Wonderful unexpected picture possibilities can occur any time during a photo shoot when I'm working with one or more models. I’ve noticed that these possibilities appear while I’m already in the process of taking a picture or while I'm setting up for a new shot. When an opportunity shows itself, this is what comes next:
Here are some examples of what I believe to be intriguing shots that came along quite unexpectedly.
Darla was joking with her daughter, Laurette. Having worked with them before, and knowing how wonderful an actor the girl was, I knew worthy things were on their way. I framed the shot and waited. Laurette was saying that her mother’s nose scared her (I don’t know how serious she was about that). When this interaction happened, I took the picture. Laurette's expression was perfect. It seems to show both fear and amusement. Also, each set of hands seems to show conflicting intentions - one pair reaches either lovingly or threateningly while the other pair emphasizes either anxiety or joy.
I was watching Kelly fix-up her daughter's hair. There was lots of energy flowing between the two. I knew if I paid attention, I’d be rewarded with some good photos. I wasn’t disappointed. The above image was far and away the best of the series. Both faces are vibrant, and the intensity of their excitement is wonderful.
A pet, usually a cat or dog, wondering onto the set can cause havoc or great picture possibilities. If the animal is fairly calm, is in an area of the set that works compositionally, and doesn’t have its butt facing the camera, the results can be rewarding.
For this picture of Meredith, I placed her alone against a wall and got ready to shoot. After a few moments, her cat wandered in. I waited to see what it would do. He began rubbing himself against her leg. Combined with the blindfolded Meredith, I think the result was an odd and amusing image. (”odd” and “amusing” - a great combination for almost any picture). The presence of the cat, I believe, significantly improved my original shot idea.
Here’s another photo where the subject’s pet wandered into the shooting area. What’s noteworthy about this image is that we get a decent view of its face. And what’s truly amazing is how the cat’s position blocks part of the strobe illumination perfectly, creating a light pattern that dramatically highlights the model’s eyes.
My plan for the first of these two photographs was to have Anabel on the bed alone, with the “Private Property” sign covering her chest. As I was preparing to take the picture, however, the dog jumped up. I held off shooting for a moment, waiting to see what would happen. I’m glad I did. He ended up looking as if he was reading the sign. Then, as can be seen in the second photo, and to both our amazement, he began crawling under the top sheet. By the way, Anabel’s open-mouth surprise was quite real.
Joanna and I were photographing in an almost empty parking lot at a local beach. During a break, Joanna had turned and was adjusting her hair. Almost at the same moment, a car pulled up. I saw a perfect photo opportunity and quickly snapped a picture. I loved the results: a sparse composition showing a young woman and a car, both nicely positioned in this parking lot. Every time I look at this image, I wonder why the person in the car stopped right where he did. Perhaps to ogle Joanna?
When all the elements unexpectedly come together to produce a great shot, and when I had very little or no part in making that happen, I think of that image as a “gift”. I’ve read about other photographers using that same term when they’ve had the same experience. It’s in those moments, when the photographer is completely out of the equation, that the gods above have grabbed the reins and taken charge.
In the book “Looking At Photographs”, John Szarkowski writes about the famous photographer Jacob A. Riis: “Suffice it to say that Riis did not, through pride, reject chance; he knew the habits and habitat of the photographer’s luck, and he did his best to make himself available to its gifts.”
I would like to address the process of intentionally blurring an image. "Blurring" refers to observable movement in a photograph. Blur is usually created by a slow shutter speed, camera movement, and/or subject movement.
In the photo above, I panned (moved in a horizontal motion) my camera at the same speed Rebecca was walking, resulting in her head and torso being mostly sharp. But since the background was not moving, it ended up being blurry. This technique creates a sense of motion and helps the subject stand out from her surroundings (her dark dress helps too).
