Mixing Up Business Portraits

I was recently approached to update the employee images on the website of a local business.  Normally, this type of project doesn't give one much latitude for fun or experimentation.  If you browse your run-of-the-mill business site you generally come across staid and safe profile pictures.  I didn't want to spend a day running people through a photo mill and do a lot of post on images that all looked alike - that type of project seems like it's bad for the soul.  And, luckily, I'm in the position where I don't have to take a job if I don't think I'll enjoy it.  For me, this is just a hobby; photography by far costs more than I make from it, so I can reply to said business and offer them my idea for how to do the portraits and if they don't like what they hear c'est la vie and move on.

My idea was to do away with generic backdrops and use paintings, other art, or furniture from the office as the background.  Also, I wanted the option to incorporate more candid shots - if a person was looking away in contemplation, for instance, and I captured something compelling there, I wanted the option to use it.   Or, as it turned out, if someone were engaged in real and spontaneous laughter and if it made a good image, I wanted the ability to use it as well.  The point was I wanted something different, but still professional in feeling and execution.

They liked the idea.  This is Austin, of course, so the odds of you coming across a business that appreciates the idea of trying something new are probably better than your average city.  Their old site had traditional portraits set against that one blue muslin that seem to be given away every time you open a bank account or something - you know what I'm talking about.

However, there is always one problem when dealing with employees - they are not models.   I can talk all day preparing them for natural and candid shots, but once the camera comes out people more often than not clam up and start doing their approximation of a portrait pose or smile and the effect can be unnatural, if not unexpected.  This happened often, let me tell you.

If I was having a hard time getting what I thought was a natural pose, I would do my best to coach something out of the subject.  I could have them lean back to get comfortable, and fire off a series of images WHILE they formed their smile.  It seems that when people start to do their "portrait smile," somewhere during the process they make a face that feels far more natural to me.

Business 3.jpg

So, safely in their everyday environment, I would start each person's portrait with a conversation to get them used to seeing me and seeing the camera.  During our talk, the camera would come up and I'd fire off a pic or two. 

It's a process that seemed to take most of the edges off the "portrait taking experience" and give me something to work with.

Business 6.jpg

And sometimes, it really showed off the subject's personality.

Business 5.jpg

This was all well and good, but working in a limited environment for backgrounds, it didn't take long to run out of things to pop behind people.  So I decided to use some background ideas more than once, changing up how I presented them.

For example, this office had nice large windows that overlooked the Texas Hill Country.  As pretty as that is, it was going to get boring soon if the same stretch of grass and trees were behind everyone so I chopped up the scene.  I shot one looking down onto a highway:

Business 4.jpg

And another up towards the horizon: 

Business 1.jpg

And then, to completely maximize a location, I blew out the light from the window and high keyed the image:

Business 2.jpg

That's three very different portraits taken from the same window.  Not a bad use of limited resources if you ask me.

When we were done we had a collection of diverse imagery that complimented the employees and the resulting website looked unique and professional.  More importantly, the client was happy.  

Perhaps just as important, I enjoyed it. 



Not-So-Common Photography Mistakes

They say to err is human.  In that case, photography often reminds us how human we are.  The process leading up to the point where you press the shutter release is frought with opportunity for oversight and mistake.  Others may not appreciate it, seeing only the final image, but to get to that point a photographer usually has to be mindful of many things and juggle them all successfully - aperture, shutter speed, ISO, composition, right down to making sure the battery has enough charge or that there's enough space on the memory card.

What follows are oversights on my part that I feel are not common things photographers think about but can surely foul a picture up if not corrected.

Turn Off Image Stabilization When Using A Tripod

This almost seems counter-intuitive.  After all, a tripod, like optical vibration correction, is meant to stabilize the camera, too.  Shouldn't those two things working together make the camera more stable than either by itself?

The Canon 70-200mm f2.8L II attempts to correct for movement that isn't there.

When the camera engages the image stabilization motors it cause the image to jump, if for a brief moment.  Left engaged, the image stabilization system often times will jump randomly as it attempts to correct for movement it thinks should be happening.  Some newer lenses employ tripod sensing algorithms that shut down the stabilization motors when the lens detects no movement, assuming that the camera must be on a tripod.  However, best practice is to just turn the image stabilization off when the camera is tripod mounted to avoid any shot killing hiccups.

