What is the commonest
photo subject? Women. And more specifically, portraits of women.
have something about them, something which distances good portraits from
average ones. And let’s not bring selfies into this discussion. When you
take time to analyze a “good” portrait, you always come up with the one
deciding factor – and that is lighting.
Have you ever been in a
professional photographic studio? When you go into a pro’s studio, you will
find that there are flash heads everywhere, with the photographer balancing
the amounts of light that falls on the subject. A typical portraiture set up
will have a back light to illuminate the background, another back light to
highlight the subject’s hair, one light to balance the main light plus one
or two reflectors, so that the final result is a well lit portrait.
To be able to achieve
this you will need a minimum of four flash heads and a flash meter so you
can judge the light intensity.
So here we go, how to
take an excellent portrait, without thousands of baht in flash heads. In
fact, it only takes one flash head, plus a large mirror. You will also need
a sheet of white paper and a black reflector (which more correctly should be
called an absorber).
First you have to
position the model. I have written previously about this and how you must
stop the model standing to attention, square on to the camera. As it will
take you some time to get the lighting correct, I suggest you position the
model on a chair about 45 degrees to the camera centerline and only get your
model to turn her head towards the camera when you are fully set up.
So here we go with the
main light, the flash head. This should be aimed (from your left) about 45
degrees from the centerline and from one meter above the head height of the
model, and start with being about two meters from the model.
This will light the
face much stronger on the photographer’s left and produce a dark shadow
under the chin. Don’t worry, much more to go yet.
Let’s get rid of the
dark shadow. This is where the sheet of white paper comes in. Get your model
to hold the sheet of paper horizontally and about 30 cm below the chin. What
this does is to collect any “spill” and reflect this back under the chin to
get rid of that dark shadow. (It also gives the model something to do!)
Now comes the hair
light. Remember I said you will need a large mirror. Place this behind and
to the right of the model, and again one meter above head height. When you
pop the flash, the over-spill is reflected back on to the model’s hair.
You should now take a
few test shots. With a DSLR you can do this and by looking at the LCD on the
back of the camera you can see if the face is getting too much light, so
move the camera another meter back. Take careful note to see that the mirror
itself is not in the shot. Be prepared to move the mirror hair light to give
the hair as much ‘halo’ as you want.
Almost finished, but
there is still the black paper to use. This should be placed close to the
model’s face (on the side away from the flash head illumination) to absorb
the spill and give some shadow effect to produce some 3D to the model’s
Now with the variables
of the main light’s distance from the model, the effect from the reflected
mirror hair light, the white paper under the chin and the black absorber you
have the making of a very professional portrait. Try it this weekend.
One last item, this is
called photogenicity, and is simply some of the most beautiful women do not
photograph well, and some of the ‘plain Janes’ come up looking like a
The advance to digital
has not been totally good. There is a tendency these days to think that the
camera can do all the thinking for you and all you have to do is find your
subject and pop the shutter. Hey presto! The world’s best photograph is
yours. Unfortunately, the blurb sheet that came with your camera will also
give this impression, no matter how incorrect it is! However, let me make
things better for you.
You see, every camera,
irrespective of how clever, how advanced its electronics or its
auto-programmed multi-phasic metering, is still, in the end, just a piece of
equipment that lets light fall on light sensitive diodes. It is a fancy
black shoe box with a lens and pre-recorded electronic algorithms.
There are always times
when the camera’s algorithms will get it all wrong. This is because it is a
machine, so it can’t think. Even more, it cannot mind-read so it has
absolutely no idea what is the most important subject in the clutter of
objects in the shot you are taking. It is worthwhile, if you have an SLR,
taking more frames with what you think to be the correct exposure, rather
than just relying on the camera’s inbuilt electronic gizmos.
It works like this -
taking a shot of your favorite girlfriend on the beach, for example (or your
wife if the girlfriend is indisposed) - the camera takes a reading from the
blue sky, the blue sea, the yellow sand, the red beach umbrella and finally
from your subject’s face. It puts the whole lot together, adds them up and
divides by the number of readings and gets the average and applies that
figure to the f stop and shutter speed. Even blind Freddie can see that if
the background is exceptionally bright, the camera will be influenced by
this and come up with the wrong exposure for the subject’s face - the reason
for taking the shot in the first place. Remember, it cannot read your mind,
no matter how many pixels your camera claims to have.
In these types of
situations (and in Thailand with the bright sun, these situations often
occur) the trick is to take the meter reading from the subject and forget
the rest of the items in the shot. In our example of the girl on the beach,
walk in close and take the exposure reading directly from her face. With
some cameras you can “lock” that exposure in - you should look for the AE-L
facility, or just twiddle your dials manually till you get the correct
aperture and shutter speed. Now go back and compose the shot, leaving the
same aperture and shutter speed settings. Do not be alarmed that the camera
will try and tell you that the exposure levels are wrong. It is “averaging”
everything out, remember. You know the settings are correct for your subject
- you checked it yourself!
For an interesting
experiment this weekend, try taking the shot above. Set the camera on Auto
or Program or whatever your model and make call it. Take the shots. Now go
and do it the “manual” way and see what differences you get. Setting things
up the way YOU want will produce a better exposed photograph (for the
important subject) than just relying on the camera manufacturer’s ideas on
what you should have.
With the increasing
complexity of modern cameras there is a tendency not to properly read
through the instruction manuals. How many of you can honestly say you’ve
read yours all the way through? Recently? Perhaps as another interesting
experiment, you should firstly FIND the book, and secondly, spend some time
reading it and understanding the camera’s functions (and limitations). I
have two instruction books. One stays in the camera bag, while the other
stays in my drawer in the office.