Monday, December 15, 2014

Experiments with Portraiture

The trouble with portraits, headshots, and such like, is that you need a willing subject with too much time on their hands. That's a big ask. Or you can go onto the boards and seek out a collaborator who is working on the same thing at the same time and help each other out, but that's a diversion. Or you can just experiment on your own self like everyone else, hence the proliferation of selfies.

Lately I have been spending more time on this, so it's high time to share. Here are some recent ones.

1) The white room
  • Conjecture: A white background, like a cyclorama, should be easy to light, produce clean photos with nothing but the subject, and easy for background separation in post.
  • Setup: A medium size room with white walls. One flash head behind me at full power washing the white wall. One flash head on the side, bouncing against the white wall, to produce a standard side window asymmetry look and feel. Exposure set to prioritize my skin. 85mm lens, f5.6 or whatever works.
  • Results: A mixed bag, kinda good. What they say about lens flares is all true, that when you point a light source at a lens, at any angle, it will flare and generally cause trouble. Here the entire background becomes a relatively intense light source, with the flare manifesting at the center, as a discoloration of the black outfit into a hint of blue, which is perfectly fixable in this case, but not quite correct had the subject been a high fashion client demanding color accuracy. The takeaway is that this is quite fun and usable but don't assume that just because you saturate your sensor around the subject that your magic wand tool will make for quick etching work.

2) Black background with hardlight sides

  • Conjecture: Quite a while ago I formed a hunch that a subject needs to be shot with a background and lighting that corresponds to the intended scene for post. For example, if the subject will be cut out and put on white paper with some writing on it then it should be shot against a white background so that the boundary edge has a good amount of white bleeding into it, and the final result looks natural. I often see laughable results on cheap or rushed ads, where the subject is in sharp focus at the front, naturally blurry towards the back but then magically jumps into razor sharp focus with a hard edge where it meets the background, and there is no reflective interaction between the background and the subject like you would expect to see in real life. Shoot with black for dark artwork, shoot with white for light artwork.
  • Setup: Black fabric background, unlit, don't worry if you still see creases because you're not keeping it. You could shoot it in the dark in a very large space, if you happen to have one available but there is no need for in-camera perfection with digital so don't waste your time. Play with symmetrical key lights. I used two speed lights, full zoom, low power, to get a narrow angle and not much spill (sometimes we all wish for an kit of large narrow angle honeycomb modifiers, but just work with what you have and get it done). No soft fill, as it spills way too much all over this highly controlled scene. Snooted honeycomb front fill. Also there was a backlight, hoping to produce some spill around the edges, but I'm not convinced that it had any effect.
  • Results: Regardless of my conjecture, the output turned out to be universally usable, I believe the highlighted sides are what makes this so.


Etched, retouched for light backgrounds, retouched for dark and dramatic backgrounds

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

SQ1 at f1.4

It was one of those quiet days, when I had to try out odd ideas, one thing would lead to another, and I ended up snapping a few pics of SQ1.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Diptych by Jacqui Butterworth

I photographed Jacqui's high gloss resin paintings before. The first time was tricky, and exhausted my bag of tricks for managing reflections while still getting good light. At one point the setup was like a tent, with a black shroud around the painting, and that far from the correct answer. The ultimate solution prooved simple: two soft boxes one on either side, bang bang! On later shoots I repeated that setup and it worked every time.

This time it was different, and I had forgotten my hard won lesson. The day was comfortably warm and mostly overcast. My white walled studio was bathed in natural light coming in from a high translucent ceiling. Lots of nice soft light. My exposure settings and white balance were calibrated, and he sky looked stable enough to shoot both paintings without a cloud opening passing overhead and changing conditions halfway. I shot. I edited. I instagramed. I was happy. The following day I looked at the results again, but wasn't happy at all! This wouldn't do at all! The top edge had an unwanted highlight and other uneven texture related features. So I opted to redo. Started with natural light again, but noticed that the camera and tripod were reflecting in the painting. Pondered what was to be of all this, and cursed my beginner mistakes. Finally I went back to the proven solution, two soft boxes and no shortcuts. The takeaway is, when you find what works, stick to it.

Check out Jacqui's great work.

Here is the setup shot.

And this is what what needs to happen:
  • F 5.6 -- any less and you loose sharpness, any more and you get spots and risk surface texture and specular highlights
  • ISO 50
  • Flash power minimum -- there are 2 of them
  • Speed 160 -- any more and you risk uneven flash firing, any less and you risk reflections from natural light and over exposure
  • Histogram -- push exposure highlights to the right but leaving a small margin
  • Alignment -- with care, and fill the sensor (portrait in this case)
  • Post -- no lens correction (for 50mm 1.8f), crop with no rotation but with full keystone distortion to the painting's frame outer edge (zoom in to get it exact), base curve lifting the highs to match white expectation and pop, white balance should be fine as it is managed by the camera presetting.