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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composition for full-length portraits – step back instead of zooming wide

A comment in the article on a simple lighting setup for the family formal photos, asked why I recommended that a photographer should step back rather than zoom wide when photographing a group. The reason is that the perspective distortion that a wide-angle lens will give to your subject, is not all that flattering.

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photography composition – finding the other angles

At the same photo shoot-out that the stunning Film Noir Fight Scene came out of, I again worked with a model, Jill. Her hairstyle and dress were strongly reminiscent of the flapper era. It therefore just suited a more dramatic and sexy pose and styling. And of course, dramatic lighting.

For off-the-cuff / on-the-fly dramatic lighting, a video light is hard to beat.

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eliminate & simplify – the first steps in photography composition

These two images were taken from more or less the same spot.
All that changed was my vantage point, and my choice of lens.

This vibrant park in Manhattan seemed like an interesting place to photograph, but when photographing a couple, I really want the accent to be on them. The best way to do this is to frame them so that the background is as simple as possible, but still complements the final photograph. I had the couple sit on top of this grassy mound, and I lay down on the grass, and framed them tightly against the trees in the background.

Even though I was working with a 70-200mm f2.8 lens, I was shooting around 90mm in focal length. But this was enough, coupled with my low viewpoint, to eliminate any distracting elements from the frame. It is essential to look at the edges of the frame when you compose. And that is the key here in the composition – simplicity.

Working with a telephoto zoom such as the 70-200mm f2.8 makes this much easier of course.

Now, people also naturally have the tendency to stand with their backs against a wall or against something when they pose for a photograph. As photographers, there is the temptation when posing a couple to always pose them directly against a background of some kind.

A neat and effective trick is to have your subjects stand well clear of the background. This can allow you to move your own position, and get a varied background. For example, with these two photographs from a sequence, we used some artwork by painters as a background. But we stood well away from it on the edge of the sidewalk. (I was cautiously in the middle of the road!) This allowed me to move to either side, and get images which look quite different, even though the couple didn’t move much between the two images chosen out of this sequence.

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photographic composition – finding and framing your best shot

Strolling through Green Park in London, I saw these rows of winter-barren trees. The way the snow clung to the trees and branches from the morning’s snow storm, white against dark brown, gave a posterized effect already – the crazy patterns of the branches starkly etched against the white snow.

I took several photographs, finally liking this photo above the most of all. Aside from resizing, it is straight out of camera … my iPhone 4. And therein was a lesson for me that I mulled over the rest of the day, while further exploring the urban landscapes of London …

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composition: finding the perfect background for photographs

Photographers and clients alike regularly comment on this photograph in my portfolio, and the question invariably asked is whether this is a Photoshop effect.  Far from it – this image is straight out of the camera …

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wedding day portraits – simplifying composition for effect

With this article I want to reinforce the idea from a few recent posts about being very specific about your composition. By simplifying the image, we have greater impact. We include only what we need to include in the frame to enhance it.  Just as important, is what we exclude:

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photographing the bride and bridesmaids – location and direction

One of the series of photographs that I like to “have in my pocket” are the individual photos of the bride with each bridesmaid.  This is the kind of photograph you can hammer out very quickly, one after the other. The bride with a bridesmaid, hugging each other.  I always make time for this. One stumbling block might be a lack of place to do this.  But there is usually somewhere to do this, by isolating your subject with a long lens against an out-of-focus background.

Still at the bride’s house, we had a few minutes before the limo had to leave. Inside the house there wasn’t really space to do this. So I looked outside.  It was the usual New Jersey suburban clutter – cars and utility poles and houses and just things!  Looking around me outside the house, I saw one direction I can shoot in that would give me a backlit image, with just out-of-focus trees in the background. Perfect!

Here is the pull-back shot to show what it looked like …

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