11.03.2014

Portrait Making as an antidote to the hustle and bustle of life.


I had a deep and wonderful flirtation with all sorts of medium format cameras in the film days but the camera and lens that seemed to yield the most wonderful portraits, albeit with much struggle, was probably the 90mm Summicron on the front of whatever flavor of the year slr camera Leica had on offer to foolish photographers of the time. I'd like to say that this portrait was done with an R6 or an R8 but we had a mix of cameras and since the "sensors" inside were all identical (you got to choose what film you put in..) it hardly matters. But there was (is) something about that ancient 90mm f2.0 lens that was just magic. Or maybe it was the placebo effect. Perhaps we were consistently trying to justify having spent so much more on a lens than we would have spent on one of the Japanese equivalents. The closest two lenses I've used from the "big two" would be Canon's inexpensive 100 mm f2 and Nikon's too expensive (but not in Leica territory...) 105mm f2.0 Defocus Coupling lens.

After having shot several thousand considered images this weekend on GH4's, EM-5's and the stalwart Nikon D7100 I've come to re-understand that the bodies are increasingly meaningless and that the personality of images comes from the lenses with which they were created. Something to consider.

Why does it take me half an hour to change a tire when these guys can change four in under five seconds?










Honestly. These guys changed all four tires in something like 4.5 seconds. 
They'd have made great photographic assistants back in the days when 
Hasselblads mostly shot twelve exposure rolls and we needed to change film
quickly. I'm going to guess the budget was a bit bigger yesterday than
my typical budget for assistants back in the 1990's. 

At the F1 track in Austin, Texas 
Race Day 2014.

Tired and happy after four days of solid corporate photography work.

Bob Schneider. 

In the last four days I've shot thousands of images for a corporate client in conjunction with the Formula One race in Austin, Texas. I spent three evenings photographing and being well fed in three of Austin's finest restaurants. This morning a beautiful Austrian woman made me a latté and brought me a basket of warm croissants. I photographed and watched people watch Formula One cars go around and around the track and before that I photographed Porsches going around and around the track and before that I watched a flock of Ferraris fling themselves around the same track. Mostly from a very nice vantage point.

Since it was both Halloween weekend and also Formula One weekend my client graciously put me into a room at the Four Seasons Hotel so I wouldn't have to get through traffic to get in to downtown each day. The stay at the Four Seasons also negated any sort of parking hassles. An extra bonus was the option to use the Hotel's premium internet connection which was about ten times faster than my service in the studio. 200 files need uploading? No problem, I've got and extra three minutes and fifteen seconds. 

I started out using the Olympus EM-5 cameras, switched to a mix of Olympus and Panasonic on the second day and then switched to a mix of Olympus and Nikon for the last two days. There are benefits to each system and once you've had a camera in your hand for an hour or so all the muscle memory of settings comes roaring back.

Most used two lenses were the Nikon 18-140mm and the Panasonic 12-35mm. Both, in their own way, are brilliant. 

I just got home, kissed the dog and the wife and made my way back out to the studio to edit down a day's worth of shooting so I can make a final, share-able web gallery for today. Someone won the Formula One race. Everyone else lost. I didn't bother slowing down to find out who (added: Hamilton). 

I'll flesh out some photo stuff tomorrow but I'm happy to have another assignment wrapped up and ready for final post processing and delivery. But mostly it feels good to be back home.

10.29.2014

A couple of quick questions about workshops in the next year. Answer if you can...



I've taught portrait lighting workshops from time to time and I get mail almost weekly asking me "when is your next workshop???".  I'd like to add in some workshop experiences to my repertoire and my schedule next year but I'm a marketing geek and I don't want to offer something that no one really wants. So I have some questions and by you answering them I hope to understand what kind of workshop you would like me to teach and where, in the U.S. we should have workshops. I'm also interested to hear if anyone in the E.U. is interested. 

