Spend a Day Shooting Portraits

Spend a Day Making Portraits with Lighting Essentials

Sorry for the long absence. A stolen laptop put me back a lot farther than expected. Add to that the traveling and being without internet, well, reliable internet anyway, in some of the locations. Whew… Hey, enough whining. We will make it up to you really quick with some great tutorials and lighting focused posts coming up soon.

The Monday after the recent Florida workshop was one of fun and relaxation. For me that means running all over the place making pictures and working with some of the attendees who decided to take a day from work to hang out. I wanted to do something a little different, so I decided to focus on portraiture for the day. We had some models come in from Miami (long drive – thanks girls) and one of our models from Sunday took the morning off to come along. Let’s take a look at some simple techniques to make portraits on location with minimal tools.

First some housekeeping: Kansas City is the next workshop. I have some openings. We have a place and will be notifying everyone of the address. This KC workshop is really going to be a lot of fun. See the Learn to Light page for more information.

We have our February Contest winners announced and the new contest is underway. See the contest page for all the details.

I have a lot of requests for the workshop, so we will be setting up some more dates this week as well. Filling out the summer and entering fall.

April 2009

Dallas 4, 5
Nashville 11, 12
Atlanta 18, 19
Mexico 24, 25, 26

May 2009

New York 2, 3
Washington DC 9, 10
Detroit 16, 17
Cleveland 30, 31

Let’s look at some pictures and talk a little about the art of portraiture.

The shot on the cover was a guy we met on the beach. He had an interesting face and a great hat so I asked if I could make a shot of him. He laughed and I persisted. As we walked to the boat, I made a few test shots to get the exposure for the background. Placing him on the boat, I knew I was only going to get a few shots – 5 to be exact – so I tried to make everyone count. My handheld speedlight did the trick as I kept it facing the subject to keep the light clean and shadowless across his face.

Next up is this shot of Maria. Taken outside with a single light in a softbox, the shot was made against a bright, slightly hazy sky.
Maria on the Line: A portrait in Florida: Anna Maria Island Workshop

Bringing the softbox in close to Maria let me bring the white sky (shooting almost directly into the sun) into a darker range. I used shutter speed to drop the sky (taking it 1.5 stops under the exposure) and the strobe to bring up the tones on Maria. The large, flat light source created a wonderful patina to the skin, and the backlight added a tiny bit of rim and accent. We kept the box about 2.5 feet from her and I crept in under it a bit to shoot up and into the sky. Using a Canon 20-35MML let me crop quickly and I made sure to get her expressive arms into the frame.

I had seen the power lines and when she started doing some posing I thought about a puppet on a wire. Two versions exist: one with the power lines taken out in Photoshop and this one with them left in. I liked this one better, at least for now, so I left them in for the faint reflection of the ‘puppet’ pose.

This shot of Jessica on Bean Point is all natural light.
Jessica on the Beach on Bean Point, Anna Maria Island, Florida

There was a lot of fill coming off the white sand, so I placed Jessica in the sun and made my exposures. I wanted the feel of the beach and when I saw her skirt, I loved how it mirrored the color of the beach grass.

Portraiture on location for me means showing the location. I decided again on the wide lens to include the elements of the location that were special to me. The deep blue sky, white sand, beach grass and model. Placing her on the sand kept my fill good, and getting low for a good amount of sky let the image place the viewer there. I used a polarizing filter on the 20-35MM L to give more depth to the sky. It also let a lot of color come out of the grass.

Jessica was told to not pose ‘for me’ but to be self-absorbed in the scene. I had her look off toward the sun, and also a bit over my head, but I didn’t want a lot of ‘into the camera’ looks. The portrait shows the blend of the subject in the landscape.

Here we have a shot of Vanessa jumping on the edge of the water at Bean Point on Anna Maria Island. Behind her is the meeting point of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. It is a very interesting and beautiful, place.
Vanessa jumping on the beach at Bean Point

There was a lot of light filling in from the sand, but there was still a very bright sun to deal with. I didn’t want her looking into the sun, but rather into the camera. I knew that would add some side shadows to the image. You can see the shadow behind her and note that the sun was very high, not an optimal time for a portrait. But, hey… that’s what we like… a challenge.

I took my meter readings in the sun and in the shaded side of her outfit. I wanted the shady side to be much brighter as there was a little over 2 stop difference. Setting my flash to almost equal the sun (f-16) I was able to open the shadows very well without losing the highlights on the white outfit. I will be doing a post soon to show you exactly how to use your flash as an adjunct to full sun, not just a fill or a tool to beat the sun.

