Friday, October 11, 2013

Garage Portraits

Some time back, after I bought my economical and dated DSLR, I said I would post the results in the form of a few portraits. (Which is the main reason I picked it up)  Well, I have not done as many portraits as I would have liked over the past year or so, but I did get an opportunity to photograph a few different people, for a few different reasons/purposes.

Now, a few posts back, you will see that I shot a few "Natural Light" portraits (so to speak) of my daughter.  These certainly show how the DSLR is able to throw the background out of focus so as to make the subject stand out.  The photo of my daughter sitting on the railroad tracks is a classic, full body portrait and illustrates the "depth of field" that really only a DSLR can capture. 

Now, when I picked up the DSLR, I was also thinking about doing some portraits using some simple "studio lighting".  Truth is, I used to do this more often in my early days of photography, and I really enjoyed it, as it allows one to really get a handle on how the light interacts with one's subject.  I also like how "sharp" photos look with this type of light. 

I have always been a bit obsessed with the "sharpness" of my a fault if the truth be told.  I think it might have to do with not having perfect vision....and perhaps appreciating a high degree of sharpness, or its simply another one of my strange obsessions.  Come to think of it, I like strong, primary colors too....and I have a bit of color blindness....hmmm.  Yeah its vision oriented, not obsession!   See!  Whew!

Where was I?  Oh yes, so...I had a little extra money I had earned working off duty, so I looked for a simple and very economical way to setup a studio.  Now, when I say "studio", of course most people think Yen Lui or a variety of "Last Name" studios that have fancy backdrops, 6 light setups, and nice wood floors etc.  Well, that is neither economical, nor simple.  I wanted something I could setup in the garage, in about 10-15 minutes, that would produce quality light and thus...quality head and shoulders portraits. 

So, the search was on.  The internet is full of practical setups, makeshift equipment, good ideas and the like.  It is also full of really cool AC studio lights, color filters, expensive backgrounds...a guy could get lost and spend a thousand bucks and still be left wanting for more!

 I found a very interesting website simply called "The Strobist". Now I thought I knew all about strobes and the harsh light they produce, the cords you need to synch up the flash(es) and the need to soften them with a soft box and/or an umbrella etc.  I mean, it hasn't been that long since I used them.....hmmm, or has it!   I was thinking about strobes and flash guns that I used back in...well...a long time ago lets say!  It seems they have come a long way in both performance and price.

The more I read, the more I discovered how far compact strobe lights have come.  I am talking about the strobes you slip onto the hot shoe of your camera, or use "off camera" albeit, completely manual ones. (No TTL here)  Long story short, I was able to pick up two decent strobes, two umbrellas to shoot thru, a reflector board (think poster board for your high school class) and couple of radio triggers (to remotely trigger the strobes) for about 170.00 bucks!  That is what my last high quality strobe cost by itself?!  I added to that short list, a very cool product that allows me to slip colored "gels" (think cellophane) over the head of my flash and simply splash that color onto my light grey paper background, making it any color I desire.  Cost of that little kit??...20 bucks!!

Needless to say, the cheapskate part of me was quite happy to have gotten all these things so cheaply.  I still needed a backdrop though.  Well as I eluded to a moment ago, I picked up a long roll of light grey paper, and I put it on a piece of PVC tubing I got from Home Depot for 5 bucks, and chained it to the ceiling in the garage.  I had a small wooden stepladder that would work as a sitting stool for the time being...soooo...I was ready to go!  Under 200.00 dollars and I had the makings of a truly portable and simple studio lighting setup.

I learned long ago, after a lot of picture taking, that how things look around the person you are photographing, is simply unimportant. (unless the scene around the person is telling a story/is part of the picture you want)  Studio portraiture is much like a painters can be less than inviting and tidy and still produce a wonderful product!  The photo below shows just how lame my little studio looks...I mean, it's my garage for crying out loud! (Sweet carpet though huh?  You know you like it!)  Yeah, I have carpet in my garage...I like to wear socks in there during the winter, so shut up.

It is a simple setup using what is referred to as "Butterfly" or "Paramount" style lighting.  It is really a one light setup and in this case I have an additional "background" light separating the subject from the background, and at the same time throwing some color onto the background as well.  The "radio trigger" is attached to one of the strobes and the other has a sensor that picks up the flash and fires simultaneously. (Told you they have come a long way!)  The board under the front umbrella simply fills in the shadows cast by the umbrella light.  And the camera?  It is hand held and I shoot thru the opening between the umbrella and the reflector board.

Here is what it looks like for the model/subject.

So a little "posing" and "chin up" direction and we are shooting portraits!

The portrait below was a practice session to test the lighting and the placement of the lights/reflector board.  That's my wife Sandi cheesing it up for the camera!  You can see how "clean" the lighting is and how sharp, yet flattering this particular setup is.  I came in very close and focused attention on just her face.  On a portrait, the eyes are everything and they must be clear and sharp.  As you can see here, her eyes are just that.  Looks fantastic.

The next portrait (below) is the result of a friend (Alicia)  asking if I could do a portrait suitable for a business profile.  Specifically, a financial business profile for her workplace/website etc..  She had a few requirements and limitations regarding backgrounds etc., so we decided on a plain grey background and business attire that she would normally wear.  We selected a pose that was feminine, yet still projected a confident "business" look.  I am pretty critical of myself and I think we really pulled off a nice, natural portrait here.

The last portrait here was done for one of my wife's clients.  She wanted a "profile" photo for personal use.  She had seen a couple of photos that I had done recently and asked if I would take a few portrait shots of her.  The background color was coincidentally very similar to the one I used for Sandi, but it was chosen in this case, to specifically match the color of the blouse that she was wearing.

 I always liked when Cosmopolitan Magazine would do this with their cover photos.  If you go back and look, they started a trend in which the background would match the color of the persons attire on their cover shots.  It was a very slick and appealing setup, that I copied in this case.  The only other thing I had to worry about with this subject, was her glasses.  It can be a real pain sometimes, to reduce or eliminate glare when you are firing off powerful strobe lights aimed at your subject.  In this case, we really liked the frontal positioning of Sandy's face and we avoided any glare, giving us a very attractive, clean and accurate (because she always wears her glasses) portrait.

So, there you have budget DSLR, some modest equipment and a less than glamorous garage studio.  In the end, it is all about the photo...and this little setup produced some really nice portraits, of some very lovely ladies!