Tips from professional portrait photographers

© Paul Remmelts

As portrait photographer I learned quite a lot from photoshoot sessions where I was the subject, the model.

As a CS professor I was asked for quite a few nation- or university-wide roles: chairman of a board, figurehead of an ICT initiative, director or dean. Everytime there was an interview and an executive head-shoulders photoshoot with a professional photographer, each handling their subject in a different manner.

© Bart van Overbeeke

One time the journalist and the photographer were the same person. We met in a tiny restaurant near Central Station The Hague. After the interview he asked me to join him to the parking garage downstairs. The setup was one flash off-camera and a kind of white background behind me, just sufficient for a head-shoulder picture. In the magazine it looked perfect. Only the photographer and I knew the picture was taken while I was standing between parked cars. The lesson I learned was that you need very little to make good portrait pictures.

Another time I was attending a meeting in the Trippenhuis of the Royal Academy of Art and Sciences in Amsterdam. I was called away from this meeting and to my surprise there were two photographers, one just put me somewhere in a corner with an off-camera flash. He was done in 10 minutes. The other one told me that he never used flashes, so he was looking for a window with the right kind of light. At one point we had to wait 5 minutes for a cloud to cover the sun. As you can imagine, the pictures of the latter photographer were much better. The message I took away from this was: take your time to find the light that fits the ambience of the photoshoot.

© Paul Remmelts

Another photographer had made his setup in the staircase of the building where I chaired a board meeting. So, I thought business as usual. However, when he was about to take a picture he started to ask me difficult questions: for example, my favorite female scientist. By doing so, he distracted me and pulled me away from the whole photoshoot. This distraction turned my facial expression in a more relaxed one. During another photoshoot the same photographer asked me to take off my glasses. I did not like the pictures he took, apparently I was not used to see myself like that. Now, many years later I have contact lenses! It is important to make your model feel comfortable. Try to take pictures when they think you are done.

Some of the other photographers put a lot of emphasis on the background. On campus, the photographer and I stroll around a bit, outside looking at the architecture of the buildings, indoors looking at stairs, balconies, ceilings to find a  background that fits the message of the picture. If you want to be a portrait photographer, know what type of background you are looking for to take meaningful pictures.

© Harry Klunder

Please note, although I remember the stories about the photoshoots I do not have all the corresponding pictures and names of the photographers. So, the stories and the pictures are most of the time not related. 

This post was inspired by the Youtube video of Sean Tucker about the role of empathy in portrait photography.

What I like about Sean Tucker is that he is an excellent photographer and at the same time honest about his doubts.

Visiting Elx and discovering palm trees

 

During our stay in Alicante we visited some surrounding cities, one of them was Elx or Elche. Via Santa Pola we took the bus to Elx.

Municipal Park Elx

Without a specific plan we walked to a major park close by. It turned out to be the Municipal Park, where I found the amphitheater, and in the rear a pigeon tower.

Amphitheater and Pigeon Tower in Elx
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

After that we took a tour through the city by tourism miniature train. During this tour we found out what Elx is famous for: palm trees. During the Arabic reign of Spain these palm trees were imported. It is estimated that currently there are 200,000 to 300,000 palm trees in the area of Elx. It is really unique in Europe to have so many palm trees together. In November 2000, Elx was elected the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site.

Botanic garden Huerto del Cura in Elx
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Then we decided to continue our discovery of Elx by going to the botanic garden called Huerto del Cura (garden of the priest), located in the older parts of Elx. It is a relative small orchard, however, packed with many exclusive palm trees, cactus, and other plants. I took quite a few pictures there, which you can find below and here. Some of these pictures were taken in Manual mode, like the one below, because there was not enough light to work with Aperture mode, resulting in a slightly higher ISO.

Cactus in Huerto del Cura

During a break I also managed to take a picture of the Basilica of Elx. Although it was not the right time of the day because of the very bright sun coming from the right. I wanted to take a picture standing more on the left of the church, however, this was impossible because  of the overwhelming sun behind the tower. So, I had to settle for this one.

Basilica Saint Mary in Elx
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Late in the afternoon we had an excellent lunch in an Italian restaurant called Ristorante Gourmet. Looking back, Elx gave us a lot more than we expected. It is definitely worthwhile to visit.

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Strolling through the streets of Alicante

Harbour of Alicante in Spain
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Alicante is a nice Mediterranean port on the east coast of Spain. From The Santa Barbara Castle you have a nice view of the harbour and the city. Walking down from the castle you end up in a mesh of very narrow streets and squares, going up and down stairs. It is a beautiful part of the old city.

