Keep Your Balance “Light & Easy”

By Hernan Rodriguez


I’d like to share something simple and practical, but none-the less, of great value. Sometimes the simple things in life get overlooked quite easily. Though my intro here discusses the importance of the technical aspects of photography, the approach to my portrait session was quite the contrary. Simple.



Many times I find myself caught up in the technical aspects of portraiture, ranging from lighting ratios, exposure and gear, which sometimes can distract me in the process of creating portraits. I then miss the “magical” moments that are occurring right in front of me. A great opportunity might be lost all in all. One of the greatest values the SpyderCHECKR card has for my personal work, is that it is the easiest and most practical step I take for guaranteeing I always get well balanced skin tones. It doesn’t take more than one shot of the card full frame for my custom white balance, or simply taking a shot of my subject holding the card, and dealing with my white balance in post-production. I almost always use the former. This is something I never compromise in my portrait work. Skin always rules, period. If I have a commercial client where color match is critical, I use the 48 spectrally engineered color swatches for accuracy. Occasionally I will have a client that needs to match a specific wardrobe piece for print. The SpyderCHECKR guarantees a perfect match every time by taking the guesswork out. We will cover this in a future blog post.


By a “Keep It Simple” approach, I am not saying the technical is not important. The technical actually facilitates creative freedom. The more you know, the more options you have. Now, the more you practice, the more intuitive it becomes and the more readily you can identify the lighting conditions. This will allow you to implement an approach or a solution you have encountered while testing and practicing.


Photographers and videographers can work on their craft by practicing different lighting scenarios, working with different modifiers for specific light qualities, and creating custom color effects by the use of color filters.


I also urge photographers to study the principles of subtractive and additive color, which will also help in elevating their photography style. I am actually in the process of finalizing a “Color Harmony” book and will also share a series of posts.


Subtractive color implies the opposite of what you might think. It is actually the mixing of media such as paint, which is commonly used by artist. It is based on the primary colors of yellow, red and blue. This color mixing also applies in programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator. Additive color on the other hand, applies to light. To see color you need light. This color principle is based on the primary color of RGB, and secondary color CMY.


I work on many creative approaches using color by applying these principles along with the Rosco CalColor filters, and custom white balance by uploading an image of the SpyderCHECKR Grey Card as a target.



Now back to the “simple”. This is where my portrait session begins. To my astonishment, the actual session in its entirety was only four minutes long. I only took six shots, and only one was questionable. I was commissioned to photograph portraits of two best friends, and the challenge was in creating portraits that identified their true personalities. Both of these boys are freshman in high school, and both aspire in becoming professional skaters. I really identified them with Mark Twain’s novel of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. One boy definitely had the “air” of mischief, while the other followed his lead. I thought I would personify this for the session.


After evaluating the scene, I decide to shoot the boys’ in the backyard. The best perspective for the portrait session was shooting towards the setting sun. Not only was the background more interesting, but the backlighting served as a great rim light, adding separation and depth to the portrait. The contrast was my main concern. Though the sun was setting, the skies were still quite bright. In situations as these, instinctively my approach is to simply expose for the background, and add light onto the subjects for a balanced exposure. I took a few test shots to determine my exposure, using my shutter speed as priority. By starting with shutter speed, I am able to control the saturation of the background. Keep in mind when shooting ambient portraits combined with flash, you are essentially recording two exposures. One is the ambient exposure, and the other is the flash exposure. The shutter speed controls the ambient, and the aperture controls the light allowed to strike the sensor, which translates to exposure.


I start at the my camera’s maximum sync speed of 250th of a second, which allows me to render the background as dark as possible, and I choose the appropriate aperture to balance the exposure.  My starting exposure was 250th at f/8, ISO 100. I used a Dynalite Baja portable strobe as my key light, combined with a Westcott Rapid Box beauty dish as my modifier. I simply set the Baja to ½ power and lit my subjects from a 45-degree angle off camera left remotely. In taking my first test shot, I determined my background, though properly exposed, still lacked a bit of density. I still needed to underexpose one more stop of ambient exposure, but I was already at my maximum sync speed of 250th of a second. This is where the Dynalite Baja comes in handy with its High Speed Sync (HSS) option.


NOTE: High Speed Sync allows flash to expose the entire sensor at shutter speeds faster than the camera’s sync speed – even as high as 1/8000th of a second. Higher speeds control ambient light in a photograph. The higher the shutter setting, the darker the ambient becomes. HSS is great for darkening backgrounds even on sunny days.  This is the control we needed for this particular portrait session.


When shooting with HSS, you also have to keep in mind that the extreme change in shutter speed, and also depending on your flash power and recycle times, your white balance can significantly vary. For this reason, I will always either upload a shot of the subject holding the SpyderCHECKR grey card and use it as a target in post, or custom white balance in camera. In this occasion, since I did not have much time to work with, every time there was a change in scene and lighting condition such as with High Speed Sync, I had my subject hold a SpyderCUBE. The SpyderCUBE is just another option I have for attaining proper white balance. Similar to the SpyderCHECKR, it gives me one reference shot under varying light conditions, to set the white balance, exposure and black and white points in post. It sometimes is much more convenient keeping the SpyderCUBE in my pocket rather than the larger SpyderCHECKR card.


Having these tools and keeping it “simple”, allows me to capture to magical moments during a shoot and not miss a beat.


  About the Author – Hernan Rodriguez  

Hernan Rodriguez is an International Award-winning professional photographer specializing in commercial photography and portraiture. His unique style is a fusion between art & photography which earned him 25 awards in photography, including the much coveted Black & White Spider award for photographic excellence in fashion photography. Most recent are three Bronze Awards, in the 2012 Aperture Awards for portrait and illustration. His outgoing personality and fresh approach to imagery has allowed Hernan to work with such notable clients such as Guess clothing, Playboy Beverage, Corona, EMI, Sony Record label, and numerous celebrities.


When all is said and done, what passion drives Hernan? He states, “I once was told in eighth grade, if you ever have a career you would do for free, you know you have reached the right place. I am passionate about touching people’s lives.”


Photography Type: Commercial Portrait Photographer – Specializing in Celebrity Portraiture


Articles from Hernan Rodriguez