And there's an added benefit of blurring a background. It can hide an intrusive or unpleasant area - for example, a parking lot behind a field where kids are playing soccer. Panning the camera along with the moving players, the photographer creates a blurred area behind them that may be almost unidentifiable. In this photograph, there was no need for hiding it. The girl's environment is appealing, and being able to identify what it is adds a sense of place to the image. The camera settings were 1/15 sec, f8. (click on photo to enlarge)
Occasionally, I’ll blur the whole image. Mentioning this to people often brings looks of bewilderment. I explain that the right amount of blur can produce a photograph that's both interesting and dynamic. It’s having too much blur (making the subject unrecognizable) or too little blur (making it look as if the photographer couldn't hold the camera steady enough) that causes problems. Properly done, the subject will still be identifiable, but rendered more diffuse, with softer tones, and hopefully appear more offbeat.
You’ll have to experiment with various shutter speeds and camera movements to determine what the appropriate amount of blur is. A relatively long shutter speed usually is enough to produce an effective blur. If I need more, I’ll use an even longer shutter speed or slightly move the camera up and down, side to side, or in a circular movement while shooting. Again, experimenting is key. In the photos below, each image has been intentionally blurred. (click on photos to enlarge)
Maggie is peering out her kitchen’s screen door. The camera settings were 1/10 sec, f4.5.
Kimberly is standing in front of her kitchen window and next to a hanging plant. The camera settings were 1/4 sec, f4.
I asked Danielle to bend slightly forward. The camera settings were 2 secs, f5.6.
A very pregnant Tabitha is standing in front of her bedroom window. The camera settings were 1.5 secs, f5.6.
This is Rebecca playing with her hair. It’s somewhat less blurry than the other pictures. The camera settings were 1/2 sec, f4.
Every once in awhile, some oddball reflection will catch my eye. That attraction might be due to one or more of the following:
The photographs below illustrate different reflection types (click on photos to enlarge).
This is a reflection of a skylight inside a shopping mall. Whenever I’m wandering through this mall, I’ll usually pass by this area. Because the reflection appears to have depth, and if I’m not paying attention, I’ll sometimes mistake it for a hole in the floor - something I need to avoid. It’s fun standing near the reflection, trying to see it not as three-dimensional, but as the flat surface it really is.
I was drawn to how this relatively new glass building was reflecting a much older building from across the street.
Looking at shiny polished metal like this, you realize that you’re not really seeing the pots themselves. What you’re actually viewing are reflections of everything surrounding the pots. It’s the same phenomenon as looking at yourself in a mirror. You’re not seeing the mirror - only your reflection.
It’s really the reflections that define this school hallway. The exterior light coming in through the doors and windows, given a fairly long camera exposure setting, would provide enough illumination for a picture to be taken. However, it’s the reflections on the lockers, walls, and floors that provide shape to this photograph. Without them, the image probably would be flat and dull.
I placed these kids’ blocks on a shiny conference table. It was only after several viewings that I noticed the reflection spells, in upper and lower case letters, “herb”.
(click on photos to enlarge)
There are those that might look at the images above and ask why I left so much space around each subject.
I often shoot images where the subject, human or inanimate, is significantly smaller than the empty space around them. I define “empty space” as either the absence of everything (for example, a completely white area), or a continuation of the subject’s environment. This uninhabited area can greatly affect how the subject is perceived by the viewer.
“Empty space” is not wasted space. I’ve heard it suggested that photographers should crop out the barren area of an image, thereby making the subject more important. For certain pictures, this might be a good idea. But for lots of images, this misses the true intent of empty space. People making suggestions like this, I believe, are unaware of how nothingness can affect an image. Empty space can, for example, emphasize the picture’s location, help define the image’s mood, and lead the viewer’s eye directly to the person or object. To that last point, empty space lets the viewer know precisely where their eyes need to go, thus actually increasing the subject’s importance.
The empty space must be set up with the same care that goes into posing the person or setting up the object. One or more of the following must be done to anything found in that empty space that should not be there:
I’ve seen and made pictures where the size of the subject, relative to the total area, is very small - the empty space takes up the majority of the image’s real estate. If done well, having the subject so small in the picture actually delivers a lot more artistic impact. It seems that as the object gets smaller, its importance grows.
In the photographs shown above, I believe that negative space greatly enhanced some rather simple setups.
(click on photos to enlarge)
I believe achieving accurate portrait skin color is not always necessary. In fact, if I’ve taken a few hundred pictures of the subject (which I often do during a photo shoot), I’d find it quite boring if I rendered every image with a “normal” skin color. Changing the skin hue can often dramatically improve even the most ordinary photograph, making it far more interesting. It's one of those transformations that can make an image "pop".
