A different look from the same session. How I shoot as an "amateur."

People ask from time to time just how a portrait session progresses for me in the studio. I thought I'd answer that not from a commercial work perspective but from a shooting for the fun of it perspective.

Here's how my session with Fadya time-lined yesterday.

I started cleaning up the studio space right after morning swim practice. It's a routine I seem to do over and over again generally because I sometimes book too many shoots in a row, I'm tired when I get home from a project, and almost never use the same gear for two projects in a row. That means cases and gear tend to get dropped into the middle of the small studio space and stay there until their low priority rises to the top or until someone is coming over to be photographed in the space.

At noon I started setting up the background and lights I'd be using. Two HMIs, four different panels which included four light blockers, one double clothed diffuser, and a small net assemblage for controlling the level of the background light. I selected a tripod and head to work with form the stack and pulled the camera and lens out of one of the bags. Why a particular camera? Most probably because it had completed its cycle from used, ignored and neglected to "hey! isn't that the camera we shot X with? I loved that image." At which point the camera is resurrected or, politically rehabilitated.

I rough out all of the lights; their heights and relative positions, and set my diffusers to the spots they seem to need to be in. Everything will be finally adjusted when Fadya sits down and we get to shooting.

I try my best to be finished fifteen minutes before my subjects walk in because I hate to be fiddling with anything other than a meter when they arrive. I think the busy work of setting up mechanical stuff deflates the "theater" of the encounter.

Fadya came at 1:30 and we hugged and hung up her wardrobe on one of the Metro shelves. Then we went into the house to make her a cup of tea. She likes to calm down and separate from the rest of the day when we do photo sessions and the tea is in service of that. Belinda was home so the three of us talked in the kitchen for a bit. Then we headed out to the studio and started shooting in earnest around 2 pm.

Now, when I'm making portraits for fun I don't push the process quickly. I like to take time and really work on stuff. But the biggest task is for the sitter and the photographer to be on the same wavelength and that takes catching up and sharing stories and listening and hanging out together. The technical considerations of a shoot are almost invisible for the rest of the day. We may take a break and move a light or add a scrim but there's no urgency to it and I never convey that exactness is critical. Lighting should be more like hand grenades than lasers. You just need to be in the general ball park to make it work.

We talk about everything under the sun and I try to be observant and find the tilt of her head, the random expression, the eye-line or small, warm smile that works and to be diligent to look for those things as we proceed down the road of the session. If I see Fadya do something that makes her face light up or look otherwise interesting I'll interrupt our conversation and ask her to re-do that thing and then, when it's photographed, we'll continue.

While it sounds like it might be non-stop chatter in the studio there are many times when we both just feel right and in the flow and we stop talking and just shoot. I'll give short suggestions like, "just rotate your face a tiny bit toward the light." Or, "just tilt your chin up slightly and hold that." And we'll shoot and make tiny changes and improvements to a largely static pose. Working in small increments from a static pose allows me to find overall looks that I like and then to experiment with small adaptations or changes that I think might improve it.

All feedback is encouraging. How could it not be when our shared intention is to make beautiful images together?

All sessions that I've experienced go through a parabola of sorts. You both start out the session rusty and halting and the you progressively slide into a more and more comfortable give and take. At a certain point everything seems to click, the world outside is progressively shut out, and your creative instincts focus down into tighter detail. You're still sharing conversation and you're still making suggestions but you start to notice a softening and deepening of your subject's expression and for a moment or two everything is in perfect balance and you shoot and say, "Yes, that's perfect!" a lot.

After that moment you notice that things start to look like they are repeating. Similar poses, similar expressions and similar exchanges. You try more stuff and move the lights around but you probably both know that you hit a peak during the session and now you are winding it down.

After that, if you are friends and interested in each other's careers and lives, you spend some time with the camera down, just sharing fun information. Learning more about each other so that the next session is even smoother and more revealing. And by revealing I mean that both people work to make an emotionally safe space to share expressions and looks that may be dorky or may be amazing. There's no guarantee.

We shot about 400 big raw images, we drank tea, we talked about our kids and our careers. Fadya is a therapist. She specializes in addictions. She's got lots of interesting psychology information to share. It's stuff I find fascinating. We spent another half hour camera less,  sharing and catching up and aligning our experiences.

It was sometime around five when I walked Fadya up the long drive way to her car. We both had fun. I have enough images to work on to keep my hobbyist side busy for a while. I'll make a gallery for Fadya and when she chooses some images I'll do my best to make them really good. That's how I spend an afternoon in the studio having fun. Photography is a wonderful excuse just to be curious. Friendly portrait sessions are a great time to experiment with new gear and new techniques.

It's a day later and the gear is still all over my studio. The lights are still set up. The camera is on the camera pile and I've moved to the next one in the queue.

Now I'm thinking about how to improve the lighting for next time. One more HMI lighting head will help...


Anonymous said...

Does it really matter which camera you use? Isn't your secret working with the model?

Carlo Santin said...

I love these series of articles on portraits and lighting. There's enough reading to keep my busy here for a nice while, lots of learning to do here. Thanks Kirk, it's much appreciated. The black and white portrait at the top of the post is gorgeous, as is Fadya.

Old Gray Roy said...


Two things occur to me:
One - pictures of Fadya from several years ago were lovely, with the maturity of those intervening years she is almost unbelievably beautiful.
Two - it seems that the m4/3 cameras are essential to your professional work, the D7100 opens up your artistry.

Fascinating blog as always.