Spent the day doing what I really like. Taking photographs and getting paid.

Ben. A test photograph from a shoot for the Texas State University System.
This past August, here in Austin, Texas. 

It's fun when your job and your hobby are pretty much the same thing. I got up this morning, walked the dog, read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and then headed out to the studio to get packed for the first half day of a two-half-day shoot. 

I'll explain. I was hired to go on location to one of the high rise buildings in downtown Austin, to make portraits of the 16 people who are the staff and partners of a development company. Since everyone has crazy schedules; especially this close to the holidays, I suggested that instead of one full day in one shot we might want to break up the day into two half days. If I came in around noon today to set up I could shoot from 1-5 pm and get all the "afternoon" people. I'd leave the gear set up overnight and then come back in at 9 am the next morning to finish up with all of the "morning" people. This would give everyone the opportunity to select a day that would be most convenient or a time that would be most convenient; depending on their nature. I like doing this because a full day gets boring and I think Studio Dog misses me when I am gone for that long.

We've pretty much given up shooting portraits against seamless for these kinds of shoot and are transitioning to a style that uses a mix of available light and supplemental light while shooting close to wide open on longer lenses. The optimum location is one where there is a lot of space behind the subject which I can progressively drop out of focus.

I packed up the car and headed downtown, arriving at the offices at noon and setting up by 1 pm. I found a long corridor with glass fronted offices along one side and windows to the outside on the other. I brought along three 100 watt LED open face fixtures to light with and two big 5-in-1 reflectors to modify the existing lights. 

I started out by putting up a 40 inch black flag between the spot where my subjects would stand and the bad fluorescent ceiling fixture. This effectively kills the color mismatch that would have occurred on the subject between the warm, green fluorescent and the more neutral LED. I keyed the LED from one side and then brought a fill reflector in on the opposite side. The fill reflector also serves to kill side spill coming from other light fixtures on the location. 

I used one 100 watt LED in a large soft box as my main light. I have my subjects standing and my technical goal with my main light is to place the bottom of the soft box at least an inch or two above the subject's chin level. This drops a flattering shadow under their chin which can help to obscure "turkey neck" and double chins. Fortunately, everyone in this office was in great shape and probably no more than five to ten pounds over their optimum BMI. Nice for me!

A second light, used in an 8 inch reflector, with barn doors, was used in the middle distance pointed away from the subject and towards the far wall. This would mix in the same temperature light as the key light and cut down on the rougher transition between the main light source and the prevailing office lighting. 

The final light was used as a back light from as far back as I could get it and with the barn doors almost completely closed in order to control spill. 

I used a 70-200mm f4.0 lens at f5.0 which gave me relatively good sharpness from nose to ears but dropped the middle and are distance objects out of focus quite quickly. 

The pace was mellow and we were able to get eight people photographed today  with no stress or strain. In fact, I even had time to walk down the street to Medici Caffe and grab a great cappuccino and a walnut scone somewhere in the middle of the afternoon. We wrapped up today's shoot around 4:00 and by 4:30 I was home wandering around the neighborhood with Studio Dog.

Everyone gets in tomorrow around 8 am but I'll be there at 9. I rationalized it like this: I don't want to rush people. They need a chance to get into the office, get their coffee and respond to important calls and e-mails. An hour gives them time to get well settled. Another reason for my late arrival is my realization that with the later start I could make it to swim practice from 7-8:15 am, take my suit and tie along with me and make it downtown in ample time. Besides, the lighting is already set....

Which reminds me, I need to take a Siggi's 4% vanilla yogurt along with me for a quick, after swim snack. 

One thing I've learned that I find to be really valuable for on location portraits (portraits in general?) is not to have your subjects sit in a chair but to have them stand behind a chair. A good chair back anchors them to the spot where your lighting is optimal and gives them something comfortable to do with their hands. Since we are shooting "head and shoulders" we don't see the chair or their hands. All we do see is a natural stance and a person more at ease than someone standing in the middle of open space wondering what to do with their hands. 

So, I'll head back and we'll shoot the rest of the folks from 9-12 and then I'll break down the lights and cameras and head back to the office to offload the images, make my edits and begin the process of color correcting the edited files in order to make web galleries for each person. 

And that is how I do location portraits at a more leisurely pace. It's fun. More like this...


Wolfgang Lonien said...

> "We've pretty much given up shooting portraits against seamless for these kinds of shoot and are transitioning to a style that uses a mix of available light and supplemental light while shooting close to wide open on longer lenses. The optimum location is one where there is a lot of space behind the subject which I can progressively drop out of focus."

I agree - seamless gets boring if you see too many of them, and people in kind of a more "natural" habitat are simply more interesting. I like the same space behind them, but with Micro Four Thirds, blurring the background only works for head & shoulders. If you want to do that with a full-body portrait of people, you'd need something like your 100 or 135mm lenses on 135 format cameras ("full frame" as they say). So in that case, you'd need quite some space both before *and* behind your subjects...

Mike said...

I would love to see the finished product, if you have permission to do so by the client. I'm also curious: why do you use LED lights vs. portable strobe? I just purchased my first LED light for a video project, and used it to demonstrate lighting to a photography class, bouncing it out of a seven-foot umbrella. It made great light and opened my eyes to the possibilities of using this type of lighting.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Mike, Good question. I did post some samples (not of this shoot but one with a similar set up) earlier in the year. I'll try to find the link. The client I shot for yesterday and today is very restrictive about their images. They don't even put headshot on their website.

Now let me try to answer you other question, which was: "why not portable strobes?" So, we're in a office and there are open space desks along one side of the corridor and clear glass walled office along the other side. About 15 people are working along this particular corridor. We'll be here for most of the day. I shoot a lot. Maybe 100 images per person x 8 people in a day. That means my main light flash, my background flash and my back light flash will be going off over and over and over again. And let's be honest, repeating flashes are annoying to everyone around. They annoy me too! Continuous light instantly reduces the day long drama of having a photographer hanging around. Turn on the LEDs first thing in the morning, make sure not to shine them into anyone's eyes directly, and everyone will have gotten used to them by the time you've got your camera set up.

Part two: you can't use "silent shutter" with flash. So, same thing --- 800 flashes equals 800 shutter actuations but with LEDs and "silent shutter"? A much less obtrusive working situation. Clients are more relaxed, the workplace isn't as disrupted and the people who write the checks are happier. Plus I like the way constant light mixes with the ambient lights.. it's a nice look.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Mike, Here's that post I was thinking about: https://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2016/06/a-few-days-ago-i-wrote-post-about.html

Mike said...

Great insights, thanks. I may have to invest in a set of these.