Additionally, changing the color can change the photo's mood. For example, blue can imply coolness, sadness, melancholy, or depression; red can denote rage, danger, heat, love, or passion; yellow can symbolize sickness, glory, splendor, or power; green just seems to make the picture weird.
My color changes are almost always done in postproduction. I primarily use Adobe Camera Raw, the program included with Adobe Photoshop. In addition, I may make a few more changes to the image using Nik Software.
I initially will view the subject with her normal color. This is usually the default hue because I've already white balanced my camera before taking any pictures. However, if I want the color to be more precise, I'll click on something in the picture that’s white, gray, or black, using the White Balance Tool in Adobe Camera Raw. Or, if I’ve taken a few pictures of her holding a gray or white card, I’ll click on that instead. This should produce the most precise (or close to it) hue. It’s at this point that I may consider making changes to the subject's color.
The twelve pictures above are just a few of those I've colored over the years. As you can see, the hue change on some is subtle and more extreme on others. I colored them for one of three reasons:
Mothers (and fathers) of models
Regarding the model’s mother - I usually enjoy having her on set. The great mother is indispensable. She’s there to support her daughter unconditionally. That may mean pulling a dress out from under piles of clothing and quickly ironing it; braiding hair; applying makeup; wiping a runny nose; offering encouragement.
Since I customarily work without an assistant, mothers sometimes take on that role for me. I’ve had mothers happily hold light reflectors and leaf blowers (for blowing the model’s hair), move junk out of the way, and bring us snacks.
When discussing an upcoming photo session with a parent, which usually is the mom, I request that she, rather than the father, be present during the shoot. My belief is that the mother will be more in tune with her daughter’s needs, being better able to provide the assistance mentioned above.
Sometimes I want someone the model can react to or interact with, and mothers and fathers are perfect for that. I’ve gotten some remarkable expressions when a parent, placed out of the shot, catches their daughter’s attention with their antics. What can work well too is having a parent or the limb of a parent physically interacting with their child.
Unfortunately, there is the occasional overbearing mom who wants to control her daughter, often making demands of her that are unnecessary and disruptive. This attitude typically takes the form of telling the girl how she thinks I want her to pose, which frequently is incorrect. When that happens too many times, I’ll patiently explain to the mother what she is doing and how it’s hindering the shoot. That generally solves the problem. If it doesn’t, and if the daughter is not too young, I’ll politely ask the mother to leave the area so the girl and I can photograph alone. She’ll usually agree to this.
By the way, the top photo was posed (as were most of the other photos in this blog). People have viewed this picture and become upset that the blond woman was mocking the teenage girl. She was not. In fact, the woman was reluctant to pose this way. It took some persuading by me before she agreed to do so.
Elspeth’s face lit up when she caught sight of her father working outdoors. If he hadn’t been there, I doubt I could have coaxed such a wonderful expression out of someone so young. I love how her hair and window curtain both frame her eyes, nose, and mouth.
When I suggested this shot to Gretel and her mom, I assumed one or both would say “no”. Neither did. I had Gretel try several expressions - I liked this one the best. She looks utterly defeated, ready to accept her dismal fate.
Amelia has lots of wonderful expressions. This one says heaps. The hand belongs to her mother. I also like how Amelia pulled down her sleeves a bit to cover her own hands.
Occasionally, I’ll include a parent in the picture if I sense her presence will benefit the photograph. Sometimes her role is as a supporting actor to her star daughter. Other times, both have equally important roles. Either way, they must work together to support one another.
It took time to set up this mother/daughter shot. Their placement in the frame was critical. I wanted Miranda, the daughter, to slightly overlap her mother, to imply a physical connection between the two. But I did not want the crossed arms and annoyed look to be hidden. Though Miranda is off to the side, she is larger and in sharper focus than her mom, making her more important. Their expressions as the smart-ass kid and the annoyed mother are subtle but obvious.
Mother and daughter were dancing madly on top of a bed, causing their hair to fly out in all directions. Each one’s excitement fed the other, helping to create this dynamic image.