Calle San Rafael in Alicante
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

It is a very colourful neighbourhood with lots of red, blue, and yellow. And, of course,  many plants. 

Blue in the streets of Alicante

It is wonderful to stroll through these colourful streets of Alicante and taste the history and the Arab influences (the palmtree is just an example). Enjoy the pictures of the streets of Alicante.

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My first macro pictures

Withered roses

A couple of years ago somebody showed me some pictures of macro photography. They looked interesting, however, it did not resonate with me. Now, many years later, I read the book Praktijkboek Macrofotografie (in Dutch) and looked at videos on Youtube. It turns out that macro photography is a lot more than taking pictures of plants and insects and laying on the ground. So, there was a growing interest.
After realising that my regular lenses would not suffice, I looked at possible cheap adjustments:

  • close-up filters are put on a regular lens and they magnify. The disadvantage is the you add more glass between the subject and the sensor, thereby reducing the quality of the picture substantially;
  • extension tubes are put between your regular lens and the body of the camera. They are used to reduce the focal distance and thereby increase the magnification. The disadvantage is that it mainly helps up to roughly 50mm, beyond that the reduction of the focal distance is not substantial anymore.

So I decided to look for a macro lens (Nikon calls it a micro lens). They are expensive. The Nikon 200mm micro lens costs something like €1500. Beyond my budget for a hobby. So I settled for a secondhand Nikon 105mm. And I am very pleased with it. Very sharp pictures.
My first experiments with macro photography immediately showed that getting the subject in focus is quite a challenge. Even more than I expected. For example, at a distance of 40cm the 105mm lens at f/8 has a Depth of Field (DoF) of only 0.5cm. Handheld this is not going to work. Even by breathing you move more than 0.5cm. So, you need a tripod. Although I am not very fond of a tripod for macro photography it is an essential tool.

Macro photography in action

Like I said, with f/8 the DoF is only 0.5cm. In some cases this is fine,  however, if you take a picture of a flower, maybe you want a larger DoF, like 1.5cm. In this case the aperture should be f/22. This means that if you are indoors, you need to use flashes. Below you see my set up in the garage. It consists of two flashes and a camera, all three on a tripod. I had set the shutter speed at 1/100th of a second, and the camera in Command Mode using TTL and a -1 compensation for both flashes. The subject are roses I gave to my wife for our 35 year wedding anniversary. I used them just before they were thrown away.
The next step is to get the right part of the roses in focus. I set the aperture to f/3.8 to get enough light in the camera. Autofocus does not always work, so I use Live View to visually focus. You can even magnify the screen to better focus. After that I set the aperture back to  f/22 and take a picture.
At the top and below you see two of my first pictures. I am satisfied with the quality of the picture, however, I still need to learn more about composition in macro photography.
Withered roses

Photoshoot for Crocheting Webshop

Last week my daughter asked me to take some pictures of crocheting she makes and sells via her Etsy webshop, DC crochet Design. She was facing some shortcomings of smartphones to do product photography. So, yesterday I grabbed my equipment and turned one of our bedrooms into a small photo studio. I have done something similar before so the first steps were easy.

  • To put all the focus on the crocheting I used white paper as a background. I used the same equipment as for model shooting, only I used a more narrow roll of paper.
  • To avoid sharp shadows I used two compact flashes flashing from two different sides through white umbrellas (TTL-mode). 
  • To avoid incoming daylight I set the Exposure Time to 1/160th of a second.

This is the way it looked like.

Studio for product photography

As a camera I used my Nikon D800 and the Nikkor 28-300mm as a lens. I set the Commander Mode such that the two compact flashes on the side flashed and that the built-in flash did not.
During the shoot my daughter and I checked the pictures to make sure that things were working out the way we wanted it. Here are some of the challenges I was facing:

  • The white background is not white at all Compact flashes are of course not as powerful as studio flashes. I have only one studio flash, so I decided to use two almost identical compact flashes. In Lightroom it is very simple with the adjustment brush to increase the exposure to make sure that the white background is really white.
    White background puts focus on crocheting
  • Not the whole embroidery is sharp In most of the pictures the whole crocheting had the same distance from the camera. In this case f/8 suffices. However, I did not realise that the Depth of Field was pretty small. Afterwards, I calculated that at 115 mm and with f/8 or f/10 the DoF is only a few centimeters. Too small as you can see here. The bottom of the iPhone is not sharp.
    Too small DoF to get the whole crocheting sharp

    From this I learned that I have to shoot a bit further away, with a wider angle than 115mm (for example, 50mm, and crop later), and at least f/16 or f/22 (all increase DoF).
  • Colours are not identical to original I fiddled around a bit with the  temperature to match the colours of the original.
    Slightly lower temperature to get the right colour

So, next time I am better prepared.