So, here are my questions:

1. Do you have any interest at all in taking a workshop on portrait lighting with me? 

2. Would you want a "hands on" experience, a lecturing/demo experience or a mix of the two?

3. What cool cities in the U.S. would you travel to if we did workshops there? (I vote for Denver to start....).

4. Would you travel to Austin, Texas for a workshop?

5. What would you like to come out of the workshop with? New techniques? More confidence? A new circle of friends?

6. Any interest in a workshop teaching best practice of portrait lighting with continuous lights?

7. Would you rather just have dinner, go out for drinks and sit around talking about photography with me till the bars close? 

Answer all the questions, some of the questions or none of the above questions. Make up new questions. Tell me not to waste my time. Tell me to spend more time on this. Go all freeform and just comment about your experiences and what you like and don't like about workshops you've lived through. It's all very useful to me. But I would like to hear from as many people as possible. You can be anonymous, this will not be graded.  Thanks for your input.  Kirk

P.S. Don't mention names but I'm also interested in your stories about the best and the worst workshops you've taken and what made them so bad or so good. Thanks, KT






Another article about pre-planning and getting packed for a shoot. 2100th post.

Happy Halloween. 

(I wanted to get that out now because I'll be working all day on the actual day.)

Here's a mantra guaranteed to raise your anxiety levels a bit higher than they probably need to be but it's something I've come to believe and it rattles around in my head when I'm preparing for any event that includes clients. It goes like this: Anything that's not in my direct control I consider to be out of control.

In short, when I plan my role in events or projects I assume that nearly everyone else involved with screw up somehow and jeopardize the show. Pretty paranoid outlook. And to be fair it only comes true about 50% of the time...

But I do my best to minimize the possibilities of accelerating entropy by making sure I've planned and double checked everything I can. 

During the next four days I am booked to shoot portraits, events, celebrity meet and greets and social photography in venues ranging from dark clubs to darker restaurants to race tracks to offices in tall buildings. I'll be working in seven different venues. I'll be uploading images to shared folders in the dead of night and will do some printing after midnight on Saturday.  

Let's start with the camera selection and talk about files. I'll be walking, running and moving most places on my own two feet so camera weight and lens weight becomes critical. I settled on shooting with two Olympus EM-5 cameras with two in reserve as back up cameras. Every camera gets three batteries to start and a fast charger is in the side pocket of the bag. That's twelve fresh batteries  to start with. I doubt very much that I'll go through more than four per day but, hey, I'll be ready if I need them. I'm bringing along four 32 gig SD cards and four 64 gig SD cards. Don't plan to fill up more than one per camera but, hey, I like to have back-ups, and they are light. 

I'm bringing the two excellent zooms from Panasonic, the 12-35mm 2.8 and the 35-100mm 2.8. I'll use them for just about everything but the portrait work. In that part of the job I'm going for slim slices of depth of field so I'll be leaning on the 60mm 1.5 lens. So nice at f2.  As back up I'm bringing the 17mm 1.8, the 19mm Sigma, the 25mm 1.4, the 30mm Sigma, the 40mm 1.4 Pen lens, the 45mm 1.8 lens and the 60mm Sigma. Coverage. If something goes down I'll have a "near enough" focal length to replace it. I'm happy with all the lenses. They're all first rate. 

I'm bringing two of the fl600r flashes. One to use and one for back up. I'm also bringing a Yongnuo 560 type 2 for some additional ceiling bounce on the celebrity "meet and greet" portraits. I'm bringing an adapter so I can mount that flash on my light weight tripod. No extra light stand needed. Every flash gets two sets of batteries. I doubt I'll really need more than one set but, hey, I like to be prepared.

Knowing I wanted to use a ceiling bounce I did have the client contact the venue to make sure the ceilings were white. Of course Murphy's Law says that they'll be painted green by tomorrow afternoon. That's why I have a six by six foot sheet of white nylon diffusion material added as padding in the bottom of the camera bag along with some thumbtacks. If fate intrudes we'll make our own white ceiling. 

Midnight printing? What could go wrong? Yes, I have three times as much paper as I'll need. Yes, I've tested the printing and the profile I'm going to use. But, what if the printer goes down? We'll we've got a second one in Belinda's office that uses the same ink cartridges and paper. We'll presto change it out. What if the fault is with the computer? We've got back up laptops standing by. What if the power goes down? Of course we have an inverter and some big marine batteries. 

