Here's how I'm doing my portraits this morning. OT: It's just a post about gear. No other subjects covered.

An actor at Zach Theatre. 

Oh boy! It's Monday morning and I get to do two studio portraits. I've got the studio scrubbed and the hand sanitizer assembled next to the extra face masks and the disinfectant wipes. But, more important to my task this morning, I've got the lighting I want set up and I've selected the perfect camera and lens. So, without further messing around let's talk shop.

When it comes to work the genre I feel most comfortable with is studio portraiture. You can do it rain or shine, and if you pay attention you can have complete control over the lighting. But there's also a part of the process which is about hospitality. You are inviting someone into your space and you are hosting them there. It's your job to make the person you are working with feel at home, comfortable, and like the important part of the equation that they are. Only when you get them at ease in the space and comfortable on the posing stool are you ready to engage with the gear. And that part should be almost invisible.

Today we'll be working with one of my favorite camera and lens combinations for corporate portraits; the high resolution, Lumix S1R camera and the Lumix 70-200mm f4.0 S Pro lens. This lens is sharp and visually pleasant throughout its focal length range. In a controlled setting, like the one we've set up for our ongoing client's radiology practice, I have each physician sit on an adjustable posing stool and I set up the camera on a tripod to be at eye level. Lately, when I check the exif information I see that my typical focal length for most sittings is about 135mm. It's a good compromise between establishing a safe working distance and getting a head size that fits with all the previous portraits I've done for the same practice. 

We're working with modestly powerful LED lights lately. I'm using them at medium power settings. I know most photographers' impulses are to buy the biggest, most powerful lights they can get their hands on, and that makes sense if you are lighting big spaces, but for portrait subjects there's only a certain intensity you can go to before the people in front of the lights get uncomfortable and start to squint. My lights for today's sessions are three Godox SL60 W's. They are daylight balanced LEDs and the way I use them and modify their output means that I'm working with ISO 1000 @ f5.6 on the camera. I used the shutter speed to hit correct exposures. If I'm set up right I can hold a shutter speed of 1/50th - 1/60th of a second and, with good instructions to the sitter, we can get most of our images without subject motion. 

Yes, bigger lights would get me higher shutter speeds but there is a point (a bit different for each person) at which the increased light intensity is going to be counterproductive/uncomfortable for the subject. I don't worry too much about lower shutter speeds because I'm using the camera on a tripod.

 It is funny to remember that when I opened my first little studio I was doing portraits with an old Calumet 4x5 inch view camera and sometimes did available light sittings with shutter speeds as low as 1/4 or 1/8th of a second. Some photographs turned out quite well. Some looked like "art." With slower shutter speeds timing and watching the subject carefully become more important. But the added challenge makes the process more fun.

I'm shooting 14 bit, 47.5 megapixel raw files so I have a fair amount of latitude when it comes to color correction and dynamic range. Even so I do a custom white balance for each set up. Especially in my studio where the overall lighting environment is supplemented by exterior daylight. As far as exposure goes it seems best, with modern cameras, to aim for a slight underexposure which allows one to maintain detail in highlights while raising shadow values in post for a better look. 

The main light is a Godox SL60W in a small, 30 by 30 inch soft box coming from the subject's top right hand side. I've feathered the soft box so that a good amount of spill light hits the silver reflector on the subject's shadow side and provides a nice fill. 

There is a light aimed at the white, seamless background paper and I'm using that one without a modifier as a wash. I have added a set of barn doors just to keep extra light from spilling everywhere. The light on the background is about 2/3rds of a stop brighter than the main light. 

The final light is yet another Godox SL60W used at lower power in a small 16 by 20 Chimera light box that I've had hanging out in the studio for at least two decades. I want just enough soft light on the top of people's heads to add some motivation for the background light. This light isn't absolutely essential for portraits against white but as long as you are judicious and don't let anything burn out it's neutral. I use it because the client's art director will often drop out the white background put the doctor's photo against a different background which might be much darker. If they do this then the effect of the hair light helps to create separation from the new background. 

Once I've set up and tested the lighting, camera and lens, I'm ready for my subject when they walk through the door. I think this is essential because it keeps the process (in the eyes of the sitter) focused on the interaction between the two humans and doesn't introduce "gear" as a distraction. My instructions to the sitter are all about positioning them and getting expressions I like. I'm never happy to interrupt this process in order to tweak a light that I should have taken care of before starting. Of course, it's not always possible to be so perfect. You do find things that need fixed during the course of the sitting. You may notice something about the client's complexion or hair that needs a slightly different approach with lighting and you'd be silly to depend on fixing that in post. But, as a general rule, I like to have all the nuts and bolts of lighting a session taken care of before we start. 

When it comes to camera operation I feel the same way. I don't want to distract a sitter with technical mumbo-jumbo. If I need to make an exposure adjustment I rarely announce it. If I do I state it in terms like, "I just want the image to be a little bit darker..." Instead of, "I'm going to adjust the aperture to f 7.1 for better density..." I want to keep the conversation  moving and learn all about them, not teach them all about my process. Mostly because --- they don't care. And they shouldn't have to care. 

My two best questions for the physicians today were: "Why did you decide to become a radiologist?" And, "How to you like Austin, Texas so far?" 

Once we're finished and we're unwrapping ourselves from the actual shooting I will ask for the sitter's forbearance while I spot check just a few files to make sure I haven't missed something important or something that would be easier to shoot a few more frames to fix rather than heading into a post production rabbit hole. I quickly check ten or so files to make sure we don't have too many blinks, sleepy left or right eyelids, or too much subject movement. Once I've got a preponderance of keepers I walk away from the camera and let the client know that we've got some great stuff. Then they are out the door and onto their busy day. Any friction I can reduce in our collaborative process is one less sub-routine they'll have running in their heads later. 

