Portraits

Speed Light / Speed Portrait

I love shooting portraits on location and get hired a lot to photograph people for corporations or magazines.  While I like being able to set up multiple strobes and spend the time really getting my lighting perfect, I'm more often under some extremely small time limit.  For those "speed portraits", I'll often use an on-camera flash but move it off camera.  The speed light becomes my key light source and I can use a second light as a background fill light.  Couple this two-light setup with the ambient light and it makes for a nice portrait.

I had about 5 minutes to shoot with this busy pharmacist; using a simple speed light setup allowed me to get the shot.      ISO 320, 1/50 sec. at f4, 50mm lens.

I had about 5 minutes to shoot with this busy pharmacist; using a simple speed light setup allowed me to get the shot.      ISO 320, 1/50 sec. at f4, 50mm lens.

Deconstructing Helen

I lead a class on Composition this weekend and thought of this image of Professor Helen Solterer from Duke University as an example.  At this time the professor was researching Medieval Theatrical Revivals in Modern Day France and she had reconstructed a number of masks similar to those used in the original productions.  I was struck by the possibility of using the masks when assigned to photograph her.  I positioned the mask on the left specifically because it looked like its eyes were looking in her direction; she held another mask which was also looking at her.  The added bonus was that the pointy nose of the 2nd mask pointed right at Helen.  I like the repetition of the three faces and the diagonal line created by Helen and the two masks.  Overall, I think this is a strong image made stronger by the composition and the use of black & white.

All About the Eyes

As Shakespeare said, "The eyes are the window to your soul".  Not all portraits include a persons eyes, but when they are in the shot, you generally want them in sharp focus; in fact, you generally want both eyes in focus...and then you get creative!

This model, Leah, has gorgeous eyes and I wanted to really draw attention to them in this shot, by using selective focus and holding the sharpness too one eye only, there is no question where the viewer will look.                                                    ISO 100, 1/100 sec at f2.8, 70-200mm lens.

This model, Leah, has gorgeous eyes and I wanted to really draw attention to them in this shot, by using selective focus and holding the sharpness too one eye only, there is no question where the viewer will look.                                                    ISO 100, 1/100 sec at f2.8, 70-200mm lens.

Separate Your Subject

When shooting location portraits, I like to find simple settings and separate my subject from the background yet show enough of the location so it's recognizable.  Oftentimes you can use a shallow depth of field and throw the background out of focus, other times you can use contrasting colors to help "pop" your subject--doing both is effective, too! 

NHC-454_Matt.jpg

This portrait of Matt, who works for one of my good clients in North Carolina, is shot looking down a long hallway of windows with direct sunlight streaming in over his shoulder.  The hallway is all white so there was a good deal of light bouncing around, which made the exposure a little easier to handle.  I did add a small strobe head off to camera right just to partially fill in the shadows on his face and to add a small catch light in his eye.  The graphic nature of the windows and their repetitive shape, along with the color of his shirt and his engaging expression, make this portrait a winner.

A Stranger Walks into a Bar...

One of the most frequent questions I get is, "how do you take pictures of people you don't know?"  It's a common problem but one easily overcome if you stop being so self-conscious. Human beings like to feel safe, it's a built in survival mechanism and for the most part, serves us well.  But if you want to take your photography to the next level, especially when shooting travel photos or street portraits, you have to push yourself to get what you want.  How?  You just ask!  Most people are willing to help and are often flattered if you ask to take their picture; of course, you have to ask in the right way.  It pays to be nice, complimentary and genuine.  The excitement and enthusiasm you show will be obvious and contagious so that people will WANT to help you.  Here's the trick: nobody knows you; for all they know you could be one of the most famous photographers in the world, so pretend to be a famous photographer, or at least pretend to be a professional on assignment.  By pretending to be someone else, you short-circuit your self conscious and it allows you to get over your survival instinct about approaching strangers.  You also have to pick the right time to ask; don't interrupt someone when they are obviously busy. When you do shoot, be quick about it, continue talking with your subject, get to know them a little.  Afterwards, thank them. You may want to offer to email them the best picture and if you do make that offer, be good to your word and follow through by sending the image (otherwise you ruin it for the next photographer wanting to take their picture).

Finally, you will get people who say no.  So what!  There are always more people to photograph.  Just remain courteous, thank them and walk away.

The rewards of asking strangers to be your portrait subject far outweigh that little voice in your head warning you not to ask.  So go ahead, pretend you're someone else and ask away!

While in Richmond, Virginia on business earlier this week, I arranged to meet friends for Happy Hour at the Franklin Inn.  You couldn't help but notice the beautiful light streaming through the big windows by the entrance and the wonderful reflections off the glassware and liquor bottles.  No one was there so I asked the bartender if she would pose for a photo. 

While in Richmond, Virginia on business earlier this week, I arranged to meet friends for Happy Hour at the Franklin Inn.  You couldn't help but notice the beautiful light streaming through the big windows by the entrance and the wonderful reflections off the glassware and liquor bottles.  No one was there so I asked the bartender if she would pose for a photo. 

Hearing what was going on from the kitchen, the cook said, "What about me?"  So I took his portrait, too!

Hearing what was going on from the kitchen, the cook said, "What about me?"  So I took his portrait, too!