And it goes on and on. I try to pre-plan for any contingency but there are some that come up and are more or less insurmountable. If we can't plan for em we can't fix em. But there are a lot of situations that can be salvaged with a little planning. 

I plan on having an assistant drop me off downtown in the mornings and pick me up at the end of the day. If something happens to prevent that there are also taxis I can grab at local hotels (pocket full of transportation $20's at the ready=please get a receipt). But guess what? I've also packed a bus schedule...just in case. 

I've printed out the agenda, I have cell numbers for all other suppliers and all critical client contacts. 
It should be fun. But It's only fun for me if I have all my ducks in a row. I hate to try shooting while worrying about details. Now, for a good dinner and early bed. Those early calls come quick.

Errata:  I returned the  front focusing Nikon D7000 to the store today. Of course, while I was there I happened across a pristine, perfect Olympus EM-5 with battery grip and the salesperson dropped the price for me to $525. I've tested it and shot it this afternoon and that's my final selection for the birthday camera. That's what I really wanted in the first place. If you find a camera you really like you know you've become obsessive when you stock in four....just in case. Nothing like getting used to something and having it discontinued.

Next on the acquire list for me is the new Olympus 40-150mm f2.8. I handled one and it's darn near perfect. It would be a wonderful lens to use for theatrical shoots. Might even try shooting some fast moving cars with that one but I'd probably want to use it on the Panasonic body for that.

Finally, this is the 2,100th post I've written for the Visual Science Lab blog. Unbelieveable. That means that if you've read from the very beginning your eyes much be very tired. Thanks for hanging in there with me and supporting my writing. If you want to celebrate you could always order your own copy of the novel. I also re-read the LED book recently and it's not bad! I'll put the links below and I'll thank you in advance for your brilliant buying decisions. 

Best, Kirk




10.28.2014

Another fun work day. And a camera saga. Oh the glory of total camera failure...


Let's get the camera prattle out of the way first. My Pavlovian response to my birthdays is to rush out and buy a camera. I tried to contain myself and I made it all the way through my actual birthday with no acquisitions. I was so proud. But a large (and unexpected) royalty payment came in the last minutes of the day, via e-mail, and trigger anew the whole acquisitive process. I know the camera I emotionally want; it's the EM-1. I know the camera I would like to own for a longer time; it's the Olympus EP-5 with the new EVF finder. Why? Because it is so beautifully designed and assuages my nostalgia for the original (to me) EP-2 Pen camera that I really did love very much. Well all of it but the sensor....  I think I've got a line on a good, very lightly used EP-5 tricked out the way I want it I just need to be patient for a week. 

So, here's how the downfall from camera chastity to camera sluttiness occurred: I need to do some overnight printing for a fast approaching assignment. What does that mean? Well, after a full day of shooting (maybe till midnight or around there) I need to come back to the studio and make 40+ small prints before I return to the job the next day at seven. I may seem as though I operate by the seat of my pants but I really do test stuff before I head out and do it. I like to know that I'll be able to pull of what I'm about to promise. Keeps the clients much happier.

I needed a box of Canon lustre pro inkjet paper so I headed up the clogged highway to visit my friends at Precision Camera. I found the box of paper and tried to find someone to ring it up. But in the search I walked by the used Nikon shelf and happened to see a Nikon D7000 camera body offered used at a reasonable price and, in a moment of weakness, bought it as a back up body for the D7100. The logic was pretty flawless: pretty much the same menus, the same basic feel and control set up, really good high ISO performance and appreciably smaller file sizes. I bargained a bit and the next thing I knew I was heading home with it and, truth be told, I was pretty happy with my decision. 

I had an assignment to deal with this afternoon. I shot a series of marketing images for the people at Zach Theatre. They needed new creative visual content for the upcoming play, A Christmas Carol. 
What a perfect opportunity to break in the new camera!!! I packed it along with a few lenses and a bucket full of lights and umbrellas and what not. But old habits die hard and even though Precision Camera prides themselves on thoroughly checking out used cameras before sale I would never leave the studio to shoot a job without a backup camera in the bag so I grabbed the D7100 to back up for the D7000.  I set up the background first. Always. And then I got around to lighting everything and when that was done I grabbed the new camera, the used D7000 out of the case and put a lens on the front. Then I had the marketing intern step in so I could make a few test shots. 