Detail of above.

If you've ever used a tripod and inexplicably ended up with an image that isn't as sharp as you think it should be, check that the image stabilization is turned off.

Be Careful When Using Polarizers On Ultra-Wide Images

Perhaps the single most important filter in any photographer's bag is a quality circular polarizer.  I use Singh-Ray, B+W, and Lee for the different polarizers I like to use - warming, multi-coated, and 4x4 square, respectively.  In my opinion, these filters are the pinnacle of performance and quality.  However, like all circular polarizers they are at the mercy of physics.  Polarizers work best when the sun is at 90 degrees from the subject, that is if you point at the subject with your index finger ideally you want your extended thumb to be pointing at the sun.  This limitation means that for wide angle lenses, or any lens wider than 28mm, only part of the image can be polarized at a time.

Notice the polarization artifacts, the rings on the right of the image.

This effect can become even more pronounced if you take a long exposure with a moving sky, as above.  This particular artifact could not be seen in the viewfinder, but the dark banding could.  (The "dark banding" refers to the darkened of part of the sky, the part that is actively being filtered by the polarizer.)  However, as the clouds moved at the extreme edge of the image it became possible to see the polarizer's foil structure.  Do you notice the concentric circles most evident on the right side of the image?  This artifact can be a real bear to correct in Photoshop!

Micro Focus Adjust Your Lenses or Have Them Professionally Calibrated

If your camera is from within the last 6 years or so and is above consumer grade chances are it has the ability to individually adjust the focus of your lenses.  This is especially critical for lenses with large maximum apertures since if the focus is off by even a little it can dramatically alter the shallow plane of focus, and thus the sharpness of your subject.

Portrait taken with a back-focusing lens.

The above was shot with a Canon EF 85mm f1.8 at f2.5.  This means that I was working with a very narrow depth of field.  As is standard when taking portraits, focus was placed on the nearest eye but if you look closely, you may notice that it's the farthest eye that is more sharp.

Detail of above.

Looking at the above image on the back of the camera, without zooming (also a no-no for checking critical focus - always zoom into an image!), you may not notice that focus was missed.   In fact, this image was meant for web-sized display on a company's internet site, so anyone would be hard pressed to see that the left eye isn't tack sharp.

But, what if this were meant for print?  What if it was going up on the company's lobby wall?  Suddenly, it's not good enough and should be considered a missed or wasted shot.

It turns out the lens was indeed back focusing.  Back focusing is when the lens is returning a positive focus lock at a point when in fact the lens is optically focused behind that point, or farther from the viewer.  (Front focusing is the opposite.)  Using a LensAlign Pro I determined that the lens needed -18 adjustment on my Canon 5D Mark III camera.  (This number is arbitrary and would differ from camera model to camera model and certainly maker to maker.)  A correction that great is something more than I care to correct for in camera (most corrections are within the single digits) and this lens will be sent to Canon for some permanent adjustment.

Hopefully this will give you, faithful reader, some food for thought and perhaps you'll have more keepers for it.


SXSW Photowalk with Google and Trey Ratcliff

Earlier this year, during South By Southwest (SXSW), Google sponsored a photowalk with an appearance by Trey Ratcliff of Stuck in Customs.  I decided to attend, making this my first photowalk, the fact of which is a real shame since I live very near a city with a vibrant photography community. 

Being a photowalk noob I wan't sure what I should bring.  The walk was going to start with the sun up but end well after dusk - should I bring a tripod for nighttime photos?  What about lenses?  Filters?

Arriving at the steps of the town hall building with Trey Ratcliff at the top of the stairs.

I decided to walk around with my 5D III, 24-70mm f2.8L II, 70-200 f2.8L IS II, Really Right Stuff TVC-33 tripod and BH-55 ball head.  I slung the camera over my shoulder with a Black Rapid RS-5 strap and the tripod over the other shoulder with a Manfrotto 401N Quick Action strap.  I even brought a few filters - circular polarizer and a variable ND filter (who knows, if the clouds were right I could do some slow shutter architecture work).

As part of Trey's introduction speech he mentioned he was bringing just one camera and just one lens, a fisheye.  Well, dang.  I may have overpacked.

Special Event.