I find this photo REALLY creepy (in a good way) for a couple of reasons. There’s something about how the girl, Elspeth, has her left arm positioned. It looks eerie and unnatural. In addition, her head is bent backward, resulting in no clear connection with her mother. And then there’s Elspeth’s spooky blank stare. Photoshop helped too.
Here’s Elspeth and her mom once more, and again not interacting. Each seems isolated from the other. Arms are folded, and neither one is trying to connect. I think both expressions are marvelous.
Avoiding screw-ups while shooting
Before beginning a photography session with a female model (they're not professional models - mostly students of mine or people I know), various issues already have been addressed and mostly resolved. Included are:
I photographed Deborah on the roof of her apartment. As she experimented with a variety of poses, these were some of my “be sure” concerns:
- be sure her head and body are backed only by the dark area of the actual roof
- be sure her hair is arranged well
- be sure her head is tilted up enough for skylight to illuminate her eyes
- be sure nobody on the ground wanders into the shot
- be sure any slight compositional changes I make from shot to shot don’t contain any distracting elements
- be sure she does not slide off the roof
- be sure I do not slide off the roof
- and, of course, be sure her expressions and body positions are interesting
Here’s something I often miss. Deborah was moving around on the sofa, trying out some poses. As she slid down the pillow, friction kept the back of her hair from moving with her. The result was this odd hairdo. When I do notice this problem, I’ll have the model tilt her head forward, smooth down her hair with my hand, and then have her return her head to the pillow.
Meredith was standing between her two living room windows. This meant me keeping an eye on what was happening outdoors, being sure no changes occurred that might hurt the shot. I also had to be careful how I positioned my camera so that reflections from the strobes would not appear in the windows.
This was one of the few times I used a tripod to photograph a model. I had liked the placement of the camera and knew I wouldn’t want to move it for the remainder of the time we'd be shooting here. With the camera on a tripod, therefore, the composition would be set. I could then focus my attention more fully on the model and to other elements in the scene. Adeline, mostly on her own, was coming up with some great poses and expressions. My concern was her placement in the frame. First, I wanted nothing but the wall behind her. Second, I didn’t want the shower caddy or hanging brush, on the right, to appear to be touching her body. Third, I wanted to control what proportion of the shower door was covering what proportion of her body. Not having to handhold the camera allowed me more time to attend to these concerns.
It’s my palm Joanna is touching. That meant I was holding the camera and photographing with only one hand. As I shot, I kept watch on all that surrounded her, being sure that:
- her legs stayed between the toilet paper and toilet tank
- a good view of her face appeared in the mirror
- her hand was positioned gracefully on my hand
- the camera was held fairly level
Messing around with bulletin boards
When wandering through a public school or college, looking for things to photograph (because I teach photography classes at these places, I'm allowed to do this), I keep my eyes peeled for bulletin boards. They’re usually scattered throughout the building, often in hallways and classrooms. Most bulletin boards are made from cork board (or sometimes burlap cloth) and are enclosed in a wood frame. They range in size from very tiny to huge. I've seen all sorts of things pinned to them - staff or faculty notices, announcements about upcoming events, postings by students looking for roommates, or even pieces of artwork.
Occasionally, the contents of these bulletin boards can be interesting enough to photograph. But not very often. So, using one or more of the props I carry with me, and sometimes including a note I've written, I’ll try creating something that’s hopefully intriguing, humorous, and realistic enough to seem legitimate. Coming up with these phony bulletin boards is a lot of fun. I highly recommend trying it yourself. If you don't have access to a bulletin board, they can be purchased inexpensively online or at office supply stores. Or, an empty wall can work just as well, using tape instead of pins. Here are a few examples of my work.
Lighter or darker
Occasionally, students will pull out an image they shot and ask what I think about the exposure-is it too light, too dark, or just right. I’ll study the photo for a few moments and then ask what their opinion is. I do this so we can take a deeper dive into the question, since it’s usually not something that can be easily answered.
There are issues to consider when determining what a photograph’s appropriate exposure should be. Perhaps most critical is to avoid very bright or very dark areas in the image that may cause clipping, since that can cause problems for the monitor displaying the picture or for the printer printing it.
