One Light: Using the Sun as a Rim Light

I've done a couple of shoots lately with beautiful outdoor evening light and I am falling in love with one particular setup, which is going in my shot arsenal from now on. It's nothing new or ground breaking, but it is very effective. Let me share it with you:

ISO100 f2.2 1/160 85mm

ISO100 f2.2 1/160 85mm

It's a one light set up, using the sun as a 'rim', or 'hair' light and a single strobe as fill. I think the effect, if balanced correctly, gives the professional feel of a studio, with the organic feel of an outdoor setting.

ISO160 f2.0 1/125 85mm

ISO160 f2.0 1/125 85mm

So how is it done?

It's actually very simple. I know many of you are likely afraid of flash, as I was for years, but getting this shot is really not too technical.

Firstly, this is how I position myself:

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I make sure the sun is hitting the subjects shoulders and hair from behind. This means that in choosing the composition the direction of the sun directs where I point the camera, but I still need to position myself so that I have a pleasing background in the correct direction. I mostly shoot this shot with a shallow depth of field so it's more about finding something which will create a pleasing bokeh (lens blur) with good colour and little distraction.

The next step is to take a shot without the strobe to get a good 'ambient exposure'. I want the background to be slightly darker than than it appears to my eye in order for my subject to 'pop' off it when lit correctly with the strobe. I also want to keep the sun at bay and not let it's light become too over powering. To pull this off with a shallow depth of field I often need to use an ND filter (for the uninitiated this is basically sun glasses for your camera).

As I've mentioned before, to control the ambient light I need to focus on my shutter speed, where as my aperture is going to control my flash output. 

A couple of things I need to be aware of when setting my exposure:

1. I cannot really shoot faster than 1/160 shutter speed because I will lose flash sync, which just means that my shutter fires faster than my strobe pops and it will leave a portion, or all, of my shot dark. Your camera my be different but I know this is the magic number for my 5DmkII. Just Google your camera make and 'sync speed' to find yours.

2. In bright sunlight I want my ISO as low as possible to help me maintain detail and control the light.

3. I want to make sure that if I need to slow my shutter speed down a lot to let in enough ambient light that I put the camera on a tripod to reduce camera shake and motion blur. The thumbnail rule is that your shutter speed should not be less that your focal length: in other words you shouldn't shoot handheld at slower than 1/50 on a 50mm lens, 1/100 on a 100mm lens etc. 

Obviously once I have the ambient exposure dialed in correctly my subjects face will be dark and filled with shadow because the sun is hitting her from behind.

Enter my strobe.

In the BTS shot above I am using my Alien B800, Vagabond power pack and a 1m softlighter, but you can use a speedlight and a shoot-through umbrella if the ambient isn't too strong. Your speedlight won't be able to fill against full noon day sun, but it will work nicely with a muted setting sun.

Then I simply bring my light in close to make sure it's soft and dial it up until it provides a natural fill light to the setting sun. I already have my slightly darkened background, now I just need a good exposure on the skin to complete the light for the shot. I want to position it at 45 degrees above the models head and slightly off to one side to mirror the direction of the sun. I'm looking for a good catch light in the models eye, and I often use a small handheld reflector to add a second catch light in the lower portion of the eye as well.

ISO125 f2.5 1/100 85mm

ISO125 f2.5 1/100 85mm

Something to take note of: you'll find the smallest moves in the camera will control how much flare you allow into the lens. A slight bend at the knees can mean that you flood the lens with sun light, and as you straighten slightly you can kill it altogether. It's going to come down to taste, and some strong quad muscles, as to how much flare you want in your shot.

Here are few more examples:

ISO160 f2.0 1/125 85mm

ISO160 f2.0 1/125 85mm

ISO100 f1.8 1/160 50mm

ISO100 f1.8 1/160 50mm

ISO160 f2.0 1/125 85mm

ISO160 f2.0 1/125 85mm

Go try it for yourself, and post me links to your shots in the comments. 

Thanks to the beautiful models:

Actor and Director, Lucy Drive: http://www.modelmayhem.com/548139

and Professional Dancer and Model, Beth Willetts: http://www.modelmayhem.com/824462

Balancing Colours

 I recently shot for Moonika, who is building a portfolio to put herself out there for modelling.

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She has the most striking red hair, and so early in the planning process I had to consider how to deal with, and compliment, such a strong colour.

Confession time: I am slightly colour blind, especially when it comes to reds and greens ironically. I often confuse them, particularly when they have similar tonal values. I actually have this constant insecurity that the colour balance in my edited shots isn't very good and no one is telling me I'm messing it up; like maybe everything I shoot has a slight green tinge for example and, best-case-scenario, people think it's a deliberate stylistic choice.

