Monday, January 3, 2011

party portraits

First of all, happy new year. I hope everyone sticks to their resolutions. Good luck with that. Personally, resolutions have been nothing but miserable failures. This year, I gave up resolutions. It has been a huge success thus far.

Today, the discussion will be about shooting portraits at a party. Whether you are hired for such a gig or happen to be volunteering your services to friends or family, the task can be tricky.

Take a look at the photo posted. It was taken on this New Year's Eve. Now study it, reverse engineer the light and analyze what you like and/or dislike about the photo as a whole.

As I said, shooting portraits at this or any party can and will be tricky so I am going to share the experience, step by step, so you may be successful when you find yourself shooting under similar circumstances.

Step One (packing your gear)

Pack light. That is probably the most important bit of information that I can share. On this day, I was headed out for a light New Year's Eve celebration. I had volunteered my services since the host of the party (subject middle) is my aunt. Say hello to Aunt Theresa. I knew in advance that there would not be many people attending. Regardless of this knowledge, I did not want to pack heavy. Why? First of all, this party was being held in a house, I did not want huge, elaborate light setups interfering with the guests' comfort levels. Next, shooting party portraits must be done quick and on the fly. Just as I did not want the guests to be annoyed by having to maneuver around light stands, I didn't want them to have to wait while I spent time to adjust lights, off camera.

I packed only the DSLR body, two lenses (one wide and one prime) and one speedlite. I also had a tripod for, just in case purposes. My plan was to simply use the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM prime lens for the heavy work (yes, still alive). I would use a wide angle for any other creative ideas. I planned on lighting with the strobe on the hotshoe. No direct light, I would find a surface in the house to bounce from. I was assuming that the ceiling was still white from my last visit. That would be come my large diffused light source, soft and indirect.

The bag is packed. Be sure to have plenty of backup battery power. If you are planning to step into any of the photos, the tripod becomes useful and if you have any, remotes should be packed as well. It's time to head over to the Rockin' New Year's Eve party (sans Dick Clark).

Step Two (scouting the set)

As I arrived at the party, I didn't hastily grab my gear. I left it aside and socialized a bit. Unbeknownst to the others, while socializing, I was getting a lay of the land. Where were guests gravitating towards? Which room was most popular? What backgrounds seemed interesting? What type of ambient would I work with? This will ultimately save you time once it is time to start the actual portrait work. Trust me, having a preconceived idea of what you will shoot will save big headaches. Walk in and try shooting from the hip. Your ratio of awesome photographs compared to garbage photographs will be in favor of the garbage shots. To make things worse, if you are a old school film shooter, the price tag will rise, exponentially.

Step Three (exposure)

If you are working in a controlled environment, as I was, you can dial in a workable exposure before doing any actual work. On this day, the party was at night and indoors. Daylight was of no issue. Ambient was limited to a few tungsten bulbs in the main rooms where activity was gravitating. The kitchen had overpowering ambient, yet too cluttered for any comfortable work. That left me to figure exposures for the dining room and the living room. I ultimately decided that the living room was going to be the set. There were a couple decent backgrounds. Nothing groundbreaking, but workable.

I wanted to get a safe exposure. Something that could be changed on the fly but would also be universal, per say. I toyed with the idea of going higher in ISO, in hopes of keeping the flash power way down and getting some ambient into the picture. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to pack my gels and just decided to take the ambient out all together. Don't get me wrong, I could have worked the RAW files later but I wanted to keep total creative hours of this shoot, to a minimum.

I decided on ISO 100, resulting in low noise output, giving me crisp, clean photos to work with. Shutter speed was synced to the flash at 1/200th of a second. Aperture was a bit tricky. I would be shooting multiple people, in a mid sized room, from close distances. The subjects could possibly be at varying distances. I also wanted to minimize flash power. If I dropped way down to f/1.4, I increased the chances of having one or more subjects, out of focus. Yet, this would yield low flash power which in return would allow for faster recycle times with longer battery life. If I bumped up to f/8.0 or somewhere in that area, depth of field would be maximized, possibly too much, depending on the background of choice. At that aperture range, strobe power would have to be maxed out. That would result in speedlight misfires and short battery life. I found a somewhat happy medium. Aperture was at f/3.2 with the flash dialed in at 1/4 power. You may be asking yourself why is the strobe set so high at such a low aperture. Well, remember, I am bouncing the light from the white ceiling. If you recall, the Inverse Square Law comes into play. The pulse of light must travel not only from the speedlight unit onto the subjects but from the speedlite unit, up towards the ceiling and bounce from the ceiling onto the subjects. Over that distance, light is lost exponentially due to the aforementioned Inverse Square Law.

