composition

available light portraits – composition and light

Over time I noticed that my style in photographing portraits have gravitated to a specific look where everything is quite simplified – the lighting, the background and the framing of the shot. Whether I use the available light, or video light, or off-camera flash, or even on-camera bounce flash, there’s a certain uncomplicated look. I’d like to think of it as elegant unfussy simplicity.

Analyzing this, it is easy to see there’s a specific method here. It’s a method which helps especially when under pressure. Here, even allowing extra time for the crazy peak-time traffic here in New Jersey, I was still running late for the photo session with Christy. When I arrived, falling back into a familiar rhythm of shooting portraits, allowed me to get images that work, very quickly.

The essential idea is that the light has to be good, and the background has to be complimentary. Then it is a matter of posing our subject, and composing the frame. Invariably then, the starting point is finding that intersect between good light and a good background. And if  you don’t have great available light, then you need to create it with additional lighting.

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boudoir photography and the 50mm lens

With shooting space often times so tight for boudoir photo sessions, there is the temptation to use a 50mm lens for tighter headshots on a full-frame D-SLR. Instead of stepping back a bit and using an 85mm lens or longer, a bit of visual laziness comes into play, and we rely on the 50mm lens too much. It really is too short a focal length for a tight portrait. I think many photographers are even too in love with their 50mm lenses, and use it without thought of how this would distort someone’s face when used too close to their subjects.

I totally understand the need for compromise. Quite often the angle we need to shoot from, dictates a shorter-than-ideal focal length – whether because of the shape of the room, or the direction of the light. This still doesn’t make the 50mm a good lens to shoot tight portraits with. A longer focal length would still give you more flattering results.

The example photographs in this article are by Petra Hermann, Kansas City boudoir photographer.
(Also check out Petra’s workshops on boudoir photography.)

She used a 50mm lens for these images, but kept to half-length as the closest distance to photograph her subject. The 50mm really is more of an environmental portrait type lens, rather than a tight portrait lens.

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photography composition – getting down lower for a better perspective

It’s a bit of a cliche perhaps, seeing a photographer on the ground, laying on his side, or sprawled on the ground. What might look like a strange form of attention-seeking, is actually a very solid way of improving your composition with full-length portraits. The lazy temptation is to just stand there, camera to the eye, and take the photograph. What happens then (usually), is that the photographer is shooting down on the subject. The best advice generally, is to step back for full-length compositions. When you shoot down on someone, especially with a wider angle lens, is that the perspective distortion cause the feet to appear much smaller, and your subject’s head to be disproportionally larger.

With a longer focal length, such as used in this outdoors portrait of Elle, perspective distortion is less of a concern. The lens was zoomed to around 135mm, and that means her head and feet are equidistant to the camera. No distortion. (By the way, this was taken during a photography workshop at my studio.)

However, if you, as the photographer, take the photo just standing at full height, then you are still shooting down, and you’re getting far too much of the ground in the image. The path here behind Elle isn’t awful, and doesn’t distract. But it’s the colors behind her which helps make this image pop, complementing the colors of her clothing.

So let’s look at a series of three images, shot while I was standing up, kneeling down, and finally, laying flat on the ground. Notice how the background changes as my perspective changes.

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destination wedding photographer Aruba

photographing a couple – posing and composition

Re-editing and re-vamping photographs for my blog post of a destination wedding in Aruba, I found it enlightening to realize how much my style has progressed over years in post-processing too.

As part of destination wedding photography coverage, I offer extended photo sessions around the exotic locale after (or before) the wedding date. While we’re there, we may as well use the opportunity.

The photograph at the top was taken on the day after the wedding when we took a rented car and drove around the arid areas of the island – away from the touristy parts. There was a short rainstorm while we were driving, and the landscape looked really crisp. Offsetting the couple against this landscape just seemed like a great idea. I posed them into the light. I had various compositions of this, but liked the off-center image the most.

In this way, for any single setup, I always shoot wide & tight; vertical & horizontal; high & low viewpoints. This way I get a variety of images, and in the culling process later on, I can pick the few that work, or give me the most variety.

But there’s usually more than just one photograph …

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Instagram

July 8, 2013

Instagram

Looking up in this hotel courtyard,  this symmetrical pattern was revealed. But it was only when I rotated the image on my iPhone, that it became a touch more surreal. Up became forward. Forward is up.

I still enjoy Instagram for it’s immediacy. I also like the challenge of coming up with interesting images even with the obvious limitation of shooting with a camera phone.

So if you use Instagram, you’re welcome to follow me at neilvn. I don’t post photos of my lunch or my coffee. Well, I did post that one photo of my lunch a while back, but it was really interesting.

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finessing photographic composition – and using off-camera flash vs. available light

With this background, I liked the way the dots were repeated in Olena‘s dress in reverse – white dots on black, instead of black dots / holds on silver. I liked the repetition, and decided to work with the composition of this photograph a bit.  For the final sequence of images – of which the image at the top is one – I asked Olena to really exaggerate the curve of her body to create an S-shaped, which in turn contrasted boldly with the rigid pattern of the background.