Working with Vanessa, I had her roll the pants legs up a little and walk at the edge of the surf a ways down before exiting to the sand in front of me. This kept the sand clean and free of footprints. A 1-2-3 count let me anticipate her jump and I was careful to check the shot to make sure I had something without making her do it over and over. We got it on frame 6, and shot two more for safety. Anticipating the apex of the jump is very important. Even though it is a DSLR, there is still a lag time from click to capture.

Erin was shot in the evening with a strobe for a dramatically lit shot.
Erin on the Beach at Bradenton

Erin was standing just to the right of the sun from my position. I loved the little sun in the background… almost hitting the edge of the sea. I decided to underexpose the background by nearly two stops with my shutter speed. Rendering the sun and sky that deep orange/red would make Erin’s blonde hair and black dress really stand out.

Using the wide angle again, I took a few images to quickly find my shutterspeed / f-stop combination for the dark background. My meter was all the way over there, and the sun was going down, so yes, I chimped. Once I found the good exposure for the background and set the strobe distance to give me an exposure that would be two stops under on the background, I moved in and took a few frames. This one worked the best.

Keeping the aperture / shutterspeed relationships in your head can be the quickest way to get some of these kind of shots. For instance… background is f-8 at 1/120 of a second. If I want to underexpose the background, I can close the aperture to f-16. That is two stops underexposed on the background if I shoot the subject at f-16 with the strobe at the same shutterspeed.

We were shooting at the beach when I turned around and saw our MUA sitting and basking in the very low sun. What a shot! I moved in and positioned her head where I wanted it and let the natural sunlight fill the frame with soft, warm light.
Our Wonderful Makeu Up Artist in the sun on the beach.

This kind of light can be very flattering and warm. It is one of my most favorite lighting tools, but it only happens for a few minutes each day. Yeah, rarefied light for sure. Quick and clean, the light gave me a most flattering shot of a wonderful lady.

Next up was Vanessa again in the surf.
Vanessa laughing at the workshop on Anna Maria Island

Similar to the shot of Erin, I added some subject motion to the image. I had Vanessa pull her hair over to one side and she flipped her hair on my three-count. These shots are very scary cause you can’t see her face in the viewfinder. You must rely on the model to make sure she has a good face when she hits that spot.

Shutterspeed was not fast enough to freeze her hair, but it added a cool effect to the hair with the back-shadow from the long shutter/flash combination. Vanessa was a great sport on this shot as it can be a little tricky doing that whip thing over and over.

Thanks so much for visiting, and I will make sure I get some more updates up right away. See the workshop page for workshop schedules and I hope to see you at one soon.

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  1. Nice photography lighting tutorial! Really like your portrait work.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi Don:-)

    Thanks so much for Beyond Awsome shoot:-) It was lovely working with all of the photographers, in such a safe, and fun learning environment. I would definitely reccommend any model to take advantage of participating in your workshops:-) Hope our paths cross again;-)


  3. Hello Don!

    I’m famous! I kid, I kid lol. Just wanted to let you know that the workshop was such a lovely experience for me even though I’m just a makeup artist. Knowing the lingo of of photography and how lighting affects makeup is sometimes MORE important than the act of actually making someone up.

    I can tell that the photographers took much away from your workshop. I’ll be sure to refer my photographer friends to you if they’re ever in need of a course of this nature. Thanks :)

    • Thanks Aziza.
      Your work was wonderful. I hope to see you next time I am in Florida (December).
      Have a great day everyday.

  4. Don,

    I’m hoping you don’t mind shining some light (pun intended) on that last photo.

    “Keeping the aperture / shutterspeed relationships in your head can be the quickest way to get some of these kind of shots. For instance… background is f-8 at 1/120 of a second. If I want to underexpose the background, I can close the aperture to f-16. That is two stops underexposed on the background if I shoot the subject at f-16 with the strobe at the same shutterspeed.”

    Looks like you used the sun to backlight Erin and a strobe in the front, correct? So, from stopping down to f-16, were you looking to underexpose Erin (being lit by the strobe) 2 stops in relation to the background? I’m assuming if you wanted to underexpose the background by 2 stops, you would have set the shutter speed to 1/500 (assuming the cam can sync at that speed) rather than affecting the aperture?

    • Yes, but my camera wont sync at 1/500 with off camera flash. I used the aperture to create the underexposure and the flash to provide the correct light on Erin.

  5. What can I say that hasn’t been said already! I can’t even begin to explain what a creative catalyst this workshop was. I’m so happy I got past my apprehensions and fears and just went ahead and registered.

    I got the images to all the models already and updated my website with some of them.

    Don, without you, this wouldn’t have been possible for me. I really truly appreciate your thoughtful & sensitive approach. You were really wonderful!


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