Hiking in Andorra

Andorra is a small country in the Pyrenees, a mountain range between France and Spain. It is a paradise for both skiers and hikers.
One hike took us to the north-western side of Andorra (Arcalis). Before starting I turned on the Komoot app on my iPhone to register my hike. I do this also to keep track of the the location where I took my pictures (see below). First we took a ski lift to take us all the way to the border between France and Andorra (the straight line on the map below).

After getting of the ski lift the first thing you see is this small lake, called Étang de Caraussans, surrounded by mountains in France. 

Lake on border Andorra-France
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

From there we walked to the highest point of our hike: 2690 meters. There you could see three lakes, called Estany de Més Amunt, in Andorra. As you can see, all very impressive. 

Lakes in Andorra
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

After taking some more pictures I walked all the way down to the starting point of the ski lift at 2220 meter. To be honest, I was glad I had taken the ski lift to get up.
Back at home I ingest my pictures in Photo Mechanic, I first throw away the bad pictures. Using the trail information from Komoot, Photo Mechanic figures out where I took the pictures (synchronisation is done based on time). Then I make a backup of the NEF-pictures on my NAS.  
The next step is to open the pictures in Lightroom to process them. Although it was sunny, I really had to add quite a bit of  liveliness and contrast to the pictures.
After saving them as DNG-pictures, I decide which pictures I will upload to Dreamstime. Within a couple of days I heard that all of my pictures were accepted. To give the buyers the opportunity to buy a DNG format of the picture, I also upload these. Furthermore, I do a bit of advertisement on Facebook. 

Here you see all of the pictures I took during several hikes in Andorra (made with jAlbum). Enjoy!

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Use Face Recognition for searching

Face Recognition

In whatever way we store our pictures we are always faced with a very troublesome search if we are looking for a pictures of a particular person, or of several persons combined in one picture. In the past we had to tag all the pictures by hand to indicate which relevant persons were in the picture. In practice, this was too cumbersome. So, especially when we are busy, this is often not done.
However, a couple of years ago Face Recognition (FR) became feasible; it is becoming more and more popular, with many different applications. Also, the quality is improving although it is still far from perfect. FR software extracts special features from a picture or part of a picture. Based on these features it decided whether the picture contains a face and it can also distinguish different faces. 
The algorithms that are used are very good to distinguish the various faces in the pictures. And at the same time they have to be very fast, to process a lot of pictures in a short time. On the surface, you might think that these algorithms are very intelligent, however, they just do mathematical computations on the pixels. Human beings use their intelligence to design these algorithms. Also, giving the faces the name of the corresponding person has to be done by hand. 
Only one face is recognized

If I look at the results, on the one hand, I am very impressed. With sometimes little information FR recognizes faces and is even able to identify that faces belong to the same person at different ages. On the other hand, there are also quite a bit of false hits: wrong person,  no face detection when there is a person, or face detection when there is no face. 
There are no faces

For picture handling I use Photo Mechanic and for image processing I use Adobe Lightroom. In Photo Mechanic I want to be able to search for persons, however, it does not have FR. Lightroom, on the other hand, has this facility. So, in practice, when processing images I let Lightroom identify the faces. It does this very fast. When exporting the pictures to DNG, the persons recognized are included in the DNG files. Allowing Photo Mechanic to search for persons. They are listed under Persons shown). 
So, now I can search for a person or persons appearing together in a picture.  I am very pleased with this set up. It saves me a lot of time.
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Rotterdam Central Station

The Dutch Railways realises that railway stations form an important part of the center of cities. I guess that is one of the reasons that the architecture of the railway stations is regarded as extremely important. Rotterdam Central Station is no exception. It was officially opened in March 2014. A year later I took this picture.

Central Station Rotterdam
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

It is one of my best selling pictures, especially in 2015. The most recent sales was this week. Below the original picture, it was taken with my Nikkor 16-35mm lens (settings: 16mm, f/4, 1/400sec, ISO 100). Especially, the wide-angle setting gives the pointy shape of the building special attention. 
Rotterdam Central Station: original picture

As you can see, I did quite a bit of post-processing:

  • The diagonal roof line is an essential characteristic of the building, so I cropped the picture to map the roof line close to the diagonal line of the picture. It makes the picture a lot stronger. The additional advantage was that I got rid of the glass building on the right (it distracts).
  • As you can imagine, I took a lot of pictures of this building. In the end, I chose the one with the person in front. It gives depth and it leads your eyes to switch between the shape of the station and him.
  • Last, I made the picture more lively: blue sky and yellow in the building. Especially the diagonal roof lost its color because of various shadows. 

