Portrait Photography Gear [Encore Publication]: Affordable kit for making great portraits

Whether in my home town or traveling around the world, I love to shoot portraits.  There is something magical about creating an image that captures the essence of a person.  It can be daunting for many photographers to describe what gear they think is required to make professional-quality portraits: we often visualize a fully equipped studio with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of high-end lights, modifiers, and backgrounds.  The reality is that we can make portraits of publication quality, shot on location and using kit that costs far less.  Here I outline a basic setup that is portable enough to pack on nearly any trip and costs only a few hundred dollars (not including your basic DSLR or mirrorless camera body).

Really all you need to get great people photos is a good portrait lens and a little know-how.  Make sure to set exposure and focus on your subject’s face.  I often use my camera’s Spot metering mode to get the correct exposure in tricky lighting conditions, such as when the subject is backlit.  In these conditions, it can also be helpful to fill in any harsh shadows on the subject’s face by using a touch of flash with a diffuser attached or a reflector.  That’s really all the gear you need: camera with portrait lens, flash unit, and a reflector kit.  Let’s look at the gear and basic techniques.

My indispensable portrait lens is the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  I shoot at least three-quarters of all my portraits, whether in the studio or on location, using this one piece of glass.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a person.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

This portrait of a grandmother and granddaughter at Carnaval San Francisco was made with natural light using an 85mm lens at a wide aperture to throw the background into soft focus.  Because no flash or reflector was used, there are some shadows on the subject’s faces, but I like the shallow depth of field that really emphasizes the subjects, and this would have been difficult to achieve with the slower shutter speed required to synchronize with a flash.  Also, carrying a reflector through the hustle and bustle of a chaotic street fair can be impractical.  I’m very pleased with this image even with a few shadows.

This portrait was shot using natural light only.  Some shadows are visible on the faces, but the effect is not unpleasant, and the soft focus from shooting without a flash is very effective.  Buy this photo

Your camera most likely has a built-in flash, and in many cases it is good enough to provide some fill-in lighting for backlit subjects or even to serve as a main light in very dark situations.  But for more control over how much light you want, the quality of that light, and where that light comes from and goes to, you likely want to have a separate flash unit.  I use the Nikon SB-910, which is powerful and flexible enough for most settings.  It has been discontinued and replaced by the Nikon SB-5000, but the older model is often still available.

Whatever flash you use, it is best to attach a diffuser of some sort to soften the otherwise very harsh light of the flash.  I also keep my camera set to lower the flash output by 1 stop, and I only override this setting occasionally.  Flash is often best when used sparingly.

This next image was shot at the same location as the previous one, but here I used an off-camera flash with diffuser to provide fill lighting on the subjects’ faces, thus reducing the shadows.  The only downside of using flash on location is that a slower shutter speed (typically about 1/160 of a second or slower) must be used, which in turn requires a smaller aperture (here it is f/8), and this can lead to more distraction from in-focus backgrounds.  I could have mitigated this problem by attaching a neutral density filter to block some of the light and allow a larger aperture.

This group portrait was made under similar conditions to the previous image, but here a fill flash was used to soften the shadows.  Buy this photo

An inexpensive accessory can provide the best of both worlds for on-location portraiture.  For less than $20 you can purchase a reflector kit with a variety of different colored reflectors and diffusers.  The reflectors are used to bounce some of the sun’s light back onto the face of the subject, thereby filling in any harsh shadows, while allowing you to shoot at any combination of aperture and shutter speed you choose in order to soften the background.  Each color of reflector imparts a different mood to the image.  An added bonus is that you can preview the precise effect the reflector has in your viewfinder or on your LCD screen.  Really the only downside of using a reflector in the field is that they are bulky to carry and often require an assistant to hold in place while you shoot.

This is the reflector kit I carry with me to most portrait shoots.  It’s high quality, very portable, and affordable.

This portrait was made by metering off the face of the model, choosing a wide aperture to blur the background, and bouncing some sunlight onto her face using the gold reflector from the kit mentioned above.

Using a reflector to bounce sunlight onto your subject’s face can reduce shadows while allowing you to retain full control over your aperture and shutter speed.  Buy this photo

There you have it: my formula for getting professional-looking portraits in the field with relatively inexpensive gear that’s easy to carry and use.

What is your favorite gear for portraiture?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Interested in other posts about photography gear?  See them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/gear/.

 

Portraits from Irish Pubs [Encore Publication]: Ireland’s trad music scene is a visual as well as an aural treat

The Republic of Ireland has undergone tremendous social and financial changes over the last 20 years.  It’s now indisputably a modern global society with a strong diversified economic engine.  Yet it’s also a happy truth that today, as in days of old, the pub remains at the center of Irish social life.  Far more than a simple watering hole, the local Irish pub, whether in the center of cosmopolitan Dublin or in a tiny coastal fishing village, is a gathering place where stories are shared, traditional music is played, old friends catch up, and new friends are made.  Oh, and a pint or two might just be downed.

Many pubs feature live traditional, or “trad,” music on a nightly basis.  The casual informality of Ireland’s pub scene allows local amateur musicians to sit in with seasoned pros and pass down the songs from old to young.  Members of the “audience” (it’s hard to distinguish between performers and audience when the sessions are so participatory) are invited to step up to the “stage” (usually just a table covered with pints of beer) to sing a song at any time.  This informality allows the travel photographer to get to know these wonderful musicians over a few pints and to make authentic portraits without feeling like we’re intruding.

Today’s post is a simple photo essay featuring portraits I made of musicians and fellow customers at a variety of pubs across Ireland (plus one in Scotland).  I will forgo the usual technical details except to remind you that when shooting portraits in low-light settings where the use of flash is impossible, that a good fast portrait lens should be used along with a high ISO setting.

My current favorite lens of all is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

This young singer and fiddler who we met at Dublin’s famous O’Donoghue’s Pub was already a seasoned pro.  In this portrait I sought to capture her expressiveness with hand gestures.  Even without hearing her sing, the viewer can tell that she is expert at weaving stories.  Buy this photo

O’Donoghue’s is widely known as the spot where bands such as the Dubliners sparked the Irish folk music revival in the 1960s.  This band carries on the tradition, sharing songs old and new.  With a wide aperture comes shallow depth-of-field, so when photographing several people at one time you may have to choose which part of the image will be in focus.  Here I wanted to place the emphasis on the guitarist, so the other players are in softer focus.  Buy this photo

Another of Dublin’s great spots for trad music is the Cobblestone Pub.  On this night they were holding a very casual session, where all musicians were invited to come and play some tunes together.  The informality gave me a chance to get to know most of the players over the course of the evening and to make portraits without feeling like an intruder.  Again, the shallow depth-of-field required artistic choices about which subject would be in sharp focus and which would be in softer focus.  Buy this photo

In lively Kenmare, we wandered into a pub where a fabulous folksinger was performing many of the Irish songs I remember from childhood in Boston.  I chatted with Pat during his set breaks and bought a couple of his CDs.  He was a great subject for some expressive portraits, too.  Buy this photo

We didn’t have to leave our hotel on our first night in Killarney to hear some wonderful trad music.  This trio played many of our favorite songs right in the hotel’s pub, and they got most of the audience up to sing and dance along.  Buy this photo

Surprisingly, we heard only one rendition of Cockles and Mussels (aka “Sweet Molly Malone”) during our whole stay in Ireland.  This brave soul stood up in front of the crowd to sing that old standard.  Buy this photo

