do it in a general way by yelling,  "Beautiful baby! Now....pout for me and I'll make you a star!"  Instead it's more like,  "That look is great.  Can you hold that and just tilt your head a tiny, tiny bit?  Like this."  And then I show them what I want.

I never assume the role of the "all knowing expert".  All good portraiture is a warm and connected collaboration. Mutual respect and mutual trust are the real "secret weapons" of all the portrait photographers I have known or read about.  Understanding just how exposed and self conscious even the most beautiful person is in front of the camera goes a long way toward figuring out how to find a happy bridge between the experience of the photographer and his subject. The real measure of how well you did is not whether or not you win awards or get tons of comments from other photographers.  It's when you model or portrait subject says, "That was such a fun afternoon. Call me anytime you want to do photos!"

We ended up shooting for about three hours.  We mostly used three big LED panels thru a big (74 by 74 inch) diffusion panel over to one side.  We also went downtown to shoot with some smaller panels in the streets and we wound up at the local Starbucks.  But even when we stop for coffee or snacks the camera comes along for the ride and we keep playing.  Truth is a portrait session, done well, is a wonderful experience for everyone's ego.  I make the model look as good I can.  She does the same in return.

Tech notes.  The black and white images were done with the new Olympus EPL2 camera and the 40-150mm lens.  The camera was shot Jpeg/monochrome.  The color images were done with the Canon.

The portait just above was done with a new light modifier I bought from Fotodiox  (Thanks, Mary and Steve!!!).  It's their version of the Elinchrom Octabank.  The Fotodiox version is a pain to set up but the light is really nice and the price (under $100) is just what the chief accountant likes.  The octagonal shaped softbox is 70 inches in diameter and has two diffusion baffles.  I love it.  I'm leaving it set up in the studio.....it's too big a hassle to tear it down and take it on location.  Unless I have assistants in tow. Maybe.

Here's one last image from Fadya's shoot (below) we did it when we stopped for coffee at the end of the shoot.  It's done handheld and lit by one little battery driven LED panel just wedged onto one of the shelves next to the table at Starbucks.......simple as can be...

Warning:  I've been told that you can only get an out of focus background and a sharp foreground like this with the Canon 85mm 1.2 lens.  I cheated and use the 1.8 version.  


Steve Korn said...

Wonderful insights and results, Kirk!

KC Walker said...


It's been an interesting week of posts. Thanks!

After opening the color shot from your earlier post and then opening color shots from this post in a different tab, I've got to say, I think there's some serious magic going on with that EPL2. It seems to me with the exact same lighting that the skintone is so much more appealing and kinder. It's like there is more nuance, like your old Kodak. Also, the shadow detail seems wonderful and the fine detail is great but not harsh. I love how the eyes sparkle in comparison to the Canon shots. It just seems like the EPL shot looks so much more 3-D and lifelike.

Thanks so much for your "review"!


Ronald said...

I used to come to this blog for the writing, but lately I just come to stare at the fantastic portraits you've been doing of Fadya. What a beautiful woman.

I agree with KC that the E-PL2 is doing a fantastic job, and I'm glad to hear you used the 40-150 for the portrait session. The Olympus regular 4/3 40-150 lens, which used to retail, brand new, for as little as $120, is one of the most incredible budget lenses ever made. For portraits, it does wonders.

Keep up the good work!

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Wow. "A pretty girl"? C'mon, Fadya is a beautiful woman, and you and her really can show it. Wonderful post & pictures, and no, you're not Irving Penn - you are Kirk Tuck, and there's really a lot to learn around here! Thanks for that ongoing series, it's just... like I said... WOW.


Eduardo said...

You are right, it is so sad that people focus on one tool when there are many more that offer us new ways to do our photography, I like the idea of LED panels because they let you focus totally on your subject! And as you have shown in the photos. I wanna get some Little LED panels for location portraits :) I am planning to see how those little panels stacked up inside an Apollo softbox would do :)

As for the DOF, I laugh everytime "experts" say you cant do something with a particular combination of gear and up doing it... So I am with you my friend :)

Cheers from cold but beautiful Spain!

mike wilson said...

Man, I hate it when people think they can just pick up a camera and "make a masterpiece". Talk about egotism!

I always love getting "peeks behind the curtain" of how photographers think about a shoot. Having it in words I'm sure beats having a video of it because with a video there's those other people in the room which changes the dynamics for both the photographer and the model. Even if it's a "hidden camera", the photographer still knows it's there, even if the model isn't aware (which would be creepy if they didn't). Regardless, this seems to have a more real honesty to it.

In other words, "thanks!"

Jet Tilton Photography said...


Great series and thanks for explaining step by step how you do your portraits! Good to see that you used the EPL2 and the Canon, even though it would be much harder to wear the 5D around your neck! I wish there was an accepted digital system that was extremely portable, but could also be used in the studio for client portraits! I use my Canon s95 daily, as i can wear it on a belt, but my larger canon dslr sits at home, too big for hauling around, and now used only for portraiture sessions, usually outdoors.

I also wish that smaller systems were more accepted, rather than the usual Nikon/Canon dslrs only attitude by many..... If I feel that i would be taken seriously with a micro-4/3 camera, I'd be willing to replace my canon body and lenses with an extremely portable system. I'd much rather take an Oly or Panasonic with me and be able to exchange lenses, AND also use it for high-quality portraits back in the studio!

Any thoughts? You are truly an inspiration, maybe since you are so insightful, maybe you could open up an account on Formspring.me so we could "pick your brain"!


Anonymous said...

My daughter sets up a mini portrait studio at corporate events (e.g. Christmas Parties) with the E-pl1, FL-36r, an umbrella and a reflector. She has the company give out picture frames as party favors. The guests then come by for portraits, group portraits, etc. at the end of the event on their way out. It is interesting to watch her work. I think because she is young, the subjects are not intimidated by her or the camera. By showing them the results right away on the LCD, the guests really get into it and regroup for different poses, fantacy shots, etc. Everyone has a great time and people usually hang around and extra 45 minutes to get the shot they want. The clients have been really pleased. So, I guess what I am saying is that portratit work is really a very collaborative affair and when it works, everybody has fun. It helps a lot that the E-pl1 is unobtrusive and the built in remote off camera flash control makes on site set up a breeze.