To compensate I have a few photography friends who I bounce my portfolio off to get some honest feedback and see if I'm off track. This is a really good idea by the way, especially while you're learning to colour correct your images. Source some trusted, honest, brutal opinion. 

When shooting though, I try and keep the colour wheel in mind to plan out some sort of balance, because it really is as important as spatial composition.

I found this great graphic on visual.ly, which explains many aspects of colour theory and gives a really helpful overview: 

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Obviously I'm not thinking about all of this when shooting, although I do try and bring some of this knowledge into my compositions. At least knowing this stuff in the back of my mind often helps me to work out when something just 'looks wrong' and I can't figure out why. So it may look very complicated, but let me break down just two of the things I try and stay aware of:

Analogous Colours can add thematic interest. These are colours which sit close to each other on the colour wheel (Pink/Red). If you place these sort of colours together, especially in styling, you can create depth and interest while still playing on a theme. 

Opposite Colours provide separation.  In colour theory they are called 'Complimentary Colours' (Red/Cyan). They will give you the greatest separation from fore-background, whilst playing nicely together.

Let's take the next two shots of Moonika to demonstrate.

I used Analogous Colours in the styling. I say "I", but she brought along this pink scarf for the shoot deliberately, and as a costume designer herself, she understood that the combination of the pinks and reds works well together in colour theory. So the pink of the scarf and red of her hair give us an Analogous Colour theme, but now I have to separate her from the background.

The Complimentary Colour for red on the Colour Wheel is cyan, but there was no cyan to hand to use as a backdrop so I tried the next two best options: green and blue (which strictly speaking is triad theory in the graphic above, but I think you'll get the idea).

First I lined her up with a rich green background to make the red of her hair pop and it worked quite well. Fortunately she also had this great green coat which helped me frame the bottom edge of the image too and draw the focus into the middle of the frame. The green also helped to accent the deep green of her eyes and the colours played well together. The point was that I was getting the separation I wanted. 

Gloves Finalweb.jpg

But I also really wanted to try the blue because I had a feeling it would work well and give a very different feel. 

On the day, I was shooting with a photographer friend of mine, Radek (Check him out at Bayek Photography). While we were walking around he noticed a bush with very light green leaves, which when blurred out in the bokeh made her dark-toned hair really pop, so we decided to use it as a backdrop for a while. Even when taking the shot I knew what I was going to do with this image in the edit. I wanted to give the impression of a cold, icy background and let the cool desaturated texture give her hair that extra punch and separation, so when I got the image onto the computer I isolated the leaves in the background and turned them a chilly blue/grey. The final image makes me think of the White Witch in the Narnia Chronicles for some reason, but the point is the separation works really well.

Ice Queen Final web.jpg

I can't pretend that I'm always this deliberate, and admittedly the strong colour of Moonika's hair forced me to think more than I normally may have about this stuff, but I am always working hard to keep colour balance in mind when shooting portraits. It really can make the difference between a flat and uninteresting shot, and one that really pops.

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Bokeh Panorama

...also known as "The Brenizer Method" because this technique has been popularized by New York Wedding Photographer, Ryan Brenizer.

The idea behind the shot comes from a creative bit of problem solving. The question which needs answering is "How do I build a shallow depth of field (lots of focus blur) into a wide angle shot"? As you will probably know, when you shoot with a wide angle, everything is usually in focus. When you shoot at a longer focal length your background compresses, and you get a pleasing blur, or 'Bokeh', which serves to really separate your subject from it's surroundings.

So how do I build 'long focal length blur' into a 'wide angle shot'?

Well the answer is, "Shoot your scene by stitching together a series of images shot with a longer focal length, and low aperture, to make up your wide angle." This way you can create a shot with plenty of context, but your subject will now 'pop' off the out-of-focus background.

There are many techniques for this shot, but personally I usually use my 85mm f1.8, because I want both a lens which will compress the background, and has a low potential aperture (sub f2).

You need to start by composing the scene in your head. You obviously won't be able to do this through the lens as you normally would, so you need to imagine the borders of your shot. The trick then is to shoot in such a way that you piece together your total shot one frame at a time. It's vital to keep a track of the areas you've covered, which means you always have to have the big picture in your minds eye. Some people shoot in a spiral out from their subject. Some people shoot in a grid. You'll have to find the technique which works for you, but it's important that you cover all the areas of the total image otherwise you will have 'holes' in your final stitch which you'll have to deal with in post.