Funny, when I blew up the test images nothing was sharp. Nothing. I tried another lens and got the same results. I tried a third lens and then gave up and tossed the camera into the bag and pulled out the thoroughly tested D7100. We did the whole shoot with that camera and the Nikon 18-140mm. All the images turned out great. 

When I got back to the studio I put the camera on a tripod, pulled out a home made focus tester and got to work on the new/used/offending D7000 body. I wanted to determine if the fault was just a calibration issue that could be user fixed. Nope. Even at +20 steps of correction or -20 steps of correction it was uncorrectable. Frustrating but better to find out before a major, unrepeatable project. Back the camera goes for a refund. Another hour spent driving up and back down Mopac Expressway. I'm resolved to just wait for fate to deliver that beautiful Pen EP5 to me...

Now, on to the job. The folks at Zach Theatre are doing the classic Dicken's, A Christmas Carol.  They needed images of Scrooge and Tiny Tim against white. They'll cut out the people and combine them or put them into other graphic elements. Zach is using an organizational software program called, BaseCamp, so I'm in the e-mail loop for every step of preproduction. Kind of fun. Almost like being omniscient. 

The packing was straightforward. Starting with the background we used a white muslin that packs down small and works well. We bought it in 2002 for a Southwestern Water Company annual report and I've been using it ever since. It's not as graceful a white background as Super White background paper but it does the trick when you are working fast, don't want to worry about light reflected back to the subject and you don't mine a little tone in the background. Works best when your art director's production team is highly proficient at dropping out backgrounds. 

I lit the background with two Elinchrom D-Lite 400s firing into matte silver surface umbrellas. The main subject is lit from the left (as you see the image) with a 60 inch Softlighter umbrella and from the right with a very powered down second light firing into yet another 43 inch silver interior umbrella. All four of the lights are Elinchrom D-LIte 400s.

After metering with a Minolta flash meter 5 I set the camera to ISO 200, 1/80th of a second, f7.1. Knowing the large expanse of white would serve as an auto reference I got lazy and used AWB for color. The camera nailed it perfectly.

We shot 350+ raw images which were post processed into 96 compression Jpegs at the full 6000x4000 pixel size. 





In this wide shot you can see the placement of umbrellas. The shot is wide angle so the background seems smaller and further away. 

We wanted the kid, William, to be on "Scrooge's" shoulders but our older actor has had some back issues so we needed to find a creative work around to make the shot happen. We ended up putting Tiny Tim on a ladder and compensating for the difference in heights by putting Scrooge on a step stool. I think it matched fairly well. All of the positioning was very stable which allowed me to get a wide range of expressions. If the kid had really been on Harvey's shoulders we would have had to take more breaks and work much more carefully...


Our make-up artist steps in to re-powder and actor's forehead. 


With the combination shoot coming to an end the marketing people stepped in to bring William down safely off the ladder. This shot should give you an idea of how we set up the shot.


Sad tiny Tim. 

Happy Tiny Tim.

We were in and out in about an hour and a half. We tried lots of different exposures and combinations. The D7100 was flawless. The 18-140mm was a good, all around lens for this kind of work. I had all of the files post processed and on a memory stick by dinner. 

First thing tomorrow the used D7000 goes back. I guess life can't always be perfect.  But it's been darn close lately. 



10.27.2014

The background. Pay attention to the background. The background anchors everything else.


People agonize over where to put the "main light." Then they agonize over fill light ratios (very "last century..."). They get all fixated about hair lights but what they should really start with when designing the light for a portrait is the background light. The damn thing anchors every part of the photograph.

I don't like flat backgrounds. They work for some projects and, when the client brief calls for a white background it really does behoove you to make the light distribution across the span of white as flat as a pancake, metaphorically speaking. But dark backgrounds are a whole different thing.