There’s nothing like watching an Irish crowd respond to the playing and singing of “The Wild Rover” to get one’s blood pumping.  Be ready to capture action in the “audience” as well as on the “stage.”  Buy this photo

Our second night in Killarney brought us into the center of town to an old and lively pub.  The table next to ours had four generations of a local family in attendance, each enjoying the musical set in their own way.  The oldest generation was my favorite.  Buy this photo

I got to know this fiddler over the course of the evening in Killarney.  During the break between sets she was kind enough to let me make her portrait.  It can be difficult in these crowded settings to avoid a cluttered background, but using a wide aperture for a shallow depth-of-field can help, as can careful post-processing.  Buy this photo

Elements I look for when making a portrait are faces with character and colorful details.  I found both with this accordion player and his beautiful instrument.  Buy this photo

 

The tiny fishing hamlet of Dingle has a population of just 1900 people, yet it somehow supports 52 lively pubs.  My kind of town!  Over pints of ale and shots of local whiskey in this colorful old pub, we made new friends from across the street and from as far away as Newfoundland.  This portrait of a musician was made almost entirely with light from the fireplace.  Buy this photo

The Scottish traditional music scene is as vibrant as Ireland’s, as evidenced by this band we heard at Edinburgh’s Sandy Bell’s Pub.  This place was bustling and extremely crowded.  The cluttered background somehow doesn’t detract too much from the power of this portrait.  Buy this photo

Have you traveled in Ireland or Scotland?  Do you have favorite portraits of the generous and friendly people you encountered there?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling?  Find them all here: Posts on What to Shoot.

Getting Oriented [Encore Publication]: Shooting vertically as well as horizontally expands your artistic vision

Who says a portrait image has to be shot in portrait orientation, or that a landscape photo must be shot using landscape orientation?  Rules are meant to be broken, and they call it “artistic license” for a reason.  I would estimate that a third of my people images are shot in landscape (horizontal) orientation, and that a third of my landscape images are shot in portrait (vertical) orientation.  It’s always a good idea to shoot at least a few frames in both orientations so you can decide later which ones work best for your artistic vision.  Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Laura is one of my all-time favorite models (she also creates all her own costumes and does her own hair and makeup), and she looks great framed in any orientation, but I think her remarkable inventiveness is shown to good advantage in this composition using landscape orientation.  Buy this photo

It’s a cliché that people pictures should be composed vertically, so that we can fill the whole frame with the model’s head or full body.  A lot of the time this portrait orientation works well.  But there are some good reasons to shoot people images using landscape orientation as well as portrait orientation.

First, sometimes the model’s pose or the environmental elements around the model favor a horizontal image.  When traveling, I like to shoot environmental portraits that show us more than just the person by including elements of his or her home, livelihood, or lifestyle.

Second, we need to think about how the image will be used.  If I’m shooting publicity photos for musicians, for example, I know they need horizontal images at least as often as vertical images, so as to meet the requirements for the venues and promoters with whom they work.  Magazines and billboards often require landscape orientation, as well.  Even more prosaic uses of our photos, such as Facebook or LinkedIn cover photos, must be oriented horizontally.

Third, some portraits just cry out artistically to be framed in landscape orientation.  The image of the model Laura, above, for example, just works better to my eye in horizontal format, because the negative space behind her leads the viewer’s eye to admire her remarkably creative style, and leaving the lower part of her body and her dress out of the image allows us to focus on her expressive face.

By the same token, there are some good reasons to shoot landscape images in portrait orientation.

First, there could be some limitations to the left or right of the frame that, when shot horizontally, could distract from the power of the image we want to create.  Think about a coastal landscape with a glorious sunset sky and delightful foreground elements such as rocks with water flowing around them, but to the left of our vantage point there’s an unattractive pile of litter.  Frame the image in portrait orientation and avoid the problem.

Second, there are publication media where portrait orientation is required.  Knowing where the image is likely to be published will dictate the orientation in which we shoot.  A card or trifold brochure, for example, will likely require a vertical shot.

Third, again, consider your creative vision.  This night landscape of the Milky Way over Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome also worked beautifully in the more traditional landscape orientation, but here I shot the same scene using portrait orientation to frame the granite mountains with a circle of trees and to create a leading line using the Milky Way’s galactic core to bring the viewer’s eye around the valley’s landforms and the night sky.

This night shot of the Milky Way over Yosemite Valley works especially well in portrait orientation because the pine trees create a frame around the leading line of the galactic core.  Buy this photo

Whenever possible, remember to mix it up and shoot with the non-standard orientation for at least a few frames.  You may find your best shots–and the most marketable ones for placement in certain forums–are the ones you make using the unconventional orientation.

Do you have a favorite image that you shot using the opposite orientation from the expected one?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to learn some more photographic techniques?  Here’s a list of all my posts dealing with the technical aspects of travel photography: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/

 

Focus on Mardi Gras SF [Encore Publication]: New Orleans and Latin American colors and sounds in San Francisco

Anyone who reads “To Travel Hopefully” at least occasionally knows that I’m a major lover of street fairs and festivals.  Nowhere else can you capture the colors, sounds, flavors, and feel of a city’s local culture as readily.  I’m fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there are literally hundreds of diverse and fascinating festivals each year.  Probably my favorite of all is the annual Carnaval celebration, a pan-Latin outpouring of samba dancing, music, color, culture, and even cars.  Anyone in San Francisco can tell you that Carnaval here takes place in late May, thanks to the rather chilly weather that prevails during the more traditional carnival season around Mardi Gras in February.  But Carnaval SF has a lesser-known cousin, Mardi Gras SF, that does indeed take place at the same time Mardi Gras is celebrated in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Martinique, and other places around the world.  Today’s post focuses on yesterday’s Mardi Gras celebrations all around the city of San Francisco, during which the music, traditions, costumes, and dancing of the world’s more famous carnivals comes to California for one crazy night.

New Orleans style mummers dance along with the dixieland music in a parade in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood.  I wanted to capture a sense of the chaos even while making a portrait of just these two revelers, so I used a shallow depth-of-field to throw the closer woman into slightly softer focus.  Buy this photo

At this time of day there was enough natural light remaining to make this portrait without any fill flash.  During post-processing in the Lightroom application, I adjusted the contrast and exposure, enhanced the vibrance, and used just a touch of post-crop vignetting to bring out the main subject.  Buy this photo

The classic Victorian townhouses known as “painted ladies” attest that this scene is taking place in San Francisco, but the foreground subject is pure French Quarter.  To gain this perspective on the scene, I climbed on top of a bench and used a wide-angle lens.  I was careful to keep the camera level so as not to distort the image, and I further corrected the perspective during post-processing.  Buy this photo

I rushed across town to the Mission District, an historically Latino neighborhood, where a different sort of parade was beginning.  This parade is styled as much on the Latin American carnival traditions as on the New Orleans creole traditions.  This portrait documenting the preparations of one of my favorite Carnaval groups, Viva la Diva, was made as the parade was forming.  I used an off-camera fill flash with its power dialed down by one stop to saturate the colors and set off the main subject from the background.  Buy this photo

I loved this reveler’s carnival mask, so I asked her if I could make a portrait.  I used a classic 85mm portrait lens and got in close to minimize clutter in the background, using a bit of off-camera fill flash.  Buy this photo

