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In the Shooting with Wireless Flash series, award-winning photographer Jim Sugar demonstrates his approach to using off-camera flash in a variety of lighting scenarios, sharing practical tips along the way.
In this installment, Jim shows how to light and shoot a portrait with a dramatic look. He demonstrates a variety of inexpensive lighting tools—clamps, gels, and other light modifiers—to light the subject and the background. He also shows how to offer direction, pose the subject, and make him or her feel more comfortable. The course wraps up with tips on distinct ways to effectively light and separate the subject from the background, using gels, adjusting lights, and modifying the ratios between multiple strobes and the ambient light in the room.
So those are some of the techniques I use when shooting a portrait using wireless flash. With a combination of careful lighting, direction, and some fun experimentation, we shot a diverse selection of photos that a client or a magazine editor could choose from. Most of the techniques I used apply whether you shooting a portrait of a Scottish warrior princess, a business executive, or a family member. Here are some tips for you to remember.
First tip, know your subject. If possible try to meet or at least see your subject in advance of the shoot. Is your subject tall or short, thin or round young or old, white skinned or dark skinned, bald or shaggy? Answering these questions will affect how you place or pose your subjects and what you can expect from them during the photo session. When I photographed Bonnie, she and I discussed every detail in advance.
Her costume and makeup, the weight of the claymore sword, and her ability to lift that sword. When the time came to shoot, I knew what Bonnie would wear and how much I could expect in terms of her ability to lift a 40-pound sword over her head. We also discussed how much time she would give me for the photo session. And that's important. Ask how much time you will have. That will influence every decision that you make.
Busy people tend to have very little time and very little patience for photographers. And yet they'll give you 10 minutes and expect you to work miracles. Small children and animals are even worse. Once the moment has passed, no amount of coaxing will regain their attention. On the other hand, if you can get 30 minutes or more with your subject you've got the luxury of being able to experiment with different lighting setups, backgrounds, props, and poses.
Just keep in mind that after an hour or so, just about anyone will get tired of you and your camera. Next tip, give direction. There's a big difference between portraiture and candid street shooting. In a portrait setting, your subject knows that you're taking pictures. This puts you in charge. Take advantage of the control this gives you. Direct your subjects and help them pose. A great portrait photographer once joked with me, if you've got a joint, break it.
In other words, rather than having your subject stand at attention and face the camera like a wooden soldier, pose your model so that they break every major joint in their body. The head should be turned, the forehead lowered or raised, the shoulders and hips rotated away from the camera, often in opposition to each other, and the elbow, wrists, and knees are all bent. Now this does not mean that you should ask your subject to twist and bend like a pretzel.
Often the movement of just an inch or two per joint is all that you need. That's what we did in our photo shoot. And as a bonus, these movements will also make the subject feel more comfortable and at ease in front of the camera. Next tip, use gels and modifiers to change the quality of the light. Most wireless strobes include a set of colored gels that fit into the head of the strobe unit. As we saw all during our portrait shoot a slight orange warming gel is a great way to a light up one side of the body.
Using a warming gel, especially during the winter, reduces the pasty look of very white skin and makes most people look healthier. You can also use gels to add a sense of depth to the scene. That's because warm light draws a subject closer to the camera and cool light creates a sense of depth or distance. To separate the subject from the background, place a warming gel on the strobe that lights the subject. Then place a blue or cool gel on the background light and remember our trick from the photo shoot.
If you shooting a full figure portrait and you can't have a light stand behind your subject, tuck the background strobe into your subject's belt. Another powerful tool is the light modifier. Things like reflectors and diffusers. The best modifiers to use for a portrait may depend on your subject's skin tone and hair color. For fair-haired light-skinned subjects the shape of the face will be defined by shadows. For dark-skinned subjects the details will be defined by highlights.
So for light-skinned subjects, you might lean towards dark panels or diffusers to create shadows that help define the shape of the face. For dark-skinned subjects, reflectors or additional strobes might be better choices. The bottom line here is that it's important to understand the difference between a universal change to a photo versus a local change to just a part of the image. Changing lenses or putting a filter all lens makes a universal change.
It alters the entire shot. On the other hand, when you aim and shape the light from a wireless flash, you create just a local change to a part of the image. With practice and experience, you'll learn which tools to use and when. This is where it's also helpful to study and deconstruct the photos taken by other photographers, as I mentioned in the last installment of this series. Next tip, learn how adjust your strobes.
Adjusting the light output of the strobe lets you create lighting ratios between the highlight and shadow sides of the face and the body. But making these adjustments means using the buttons and menus on the strobes and your camera body. Practice using these controls before you shoot. You don't want to keep your subject waiting while you fiddle with your equipment. Just remember, you have three distinct ways to create modeling on your subject and to separate the subject in the background: using gels, adjusting lights, and modifying the ratios between multiple strobes and the ambient light in the world.
Not every technique works in every scenario so practice with all three. And finally one more tip. After you've been shooting for a while and just before you're ready to wrap up, a ask yourself this question. What haven't I seen? Can you change camera position, change lenses, or move the camera? Often the best photos from a photo shoot come in the last few minutes of the shoot when you've let the situation develop and you begin to see and really understand the person, the light, and the location.
Thanks so much for joining me for this look at wireless flash and studio portraiture.
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