This was a very large photowalk event with several hundred people in attendance.  We were a mob that moved around the city with what seemed like a singular directive - document EVERYTHING.  Since this was during SXSW, people came up to us thinking we were paparazzi and tried to get a glimpse of the celebrity we were stalking.

With Darth.

Trey was very engaging.  He took time with everyone who had a question or who wanted a photo op.  In not very much time he has become a photography institution.  His blog, ebooks, and videos have allowed him to pack up his Austin residence and move to New Zealand and now runs his empire from somewhere in Middle Earth.  He has a very interesting story and I suggest you visit his site and read more about it.

Tone-mapped Highrise in Austin.

What's the point of a visit with Trey Ratcliff if you don't come away with an HDR or HDR-esque image?  Trey made his name in HDR tutorials.  Even today when you google the immensely popular high dynamic range technique, it's his name that nearly tops the results.

Interesting passers-by were welcoming to the multitude of cameras being shoved in their faces.  In Austin, people are probably used to being subjects - especially those people who tell interesting visual stories.

But be ready to be a subject yourself!

Google Glass.

 This was one of the early public appearances of Google Glass.  There were about 3 people sporting the spectacles and all were very popular with the photogs.

Partygoers on 6th Street.

Austin is chock-full of interesting people - it doesn't take SXSW to realize this.  But during SXSW they come out in full force and it's awesome.

After all is said and done I didn't use my tripod once, despite hauling it around all day.  I didn't use any of the filters.  And, surprising to me, I only used one lens - fittingly, it was the 24-70mm "walkaround zoom."  Now that I'm addicted to the photowalking experience I intend to really pare down the kit I lug around for next time.


"Look Over Here!"

It's a phrase we, as the de facto family photographer, say to children until we are blue in the face.  Sometimes it even works.  The problem is we aren't that interesting to the child.  Afterall, they see us all the time.  Usually, if they look at us at all it's for a split second, usually when their parents aren't, and then it's gone in a flash (literally). 

I'm constantly asked to do portaits of the rugrats in our family and, though I enjoy the results, I cringe at the thought of uncooperative tikes.

I came across a product, the maker of which I can't remember, that suspended a smartphone beside the lens of a camera.   The smartphone would be put on autopilot, displaying a light show in attempt to attract the attention of wandering eyes.  "Brilliant," I thought, "This will solve everything!"  (A phrase uttered by me, upon seeing some new gadget or piece of gear, at least twice a week.)

I knew I had laying around enough hardware (as the result of many other such epiphanies, as stated earlier) that I could cobble together something similar.

This is what I came up with:

Frankenstein Attention Rig

I took a Wimberley F-2 Macro Flash Bracket, attached it to the Really Right Stuff L-plate on my camera, and screwed an eBay tablet mount (similar to this one) at the end.  In the clamp I put my Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7" tablet and set it to run the Party Light app, which is also available as an ad-supported free download. 

Considering the build and weight of the Wimberley bracket I would trust that arm with a full-sized 10" tablet as well.  You can also use a smartphone, but obviously the screen will be quite small when viewed from several feet away.

The weight of the entire rig isn't anything to sneeze at.  My arms got tired after a 15 minute session.

Canon 5D Mark III with Sigma 50mm f1.4 EX HSM at f2, 1/200 sec., ISO 800


Now I need to figure out a way to get them to smile...


The eBay Beauty Dish

A rather recent phenomenon, the beauty dish has made quite a large name for itself in glamour, fashion, and portraiture photography.  This simple modifier can create complex lighting effects that tend to be harsher than softboxes yet softer than direct flash. 

I've become something of a lighting modifier junkie so luckily for me there exist stores located in China who sell all manner of modifiers, in decent quality at exceptional prices.  This last bit is key - there are countless types of light modifiers which all do very specific things to light and playing with them all could cost a Scrooge McDuck-type fortune.  The Chinese vendor, Studio-98, offers a large selection of mid-quality photography accessories at prices that can't be much more than material cost.

