This article was submitted by Steve Webb ["songman45"] of Photocamel.com . You can view his website here .
So many times I read responses to critiques that include a statement similar to this, “I know what I should do, but when I pick up the camera, everything I know suddenly evaporates.”
I am a portrait photographer by education and experience so much of what I have to offer here has to do with that genre but most holds true to making photographs in general. Most folks agree that creating a photograph is a complicated task and is a difficult one to learn.
Those same folks think nothing of walking across the room and the number of precise calculations, the amount of balance and coordination required. My mom plays the piano. She encouraged me to take piano lessons as a child; I never did. I never wanted to learn scales, found written music impossible and could not play a song. I wanted to make music, not learn it. There was way too much involved and gratification did not happen quickly enough for me. I pursued photography instead.
Rules suck !
Portraits! How confounding! There are 40 rules. First I hate rules; nobody is going to tell me what to do.
Second, I give up I’ll use them after all.
Good grief, though, all this stuff is crowding my brain. When do I get to take the stinkin picture already?
Lighting, lighting, lighting- there is the quantity, quality and something about ratio and degree of incidence equaling the angle of reflectance and some jabbering about the inverse square thingie.
Body angles, body axis, camera axis, posture, eye-nose direction,
perspective, posture – who dreamed up all this stuff? How am I supposed to remember all this garbage and still take the dang picture already? Camera elevation, lens distortion, image compression, depth-of-field, field of view, focal length, aperture, ambient light, shutter speed – Look all I want to do is take one simple little picture.
Can we get on with it for cryin out loud? And that’s only slightly exaggerated to make a point.
You probably do not remember the frustration in learning to walk. You do not know how you learned but if you can do it you learned. Observe a baby learning to take the first steps and you will be looking at reflection of your past.
How many falls, how many stumbles, how many tears of frustration will there be between that first assisted pull-up and successful motivating about? What’s more how long will it take to accomplish this, a few months, a year? Not long if your life span is 20 years but ¾’s of a lifetime if you are only one year old. Isn’t it systematic? Can’t you predict the progress by the performance? It begins generally with rolling over, then crawling, pulling up comes next, holding on for balance, then tottering and plopping finally walking and running (its that stopping thing that’s hard to master, I think). Making portraits is no different.
Human beings are creatures of habit. Develop habits rather than making the task a group of seemingly unrelated conscious thought processes and memory exercises. Be systematic in the approach of habitual actions. Every step you take should lead you to the next step and your own actions should prompt you to the next.
Remember the 6 “Ps”, Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Procedure.
The preparation begins far before you introduce a subject to the shooting area. This is the time you do the gear head work. This is rough-in time, if you know anything about construction. Check the equipment, make the initial settings and meter the lights now. You have established the subject area so get everything except the subject in place.
You’ve had time to decide on backgrounds, props, and have some idea about what posing you are going to utilize. If you have to scratch your head and ponder, do it now before the sitter comes in. If you don’t seem to know what you are doing your subject will assume you don’t and will loose confidence in you from the start. This can come back to haunt you in the proofing session later.
Somewhere down the line a customer who doesn’t like themselves in pictures will say, “I knew they would be terrible; that photographer didn’t know what he was doing.” Part of what the customer is paying for is the experience whether or not you realize it.
Habits are good. You don’t want to lock yourself into cookie cutter pictures; so, only make things habitual that are constants.
One thing that is pretty consistent is the subject being 5 or 6 feet from the background;
Another is turning the subject roughly 45 degrees from the camera axis.
Want two fewer things to think about?
Mark a “T” in the middle of the floor (I use black masking tape) 5 or 6 feet out from the background. Point the base of the “T” straight down the camera axis.
You’ve now got a consistent subject spot and a built in protractor to find 45 degrees on both sides of the camera (if you have some visualization skill you also have the opposite angles for shooting over-the-shoulder poses).
I like to save steps. So I put marks on the floor for the very most basic lighting set up. This is nothing special. It’s a metered broad lit scheme. For more reasons than I can explain I open every session with a broad lit head-and-shoulders shot on an adult and the same lighting but full-length on a child. Its an insurance shot for children, more later.
For teens and adults this is a warm up but not wasted shot. They come in, sit with very few complications and just an instruction or two, turn the head, tilt and pop; one in the can. This is made quite effortless for the sitter. That’s what they think.
Do everything with and for a purpose.
