Tuesday, November 14, 2017


My tip for this month has to do with what you do, or can do, with environmental portraits without the use of off-camera flash, umbrellas, and reflectors. Obviously, there are times when you need to use those portraiture tools. I'm not saying don't use them; I'm just saying that you can also do a good job without them.

It begins with my choice of setting. I like to photograph people in the outdoors, thus the term "environmental portraits." Since I don't have the degree of controls that are more readily available in a studio setting, I set strict requirements for myself. 

The most important requirement is lighting. If I am going to do a photo session, I will choose either an overcast day, if possible, or do the session in late afternoon when the natural lighting is less harsh and doesn't create unwanted shadows on faces, chins, necks, etc. Additionally, colors "pop" under those conditions, while keeping flesh tones acceptably natural. Getting correct exposures is virtually effortless!

I also like to vary my model's poses. I don't want them all to look, well, posed in the traditional, "Look at the camera and say cheese." Related to this, I don't like for my models to look overly staged. I want them to look like themselves, comfortable, casual, relaxed. I let them decide what they want to wear. The end result should be about them, not about how well I can photograph them--although that is my job. I want it to be about them. 

Composition also becomes a key consideration for me. Yes, I will get those subject-in-center shots, but, again, I like to vary my shots and sometimes include the model as part of the environment he/she is in.  

Now, how about the left brain technical stuff? First, I don't want to do a lot of color retouching on possibly 30-50 images of the same person! This is one reason I prefer to shoot in TIFF mode. I don't follow the on-line pros & cons; I follow the end results. F/stops are important too. I don't ask which f/stop I should use; I ask, "What do I want it to look like?" I always let my purpose, goal, and intent to determine my f/stop. The shutter speed's primary role is to minimize hand movement when shooting without a tripod. In most cases, the model will not be moving, but my hand might. So I need to keep my eye on that shutter speed. My "rule of thumb," to minimize hand movement is: My shutter speed should be equal to or greater than the focal length I have my lens set on. For example, with a focal length of 70mm, my shutter speed should be close to 70, preferably faster. A VR lens  (Vibration Reduction) can also help in those situations.

Exposure. Ah yes, exposure. If my composition is good, my depth of field is good, but my exposure is off, it's going to be a bad shot! I want good color, lighting, and tones throughout the image, without it looking flat. That is why I prefer to shoot under overcast skies--they serve as a natural giant diffuser and reflector. The quality of my images is such that it requires minimal fine tuning in my photo editing software, mostly light touches like some vibrance, burning, minimizing hot spots, and a little dodging on the eyes in some images to bring out more "whiteness," without overdoing it. 

I like to use my 24mm-70mm lens for those full-body, half-body, and close-ups. That range gives me that.       

So, now that I have explained what I do and why I do it this way, let's see some examples.  A couple of weeks ago a local high school senior asked me to take her senior pictures. Her name is Rebekah, and she gave me permission to showcase her. The first thing I told Rebekah was that I wanted to photograph her "out and about," on either an overcast day or late in the afternoon.

I chose an upcoming Saturday. I told her we would meet at a designated location around 3:30 pm, If it was overcast, we could meet anytime. As it turned out, when I got up that morning, it was obviously heavily overcast. I quickly contacted Rebekah and asked her if we could meet earlier. She agreed and we met at 11:00, yes, midday--horror of all horrors. Who wants to photograph people in the middle of the day, right? It's a photographic no-no to do so, unless.....it's an overcast day. 

Let's look at just a few of the 30+ images I created that day with the help of Rebekah. By the way, when she saw the results, she used the word "amazing." If the customer is happy, you've done your job! 

Let's start with a typical full-body posed image. The original old metal gate near the historic Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas was a nice setting for this shot. The background, slightly blurred with an f/2.8, served as a good backdrop. Since all my focusing was going to be on Rebekah, I set my camera on Auto Focus for the entire session, to allow me to quickly assess my compositions and backgrounds without having to worry about focusing. 


Before we started the photo session, I told Rebekah that I might use some backgrounds, but that I wanted her to be the main focus. She wanted some photos around this next area, near a gazebo where her parents got married! The gazebo overlooks the Crescent Hotel.

In this case, since it was a special spot for her, I introduced the hotel as a backdrop, blurred in the background with an f/5.6. Compared to the previous image, I was close enough to her, and the background was so far away from her, I knew that f/5.6 would work.  


For this shot, I wanted to engulf Rebekah with these deep red colors. We were actually walking from one location to another when I spotted this background. The background was closer to her than the background in the image above, so I used an f/4, which softly blurred the late fall red leaves on the tree. If I had used f/11-f/16, the leaves would have "competed" with Rebekah for attention. The blurred background also gives the image a more three dimensional feel.

With careful and intentional usage of f/stops, we can convert backgrounds into backdrops. 

I added a vignette to this next image after the fact. The vignette increased the attention on Rebekah. If this had been a bright sunny day, this shot would have been extremely difficult to pull off. There would have been a lot of bright, burned-out sky in the background. 

When I do this to an image, I make sure the client also gets the original. I want them to decide which one they like best. The vignette becomes, not the final image, but an option.  

After I had spent a good 30-45 minutes with Rebekah and felt like she was getting a little more comfortable with me aiming my camera at her, I decided it was okay to try a little fun.
Before this shot, I asked, "OK. Now let's celebrate. What can we do to celebrate?" She took it from there, let her guard down and just started being herself. Click! I loved her spontaneity--I hardly finished my sentence before she started celebrating!

This was another one of her spontaneous celebratory poses. It was fun to see her loosen up and just be herself. They turned out to be some of the best shots. 

Notice the blurred background? F/2.8. 

Now, this might surprise you, but of all 30+ images I created that day, this final example is my favorite. Everything came together for this shot. The bridge served as a perfect "stage" for her. She looked so relaxed when she stood like that. The overall surroundings, perfectly exposed because of the overcast day, gave the "environmental" to an environmental portrait, not to mention the great late autumn colors throughout. It looks like a movie set.

I did not want a blurred background like in some of my other images, so for this one,
with my lens set at around 24mm, and with me several feet away, an f/6.3 did the trick. 

Did you catch those left-brain variables? 1) 24mm (more inherent depth of field),                
2) The distance of the subject from me to my subject--several feet).          

So now you know. First and foremost, pick an overcast day or shoot in late afternoon for those great effortless exposures. Vary your compositions and formats (landscape & portrait modes; verticals and horizontals). Small/wide f/stops like f/2.8-f/5.6 to convert backgrounds into backdrops. And, just be yourself. Don't be so much into yourself as a photographer. The more comfortable the rapport is between you and your subject/model, the better photos you will be able to get. Have fun!