Last weekend I had the opportunity to take some portraits for a friend. I consider it quite the honor to have had the opportunity to take these portraits. It’s not often that you get to take pictures that really make a difference for someone, and aren’t just a vanity project. My friend, Arnel, needed some new photos for work, and for his blog. Arnel has ALS, and while not in Stephen Hawking’s condition, he is confined to a wheelchair, and has side-effects from the medication he takes. Despite it all, he keeps on working, and maintains an upbeat attitude. These two portraits are my favorites of the bunch.
I particularly like the one that shows his wheelchair because it’s there, it reminds you that he’s not ordinary, but it also doesn’t pull you away from his essential dignity and presence. It presents his disability as just a small part of who he is, rather than defining him by it.
We did these last two photos for his blog – he writes about his experience as someone with a disability, and what he does to overcome it. Here he’s demonstrating how to use a head mouse – there’s a sensor that mounts to the top of his laptop screen and looks at his head, and it reads the movement of the little silver square and translates that into clicks on the screen. He can type with it, too.
We did these shots in his living room which he has set up as an office. I brought along some portable battery-powered studio lights and used them to illuminate him working because unlike the portraits, which were taken outdoors (we were extremely lucky that we had high overcast clouds providing a beautiful natural softbox effect), the work area was quite dim and lit with overhead recessed lights which would have been terribly unflattering in addition to being too dim to get good exposures.
In this set I’m including some black-and-white shots along with the color ones to show what the Fuji can do. I used the b/w+R setting (the equivalent of using a red filter when shooting black and white film). I don’t know that this is as extreme as actually shooting black-and-white film with a red filter in terms of the contrast and look, but I like it.
Mustafa showed up to the shoot in a tux, which is hard to work around if that’s not what you’re aiming for. It’s a good look, and a very elegant one, but not necessarily fitting a pool hall. I tried to shake things up a bit with the kaleidoscope glasses, the steampunk welder’s goggles and my own vintage leather jacket. Tip to models – unless you are told wardrobe will be provided, always bring at least two different looks to a test shoot with you so you don’t get stuck looking out-of-place on the shoot.
Mustafa has a great face – he looks good from lots of angles. When posing a model or a portrait subject, you want to make sure that you’re not doing anything un-flattering. If you’re turning the head away from front-on, you want the nose to either obviously stand back from or break the contour of the cheek so you don’t inadvertently flatten it by having it by having the tip of the nose meet the outline of the cheek. At the same time, pay attention to the eyes – you want to see whites on both sides of the iris. If you turn someone’s head in part profile and then have them look back at the camera with their eyes, the irises in the corner of the eye make them look like a psycho-killer. In these shots it works because he’s looking the same direction with his eyes as his face is pointing.
Here’s the set I did with Jayy Ruger (his professional name). While it definitely pays to add the colored gel to the fill light to add a touch of drama and character to a scene, it also pays to give it a light touch. In this first profile shot, if his face had gone totally red, it would have looked freakish or just poorly exposed/lit. Instead, the red on his cheek gives the image depth, and makes his otherwise flat makeup look more alive. Compare to the second image which was lit entirely with the overhead fluorescent light above the pool table where he looks almost corpse-like (entirely appropriate if you’re going Goth but maybe not the best look if you’re doing a family portrait).
Late last year I went on a lighting binge, and one of the light modifiers I bought was a beauty dish. I had this specialized one from Bowens I really wanted to try out because the dish has a hybrid diffuser with a center grid. In the bathroom interior shots, it was the only light source I brought to the scene. The rest of the light is from the existing bathroom lights and the fill created by the white walls acting as reflectors.
One of the great strengths of the Fuji (and one of the reasons I bought it) is its incredibly good handling of mixed color temperature lighting. You can see the color of light in the next several shots does vary, but regardless of what I threw at it, the Fuji did a terrific job of keeping skin tones natural and not shifting fabrics off in some wild direction in response to a mix of light sources.
Back to using a red gel again – it adds a bit of a sinister note to the shot, which creates an interesting tension between that look and the suggestive pose.
And we’ll close on a fun note – Jayy was being a great model and got into the whole steampunk thing with the goggles (he was already halfway there with his outfit!)
These are the same kaleidoscope glasses you saw in the previous model set with Alex. This shot was lit solely with an umbrella softbox. It’s like an umbrella, but more of a tight parabolic shape instead of the broad surface umbrella you normally think of. There’s a slit in the side of the fabric that allows the flash unit to sit inside the umbrella’s body, and then you can close it inside entirely with the diffuser (if you remember to bring it!). I wanted to focus your attention on Jayy in this shot so I moved in super tight and used a relatively fast shutter speed to let the background go completely dark. In the full length shot immediately previous to this one, I dragged the shutter to give a lot of background light, allowing you to sense the quality of the space behind him.