Have a beginning, a middle and an end to your sessions.
Here’s what happened in the first pose that the sitter did not know: I use a posing stool that is height adjustable (and not spongy) and has feet rather than wheels. Its placed just out of the way off the subject mark. When the sitter comes in the room I check for baggage and have a place to unload it.
Then I place the stool off the mark so the face will be over the mark, not the subject’s rear end. As I move the stool I’m also setting the elevation.
I want the subject seated on the edge with the knees lower than the hips. This helps with posture and also discourages swaying the stool side-to-side as nervous people will tend to do. “Have a seat” isn’t enough. If the stool is just high enough the client will not plant on the middle and allow the feet to dangle, they will instinctively perch on the edge. Now I stand in front of them and say, “Turn so your feet are pointing toward mine”. This is a good evaluation tool. Occasionally someone will turn the ankles only and point the toes my direction. The ability to follow this one little instruction lets me know how things will need to proceed. I can see the “T” in the floor (after a while its importance is diminished). Now the body angle is about right and I’m standing in front of the sitter there is a purpose, observation. Methodically I scan from the head down checking for out of place hair, jewelry clasps, collars, ties all the things that are difficult to see once I go to the camera.
The next step I take is to walk between the subject and the camera along the axis to see the person in the direction the camera is pointed at them. Far enough from them that they don't feel I"m in their space, but near enough to reach them, should I want to straighten a collar or turn a necklace so the clasp doesn't show .From here I am looking at them like the camera will later. This is where I get the head turned the right direction.
I use my hands quite a bit to gesture directions. There are times when I have to actually put hands on a subject. I try to avoid this and the least amount of my hand touching the subject, the better.
Fingertips, I’ve found work really well. Personally, I find that the index fingers laid along the lower jaw bone work pretty well for turning and tipping the head. Years of directing traffic as a cop taught me how effective specific and clear hand gestures can be.
Time to take stock of where we are:
I have set-up and posed the client for the first shot.
I’ve forced myself into a set of steps that are calculated and have allowed me to check the appearance of the subject (presuming it is a girl were her nails done? And does she have particularly attractive hands?).
I am about to step away and go to the camera. I do not want to be here again until time to make a major change to the subject. Check the posture. If I take one hand and place on the shoulder, then place the index finger of my other hand between and below the shoulder blades and say, “sit up nice and straight”, about 99% of all people will do just fine. They will not keep this posture, but will return to it when reminded before the image gets snapped.
Now that was a lot of stuff to do just to get to the camera part. How long did I take? Much less time than it took you to read it. Most likely about 15 seconds from “have a seat”; to the first shutter activation is all. Efficiency is the name of the game.
Now for the last of the things that aren’t going to change drastically for the first few images. When that posture gets right and as I walk away from the subject I measure the eyes. Not really, I just landmark their elevations then get the camera slightly above it as I approach it.
Fashion and action photographers may love the freedom of hand holding a camera. I’m a portrait guy, and I love a tripod or camera stand and happen to require a remote shutter release. The subject is going to be sitting on that stool for the first several if not all the shots in this sitting. So the camera on a tripod at the proper elevation will not have to be thought about again for this series. That’s a general statement. But set right it is and I’m not likely to forget and not going to shoot under the chin and up the nose by oversight.
Portraits; whether formal, informal, or ultra casual are posed from the floor up. A solid foundation is a good thing. Always begin at the floor and get everything right all the way to the head.
No matter what head size image you are shooting you ought to be able to shoot the full length, three-quarter, arm pose, bust pose, or head shot simply by filling the frame, moving nearer or further, or zooming in and out. This is not a book of posing just on making good habits that keep you from having to think.
I talked through getting the very first pose just to put some application to where these 40 something conventions fit together and how to eliminate problems before they have to be corrected.
One last thing about step-saving: Use a model and a light meter to find some general light set-ups. Set up a broad light scheme and mark spots on the floor for the stands. Then find a nice short lighting scheme.
A simple cotton cord secured to a light stand can come in handy. Measure the distance using a light meter then mark it with the cord. Make another metering for a loop-lighting and mark the distance on the string. Do the same for both fill and main. You will save a hundred steps and a lot of subject boredom. If you photograph young children you’ve no idea how helpful this can be.
This stuff I toss out for what its worth. If it helps you, I’m happy. These things I use and they work for me. They may not work for you. Happy shooting!