Sunday, July 24, 2011

shooting dark skin tones (part one)

I mentioned in the last post that I'm not typically the most subtle person and why should today be any different?

[I changed the post title. I was being a bit cocky about freedom of speech and all that jazz. I told myself that I did not care if the world would be disgusted with my choice of words. Well, I went through with it and succeeded. The reason for the title change was that there was someone a bit larger than life that did not approve of my choice of words, Google. Yes, the monstrous company sent a semi-friendly email stating their opinion of my words. I was not being told to take them down. They honored my freedom of speech but decided with my choices they would not be able to create any types of business partnerships. I'm not in this for the money by any means but if opportunities arise I would not want them to slip away, especially for reasons due to my ego. Readers and publishers abroad, respect Google, they are king. So, without further ado, I will proceed to change my anti-PC article.]

Part one of a two part series.

Let's talk shop. I mentioned that this is a two part series. I've done so for a number of reasons. First, being that I've shot the subject in two completely different styles. Next, is that I'd like to get personal with the subject. The subject here is Gregory Brown, a Philadelphia based photographer. Today I'd like to discuss the image seen here and the following post will discuss another image along with Greg's background, foreground and everything in between. The two posts will also give me a chance to separate each photograph and the details that went into them, without causing you any confusion.

The Idea

The ante was upped for this shoot. I wanted this one to stand out. Rather than go your old run of the mill standard portrait lighting, I wanted to get a little crazy. I wanted, rather needed, to get away from "safe" light. Sure safe light can yield some spectacular results but sometimes it can start to look like each shoot is a Xerox of the last. That is one path that, as a photographer, you do not want to travel. It can be a quick route to a dead end. My advice is this: get wild. get sick (in a good way of course). Know the rules of composition, light, etc. and once you know those rules, break them (when applicable of course). It's a bumpy, dark and dangerous path but the end of it will lead you to many more opportunities. I promise.

So, with all of my motivational rambling aside, let's get back to the photo of Gregory Brown. Think of that title once again, "shooting dark skin tones." The title was chosen to really teach a lesson. A lighting scenario for his skin tones will be quite different than say that of lighting my pale white face. It may be much easier to pull shadow details from my head than it is to get those same shadows from Greg's face. I brainstormed for a couple days, trying to figure out how I would like to portray the photographer. I had to make it awesome, hell, he's in the same game as myself. It's got to kick ass. I'm sure he is going to critique the work just as I would.

I decided that I wanted to get a bit contrasty. I wanted a simple black background with multiple light sources. His shaved head is smooth like a baby's behind, very specular. My gut instinct told me to get the high contrast shot and convert to black and white in post. Obviously the shot is not black and white and that just goes to show that all scenarios can change at any given moment.

The day arrived along with Greg. It was time to get shooting.

The Set

I created this lighting diagram via The Online Lighting Diagram Creator, an awesome teaching tool for photographers.

If you take a look at the diagram you can see that I used a plain black background with three direct light sources. Those lights were as follows. I used one Canon 430ex ii speedlite place in a Calumet 45 inch shoot through umbrella at camera left and slightly above the subject. The Canon speedlite was set on manual mode at 1/32 power at 50mm. This large light source would act as my fill, strictly to pull shadows into detail, nothing more. At camera right and above Greg's head shooting almost perpendicular to the floor was a Vivitar 285HV. The Vivitar was snooted with a DIY black, cardboard, 10 inch snoot. I had the Vivitar set to manual (as if there is another way) to 1/16 power, at its normal zoom setting. The last light was at camera left and slightly behind the subject, approximately six feet away from him. This was also a Vivitar 285HV. The strobe was also snooted with the same DIY version as on the other strobe. This Vivitar was also set to 1/16 power at its normal zoom setting. Speaking of DIY, the black background was a plain black blanket that I found in the laundry room. I simply hung that on the wall with two small nails.

