UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


On Assignment: Reluctant Poet

I spent the morning recently with poet Linda Joy Burke, doing photos which were to be used for publicity and marketing. We chose as our location Ellicott City, MD, a neat little historic town that was convenient for both of us.

Linda Joy is a free spirit and a very creative person. So I knew I would be able to play a little with the lighting. But, like many people, she loathes having her photo taken. And that always adds another wrinkle to the shoot.

Keep reading to see how we approached the issues, both lighting and psychological.

"I Hate Having My Picture Taken."

That was the first bit of instruction I got from Linda Joy. And if I had a dollar for every time I had heard that from a subject, I could probably retire. In fact, if someone came up to me and said, "I really love having my picture taken," my first thought might be that they were a tad off-center, if you know what I mean.

So, from square one I know that the lighting, setting and compositional considerations will all take a back seat to Linda Joy's primary concern. And my most important job is to make sure she can relax and to let her know that my primary goal is to make a nice photo of her.

Someone who does not like to be photographed tends to see the camera as a bit of an enemy, and that can easily transfer to the photographer. It's something you should be aware of, and you can work proactively to let the subject know that you are on the same side.

My approach is, as much as possible, to have gear pre-set when they arrive so you can just walk and talk them through the settings before they really have a chance to worry too much. At the same time, I want to pay close attention to whatever happens to be working well during the shoot and to make a point to reinforce those aspects in conversation.

Get There Early

Having chosen a location, my first job is to scout it for good angles. Our light is pretty diffuse here (open shade on a sunny day) so in this case it is about background and environment.

What backgrounds and graphic elements can I use to frame a portrait? That is what I am asking as I walk around and make notes.

There are lots of choices here, and I tend to make notes with the camera as seen at left. I like looking at the location in "picture notes" as they look much closer to how they will look in the final product.

I also will play with my ambient exposures at this point to see what the environment will look like if I walk the ambient down a bit.

In this case, here is the ambient exposed dead-on in the top frame and the dropped nearly two stops in the bottom photo. (If that is confusing, see this post.)

We have talked before in the On Assignment section about the fact that shade is your friend. And as you can see here, it is -- for more than one reason.

First, obviously, the exposure is easier to tame so we can bring the subject back up with flash. Figure three stops -- a big difference -- from the nearby full sun. It is dim enough so that you do not necessarily have to shoot at a 250th, too. Which gives you a little more control over the levers.

I keep a personal catalog of nearby settings and backdrops in my location notes folder, and each backdrop has a cardinal direction attached to it, too.

I live in the northern hemisphere, so the north side of a building will always be in shade. These are my prime backdrops -- they are good 24/7, in terms of controlling the sun.

In this case, my backdrop was on the west side of the building. So that meant a morning shoot. FWIW, this is why west-wall locations are lowest in my personal pecking order. Not a morning guy.

Second, I like the shade because it is cool. Literally, in the summer, but here I mean color temperature. And that coolness is enhanced even more when you drop the exposure a stop or two.

Working Together

When Linda Joy arrives, I am ready to shoot quickly if need be, or to keep going if things work well. For the first setup, I used an older White Lightning Ultra 600 in a Photoflex soft box. The WL's flash tube is UV balanced, and old. This makes it warm enough to forego the usual Rosco 1/4 CTO or Rosco "08" warming filter I normally use on my key light.

You can see the setup here. I have dropped the ambient by about a stop and a half. Where the flash lights, everything is warm. Where the ambient is the primary part of the exposure, things cool down. I always like that as a starting point for people. I'll break that rule on occasion, but usually only for effect.

I brought the WL because I did not know how big of an area I would want to light. In this open shade, I could have done the same thing with an SB-800 (or two, at max) in a shoot-through umbrella.

If you look up the stairs, you'll see a second flash (an SB-800) backlighting them. In my setup I went with this light, but in the end I chose to leave the stairs dark. They were very near the edge of the frame and provided an easy exit point for the view. (Hello -- lit stairs, heading out of my frame. Talk about an engraved invitation to leave the photo...)

So, I sat Linda Joy on the steps to the next building, after placing a soft case from a flex fill under her so her hand-made, vintage dress would not get dirty. Time to make photos.

I kept Linda Joy talking, finding out as much as possible about who she was and what she did, creatively, as we shot. This kept her thinking about things other than the photographer with the digital Uzi pointed at her.

I also used one of my favorite tricks -- coming out from behind the camera. Even though I normally do not shoot with a tripod unless I am bringing up a really dark ambient, I can usually frame a photo and then move my face out from behind the camera as I shoot. Your aim will shift a little bit, but if you zoom out a tad you can fix this easily in post.

The eye contact usually relaxes people a bit, and helps to create a stronger interpersonal exchange. Sounds silly, but it helps.

Before we moved onto the next setup, I walked around to camera left in the previous frame and did some tight headshots. I tried them with the soft box, but now I needed shallow depth of field. So I turned off the strobe and shot natural light at a wide aperture. I love her hair, and wanted to do something close that highlighted its texture. If only all of my subjects had layered frames like Linda Joy's hair.

The open sunlight to the camera right side of the frame made a nice light source and I could grab a series of head shots in just a couple minutes.

Don't ignore what the ambient is offering you just because you trucked in the flashes. Being able to light is an additive skill, not a death sentence to available light shooting.

Next, over to the tree, where I wanted to do another setup.

Remembering the exposure test seen above, I dropped my ambient about two stops and then set up an SB-800 in a Lumiquest SB-III as a key light.

Here is the setup. As you can see, I am almost exposing for full sun (at left) even though I am in deep shade for the shot.Then, I'll build back the light on the subject with flash.

My key (the LumiQuest SB-III) is a pretty hard light source at that distance. But that's okay because I am going to fill with ring to be able to see into the shadows while still keeping that background ambient muted and blue.

Against the blue, I gelled my SB-800 key light with a 1/4 CTO. One of my SB-800's has a 1/4 CTO pretty much permanently attached. I just use it as my key all the time, which saves me any gel swapping.

What can I say? I am lazy.

So, the ambient sets the exposure -- dropped for color and tonal contrast. To that I add in my key, until the tree looks right. (Linda Joy approximates the tree on a tonal basis, so that will be an easy adjustment if needed when she steps in.)

To that, I add some ring fill (hey, I been practicin'...) which will bring up her shadow side exactly as much as I want. Controlling the drop-off amount to shadow allows me to use a smaller key light source and get away with it. If the shadow does not drop off too far, it can be harder with no ill effects.

When I bring Linda Joy in, we are still deep in conversation. It's just that now, she is standing in front of the tree while we are yakking.

Sure, she knows she is getting her photo taken. But by now the edge has worn off a little. Also, I have showed her some of the results of the shoot up until now, and the thought has occurred to her that I just might not be out to make her look terrible. Imagine that.

About five minutes later we were done. And we still had our entire day ahead of us, as we would normally both have been just rolling out of bed about now.

NEXT: On Assignment: WiMAX


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