book review: Gregory Heisler – 50 Portraits

Gregory Heisler is an undisputed genius when it comes to photographic lighting. If ever you get the opportunity to attend a seminar by him, do yourself a favor. The story behind each portrait, and the motivation and the struggles to create those images, don’t just make for entertaining anecdotes – and Gregory Heisler is an entertaining speaker – but the stories are insightful. Educational. But not just educational in a do-this-do-that explanation of technique. It’s much more than that.

In this book he has collected 50 of his his best portraits he has taken during his career, and he discusses the thought-processs behind each image. He offers insight in how he came to take specific images, and how he decided why to set up up certain portraits in certain ways. Gregory Heisler’s humility, and the way he allows glimpses into the frustration and disappointments along the way – the struggles to get to iconic images – all this is told in entertaining and thoughtful way. There is also much to learn here.

This is a book to devour, and then dip into again and again. What truly impressed me about Gregory Heisler, is how innovative he is. He seems to want to steer clear of repeating formulas that work, and come up with portraits based on ideas that are challenging and full of risks.

Something I also found refreshing are the “Thoughts on Technique” at the end of each photograph’s description. Here he discusses technique – but not in the statement of bland numbers, but again, always with the thought-process in mind. And this is where the value lies in what he shows us – the way his mind works. The why and the how.I highly recommend this book.It needs to be on your shelf! For a mere $25 you have an amazing collection of images and words in hardcover, from a man who is endlessly inventive when it comes to photography lighting! That’s incredible value for money. This is a book to immerse yourself in, again and again, and feel inspired by.

 

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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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photographers – when was the magical moment when you first got hooked?

I’m sure we all have similar stories – how we got hooked on photography, and it became less of a mild interest, and more of an over-riding fascination. A fascination bordering on compulsion, where you felt you just had to take photographs of everything around you. What was the moment where you realized you’re hooked on photography?

Let me kick this off then – My own interest in photography started somewhere during high-school years. I was an avid nature enthusiast as a child, devouring anything to do with animals and nature. From this I was also a keen bird-watcher.

My dad had a Praktica camera. In fact, it was the Praktica Mat model. Praktica cameras were made in East Germany. Solid in every aspect, and not as sweet and lithe as the Japanese cameras. But as a first camera, I loved using it. My first proper camera that was mine, and not just borrowed from my dad, was a Pentax ME Super, but I digress. My dad also had a Tokina 300mm f/5.6 with stop-down metering. This clunky old lens was my first step in trying to photograph animals and birds … and I soon realized that photography was far more interesting than passively observing animals.

That’s where it started for me. I steadily became more and more interested in photography, but there was one moment where I knew this is it, WOW!

I was kneeling on the bathroom floor, the windows blacked out with towels in a make-shift darkroom … and I was developing my first B&W print from the first roll of B&W film that I shot and processed myself. As that first image sprang to life and that white sheet changed into a black-and-white – an actual photograph! – that was it. Pure magic.

That first photograph I printed was of a Dalmatian we had as our family pet. I loved that dog! Disney had it right in how wonderful Dalmatians are. While I still have that original B&W negative, it is in deep archive. And by deep archive, I mean some random box deep somewhere in the basement. Instead, here is another photograph of another Dalmatian I had years later.

The photograph at the top is of Brakko, who was one of two dogs that I owned way back when we lived in South Africa. (This is from early 1990′s.) I used him as a test subject when I tried out my brand-new used flashmeter that I had just bought. The light is from an off-camera speedlight diffused through an umbrella that I lay on the ground.  Very simple lighting.  That guarded look on his face is because he wasn’t sure about an 80-200mm lens pointing straight at him.

Of the photos I took of him, I loved this very tight crop, with his eye the only bit of color in the frame .. aside from him not having had a bath in weeks and weeks.

Ok, your turn. Let’s hear about your moment when it just hit you that photography is something I just had to do.

 
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promotion: Dream Strap

November 11, 2013

Dream Strap – comfy sheep-skin lined camera straps

Dream Straps are sheepskin-lined camera straps that are super-comfy. Just as importantly, is that they are strong, finely crafted, easy to attach and adjustable from 34-58 inches. All the good stuff we expect from camera straps.

Sheepskin fibers provide breathable, luxurious comfort that synthetic materials just can’t match. Weight on your shoulders or neck are eliminated because the weight is more evenly distributed due to the dense for and the width of the strap.

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flagging your back-lighting flash with the black foamie thing

My favorite on-camera light modifier, the black foamie thing, is of course, nothing more than a very affordable (and flexible) way to flag your flash. This helps control how the light from your on-camera flash spills. (It’s not a flash diffuser!) I also keep one on hand when I use off-camera flash, to flag any direct flash – whether to control it from flaring the lens, or from spilling onto my subject. When I did the photo session for the review of the Canon 600EX-RT, I had to flag the one speedlight so it didn’t spill on our model. So it has other handy uses other than just for on-camera bounce flash.