Another example of a portrait shot close to the subject using a touch of fill flash.  I use an effective and inexpensive cord to tether my speedlight to the camera’s hot-shoe, while I hand-hold the flash off to the side and away from the camera.  To learn more about this gear and technique, read this earlier post: Post on Off-Camera Flash.  Buy this photo

I have been working with the group Viva la Diva for several weeks already to document their preparations for San Francisco’s big Carnaval parade in late May, so I made certain to capture these lovely ladies during the smaller Mardi Gras celebrations.  Once again, the secrets to making a stunning portrait are to establish rapport with your subject, use a moderate and fast portrait lens, get in close, use a wide aperture to throw the background into soft focus, throw in a touch of fill flash to isolate your subject even more, and shoot several frames to ensure you capture just the right moment.  It takes practice, but it really isn’t that difficult, and the results are truly eye-catching.  Buy this photo

Kids are great fun to photograph.  This group of youngsters from a nearby school wanted to dance with the Viva la Diva samba dancers.  I got down low so as to shoot them from their eye level, and I held the flash up high so as to light them evenly and without harsh shadows.  Buy this photo

Viva la Diva!  Even though by this time of the evening there was effectively no ambient light, I was still able to capture a portrait of the Divas without the glaring artificial color cast that is typical with images lit mostly by flash.  The keys to success here are to use a diffuser on the flash head, get the flash off-camera, hold it very close to your subject to soften the lighting further, and adjust in post-processing.  Buy this photo

Do you have favorite local events you love to shoot?  Which ones, and what techniques do you use?  Please share your stories here.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling or close to home?  Find them all here: Posts on What to Shoot.

 

It’s All in the Telling [Encore Publication]: Sharing images as a photo essay can help tell a story

When we share our images from a trip or from an event close to home, we become more than photographers; we become storytellers.  An individual image can tell a powerful story all by itself, and most of the best ones do.  But presenting a series of related images in the form of a photo essay is a great way to share a story with your viewers.  Each image serves a purpose in the structure of a photo essay, just as each sentence or paragraph does in a written essay.  In this post, I will revisit last weekend’s Sacramento Super Spartan Race (see Post on Spartan Race), taking the same 12 images from the earlier post but rearranging them in the form of a rudimentary photo essay.  We’ll discuss the purpose of each major type of image in creating the essay.  [Note: I am borrowing some of the organizational concepts presented in CUNY’s Photojournalism course materials at this site: http://photo.journalism.cuny.edu/week-5/.]

Establishing Shot: Usually the first image in a photo essay, the establishing shot should draw in the viewer by presenting the big picture.

The establishing shot sets the context of the essay.  Here I use an image of large contingents of athletes running over the hills.  I shot from a distance, using a telephoto lens to compress the perspective and emphasize the massive scale of the race.  Buy this photo

Alternatively, we could use the starting line image as our establishing shot.  Some essays lend themselves well to a chronological telling, in which case it’s good to start at the beginning.  In the case of this specific event, I prefer the establishing shot to be a big-picture overview of many athletes in the middle of their course.

The starting line is a good place to set the stage for your photo essay if you will be using a chronological method of telling the story.  Buy this photo

Portraits: Often the biggest portion of the photo essay, portraits tell the story through images of some of the people who are involved.  The portraits can be tight head-shots, full-body shots, or environmental portraits that show the setting as well as the person.  I like to use a combination of all of these compositional methods.  And it’s also fine to use a mix of posed shots and candids.  Variety can improve some photo essays, although in other cases you may opt for a consistent look-and-feel for many of your images so the mash-up of styles doesn’t distract the viewer from the story.

This environmental portrait shows the athlete in the context of the monkey bars obstacle, with other athletes and the background included in the frame.  Buy this photo

Portraits of athletes don’t have to be in the cliche pose of standing, legs apart, on the ground flexing their biceps.  Athletes are happy to pose in the midst of whatever they’re doing when they see a photographer nearby.  Buy this photo

Not all portraits have to show the subject’s face.  This environmental portrait works because it shows us what the athletes are doing from their point of view.  Buy this photo

This posed portrait is framed rather tightly, showing the power and the elation of the athletes after finishing the race.  The background, while bright and busy, is not overly distracting.  Buy this photo

For powerful portraits, I like to seek out people who have something special to say.  This racer stopped for a moment so I could make a portrait.  His flag makes a nice counterpoint to the rolling hills and featureless sky in the background.  Buy this photo

Interaction: Most photo essays can benefit from at least one shot showing the interaction between different people in the story.

Although Spartan Race athletes are fierce competitors, they also make an effort to support one another and cheer their fellow racers on.  I enjoy capturing these interactions because these moments often tell a strong story visually.  Buy this photo

This shot of kids playing in the shower area at the end of the race shows another type of interaction.  Buy this photo

Close-Up: It’s helpful to include some images that show the little details.  In the case of this particular event, I don’t have many close-up shots, so I’ll include this one fairly tight portrait as a placeholder.  It would be great to include a true close-up shot showing just the athlete’s gloved hands as she grasps the rope, perhaps with part of her face in the background, for example.  This could be done by tightly cropping this image.

This tight portrait shows great action and emotion.  While it’s not a true close-up image, which ordinarily would show only a few details rather than the full person, it can serve a similar function in the essay by focusing the viewer’s attention on a small specific part of the race.  Buy this photo

Closer: This will be the last image in the photo essay, so it needs to be a strong one.  It could be a climactic moment or, if the story is being told chronologically, an image made at the end of the race.  I’ll include two possible closing shots here.  The first captures an athlete jumping over the fire at the finish line; it’s both dramatic and symbolizes the end of the event.  The second shows a classic Spartan Race moment, where the athletes have to carry heavy buckets of sand along a muddy, hilly course; this image could make a good closer because it evokes a quintessentially Spartan Race sense of emotion.

The finish line itself is a dramatic vantage point.  In this particular race, athletes must jump over a line of fire to finish the course.  Buy this photo

An iconic Spartan Race image.  I captured the strenuous activity of carrying buckets filled with sand by shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens.  Buy this photo

Have you presented your images in the form of a photo essay?  How did you structure it?  What advice can you share for fellow photographers who would like to use this format?

Want to read more posts about sharing your images?  Find them all here: Posts on Sharing.

Portrait Photography Gear [Encore Publication]: Affordable kit for making great portraits

Whether in my home town or traveling around the world, I love to shoot portraits.  There is something magical about creating an image that captures the essence of a person.  It can be daunting for many photographers to describe what gear they think is required to make professional-quality portraits: we often visualize a fully equipped studio with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of high-end lights, modifiers, and backgrounds.  The reality is that we can make portraits of publication quality, shot on location and using kit that costs far less.  Here I outline a basic setup that is portable enough to pack on nearly any trip and costs only a few hundred dollars (not including your basic DSLR or mirrorless camera body).

Really all you need to get great people photos is a good portrait lens and a little know-how.  Make sure to set exposure and focus on your subject’s face.  I often use my camera’s Spot metering mode to get the correct exposure in tricky lighting conditions, such as when the subject is backlit.  In these conditions, it can also be helpful to fill in any harsh shadows on the subject’s face by using a touch of flash with a diffuser attached or a reflector.  That’s really all the gear you need: camera with portrait lens, flash unit, and a reflector kit.  Let’s look at the gear and basic techniques.

