A Musician’s Shoot

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My wife plays the harp professionally. Earlier in the year we had done a shoot of her with her big pedal-harp in a formal setting to promote her wedding business, but now she suddenly needed something different. She has been offered a gig at a local Renaissance Fair and they wanted publicity photos of her for some advertising, so this was to be outdoors with costume and Celtic harps (she has 5 or 6 instruments – or is it up to 7 now). Fortunately our own backyard and garden work pretty well for stuff like this, so that is where we did it. I would add that this is not supposed to be “art”, it is supposed to be “marketing”, and the techniques and objectives of these styles of photography are different (IMHO). I was rather pleased with the results here though, so I thought that I would post some and talk about what I did (not that anyone should listen to a simple amateur like me).

Based on my own self-taught experience, I think that there are several “tricks” to getting really good outdoor portraits. Obviously, as is true with any photograph, you have to be aware of your background. I see so many pictures that are ruined because the photographer just didn’t “see” what they were putting behind their subject. You may not be able to move houses and telephone-lines, but you can move your subject to avoid them. The top photo was taken with my subject sitting on an old barbeque that was built with our house around 1960.  The tight cropping makes this a little less obvious, which is important because this is a portrait of the musician not a snapshot of someone perched on a barbeque. I think that the texture of the wood and stone adds some interest however and it “works” for the medieval ambiance of the Ren-Fair.

The next trick is lighting. The blazing noon-day sun is a really lousy time to take pictures of people outside. The shadows are harsh and the searing light makes people squint. The best outdoor light is “bright overcast”, which is what this day happened to be for the most part. I also deliberately waited until later in the afternoon when the sun was a bit lower and the light a little more subdued and the colors a little warmer and more pleasant. My third trick – and this is what really helps make an outdoor portrait look “professional” – is to use a fill-flash. What I do is set the camera to expose the ambient light at about -1ev, which darkens the background a bit, and then I set the flash-exposure for 0ev or even a little more. This way the flash illuminates the subject nicely and makes her “pop” while the background stays – well – in the background. Again, this isn’t a portrait of a garden with a human form in the middle, it is a portrait of the person. If you can’t help what the sun is doing, then at least turn your subject so that they are not looking directly into the sun and the fill flash should take care of the worst of the dark shadows. The second shot here was taken when the sun happened to peak out from the clouds, but the “dark-side” of my subject’s face is well-lit with the fill-flash and therefore the shadows are not too obnoxious.

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Now, you really don’t need a lot of fancy and expensive equipment for this kind of flash work, but I do use an independent flash unit. A built-in flash might be OK for this kind of light-duty fill work, but I strongly recommend a decent independent flash because they are much better than built-in flash for the long-run. In this case I just didn’t feel like hauling out my light-stands and umbrellas and all that jazz though, so I used the flash direct, with a grid and an off-camera cord. This allows me to put the camera on a tripod and then just hold the flash up and away from the camera by a couple of feet so that the light from the flash is not near the lens axis. What makes a lot of flash pictures really ugly is when the flash is almost – but not quite – on the lens axis and you get a hard little halo shadow around the subject. This is typical of built-in flash and it ruins a lot of pictures.

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All of these photos also had a decent dose of processing too. This might be most obvious in the first one. In addition to basic cropping and Photoshop cleanup, I used NIK “Color Efex Pro” to add a little vignette darkening and vignette blur. This creates a bit of a surreal atmosphere, but also makes the subject really stand out.  In my opinion the key here is “less is more”. You don’t want to slap people in the face with your processing, just add a subtle touch of je ne sais quoi. Although it may be a little less obvious in the other two, I did some darkening and de-saturation of the background and boosted the subject a little to make her stand out. This has the same objective as underexposing the ambient and using the fill-flash, but having the camera work and the processing “pulling in the same direction” is (in my opinion) better than trying to make one or the other do it all. Oh, and as one other “trick” here; I was using a polarizing filter on these shots too. The point of the polarizing filter (in addition to polarizing the light) is that it reduces the light that reaches the sensor by about 1.5ev. The reason I did this was because my camera has a relatively slow sync-speed (max 1/200-sec) and I didn’t want too much sharpness in the background – which is what a small aperture would do at that speed. The polarizer also helps darken the foliage.

In case you are interested, all shots were with a Canon 5DmkIII and 24-105 f4L-IS lens with B+W circular polarizing filter and Canon 580EX flash with Canon off-camera flash cord and tripod.

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Portrait of the Artist

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I wanted to play with my camera-toys this Saturday, so what better subject than the one that is always available to you – your own beautiful self.  By the way; I have observed that the vast majority of self-portraits are taken by women. Not making any snide comments or judgments here – just sayin’…  and… Read more.