Yes, that was quite a bit of mumbo-jumbo, so, to simplify in dummy terminology, ISO:100, shutter 1/200th, aperture f/3.2 and flash at 1/4th power. This exposure setting is very safe but could be tweaked if necessary.

Step Three (the subjects)

If you think that trying to figure the Inverse Square Law into your exposure settings while at a party, with alcohol consumption, while socializing, trying to find decent backgrounds and at the same time, eating hor dourves, can be a tough task, well, you're wrong. Even more difficult, is shooting subjects that have been consuming alcoholic beverages hours before you arrived.

As I knew I was going to be doing some work, pro bono, I decided to keep the adult beverage intake to a minimum. Take that statement as advice from God. If you decide to indulge, you are asking for disaster. I promise that your photo shoot will help you gain no new clients. You will either act like a pure idiot and make a fool of yourself or your photography will be, well, crap. No other easy way to put that.

Anyway, I digress.

Working with subjects, under the influence, can be quite the challenge. First of all, they do not want to follow directions. If you are shooting candidly, this can be an advantage. Not ideal for portraiture. Next, their attention spans are at an all time low. Getting them to pose for any extended period of time will be impossible. This is why I had a preconceived notion of what my exposure would be, before opening my first bottle of Yuengling. Finally, drunk people tend to wander. If you plan on shooting little Suzy with her father, you better hope that Suzy's dad didn't find his way to the nearest strip club. All of these little variables equal one constant. The shots (not the Patron) need to be done in a controlled yet quick manner.

Step Four (the shoot)

I noticed that the energy in the room was dissipating. Not so much that the guests were passing out on the floor but enough that I would be able to control them more than them me. I popped the lens cap. Now it's time for some action. At this point everyone seemed game. Perfect. I let them feel as if they were directing the shoot. That is something I learned by watching the great Annie Leibovitz. Agree that their posing is awesome, while at the same time, adjusting them to your preference, ever so slightly.

Getting good looks from every subject, at the same time, will be taunting. Be sure that you are firing in continuous mode (most DSLRs will have this feature). Hold the shutter down for rapid firing. My DSLR fires at approximately 3.5 frames per second. This will improve your chances of getting pleasant expressions, across the board.

Mind your composition and "Rule of Thirds." You can either follow the rules or break them. Before breaking them, one must first understand them. If you are new to photography and do not understand these rules, learn and practice them until they become instinct. A keen eye will know if a professional is deliberately breaking the rules or if an amateur simply does not understand the rules. For this party, as I kept the exposure safe, I kept the rules intact as well. As everything had to be completed in a timely fashion, I didn't want to lose subject attention while trying to go crazy with creativeness. They wanted nice portraits and that's what I wanted to give. Nothing "off the wall."

I accomplished the task at hand. I had photographed each couple and a few nice group shots. It was time for dessert. I was home before midnight. I'm such a party pooper.

Step Five (post-processing)

After uploading the files, I open them in Adobe's Bridge. In Bridge, I can preview and organize. I chose my favorite frames and filed the others away into a separate folder. For the sake of the post, let's say that this photo is the one and only good one (I promise there were more, I didn't drink that much). I open the file in ACR (Adobe Camera RAW) and make the proper adjustments. First of all, my White Balance was pretty nice. I had the camera's White Balance set to Flash. In RAW, I left White Balance, As Shot. Next, I tweaked the Exposure sliders ever so slightly. I think the only one worth speaking of is the Fill Light Slider. I dragged it to 15. Necessary, no, but I enjoyed the bump in the luminance range that this slider yields. It is more of a creative personal preference than a fix. The Clarity slider is bumped to 25 along with the Vibrance slider. Again, personal preferences. Finally, I adjust the Detail and Sharpness. I also adjust those in Photoshop so my adjustments here are for the photo's integrity, not a creative choice.