Yesterday I had a model shoot with three aspiring models who needed to build their portfolios. We went to a billiards parlor for the afternoon and I put them and the Fuji through its paces. It was also the first test in the field for my new 400 w/s bare-bulb strobes. The new strobes are battery-powered via external rechargeable batteries. They can be configured to sit on-camera and be triggered via hot shoe, take a wireless remote trigger like a PocketWizard, be triggered via sync cord, or be triggered by a proprietary wireless trigger system that also allows you to remotely adjust the power level from the camera position. The first one I bought was a Calumet-labeled version. When Calumet was still in business in the US, these were quite expensive – a single head unit plus the required but not included battery pack would have set you back a cool $1000. Nowadays, they’re on clearance on Amazon for $300 or so. They are also now being sold with the NEEWER, Flashpoint and Godox labels, at a much more reasonable price – I got a NEEWER version with the external rechargeable battery pack for $400 as a second unit for doing fill flash or background lighting.
These first two shots were taken with Alex shooting pool. In the first shot, I set him up taking the break shot. Don’t let the fact that he’s a model fool you- he’s also a pool shark – right after this shot, his break dropped three balls. I wouldn’t bet against him. This was taken with the Fuji 56 f1.2. My main light was the Calumet Genesis in an umbrella softbox, and the fill was the NEEWER with a gridded reflector and a red gel in it. Having the ability to both color gel and grid the fill is really handy, as the color adds a touch of drama to the scene, and the grid keeps it from spraying all over the place and coloring things you don’t want it to, like the table felt.
For this shot, I kept the lights the same but switched to the 23mm f1.4 so I could get in close and still get the extension of his shoulder, arm, cue, and the ball on the table, as this table was in the middle of the room with other tables behind me, and I only had about four or five feet to work in. The red gel adds a touch of drama and energy to the shot without overwhelming, and is a good way to deal with the very mixed light in a pool hall where you can have fluorescent (the over-the-table lights), halogen/tungsten (lights in the bar area and on the walls) and LED (accent lights like rope lights around partition walls and the like, or under the bar) all in the same area.
I also did some head shots with Alex (who is an easy, professional model to work with). I backed this indie film called Hallucinaut on Kickstarter last year and as my reward, I got these kaleidoscope-lensed glasses that appear in the film as a prop. I chose them specifically as my reward as something that would make a really cool prop for photo shoots. This was their first appearance in one of my shoots. They really pick up and reflect colors well, and make for a dramatic statement.
A variation on the theme, I broke out my welder’s goggles and matched them up with a vintage leather jacket for a steampunk look. Alex’s short-cropped hair adds to the look by letting the goggles really stand out against the shape of his head.
In the last look for Alex, I did two versions of this really clean, minimal portrait. When I showed it to him on screen he commented “I have a really long neck!” as if that was a bad thing. I reminded him of what you’ll hear on every season of the now-ended America’s Next Top Model – it’s a really good thing to have a long neck. Tyra Banks and her photographers were always reminding the contestants to elongate their bodies and gestures, to create drama and elegance. If you have a short neck, stretch it out, otherwise the camera can make it look like you’re neckless and just have a head glued directly to your torso.
These were both shot outdoors under the eave of a parking garage, and combining the flash in a beauty dish as a fill with the backlight of the street behind made it easy to completely blow out the background into a nice even white. Handy trick when you’re going studio-less and need an even background.
I shot all these images in RAW, then converted afterward to JPEG. I like working this way because it feels more like traditional darkroom photography, where I’m working from the in-camera negative. Working from in-camera JPEGs, while still very good, to me is not as good because it’s like making a copy of a print – changes have been made and nuances have been degraded.
Not that there should be any doubt, but the Fuji 56mm is a knockout lens (Fuji has always made some top-grade glass, especially for their medium-format cameras). The falloff in sharpness at wide-open or near wide-open is creamy-smooth, and the rendering of out-of-focus highlights is never harsh or jagged.
Takeaways from this shoot:
-Work with good models. Not everyone is a good model, and not all good models start out that way, but if you’re new to the process of working with models, hire folks (and I do mean hire, as in pay for with cash, not just trade-for-prints/CD) who have experience working with photographers.
-know your equipment. If I were not as experienced with studio lighting, figuring out what was going on with my Calumet/NEEWER flashes could have been a pain, as they don’t have modeling lights (to save on battery life) and are not TTL because they’re made to be universal and are not dedicated to any one system.
-have fun. Be loose, work with your environment, take advantage of the opportunities it presents, and challenge yourself to overcome its obstacles. You’ll make much better pictures that way.