The thin veneer of civilization… I am sure it has been mentioned enough to be a cliché. But just like truisms, clichés are true – that’s why they are clichés. Civilization can change, turn bad, or disappear quickly. I reflect on this these days.
And change is what we are seeing now. My store is closed for the duration and I am at home. Fortunately, I can teach from here, interactively via the web.
So let’s see the silver linings. This is a good time to learn. (My ebooks, incidentally, are temporarily on sale for just $49 for the collection: go here and use checkout code “COVID” at the end to get a $30 discount.)
Another thing to do? Get creative. Take out your camera and a flash (or two), and make some documents of this time. We are documenting, and even making, history here.
As for me, I am going to do a portrait every day. Here are the first four:
Because I am a photographer, you can see the equipment. In the last photo, for example, that is two manual speedlights fired with Pocketwizards. The left one is fitted with a Honl Photo Aurora Borealis Green gel; the one on the right is equipped with a Traveller-12 softbox. (See them here). In the second image you can also see a Honl Photo 1/4″ grid in use as the hairlight. Yeah, let’s get creative in these terrible days. Learn flash!
PS: I’ll teach a flash course online live next week; contact me for details or for future dates.
To emphasize what I wrote yesterday, look here. My grandparents, in 1928 in Tilburg, the Netherlands. In other words: just before they were to set sail to the Dutch East Indies, or “Ons Indië”, as they called it at the time: “Our India”.
They were headed to the city of Batavia, where they settled down, both teachers, and had a family, namely my father and his two younger sisters.
Batavia is now called Jakarta, and the entire family has long since passed away. None of them made it to a very old age, all dying in their 60s or early 70s, probably at least in part due to their experiences for a number of years in several of Batavia’s Japanese concentration camps, including the infamous Camp Tjideng “hell on earth”. The entire family survived, which was not all that common, but they were marked. They never talked about it much: the little I know, I heard from my father’s younger sister Chris.
43, 13, 11, 9
In the photo, they were of course unaware of what was to transpire. The line above shows their record in concentration camp Tjideng in April 1944: mother and three children. (A couple of months later, at age 14, my father was transported alone to the “men’s camp”.)
After the war, they were held in the camp by the British for “security purposes” – my father always resented this, almost as much as he resented the Japanese and in particular Emperor Hirohito, in whose name all this was carried out. Not being one to listen to authority, he escaped and walked back to Tjideng–not a very safe thing to do at the time. Shortly after they were eventually released, they were all put on a ship to The Netherlands (which my father had never seen, of course) and handed 25 Dutch guilders and told, basically, to get lost.
In any case, the photo.
First, of course old photos are an invaluable way to travel back in time, and they should be valued as such. Priceless. And they should be preserved (the above version is my restored version of the original, where I fixed scratches, fading, sun discolouration, and so on. If you have old photos, have me restore them.
Second, the actual portrait. A fabulous professional work. Perfectly lit (the technical terms are “Rembrandt Lighting” and “Broad Lighting”. Great expressions. And they are not standing there posed military style, smiling at the camera. They are looking out, to we know not what—their future in the East, perhaps? Or are they looking back at the first half of their lives? She seems more apprehensive than he, pensive, perhaps a little sad, even. He is more “bring it on”, but is holding back somewhat at the same time.
This is what a great portrait should do. So while I understand the liking for “stand there and smile”, it is also a great idea to consider some more artistic portraits, that bring out the subject’s personality. Posterity will be very grateful.
Ever wonder why models never smile in advertising photography? Why they always look so serious… aggressive even, sometimes?
Because they want to look perfect, that’s why.
Smiles create smile lines… but unlike you and I, photo editors, Cosmo readers, and models who want perfection call these lines “wrinkles”. And they dislike them, and the shadows they create. Like so:
The aforementioned (and, truth be told, most women) usually prefer this, a very “no-shadow” neutral look where skin is perfect:
If you are shooting traditional model shots, like for a portfolio, that’s what you do.
Puff out some air, like when you voice the letter “P”.
Let face come to a rest; this takes 1-2 seconds.
Leave mouth ever so slightly open.
Ensure that all facial muscles are 100% relaxed.
Result: skin is flawless. No shadows, no unevenness, no wrinkles. No personality is shown. Just beauty.
But wait. The look you want depends on what you are shooting. When you want to depict personality, you can have a person looking angry, surprised, sad… even happy. Like this:
So relax and shoot what you want. Do not shout “smile!” for every shot; but do not avoid all smiles either. If only because your model will feel better. But also because you may indeed want to show different sides of a person’s personality.
I very often hear people who are a little ahead of themselves. They do paid portrait shoots before learning how to focus, that sort of thing. They do not want to learn formally, for instance from a course, or books, or seminars; and yet they expect the knowledge to come to them for free, somehow.
Wishful thinking, and you know it. So let me grab a few of these things by the horns. Starting with portraits. You are doing a studio portrait; you have a backdrop; but the rest is mystery. So your images end up:
Under- or overexposed.
With a background that is sharp instead of blurred.
With the subject not separated from that background.
Out of focus.
With the background white, not coloured even though you use gels.
That is because you never learned the basics. But there is good news: studio portraits are simple. All you need to learn is:
Lighting. A main light, 45 degrees away from subject. A fill light, same on other side. Hair light, opposite main light. See diagram, from my new book:
Exposure. Set your camera to manual mode, 1/125 sec, f/8, 100 ISO.
Turn the flashes to half way (obviously the flashes are on MANUAL too).
Now meter the main flash. Adjust main light until it reads f/8.
Same for hair light.
Fill light: meter this to f/4 (i.e. adjust this light until meter reads f/4 when it flashes).
Background light: same as main light, again.
White balance to “Flash”.
Focus using one focus spot. Focus on the eye using that one spot.
Use a lens longer than 50mm. I prefer my 70-200 or my 85mm prime.
Move subject from background as much as you can. Then you can gel the background light. If, whoever, much of the normal light falls on the background, you cannot gel. Test this by turning OFF the background light: the background should be dark.
Turn subject toward main light, then head slightly to you.
That really is all. Click., You have a competent portrait.
What you must not do is pretend that no learning is necessary. Go find a course, go buy my e-books; read this free resource www.speedlighter.ca; take private training; sign up at Sheridan College; : whatever you can do, do it now.
It really is simple. But not as simple as “I just bought a camera and next week I am shooting a wedding”—and believe me, I have heard that very statement more than once.
If you, like most of us, are attached to people, you will find enormous satisfaction in shooting their portraits. But only if you do it well. This all-new e-book takes you through the jungle of terms, shooting techniques, lighting schematics, posing techniques, and types of portrait and for each one, outlines in a logical fashion what it is you need to do to perfect your technique. From equipment to psychology, award-winning photographer and educator Michael Willems leads you through it one step at a time.
This extensive and richly illustrated e-book is $19.95 plus applicable taxes: it comes as a PDF file conveniently optimized for freely viewing on your iPad or other tablets, computer, small cell phones and similar platforms.
The Table of Contents shows that the subjects will teach you everything from technical needs and lighting schematics to psychology and special tools and techniques:
But Wait! There’s More! The set of all six of Michael’s books is now also available at $79.95, a $40 discount over the regular price of $120. What better Christmas present for yourself or a loved one? Or even better: get them now so you can shoot great portraits during the upcoming festive season. Head to http://learning.photography/ now to order your downloads or DVDs.