Depth of Field

As a people photographer, depth of field is critical.  You focus on your subject and a certain amount of space in front of and behind this focal plane appears in focus in your image.  Sometimes you want everything in focus - the subject, the background - the whole enchilada.  Other times, you want to make an artistic statement or draw the viewer's eye to a specific area of the image.  Many times you just want to blur the background.  This background glur is called bokeh and some photographers spend a lifetime trying to find the ultimate bokeh.

Most photographers understand controlling depth of field by using their aperture.  If you open up to a larger aperture (smaller f number like f/2.8) less of your image will be in focus.  Conversely, if you stop down to a smaller aperture then more of your image will be in focus. 

But that's not all there is to the depth of field equation.  Two other factors will affect your depth of field - your focal length and your distance to your subject.  Longer lenses - more telephoto - reduce the depth of field.  And your depth of field increases the farther your are from your subject.  I always wondered how landscape photographers had so much of their images in focus.  It's easy - just use a wide angle lens and shoot something far away.  The trick here is not to focus on "infinity".  Instead, understand your hyperfocal distance and focus on it.  The hyperfocal distance is the distance beyond which all objects are in focus.  So, with a wide angle lens and big landscape you may be able to focus on five or six feet and have everything appear in focus.

By comparison, the image below was shot at f/2.  You'd think less of the image would be in focus but I was standing 15-20 feet from Alexandra when I shot it.  So she's in focus and the background is nicely blurred.

Or, should I say the bokeh is nice.

Take a Step Back

One of the toughest lessons for beginning photographers is perspective.  When we start out, we tend to take all of our pictures from a standing position and, typically, we stand close to our subject.  Then we review our image and it doesn't quite look right.  The conclusion we make is that we probably need some different type of gear - and this won't help at all.

If you take a look at the photo below, you'll an example of this effect. I call it "big head, little feet".  Some people think this is caused by using a wide angle lens.  Sometimes it's even called lens distortion.  It's not.  It's simply perspective.  Most people understand perspective conceptually - things that are closer to you appear larger than things that are farther away.  If we stand a foot away from our subject, our faces are about a foot apart and the distance from our eyes to our subject's shoes is five or six feet.  It doesn't matter which lens is on our camera or if we even have a camera in our hands.  Those distances remain.  Our brain processes this visual information and we perceive everything as being proportional - yet we also know that our subject's face is almost uncomfortably close to us. 

If we step away from our subject twenty feet, then our faces are about 20 feet apart and the distance from our eyes to our subject's shoes is about 20-21 feet.  If we stoop to our subject's waist level then the distance from our eyes to our subject's eyes is the same and the distance from our eyes to our subject's feet. 

So perspective is a matter of the distance from you to your subject.  If you step back, zoom in and fill the frame with your subject your images will have less distortion and look better. 

Now, everytime you see a "big head, little" feet image you'll know how it was shot.  When you shoot, take a step back.

Keep That Camera to Your Eye!

As photographers, we like to talk about photography.  We plan shoots.  We work out the details.  Then, when we're in the middle of a shoot, we like to tweak and adjust the shoot.

This is all good - as long as we don't miss a shot!

Take the shot below as an example.  A beautiful model, April, asked me to do a location photography shoot with her.  I lined up an assistant, scouted locations and figured out which gear I wanted to use.  That's not a bad thing because "luck favors the prepared".  We got some good shots then an unplanned moment presented itself.

We were shooting on the docks by the lake and a boat passed by.  Whenever I shoot at this location, young wake boarders always take notice of the model photography  going on.  They'll hoot and holler as they pass by but these young men wanted more attention.  They made a swift and close pass by the docks and caught April by surprise.

I have to admit, usually I miss this kind of shot.  I'm the guy who is usally saying, "now THAT would have been a great shot!"  This day was different.  At this moment, I had my camera pressed to my face and my shutter release half-depressed and pre-focused. 

This day -  I got the shot.

