July 31st 2012 by Andrew S Gibson
Photography is a gear based pastime, and because of this it’s easy to overcomplicate a shoot by taking more equipment than you actually need. Now, I understand that someone like Joe McNally likes to have a truckload or two of equipment at hand just in case he needs it, but he’s a pro making a living from demanding assignments. Most of us don’t own that much camera gear and neither are we under pressure to deliver the ‘perfect’ shot for a high-end client.
‘Gear envy’ can arise when you compare your equipment to that of a professional photographer or fellow hobbyist. Comparing cameras and lenses is a bit like comparing cars or houses – someone always has something bigger, better or more expensive.
Comparing can result in feelings of inadequacy if the other person has more than you, or superiority if your equipment is better than the other person’s. Neither is productive and I suppose the ideal place to be is to be happy with the equipment that you have, fully confident in your ability to use it to its fullest potential (Bruce Percy writes about using minimal equipment here).
Simple portrait exercise
I’m experiencing a renewed interest in taking portraits at the moment and I’m benefitting from keeping my setups as simple as I can. In that spirit, here’s an exercise that will help improve your portrait taking skills.
The idea is to shoot in black and white, with just one camera and one lens, in natural light. The aim is to keep your approach simple so that you can concentrate on your rapport with your model and posing and composition. Using black and white will test your composition skills.
Take a single camera, with one lens, and no flash. If your lens is a zoom then use a piece of masking tape to keep it fixed to a single focal length.
If you have an APS-C (crop-sensor) camera select a focal length between 50mm and 100mm (if you only have an 18-55mm kit lens I recommend the 55mm focal length). If you have a full-frame camera, the ideal focal length is somewhere from 85mm to 135mm.
Use Raw. To help you visualise in black and white set the Picture Style (Canon’s term, your camera may differ) to monochrome. When you playback the images you will see them in black and white, this helps you see how well the composition is working in monochrome. By using Raw you retain the option to process the photos in colour.
Use Shutter Priority* mode and set a shutter speed that is fast enough to prevent camera shake (around 1/180 to 1/250 second depending on focal length and sensor size). Set the ISO to 400 to start with – you can raise or lower it when the shoot starts depending on light levels and how wide an aperture you want.
Generally speaking, I find the f2.8 to f4 aperture settings give good results with portraits. If you have a prime, you have the option of using the widest aperture settings to give narrow depth-of-field. If you have a zoom then the widest available aperture will have to do.
*Feel free to switch to aperture priority if this suits your way of working better.
Now you have your camera settings sorted out it’s time to plan the shoot. Here are some of the things you should think about before hand to help the shoot run smoothly:
- Finding a model. If you’re lucky you have a photogenic friend, partner or relative who would like to model. If not, you need to find someone. Of my four most recent shoots, I found three models on Model Mayhem (I like this website because it lets you search by geographic area) and one is a workmate of my girlfriend. Work out your ‘payment’ arrangements beforehand. Unless you’ve hired a professional model, the best deal is probably one of mutual collaboration – after the shoot you can give your sitter hi-res copies of the best images (and a print or two if you wish) without any money changing hands.
- Decide on an approach. What sort of photos do you want to take? One approach is to take the most flattering portraits you can of your model, a bit like a social portrait photographer. Another is to capture character (Alex Alexander is good at that). Another is to create a fashion or fantasy scenario (Miss Aniela does that well). This probably dictates your choice of model – or your choice of model may determine your approach.
- Find a location. For this exercise you need to find a photogenic outdoor location to take the photos. Outdoors is easiest because it suits the simple approach. You can use natural light and won’t need any portable or studio flash units. It helps if you can visit the location before the shoot to search for the best places to take photos. You will give your model confidence in your abilities if you can go straight to the best places to take a photo.
- Work out when to take the photos. To get the best images you need to be at your location with your model during the best light for portraits. This is a little hit and miss because the light conditions depend on the weather, but you should aim to be on location near the end of the day if you can, as that’s when the best light usually occurs.
- Figure out where the best light is. This depends on the time and location as well as the weather on the day of the shoot. If I’m taking photos on a sunny day, and I have no flash or reflector, then I place my model in the shade as that’s where the best quality of light is.
- What is your model going to wear? As these photos are black and white, colour isn’t so important. Clothes with interesting shapes and textures always come out well in monochrome. Talk about this with your model before the shoot. It’s important to establish the boundaries. For example, some women aren’t comfortable wearing a bikini in photos, and it will mess up your plans if you turn up having planned a swimwear shoot and your model won’t go for it.
- Posing. It’s a good idea to have some ideas worked out in advance. Find the work of some photographers you like and print out some of their images or save them to your phone*. You can refer to these if you get stuck, and show your model so he or she understands what you’re trying to achieve.
*I’m not advocating stealing photos – but it’s fine to build up a collection of inspirational images that you find online that you can refer to when you need to generate ideas.
Here are a few ideas to help your shoot run smoothly:
- Build rapport with your model. This is really important, for fairly obvious reasons, especially if you don’t know them well. If you show a genuine interest in your model he or she will respond to your ideas and become involved in your shoot. They are more likely to be willing to help you out with future shoots. You might even make a good friend.
- Communicate your ideas. You can do this by showing your model any sample photos you have prepared, and also by showing the images on the camera’s screen at intervals during the shoot (good luck explaining why your model can’t see their photos right away if you have a film camera!). The more your model buys into your vision of what you want to achieve with the harder they will work to help you achieve it.
- Pay attention to what’s happening behind your model. Keep the composition simple and try to avoid messy or bright backgrounds.
- Relax. Have fun. Enjoy yourself.
The photos illustrating this article were taken on a recent shoot with Sarah. We went to Karori Cemetary in Wellington and I used an EF 85mm f1.8 lens on an EOS 40D.
Here are some more photos taken on another shoot with Jennifer in Auckland. Taken with the same lens but this time I used an EOS 5D Mark II. I was familiar with this location as I took some portraits of someone else there last year (you can read about that shoot here).