When I'm getting ready to do a portrait my first big decision is, "What do I want the background to look like?" Once I decide that I get to work. For a recent session with my friend, Fadya, I knew I wanted to use my crusty, old gray canvas backdrop. It's appropriately laid back and neutral. It never competes with the main subject. I also knew that for a single person portrait I would want a circle of light that went from higher intensity in the middle and progressively fell off to the sides. The image above is a starting example. In the final images the edges aren't as dark as they are here because I've added a main light and even when it's flagged there's still a higher level of illumination that tends to fill in the dark shadows a bit.

The biggest concern for me is how the edges of the light circle look and how gracefully they fall off into the surrounding tone. I hardly ever use a bare light in a reflector because the edges are too sharp and to abrupt. Sometimes I'll use a small source covered with diffusion and it works but the fall off to the edges always depends on the power output and it's not as easy to control the look in smaller spaces. I prefer using either fresnel fixtures or grid spots.

I don't own any fresnel fixtures that do flash so the default for flash is the grid. I have four strengths of grid: 10 degree, 20 degree, 30 degree and 50 degree. I use 20 in all but the biggest rooms where I might have the luxury of moving all the lights far apart from each other and far apart from the components they are lighting. The further away the lights are the more natural they appear because of the more protracted fall off they give over distance. I usually drag the 50 degree out in the smallest rooms where the background is very close and we need a quicker spread of light to make the same circle on the background. I hope that makes sense.  Grids are good for flash but I prefer the immediate feedback of fresnel lensed fixtures that pump out continuous light.

A fresnel is a glass with concentric circles designed into it. Most are on the front of spot lights. The combination of the internally positionable bulb inside and the collimating nature of the fresnel itself gives a wide range of possible spot diameters in a single package. It's like magic. It's light magic.

I love being able to put a fresnel behind a subject, aim it into a background, adjust the beam width and have a perfect background light. It's so fun and easy. The edges of the fresnel spot are as soft as those of grid lights, maybe softer. The elegant transition from hot light to soft edge adds something wonderful to the aesthetic nature of a portrait (or a product shot).

The single downside is that most spots are not controllable when it comes to output. If you use a "pot" (potentiometer ) to turn down a tungsten fixture the light gets redder and redder as the voltage drops, instantly giving you a mismatch with your main light (and a less color accurate light sources; lower CRI).  If you can't move the light back away from the subject (in this instance a background) the only other way to control it is to introduce something between the light and the subject to reduce the illumination. But putting just anything in the middle can mean that the light is wholly influenced by the intervening material. Opaque diffusion just softens and spreads the light uncontrollably.

In the movie biz the lighting guys solve the problem with "nets" and screens. Metal screens, similar to the material used on your window screens is used right in front of the fixture (directly on or within a few inches of the front surface) while nets are used in place of scrims inches or feet from the front of the light. Used correctly they diminish the strength of the light without changing its character. That means that the hardness/softness of the light doesn't change much and neither does the spread of the beam.

Here's how I solved the "over lit" background issue in my recent photo shoot:

Here's the fresnel fixture that lights the background. I'm careful to keep the barn doors out of the light path so they don't cast hard shadows at the edges. I have a Westcott fast flag directly in front of the light. In fact, I have doubled it to get the level down where I want it. 
Light on loan from K5600 lighting. (200 watt HMI).

Here's another view of the light shining through the net which is supported on a small boom running about a foot in front of the light. If the net is too far from the light and too close to the subject there's a risk you'll see the pattern of the net. But you can see this as you are setting it up. 
If it happens you need to put the net closer to the light source. 
Just be sure that if you are using tungsten you don't
use the light too close to a plastic or nylon net. It might start to smoke 
and it's always a bummer when the sprinklers go off......

Once you have the background light set you'll find that everything else more or less falls into place. This is how movie sets are lit. This is how the big boys do it. Practice, practice, practice. 




10.26.2014

Preferred camera of the day. Olympus OMD EM-5 with the Sigma Art Series 60mm f2.8 lens. Yummy.



