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.



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.


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!


x100: Can you see a theme?

Regular readers will see that the last few days, I have been shooting with, and talking about, the Fujicolor x100 camera that I carry:

Fuji X100 (Photo: Michael Willems)

The theme has been: given the right light (e.g. flash!) and the right techniques, you can take professional pictures with it that are as good as those taken with an SLR. This is almost straight out of camera (a crop and a few dust spots removed):

Now while I am not recommending product shoots with the x100, this goes to show it can be as good as an SLR.

But now let’s take it a step farther. It can be better.

Yes, better. And here’s how:

I just took that picture at 200 ISO, f/8, 1/1000 sec. That makes for that nice, dark sky.

Wait. Did he just say 1/1000 sec, one thousandth of a second? That is impossible since the flash sync speed of 1/250 second limits the shutter speed you can set the camera to when using a flash. Right??

Wrong. The x100 has a leaf shutter. And it allows flash up to 1/1000 second. And as said, that is why that sky is so wonderfully dark. It is in fact noon and it looks bright to my eyes. But 1/1000 sec makes it dark. Two stops darker than my other cameras could have done!

But he could have done that with aperture, with a higher f-number. Or with an ND filter.

Nope. If I had, I would have run out of flash power. The flash needs to get through that filter, or through  that small aperture, and it is not bright enough at higher apertures, especially when a modifier is being used.

So the x100 may be small, but it can do things my $8,000 1Dx cannot do. Just saying!


Let there be

I shot a couple of bodybuilders recently: reason enough to share a few of the pictures and the settings.

I decided, for this shoot, to use pretty dramatic light, with a significant sidelight component. Why? Because sidelight shows texture, muscles, and similar detail. So I used a softbox on each side of the subject, aimed forward and positioned carefully to keep it off the background:

(100 ISO, 1/100 sec, f/13)

Post treatment is minimal: B/W setting; then in the BASIC panel, I moved the whites and highlights up a tad, and the shadows and blacks down a bit. The resulting images are dramatic and show muscle:

Do keep in mind the fact that the face should be appropriately lit. Like in the image above.

In the image below, a flash behind the subjects aiming towards me, and a flash with a grid on camera left, aimed at the subjects:

This shoot was all about light.


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