Sometimes It's Just About the Photo

Today's a video shooting day which means setting up the hot lights.  Hot lights get no respect - everyone wants to talk about flash and talk about continuous lighting seems to be looked down upon.  I've worked with several shooters who have a hard time working with flash because they're so focusing on shooting what they see.  You can't see the shadows produced by flash until you depress your shutter so many of their images would be great if the shadow placement were better.  I suggest hot lights or other continuous lights for these people but there seems to be a stigma attached to using continuous lights.  I like the hot lights for shooting video, it's actually kind of fun.  You set up your lights, get your subject on set and check the video monitor.  If you don't like what you see you just move/adjust the lights until you get what you want.  No test shots. 

I mention this because it brings me to a bigger subject - just as it doesn't matter whether you use available light, flash or continuous lights, it really doesn't matter what you use.  Just make a great image that speaks.  Often I'll get questions about equipment and most people already have the equipment they need to take great photos.  Maybe they don't have everything they need to take every type of photo but they probably have enough to work with and learn the craft of photography.

Today's image is a great example.  It's an image that was created before I got into photography yet it's a photo on which I get a great deal of positive feedback.  It was taken with a cheap point-and-shoot while on vacation.  I saw the sign in the photo and had an idea.  We snapped a few frames until we got what we were looking for.  The image quality is horrible.  The colors are off, it's noisy, there's no shadow detail.  It probably fails every quality test you can name.  Yet photographers and non-photographers alike comment positively on the photo.

As I continue to learn about people photography, it's a lesson I need to keep reminding myself.  Sometimes it's just about the photo.

Go Cowboys!?!??

As a people photographer, one of the questions you learn to ask is "what will this photograph be used for?".  Sometimes a client is puzzled by this question.  I'll ask this question of newer photographers and generally the response is "I don't know, I just want a cool photo".  Understanding the usage of an image is critical to planning a shoot.  Here's an example.

Recently I was contacted by Cassandra who wanted to refresh her model portfolio.  Cassandra was friends with some other model I'd shot so I agreed.  We talked on the phone and I suggested she refresh her headshot.  Many models do portfolio shoots but fail to get a good headshot instead favoring editorial images.  Models tend to want edgy, editorial or high fashion looks because these shots seems impressive at the time.  However, when a paying gig presents itself, the model finds she doesn't have a professional headshot for submission.  When I suggested a headshot to Cassandra, she agreed immediately and gave me more information.  Cassandra had previously gone through the audition process for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and been eliminated in the final rounds.  She wanted to try out again and we agreed that we should create a headshot specifically intended to get her the audition.

To prepare, I visited the website for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders to see how the organization does its headshots.  My goal was to create a headshot as close to their look as possible to give the audition judges the impression that Cassandra was a good fit for their organization.  The images were shot on a white background with the subject wearing the signature blue and white Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders uniform.  Lighting varied from flat to short lit with the subject's face presented straight on to camera.  A fan windswept the subject's hair and the shooting position was at the subject's eye level.  Retouching was done in a way to appear minimal.  I corresponded with Cassandra so she would bring a top that was the proper blue to wear for this shot.

To set up for this shot, I prepared an evenly lit white background and ensured Cassandra would be far enough away from the background to prevent flaring.  To do this, I metered the background first to ensure it was lit at my shooting aperture or higher - this was metered at the background pointing the lumisphere back toward the shooting position.  Then, I stood at the subject's position and metered with the lumisphere pointed back toward the backdrop.  I needed a reading that was at least one stop below the shooting aperture to avoid light wrap around.  This isn't tough for a tighter shot like this.

For a key light, I place my beauty dish above and in front of her aimed down toward her chest to feather the light.  I skipped a grid for this shot.  I felt a grid may make the light more harsh - something I definitely did NOT want for this shot - plus, light spill on the background would only render it more "white".  For fill, I used a tri-flector beneath her using the silver sides - you can see this in her catchlights.