Studio-98 Beauty Dish and accessories

Studio-98's Beauty Dish kit is comprehensive.  While many sellers offer beauty dishes and beauty dish accessories, the Studio-98 kit includes just about everything you'd want in one economical package.  It contains a 22" stamped aluminum beauty dish (in either white or silver), 3 center deflectors (in white, silver, and gold), 3 white diffusion socks, 30 degree honeycomb grid, and a mount of your choice (extra charge may apply).  At the point of checkout you have the option to include, for $19, a handy carry and storage bag.  Consider picking up the bag now since apparently Studio-98 does not sell it separately.  It's also well made and offers a slot to store and protect the delicate honeycomb grid.  The bag will allow you to conveniently manage all the little bits in this kit.  It won't be easy to find another storage solution as capable as this for less than $20!

As mentioned, there are 2 flavors of beauty dish available (4 if you count the 16" model), white and silver.  I chose the silver version as I wanted maximum specularity.  White beauty dishes tend to create a softer light, where the shadows fall off in a smoother way.  Besides, you'll always have the option to sock the dish which can go a long way in softening the shadow transitions.

Flash Shoe Bracket

You can choose a mounting style from a long list of supported standards, like Elinchrom and Profoto speedrings or flash shoe mount bracket, to name some.  Since I shoot Canon 600EX-RT's I opted for the shoe bracket.  It's nice to know that my investment will not become obsolete if I choose to migrate to a Profoto kit - I would just pick up the available Profoto mount and keep on rocking this beauty dish.  The shoe mount bracket has a shoe to hold the flash and another to mount a trigger, like a PocketWizard.  Since moving to 600EX-RT with their integrated radios, I have nothing to populate the second shoe, but those of you still living in the stone age will appreciate this thoughtful inclusion.  (Okay, admittedly, it's more like the bronze age.)

I'm not overly impressed with the fit and finish of the bracket.  The dish mounting ring is secured to the bracket by two small screws and there is just not enough surface area at the meeting point.  When you mount the dish and its substantial weight comes to rest, it will bend slightly at this point.  I can only imagine that over time, with bustling about a shoot or outside in the wind, this could become a real problem.  I'll be looking into ways to fortify the bracket there.  Also, the whole assembly isn't centered.  My bracket sits off to the left of center and I see no easy way of bending back in line.  However, apart from what was mentioned earlier, the rest of the bracket is robust and solid.  Oversized knobs allow for making adjustments and retightening a breeze.

Notice the down rail that raises and lowers the beauty dish relative to the bracket?  It sticks down pretty low in the picture above, which is sized up for a 600EX-RT Speedlite.  The rail will bottom out on the bracket before the dish would bottom out on the flash stand, so soft box solutions like the Manfrotto 042 Extension Arm, Paul C. Buff Baby Boomer, and the like might not allow for any more downward movement.  Still, you do get a decent range of motion, but if you want more perhaps you could shave off the excess.  With a flash stand boom I don't think this would be a concern, and without a boom only rarely.

Bare Beauty Dish, 1/4 Power

Socked Beauty Dish, 1/4 PowerBeauty Dish with 30 Degree Grid, 1/4 PowerBeauty Dish with 30 Degree Grid and Sock, 1/4 Power Westcott Apollo Orb, 1/4 Power

Above is the output of some of the configurations you can do with this, or any, beauty dish.  I included a Westcott Apollo Orb 43" soft box for comparison.  Those are quite varied output profiles from essentially one modifier in your bag. 

I find the Studio-98 Beauty Dish easy to setup and use.  The included socks won't win any awards but you get 3 of them in case one blows up on you.  They are, after all, single stitched and made of thin material.  But they work and work well.

If you are looking to get a well-made, aluminum beauty dish on the cheap, I recommend the one sold by Studio-98.  Compared to other 3rd party solutions, like the Kacey Beauty Reflector, the Studio-98 is of comparable quality, yet much more economical.  Compared to first party solutions, like the ProFoto Softlight Beauty Dish, the dish itself may not be as robust or last as long, but you could buy 3 sets of the Studio-98 Beauty Dishes for the price of the ProFoto and that's before you accessorize with grids and socks!

Compared to a traditional soft box the beauty dish can be more of a pain to lug around (consider again getting the optional bag!) as soft boxes, especially umbrella-styled, are far more packable and portable...

85mm, f2.0, ISO 100, 200 sec, Canon 600EX-RT with Studio-98 Beauty Dish, 30 degree grid and sock

...But the quality of their light is, ahem, beautiful.  And you can't beat perfectly round catchlights!