In yesterday’s shoot with Vanessa Scott in Timmins, Ontario, I used gels to recreate the sunlight that was fast fading below the hills. All shot with Canon’s amazing 85mm f/1.2 len.

(1/200th, f/4, ISO100)

Vanessa looks like she is in that light, because I put a CTO (Colour Temperature Orange) gel by Honlphoto on the main flash, like so:

You will see also that I am using a second flash, fitted with a grid, for the hair light. Two flashes driven by Pocketwizards—that’s all.

One more from this amazingly versatile young woman:

1/60, f/5, ISO100 — I had to adjust for fading light

Again, the flash allows me to offset the subject against the background, which I keep dark. Without the flash, I would lose the nice colour and I would have to make everything, including that background, very bright.

And that’s how the cookie crumbles.


Fit for purpose

Portraits need to be fit for purpose.

Take this picture. A résumé picture:

I have shot this model clothed, nude, in studios, outdoors, traveling: every picture is different.

A resume picture needs to be professional (the jacket, the hairdo); show beauty in the case of a woman (the overall make-up, the low cut, the eye shadow), but not excessively so; be perhaps a little sexy (the white top) but not overly so (the necklace, the businesslike jacket again). The expression should be friendly but neutral. Yes, some thinking goes into this.

As it should go into every portrait you make. Always ask:

  • What is the photo for.
  • Whom is it for?
  • What are they expecting?
  • What is the person being pictured expecting?
  • What are you expecting?
  • What demands does this put on the photo?
  • What problems need to be solved? What needs to be de-emphasized?
  • What do you want to emphasize?

If you ask yourself these questions, you will come up with answers all by yourself. Answers about clothing, setting, light, expression, and so on.

But if you do not ask, you will not come up with answers; or worse, you will come up with the wrong answers.

For those of you who are interested, after the “more” break, two civilized nudes from the very same shoot as the photo above:

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A simple, but effective, trick

A simple trick, used by photographers the world over, is this. Can you see what we did in this shot from two days ago, a portrait of Liz Medori?

Yup, we used a fan. A simple cheap fan; I usually use an industrial fan from a home supplies store. That fan makes the hair do its wild sexiness thing, which you will see in many model photos.

And the good news: You need to know no technique for this. Even if you are a total beginner, nothing stops you from aiming a fan at your long-haired subject.

What else did I do in that photo? We had a make-up artist, Melissa T. We lit the model with one overhead softbox straight in front of her, plus one hair light aimed at us, for shampooey goodness™, plus one background light with a purplish gel aimed at the background. And I shot with a 70-200mm lens at the typical studio setting of 200 ISO, 1/125th second, f/8.

But even if you do not know what that means; go for it with the fan!


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Reflect on this

When you make a portrait using standard “studio settings” (i.e. you have the ambient light do nothing; and to achieve this you use f/8 at 1/125th sec at 100 ISO), and you use one flash, modified with an umbrella or softbox, you get a portrait, but it is very dramatic: only what you light is lit.

As in this portrait of Henrys’ Deanna Flinn (a fellow photographer and teacher) at yesterday’s excellent meeting of the Ajax Photography Club, where I held a Flash workshop:

Good exposure, and good catch lights at the 2 o’clock position. If that dramatic look is what you are aiming for, fine.

But usually, people look for a different, softer look. A standard portrait has a fill light on the opposite side of the main light. That fill light is two stops darker than the main light.

So, you need another flash. Yes, I suppose; but you can instead use a reflector. Cheaper and quicker! I asked one of the students to hold up a white sheet of paper to the left, and now we see this:

Nice, no?

Then if you have a second flash, you can put a snoot on it and use it as a hair light:

Even better! Yes, a good portrait really is that simple.

Of course you can now aim another flash at the background and light it up – or move it back and colour it with a gel. Or use a grid on a single flash and have fun:

Flash photography really is fun!