Once the ACR adjustments are complete, I open the photo in Photoshop. First, I aim to remove any color casting. I do so by opening the Curves dialogue. In there I grab the black dropper and find true black in the photo and click on it. Next, I find true white by doing the same with the white dropper and finding true white. After I find those, It's time to find true mid-tone gray. Just like the other two, I grab the gray dropper and locate a true mid-tone gray in the photo. That part takes some time getting used to, but over time it becomes second nature. Be patient and experiment. If you click something that is not truly mid-tone gray, they result will be very ugly. It won't be hard to miss. As the Curves dialogue is still open, I adjust the histogram to adjust the contrast. I first create three anchor points and create an S-shaped curve. The point to the right is moved up eight or nine clicks and the opposite for the left side point, which is moved down eight or nine clicks. The image here shows exactly how the histogram should look.

After my color cast is removed, I then duplicate the layer to adjust the sharpness of the image. Once the layer is duplicated, I then remove the color of the image. Do so by opening the Hue/Saturation dialogue and drag the master Saturation slider all the way to the left. This will leave you a Black and White photo. I do this so that when I adjust the sharpening, only the edges are effected. The colors will be left unharmed. Next, I go to Filters, Other, and High Pass. Open the High Pass dialogue and depending on the pixel count of your camera, adjust accordingly. This photo was shot at 12.5 megapixels. According to that, I pull the slider to the right and land somewhere between a radius of 80 or 90. More megapixels can handle 90 or above. less megapixels should start to max out at a radius of 70 or less. Do not be disturbed at what you are seeing. This is only a view of the edges the sharpening will be applied to. Below the layers you will see a drop down box. Open that and scroll down to Vivid Light. The photo will look a little crazy but fear not. I drag the Opacity of the Layer to 10%. This will give a nice pop in the photo's global sharpness.

I usually don't do much after those adjustments, unless the photo needs some real, heavy duty, surgery. I did notice that the bokeh in the photo was not as heavy as I would have liked. To remedy the situation, I simply duplicate the original layer, open Filter, Blur and then the Lens Blur dialogue. Once that box is open, I adjust until the whole photo has a pleasing, believable blur, a blur that would have actually happened, had I shot at a slightly larger aperture. I then choose OK. Now, I create a layer mask, invert the mask and grab a soft white brush. With the soft white brush, I paint in the background, careful not to paint over the subjects. If I do paint on them, I simply take a black brush and paint those areas. This will paint away anything I've painted in. Finally, I take one last look at the image, flatten the layers and save as a .jpg.

All is complete and ready to be hung on someone's wall or posted here on Blogger.

Step Six (review)

As I look at this photo, and some others from the shoot, I cannot help but analyze how things could have gone better. Let's take the posted photo as our example.

Depth of Field. I already mentioned that I was not pleased with the bokeh that was a result of the aperture, camera to subject distance and subject to background distance that were chosen. Had I backed up and pulled the subjects in closer, dialed the aperture to approximately f/2.8, then the background would have been blurred appropriately. The fix didn't take long in Photoshop, so all was not lost.

Background. In retrospect, maybe the few Yuenglings that I did drink play a small role in effecting my photographic concentration. It's the little things that need paying attention to. Take a look at the blinds behind subject left (mom, hi mom!) and subject middle (aunt Theresa), on any other day those shades would have been pulled down for background continuity.

Positioning. I like the choice in subject positioning. Take a look at the colored shirt in the middle. That balances nicely with the outer two subjects, wearing white(ish) shirts. The Rule of Thirds are applied nicely. I am also pleased about another aspect of subject placement. It is ideal to have odd numbered subjects in portrait photographs. When you have this ideal number, it is good practice to create triangles out of them. As you can see, they naturally make an almost perfect isosceles triangle. The only positioning change that I would have made would have been to place subject left (mom) in a mirrored position to subject right (wife, hi wifey!). Other than that, I was pleased with the composition.

I feel that the accessories played a nice role in this photograph as well. The hats speak for themselves. The horn blower (wife) emits great emotion. Also, take a look at wife's necklace, although it would have been nice if the inner of the three was hanging equally, I like how silver creates nice specular light. Finally, aunt's necklace. The textures are awesome. That is due to the light source (diffused from the ceiling). Had this photo been taken with a point and shoot with direct flash, the depth and texture of that necklace would have been lost. Hell, this whole photograph would have probably looked like crap had it been shot in that manner. All hail indirect flash!!!


I would like to thank my wonderful models on that cold New Year's Eve. Wife, Mom and Aunt Theresa, you rock! John and Uncle Jimmy, unfortunately you guys didn't make the cut this time. And to everyone else who I did not mention, who participated for my own personal gain, at that huge New Year's celebration, it was one for the record books. Don't think there were many in my lifetime that compared to that wild and crazy night. Thanks and have a happy and safe 2011!