Chalk & Cheese

My eldest daughter Megan is home from university for the next 5 weeks; 5 weeks that will see some significant changes in this family as we separate and begin new lives, so it’s nice that Meg, and her boyfriend Jack, are here for one last time with all of us present.

She arrived on Friday evening, so had yesterday to settle in and get ready before she and Jack went to dinner at the excellent Broad Chare in Newcastle, while her younger sister Holly was also getting ready for a night out with her friends in South Shields.

So what is a photographer to do when he has two beautiful daughters together in their finery when it’s such a rare occasion?  Inevitably it’s portrait time.

You may be aware that I’ve been reading Christa Meola’s The Art of Boudoir Photography lately, and there was a lighting set up that I wanted to try and replicate involving a single, diffused overhead light source to create some interesting shadows.  Now I don’t possess a studio, but then she does most of her work on the road so that shouldn’t be a problem.  I chose a suitably coloured wall as my backdrop (though if you’re trying to do the same a roll of backing paper could produce the same effect) and set to work on the lighting.  This was my biggest challenge.  I have a couple of lightweight stands for my speedlite flash units, but nothing robust enough to suspend a studio strobe so battery powered flash was my only option. I then had to find a way of suspending a diffuser panel beneath the two lights.

Using a clamp attached to each light stand I gripped the diffuser (part of a small 5 in 1 reflector kit) and angled the flash heads downwards.  Setting one flash unit to trigger the other I now needed a radio transmitter to activate that unit when I pressed the shutter button.  It all felt a bit Heath Robinson, but taking a couple of test shots with a self timer demonstrated that I had the effect I wanted, especially if I positioned a reflector to bounce some light back into the eyes where the overhead light caused them to be lost in the shade of my eyebrows.

Good to go then, but for one thing.

You can set up equipment, test tweak and adjust and ultimately get what you’re after.  You can’t do the same with daughters.

Megan declared that she didn’t really want to be photographed last night, and devoted herself to getting Holly ready before she even began her preparations.  This not only robbed me of one of my models, but meant that I couldn’t even rely on her to hold a reflector in place.  Hey ho.

Holly (who has always been the more co-operative photographic model) and I persisted, and got some nice shots.  As I thought, getting any catchlights in her eyes was difficult without reflector.  Thinking about it later I realised I could probably have attached the reflector to a light stand with some gaffa tape and had some effect, but this was closing the stable door after the horse had bolted.  Consequently I had to resort to post processing to achieve those catchlights in some of the shots.  Nevertheless I’m happy with overall outcomes.  Not bad for shots taken in a front room against a wall of flaking paint with nothing much more than a couple of flash units.  I’m sure the model helped too!

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Keeping a weather eye open

When I returned home from my beach expedition this morning, I decided it was time for one of those most English of activities; cutting the grass.

I changed into something suitably windproof and was in the process of filling my lawnmower with petrol when Gill opened the door to our garage to tell me: “I wouldn’t bother – it’s chucking it down!”  Sure enough the blue skies had gone and it wasn’t just rain that was falling but sleet, and at such a pace that even if it stopped, the ground was going to be too wet and soft for the lawnmower today.

Deciding it was time to process the morning’s pictures, I sat down with my laptop, aware of the already brightening skies, when I was surprised to hear the blast of the Souter foghorn!  Four seasons in one day?  Very nearly for whilst I was greeted by beautiful sunshine and cloudless skies when I rose this morning, there was a light dusting of snow to be seen on my garage roof, so I dressed for the cold and was right to do so.

My greater concern as a photographer though was those bright skies which to me are a nightmare.  They give bright highlights and deep harsh shadow, which the camera sensor cannot cope with.  OK if you want to shoot something with really high key effect like this, or to frame a silhouette against a brighter background, but to shoot a portrait you can do with a softer light.  Soft light lessens the imperfections of the skin (something I’m not to worried about with male subjects, who benefit from a more rugged look), but more importantly our eyes can cope with it without squinting.

Look at the picture I shot of Yaman yesterday.  His eyes are almost lost even though I turned him at 90 degrees to the sunlight, whereas this little guy seemed to have no problem at all!

So how do professional fashion photographers cope when shooting in exotic locations?  They want to evoke the sun-kissed shores and azure seas, but don’t want their highly paid modelling talent to be wincing at the brightness.  The answer is that they use scrims; large panels of translucent material that have the effect of diffusing the harsh light, reducing the brightness on the subject without losing it in the rest of the scene.  The perfect solution but for the fact that you need:

  • An assistant to hold the diffuser at the right angle and distance from the model, or
  • A large stand that can hold the panel in place with weights or sandbags to keep it steady.

Not really an option for me when shooting casual portraits as I carry neither stand nor assistant when out and about, and I dare say that my usual negotiation to photograph a stranger would become more challenging if waving a large white panel to make them even more self conscious.

So when I met Andy on the shoreline this morning, the best that I could do was to shoot him with his back to the light (still not enough to avoid the squinting with all that light bouncing off the silica at our feet) and then adjust the exposure so that the background “blew out” to white and he was properly exposed.  Not a bad outcome, but you lose any opportunity to sculpt the face unless you have a reflector (another impracticality in these circumstances)

When I met Geoff, he was partly shaded by the building he was standing alongside, and was staring into the light though sunglasses.  Easy to shoot, but the eyes, which play such an important role in the expression of an individual are lost behind the glass and plastic.  He had good reason to be looking out to sea though.  As a surfer he was assessing the conditions before getting changed and unpacking his board.  Wise move, for the waves were unspectacular except where the wind was smacking them against the pier.  Not somewhere you would want to be with your board.

As I returned to my car I saw that not everyone had Geoff’s prescience.