My indispensable portrait lens is the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  I shoot at least three-quarters of all my portraits, whether in the studio or on location, using this one piece of glass.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a person.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

This portrait of a grandmother and granddaughter at Carnaval San Francisco was made with natural light using an 85mm lens at a wide aperture to throw the background into soft focus.  Because no flash or reflector was used, there are some shadows on the subject’s faces, but I like the shallow depth of field that really emphasizes the subjects, and this would have been difficult to achieve with the slower shutter speed required to synchronize with a flash.  Also, carrying a reflector through the hustle and bustle of a chaotic street fair can be impractical.  I’m very pleased with this image even with a few shadows.

This portrait was shot using natural light only.  Some shadows are visible on the faces, but the effect is not unpleasant, and the soft focus from shooting without a flash is very effective.  Buy this photo

Your camera most likely has a built-in flash, and in many cases it is good enough to provide some fill-in lighting for backlit subjects or even to serve as a main light in very dark situations.  But for more control over how much light you want, the quality of that light, and where that light comes from and goes to, you likely want to have a separate flash unit.  I use the Nikon SB-910, which is powerful and flexible enough for most settings.  It has been discontinued and replaced by the Nikon SB-5000, but the older model is often still available.

Whatever flash you use, it is best to attach a diffuser of some sort to soften the otherwise very harsh light of the flash.  I also keep my camera set to lower the flash output by 1 stop, and I only override this setting occasionally.  Flash is often best when used sparingly.

This next image was shot at the same location as the previous one, but here I used an off-camera flash with diffuser to provide fill lighting on the subjects’ faces, thus reducing the shadows.  The only downside of using flash on location is that a slower shutter speed (typically about 1/160 of a second or slower) must be used, which in turn requires a smaller aperture (here it is f/8), and this can lead to more distraction from in-focus backgrounds.  I could have mitigated this problem by attaching a neutral density filter to block some of the light and allow a larger aperture.

This group portrait was made under similar conditions to the previous image, but here a fill flash was used to soften the shadows.  Buy this photo

An inexpensive accessory can provide the best of both worlds for on-location portraiture.  For less than $20 you can purchase a reflector kit with a variety of different colored reflectors and diffusers.  The reflectors are used to bounce some of the sun’s light back onto the face of the subject, thereby filling in any harsh shadows, while allowing you to shoot at any combination of aperture and shutter speed you choose in order to soften the background.  Each color of reflector imparts a different mood to the image.  An added bonus is that you can preview the precise effect the reflector has in your viewfinder or on your LCD screen.  Really the only downside of using a reflector in the field is that they are bulky to carry and often require an assistant to hold in place while you shoot.

This is the reflector kit I carry with me to most portrait shoots.  It’s high quality, very portable, and affordable.

This portrait was made by metering off the face of the model, choosing a wide aperture to blur the background, and bouncing some sunlight onto her face using the gold reflector from the kit mentioned above.

Using a reflector to bounce sunlight onto your subject’s face can reduce shadows while allowing you to retain full control over your aperture and shutter speed.  Buy this photo

There you have it: my formula for getting professional-looking portraits in the field with relatively inexpensive gear that’s easy to carry and use.

What is your favorite gear for portraiture?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Interested in other posts about photography gear?  See them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/gear/.

It’s All in the Telling [Encore Publication]: Sharing images as a photo essay can help tell a story

When we share our images from a trip or from an event close to home, we become more than photographers; we become storytellers.  An individual image can tell a powerful story all by itself, and most of the best ones do.  But presenting a series of related images in the form of a photo essay is a great way to share a story with your viewers.  Each image serves a purpose in the structure of a photo essay, just as each sentence or paragraph does in a written essay.  In this post, I will revisit last weekend’s Sacramento Super Spartan Race (see Post on Spartan Race), taking the same 12 images from the earlier post but rearranging them in the form of a rudimentary photo essay.  We’ll discuss the purpose of each major type of image in creating the essay.  [Note: I am borrowing some of the organizational concepts presented in CUNY’s Photojournalism course materials at this site: http://photo.journalism.cuny.edu/week-5/.]

Establishing Shot: Usually the first image in a photo essay, the establishing shot should draw in the viewer by presenting the big picture.

The establishing shot sets the context of the essay.  Here I use an image of large contingents of athletes running over the hills.  I shot from a distance, using a telephoto lens to compress the perspective and emphasize the massive scale of the race.  Buy this photo

Alternatively, we could use the starting line image as our establishing shot.  Some essays lend themselves well to a chronological telling, in which case it’s good to start at the beginning.  In the case of this specific event, I prefer the establishing shot to be a big-picture overview of many athletes in the middle of their course.

The starting line is a good place to set the stage for your photo essay if you will be using a chronological method of telling the story.  Buy this photo

Portraits: Often the biggest portion of the photo essay, portraits tell the story through images of some of the people who are involved.  The portraits can be tight head-shots, full-body shots, or environmental portraits that show the setting as well as the person.  I like to use a combination of all of these compositional methods.  And it’s also fine to use a mix of posed shots and candids.  Variety can improve some photo essays, although in other cases you may opt for a consistent look-and-feel for many of your images so the mash-up of styles doesn’t distract the viewer from the story.

This environmental portrait shows the athlete in the context of the monkey bars obstacle, with other athletes and the background included in the frame.  Buy this photo

Portraits of athletes don’t have to be in the cliche pose of standing, legs apart, on the ground flexing their biceps.  Athletes are happy to pose in the midst of whatever they’re doing when they see a photographer nearby.  Buy this photo

Not all portraits have to show the subject’s face.  This environmental portrait works because it shows us what the athletes are doing from their point of view.  Buy this photo

This posed portrait is framed rather tightly, showing the power and the elation of the athletes after finishing the race.  The background, while bright and busy, is not overly distracting.  Buy this photo

For powerful portraits, I like to seek out people who have something special to say.  This racer stopped for a moment so I could make a portrait.  His flag makes a nice counterpoint to the rolling hills and featureless sky in the background.  Buy this photo

Interaction: Most photo essays can benefit from at least one shot showing the interaction between different people in the story.

Although Spartan Race athletes are fierce competitors, they also make an effort to support one another and cheer their fellow racers on.  I enjoy capturing these interactions because these moments often tell a strong story visually.  Buy this photo

This shot of kids playing in the shower area at the end of the race shows another type of interaction.  Buy this photo

Close-Up: It’s helpful to include some images that show the little details.  In the case of this particular event, I don’t have many close-up shots, so I’ll include this one fairly tight portrait as a placeholder.  It would be great to include a true close-up shot showing just the athlete’s gloved hands as she grasps the rope, perhaps with part of her face in the background, for example.  This could be done by tightly cropping this image.

This tight portrait shows great action and emotion.  While it’s not a true close-up image, which ordinarily would show only a few details rather than the full person, it can serve a similar function in the essay by focusing the viewer’s attention on a small specific part of the race.  Buy this photo

Closer: This will be the last image in the photo essay, so it needs to be a strong one.  It could be a climactic moment or, if the story is being told chronologically, an image made at the end of the race.  I’ll include two possible closing shots here.  The first captures an athlete jumping over the fire at the finish line; it’s both dramatic and symbolizes the end of the event.  The second shows a classic Spartan Race moment, where the athletes have to carry heavy buckets of sand along a muddy, hilly course; this image could make a good closer because it evokes a quintessentially Spartan Race sense of emotion.

