Dramatic Portraits

Continuing my efforts to get better at taking portraits, my friend Tyler came over this weekend having volunteered himself to be a model. I was very excited to have gotten tethered shooting working so I could photograph and immediately see the results in Lightroom – which helped him see what was going on too, without interrupting my workflow (such as it was) to show him the camera’s viewfinder. We had a good time learning about histograms and why red-eye occurs and things like that, and took a bunch of pictures too. I like this relatively new venture of taking portraits of people, but it requires a lot of patience from everybody to deal with my cheapo flash setup.

The first twenty minutes or so were spent pretty much trying to get the lighting worked out so that it would behave consistently, although even after that I had to fiddle with it a lot throughout to avoid shadows on the back wall. I gave up pretty quickly on the umbrella concept since it wasn’t cooperating, and ended up going with a naked flash raised to about 45º at different positions. I didn’t really like the harsh shadows it produced, but we added a white reflector on the opposite side and I think it worked out alright (especially after some local adjustments in post and a lot of lightening shadows). We needed a third person to hold the reflector where it needed to go… I did really like the spotlight beam it was making on the wall though.

So, pictures.

Once I got the lighting sort of cooperating, I spent a while working on having him relax sufficiently. The best technique seemed to be to find a pose that was appropriate to his character so it didn’t feel artificial, and then for him to just talk while I interrupted with directions as necessary.

Looking at the photos afterwards, it was fun to see the progression of Tyler’s classic gestures while he talked – I had just seen a sort of dance version of our minister’s characteristic sermon gestures at his going-away party the night before, so it was easy to see the similarity.

The next step I tried was to have him put on his teacher jacket and lean on the back of the chair (after a short lecture in Professor Amy’s favorite word, contrapposto stance). I think having the subject change partway through has helped in the instances I’ve done it, I’m not sure why. Maybe just to break things up for them.

That seemed to work pretty well, especially combined with asking him about how he stands when teaching his class, to put him in mind of a familiar scene rather than the camera in front of a blank wall, and give him something to talk about.

The only problem then was sometimes it took extra direction to get him to stop moving his mouth in every picture!

Here’s an original vs the edited photo’s adjustment pins showing.

I ran one of the Lightroom B/W presets for starters and then brought the whites up a lot, since all of the photos were definitely underexposed (intentional, this time!). There are two adjustment gradients on the left side to bring the highlights and exposure down to help with the spotlight focus, and then a number of local brush adjustments trying to shed a little fill light in the shadows of his face, nose, and eye. The right side of his face was losing detail from the harsh lighting, so there’s another pin to bring the highlights, exposure, and contrast down on that too, to bring some texture back. Most of the photos went through a similar process, plus some have vignettes.

All of these were shot with my dad’s Canon 40D camera body with my 60mm macro lens at ISO 100, 1/40 sec at f/7.1 or f/6.3. I started out much faster but for some reason cranked it down – probably more than I should have. Good thing he was generally still enough that the pictures weren’t blurry. For once I probably could have made the aperture one or two steps larger, but this way all of the textures are preserved and it’s just the farthest shoulder starting to blur. I think it goes with the dramatic, high-contrast lighting.

Does his teacher aspect come across at all?

Since I’m trying to learn, I’m interested in critique and suggestions… what do you think of them?

7 Responses to “Dramatic Portraits”

  1. Ariana
    | Reply

    I don’t know much about photography, but I do know that my favorite one is the 2nd one in the jacket :)

    • ellen
      | Reply

      I think the catchlights came out well in that one, yeah.

  2. Kelly
    | Reply

    I have a lot of respect for the patience it takes to rig a setup with artificial lighting! I don’t have it. These are very dramatic indeed….and the “classic gestures” sequence is a real winner!! Would have loved to be a fly on the wall when this shoot was taking place! Ha ha! :o)

    • ellen
      | Reply

      Well I certainly need more guinea pigs on which to become better acquainted with my lighting – but I’m not sure it would be very interesting, especially to just watch. :) I have a lot of respect for the people who have sat through me fighting with my lighting equipment! I really don’t have it down yet, so there is a lot of lengthy trial and error and fiddling on my part. But I think it’s really cool to see the photos that come out – the step from “here is someone standing randomly in my living room” to “whoa, that actually looks like a real portrait!” is magic for me. Adobe Lightroom is incredible.

      I didn’t notice the “classic gestures” until I sat down afterwards to edit and was paging through them and realized it was basically a flip-book of “Tyler when he’s working something through”… There are plenty more that I didn’t bother putting up, too!

  3. Heidi
    | Reply

    Does his teacher aspect come across at all? — Only a LOT. :D

  4. Michael
    | Reply

    Hey! guinea pig candidate, some evening when the studio is empty, jurors ask for images of me at work, how about it?! Are you mobile enough?

    • ellen
      | Reply

      Michael, that sounds good. I have a little bit of new equipment coming in, so maybe sometime next week? The studio is not a great environment and I’m a bit limited on what I can do since there is no natural light and I only have one flash, but we can try and see what comes of it.

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