The Pro Flash Manual explains these techniques and many, many more – a full, 123-page flash course e-book.. Available now. Just saying.

The Thinning Lens

As a photographer, I photograph a lot of people who are reluctant.

Usually, they are reluctant because they do not like their looks. They want to be Jennifer Aniston, and in their mind they are Jennifer Aniston, but in fact they are middle aged, ordinary people. They are usually, but not always, women, who are generally more aware of their looks than men. A very common question is: “oh, you can only shoot me if you put on your thinning lens”.

No Thinning Lens Needed Here

These people will be disappointed when they see their photos. And as a photographer, I do not like it when my clients are disappointed. So what do I do?

What I do not do is “put on a thinning lens”; i.e. edit the picture to the extent that the person is materially different. My rule of thumb is that if I cannot do it in Lightroom, I do not do it – that is the reason I have not been in Photoshop all year. I am happy to remove blemishes, especially temporary ones, like pimples and bruises; perhaps even lighten the odd wrinkle a little; but that’s it. No distorting, no making breasts bigger (or thighs smaller) or making people thinner than they are.

But there are other things I can do to get the most out of what a person has. That means things including the following:

Lighting brightly: bright light makes wrinkles vanish into the top part of the brightness, where they do not look obvious. The more high key an image, the better skin will look.

Finding the right angles: everyone has good and bad angles. I would give examples here, but one cardinal rule is that I never show the bad angle pictures to anyone – client or anyone else. Hence, by the way, the fact that I do not like clients asking to “see the pictures” on the back of the camera, unless they are very young and pretty and confident (those three do not always go together).

Modeling: when I can, and when someone is a little overweight, I try to light from the side rather than from the front.  Look at this example of a model’s legs: one lit primarily from the front, and the second lit mainly from the side, using an umbrella and speedlight. This model needs to lose no weight, of course, but you can see the principle: by selectively lighting you can give objects and people shape, and make broad objects appear narrower.

Selectively lighting - in general, I try to light good bits, while keeping less perfect bits in relative darkness.

Use a minor electronic adjustment – I am happy to use Lightroom’s Clarity adjustment to slightly smooth skin tones. A clarity adjustment of perhaps minus 15 is hardly consciously visible – except it does make skin clearer, wrinkles less obvious and hence makes the person look better.

Finally, use the right lens! A wide angle lens can make large objects look “puffy” and will make close shapes look larger. Close shapes can, for instance, be the nose, or the thighs if the person is sitting, or their arms if they are closer to you than the face. Using a long lens, on the other hand, will give a much more neutral, undistorted look. My 70-200 lens is my favourite – provided I have enough space. Fashion photographers tend to also use this lens as a favourite. So I suppose in a sense there is a thinning lens!

No thinning lens needed here, either

In the end, of course, if someone is not happy with their looks, well, then there is little I can do – I cannot make them into something they are not (like Jennifer Aniston). That is one reason I am happy to photograph a lot of young women: it’s not that I prefer to (the challenge of shooting someone older is great!), but they tend to be more accepting of their bodies, for obvious reasons, and more accepting of reality of there is something not perfect.

And guess what: no-one is perfect. I am guessing that if you saw Jennifer Aniston get out of bed in the morning and groggily walk to the bathroom, you would not be impressed. We are all human. One reason I thoroughly enjoyed doing portraits of naturists at Bare Oaks naturist park the past two summers is that they understand this, and are happy with their bodies, whatever they look like, short, tall, big, small, young, old, whatever – seeing people naked, one realises that no-one is perfect like the fantasies we see in magazines where the photographers do materially alter things. Ahh.. so refreshing for a photographer!


NEW: You can now sign up for a June 20-30, 2014 photo tour of North Wales with me: go here and read all about it, and if you are interested, call the travel experts and sign up. Let them know you may be interested as soon as possible: this will be a great trip with photography, travel, sightseeing; doing and learning all mixed in together!