After that, and similar to other compositional elements such as framing, camera angle, focal length, depth-of-field, etc, the photographer must determine how a specific exposure will impact the look of the photo. I would assume that most photographers strive for a “normally” or “properly” exposed image most of the time. But intentionally over-exposing or under-exposing can create a very different dynamic that often produces a more interesting and exciting image. The photos below, hopefully, will help illustrate this.
The first set of images below shows a college cafeteria. Keep in mind that the outside illumination is significantly brighter than the inside lighting. Photo 1 has been exposed for the outdoor lighting, making the greenery easily recognizable. This keeps the indoor lighting dark, but in a positive way. The reflections on the tables subtly highlight them, providing just enough illumination to render their shapes pleasingly. The more brightly exposed photo 2 shows those same interesting reflections, but with greater intensity. And though still rather dark, the cafeteria can be seen in more detail than in photo 1. In addition, the windows become grossly overexposed with the increased exposure, hiding what is outside and causing a wonderful eerie glow.
The second set of images was taken in a college classroom. I was drawn to the chairs’ tight, perfect alignment, as well as the starkness of the surroundings. For me, the precision of this scene is both inviting and off-putting.
Dark objects, like these chairs, can open up interesting lighting possibilities. That’s because they can be photographed at a variety of brighter exposures without becoming overexposed. The first picture shows the chairs and room normally exposed. This is how the room would appear to someone standing within. The second photograph is overexposed. That’s apparent when looking at the ceiling, walls, and floor. But, again, because the chairs are made from such dark material, we’re now able to see them in much greater detail. In addition, the chairs are pleasingly framed by the bright areas of the room.
Barring technical problems caused by the lighting, it’s impossible to say which exposure is correct or which is preferable. That decision is solely within the realm of the viewer and the photographer. I don’t find one picture preferable to another. I think each one offers a different but equally interesting interpretation.
The advantages of being lazy
There are times when changes are needed for improving a shot I’m working on. It may involve repositioning the subject or camera, removing a stray object, adding a prop, switching lenses, or some other thing. It may be a minor change or one that’s more involved. However, my problem, at times, is that I'll get too lazy to fix the issue. I know an alteration is needed, but I can’t muster the energy to do anything about it. I’m not sure why this happens. Perhaps it's just a mood that hits me. In these instances, I'll simply ignore the needed changes, continue shooting, and hope some magic occurs that will save the photograph.
That magic, if it’s to happen, usually comes when I reevaluate the photo later at my office. I’ll examine the RAW file on my large, high-quality monitor. This gives me a much better read than the small, low-quality JPG image that appears on the camera’s monitor (Note: whether shooting in RAW or JPG, the image on the camera’s monitor is most likely a JPG). Also, my frame of mind will be different from what it was during the photo shoot. I’ll no doubt be more relaxed and able to see possibilities I previously may have missed. What I might ultimately discover is that I really like the picture. If not, I’ll search for ways to fix the problems using one of my digital editing programs.
So, it’s more or less of a crap shoot. If I end up liking the photograph as is or with some post-production changes, I’ll keep it. If not, it's trashed.
The high-angle position of the camera works well. The elements of the shot I wanted to emphasize are clearly visible - the model, sign, various locks, and the disproportionately large door. Initially, I planned to remove the extension cord, which was powering my strobes. However, laziness won out. Luckily, after viewing the image in my office later on, I realized how much I liked the cord snaking around under her. I think it’s an attractive design element.
Deborah was sitting behind a wall smoking, as if trying to stay out of view. I wanted to position myself a few inches to the left so that more of her face would be visible. As in the previous picture, I was too lazy to move. But, I’m glad I stayed where I was. I feel what’s shown is perfect. In fact, seeing more of her face might have taken the emphasis off both her cigarette and the dramatic bend of her wrist.
I noticed the lopsided blinds on the left window and said to myself, “Oh, I should straighten them before I shoot.” And again, I did not make the effort. And again, after viewing the picture a day later, I was happy I didn’t. The tilt of the blinds adds to whatever else is “off” in the picture - the darkness of the image, the slight angling of the camera, the extreme headroom, and the fact she is wearing sunglasses indoors.
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Finding The Shot
Focus And Blur
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