Photo Tips & Tricks

Proper Preperation Produces Powerful Pictures

Pardon the alliteration, sometimes I can't resist!  But there's an important point behind my silly sense of humor.  The more details you have worked out in advance, the better your images will be, especially when photographing people.  It starts with "seeing" your image in advance and experimenting with the angles and composition even before your subjects are in front of the camera.  Once you have your shot set, nail down your exposure and, if possible, do some test shots with stand-in subjects.  By being properly prepared, you can concentrate on directing your subject and shoot quick variations without wasting valuable time.

These police officers in Times Square were kind enough to pose for me but obviously had little time or patience for a "photo shoot".  By being prepared and knowing exactly what I wanted, I was able to shoot 12 images in 21 seconds (I checked the metadata time stamps) and used the time to direct them where to look and how to position their arms.    Shot at ISO 400, 1/60 sec. at f7.1, 16mm lens.

These police officers in Times Square were kind enough to pose for me but obviously had little time or patience for a "photo shoot".  By being prepared and knowing exactly what I wanted, I was able to shoot 12 images in 21 seconds (I checked the metadata time stamps) and used the time to direct them where to look and how to position their arms.    Shot at ISO 400, 1/60 sec. at f7.1, 16mm 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.

The Magical Twilight Hour

Twilight, that time when the sun has already set but there is still light in the sky, is one of my favorite times to shoot.  The color of the sky makes a gorgeous backdrop to just about anything, especially when you use strong colors that stand out against the blue.  I love shooting moving cars against a twilight sky; the red taillights provide a great contrast of colors.  But sometimes it's difficult to get the right mix of trailing lights against the sky due to traffic flow.  You can wait for a big flow of cars, or try a different technique--multiple exposures.  As long as you have the camera locked down on a tripod and don't move it between shots, you can shoot in-camera multiple exposures or merge multiple shots together in PhotoShop.  It's a fun technique to play with and can yield some beautiful results.

This shot of the Flatiron Building in New York is a 9 shot in-camera multiple exposure.  The traffic was coming from both camera left and camera right, so the multiple exposures enabled me to record the trailing lights on both sides.

This shot of the Flatiron Building in New York is a 9 shot in-camera multiple exposure.  The traffic was coming from both camera left and camera right, so the multiple exposures enabled me to record the trailing lights on both sides.

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!

Patience Pays Off

Sometimes you see a great image opportunity but your gut says it could be better; it's instances like that where patience pays off.  I like to "pre-visualize" the elements of the scene I'm photographing and then wait for all the pieces to come together.  Other times I orchestrate the scene and place people where I want them.  But the best images happen organically, like the samples posted here. 

I had already shot a good number of images of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC when this man stood before the statue.  The sunset was perfect but other people were moving in and out of the scene, causing distracting blurs.  This was a 3 second exposure and I was praying the man wouldn't move.  Finally, he was alone and I clicked the shutter.  I didn't plan for him to be there, but without him this would be a much less dynamic image.

I had already shot a good number of images of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC when this man stood before the statue.  The sunset was perfect but other people were moving in and out of the scene, causing distracting blurs.  This was a 3 second exposure and I was praying the man wouldn't move.  Finally, he was alone and I clicked the shutter.  I didn't plan for him to be there, but without him this would be a much less dynamic image.

By being observant to what is happening naturally, and waiting for the right moment, the results can be magical.

The High Line Park on New York's west side is a lovely place for a stroll, but on a rainy morning as this, few people are there.  I saw the potential of this scene but it needed the right focal element--people.  I stood in the rain for at least 10 minutes before I saw this mother and son walk toward me.  I let them pass then took out my camera and framed the shot.  The woman's umbrella didn't look right but at the last minute she folded it under the canopy of trees; I snapped off four quick frames and caught one where they were in synchronized step.

The High Line Park on New York's west side is a lovely place for a stroll, but on a rainy morning as this, few people are there.  I saw the potential of this scene but it needed the right focal element--people.  I stood in the rain for at least 10 minutes before I saw this mother and son walk toward me.  I let them pass then took out my camera and framed the shot.  The woman's umbrella didn't look right but at the last minute she folded it under the canopy of trees; I snapped off four quick frames and caught one where they were in synchronized step.

This shot, at the Musee de O'rsay in Paris, is another example of exercising patience.  This is one of those "no-brainer" shots, but no one was around.  I waited for over 15 minutes until this man walked up and looked out the clock window.  Once all the elements come together it doesn't take long to capture a great shot.

This shot, at the Musee de O'rsay in Paris, is another example of exercising patience.  This is one of those "no-brainer" shots, but no one was around.  I waited for over 15 minutes until this man walked up and looked out the clock window.  Once all the elements come together it doesn't take long to capture a great shot.

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

Keep asking questions

Over the 30+ years of my career, I've always enjoyed teaching and talking to fellow photographers; my latest teaching gig is with the NYC Digital Photo Workshops (www.NYCDPW.com) where I lead a wide variety of classes.  One thought I always leave students with is to, "keep asking questions".  When we, as creative people, respond to something, it's not always complete in its best form at first glance.  I recommend pushing yourself to try different things with the same subject, keep asking the question "what else?"  What else can I try?  Maybe a different lens, change my angle, use different settings, different light.  Never take just one shot.  Think about what you're shooting, why you're shooting it and how you can make it better.  Just asking "What Else?" will improve your results.

A field of weeds caught my eye as I was driving down a country road in Virginia.  I liked the back lighting and tried all sorts of things, pushing myself until I got the shot I could see in my mind.  There were some good photos, but not until I laid on the ground with a 300mm lens and isolated the weeds against the shadows did I get my favorite shot.

A field of weeds caught my eye as I was driving down a country road in Virginia.  I liked the back lighting and tried all sorts of things, pushing myself until I got the shot I could see in my mind.  There were some good photos, but not until I laid on the ground with a 300mm lens and isolated the weeds against the shadows did I get my favorite shot.

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!