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.

Lighting: moods

In the series Understanding lighting: from physics to moods, I will now discuss the relationship between lighting and moods. In the previous blogs I discussed several techniques to get a specific kind of lighting. In this blog I am going in the direction of art.

Beautiful brunette putting gloss on her lips
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

We all know that when we tell our subject that we are going to take a picture, we get automatically a pose with a nice smile. Most of the time all emotions are gone. Therefore, I prefer to take pictures when people are not aware of the camera to tell a story. Then, they express their genuine emotions (reportage photography).
In a studio setting this is quite a challenge. So, I first talk to my models to make them relax. I am in a lucky position that I knew my models before I started with portrait photography. So, there is enough to talk about. I quite often use props, like an iPhone or an iPad. It helps them to focus on what they would normally do with e.g. an iPad and not to pose.
Two types of lightening are high key and low key. A high-key picture is bright, has hardly any contrast, and lacks shadows; it expresses happiness and joy. A low-key picture, on the other hand, is dark, has many black areas, and has a lot of contrast; it expresses drama, tension, or mysteriousness.
A high-key picture is made by overexposing the background and having main and fill lights with a high exposure. Make sure not to overexpose. A low-key picture is made with a dark background and main light that acts like a kicker light (only lighting a specific area of the subject). Furthermore, the settings of the camera should be close to underexposure.
Beautiful latin girl with curly hair
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

My experience with lighting is mainly in the area between high and low key, actually a bit closer to high. In the near future I am going to experiment with the two extremes.
There are many type of moods, which require a different lighting. By experimenting you will find out what the right combination of posture, light, color (look at this overview for the relationship between color and emotions), and angle for the different moods is.
This ends the series on Understanding Lighting: from physics to moods. It was inspired by Light: Science and Magic by Hunter, Biver, and Fuqua and Sculpting with Light by Earnest. Please, enjoy!
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Lighting: studio lighting setup – several lights

4-light setup
4-light setup

In the previous blog in the series on Understanding Lighting: from physics to moods, we discussed studio lighting using only one light (the main light). The essence of lighting is to play with light and shadow. The same is of course true if we use more than one light.
Using one bare light produces harsh shadows. This can be overcome by making the light bigger by using an umbrella or a softbox. However, this does not change the darkness of the shadows, it only softens the edges.
To get rid of the darkness of the shadows we need an additional light source. This might be another light, or it might also be a reflector. Note, in a sense a reflector is another source of light, however, a reflector does not produce more light than the light source of the incoming light. So, we cannot fully control it.
Besides the main light there are the following additional lights:

  • Fill light These are used to lighten up the shadows. Do not make them too strong otherwise the shadows completely disappear, making the picture flat.
  • Background light To create more depth we need to separate the subject from the background. This is done by placing a light behind the subject directed towards the background. If the backdrop is white it is better to use a color, if it is black a white light can be used.
  • Rim light To highlight the subject we use a rim light. It is placed behind the subject directed towards the subject. It gives a halo effect around the head and shoulders.
  • Hair light Sometimes it is nice to highlight a specific spot of the hair. This is done by placing a small, focussed light at a high position directed towards the hair.
  • Kickers They are very similar as hair light, however, they are directed towards a specific part of the subject.

The picture at the top shows a 4-light step bringing most of the above together. One main light on the left, a fill light on the right, a rim light in the rear, and a hair light on the far right. I again used the Virtual Lighting Studio by Oliver Prat of Zvork.

Main light, reflector, and background light (blue)
Main light (left), reflector (right), and background light (rear, blue)

My own experience with a studio lighting setup until now is limited to a main light and several fills, lights and reflectors. In the near future I hope to experiment with the full setup.
This series of blogs on understanding lighting is inspired by Light: Science and Magic by Hunter, Biver, and Fuqua and Sculpting with Light by Earnest.
In the next blog we will discuss the right lighting setup for specific moods.
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Portrait photography: quite a challenge

27170474As far as photomodels is concerned I am in a lucky position that I work with two young ladies that enjoy photoshoots and that bear with me while I am experimenting. Portrait photography is quite a challenge, besides learning the techniques for studio photography, it also requires interacting with the model.

Brunette with long hair making phone call
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

For a photoshoot at home I have a large white background made of paper that goes all the way down and on the floor where the model stands. This gives a nice uniform background. The advantage of white is that it is easy to manipulate the color of the background, for example, by using a color flash directed only on the background.
The model stands a couple of meter before the background to make sure there are no cast shadows. I use a large softbox and an umbrella to light the model on two sides. Sometimes I use a backlight to light the model from the rear to create a kind of halo. Via my D800 I manipulate the strength of the various flashes. It is nicer to have a strong flash on one side and a weak flash on the other side to create shadows. This gives a more three dimensional impression.
The camera I put on Manual Mode, Shutter Speed on 1/60sec – 1/80sec, and Aperture on f/3.5 – f/6.3 (the only Depth-of-Field required is max 20cm). So far the technique. Via the builtin flash the various flashes are instructed what is expected from them.
The two models I have are natural photo models, so I have to tell them very little about poses. I have some books about poses, so before starting we talk about the clothes they brought, the poses they and I have in mind, and the story behind the pictures. The latter is the most difficult.
Below an example of Stephanie working for her graduation project in the design lab.
Student working on maquette
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

And here a picture of Adnela reading her email from an iPad.
Teenager reading her email
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Here you will find my portrait pictures on Dreamstime.
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