When Cassandra arrived, she had the blue top but not a white top to wear beneath.  I figured I would have to use the black top she brought as a layer and make it work.  Cassandra spent two hours in hair and makeup with Zoraima then sat down on the set.  I moved the triflector in close to her - almost touching her shirt - then took a few final meter reading to ensure proper exposure.  I took a few shots and things looked good then moved the fan into place.  Blowing a fan in this type of shot is tricky because it can blow over the triflector.  I positioned the fan to the side that Cassandra parts her hair and aimed it so it would blow down into the reflector and into her chest to lightly lift her hair with the fan on its lowest setting. 

With everything set, it was purely a matter of taking enough shots to get one we liked.  Cassandra has a great smile but I knew I wanted a smile that presented with tons of energy.  We shot some images with Cassandra holding her smile but I wanted more dynamic.  Images that are shot with the subject holding their pose/look waiting for the camera to click turn out looking just like that - the image looking posed and static.  The trick is to get a shot that looks like you captured a moment that was somewhere between "here and there" so, even in a simple headshot, you need to create a "here" and a "there".  To do this, I asked Cassandra to close her eyes and stop smiling.  I told her to open and smile whenever she was ready.  I pre-focused and sat ready with my camera to my eye.  We shot a number of frames this way and I shot a number of clunkers where I released the shutter to early while her eyes were still closed. 

The image below is the keeper I decided on.  I did some light retouching and adjusted the shirt color to get as close as possible to the color used by the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Both Cassandra and I posted the same image on our Facebook pages with mixed reactions.  The image on my Facebook page only received one comment from one of Cassandra's friends.  The same image on Cassandra's Facebook page elicited numerous comments - including comments that she looked like a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader and that she should audition again. 

This reaction goes back to my initial comments on this post - you need to know how the image in intended to be used.  For the casual passerby on my Facebook page the image had little relevance - it was just another pretty face.  To people who could foresee the context, they could see Cassandra as a member of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.  This was my goal when I planned the shot.

Mission accomplished.

A Little Flare

When doing my portrait photography workshops, sometimes people struggle to extrapolate a fundamental concept to a creative use.  Fortunately, last weekend, as I was reviewing split lighting, Desiree saw the opportunity to apply this light pattern to an image concept she was planning.  She said she wanted to create an ominous image of a man with a rifle pointed at the camera.  I had to think quickly - here I was demonstrating model photography and I needed to take the image in an entirely different direction - in real time - with no plan.

Here's what I did.  First, I realized that shooting from a position closer to the subject with a wider lens would emphasize perspective adding drama to the image.  Typically, I would shoot a model at 200mm so I grabbed my "nifty fifty" 50mm lens and moved in closer.  Working with wider lenses is tricky because you can be tempted to tilt them up or down to frame the shot.  The trick is to move the camera up or down vertically to compose the image instead of tilting the camera.

This was a good first step.  I had the key light swung behind the subject to maintain the split lighting pattern, a hair light so she wouldn't fade into darkness and a kicker dialed to a really low power just enough to lift the hand out of the shadow.  I didn't want the hand bright - I wanted the face to be the brightest part of the image so the viewer would start at the eye then move to the hand.

After this was in place, I wanted a deep, dark feel but I didn't want to change exposure.  Instead, I just went with a cooler white balance.  I can't remember exactly what I dialed in - it could have been a tungston preset or I could have tried 4000K - but it worked nicely.  The image turned more blue yielding a midnight feel.

I liked it but I wanted some pizzazz to finish it off so I grabbed a speedlight on a stand, dialed it to minimum power and positioned it as far behind the subject as I could pointed straight at the camera position.  I took a minute or two to position this speedlight to get it in the spot I wanted.  The I grabbed my camera, framed the shot and encouraged my amazing model, Mari, to give me some attitude.  One shot and Mari delivered.

I think I'm getting addicted to lens flare.  Stay tuned for more.

The Official "Welcome to my Blog" first blog post!

Here it is, people, my blog!  For those of you who don't know me, I'm a photographer in Austin, Texas, specializing in shooting people.  For those of you who DO know me, some of you have been bugging me to start a blog where I can share all kinds of tasty tidbits from the photo shoots I do or go into more detail on some of the topics we go over in workshops. 

Either way, I'll be covering all kinds of stuff right here.  Send me your questions and comments - I'm always curious about what people think!