The finish line itself is a dramatic vantage point.  In this particular race, athletes must jump over a line of fire to finish the course.  Buy this photo

An iconic Spartan Race image.  I captured the strenuous activity of carrying buckets filled with sand by shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens.  Buy this photo

Have you presented your images in the form of a photo essay?  How did you structure it?  What advice can you share for fellow photographers who would like to use this format?

Want to read more posts about sharing your images?  Find them all here: Posts on Sharing.

Portraits from Irish Pubs [Encore Publication]: Ireland’s trad music scene is a visual as well as an aural treat

The Republic of Ireland has undergone tremendous social and financial changes over the last 20 years.  It’s now indisputably a modern global society with a strong diversified economic engine.  Yet it’s also a happy truth that today, as in days of old, the pub remains at the center of Irish social life.  Far more than a simple watering hole, the local Irish pub, whether in the center of cosmopolitan Dublin or in a tiny coastal fishing village, is a gathering place where stories are shared, traditional music is played, old friends catch up, and new friends are made.  Oh, and a pint or two might just be downed.

Many pubs feature live traditional, or “trad,” music on a nightly basis.  The casual informality of Ireland’s pub scene allows local amateur musicians to sit in with seasoned pros and pass down the songs from old to young.  Members of the “audience” (it’s hard to distinguish between performers and audience when the sessions are so participatory) are invited to step up to the “stage” (usually just a table covered with pints of beer) to sing a song at any time.  This informality allows the travel photographer to get to know these wonderful musicians over a few pints and to make authentic portraits without feeling like we’re intruding.

Today’s post is a simple photo essay featuring portraits I made of musicians and fellow customers at a variety of pubs across Ireland (plus one in Scotland).  I will forgo the usual technical details except to remind you that when shooting portraits in low-light settings where the use of flash is impossible, that a good fast portrait lens should be used along with a high ISO setting.

My current favorite lens of all is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

This young singer and fiddler who we met at Dublin’s famous O’Donoghue’s Pub was already a seasoned pro.  In this portrait I sought to capture her expressiveness with hand gestures.  Even without hearing her sing, the viewer can tell that she is expert at weaving stories.  Buy this photo

O’Donoghue’s is widely known as the spot where bands such as the Dubliners sparked the Irish folk music revival in the 1960s.  This band carries on the tradition, sharing songs old and new.  With a wide aperture comes shallow depth-of-field, so when photographing several people at one time you may have to choose which part of the image will be in focus.  Here I wanted to place the emphasis on the guitarist, so the other players are in softer focus.  Buy this photo

Another of Dublin’s great spots for trad music is the Cobblestone Pub.  On this night they were holding a very casual session, where all musicians were invited to come and play some tunes together.  The informality gave me a chance to get to know most of the players over the course of the evening and to make portraits without feeling like an intruder.  Again, the shallow depth-of-field required artistic choices about which subject would be in sharp focus and which would be in softer focus.  Buy this photo

In lively Kenmare, we wandered into a pub where a fabulous folksinger was performing many of the Irish songs I remember from childhood in Boston.  I chatted with Pat during his set breaks and bought a couple of his CDs.  He was a great subject for some expressive portraits, too.  Buy this photo

We didn’t have to leave our hotel on our first night in Killarney to hear some wonderful trad music.  This trio played many of our favorite songs right in the hotel’s pub, and they got most of the audience up to sing and dance along.  Buy this photo

Surprisingly, we heard only one rendition of Cockles and Mussels (aka “Sweet Molly Malone”) during our whole stay in Ireland.  This brave soul stood up in front of the crowd to sing that old standard.  Buy this photo

There’s nothing like watching an Irish crowd respond to the playing and singing of “The Wild Rover” to get one’s blood pumping.  Be ready to capture action in the “audience” as well as on the “stage.”  Buy this photo

Our second night in Killarney brought us into the center of town to an old and lively pub.  The table next to ours had four generations of a local family in attendance, each enjoying the musical set in their own way.  The oldest generation was my favorite.  Buy this photo

I got to know this fiddler over the course of the evening in Killarney.  During the break between sets she was kind enough to let me make her portrait.  It can be difficult in these crowded settings to avoid a cluttered background, but using a wide aperture for a shallow depth-of-field can help, as can careful post-processing.  Buy this photo

Elements I look for when making a portrait are faces with character and colorful details.  I found both with this accordion player and his beautiful instrument.  Buy this photo

 

The tiny fishing hamlet of Dingle has a population of just 1900 people, yet it somehow supports 52 lively pubs.  My kind of town!  Over pints of ale and shots of local whiskey in this colorful old pub, we made new friends from across the street and from as far away as Newfoundland.  This portrait of a musician was made almost entirely with light from the fireplace.  Buy this photo

The Scottish traditional music scene is as vibrant as Ireland’s, as evidenced by this band we heard at Edinburgh’s Sandy Bell’s Pub.  This place was bustling and extremely crowded.  The cluttered background somehow doesn’t detract too much from the power of this portrait.  Buy this photo

Have you traveled in Ireland or Scotland?  Do you have favorite portraits of the generous and friendly people you encountered there?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box.

 

Portrait Photography Gear [Encore Publication]: Affordable kit for making great portraits

Whether in my home town or traveling around the world, I love to shoot portraits.  There is something magical about creating an image that captures the essence of a person.  It can be daunting for many photographers to describe what gear they think is required to make professional-quality portraits: we often visualize a fully equipped studio with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of high-end lights, modifiers, and backgrounds.  The reality is that we can make portraits of publication quality, shot on location and using kit that costs far less.  Here I outline a basic setup that is portable enough to pack on nearly any trip and costs only a few hundred dollars (not including your basic DSLR or mirrorless camera body).

Really all you need to get great people photos is a good portrait lens and a little know-how.  Make sure to set exposure and focus on your subject’s face.  I often use my camera’s Spot metering mode to get the correct exposure in tricky lighting conditions, such as when the subject is backlit.  In these conditions, it can also be helpful to fill in any harsh shadows on the subject’s face by using a touch of flash with a diffuser attached or a reflector.  That’s really all the gear you need: camera with portrait lens, flash unit, and a reflector kit.  Let’s look at the gear and basic techniques.

My indispensable portrait lens is the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  I shoot at least three-quarters of all my portraits, whether in the studio or on location, using this one piece of glass.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a person.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

This portrait of a grandmother and granddaughter at Carnaval San Francisco was made with natural light using an 85mm lens at a wide aperture to throw the background into soft focus.  Because no flash or reflector was used, there are some shadows on the subject’s faces, but I like the shallow depth of field that really emphasizes the subjects, and this would have been difficult to achieve with the slower shutter speed required to synchronize with a flash.  Also, carrying a reflector through the hustle and bustle of a chaotic street fair can be impractical.  I’m very pleased with this image even with a few shadows.

This portrait was shot using natural light only.  Some shadows are visible on the faces, but the effect is not unpleasant, and the soft focus from shooting without a flash is very effective.  Buy this photo

Your camera most likely has a built-in flash, and in many cases it is good enough to provide some fill-in lighting for backlit subjects or even to serve as a main light in very dark situations.  But for more control over how much light you want, the quality of that light, and where that light comes from and goes to, you likely want to have a separate flash unit.  I use the Nikon SB-910, which is powerful and flexible enough for most settings.  It has been discontinued and replaced by the Nikon SB-5000, but the older model is often still available.

