So today I did yet another CEO shoot. I do love environmental portraits.

So what do I look for in such a portrait? How do I make one? I thought it might be interesting for you to follow along, so to speak, with my process.

It starts with the lens. I start with a wide angle lens, because I will probably want the person “surrounded” by the rest of the shot. By their environment, in other words. Probably, not necessarily: so I also bring lots of other lenses. If I do use the wide lens, I am careful not to get too close to my subject: distortion is always a possibility.

Then the light. I will usually start with one off camera flash in an umbrella. So, since it is a flash picture, I start with the ambient light. 400/40/4 is a common start point. Whatever it is, I continue until I am happy with the ambient light, that I typically want at –2 stops, and only then go on to flash. For the flash, I ensure it is aimed at the subject’s face from the right direction, at the right angle (e.g. 45 degrees off-centre, 45 degrees up).

Then the location. I look for something that is typical for the person I am shooting. An office, for instance. But I also look for good composition. The rule of third, for instance. Leading lines, diagonals converging where the subject is, leading the eye there, are good.

I watch carefully for reflections in glass, and position lights and subject accordingly. I check that the subject’s clothing and hair are all OK.

An extra flash or two, with gels, are always ready to be used. A dash of colour here and there is great.

And now: in practice. Can you see how I applied all these techniques to today’s CEO portrait shoot?

Of course I also use all other standard composition and portrait and technical rules. But it’s not about those; it’s about showing something of the subject’s world, and of his or her personality.


Tell stories

Even in the smallest ways, you can tell stories, and even in snapshots there is thought, Like tonight, as I walked to class. I shot a little four-image story.

First, the all-important overview “establishing shot”:

Shows where we are going. Namely Sheridan College, where I teach several photography courses. I used the “Sunny Sixteen Rule” to set the camera without using the light meter. Partely overcast at 7pm, that is about 3 stops down from sunny at noon. So, 400 ISO, 1/400 sec, f/5.6 (5.6 being three stops down from “sunny” 16).

Then, let’s add some depth, some 3D, and at the same time let’s tell the viewer where we are:

Showing depth? That’s done by using “close-far”. A close-by object very close to you, with the background showing far away. That shows us there is depth in the photo; that it is not flat, in other words.

That being done, now let’s use a nice curve, a converging one at that, to imply that we are going in, by showing “the path”:

And now that we are there, let’s see the class, during a break:

Again, nice S-curves lead the viewer’s eye into the photo. Focused on the person closest to us. Using the Rule of Thirds.

The point? The point is that you can, and should, apply “high rules” to “low snaps”; and that this makes them better. Enjoy!



I attended a Canon Canada industry event today: launch of the C100 MkII video camera. Here it is:

(1600 ISO, 1/60 sec, f/1.4, bounced flash).

Hey. Wait. Let’s talk about this shot. Why those particular settings?

  1. It was dark, and bouncing was tough, so the lens will need to be open at f/1.4 to let in enough light. Also, this creates round bokeh background lights, not hexagons. So, aperture done.
  2. I wanted a handheld sharpness guaranteed shutter speed. Say twice the lens focal length. And with a 35mm lens, that means 1/60 second. So, shutter done.
  3. So now I wanted the background to read around -3 stops, or something thereabouts: dark, but not pitch dark; a nice warm glow. My first guess was that 1600 ISO would get me there. If it had not been, I would gave tried other ISO values until done.
  4. White balance to zero. Flash compensation to minus one (the camera is black and the flash is metering off the camera).

That wasn’t so difficult now, was it? And note, I am not saying that my way is the only way. If you have another way of getting to good settings, good for you. But this works for me and you should think about what works for you. And then, and you are probably starting to recognize a theme: practice. practice. practice.


Do it now

A note to those of you who want to learn things—some time soon.

My advice is to do it now. Often, that’s the only way to get things done: do them right now. Not “some other time”, since that never arrives. Tomorrow is always just out of reach.

Learning photography is easy. There are many ways to do it. They involve books and training (see, but they all also involve doing it.

Like the relationship between depth of field (“how blurry is the background) and distance to your object. The essence is to try it without varying anything else. For example, look at the background. Is the whiteboard fuzzy or sharp?

35mm lens, f/2.8:

35mm lens, f/2.8:

35mm lens, f/2.8:

All I did was vary the distance. The board gets blurrier as I move forward. (The smile gets bigger, as well, did you notice? Nothing like poking a camera into someone’s face to get a smile—or to get beaten up).

So f/2.8 can give you a very blurry background, or a blurry background, or a sharp background, as long as you change the distance. You could also try leaving the distance the same but varying the lens focal length (by zooming in) or the aperture (remembering to adjust ISO to keep exposure the same).

The key is: do it. Don’t just think about it. Grab your camera (now!) and learn the relationship between aperture, ISO, shutter, focal length, and distance.

The same is true of the learning thing. If you had been thinking of booking some private learning time, or of buying my books, do it now, so your next shoot (even if it is for March Break) will be better. You know my number.

And to finish: one more tip. If you always have your camera at hand, you lose nothing. Like the cat yawning, this morning:


Challenges in a

I shot portraits yesterday. Some were headshots. These are sometimes challenging because you want to get great expressions out of people who are not professional models. Saying “smile” doesn’t do it.

But then, even more fun, the environmental portraits. And these should be storytelling pictures. With good group composition.  Three colleagues:

In these, as you see I like drama, so I expose for the outside. 100 ISO, 1/100 sec, f/8. Why not the usual 1/250 sec? Because that would have meant f/5, and in this case I wanted f/8 for DOF.

The story is to do with the airport, of course. And individual shots are easier: see my friend and assistant Maged yesterday as I was setting up for the shot.

Nice wrap-around light from an off-camera umbrella.

Here, another one:

The biggest challenge? The flash has a big umbrella. This is visible in almost every picture as a window reflection. And it lights up the ceiling: ditto. And I needed an angle that shows the radar tower. So in the event, I moved left and right, up and down, back and forth, and I made the light and the subject do the same, until I finally had one angle that had sufficient light in the subject and that had no umbrella showing, and only acceptable ceiling reflection. It’s always possible: I learned that long ago. But I also learned that it’s always a challenge. So: persevere.

Why not do without an umbrella?

That’s why!