• Minding the background

    When shooting a portrait, especially a head and shoulders portrait (a.k.a. headshot), isolating the subject from the background is often a desirable outcome. The idea is that after we have selected a complementary background — one that doesn’t distract or take away from the subject — we should also seek to blur it as much as possible. This will further remove the background as a distraction, and by sheer contrast between subject sharpness vs. background softness, will more effectively focus the attention on the subject.

    There are several tools to accomplish this, including lens selection (longer works best), aperture (wider apertures also work best, but keeping in mind what’s needed to ensure the subject’s features are sufficiently sharp), and reducing the distance between the camera and the subject also helps. But there’s another variable I often forget, as the following two photos, both shot with the same lens, same aperture, and roughly at the same distance between camera and subject demonstrate.

    Headshot session 2.1 {explored}
    Headshot 1, Nikon D700 & 105 f2.0 DC @ f/4

    The subject is sufficiently isolated from the background, but even at this fairly large aperture, the background isn’t as blurred as I wanted. I noticed this after taking a few shots, and asked my subject to move farther away from the background. Since we were shooting in open shade, I brought her to the edge of the shaded area, while keeping an eye on the lighting, which I wanted to maintain. With the subject farther from the background, I captured the next shot.

    Headshot session 2.2

    Both the background and the pose make for a different shot, and I was reminded once again to sufficiently separate my subject from the background in future shoots.

  • Test-driving the 135 DC

    On my first full day with the Nikon 135 f2.0 DC lens, I played with its DC (defocus control), and calibrated it with AF fine-tuning on my D700. Fearing that I would have to take it to Nikon service for some AF calibration, I decided to try it on some real subject — two of my favorites — to see how it faired. Here are two trial portraits, taken at f/2.8. I think this is going to turn into one of my favorite lenses.

  • A follow-up headshot session

    This weekend I had the chance to do a follow-up session to grab some headshots for an actor friend. This time we kept it simple, no studio setup, strictly outdoors with some soft open shade lighting with some bounced flash for fill. Some would say this lighting is “flat,” but keep in mind we were going for natural look, not the wrinkle-and-blemish popping shadowing one can get with more “interesting” lighting setups. We also went for some different looks than we achieved during the previous session, and for the most part came up with some good results.

    Copyright (c) 2011, Eduardo Suastegui

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  • Indoor and outdoor headshots

    In the past few days, you’ve seen my ongoing exploration of flash usage, in particular as it applies to portrait photography. Preparing for a headshot session, I knew I’d also have to capture outdoor photos. Last Saturday I finally had an opportunity to bring all my experimentation and learning into practice for a full headshot session. I could say many things about what turned out to be a very fun and rewarding assignment, but I rather take some time to evaluate the results and see where I could improve them. In the meantime, here are my favorite shots thus far.

    Copyright (c) 2011, Eduardo Suastegui

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  • More portraits and headshots

    Last time we saw one approach to add a back light to a portrait/headshot setup. This time, I decided to do something more drastic with one of my favorite subjects. I used a back-flash technique to blow out the background at 1/2 flash power. For the two on-subject flashes, I used a Loop lighting configuration, with the right flash at roughly 1/2 the power of the left flash. After a few tries, the following three shots bubbled to the top as the best of the set. In retrospect, I should have probably gone for broke at 1/1 flash power to really turn that backdrop to pure white. One tip for those who try this: judge the exposure’s histogram before you turn on the back light to avoid getting confused by all those clipped (by design) highlights.

    Copyright (c) 2011, Eduardo Suastegui

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  • Adding a background light

    As we previously saw, adding a rim light helps outline the subject and separate him from the background. Another technique we can use involves the use of a background light. One simple method simply uses a flash behind the subject, aimed at the background, and powered as needed to create contrast between subject and background.

    In this example, we first show a shot with the key, fill and rim light pattern. The second shot brightens the background just a tad, while the third adds more flash power to show the background’s blue color. Finally, the fourth shot removes the rim light to show whether the subject is sufficiently differentiated from the background.

    Copyright (c) 2011, Eduardo Suastegui

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    What proportions of light you end up choosing is a matter of taste. For instance, someone with blonde hair may require different rim (hair) lighting than was appropriate for this example’s model.

    Addendum: Here’s the lighting pattern for these shots.
    4 light pattern


    • For the key (main) light, the umbrella to the left of the camera has one strobe (SB-900) in shoot-through configuration.
    • For the fill light, the umbrella to the right of the camera is used to bounce the on-camera flash (SB-700), which is also the commander that triggers all the other flashes.
    • For the rim light, the strobe (SB-600) behind and to the left/above of the subject was shot with a min-softbox (the kind that fits right over the flash — small and portable).
    • For the back light, the strobe (SB-900) directly behind the subject stands on the ground and points up at the back-drop.