photographic mistakes

After receiving numerous emails from some friends, I decided to do a follow up on the Ellis Walding portrait shoot, "headshots  -  a different take on the subject." You can find the link to that post [here].

To sum up and condense into one statement, the emails basically stated that they wanted to see some more shots from that day. Having been up quite late last night, and no it was not another fiesta at the casa de speedlighter, I was up late for some other significant reasons that I'd rather not share here for the world to read. Ok, who am I kidding? The reason being was that, well, let's just say that I may have had a slight case of food poisoning. Problem is, I could not seem to put my finger on the culprit. I've been on quite the DiBruno's cheese kick lately. Last few nights I had not had any. Maybe it was cheese withdrawal. Maybe it was the fact that I had not eaten on healthy thing all weekend. TV dinners and Ben and Jerry's could be the variables that have caused my current physical state.

First of all, if you are from Philadelphia or have ever visited the City of Brotherly Love then you need to know about DiBruno's. They are a gourmet grocery of sorts. They sell cheeses and meats that will cause you to change your religion and are priced accordingly. They have one cheese that costs upwards of fifty bucks a pound. What's my point? I'm getting there. All good things to those who wait.

I mentioned that the wife and I have been indulging on the deliciousness of DiBruno Brothers on a very regular schedule. Now, since Friday, I've been living like a pure bachelor. Ellios' pizza, Hungry Man frozen dinners, Chunky soup, et al.

The reason being for my rapid decline in meal choices is this; if it can't be microwaved, well, I can't really cook it. My wife is the chef of the household and a damn good one at that. On a daily basis we usually enjoy exotic meals derived from recipes from around the globe. By the way, the Korean lettuce wraps are one of my current favorites. Here's the thing, chef Stefanie had left home for the weekend to assist her sister's newest addition to the family, Aida. Sister Jaime gave birth to Aida just the other night and wife, with bags already packed, up and left me to fend for myself. Not sure when the last time I was left home alone for an extended period of time was. My instincts go right back to my days of being a bachelor, junk food galore and late nights of Cinemax. This seemed like the most sensible way to care for myself. I swear I'm like a giant child sometimes.

I'm hypothesizing that in the absence of my traditional daily routines and added new ones were the reasons that I was up until 2 a.m., not feeling so hot.

Now that I've shared my deepest feelings, let's get on with the show. So, without further ado...

This Guy Again?!

The reason Ellis is making yet another appearance on the blog is twofold. First, I already mentioned that I received multiple emails requesting to see some more of what went down that day. The other, is that due to my unhealthy weekend, I just wanted to make this post as quick and painless as possible. My creative juices are hardly flowing this afternoon. I didn't want to post something entirely off-the-wall, and screw it up in the process. Hey, at least I'm honest.

I already mentioned in the last [post] that the goal of the shoot was to create a new and updated headshot for the actor. It was during the interim that I wanted to grab some creative portfolio styled portraits.

Take a close look at the photograph, of the actor, posted above. Without beating around the bush, I will just state what may not be obvious. This shot was a total and absolute mistake. This is the reason for the title of today's post. My point is that not every photographic mistake is a mistake. It all depends on yours or anyone's point of view.

How I Made The Mistake

Let's reverse engineer the light for a moment. By the way, reverse engineering light is a brilliant way to learn how others are lighting their subjects. It is quite difficult at first but once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. I cannot help but pick up any magazine and immediately reverse engineer the light of the subject on the cover. Nowadays, it's just habitual. The art of reverse engineering is when you look at a photograph, typically one lit by a pro, and look for clues that tell you how and even with what type of mod the photographer used. A couple key things you should look for are catchlights in the eyes, shadows and highlight areas. Those things can help you understand the placement of the strobes and with that you can start to develop your own lighting scenarios. Pablo Picasso was claimed to state this awesome quote, but not documented, 'good artists borrow, great artists steal.' Genius if you ask me.

Ok, so you have reverse engineered this photograph. I'll explain the findings that some may have found and others may still be searching for. First, there is an obvious strobe placed on the background, for separation. Next, you see a large source for fill, to bring out shadow details just a couple stops below a proper exposure. That is the light on the subject. Lastly, you see a highlight area across the torso, that is a third strobe firing a narrow beam of light.