Whatever flash you use, it is best to attach a diffuser of some sort to soften the otherwise very harsh light of the flash.  I also keep my camera set to lower the flash output by 1 stop, and I only override this setting occasionally.  Flash is often best when used sparingly.

This next image was shot at the same location as the previous one, but here I used an off-camera flash with diffuser to provide fill lighting on the subjects’ faces, thus reducing the shadows.  The only downside of using flash on location is that a slower shutter speed (typically about 1/160 of a second or slower) must be used, which in turn requires a smaller aperture (here it is f/8), and this can lead to more distraction from in-focus backgrounds.  I could have mitigated this problem by attaching a neutral density filter to block some of the light and allow a larger aperture.

This group portrait was made under similar conditions to the previous image, but here a fill flash was used to soften the shadows.  Buy this photo

An inexpensive accessory can provide the best of both worlds for on-location portraiture.  For less than $20 you can purchase a reflector kit with a variety of different colored reflectors and diffusers.  The reflectors are used to bounce some of the sun’s light back onto the face of the subject, thereby filling in any harsh shadows, while allowing you to shoot at any combination of aperture and shutter speed you choose in order to soften the background.  Each color of reflector imparts a different mood to the image.  An added bonus is that you can preview the precise effect the reflector has in your viewfinder or on your LCD screen.  Really the only downside of using a reflector in the field is that they are bulky to carry and often require an assistant to hold in place while you shoot.

This is the reflector kit I carry with me to most portrait shoots.  It’s high quality, very portable, and affordable.

This portrait was made by metering off the face of the model, choosing a wide aperture to blur the background, and bouncing some sunlight onto her face using the gold reflector from the kit mentioned above.

Using a reflector to bounce sunlight onto your subject’s face can reduce shadows while allowing you to retain full control over your aperture and shutter speed.  Buy this photo

There you have it: my formula for getting professional-looking portraits in the field with relatively inexpensive gear that’s easy to carry and use.

What is your favorite gear for portraiture?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Interested in other posts about photography gear?  See them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/gear/.

 

It’s All in the Telling: Sharing images as a photo essay can help tell a story

 

When we share our images from a trip or from an event close to home, we become more than photographers; we become storytellers.  An individual image can tell a powerful story all by itself, and most of the best ones do.  But presenting a series of related images in the form of a photo essay is a great way to share a story with your viewers.  Each image serves a purpose in the structure of a photo essay, just as each sentence or paragraph does in a written essay.  In this post, I will revisit last weekend’s Sacramento Super Spartan Race (see Post on Spartan Race), taking the same 12 images from the earlier post but rearranging them in the form of a rudimentary photo essay.  We’ll discuss the purpose of each major type of image in creating the essay.  [Note: I am borrowing some of the organizational concepts presented in CUNY’s Photojournalism course materials at this site: http://photo.journalism.cuny.edu/week-5/.]

Establishing Shot: Usually the first image in a photo essay, the establishing shot should draw in the viewer by presenting the big picture.

The establishing shot sets the context of the essay.  Here I use an image of large contingents of athletes running over the hills.  I shot from a distance, using a telephoto lens to compress the perspective and emphasize the massive scale of the race.  Buy this photo

Alternatively, we could use the starting line image as our establishing shot.  Some essays lend themselves well to a chronological telling, in which case it’s good to start at the beginning.  In the case of this specific event, I prefer the establishing shot to be a big-picture overview of many athletes in the middle of their course.

The starting line is a good place to set the stage for your photo essay if you will be using a chronological method of telling the story.  Buy this photo

Portraits: Often the biggest portion of the photo essay, portraits tell the story through images of some of the people who are involved.  The portraits can be tight head-shots, full-body shots, or environmental portraits that show the setting as well as the person.  I like to use a combination of all of these compositional methods.  And it’s also fine to use a mix of posed shots and candids.  Variety can improve some photo essays, although in other cases you may opt for a consistent look-and-feel for many of your images so the mash-up of styles doesn’t distract the viewer from the story.

This environmental portrait shows the athlete in the context of the monkey bars obstacle, with other athletes and the background included in the frame.  Buy this photo

Portraits of athletes don’t have to be in the cliche pose of standing, legs apart, on the ground flexing their biceps.  Athletes are happy to pose in the midst of whatever they’re doing when they see a photographer nearby.  Buy this photo

Not all portraits have to show the subject’s face.  This environmental portrait works because it shows us what the athletes are doing from their point of view.  Buy this photo

This posed portrait is framed rather tightly, showing the power and the elation of the athletes after finishing the race.  The background, while bright and busy, is not overly distracting.  Buy this photo

For powerful portraits, I like to seek out people who have something special to say.  This racer stopped for a moment so I could make a portrait.  His flag makes a nice counterpoint to the rolling hills and featureless sky in the background.  Buy this photo

Interaction: Most photo essays can benefit from at least one shot showing the interaction between different people in the story.

Although Spartan Race athletes are fierce competitors, they also make an effort to support one another and cheer their fellow racers on.  I enjoy capturing these interactions because these moments often tell a strong story visually.  Buy this photo

This shot of kids playing in the shower area at the end of the race shows another type of interaction.  Buy this photo

Close-Up: It’s helpful to include some images that show the little details.  In the case of this particular event, I don’t have many close-up shots, so I’ll include this one fairly tight portrait as a placeholder.  It would be great to include a true close-up shot showing just the athlete’s gloved hands as she grasps the rope, perhaps with part of her face in the background, for example.  This could be done by tightly cropping this image.

This tight portrait shows great action and emotion.  While it’s not a true close-up image, which ordinarily would show only a few details rather than the full person, it can serve a similar function in the essay by focusing the viewer’s attention on a small specific part of the race.  Buy this photo

Closer: This will be the last image in the photo essay, so it needs to be a strong one.  It could be a climactic moment or, if the story is being told chronologically, an image made at the end of the race.  I’ll include two possible closing shots here.  The first captures an athlete jumping over the fire at the finish line; it’s both dramatic and symbolizes the end of the event.  The second shows a classic Spartan Race moment, where the athletes have to carry heavy buckets of sand along a muddy, hilly course; this image could make a good closer because it evokes a quintessentially Spartan Race sense of emotion.

The finish line itself is a dramatic vantage point.  In this particular race, athletes must jump over a line of fire to finish the course.  Buy this photo

An iconic Spartan Race image.  I captured the strenuous activity of carrying buckets filled with sand by shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens.  Buy this photo

Have you presented your images in the form of a photo essay?  How did you structure it?  What advice can you share for fellow photographers who would like to use this format?

Getting Oriented [Encore Publication]: Shooting vertically as well as horizontally expands your artistic vision

Who says a portrait image has to be shot in portrait orientation, or that a landscape photo must be shot using landscape orientation?  Rules are meant to be broken, and they call it “artistic license” for a reason.  I would estimate that a third of my people images are shot in landscape (horizontal) orientation, and that a third of my landscape images are shot in portrait (vertical) orientation.  It’s always a good idea to shoot at least a few frames in both orientations so you can decide later which ones work best for your artistic vision.  Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Laura is one of my all-time favorite models (she also creates all her own costumes and does her own hair and makeup), and she looks great framed in any orientation, but I think her remarkable inventiveness is shown to good advantage in this composition using landscape orientation.  Buy this photo

It’s a cliché that people pictures should be composed vertically, so that we can fill the whole frame with the model’s head or full body.  A lot of the time this portrait orientation works well.  But there are some good reasons to shoot people images using landscape orientation as well as portrait orientation.

