Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Playing with Self Portraits

So what do you do when you can't find someone to model for you, it is too nasty out to go searching for an image, and you've been suffering from a lack of creativity? Try shooting some self portraits. Seriously, I'm not kidding. SPs are a good way to practice your portrait lighting and allow you to experiment on shots without worrying about ruining a client's session.

This past weekend, I dug through the closet and found an old bedsheet with a funky, colorful design to use as backdrop. The basic setup that I used was:

- Alien Bee 800 with a large softbox to camera right
- 72" silver reflector to camera left
- Vivitar 285HV aimed at the background
- Cheap Cactus wireless triggers for both strobes
- Background sheet sandwich clipped to two 8' lightstands
- Bogen tripod
- Nikon D300
- Nikon 50mm f1.8

The focus of this session was to shoot some high-keyish type photos. I decided to break the rule on not clipping highlights and just let the light overpower the shots. Afterwards, I processed the images in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop CS3, playing with different presets, adjustments, and filters. What I came up with was something different and fun, turning a rainy gray day into a successful shoot. Here are a couple of the results.

The first is possibly one of my favorite portraits taken of me. It looked decent in color but converting it to b/w and then adding a coffee colored tint really defined the image. What I like most about this is the sharpness and catchlights in the eyes.

One question that I routinely see posted on forums is "how do set the focus to get a sharp image?" I forget where I saw this tip initially but I definitely cannot take credit for it, someone much smarter than me discovered it. Setup the shot and then remove your camera from the tripod, walk over to where you will be standing, and turn the camera back to the tripod, setting the focus on the tripod itself. Important: if you are using autofocus, turn it off now; else, when you set the camera back on the tripod and go to trip your shutter, the camera will refocus. The beauty of this is that it is simple and accurate. There is no need to guess distances, break out tape measures, or set up a "focus dummy" in your spot.

The next image was really fun. Unlike the previous one, I really wanted the colors and light to jump off of the screen. The one thing that I didn't care about was blowing the highlights. I turned up the AB800 and opened the lens to let in more than enough light. In LR, I dropped the clarity a little so that the whites gained a glow. I also increased the Black slider which added definition to the eyes. While this image probably isn't the best for me personally, I can see this effect really working great for funky portraits of kids and seniors.

The last image was a bit darker (my mood when I shot this was down a bit having been locked inside by a steady drizzle all day!) The image was quite what I was initially after but it did get its origin from a night when I was sitting on the catch watching a late night movie. Just outside of my living room is a neighborhood light that was was casting these cool shadows through my french door. My initial thought was to shoot it with just the existing light streaming in, casting the soft shadow across my face. I wanted a cool white balance andmaybe even a conversion in LR to a blue monochrome finish for a colder yet romantic feel. That was the plan. Here's what really happened.....

Somewhere along the line I thought that I could "help" the ambient along by placing a single wireless 285HV outside to camera left, aimed back through the French door. My initial test shots showed that even at the lowest setting, the light was being thrown much harder than the lightpost. The more I looked at it, the more I was intrigued with what I was getting. The mood of the shot changed entirely. I grabbed the 72" silver reflector to add a bit of fill to camera right.

In LR, I converted the image to b/w and used the exposure brush to selectively darken/lighten a few spots. I then added a heavy vignette. The image isn't one that I would use for an everyday portrait but it was fun creating something with a darker feel.

Self portraits are great as creative outlets and for general practice. If the results are a disaster, you simply delete and no one is the wiser; however, if you hit on something that you really like, it can be a great addition to your next client shoot.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Feathered Friend

Okay, this image was a year in the making. I have a lake behind my townhouse which draws a plethora of avian life. During the spring, summer, and fall; there are everything red-winged black birds to an amazing white bar owl that I stumbled across one evening. During the winter months, the list of available species narrows but you can regularly find white egrets and blue herons just along the shore.

Over the last year, I have occasionally ventured down to try to capture an image of these great birds. There are a few photographers on DGrin that routinely post gorgeous bird images. They make it look amazingly easy, which is somewhat deceiving seeing that birds are one of the most difficult subjects to photograph. Each time I returned from a shoot, I was disappointed with the captures.

Iso 200, f/6.3, 1/500 sec, 500mm

On Sunday morning, I walked down tot he water's edge to find two herons perched on the opposite shore, one far too out of range and the other just barely in range. I ran back to my place, loaded the Nikon D300 with the Sigma 50 - 500mm, grabbed the monopod, and headed back down to the water. I managed to get 2 shots before the great bird took to the air and left the scene. Of course when he took off, I was looking at the histogram on the LCD to determine I was clipping the highlights and managed to miss the great "take flight" shot. I'll save that for next time as I'm happy with how this image turned out.