If it seems that every photoshoot I do for these artist profile pages is an excuse to try a new technique, you wouldn’t be far off. On one hand, I started this project to document the jazz musicians living in DC. On the other, I wanted to further my skills in lighting and photography. It’s the latter that compels me to try out new techniques.
I’m still finding my voice (as we say in the music business) as an artist in the photography world, and part of that process is soaking up as much as I can. But it doesn’t end there. Experimentation and implementation is just as important as observation.
So that leads us here, to photos of the wonderful drummer, Joe McCarthy. I had been wanting to try out some shallow depth of field photos with Joe. For those of you non-photographers, depth of field is the area of your photo that is in focus. When you use shallower depth of field, a smaller portion of the photo in focus. In portraiture, it allows you to get the subject’s eyes in focus while allowing the background and other areas of the photo to fall into soft out-of-focus areas.
There are several factors that contribute to achieving shallow depth of field, but one of the key elements is using a large aperture. The problem that arises when attempting to use a large aperture in daylight is dealing with the flash sync limitations of cameras. Now, there are cameras out there that can sync at higher speeds, but most DSLRs (mine included) sync somewhere between 1/160 and 1/250 of a second. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you (a) already know how these things work, or (b) don’t care.
Think about it for a moment. Knock your ISO down as low as possible to , let’s say 100. Set your sync speed at the camera’s highest, let’s say 1/250 sec. Now, in most broad daylight situations that’ll give you a properly exposed image at an aperture of about f/11, give or take. f/11 is not shallow depth of field material, by any stretch. See the problem? At this point, you would overexpose your image by four stops if you attempted to shoot at f/2.8.
So what are your options? There are several, including high speed sync (not with my old speedlights) and neutral density filters (didn’t have one at the time for the size lens I wanted to use). The only option that doesn’t require buying more gear is finding shade. And that’s exactly what I did for Joe’s shoot.
The key for the photos of Joe was finding a location where I could shoot during bright sunlight, but have both the subject and background be located in shade. As we discussed a couple of paragraphs above, if your subject is in the daylight, you will overexpose by trying to shoot at a wide aperture. If your subject is in the shade, but the background is in the sun, you will overexpose the background. That’s actually not such a bad thing if you are going for a high-key look, but I wanted detail in the background. I just wanted it to be super blurry and soft.
Luckily, I live about four blocks from such a location. I used the space underneath the Woodrow Wilson Bridge before, with trumpeter Luke Brandon. Thinking that it might work again for what I had in mind, I ventured out for some test shooting. This is an extremely helpful thing to do if you are able to make it happen. Understandably, certain venues and environments might be off-limits to you before a photoshoot, but if you can get the access, go do a test shoot before the real thing.
The above photo is one of my test shots. I used my lightstand as a stand-in for Joe to see how the background would look when out of focus. You can see here how powerful shallow depth of field can be. It almost makes a lightstand look good. Now, this photo is underexposed but that was just fine with me, because the whole point is to add a pop of light to the subject in order to get some shape and definition. Right now it’s just soft, wrapping light. Which is fine. Just boring.
In addition to the test shot above, I also took a test shot of my hand to see what the exposure would be on skin. It was underexposed by almost two stops, so I knew that I’d have a bit of wiggle room if I wanted to add a fill light in addition to the key. Or I could just use a key light and go for a more dramatic look.
By the way, it took me a long time to learn how to get skin exposed accurately in camera. Here’s a trick: make sure the skin is filling most of the frame (as in my test shot). Using your camera’s histogram, look for the bulk of the information (the skin tones filling the shot). It should be about a stop over middle gray. Keep in mind that’s for an average white fella, such as myself. Different skin tones will fall at different places on your histogram.
That was one background in the bag. Next step, turn around and try out the stone wall that was immediately behind me. I had some ideas for that. First up, I wanted to see what it would look like underexposed and out of focus. That’s the test shot below, taken at almost exactly the same settings as the first test shot.
That’s a fairly middle gray wall above, underexposed. I decided to open up my shutter speed by a stop (1/125 sec) to see what that looked like:
There’s no right or wrong here, just testing to see what different backgrounds will look like. You’ll also notice that, again, I’ve used a piece of gear as a stand-in for my eventual subject. The whole point is to focus on the stand-in to see what the background will look like when out of focus.
A great idea to remember is that you can switch your white balance to tungsten to see what a background will look like with a blue tint. Notice in the shots below that I’ve tried it at two different exposures:
I liked the blue look quite a bit for a moodier vibe. I then decided to test several more options with that same backdrop. By adding a splash of light from the side you can create another dimension to that same gray wall. See the captions below for details on each test shot:
I had another idea for a backdrop in that same location which involved using the then-colorful (it was autumn) trees. I may have done a quick test shot to see how they’d look out of focus, but I don’t think I kept it to share with you all. My apologies!
Now, on to the day of the shoot. Shooting in the shade of a large object (such as a bridge) is great because you don’t really have to worry about the weather. If it rains, we’re under a bridge. If it’s too sunny, we’re under a bridge. If there’s an earthquake—best not to think of that.
The photo of Joe above was lit using a speedlight in a LumiQuest Softbox III. It’s a pretty small softbox, but used close, it can get fairly soft. I like that it still has a bit of an edge— it can act like beauty dish light. Fill light was provided by the ambient. Remember the photo of my hand above? The ambient was about the same as the day of my test (thank you bridge).
In the next photo, I used the background we discussed earlier. This iteration of the background was created with a 1/2 CTO-gelled speedlight and tungsten white balance. Key light was the same softbox as the previous photo, except I added a full CTO to cancel out the tungsten white balance setting.
In order to get a little more fill on Joe’s face, I added another speedlight in an umbrella positioned just about on-axis. This light was fitted with a 1/2 CTO to retain a bit of the shadow coolness of the tungsten white balance. Power was set to taste. I wanted some drama, but also decent legibility in the shadow areas.
If you look closely at the camera-right side of his face, you can see a subtle kicker light. That was a happy accident. I think it was coming off of some reflective surface that was catching the natural light from outside of the bridge and sending it underneath towards us. I’ll take it.
The final shot of Joe was taken a little further down the length of the bridge, facing out towards the trees. Key light was a speedlight in a shoot-through umbrella, nice and simple. The tiny bit of fill is coming from any existing ambient light under the bridge. This is actually a great illustration of how much light you can lose when working in shade. Notice how the trees are well lit, maybe just a tad underexposed. Compare that to the shadow side of Joe’s face, which is quite a bit underexposed.
Three different looks, all shot in just under an hour. Be on the lookout for locations where you can eke out a variety of backgrounds. They are well worth the scouting effort, and doing some lighting tests beforehand can really save time on the day of the shoot.