HIWS: Two Quick Portraits

Dave headshot
Nikon D200, Nikon 135mm f/2.8 AI, ISO 160, f/5.6, 1/250 sec.

Transforming ordinary locations into portrait backdrops is really fun (and quite the addiction of mine). Today, I thought I’d share two contrasting photos of the same person to show the possibilities you can find in everyday locations.

Last year, my friend Dave landed an endorsement with a major trombone manufacturer (stifle your laughter please), and so he needed a headshot for their website. We happened to be out on the road in the middle of a 3 week tour, so I had limited gear with me. Those of you who read this series might remember that I had a small lightstand, two speedlights, and a small folding softbox. It’s not my typical headshot lighting kit, but it’s more than enough to create a great headshot. After all, it’s not how many lights/mods you have, but how you use them.

I wanted a clean black background for Dave’s headshot, so we happened to find a large upstairs hallway that was open to a lower level on one side. That gave me plenty of distance to work with so that my light wouldn’t illuminate the far wall behind him (light falloff: it’s a beautiful thing). Between that and eliminating any ambient light with my shutter speed, I was able to get that background to go black. There was a short wall behind him that showed up a little, but some burning in post would take care of that.

I also wanted a really soft light source as my main light, because I wasn’t going to be working with any fill. The little softbox wasn’t going to do it, even in close, so I used a large grayish wall off to camera left as a huge bounce source for my speedlight. The photo is at the top of this post and you can see how beautifully the light wraps around Dave’s face, the hallmark of a large light source.

Earlier in the tour, I had picked up this killer 135 2.8 at Central Camera in Chicago. The cost? $119. That is the lens I used for Dave’s headshot. You can see how, even at f/5.6, the back shoulder quickly falls out of focus. I love those old Nikkor manual focus lenses. You really can’t beat their value.

Existing ambient light.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take any setup shots of the headshot, but I did remember to take setup shots for this next portrait of Dave. This time, the photo would need to include his trombone because it was going to be used in advertising materials for a recital series.

Brick walls come in handy as backdrops, but they can become cliche really fast. Luckily, as a lighting photographer, you have complete control over the look and feel of your found backdrops. Above, you can see what the existing ambient light looked like on the scene. Those flashes aren’t firing yet and everything you’re seeing is ambient light. Yuck. Boring.

Something I always remember to ask myself is whether or not I can make an instant impact by turing everything blue. And it’s oh-so-easy. Just set your white balance to tungsten and watch the magic happen.

Ambient light on tungsten white balance.

Ah. A little more interesting. The next step I usually do is to see what the scene will look like if I underexpose it a bit. Then, it’s a matter of setting up some lights to expose your subject and, more importantly, to create depth and drama.

I used a 45″ umbrella as my key light and gelled the speedlight with a full CTO. What that does is to negate the effect of the tungsten white balance for only that light source. So, everything else remains blue, but whatever is being illuminated by the gelled speedlight will appear normal. I then used a non-gelled speedlight behind Dave to serve as some separation. By not gelling it, the light from the rear speedlight appears blue in color since speedlights and daylight are very similar in color temperature.

Underexposed ambient (tungsten WB) with added flash.

Once I had my lights all set, it was a matter of just working with Dave a bit to get some different angles and looks. It’s pretty easy when someone is playing an instrument: just have them play, keep firing away, and you’ll get some good stuff. In the photo below, you’ll also notice that we got a nice secondary rim on camera left which is coming from direct sunlight itself. Had I not liked the effect, we could have moved closer to the wall which would have put us in the shade.

Nikon D200, Nikon 60mm f/2.8 Micro AF, ISO 160, f/4, 1/100 sec.

I forget from which photographer I learned this lesson, but I was about to pack up my gear and call it a day when I said, “Hey Dave, let’s do a few more. I want to try something else.”

The photo above would have sufficed, but it’s funny what you can come up with if you just alter things a bit. Keeping pretty much the same lighting setup, I just had him face me directly and look right into the lens. I got a bit closer, opened up my aperture to get shallower depth of field, and got the next shot:

Nikon D200, Nikon 60mm f/2.8 Micro AF, ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/125 sec.

Much more powerful! The way the out-of-focus bell leads you back up the lines of the horn to his eyes, the way both rim lights keep his head from disappearing into the background, this photo just grabs you. It’s the shot that Dave ended up liking the best, and definitely the shot that I liked best. And it took an extra five minutes, if that.


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