Reflecting a mood

Today’s shoot was themed “Sad”. I have a student, Evelyn, who is a talented photographer herself, who asked for some help to learn how to shoot a sad portrait/self portrait.

So before she arrived, I quickly shot one of myself. It ended up like this:

The shot took just a few minutes to produce, and I will share the history of how I made it.

First, I decided to not use the studio, but the couch. The studio is too clinical for the subject to get into a sad mood. Sad mood makes me think things like:

  • hard light
  • lots of darkness
  • b/w or desaturated
  • extra contrast and presence and sharpness
  • no eye contact
  • eyes cast downward
  • using hands, arms, etc

So I used one flash, off camera. The camera was on a tripod. I used pocketwizards. Here’s the obligatory “pullback shot”:

The camera was set to 100 ISO, 1/125th second, and f/8, standard studio settings, with the flash set to Manual mode, 1/4 power. Experience tells me that those settings will work at that distance.

When I use that setup and those settings with a bare flash, I get this, straight out of the camera (“SOOC”):

One of the elements of a sad picture is darkness. Lots of darkness—a metaphor for a dark mood. So I want a chiaroscuro picture. Hence, I do not want the wall lit up. The solution: a Honl Photo 1/8″ grid fitted to the flash does what I need. Here, also SOOC:


With the lens set to “M” (manual focus) I used the lens scale to manually set the focus distance to the distance between the camera and where I would be. That’s why you have that lens distance scale:

I checked by zooming in to 100%. After one slight adjustments, my pictures were razor sharp. I used the timer shutter release.

After I took the image, I desaturated it using my standard “Desat” develop preset, and I cropped the picture vertical:

I decided to go B&W for most. Here again is the winner:

Having that, I awaited my client and after she arrived, we shot some similar ones of her. All using the 85mm prime lens. Of you have a crop sensor camera, a 50mm lens would do great for these shots.

In the above image, the sadness is produced almost entirely by the person’s expression and body language. But sometimes the background is not absent, but instead is an essential active part of the mood-setting. That was shot two, made outdoors with a Bowens studio strobe powered by the Travel Kit.

I used my 85mm lens for the previous shots, but I used a 24mm prime lens for this shot. A wide angle, so the subject will be small in the image (else I get distortion). An environmental portrait.

Here it is, also desaturated, but otherwise SOOC:

And finally, one in B&W:

What do you think? Sad enough?


Want to learn this? Do a custom training session like this, designed for your unique individual requirements. Check out and contact me to find out more. Whatever your level of knowledge, you will kick your photography into overdrive by filling in knowledge gaps and refreshing creative ideas. In person or via the Internet. Do it!


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