During a recent photography workshop at my studio, we photographed Aleona in a freight elevator for that gritty urban look. We added a speedlight behind her to have the rim-light create some separation between her black outfit and the dark silver wall in the back. However, it spilled to the sides, and we had to control the light better …

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review: Profoto B1 off-camera TTL flash – 500 Ws

I’m a bit of a fan of Profoto gear. When I first started looking at the more serious on-location lighting systems, my initial purchase was the Profoto 600R. I was drawn by their reputation for reliability and features such as consistent color balance even when you change power settings. The wide variety of light modifiers, as well as the ease of use and setup also had me favor Profoto, even thought it is the more expensive system on the market. Of course, the sleek elegant look of Profoto gear also counted. As far as lighting gear goes, Profoto even looks sexy.

Profoto just released the Profoto B1 500 AirTTL flash units (B&H). With 500 Ws output, and various features which make them exceptionally suited for on-location work, Profoto really brought something exciting to the market. I believe this is going to kick them onto another level with photo enthusiasts.

Let’s look at some of the spec, and then how the Profoto B1 flashes performed during actual photo sessions.

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on-location lighting for impact – off-camera flash w/ gridded stripbox

With this photo session of Carina and Carolina, (yes, they are twins), I decided to start off with a landmark spot in New York – Staple Street. That bridge walkway between the two buildings, and this surprising alley has somehow become a landmark. Yet, it works. That walkway makes a perfect frame at the top of photographs.With the tall buildings in Manhattan, you usually get brighter areas or sky towards the top, or you get more buildings in the background. But here, you get that neat visual border. Nice!

Shooting on this late Fall day, in the shadows, the colors went muted and cold. The background turns to bluer hues because I decided to use flash for my lighting – and I didn’t want to be bothered with gelling my flashes somehow to match the very cold tones. In this case though, their black tops and blue jeans very much fit the colors and hues here … which makes their faces pop out even more in the final image.

These two photogenic girls are naturals at posing and take direction extremely well – making this one of those shoots the subjects (and setting) really help carry it to give a set of images that are eye-catching.

More about the lighting and the setup …

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flash photography: using a grid with a speedlight

During this photo session with Austin, I wanted to get a spot-light effect on, similar to that of a video light. Now, I have played around with various speedlight grids before, but never liked the result. Speedlite grids generally they concentrate the light to the extent that the direct light from a speedlight, becomes too concentrated and hard. For dramatic light, I really like the look of a video light, with that dramatic quality to the light, and with more defined shadows. I do want that fall-off in the light as the light spreads away from the subject.

As part of my Spinlight 360, I had two grids – white grid and a black grid. Since I didn’t have a video light with me during this session, I tried the white grid on the spur of the moment, to see if the white part of the grid would sufficiently scatter the light to “defocus” the light beam from the speedlight, while the grid itself contained the light.

And here’s the result. I really like it – a look similar to that of video light, but with more power … and with the PocketWizard TT5 on my camera, I could control the output! For this photograph, I also gelled the flash with 1/2 CTS gel to have the flash’s color balance closer to that of the ambient light.

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book review: Humans of New York

Chances are that you’re following, or at least heard of Humans of New York / FB page. Brandon Stanton is a photographer who has walked countless miles every day for nearly three years, photographing people on the streets of New York, and recording their stories. Their stories are visual (as in the impromptu portraits of them), but what really makes this site so engrossing, and endearing are the anecdotes. The life stories and insights. The way that people reveal themselves to his camera and to the world, through the portraits and a little glimpse into their lives … this is what makes the website so fascinating. These stories are endearing, but very often, quite touching. If you haven’t been aware of that site, time to check it out.

The big news then is that a compilation of many photographs in Humans Of New York (and some new photographs), have just been published as a hardcover book – Humans of New York (Amazon). If you’ve been following the HONY site, you’ll be well aware of this though. It’s quite the event.

304 pages of engrossing images, and snippets of anecdotes. I assume that for brevity, the anecdotes were truncated. In a way this is a pity because the HONY site has become as much about the stories and anecdotes, as the images. Two other (minor) negatives – the book is quite small – 9.7″ x 7.3″ – personally, I would’ve liked to see the images larger. Also, the printing quality is merely okay.But I have to balance the surprisingly low price of the book (only $18) against this.As it is, I would highly recommend this book to any photographer who loves people. In fact, I would recommend this book to anyone. It would take a hard heart not to be captivated by these glimpses into the lives of New Yorkers. A solid 5 stars!

 

 

other photography books

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photography technique: wedding portraits on the beach

I had the great pleasure of photographing Sarah and Antonio’s wedding in Santa Monica, California. For the romantic portrait, we went down to the beach in the late afternoon. With the pier in the background, and with the sun (even at 5pm) still beating down, the photos were going to look vibrant, with that sun-drenched look. Beautiful.

When I posted the photos in an album on Facebook, a number of people asked me about this (and other photos), and how I photographed them. The technique is quite straight-forward, as described in numerous articles on the Tangents blog. With that, instead of just giving the hard numbers of the camera settings, and a few details … I thought it might be better as a challenge to followers of the Tangents blog, to reverse engineer this, and figure out the details. So yes, there’s a little bit of homework involved.

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