Now, let's take that a step further and figure out by what we see, what types of mods the photographer, yours truly, used to shape light. First, the strobe on the background is an obvious one. That strobe is on a stand directly behind our subject facing directly towards the wall. the beam of light is narrow but does spill out to some degree. This speedlight was fired bare with no mods, about 12 inches from the background. Next, we look at the large light source filling the subject head to toe, or waist for that matter. This must be some sort of large flash modifier. It is indeed, in fact it is a 45 inch shoot through brolly, up close and personal to the subject. If I had to guess, about 18 inches from his head, camera left. Last but not least is that funky key light coming across the torso. That is yet another narrow beam of light. This beam has a more controlled path than does the strobe firing on the background. The reason being is that this flash was modified with a snoot. The snoot was courtesy of the arts and crafts section of Walgreens. It's a DIY snoot that I built in record time with some gaffers tape and black construction paper.

Now that you can see what is happening with the light, how and where they were placed, if you had to guess, where would the mistake be occurring? I'll give you until I'm finished heating up my coffee to figure this brain teaser out. Good luck. Jeez, I feel like I'm talking, rather typing, to myself. I'm back, figure it out? The "mistake" was the snooted strobe firing across the subject's torso. Let me elaborate, it's what I do best.

The Original Plan

Let's back up for a moment and imagine that I had not tripped a single shutter. I had a plan of how I wanted to light the subject. He needed a certain styled headshot and with what Ellis told me, I began to brainstorm which lighting scenario would work best for his needs. My plan was to improvise with what I had. I originally wanted everything as is except for that damn snooted flash. Not having a boom in my arsenal of equipment, I typically us a VAL or Voice Activated Lightstand. On that particular day, I was SOL or S*** Out of Luck (hope Google doesn't penalize me for that one!). Rather than call it quits, I decided to improvise with how I would use that key light. With the boom, I would have had that speedlight firing directly down from overhead, raking light from his forehead down to chin and falling off from there. Instead, I placed that light at the highest angle possible from camera right without letting the lightstand get into the frame.

I advised Ellis to chill out in the spot where I would need to be shooting him from. I offered him a beverage and he went with a bottle of Modelo Especial. Quick note: I, as you should too, always offer drinks, coffee and even some light appetizers to the clients, very classy move, trust me. As he sipped his cold Mexican beer, I began to work my exposures, tweak strobe output, etc. As I began firing some test shots, I immediately noticed that the key light was: 1. overpowered and 2. way too low. I had to make some adjustments. I chimped the camera's LCD to see what I needed to tweak. Before getting real dirty, I always check my histograms as well to be sure there wasn't any highlight clippings. Another side note: BE SURE TO CHECK THOSE HISTOGRAMS as they can make or break a shoot. If you don't have a light meter, the histogram is one of your lifelines. While chimping along, I found this frame of Ellis. I immediately thought that it was a spectacular portrait, for a portrait's sake, not a headshot of course.

After a few exposure and light adjustments, we were on to the session full steam ahead. All of the following frames were as he needed for his updated resume.

In the end, I actually pulled the snoot altogether and replaced it with a second brolly. I had the strobe choked up on the shaft about halfway and dialed in the strobe head to a zoom of 105mm. That ultimately gave a slightly softer light than the snoot yielded.

The Moral of the Story

The number one mistake people make is deleting files too quickly. This is done for a number of reasons and I was a huge offender of this rule. First, many people try to conserve space on their CF or SD cards. Second, those photographers also fear filling up hard drives with unnecessary files. The solution to the problem is to invest in more memory, both for your gear and your base camp storage. My memory cards aren't huge but are quite adequate. During a shoot, I typically fill up two cards. As for my hard drive storage, I'm at 2 terabytes. This is about the normal amount for working photographers today. The truth of it is, for a C-note, you can get yourself a 1TB external drive. A wise investment if you ask me. My next drive will be 2TB for under 200 clams, giving me 4TB of storage, more than enough for my needs.

While going on and on about storage, I got off track a bit. The moral of the story is, DON'T delete files. You may have a gem without realizing it. Don't trust your camera's LCD to tell the whole truth. You need to view those files on large screens to see what is really going on. More times than not, I've had files that looked awesome on the LCD but when opened large, blurred or some other tragedy. On the other hand, I've also had files that I want to trash from the camera immediately but when opened full size, I find that it may be the winner of the group.

I had another point here. Yes, mistakes that turn into something useful. For Ellis, and his purposes of a headshot, this shot would be garbage but as I mentioned, I think that it can work quite well for artistic portraiture. Let's say you have a client who you are shooting for whatever reason, be sure to capture more than just those posed shots. Try and capture expressions between poses, true emotions are often caught this way, a laugh, a frown, a thought or whatever it may be. You and the client may feel it won't work for their cause but it can turn out to be a brilliant piece of work. Just keep shooting. The awesome thing about digital these days is that you have an infinite amount of frames to fire, for no added cost as is added when using film.

Until next time...

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