Creating "The Look"...

Aerobatic pilot Larry King photographed this summer, in Lawrenceville, Ga.  This image was one of several created for his advertising needs.  ©2011 John Slemp

Aerobatic pilot Larry King photographed this summer, in Lawrenceville, Ga.  This image was one of several created for his advertising needs.  ©2011 John Slemp

As a commercial photographer, one of the things that I'm entrusted with when a client hires me for a portrait is creating "The Look."  Although sometimes hard to describe, just about everyone knows it when they see it.  It's that persona, captured in two dimensions, that exudes confidence, trust, experience, and expertise.  Instantly the viewer knows that the subject is serious about what they do, they are good at it and they can get the job done.

To that end, this summer I was hired by fellow EAA 690 member Larry King to create a portrait that he could use in his booth at the 2011 ICAS (International Council of Air Shows) Convention.  It is the trade show for airshow pilots, and the main venue they use to speak with potential airshow organizers, and to book airshow dates for the coming year.

What follows is a somewhat technical outline of how the shot was created, and the considerations made in arriving at the final image.  It's not meant to "obfuscate" as the boys on Car Talk humorously allude to, but rather to inform.  There are a great many choices made during the course of a shoot, most in the blink of any eye (literally!).  With experience, it becomes easier to quickly make the right choices.

Larry was lit using one Profoto strobe head, with a “beauty dish” light modifier.  It’s a shallow, circular dish about 22 inches across that yields a beautiful soft light.  Since it’s rigid, it works well in the wind, provided the stand/boom is well sandbagged.  Power was provided by a Honda 2k generator, which allows great flexibility in using studio strobe gear just about anywhere, something I have long wanted to do.  If memory serves, the power output was set in the 600 watt/second range.

The Canon 5D MKII camera was set at 1/200th of a second at F6.3, using ISO 100, with a Canon EF 24-70 2.8L USM lens, set at 27mm.  The strobe was fired using a Pocket Wizard radio sync.  The Pocket Wizards allow you to be separated from the strobe itself, up to several hundred feet if need be, without a hard wire connection.  Plus they offer the added convenience of not having a wire to trip on, an added bonus I appreciate.  I don’t recall the ambient light reading since I don’t use a meter much any more.  After a test shot, I did look at the histogram on the camera back, which allowed me to see that I had an overall proper exposure.  My experience told me that the strobe in the foreground was sufficient to separate Larry from the ambient light, which I wanted to do.  Fortunately, the sun had just gone behind a cloud, rendering an overall flat light, which was accentuated by the strobe.  My goal was to underexpose the background (ambient) light by a stop or so (50% darker), which allows the main subject to “stand out” against the slightly darker background.

As you can see, in the background there was an approaching storm, so I needed to work quickly.  While it may have appeared to be a risky undertaking to have my gear out in deteriorating weather conditions, at no time were we threatened with lightening, which I was careful to watch for.  I have no desire to be struck by lightening, and if necessary, would have thrown the gear into my nearby van to wait out the storm.  This proved to be unnecessary.

                                             Original, unprocessed file.

                                             Original, unprocessed file.

On the right is the original RAW file, which needed a lot of post-production work.  While I have never been what could be considered a “Photoshop Guru”, I am increasingly interested in having my images match what I see in my head.  Most of the work was actually done in Adobe's Lightroom, which I find much more intuitive than Photoshop.

Basic tonal corrections were made to increase the vibrance and contrast of the image, it was cropped, and the color was corrected.  It’s hard to see here, but the eyes and teeth were “brightened” a bit.  Several blemishes were removed on his face and hands (he’s an A&P too).  Perhaps the biggest change was to “color” the grass and sky using the Color tool adjustment brush.  Once a color is chosen, it’s a simple matter to then “paint” a color on a sky or other surface (the grass), with great control.  Although not totally realistic in this instance, I wasn’t going for true realism, but for color contrast between the sky, the grass, and the bits of yellow in the image.  About the only thing done in Photoshop was to remove the buildings in the background.

Since it’s an advertising image, I felt that I had a bit of creative license in crafting an image that wasn’t so literal.  In the end, I was very happy with the image, even though  Larry used another image from the shoot in his booth at the ICAS convention.  He had never had a professional portrait done before and mentioned later that the image had a "huge impact", that it was "so far above my expectations" and that it was" just what was needed."  He was "extremely pleased" and believes it was instrumental in allowing him to book four airshow performances for next season.    Now that's results...