When you are ready to shoot you need to make sure all your settings are manual so they don't change from shot to shot. Remember you are shooting pieces of a whole image, not individual shots. Here's a check list to get yourself ready for the shot:

  1. Put your camera in Manual mode.
  2. Select the appropriate ISO depending on the ambient light.
  3. Set your aperture as low as your lens will allow so that your depth of field will be as shallow as possible.
  4. Dial in your shutter speed until you have the right amount of light for your subject. If you are shooting a person make sure the skin is exposed correctly.
  5. Set your white balance.
  6. Then focus your lens on the subject and click your focus to manual (you don't want your lens refocusing between shots).
  7. Plant your feet firmly and burn that final image into your mind.

Then build your shot one image at a time. I begin with the head and torso of my subject, then the legs, and then I begin to fill in the scene around him/her by shooting a spiral outwards from the body on all sides.

Here is a recent Bokeh Pano I shot with a French Model in Bermondsey:

Paris+BP+45.jpg

And these are the raw shots out of the camera which went into making it up:

Brenizer+shots.jpg

The number of shots you need to take will vary depending on the setting. I have shot some with 8-9 frames, and then some with 60+ frames, which was quite an ask for my version of Photoshop Elements to stitch together. You will also notice that I am making sure to create some overlap between the shots so as to ensure I have no holes in the final image.

After this I open up photoshop and run file/automate/photomerge, and then select all my images and let photoshop go to work. Sometimes it does a great job, sometimes there is some work which needs to be done afterwards to fix areas where the stitching hasn't worked.

A quick tip: if you are shooting a series of these Brenizer shots, just shoot a black frame (with your hand over the lens) between each set so that you can easily identify the first shot of each batch when you come to the editing stage.

This technique really allows for a quality image. Due to the combined resolution of all the shots you've used, you could blow this image up to the size of a billboard if you wanted to. Not to mention the fact that no lens in the world could actually get this shot, because it would have to be a 15mm f0.4 or something like that; and they don't exist... yet.

Get out there and give it a go!

Here are a few examples of other recent Bokeh Panos I've shot:    

Abney+BokehP+05.jpg
Jon+Snow.jpg
Burfitt+Pano+5.jpg

To end off, here is Ryan Brenizer himself speaking about the technique and demonstrating its use:

Model Mayhem and 'TFP assignments'

A couple of months ago I signed up to 'Model Mayhem', on the recommendation of another photographer.

'Model Mayhem' is an online collective for models, actors, photographers, make-up artists, designers and stylists. The idea, as far as I can tell, is to create a community where you can work together on projects; some paid, some free.

After posting my profile as a local London photographer I quickly began to get requests for 'TFP assignments', something which is very popular on these sort of sites. I had never heard the phrase, but let me fill you in briefly on what I've learnt, because if you're looking to shoot in this space it is something you are going to have to become familiar with.

Wikipedia says:

"'Time for Print', or 'TFP', is a term used in many online photography communities describing an arrangement between a model and a photographer, whereby the photographer agrees to provide the model with an agreed number of pictures of the best photographs from the session and a limited license to use those pictures in return for the model's time. There are benefits to both parties of such an arrangement: the model can build a portfolio of prints to show to prospective clients at little or no cost, while the photographer gets a model for a particular project with little if any outlay of cash."

The specific terms of the TFP agreement have to be decided before the actual shoot. This includes things like how many shots you will deliver, how long it will take you to edit and handover, where the images can be published etc. It is worth spelling this stuff out in an email when you begin to talk about the shoot so there is no confusion later, and both parties know what they're getting into.

Beyond the specifics, I agree to do these TFP assignments on a few of conditions:

  1. That the model has a concept which will result in shots that will enhance my portfolio. The time and effort spent has to benefit both of us, and considering I will be spending many more hours editing the images I need to ensure that it is time well spent.
  2. I don't limit the use of the shots I hand over, because I believe that generosity will come back to you in the end. My only stipulation is that if the shots are sold at any point that I would receive 50% of the fee.
  3. I also ask models to do practical things like always crediting me, including a website link, when they post the shots online, as well as 'liking' my Facebook fanpage and generally helping me get the word out there.

My Model Mayhem profile is here is you want an example of the environment: http://www.modelmayhem.com/2929596

Here are some shots from a recent TFP assignment I did with Cecilia from Paris: http://www.modelmayhem.com/714751.