Light and Shadow in Portraits

Photography is about light...you always hear that part of the equation, but photography is also about shadow.  Make good use of the shadow areas of your portraits as they help direct the eye to the light.  In most any image, your eye will go to the lightest or brightest part of the scene, use that knowledge to guide your viewer to the most important part of your picture.  This portrait of actor Jerry Grayson is a good example; your eye goes right to his face and his eyes.  Also, notice how his lighter color shirt forms a "V" pattern, leading your eye up to his face.

Actor Jerry Grayson, photographed in his home in New York.

Actor Jerry Grayson, photographed in his home in New York.

Portrait technique

A simple and effective technique for "focusing" attention on a portrait subject (pun intended, LOL) is to frame the person in some natural way, either with other people, plants, furniture, etc.   I like this little trick and use it often in what I call "orchestrated candids", where I set up a situation so my subject is comfortable and let them interact with others while I'm off a ways shooting with a 200mm f2.8 lens.  This works great in natural light or when using a constant light source as strobes become too obvious.  One catch, be prepared to shoot a lot of frames as the delete rate is high due to odd expressions and closed eyes.

One of an "orchestrated candid" portrait series shot for a Wall Street client

One of an "orchestrated candid" portrait series shot for a Wall Street client

My 1st Rule for Shooting the Best Portraits

 

As a corporate and editorial portrait photographer, it's my job to take great shots of whomever I'm assigned to photograph.  To that end, my number one rule for getting those shots is to establish a great rapport with the subject.

Last week I photographed a prominent art collector who made a sizable gift of works to a museum; I was given one hour to shoot.  My assistant, Presley, and I arrived at the upper East Side apartment and were escorted to the office to meet the gentleman.  We sat down to talk.  Thirty minutes later we had to hustle to set up two scenarios for the portrait (I always like to give the editor at least two choices).  While walking in, I noticed both the living room and the dining room had big windows and wonderful natural light as well as plenty of artwork on the walls; I chose those two areas for our shots.  Because of the natural light, we needed only to set up a key light and let the natural light fill in the rest of the set; in the living room I did need a kicker in the back to even out the shadows in the far corner.  The set up was fast and we were shooting in less than 20 minutes.  Total shots per set were about 20, allowing for slightly different angles, poses and expressions.  We shot for ten minutes and the gentleman was off to a scheduled phone call.  We beat the clock.

In the cab back to the office, Presley asked why we spent so much time just talking to the guy instead of setting up.   To me, it's more important to establish a great rapport with my subject so they are comfortable, natural and completely confident that I'll make a great photo of them.  Since I could see the set up was pretty straight-forward, spending half of my allotted time with the gentleman was well worth it for a better final result.

Initial test shot for art collector portrait shoot, Presley standing in for the subject.  We did feather the light some more in the background and move a few items  to reduce reflections.  (for  contractual privacy reasons I can't show you the final image--and yes, the client paid additional for that privacy.)

Initial test shot for art collector portrait shoot, Presley standing in for the subject.  We did feather the light some more in the background and move a few items  to reduce reflections.  (for  contractual privacy reasons I can't show you the final image--and yes, the client paid additional for that privacy.)

What's a portrait?

According to my old college dictionary, the one still within arms reach of my desk, a portrait is defined as,  "1. a drawn, painted or carved picture of something.  2. a representation of a person, esp. of his face.  3. a description, dramatic portrayal, etc. of a person".

A portrait can be many things.  You may think of the classic studio portraits or the shots we all had done as kids in school; maybe you like location portraits that show a person in their surroundings or portraits of your dog or cat.  Portraits can be of things, too, like flowers, icebergs or even your home town.

The best portraits tell you something about a person, place or thing.  It reveals a snippet of what they are like, what their story might be.  But portraits also reveal something about the person taking the photo--it's a collaboration between photographer and subject.

Portrait of April & Katherine, part of my "Let Kids Be Kids" series.

I love portraits of all kinds, B&W studio shots, environmental portraits, tight face shots, action shots, moody "feeling" shots; portraits of kids, old people, CEOs or someone on the street.    The possibilities are endless. 

Ultimately, it comes down to being interested in people and places, loving the medium of photography and the desire to share a story.

You Found It!

You found it!  The very beginning of my new blog. Starting a blog is strangely intimidating as I don't have a map for how or where this will go.  How 'bout we just wing it within certain parameters and enjoy the ride?  I hope you'll enjoy the ride with me because I really want this to be about you, whomever happens to read this blog.  I want to share knowledge, information and visions with you; I want to provide something useful and hopefully inspire you to see the world in a new way, notice the rich details of your life, appreciate the people you know and the places you've been and in a best-case scenario, motivate you to create your own art.  Questions?  Fire away.  You'll see that I'm very open and willing to reveal secrets and give opinions.  I've been a professional photographer for over 30 years--it's time to give back. 

This photo is of me; no, I'm not shooting, I'm the subject!  It's very useful to sit on the other side of the camera once in a while, although I would rather be behind the lens.  Experiencing what it's like to be photographed actually helps me work better with my subjects during a shoot--I know what it's like to have the camera pointed at you, firing away.

I'm also a teacher and have lead a wide variety of classes; currently I'm an instructor with the NYC Digital Photography Workshops.  Over time we may see posts that  involve tips & tricks of the trade, useful information gleaned from hundreds of students asking the same questions or maybe even some short video demos of "how-to" or "behind the scenes".

Ready?  Let's go!