First, sometimes the model’s pose or the environmental elements around the model favor a horizontal image.  When traveling, I like to shoot environmental portraits that show us more than just the person by including elements of his or her home, livelihood, or lifestyle.

Second, we need to think about how the image will be used.  If I’m shooting publicity photos for musicians, for example, I know they need horizontal images at least as often as vertical images, so as to meet the requirements for the venues and promoters with whom they work.  Magazines and billboards often require landscape orientation, as well.  Even more prosaic uses of our photos, such as Facebook or LinkedIn cover photos, must be oriented horizontally.

Third, some portraits just cry out artistically to be framed in landscape orientation.  The image of the model Laura, above, for example, just works better to my eye in horizontal format, because the negative space behind her leads the viewer’s eye to admire her remarkably creative style, and leaving the lower part of her body and her dress out of the image allows us to focus on her expressive face.

By the same token, there are some good reasons to shoot landscape images in portrait orientation.

First, there could be some limitations to the left or right of the frame that, when shot horizontally, could distract from the power of the image we want to create.  Think about a coastal landscape with a glorious sunset sky and delightful foreground elements such as rocks with water flowing around them, but to the left of our vantage point there’s an unattractive pile of litter.  Frame the image in portrait orientation and avoid the problem.

Second, there are publication media where portrait orientation is required.  Knowing where the image is likely to be published will dictate the orientation in which we shoot.  A card or trifold brochure, for example, will likely require a vertical shot.

Third, again, consider your creative vision.  This night landscape of the Milky Way over Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome also worked beautifully in the more traditional landscape orientation, but here I shot the same scene using portrait orientation to frame the granite mountains with a circle of trees and to create a leading line using the Milky Way’s galactic core to bring the viewer’s eye around the valley’s landforms and the night sky.

This night shot of the Milky Way over Yosemite Valley works especially well in portrait orientation because the pine trees create a frame around the leading line of the galactic core.  Buy this photo

Whenever possible, remember to mix it up and shoot with the non-standard orientation for at least a few frames.  You may find your best shots–and the most marketable ones for placement in certain forums–are the ones you make using the unconventional orientation.

Do you have a favorite image that you shot using the opposite orientation from the expected one?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to learn some more photographic techniques?  Here’s a list of all my posts dealing with the technical aspects of travel photography: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/

 

Portraits from Irish Pubs: Ireland’s trad music scene is a visual as well as an aural treat

The Republic of Ireland has undergone tremendous social and financial changes over the last 20 years.  It’s now indisputably a modern global society with a strong diversified economic engine.  Yet it’s also a happy truth that today, as in days of old, the pub remains at the center of Irish social life.  Far more than a simple watering hole, the local Irish pub, whether in the center of cosmopolitan Dublin or in a tiny coastal fishing village, is a gathering place where stories are shared, traditional music is played, old friends catch up, and new friends are made.  Oh, and a pint or two might just be downed.

Many pubs feature live traditional, or “trad,” music on a nightly basis.  The casual informality of Ireland’s pub scene allows local amateur musicians to sit in with seasoned pros and pass down the songs from old to young.  Members of the “audience” (it’s hard to distinguish between performers and audience when the sessions are so participatory) are invited to step up to the “stage” (usually just a table covered with pints of beer) to sing a song at any time.  This informality allows the travel photographer to get to know these wonderful musicians over a few pints and to make authentic portraits without feeling like we’re intruding.

Today’s post is a simple photo essay featuring portraits I made of musicians and fellow customers at a variety of pubs across Ireland (plus one in Scotland).  I will forgo the usual technical details except to remind you that when shooting portraits in low-light settings where the use of flash is impossible, that a good fast portrait lens should be used along with a high ISO setting.

My current favorite lens of all is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

This young singer and fiddler who we met at Dublin’s famous O’Donoghue’s Pub was already a seasoned pro.  In this portrait I sought to capture her expressiveness with hand gestures.  Even without hearing her sing, the viewer can tell that she is expert at weaving stories.  Buy this photo

O’Donoghue’s is widely known as the spot where bands such as the Dubliners sparked the Irish folk music revival in the 1960s.  This band carries on the tradition, sharing songs old and new.  With a wide aperture comes shallow depth-of-field, so when photographing several people at one time you may have to choose which part of the image will be in focus.  Here I wanted to place the emphasis on the guitarist, so the other players are in softer focus.  Buy this photo

Another of Dublin’s great spots for trad music is the Cobblestone Pub.  On this night they were holding a very casual session, where all musicians were invited to come and play some tunes together.  The informality gave me a chance to get to know most of the players over the course of the evening and to make portraits without feeling like an intruder.  Again, the shallow depth-of-field required artistic choices about which subject would be in sharp focus and which would be in softer focus.  Buy this photo

In lively Kenmare, we wandered into a pub where a fabulous folksinger was performing many of the Irish songs I remember from childhood in Boston.  I chatted with Pat during his set breaks and bought a couple of his CDs.  He was a great subject for some expressive portraits, too.  Buy this photo

We didn’t have to leave our hotel on our first night in Killarney to hear some wonderful trad music.  This trio played many of our favorite songs right in the hotel’s pub, and they got most of the audience up to sing and dance along.  Buy this photo

Surprisingly, we heard only one rendition of Cockles and Mussels (aka “Sweet Molly Malone”) during our whole stay in Ireland.  This brave soul stood up in front of the crowd to sing that old standard.  Buy this photo

There’s nothing like watching an Irish crowd respond to the playing and singing of “The Wild Rover” to get one’s blood pumping.  Be ready to capture action in the “audience” as well as on the “stage.”  Buy this photo

Our second night in Killarney brought us into the center of town to an old and lively pub.  The table next to ours had four generations of a local family in attendance, each enjoying the musical set in their own way.  The oldest generation was my favorite.  Buy this photo

I got to know this fiddler over the course of the evening in Killarney.  During the break between sets she was kind enough to let me make her portrait.  It can be difficult in these crowded settings to avoid a cluttered background, but using a wide aperture for a shallow depth-of-field can help, as can careful post-processing.  Buy this photo

Elements I look for when making a portrait are faces with character and colorful details.  I found both with this accordion player and his beautiful instrument.  Buy this photo

 

The tiny fishing hamlet of Dingle has a population of just 1900 people, yet it somehow supports 52 lively pubs.  My kind of town!  Over pints of ale and shots of local whiskey in this colorful old pub, we made new friends from across the street and from as far away as Newfoundland.  This portrait of a musician was made almost entirely with light from the fireplace.  Buy this photo

The Scottish traditional music scene is as vibrant as Ireland’s, as evidenced by this band we heard at Edinburgh’s Sandy Bell’s Pub.  This place was bustling and extremely crowded.  The cluttered background somehow doesn’t detract too much from the power of this portrait.  Buy this photo

Have you traveled in Ireland or Scotland?  Do you have favorite portraits of the generous and friendly people you encountered there?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box.

