Thursday, December 23, 2010

Perfecting the portrait

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One of my big projects for 2011 is to shoot new headshots of our executives for tendering proposals. I have a journalism degree. My background is shooting news out on the street, not in an Olan Mills studio. I wasn't too excited about the project, and my original plan was to contract it to some photographer with lights and a backdrop who works at Sears or does class photos or something. That was until I found out it was something like 300 employees that needed these photos done. Budget no longer allowed me the luxury of contracting it out. Instead I spent just under $400 to put together a mobile studio that I could set up in the office to churn out these headshots.

Keeping in mind that I also wanted to utilize this equipment for video, here's what I got:
The Super Cool-lite 4 One-Head Fluorescent Kit
An 8' Light Stand
A Backdrop Alley STDKT-10BW Studio Stand with 10' x 10' black and white muslin backdrops

The light kit comes with both a softbox and a dish with a diffuser. So far I've only used it with the softbox, but it seems to work well. It can be used with just two or all four lights. While it's adequate, in retrospect I think I would have asked for a little bit more money to get a six-light kit.

I also realized there's another important item you'll need to buy to make this work -- a steamer. These backdrops are all folded up and creased like crazy. Ironing will fade and discolor your backdrops. You need a good handheld steamer to knock all the wrinkles out whenever you set up.

When the equipment showed up last week I took it home to sort it out and make sure it all worked. However, that gave me a chance to get a little creative while I was playing around with it.

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When using just one light, I found that the best results were to have it high shining down on the subject. This creates flattering shadows as if one was standing in the sun. While putting the light low or off to the sides can create a dramatic look or film noir effect, you also run into a problem with shadows from eyeglasses falling across the cheeks, glare on the lenses of glasses, and the shadows of peoples' own noses falling across their cheeks.

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When shooting outside or in a crowd, I usually use the lowest f-stop possible for minimum depth of field. With my Leica X1, that's f2.8. This highlights your subject and blurs the background. However, when shooting against a backdrop, there is essentially no background. I decided to stop down the X1 to f9.0 to see if I could get sort of a hyperfocal effect that brought out all the detail in the subjects. The only downside is that to get the proper exposure I had to drop my shutter speed to 1/2 a second. I was really impressed with the detail I was able to get with the X1, but it kills a little bit of the spontaneity in a shoot when you have to tell people to freeze. Otherwise everything gets a little blurry like this.

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However, I also tested the light with the camera at f2.8 and the shutter speed ramped up to 1/250. It wasn't too bad.

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All of these were taken with the X1 in B&W High Contrast mode. I think they look great, but the 35mm lens required my subjects to be much closer to the camera than felt natural. I noticed they both had a tendency to keep backing away. I'll be doing the headshots with my Nikon in color with a softer setting and around a 90mm focal length.
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