This article’s original title was going to be:  Off-camera flash vs the snobbery of “available light is always better”. When you look at the available light photo of Olena, you’ll see that the available light was pretty sweet – soft and flattering. But it lacked punch. It needed just that little bit of drama to it. The available light shot just looked a touch too bland. Off-camera lighting to the rescue!

I had the flash in a soft box to create flattering, yet dynamic light on her. I wanted her shadow to be more defined and become part of the composition, but that would’ve meant a harder light source. Holding the Lastolite 24″x24″ Ezybox (B&H) fairly close to her was the compromise. This way her shadow added a subtle element to the composition.

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photography composition: working toward the final image

When I first immersed myself in photography way way back, it took me a while to realize that what I see in a magazine or book, isn’t necessarily the first image. Those incredible images that can inspire us, (or even make us just want to give up photography), most often are not fully-formed masterpieces. Most often, the photograph that we as the viewer are presented with, are but one of a series. One photograph that stood out, or where the elements in the photograph were controlled by the photographer. And even with the work of hardcore photo-journalists, what we see, have been “controlled” and “adjusted”, even if only in terms of lens choice and composition.

With that realization, I felt less intimidated by the great photographs that I saw. They had become more accessible in a way, and more attainable to me as a new photographer.

Photographs with impact or appeal could come to be because of serendipity or foresight and careful planning by the photographer. Quite often it’s just recognizing the potential of a scene, and working with it to finesse the elements, such as the composition or lighting or, with portraits, the pose.

So it is with this photograph of Jessica Joy, taken just before we started the photo-shoot mentioned in the article, colored gels with flash photography. The final result shown here, is a little bit of everything – a wonderful subject, an opportunity, and then over the course of several photographs, finessing it.

While I really like this image, and think of this as the final image that I want to present, it didn’t just “happen” as the first and only image. There was an entire sequence leading up to it. It is this first recognition of a potentially good photograph, and then the thought-process in the sequence, that I want to show here.

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photo shoot & off-camera flash – making the background count

I got a call from Michael Saab of the Modern Gypsies to let me know that they were performing in a night-club in Manhattan, and would I be interested in doing some promotional photos for them? Of course! Other photo sessions with the Modern Gypsies were all energizing experiences. (The Modern Gypsies also featured in my book, off-camera flash.) Working with creative people always fuels the creative spark.

At the night-club, I looked around for interesting areas I could shoot some portraits. I felt this curving passage-way could be a complementary background for this one outfit. But it took a few test-shots and adjustments to get where I wanted to be …

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wedding photography: portraits of the bride & bridesmaids

Continuing with the theme of photographing great portraits on a wedding day when there aren’t beautiful surroundings: when I have the time at the bride’s house, I will always try to get individual portraits of the bride with each bridesmaid.

I like doing this early in the day already at the bride’s house, because everyone’s energy levels are still up. Everyone is still excited, and emotions are still high. No one is hungry; with shoes that hurt them. So, with that idea in mind, I like getting as many of these portraits “in my pocket” while I can. We may not have the time again later on in the day when the schedule starts to run tight.

In the recent article where I showed how I use a fast telephoto zoom to eliminate background clutter from the image. The shallow depth-of-field throws the background out of focus, and the long focal length compresses perspective. This compressed perspective you get, by shooting at the longest focal length, makes the background “stuff” appear larger, and hence even more out of focus than with a wider lens. Conversely, you can say that the tighter view allows less of the background to appear.

This time I remembered to take a pull-back shot as well, to show where we were:

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wedding photography – simplifying composition with a fast telephoto zoom

If you can create a good photograph out of seemingly “nowhere”, then you can bring a variety to your images that is out of the league of photographers who have to rely on picture-perfect scenery. This is especially true with wedding portraits. We’re under pressure for time, and on top of that we can’t always control where we shoot. We have to make it work wherever we are.

One of the basic techniques I rely on heavily with my wedding photography, is to eliminate distracting elements by shooting with a fast telephoto zoom. The shallow depth-of-field works to my advantage. And the longer focal length compresses the image so that the background isn’t a sweeping vista anymore, but a narrower view which YOU can control with your own position. Move around to find that composition.

The photograph above is perhaps an excellent example of this. The groom, also a photographer, left this comment on the Facebook album:

I also had an “ah ha” momemt watching you create images. We went to unfamilar places and you played with the background blur to create cool shots like the one of us sitting on wicker chairs, at a dumpy metal table, outside, facing a pedestrian-filled parking lot.”

There really wasn’t much more than that – the concrete slab outside a restaurant, with a few tables and chairs, with a parking lot in the background, and a few small trees and shrubs.  Now, I don’t quite have a pull-back photo to show you where we were, but I do have this test shot with a slightly wider field of view, which shows some of the background. It was a mess.

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