Portrait Photography Gear: Affordable kit for making great portraits

Whether in my home town or traveling around the world, I love to shoot portraits.  There is something magical about creating an image that captures the essence of a person.  It can be daunting for many photographers to describe what gear they think is required to make professional-quality portraits: we often visualize a fully equipped studio with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of high-end lights, modifiers, and backgrounds.  The reality is that we can make portraits of publication quality, shot on location and using kit that costs far less.  Here I outline a basic setup that is portable enough to pack on nearly any trip and costs only a few hundred dollars (not including your basic DSLR or mirrorless camera body).

Really all you need to get great people photos is a good portrait lens and a little know-how.  Make sure to set exposure and focus on your subject’s face.  I often use my camera’s Spot metering mode to get the correct exposure in tricky lighting conditions, such as when the subject is backlit.  In these conditions, it can also be helpful to fill in any harsh shadows on the subject’s face by using a touch of flash with a diffuser attached or a reflector.  That’s really all the gear you need: camera with portrait lens, flash unit, and a reflector kit.  Let’s look at the gear and basic techniques.

My indispensable portrait lens is the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  I shoot at least three-quarters of all my portraits, whether in the studio or on location, using this one piece of glass.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a person.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

This portrait of a grandmother and granddaughter at Carnaval San Francisco was made with natural light using an 85mm lens at a wide aperture to throw the background into soft focus.  Because no flash or reflector was used, there are some shadows on the subject’s faces, but I like the shallow depth of field that really emphasizes the subjects, and this would have been difficult to achieve with the slower shutter speed required to synchronize with a flash.  Also, carrying a reflector through the hustle and bustle of a chaotic street fair can be impractical.  I’m very pleased with this image even with a few shadows.

This portrait was shot using natural light only.  Some shadows are visible on the faces, but the effect is not unpleasant, and the soft focus from shooting without a flash is very effective.  Buy this photo

Your camera most likely has a built-in flash, and in many cases it is good enough to provide some fill-in lighting for backlit subjects or even to serve as a main light in very dark situations.  But for more control over how much light you want, the quality of that light, and where that light comes from and goes to, you likely want to have a separate flash unit.  I use the Nikon SB-910, which is powerful and flexible enough for most settings.  It has been discontinued and replaced by the Nikon SB-5000, but the older model is often still available.

Whatever flash you use, it is best to attach a diffuser of some sort to soften the otherwise very harsh light of the flash.  I also keep my camera set to lower the flash output by 1 stop, and I only override this setting occasionally.  Flash is often best when used sparingly.

This next image was shot at the same location as the previous one, but here I used an off-camera flash with diffuser to provide fill lighting on the subjects’ faces, thus reducing the shadows.  The only downside of using flash on location is that a slower shutter speed (typically about 1/160 of a second or slower) must be used, which in turn requires a smaller aperture (here it is f/8), and this can lead to more distraction from in-focus backgrounds.  I could have mitigated this problem by attaching a neutral density filter to block some of the light and allow a larger aperture.

This group portrait was made under similar conditions to the previous image, but here a fill flash was used to soften the shadows.  Buy this photo

An inexpensive accessory can provide the best of both worlds for on-location portraiture.  For less than $20 you can purchase a reflector kit with a variety of different colored reflectors and diffusers.  The reflectors are used to bounce some of the sun’s light back onto the face of the subject, thereby filling in any harsh shadows, while allowing you to shoot at any combination of aperture and shutter speed you choose in order to soften the background.  Each color of reflector imparts a different mood to the image.  An added bonus is that you can preview the precise effect the reflector has in your viewfinder or on your LCD screen.  Really the only downside of using a reflector in the field is that they are bulky to carry and often require an assistant to hold in place while you shoot.

This is the reflector kit I carry with me to most portrait shoots.  It’s high quality, very portable, and affordable.

This portrait was made by metering off the face of the model, choosing a wide aperture to blur the background, and bouncing some sunlight onto her face using the gold reflector from the kit mentioned above.

Using a reflector to bounce sunlight onto your subject’s face can reduce shadows while allowing you to retain full control over your aperture and shutter speed.  Buy this photo

There you have it: my formula for getting professional-looking portraits in the field with relatively inexpensive gear that’s easy to carry and use.

What is your favorite gear for portraiture?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Interested in other posts about photography gear?  See them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/gear/.

Getting Oriented: Shooting vertically as well as horizontally expands your artistic vision

Who says a portrait image has to be shot in portrait orientation, or that a landscape photo must be shot using landscape orientation?  Rules are meant to be broken, and they call it “artistic license” for a reason.  I would estimate that a third of my people images are shot in landscape (horizontal) orientation, and that a third of my landscape images are shot in portrait (vertical) orientation.  It’s always a good idea to shoot at least a few frames in both orientations so you can decide later which ones work best for your artistic vision.  Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Laura is one of my all-time favorite models (she also creates all her own costumes and does her own hair and makeup), and she looks great framed in any orientation, but I think her remarkable inventiveness is shown to good advantage in this composition using landscape orientation.  Buy this photo

It’s a cliché that people pictures should be composed vertically, so that we can fill the whole frame with the model’s head or full body.  A lot of the time this portrait orientation works well.  But there are some good reasons to shoot people images using landscape orientation as well as portrait orientation.

First, sometimes the model’s pose or the environmental elements around the model favor a horizontal image.  When traveling, I like to shoot environmental portraits that show us more than just the person by including elements of his or her home, livelihood, or lifestyle.

Second, we need to think about how the image will be used.  If I’m shooting publicity photos for musicians, for example, I know they need horizontal images at least as often as vertical images, so as to meet the requirements for the venues and promoters with whom they work.  Magazines and billboards often require landscape orientation, as well.  Even more prosaic uses of our photos, such as Facebook or LinkedIn cover photos, must be oriented horizontally.

Third, some portraits just cry out artistically to be framed in landscape orientation.  The image of the model Laura, above, for example, just works better to my eye in horizontal format, because the negative space behind her leads the viewer’s eye to admire her remarkably creative style, and leaving the lower part of her body and her dress out of the image allows us to focus on her expressive face.

By the same token, there are some good reasons to shoot landscape images in portrait orientation.

First, there could be some limitations to the left or right of the frame that, when shot horizontally, could distract from the power of the image we want to create.  Think about a coastal landscape with a glorious sunset sky and delightful foreground elements such as rocks with water flowing around them, but to the left of our vantage point there’s an unattractive pile of litter.  Frame the image in portrait orientation and avoid the problem.

Second, there are publication media where portrait orientation is required.  Knowing where the image is likely to be published will dictate the orientation in which we shoot.  A card or trifold brochure, for example, will likely require a vertical shot.

Third, again, consider your creative vision.  This night landscape of the Milky Way over Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome also worked beautifully in the more traditional landscape orientation, but here I shot the same scene using portrait orientation to frame the granite mountains with a circle of trees and to create a leading line using the Milky Way’s galactic core to bring the viewer’s eye around the valley’s landforms and the night sky.

This night shot of the Milky Way over Yosemite Valley works especially well in portrait orientation because the pine trees create a frame around the leading line of the galactic core.  Buy this photo

Whenever possible, remember to mix it up and shoot with the non-standard orientation for at least a few frames.  You may find your best shots–and the most marketable ones for placement in certain forums–are the ones you make using the unconventional orientation.

Do you have a favorite image that you shot using the opposite orientation from the expected one?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to learn some more photographic techniques?  Here’s a list of all my posts dealing with the technical aspects of travel photography: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/