It seems like an eternity since I've been downtown for a good Sunday walk through the city. After a nap with Studio Dog I headed to the studio in the early afternoon to go through the ritual of choosing the "camera of the day." We used to think of cameras as precious items that were costly and more or less permanent choices. Now I think of cameras as parts of life that are as interchangeable as your jacket or your favorite pair of pants. You like them but you get bored using them all the time. You crave a little diversity, some spontaneous choice. At least I do. I spent my last weekend with the GH4 camera and the impressive but boringly perfect 12-35mm lens. I pressed the newly re-appreciated Nikon D7100 into service all during the work week. I was ready for a change. A realignment of sorts. 

I pulled the black Olympus OMD EM-5 out of drawer number three and clicked on the Sigma 60mm lens. Nice and long. So different from the wide orientation I played with in Saratoga Springs and, even with the battery grip attached, the camera seemed tiny compared to the "work" camera. 

I had one interesting insight about this camera today. I had the EVF set to high refresh rate on all three of the EM-5 bodies and it reduces "lag" to the point that I can't see it but I realized that it does so by reducing the overall resolution of the screen. Since I don't do a lot of (any) fast moving action with my cameras and I'm not a sports photographer I changed all the cameras back to normal and the big difference in image quality that I'd been seeing lately between the EM-1's I've been playing with and the EM-5 seemed to subside into a much vaguer and subtle difference. Not so much to get all fired up about. 

I dragged the camera all around town and shot sparingly. I met a VSL reader out on Congress Ave. He was sporting a Panasonic GX7 and was obviously having a blast. We chatted for a block or two and then, true to our concept of "Lonely Hunter, Better Hunt" We split up and went our own ways. 
After visiting a pristine small town in the northeast Austin all of a sudden seems so downmarket. So shabby and grungy. Sixth street seem to swell today with drunken football fans lurching from seedy bar to seedy bar while the ever increasing bands of street people seemed more aggressive and pungent. I remind myself that every big city has nice spots and not so nice spots but it's a bit embarrassing that our downtown has become so "low rent" especially so given the high rents...

But I am hardly a social anthropologist so I just looked for things to shoot that seemed interesting to me. 



The building frenzy continues unabated. Condos everywhere. Two of them opening within spitting distance of Barton Springs. But the cranes look so dramatic against the blue sky. 


This is a new, giant condo building across the street from Whole Foods on Sixth and Lamar. Do you think adding several thousand new tenants will increase downtown traffic? At what point does growth strip away everything that made a city special in the first place? Time to head to the next cool spot?



I love street art. I'm so happy someone found this particular spot to put up this particular piece of art. Just in time for the "Day of the Dead." It sits in a window opening on the old Children's Museum building. Nice.


It seemed like the camera and lens could do no wrong today. Everything I pointed the combo at seemed fun to me. And the in body IS makes this particular cheap lens sing. 





Tomorrow is my birthday. I think I'll start out with a swim at Barton Springs followed by coffee and a bowl of Cheerios and walnuts. Maybe a run up to the camera store to see if they have any more used EM-5s. Some strategic future planning with Studio Dog. Coffee with Frank.  And then dinner at Asti Trattoria with Belinda. That should make for a nice day. Especially so if I can bargain for a great price on yet another camera.....

......it never stops.

If it was your birthday and you could rationalize getting another camera for less than $1,000 (and your spouse didn't need to know...) what would you buy?  No lenses please! That's too personal. But I would love to hear what camera has you interested right now.  In this moment. Hypothetically. Just for fun. Go ahead. Post it in the comments. It would be nice to hear from you on my birthday. 



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...




It takes time to get a camera and lens and specific lighting zeroed in. It's not an automatic function. At least not for me...


I love mixing up all the variables and starting from scratch. Move to a new type of light and it brings along its own influence on style. Change camera formats and you see your approach to shooting change. Work with a new lens and for a little while the novel new way of seeing the same subject means you compose a bit differently. 

