Among many other things, there are two important factors I always consider when shooting portraits on location as well as in studio; the expressions need to be authentic, and the skin tones must be accurate, unless I am shooting for special effect. This should be at the top of your priority list anytime a person is in front of your camera. Most of the clients I work with are either agents, managers, art directors or celebrities. They are usually approving images as I shoot to monitor, selecting images primarily based on great expressions. Accurate skin tones and proper exposure is implied as far as they are concerned.
There are differences though, as to how I approach both disciplines. In a studio I will usually have full control of my lighting. I can either block, diffuse or direct the light without having the influence of an always changing light source, such as the sun. Three things I regulate are the quantity of light, quality of light and the color of light. The quality of light I manipulate by the use of diffusers and modifiers. The quantity of light I can quite easily control by the number of lights I use, usually layering multiple lights to create the right look for the client, and by varying the power output in my flash units. A 2,000 WPS. (Watts Per Second) power pack for instance, I will use to create hi resolution commercial portraits, usually in the f/11-f/16 range. When shooting on location though, I like to simplify my lighting by using 1 to 2 lights at most and using the sun and a reflector as extra light sources. Great consideration needs to be given to the color of light.
Let’s start with white balance. The first step is in keeping consistent and accurate color representation of the images you capture. Shooting in specific lighting conditions such as daylight, incandescent light, sunset or with studio flash will produce a specific color temperature that is balanced within our camera settings. For this reason, to keep color consistent and accurate, I always take a quick shot of my Spyder Checkr card before every light condition change in my sessions. I upload the shot as a custom white balance reference and neutralize any color cast. Simply said, it sets me at a neutral 18% gray. I can then shoot or begin my creative process if I am to add color filters to my lights.
Shooting on Location
Throughout my career I’ve had the honor of photographing prolific people of our time. People such as Neil Armstrong, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. For the past 3 years, I’ve had my good share of shoots on location, which has brought a renewed sense of originality to my work. Every new location brings me an opportunity to bring a new dynamic. I set myself out to photograph the next generation of actors, which has also invigorated a new perspective to what I considered portraiture to be. Times change, styles change and we, as photographers, also need to evolve as this too, will help us to expand our reach.
One of these actors and a dear friend to me is Arienne Mandi who plays a leading role in the Showtime network series, The L-Word: Generation Q. I first worked with Arienne six years ago, and whenever she needs images or I am testing, we manage to take some amazing images. Part of the success of creating great work is in shooting from a place of trust and comfortability. With Arienne, she knows she will be in a safe environment, a place where she just be herself. This is mutual as she also allows me the same freedom to share my creative vision.
Prior to our session, Arienne and I share mood boards and ideas. I will always have the client send me at least one reference image which gives me an idea as to their vision for the shoot. Of course, the more references I have the better, as it gives me an idea what mood and lighting style they want to create. We decided on a naturalistic style at the beach, like a Bruce Weber style of image. Arienne wanted to keep a light and natural look to her makeup, so she was comfortable doing her own. That’s not always the case, for example, when shooting fashion editorial and graphic bold makeup is required. For these cases we will have a more extensive team of makeup artists and wardrobe stylists.
Part of the process is in location scouting, creating a shot list to keep you fluid throughout the shoot, and setting up a workflow if you are to be shooting tethered to a laptop. Three days before the shoot, we decided on a location in beautiful Malibu, California. My assistant located a lovely spot where there was a makeshift swing, and jetty rocks near the shoreline. If time allows, I will usually test a day before the shoot, checking the direction and quality of light. I will also test a variety of modifiers to match the existing natural light. Taking the time to do this will allow me creative freedom on the day of the actual shoot. Our shoot was late in the afternoon, so shooting toward the west gave me the option of shooting backlit portraits. Shooting with the sun at my back, toward the east, gave me a front lighting option. The sun at this time of the day though, had a hard light quality as well as a high contrast lighting ratio. My approach was to diffuse the light for a softer look, and to balance the contrast by using auxiliary lighting.
The first shot with Arienne was sitting in the rope swing with the sun to her back, exposing for the skies. Exposure for Arienne overexposed the skies by four stops, so I had to split the difference to balance the exposure. Being that I was shooting in RAW, I intentionally pushed my exposure two stops and with the natural front fill of the sand, I was able to create beautiful, high-key lifestyle portraits, which fits the naturalistic style Arienne and I had agreed to do. I also shot these with a telephoto lens and with a shallow depth of field, which added all the focus to her expressions. I also shot these with the intent of opening the shadows and low tones in post processing. My final exposure was 1200th – 1800th at f/3.2.
Color accuracy is so important when photographing people because inaccurate skin tones can easily ruin a portrait. My client and the type of shoot I create, will determine whether I remain tethered to my laptop throughout the entire session. For Arienne’s shoot, I calibrated my laptop with the Spyder X prior to the shoot. The process is intuitive, as the software will prompt you through the appropriate steps, all in less than three minutes. Well worth the time. Part of the process in my color management is also to make certain that I capture a neutral white balance throughout the shoot. I do this by recording a reference image of the Spyder Checkr card before every set change. I upload that as a custom white balance, both when using my Nikon system as well as my Hasselblad mirrorless. If I don’t have the time to create a custom white balance, I will do it in post processing by simply using the reference image of the Spyder Checkr card. I can neutralize any color cast by using the eyedropper tool in Lightroom and in Phocus software as well.
Second Shot – The second shot was set by a tree in front of a hillside with compelling lines, blue skies, and an interesting prop we found there. This shot was great for Arienne to pose in front of the tree. When shooting on location and mixing the natural sun with artificial lighting, I like to first position my subject to where the sun will flatter the face. Sometimes the light might be at a 45o angle and sometimes at a 90o angle, creating contour and shape. Once I take a meter reading for the face and the overall scene, I then determine the contrast lighting ratio I will be using with my portable flash. With the sun to my back and slightly dropping in the horizon, I placed a beauty dish from the same angle as the sun. This created a natural feel to the light, as if coming from just one light source. The ambient exposure was 250th of a second at f/11, so I powered my portable FJ400 flash to f/5.6. I also had the option of dropping my shutter speed to 125th of a second for added ambient fill. Another option we used was to place a one stop diffuser on a 7’x7’ scrim. This changed the quality of the hard light from the sun to a soft overhead fill. I simply switched to the beauty dish as my main light, still in the same direction as the open fill. I also used a large white bounce board for fill to vary the contrast on some of our shots.
Third Shot – The third shot was in the water with the sun behind Arienne set back in the horizon. This was our last shot of the day, so we made it fun. Arienne was brave enough to jump in and out of the water, being that it was a bit cold for the season. I simplified our lighting setup to just the one beauty dish as our key light, and I simply used the ambient exposure for fill. To saturate the skies, I underexposed the ambient by one stop set at 500th of a second at f/11. I powered my key light to meter between f/8 and f/11 for a very natural balanced look. This setup gave me great options as I was able to drag the shutter speed to 100th of a second for a high key look, while still maintaining the same output on my key light. When shooting on the beach or in water, be aware that you will get fill from the sand and from the sun reflecting onto the water. Since we did not have enough time to shoot in this setup, I finished the session by taking a picture of the Spyder Cube and used it to properly white balance in Lightroom. My assistants have one in their pockets when I need a quick neutral 18% gray reference. It keeps guesswork out of the equation.