She was staying in a very swanky flat in Bermondsey for the week, and so we met up and shot in the streets around the apartment. We didn't have very long together, and unfortunately I had no specific brief, but I was able to deliver the 10 shots I promised, and I ended up using a couple to broaden my fledgling headshot portfolio.

I always set myself the goal of editing one image an evening in the days following the shoot; that way the model waits no longer than 2 weeks for the final images to be delivered. I want the people I shoot with to remember me as being timeous and professional, as well as able to make a good image.

On a related note: I found this 'open letter from a model to photographers'. Definitely worth a read: http://jenbrookmodel.tumblr.com/post/45762723033/dear-photographer-kindest-regards-model-xxx

Cecilia+01+Final.jpg
Cecilia+hat+Final.jpg
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Cecilia+yellow+Final.jpg
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Shooting on Brief

I mentioned in a recent post that Brooke contacted me to do a shoot with her. She had quite a strong vision for what she wanted to accomplish. In her words, she wanted a "Lolita" feel to the shoot. I haven't seen the movie myself but, between a quick google image search, and reference shots Brooke sent me via email, I quickly had a decent mood board full of shot ideas.

What a pleasure.

It meant that I wouldn't have to pull every shot out of thin air on the day, with an expectant subject looking at me, waiting for visual inspiration to strike. She had done the work for me. She knew her look, and she understood what she wanted. It was then just left for me to interpret it and make the technical choices to get the shots she was looking for. I know this won't happen every time, or even very often, but it showed me how much better a shoot can be when shooting for a client with a clear vision.

On a practical level I obviously wanted this reference material with me on the shoot.

Pinterest turned out to be a ready solution.

The week before I set up and shared a Pinterest board with Brooke where we could both pin images to use as a guide on the day. I downloaded the app to my phone which meant that I could pull up the different images we had pinned as we were shooting to use as inspiration, and to ensure we were getting the kind of shots we agreed on. It was like having a portable mood board.

Perhaps embarrassingly, this is the first time I've shot like this (with this much planning and purpose I mean), and it made for a much less stressful, and more productive, shoot. I often have those quiet moments of inner panic where I am trying to work out what the hell to shoot next, and what the client will think of my next crazy shot idea; but using this method I had all that covered before I even arrived.

Not only this, but Brooke could see exactly what we were aiming for as we were setting up for the next shot, and she could instantly know how to pose and hold herself, rather than me having some secret vision I was slowly trying to direct her towards. It really greased the wheels and meant we got all these shots done (and more besides) in under an hour.

I am hoping to make this part of my work flow for all briefed shoots in the future.

It really works.

For the technical stuff; these shots were all taken with my 5DmkII and either my 50mm f1.4 or 85mm f1.8 lenses. The only additional light used was a large reflector with mixed silver and gold to bounce the sunlight back in as fill. Shot 3 is a Bokeh Panorama, which I will get to explaining in a post soon.

Burfitt+grass+8.jpg
Burfitt+finals+449.jpg
Burfitt+Pano+5.jpg
Burfitt+finals+448.jpg

Personal Attention

I was recently contacted by a local up-and-coming actress named Brooke Burfitt.

She was interested in getting some headshots done for her portfolio. I didn't realise it, but actors and actresses need headshots done at least every two years, even more if their look changes regularly, because casting agents are looking for a bang-up-to-date representation when trying to fit potentials into a role. I suppose this is obvious, but it hadn't occurred to me that there may actually be a big market here.

Anyway, as we were setting up on the day Brooke was talking about her experiences with headshot photographers in the past, and how they made her feel like 'just another piece in a production line'. She would arrive at a studio and be given an hour, sandwiched between a slew of other performers. She told me how it didn't feel special, and that after hair and make up she only had about 20 minutes with the photographer, who then smashed out a few shot options in record time, charged her £200 for the hour, and only provided one final shot for the pleasure. Every additional shot she wanted needed to be purchased at a per-shot rate.

As I was fighting to open my old reflector with the broken zip, I made a mental note to ensure that this would be a good experience for her.

The location was a challenge. We were shooting in her friend's small bedroom, which had little natural light, but I had to work with what I had. Time to be resourceful. Whilst ordinarily I would have traded the locational difficulties for a professional studio and gear, I did like the fact that I could give her some dedicated time, and make her feel special, and not just like another item on a conveyor belt of would-be stars.

We had spoken briefly online before hand and she had told me she was looking for something feminine, sweet and virginal. I already had pastel tones in mind, and when I looked around the room I noticed it had an interesting green wall paper, which I thought may make a nice headshot background, and some nice pink bedding on the double bed.

