HIWS: Portrait of Brian Betz

Brian B&W
Nikon D200, Nikon 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 @ 70mm, ISO 100, f/13, 1/250 sec.

My friend Brian (a Philadelphia-based jazz guitarist) has been on my case for a while now to take his new press photos. He was telling me how much he liked my work and that he’d want to get some new stuff going for his website and promo materials. So when I finally had some time to get up to New Jersey, I made it a point to set aside some time to do a session with him. That being said, we didn’t have a ton of time and he didn’t want anything too involved anyway.

When packing for my two week vacation that would include this photoshoot, I had to think about keeping the gear to a minimum. I would have loved to roll out with all of my lights, modifiers, and grip, but it’s just not feasible when you’re going to be traveling for 2 weeks with your wife and twin boys in a Subaru Impreza.

So I packed 3 lenses, 3 speedlights, and some fold-flat light mods in my backpack (probably still overkill, but hey, it all fit in there just fine…) along with a double-fold 43″ shoot-thru umbrella bungeed to a compact lightstand. I definitely wanted a lightstand and the umbrella is so small that it fits right alongside the lightstand without taking up much more room.

I arrived at Brian’s house and began looking around for ideas. He didn’t want a studio look or anything too serious, but I was having trouble finding a good spot in the house to shoot him. It would have been easy to get a studio look out of a bare wall, and it could have been cool to make a portrait of Brian as a father, but this photo would be for his musician promo materials.

One of the concepts I had been running through my head for a few days was to photograph him outside with a sweeping sky. He also has this old Camaro that he works on from time to time and I thought that could be an interesting element as well. As it was, I couldn’t convince him and his wife to go for the Camaro idea, but I did twist his arm to head outside in a suit. In 95º weather. Heh heh heh.

Okay, so sweeping sky. The clouds were pretty good that day, but I had no idea where we could get a clean view of the sky without buildings, trees, or power lines in the way. Luckily, Brian knew of a park 5 minutes down the road where we might be able to get some open space. It turned out to be just the thing.

To turn a normal midday sky into a dramatic backdrop, the key is to underexpose. Then it’s as easy as bringing in some artificial light to properly expose and define your subject. The photo below illustrates what the sky looked like that day when underexposed by about a stop. I was able to hit that with my lowest ISO and max shutter sync at f/11, so I knew I could go even darker if I wanted by going to f/16. It’s nice to have that latitude.

Underexposed sky: ISO 100, f/11, 1/250 sec.

The small aperture that I’d be working with pretty much dictated my lighting, since I work with speedlights. Speedlights were not designed to be exposing things at ISO 100 and f/11, so you have to compromise. You can use them bare, get them in close, and even gang them up to get more power. I could throw two of them in an umbrella, but it was a little too windy that day; plus, I figured Brian would look good with hard light and it would suit the edgy vibe.

We picked a place in the shade so that no direct sun would be hitting him (as much for the exposure as the heat), and I found a good angle to get as much of the sky in the background as possible.

Underexposed subject before adding flash.

Above is a quick ambient shot (this time at f/13) so that I could see what I’d be working with as far as fill light on his face. You can see that the background is pretty busy, but I was shooting him right at eye level. Once I got down on the ground and aimed up at him, I was able to eliminate pretty much all of those distractions and get a clean shot of the sky.

For lighting, I used a bare speedlight zoomed all the way to 105mm (as much for power as for the light falloff), and found a good angle on him. Then, it’s as easy as directing him to move in different directions corresponding to the light. Sometimes you want more of the face in shadow, sometimes less. To get more of the face in the light, just tell your subject to look towards the light. Since you’re not shooting from the same angle as the light, you still get great modeling on the face, but it’s a little gentler on the features.

Brian was a lot of fun to work with. He’s got a lot of energy and he brought it even though it was hot! Pretty much just wind that guy up and let him go.

For my final edit (see the photo at the top of the post) I chose a black and white treatment. The sky ended up looking even more dramatic and the processing more closely matched his wardrobe and expression. Don’t forget about trying different crops as well. I went for a 5×7 which is less oblong than my camera’s default 2×3 aspect ratio. A 4×5 crop worked well too, so play around with some different options in order to get the most compelling composition.


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