On recent jobs I've been shooting with zoom lenses on an m4:3rds format. For the last week I've been shooting most things with the D7100 and the 85mm 1.8 lens. It's always fun to stir up the recipes. So, what have I noticed? Well, when shot at base ISO the Nikon has a smoother skin tone rendition than either the EM-5 or the GH4. I can duplicate the effect to a certain extent by using noise reduction sliders in Lightroom while adding some high frequency sharpening. At f2.8 with the 85mm I get backgrounds to go out of focus more quickly. The above image is pretty much out of camera. I did a slight amount of shadow recovery but no tonal changes or work on the background. What I'm seeing is a very nice rendition in the out of focus areas in the background. Also, the background is just eight feet behind Fadya and, at f2.8, is completely out of focus. I'm sure I can accomplish the same thing by shooting my 60mm m4:3 lens at f2.0 or nearly the same effect by shooting the 45mm 1.8 wide open. 

Also interesting to me is how well the above image handled high ISO. When I started my session with Fadya the camera was set to auto ISO with 3200 as the top end and 1/100th at the minimum shutter speed. This was not intentional. There are two different places in the Nikon menu that have to do with ISO and I just changed ISO to 160 in one place without remembering the Auto-ISO implementation. Since we were shooting in ambient light and locked to 1/100 as a minimum the camera defaulted to ISO 3200. I caught my mistake after a number of frames.

I presumed that the frames would be relatively unusable for my needs by decided to do a quick post process just for the heck of it. Apparently, starting with 24 megapixels helps in the grand scheme of things because after introducing a bit of noise reduction (and the noise at 3200 is just like the noise from the GH4 = tight, small black grains with no apparent color sparkles) and a bit of compensatory sharpening I was very happy with the overall quality of the file even at 100%. Interesting for me. 

While Fadya and I were playing around in the studio I did notice how quickly I kept hitting the buffer in the D7100. I'm used to the GH4 which slams out raws with wild abandon. The D7100 is pretty much locked into about seven frames before hitting the wall. I was shooting what I would consider worst case= that means auto distortion correction on, 14 bit file depth enabled and lossless compression set in the menu. While I am mentioning it here and it seemed to be a throw back to me I do have to make two points. The first is that the files are pretty enormous. Not "D810" enormous but the total amount information data tends to cube rather than double as resolution increases. Secondly, after having shot medium format film for years and having shot with four different medium format digital cameras (with one frame per second performance) the reality is that the D7100's pace is totally serviceable for a studio portrait artist. One just has to master one's cadence in shooting. And if you are doing it correctly there is a rhythm to every shoot. You just have to listen for it...

So, nice files with lots and lots of detail and (when the photographer sets the camera correctly) the wide dynamic range of the sensor means lifting shadows and keeping detail in skin highlights is that much easier. But what about my strange choice of lights?

If you've followed the VSL blog for long you'll see that I have an innate prejudice toward shooting portraits with continuous light sources. Until very recently I was pressing LED panels into service where possible. Last year I added four much more powerful fluorescent fixtures to the lighting collection and I've enjoyed using them. It takes a room with controlled lighting to pull the most out of the them because of the color mismatch with daylight and tungsten but as a primary light source for still portraits and video production they are a good addition. But the "holy grail" for continuous lighting buffs is a light source that really kicks out efficient light that's so close to average daylight that it's intermixable without heroic filtration. You want a light that does what the old fashion tungsten movie lights could do. That's to give you the flexibility of shooting with sharp, highly focused light or having enough power to pop the light through big diffusers and still get usable levels. 
In that way you get to choose between hard and soft. Something that's almost impossible to do with fluorescents and requires big expenditures to get with LED.

The lights I used with Fadya were the K5600 200 watt HMIs. Normally when I'm using continuous lighten the studio I block the outside illumination with black foamcore panels over all of the windows. This means there are no unexpected color shifts and it also means a total control over lighting contrast. With the HMIs I left the windows unobstructed. This allowed soft, non-focused light to come through. The HMIs were two or more stops brighter on Fadya but the combination of instrumented light and window glow lowered the overall contrast of the lighting and softened the effect on Fadya's skin. Interesting to me was the fact that the measured color temp. of the HMIs was 5400 + minus 4 green. That's pretty much nailed into accurate color. The percentage of green could be camera to camera variation as much as anything else (I have not had time to do an exhaustive profile of this particular camera yet...). 