Photo Tips - Quality of Light

As a professional photographer, I"m often asked questions by friends, family, clients, acquaintances, and even total strangers for photo tips, or, how to make better pictures.  Having often considered this, I thought I might offer a few tips that will make your photographs "better".  I'll try not to be too "techy", as that is easily done.  It bores those who already know the answer, and causes those without a technical background to tune out rather quickly. When it comes to creating an image, I'm not an overly technical photographer myself, although I know how to figure out photographic problems that can be solved with technical solutions.  Perhaps more importantly, if I don't know the answer, I have plenty of friends who do...and they'll usually tell me so!  Let's get started...

Many years ago, when I was a hobbyist (everybody starts out as a hobbyist!), I read as much as I could get my hands on about photography, studied the work of those whom I admired, and immersed myself into the "culture" of making pictures, especially when I decided to become a pro.  Noticed I said "making" pictures.  One of the earliest lessons I learned when I began to study commercial photography was that amateurs "take" pictures, while professionals "make" pictures.  There is a vast difference in the approach, in the final purpose of the images, and of course, in how much time, effort, and money go into producing a commercial photograph.

A medical team at the Wings Over Atlanta airshow, October, 2010. Notice the hard edge to the shadow. ©2010 John Slemp

A medical team at the Wings Over Atlanta airshow, October, 2010. Notice the hard edge to the shadow. ©2010 John Slemp

Amateurs love to take pictures.  That's how I started, and although I still love to make photos just for the sake of making a good photograph, there are many other factors that now go into my approach.  For today's discussion, let's talk about light...that being the "quality of light".

When the sun is high overhead at noon on a cloudless day, commercial photographers are usually loath to make a photograph.  Why?  Look at the light!  It is coming from straight overhead, and the shadows produced on such a day have a hard, defined edge.  The light also emphasizes the hollows of a subject's eye sockets, and unless you fill those sockets with some sort of light (reflected light, or with a flash), your subject will have "racoon" eyes.  Any skin blemishes and/or irregular textures will become pronounced, and the overall contrast of the image will be at it's most extreme.  In other words, the light is just not flattering.  This is made even more so if the subject is highly reflective (an aluminum skin airplane), or in the case of people, if they have wrinkled skin.  It becomes very difficult to make a photograph that is visually pleasing.

So if you have toshoot at that time of day, under those lighting conditions, what options do you have available to make an acceptable photograph?  Let's see...

  1. Use your flash!  I can't tell you how often I've said this...but get used to it.  It is a portable sun, built right into most cameras nowadays.  "But won't it make the light worse" is what I'm often asked?  Consider this:  Let's say the sun is putting out 10 units of light, just for the sake of discussion.  In the shadows there is virtually no light (zero units).  So if your flash puts out one unit of light (10% of the total light in the shot), it will come nowhere near overpowering the sun.  And guess what?  The shadows that formerly had zero units of light now have 1 unit!  Some strobes allow you to control how much light is put out, so study your camera manual, and do a test.  Also be aware that we aren't trying to match the sun's light output, only to augment it.  Unless you have access to some powerful studio strobe equipment, your on-camera flash will not overpower the available light.
  2. Use something to bounce light back into your subject.  It can be something as simple as a bedsheet, a piece of white foam core from the art store (one of my favorites), the side of a white vehicle, or even a white wall.  The larger the reflector, and the closer it is held to your subject, the softer the light will be.  Again, do a test with different reflectors, at different distances, under similar lighting conditions.
Portrait subject photographed just as the sun disappeared over the horizon. ©2010 John Slemp

Portrait subject photographed just as the sun disappeared over the horizon. ©2010 John Slemp

Once you understand "quality of light", it becomes much easier to tell when, and when not to make pictures.  My personal favorite time of day to make pictures (of anything) is just before the sun goes down.  It is low on the horizon (which shows texture), has a warm tone to it, and because it has been filtered by the earth's atmosphere, is usually of a much more flattering nature.  In other words, it's much softer.

You'll notice in the photo of this former WWII P-38 pilot, that it was actually shot just as the sun disappeared over the horizon.  The light is warm, soft, and very forgiving.  Shooting at this time of day also encourages the use of wider apertures, which will throw the background out of focus, especially with longer lenses.  This technique brings the viewers attention back to your subject, and also helps obscure what might otherwise be a "messy" or "busy" background.

Do some testing with your flash, and you'll be surprised how much better your images look, even when the sun is directly overhead.  Even better, wait for the sun to get low on the horizon, and you'll notice an immediate improvement in the quality of your images.