Sunday, October 2, 2011

family portraits that rock

This morning started off wonderfully. While walking to my vehicle, I happened to find twenty bucks buried in the bottom of a muddy puddle. I just happened to notice it, lying perfectly flat. Good luck? Perhaps. I also thought to myself, I wonder if somebody was looking for that same twenty, someone who needed it to pay for their child's dinner. Well, fear not, I am here to share with the world. If it was your money, lying at the southeast corner of 18th and Lombard in Philadelphia, I will gladly mail it to you. Just contact me at

For the rest of you who know me by know and know I'm totally full of crap, let's get on with today's post. Boy I can't wait to see how many people claim to have lost that specific bill.

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by an old friend who said that he wanted to have some portrait work done of his grandchildren. The portraits would be a gift to grandchildren's parents. I penciled in a date on iCal and started planning, from jump street, how I would approach the subjects. Being that the portraits were to be a surprise, I had to get a little creative, wanting the parents to be thoroughly impressed with the work I was commissioned to do.

A Man, A Plan...

Days leading up to the shoot I was spinning my wheels trying to figure out a plan of attack. I thought I would shoot each child individually, each with a uniquely expressed emotion. Trashing any typical school styled portrait. You know the ones I'm speaking of, a child awkwardly posed against the forest muslin motif, coupled with bad lighting and fake smiles. No sir, I would never venture down that road to the dull and boring. Rather I'd go the strange and unusual route, since I, myself, am strange and unusual.

I opted to head over to Calumet to grab a roll of black seamless, the 53 inch version. With the right lighting it is quite easy to turn white seamless into black but I had other ideas in mind. I wanted the clean black background lit by a single strobe, adding some texture and halo type effect to the photograph. That was the initial plan of attack.

I received an email approximately 24 hours before the shoot, requesting that I confirm our scheduled shooting time. In hindsight, probably would have been more professional had I sent my friend the confirmation email. Hey, I can't be perfect 100% of the time.

Judgement Day

The day of reckoning had arrived. My adrenaline and caffeine mix had me quite excited for the shoot. My brain was still trying to figure out exactly how to approach each subject, to create something very different for their parents. Something that I knew they did not have, regardless of the fact that I've never been in their home, let alone even have met them. Most child portraits have the same style, very run-of-the-mill type of work. I would not let myself do that, this day or ever.

The children and grandfather arrived in the early afternoon. For some reason I assumed (ASS U ME) that there were only two children. Not sure why I made that assumption but I did. As you can clearly see in the photograph, there are three. Although, this would simply add some time to my shooting it also made me feel a little more at ease. I knew Dave, the grandpop, wanted a group shot. Leading up to the day of, I felt the horror of shoot only two kids. I had no idea how I would approach two which is why I wanted to stick to individual shots. Now that three had arrived, I knew I would be able to work that shot with some finesse. You see, odd numbered subjects in portrait work is always better than even. It just allows the photographer to more easily place and pose the subjects. It's about shapes, more specifically triangles. Triangles? Yes, I'll elaborate more on that subject another time.

I threw on the TV for the wonderful kids while Dave and I discussed how and why I would shoot each of them. He also shared some of his ideas. Together we came to an agreement and soon I was ready to shoot.

The Firing Range

I had all of my gear, grip and lights ready to go. I pulled the lens cap and was ready to fire away. One by one, I placed each child in front of the black seamless, took aim and fired away, motor driving, trying to find that emotion that I can't explain yet I could see in my head.

I'll explain why you're not seeing any individual portraits posted herein. Although I had found more than enough usable frames, I felt I still didn't have the one, that standout shot, the winner. It was time to do some group shots. At the time I swapped out the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM for the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM. I just needed something a bit wider for getting all three kids in frame. After ripping through some shots I still felt a bit of staleness to what I had been doing. It was then that I had an epiphany.

Gear Doesn't Matter!!!

Was the triple exclamation overkill? Possibly. Two may have been suffice, even one may have done the trick. Regardless, It was that line that any, every and all photographers should recite just before bed every night, along with their Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, or whatever prayers people say to clear their conscience of wrong doings in hopes of getting a good nights sleep. Sure there are those, eh hem, yours truly, who pray for the good of the world, nothing self serving. Ok, I'm ranting, digressing, and lying, all in one sentence. Wow, how I get off track. I amaze myself sometimes. What exactly was my point? Oh yeah, Gear Doesn't Matter! Say it over and over again. Once you've said it a hundred times, rinse and repeat until that phrase is burned into your memory.