Also inside it is a nice building, definitely worthwhile to pay a visit.

Central Station Rotterdam
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Rotterdam is famous for its architectural innovations. Here you will find more pictures of Rotterdam and here a post about it. Enjoy!
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Sunset at Noordwijk aan Zee

The colourful sky is one of the most fascinating scenes to take a picture of. Quite often people start to shoot too early, resulting in a very dominating orange ball called the sun. I prefer to start when the sun is almost disappearing behind the horizon. Then the sky and the sun are in balance and the clouds in the sky get an orange backlight.

Sunset North Sea, the Netherlands
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The above picture was taken at roughly 22:00 hours at the end of May along the coast of Noordwijk aan Zee, the Netherlands. Right at the time of the sunset. Just a few minutes later the sun had completely disappeared. 
What makes this picture special is of course the shape of the clouds and the way they are lighted. Some are dark and others are orange backlighted. Also the texture of the clouds adds to the special atmosphere of the evening. Furthermore, there is a subtle orange glow on the water. 
The picture was taken with the zoomlens set at 28mm, shutter speed 1/80th of a second, aperture f/5, and ISO 100. Below you see the unprocessed NEF version. It is not very appealing.
NEF version of sunset

In Adobe Lightroom 6 I did the following:

  • Lightroom automatically set the  temperature to 4900 (I did not change it)
  • set the correction profile for the lens I used (Nikkor 28-300mm)
  • set liveliness to +68
  • set saturation to +2
  • set the horizon straight
  • decreased locally the highlight caused by the sun.

The rest remained the same. This makes the picture much more appealing without overdoing is. It is important to only make subtle changes.
Here you will find more of my photo albums. If you are interested in having this picture on canvas, please click here.
The picture got accepted by Dreamstime within 2 days. 
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Tripod or not? Learnt my lessons!

Basically I am not very fond of tripods. On rare occasions you need one and still you have to carry them around all the time. Another reason for not liking them is the lack of flexibility in positioning the camera (for example, horizontal or vertical, or the position I want to take). So, I never take a tripod with me.
Coming back from Xi’an in China I noticed that in the hall of the Terracotta Army quite a few pictures had an ISO value of 6400 or close to it. And that the Shutter Speed I choose was not fast enough to compensate for the zoom of the lens to avoid shaken pictures. For that reason, a couple of pictures were rightfully not accepted by Dreamstime.  When you blow up the picture (100%) you can see the errors.

Terracotta Army in Xian, China (image is shaken)

Let us have a closer look at the contradicting circumstances and requirements in the hall of the Terracotta Army:

  • In the hall there is not enough light, maybe this has something to do with the preservation of the terracotta sculptures.
  • I wanted a large DoF (Depth of Field) to have several ranks of soldiers in focus.
  • The sculptures are a bit away from where I could stand, so to get enough detail I had to zoom in. Otherwise I would get only overview pictures with no detail.

If there is not enough light, there are four options: use a flash, slower Shutter Speed, wider Aperture, or increase the ISO. Remember, the last three determine the Photographic Triangle. See my post on this to understand the relationship between them: if you change one it at least affects one of the others to get a correct exposure. 
Let us have a look at these four options:

  • Use a flash This was no serious option because the sculptures were a bit too far away to evenly light the two or three ranks of soldiers I wanted to capture. And maybe I was not even allowed to flash.
  • Slower Shutter Speed Because of the low light conditions, the Shutter Speed was already pretty low, even further lowering would produce shaken pictures. Furthermore, there is this rule that if you zoom to for example 200mm, the Shutter Speed should be no higher than 1/200th of a second.
  • Wider Aperture Because I wanted several ranks of the soldiers in focus this was no option.
  • Increase ISO Given the above three, ISO was already in the 5000+ range. Going beyond 6400 (the limit of my Nikon D800) produces only darker pictures with a high noise ratio.

To handle this conflicting situation, I took a slightly slower Shutter Speed. As to be expected, this resulted in slightly shaken pictures. As long as the pictures are small, like in this post, you can hardly see it. However, to sell the picture commercially, the picture has to be perfect, even at 100%.

Terracotta Army in Xian, China (image is shaken)

So, what is the solution? Use a tripod. Because the sculptures don’t move using a slower Shutter Speed is no problem. You can take an arbitray long exposure time to get the right DoF and, at the same time, a low ISO to avoid noise.
So, I have learnt my lessons. Next time I take a small tripod (Traveller Mini Pro) that can be attached to the outside of my photography backpack (Lowepro Transit Backpack 350 AW).
Lowepro backpack with small tripod

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