Why continuous light instead of industry standard flash? I like the control that the continuous light offers and it is much easier on the subject as well. There's no constant flash to cause the photographer or subject's irises to continually stop down and re-open, which causes most of the fatigue experienced in a session. At slower shutter speeds there's nothing to freeze micro motions induced by breathing and the mobility of facial muscles. This leads to less clinical sharpness but a more realistic depiction of a subject. It's more in step with how we actually see and experience our external world that slices of unnaturally frozen and sharp flash work. Certainly, if you shoot dancers in mid-leap or fast moving children or some aspect of sports that might require (and accept) flash, you'll have different parameters to master. But photographing complicit adults is a whole different thing and one area in which the strengths of accurate revisualization, and lighting that's effectively ignored after a few minutes are good things. As is the slight softening of some details. 

HMIs are interesting to work with. You would think they are exactly like tungsten lights only balanced for daylight. But that's not exactly the case. They don't work by super heating a metal filament. Where tungsten lights (incandescents) work by apply current across a metal filament and heating it up till it glows HMIs work by creating an arc between two tungsten electrodes in a  high pressure atmosphere. They are much more efficient and generate much less heat. 

But they do require a "ballast" which is basically a box filled with electronic components that regulates current and voltage supplied to the electrodes. The ballast makes the whole construct much, much more expensive than conventional lights but the advantages are that you get a more comfortable working environment, daylight balancing, and higher output per watt of energy consumed. All the control of spot lights and other time honored tungsten constructs but with the energy efficiency and lack of heat that makes it a pleasure to work with for all parties. Is it any wonder that movie productions moved to HMIs decades ago? 

When I get my lights set up I turn on the switches on the electronic ballasts and it actually takes times, in fact several minutes, until the lights warm up and the arc becomes fully implemented and ready for shooting. It's novel to watch the warm up process as the lights go through color spectrum changes and go from vague and weak to full ready. 

The set of HMIs that I'm currently playing with are 200 watt fixtures. One is a fresnel spot light and the other is an open face.  Each accepts barn doors and a selection of different front lenses that can change the spread and the effect of the light. By changing the lighting pattern and by controlling spill with the barn doors the lights become very surgical and controlled in use. As I mentioned I used the open face light through a big diffuser for my main light and depended on the daylight coming in behind me and bouncing off the ceiling and walls as general fill. I used the fresnel spot (Alpha 200) as a background light, throwing a tight round pattern with very soft edges onto the dark gray canvas I used eight feet behind Fadya. 

There are differences that flash shooters will notice that take a little time and practice getting used to. The biggest difference is that there are no "level controls" on these lights. You have two settings: On and off. In the set up with Fadya the background light was to powerful compared to the main light. With a flash moonlight you would just turn down the power of the back light. What I had to do is cut the power of the back light using a black net. It took four layers of net to get the level that I wanted. Why didn't I just cover the light with diffusion material? Because it would have changed the spread characteristic of the light and made my tight spot into a broad flood. By using nets or screen material I am able to lower the overall level without changing the spread or the character of the light source. 

You make allowances for the tools you want to work with. I am awaiting the delivery of a third light this coming week. With the extra fixture I'll be able to do more complicated lighting set ups more easily. I'm also laying in a supply of metal screen material for additional level controls. One Tues. one of my good friends is using the lights to do production on some video interviews. It should be interesting to get his take on their performance as he's worked with these kinds of lights almost from the beginning of his career. 

I'm taking two of the lights with my on Thurs. for the start of a four day long assignment with lots of moving pieces. All Thurs. morning we're shooting more executive portraits in areas of flowing daylight. At some point the daylight moves and we need continuity. The HMIs in some giant diffusion should be just what the lighting doctor ordered.

I haven't done very much post processing to the images posted here of Fadya and I'll chalk that up to a busy schedule and re-entry into Austin this past week. But I'm pretty sure that you can see the effects I was working to get: A great smile, perfect eyes and the diminution of extraneous visual junk. 
Continuous lights and a different camera. Things that keep me from getting bored with the technical side of photography...