The techy stuff:

Headshots: I ended up using my 50mm prime, shooting fairly close (not that I had an option). I used a speedlight in a softbox, on a monopod, held overhead by an assistant. I added a small handheld reflector just under her chest to give a nice catch light in the eyes. Pretty traditional clamshell setup.

Bedshots: I ended up exposing for the window light and then using a speedlight to fill from the other side by bouncing it off the ceiling from off camera. Even though I knew I would be fighting 3 colours of light in post I decided to turn the bedside lamps on to warm up the scene. I think it worked out quite nicely in the end.

The most important part of the shoot for me was that she had fun. We were there for a few hours (more outdoor shots from this shoot to follow) and we were able to take out real time and make her feel like this was 'her' shoot. I hope that even if I become a big shot I will always be able to build in real time with clients and make them feel valued. I never want people to feel like they are being pushed through Sean Tucker's Production Line.

Personal attention needs to become a value.

Burfitt+Headshot+25.jpg
Burfitt+Bed+25.jpg
Burfitt+HS+25.jpg
Burfitt+finals+450.jpg
Burfitt+Headshot+Colour.jpg

Shooting Models

I have been trying to build a portrait portfolio.

If you want to make a real go of a career in photography, you have to pick a lane at some point. You have to decide what sort of photography you want to specialise in long term. It's all very well broadening your skill base and being able to shoot many subjects and in varying contexts, but at some point you want to specialise because it's how you 'get known'.

So to this end I have decided that I would like to work hard at becoming a good portrait photographer. Being a bit of a humanist at heart this seems to be the area I am most happy shooting in, and one I could see myself doing into the distant future.

In order to start building up a portfolio of work I decided to contact a friend of a friend who I knew was keen to dip her toe into modelling. I offered her a shoot with images we could both use for our respective portfolios, an old TFP (Time for Photos) model arrangement (something I will get into in another post).

I was really lucky with this shoot. Lauren was a star. In fact she lulled me into a false sense of security because I think I thought that it would be this easy all the time. She just knew what to do. Every time she heard the shutter click she would alter her pose to give me something different to shoot. As I clicked away I would wait until something she did looked interesting, at which point I would tell her 'stay there, and make smaller moves'. I would give fine tuning directions more than anything.

I have no doubt it won't be this easy with every model shoot, and some will need more direction, which I am going to have to learn how to give, but I got a glimpse into what makes a professional model so good at their job. They really have to be fearless and give you poses which look ridiculous when you're standing there watching them, but which translate into something beautiful on camera. It's a strange dynamic. It takes a huge amount of personal security, and body knowledge, on their part as well, and I instantly acquired a respect for their craft.

Another really helpful aspect of this shoot was that Lauren's room mate is working with Vogue and offered to act as stylist for the day! She had prepared a number of outfit options which we cycled through as the day went on. Some I didn't use. Some I did. But what a pleasure having both the poses and styles constantly changing. If I had just stood in one spot and clicked the shutter, I would have had a wide variety of stuff.

So what was my role, apart from camera monkey?

The challenge for me was to chose the set ups. When we arrived at their flat I walked around and looked at the space, then took a tour around the little garden. I picked backgrounds which I thought would work for different looks, and quickly summed up the light to see where we could get the best looking shots, and at what time of the day. I also began to plan where to create an indoor backdrop (what turned out to be just a white wall, or a patterned sheet over a door frame) so that when we began to lose light outside we could move indoors and carry on.

I learnt a few things on this shoot:

1. Come up with a short list of shot ideas while you're doing your initial location tour.

2. A good model is a joy to shoot. Let him/her move and watch for what works. Then 'fine tune' when something she/he does catches your eye.

3. Having a number of changes of clothes and make up options helps to vary your shots, and inspire ideas. It also gives you time to come up with a new set up and test the light while your subject is getting ready. From now on I will always ask a model if they could bring at least four changes of clothes, and see if they would like to bring a friend who can help them with changes. I will likely get a lot more options and the model will be more relaxed with a close friend around.

I shot all day on my 5DmkII and switched between my 50mm f1.4 and my 85mm f1.8. I had recently bought a softbox for my speedlight, which I mounted on a monopod and had a friend hold for me, so most of the shots I took are just using the ambient light and filling with a softbox, or using the softbox as a one light source when shooting indoors.

I think we got some good stuff between us.

Some thanks:

Lauren Franklin for Modelling: http://laurenfranklinmodel.wordpress.com/

Frith Carlisle for Styling.

Sarah Howse for retouching on shots 1, 3, 4 and 5: http://sarahjhowse.wix.com/sarah-howse-editing

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