A few more small ideas: I like to keep the studio cooler than normal for sessions in the Summer because Texas heats up quickly and the cooler interior temperatures help the client get comfortable quicker. The cool, dry air cuts down on shiny complexions and is more inviting. More relaxing.

I turn off my cellphone and mute notifications on my desktop. Even though I would never answer the phone during a session both the client and I are probably acculturated to think one of us should answer the phone. And we'll wonder who was calling and why. A quick and easy way to break my concentration and my client's focused participation for what's probably just another robo call.

For a quick headshot session I prefer not to play music. I know a lot of studios are jamming all the time and there's always something playing in the background. I'd rather focus on the client and be able to give instructions and good feedback without having them strain to hear me. Also, you never know what your client's taste in music might be. You might think that Lady GaGa's 2008 album, The Fame, is the greatest assemblage of music since Mozart but that country and western fan sitting on your posing stool might think it's the Devil's work. Not an argument worth having. Silence is ultimately the best audio curation for short sittings.

Finally, I've learned that the "goodbye" of a session is as important as the "hello." Once the session is over I want to tell the client exactly what will happen next, how they'll get access to their gallery and what kind of retouching I anticipate doing on their photos. If they are a new transplant I want to welcome them to Austin and see if any of our interests intersect so I can suggest resources. I always want to thank them for taking time to come to the studio.  Finally, I want to offer them a bottle of water or a cup of coffee for the road, if they want one. 

The last question many younger clients ask in parting is: "Where is the nearest Starbucks." I have a quick answer ready. 

When you are working over the long term (decades?) for a client you want each session to go as well as you can engineer it. Each person who returns from your studio to the home office is a data point for the marketing people. Their individual satisfaction is one part of a cumulative measure which either keeps you in the fold or finally pushes your client to look elsewhere. If you don't service your clients well they may not continue to be your clients.... they are a gift and not an entitlement.
Ready to work. Camera set, lights measured, attitude adjusted. 
I bought my first Godox SL60W about a year ago and was impressed by the build and performance for the price. I've since brought two more and they've become my default lighting choice for quick set ups in the studio. The light is good and the Bowens speed ring compatibility is efficient. Makes them easy to use in soft boxes. 
Having a routine set up and having a digital read out of power output makes replicating set-ups from week to week easier. I keep a note in the client's folder about the lighting set up. Better than re-inventing the wheel. 
The new normal for studio supplies. Hand sanitizer, disposable surgical masks and wipes. 
Even a small spray bottle of isopropyl alcohol for spraying down objects...
Here's the view from the camera position. I haven't raised the hair light yet but I'll have it roughly positioned by the time my sitters get here... I measured the distance from camera to subject today. It's 10 and a half feet. That should work. 
I'm using a silver reflector for a fill light source. Used pretty close it's just right.

Since I started writing this blog post this morning I've had both the scheduled people come by to be photographed. The first session was at 9 and the second was at 10:30. Each took a bit less than 15 minutes. Lots of time in between to clean up and re-prep. They appreciated the short time commitment. Seems like they were both looking forward to busy days...

One blog note: Just a reminder that this blog doesn't accept advertising and doesn't sell anything. You won't get hit up for Patreon cash and if there's a link to click on it's because I'm presuming that the thing linked is interesting to us as photographers (or swimmers). I don't have an affiliation with any gear manufacturer, camera maker or otherwise. If I write about something it's because I'm interested in it. 
You are always welcome here but your attendance is not mandatory. If you don't agree with what I've written that's fine and you can leave a well considered, even tempered comment. I don't get paid to read rants or participate on the losing end of ad hominem attacks. 

Like most humans I thrive on feedback so try to leave some from time to time. 

Stay well and soldier on. KT


D Lobato said...

Do you keep detailed notes on the lighting for when, say a new hire for your client, needs a portrait done?

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Not for "one off" assignments but always for multi-person shoots for the same company. Most ADs and Marcom people will let you know that they are trying to institute a uniform style, then it becomes incumbent on you to deliver consistency where you can. Good notes really help with that. But if you are not a note writer then a few iPhone photos of your set up from different angles makes for a good memory prompter.

I like keeping notebooks. But just something else to clutter up the office.

Michael Kohnhorst said...

I've been reading your blog for several years now, and I especially enjoy these working professional posts. Some real insights in this and the one you put up on LinkedIn recently. I also enjoy vicariously owning a wide variety of photo / video gear. Thanks.

MikeR said...

I almost always enjoy being "along for the ride" as you work. Swimming, not so much. But, it's the price of admission.

Fred said...

I liked the photos in black and white. Somehow I had pictured the hair light in a different position so it was good to see where it was, even if the position was not completely adjusted. As others have said it is always interesting to me to hear about your setups and how the various jobs work.

Craig said...


I enjoy almost all of your writing, but these how-to portrait instructions are fantastic. I've read plenty of books and am practicing the craft, but I get more out of a single post from you than I do from an entire book from Amazon.

Thanks so much,

Craig C. Minneapolis, MN

Yoram Nevo said...

I read you loud and clear :-)

Anthony Bridges said...

Thanks for the walkthrough Kirk. It's always good getting a perspective on a shoot from a seasoned professional.

After reading about your adventures Kirk with the Godox SL60w, I bought one. Then I wanted more power so I bought a second one. They are easy to use, work with my light stands as well as my modifiers. I haven't used them for a portrait but I do shoot product and still lifes with them. Fun lights to use.