Here's what went down. Not feeling it with what I was doing, nothing spectacular anyway, I decided I wanted to shoot wide angled to add some distortion which I felt would yield a more fun and happier scene. The problem? No decent wide angle on hand. Only a couple cheapos that I hardly ever pull out of my bag. Typically I borrow or rent my wide angles, in advance, knowing what I would need it for. On this day I didn't see the need until I did. I reluctantly pulled out the EF-S 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 IS. I recited to myself, gear doesn't matter, regardless of any online article I've read about this lens. Basically, the entire world would agree that this lens is junk. It is probably due to those reviews, why that lens, along with the other cheapo, never leave my bag. Their job is too look pretty so that when I open my bag, people's jaws drop in awe at the sheer amount of gear that is so neatly jammed into such a small space. Strictly vanity purposes. Never would I consider using that lens for a commissioned shoot. That would be suicide. Ah, but that line, gear doesn't matter. I decided to take a risk and see what I could pull off with it. Hell, why do the reviews say such negative things about it? I mean, I've had plenty of awesome shots with that lens in the past. Many say the autofocus motor is too loud. Who cares?! The weather sealing is terrible. Um, as long as it's not raining in the studio, I'll be okay. Optics aren't top notch? Even a pixel peeper would have a hard time noticing with a loupe atop a loupe.

So, I took a risk. Something all photographers should do in every aspect of this art form. Without risk, no reward. Again, I swapped out the 50mm for the 18-55mm. I wanted to get as wide as possible, so I left it out at the 18mm setting. Besides, I'm not a big fan of zooming with a lens, I prefer zooming with my feet, words of wisdom by Tim Ferriss, author of "The 4 Hour Work Week" and "The 4 Hour Body." Tim Ferriss is a writer who has recently entered the world of photography. Check him out, an amazing dude. There I go again, they should make a drug for people with such short attention spans. Oh yeah, they do. Oh, well, I embrace my crazy brain. Ok, focus.

Zooming with your feet rather than with a lens will induce creativity. It will help you find new and interesting angles. Having your feet planted will limit your abilities, I promise. This is exactly how I 'got the shot.' Rather than stand stationary, I moved around the subjects with the wide angle, looking for a fun and interesting point of view. I had directed the children to get goofy, to get crazy, no holds barred. Ultimately, for this shot, and others, I decided to climb up on a chair and fire down on the subjects. I knew I found it, the shot. Within minutes, the shoot was a wrap.

The Nuts and Bolts

To the left is the diagram of how I lit the scene. I wanted the light to be kick ass. I think I pulled that off, exponentially. I went with a three strobe setup. The fill light was shot through a 45 inch brolly, placed high, above and behind the camera, angled down on the subjects. I wanted the kids to pop and to do so I added a couple kickers, or rim lights. Those strobes were placed strategically off to either side of the children. The brollied strobe was set to 1/4 power, while the kickers were zoomed and powered one stop higher at 1/2 power. All three strobes were triggered via my pride and joys, Pocketwizards (Pocketwizard, will you marry me?). Yes, by now you all should know of my obsession with these babies. They are saweeeet! I would not recommend any other brand. Sure they are a bit pricey but they get the job done, without any fear of misfiring. I think my PW's have yet to misfire, knock on wood. They are the industry's standard and the proof is in the pudding. If you cannot afford Pocketwizards, I say stick to the old school hard wired approach. The Chinese and Hong Kong brands will only let you down, I promise.

Camera exposure wasn't too far from the norm in this type of controlled studio setting. I went with a shutter speed of 1/200, ISO 100 and an aperture of f/5.6. I stopped down the aperture to get a greater depth of field. I would have went as far as f/8.0 or higher but I didn't want to drain the strobes at a higher rate. 5.6 allowed my to keep the speedlights at a reasonable power allowing me to motor drive from time to time.

Over in the digital darkroom, I did some cool tweaking to add some life and levity to the scene. In Adobe's RAW editor, I bumped the contrast, blacks, clarity and vibrance. Once completed, I opened the CR2 file in Photoshop to dial in on what effects I wanted to add. First things first, I corrected the white balance and removed any color casting. I then added some more pop by running the file through a high pass filter, ever so slightly. I wanted some color pop and to do this I upped the yellows and blues. For the true bad assness of the photo I threw in some tonal contrast to the shadows midtones and highlights. I did so via the Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0 plugin. I've been using this plugin more and more as I unleash its powers. Once I added this layer, I then dropped its opacity down until it looked just right. I then simply flattened the layers, saved as a .jpg and called it Miller time (actually Chimay time but that just doesn't sound right).


The outcome, in hind, present and foresight? Rocked! Don't know how else to put it. Dave, the client wanted something special and I aim to please. Moral of the story, take risks, move those feet and pay closer attention to your money. That twenty bucks bought me lunch today, thanks to whomever the unlucky person was.

By the way, I found it on the southwest corner, the cash, not the southeast. Just a way to weed out the liars. I amuse myself so easily.

Until next time. . .