All of the strobes were perched on Calumet 10 foot light stands and triggered via Pocketwizard Plus ii transceivers. Yes, I took the plunge and went with the industry's best. Look ma', no more wires! Oh, those babies are pretty. Now my bed is totally packed with wife, dog, and my Pocketwizards, which share a pillow with me. Yes. that was weird but have I ever claimed to be anything but?

I was shooting with my now antiquated Canon 40d DSLR (waiting patiently for the 5d mark iii release). The chosen glass for the shoot was the Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM, an awesome portrait lens. My exposure was pretty normal, even for someone like myself. I was at ISO 100 for minimal noise (dreaming of 5d iii) at 1/200 shutter and pretty wide open at an aperture of f/2.8. I found that this lens' sweet spot is at f/2.8. You lens' sweet spot may differ based on brand or simply by slight manufacturing differences.

The Why

Not the Y as in YMCA but Why as in Why did I make those light and exposure decisions?

I began with the exposure. All strobes were powered off. With the lights off I would be able to find a nice dark exposure on with to build my lights on. At ISO 100, 1/200 and f/2.8, I had just barely a visible subject, almost totally clipped in the shadows. From that point I started to build light. I first tested the fill light, the Canon through the umbrella. Greg's face details became visible but very boring and still underexposed. I then added the overhead strobe. This would act as the key. I wanted the light to be controlled and simply kiss his face and head. Lastly, was the light at far camera left. This was to act as a rim light.

If you take a close look at the photograph, you may notice that my intentions, or why's, didn't produce exactly what I had intended. The key ended up a bit rough and the rim turned out to be more of a side light. Read on.

The Mistake

It may have made a bit more sense to post part two shot before today's but it's too late for that. Just follow and try and keep up.

I ended up with about 150 frames. I ended up with about 100 that I loved. They were exactly what I had wanted, from a technical sense. And then there was this one. This one was shouting out at me. It had a different feel than the others. I opened in Adobe CS5's Bridge to take a closer look. Crap! There was a bit of camera shake. Yes, even with strobes, my hands are so shaky that I sometimes can get some camera shake. I wanted to trash it but it was pretty cool. I wanted to try and fix the shake in post but that is seldom effective. There had to be a way. I called Greg after the shoot and told him how brilliant the shots were, except for that one, this one. I told him how it was totally different, technically and creatively, from the rest and that something about it was really awesome. But that damn camera shake. I didn't want to sit in Photoshop for hours trying to fix it. Greg gave me a gem. He said, rather than fix it, go with it. Words of a wise man. I hung up on him and hurried over to the digital darkroom.

In RAW, I did my basic edits, except for one. Down at the Clarity slider, which I typically bump up, I drug down to -60 ish. This added some real softness to the image. I was already falling in love with this photo that almost ended up in the garbage. After finishing up in Adobe Camera RAW, I opened the file in Photoshop. I begin with my normal corrections, color, white balance, etc. Now, when I usually do some High Pass Filter for sharpening, I, instead, opened Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0, a great plugin for pros. I knew immediately that I wanted to blur this shot even more but without overkill. Nik's Glamour Glow was the choice. Glamour Glow is just what it sounds like, it produces a nice glow with some added warmth. I flatted the image layers into one and took a final look. I had a strong urge to keep working in post but something or someone (my wife) told me to stop. She happened to look at my work (a rare event) and she immediately fell in love with it. I decided to sit back and take a good look, it was complete. Save As... and wrapped it up.

The Point of it All

What was my point? I can't remember. Oh, yeah.

Don't get sucked in to be so technical. Don't get me wrong, it is awesome to be technically in tune but don't let it take over your creativity. You will see in, "shooting dark skin tones (part two)," that the end result of the shot is exactly what this one was meant to be. Don't get me wrong, both are great, just don't let the technical rule you. Again, I almost trashed this photo because it was not exactly what I had planned it to be. I was being ruled by technical and I had force that monkey off of my back. The rules were broken here and the results prove that rules can and should be broken.

Trust me, it's very liberating.

Part two

No, fear not, part two isn't beginning now but stay tuned to see how other shots from the shoot developed and learn more about Gregory Brown, photographer.

Until then...