Comfort Zone.

Have you ever had photographic sessions where everyone felt so good they could laugh and cry and howl and be totally in the moment?  No? Loosen up the controls a bit and have more fun.

I made a portrait of my friend, Jeremy, yesterday. He won an award for something and needed a portrait to send along for an article. While I normally reserve Sundays for long walks and sloth I thought it would be fun to photograph him.

It dawned on me that a good portrait session is really composed of three or four discrete and almost unrelated sections. It's good if you can turn your brain on, do the work required in each section and then turn your brain off again. Some sections of the process are all about technical stuff and then the making of the actual images is non-technical stuff. It's best to get your stuff all set up and then get your technical brain out of the way before you start shooting.

So, what are the discrete parts? The first part is planning. This is your aesthetic and technical pre-production. It's the part of the process where you ask yourself:  How do I want the lighting to look? How do I want the composition to look? Am I looking for more compression? Am I looking for more limited depth of field? How will I handle color?

I generally start with the background. I decided that I wanted a neutral gray background for Jeremy's business portrait. But I decided that I didn't want it to be boring and uniform so I figured out how I wanted a light to slash across it. Once I had the background figured out I started working through the other parameters. My choice of lens is somewhat limited by my available space in my small studio. I have 24 feet from my back to the seamless background paper when I'm shooting. I don't want to place people too close to the background because I want enough distance to drop detail on the background totally out of focus. I ended up using the 85mm lens on an a99 figuring that I could crop in if the lens was too short for my taste in the edit.

I decided I would have Jeremy sit. It works better for my lighting and posing. It was my intention to use a big fluorescent light bank as my main light because I wanted to be able to shoot almost wide open with my lens. I ended up shooting a little shy (on the fast side) of f2.8. I knew that the raw fluorescent bank would be too bright and too hard to either be comfortable for my sitter or hospitable to his skin tone so I knew I would want at least one, and possibly two, layers of diffusion on a frame, in front of the light. I chose to use a 4x4 foot Chimera Panel with two layers of 3/4 stop silk on it. A nice blend of hard and soft.

I know that my little studio has too much reflection from the white walls so I know I would need a black panel to the "fill" side of Jeremy's face to cut out some of the unintended fill light. But I also knew that I would have to add back a bit of controlled fill so I did that with small, pop up reflector.

My final bit of lighting design was to add a small, almost invisible, backlight on the opposite side of the main light and from (of course) behind. I decided on the little Fiilex LED P360 as it's easy to match color with my flo lights.

The whole thought process is the planning stage. It sets how the overall shot will look, technically. It's subject to modification as we go but it's good to start with a plan that's a reflection of your style. This is what I started thinking about as soon as Jeremy described the final use of his portrait. It would be used in public relations for a major university. It needed to be well crafted and have a feeling of solidity.

Once I had the plan planted in my brain I went into the auto-pilot mode of "set-up." I like to have time to set up my gear. Not just exactly as much time as it should take but time to re-think and test. I set up one thing and look and then add the next piece and see how it will effect what I already have set. If my main light causes too much spill onto the background I'll add light blockers. Sometimes I set up the camera and sit on the stool and click a self portrait to see how the light looks. I'm always starting with the main light too far to the side and I inevitably move it but I like the idea of the side lit drama of a certain angle. My rational brain usually vetoes that early on....

Once I have all the lighting set and the camera and lens placed on a tripod I go through a process with my camera. I go through a pre-flight check list of settings. I start by formatting the memory card. My next step is to choose between raw or jpeg. Then I go through color settings, ISO, focusing controls and anything else that might affect the process of making the image. I make sure that my camera has setting effect on for continuous light set ups and setting effect off for flash set ups. (If you use a camera with an OVF this is a step that doesn't enter consciousness...).

When everything is set with the camera I get out an incident light meter and measure the light at the subject position. Then I measure the light on the background. Finally, I pull out a Lastolite gray target and set a custom white balance. When I've done all the stuff on my check list my brain relaxes and I know it's time to switch from technical to social engagement. 

I get out our make-up kit and put it on a tabaret. I want to make sure it seems like a natural part of the process instead of something I have to fetch under aesthetic duress. I make sure there's a fresh bottle of cold water, with a napkin, for my client. I make sure the temperature in the studio is a bit on the chilly side and I go over, once again what I want to get, image-wise, from the session.

The next part of the process is to introduce my subject to the studio. I know Jeremy pretty well but being in the studio is out of our usual context. I want to give him time to look around and get comfortable. I want to look at the clothes he's brought along and help him make selections that will work well with the camera. We make small talk. We talk about the process. I look at his face and realize that he'll need some grease wipes to take some facial oils off his face and that some translucent powder will go a long way toward minimizing some unwanted specular highlights. We talk about his kids and the upcoming school year. We talk about work (his).  When I feel like his pulse had dropped and his trepidation about being in front of the camera is lowered we start.

The actual taking of the image is a totally different process than everything we've done above. I ignore any thought of technical issues. If it's not right by now we'll just have to fix it in post. I may fine tune a light or make a small adjustment to camera distance or height but from this point on it's all about getting an expression that's positive, relaxed and really representative of Jeremy. No clenched smiles, no over the top expressions.  Just the real guy. This requires light hearted feedback from me. I keep the energy going. I maintain a feedback loop so my subject knows what's working.  There's no stopping and starting to deal with technical issues. There's never stopping and starting to answer a phone call, we just work through and keep the pace going so that I'm focused on how my subject looks and my subject is focused on enjoying the process. When I finally know I've got a handful of really good images, all of which will work well, we wind down.

I tell Jeremy what will happen next (I'll edit down the sheer number of images to 20 and also mark my three favorites. I'll do a global color, exposure and contrast correction and put up the 20 images onto a gallery on Smugmug and send him a link. He'll make a selection and then I'll retouch it using a variety of software tools. Since he has a pressing deadline I'm make folder with various file sizes of his selected image and upload it to an FTP server like Drop Box so he can send it along to the editor or PR person who started this whole process.

He's already pulling his tie off and putting his suit coat on a hanger. We talk about more about kids and swimming and he tells me, "This was fun."

There are two parameters that I want to satisfy at every session. One is a good image of my subject. The second is for both of us to have fun. It's nice when it works.

Adhering to this whole process with full attention, even though I've done it a thousand times, is what makes the comfort zone real. When you are comfortable you see better, you share better and you shoot better. Three real sections but your technical brain needs only to attend the first two. Having your technical brain on line and in attendance during the actual shooting and sharing is a good way to second guess yourself into a "safe" box with boring results. Let your tech brain go outside for a break when you get down to the human to human work.

Studio Portrait Lighting