Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tech Talk Tuesday

So, we are still talking about Composition, and I've given some brief and general comments on Simplicity and Perspective/View. Then last week was Part 1 on Lighting and I talked about taking pictures of landscapes. This week, Part 2, I'll talk about taking pictures of people, or portraits. (Remember I'm just giving you a nibble in each area I talk about, so if you really want to learn more than my simple comments here, you'll need to do a lot of reading and shooting.)

Here is the most important point to remember when taking photos of people and I'm talking about taking 'head shots' or close ups. The eyes must be the most important feature to highlight on the face. You must make sure your camera's focus point covers the eyes because they must be in sharp focus. Everything else may or may not be sharp or soft focus, but the eyes are the focal point of a portrait and they must be in focus and lit well. Another thing to remember about lighting portraits, is that for the most part, side lighting is more flattering that front lighting. Of course there are exceptions, but remember I'm simplifying to the extreme here.

First I'll talk about taking pictures of people outdoors and then indoors, and I'll illustrate with some pictures I took of my lovely and cooperative model Michelle. I did these in about 10 minutes this morning:

Isn't this lovely - colors bleached out, big dark shadows under her chin and around her eyes. Notice her eyebrow shades her eye so you can't even see it. Obviously this was taken outdoors in bright sun. I told Michelle to face the sun and smile. I didn't give her any coaching and this is what I got. I took about 10 shots and she could not open her eyes. Yet this is what most people do when taking pictures outdoors. The tell their subject to move into and face the sun thinking this will light up their face the best. The thing to remember about this picture is that the absolute worse time of day to take portraits outdoors, (just like landscape pictures), is high noon on a sunny day. The second worse thing is to have the person face the sun.

Next I had Michelle face away from the sun. If I would have taken the photo without a flash, her face would have been very dark because the camera would have exposed for the bright background. Even if I focused on her face, it still would have been too dark. On this shot I turned on my flash (you can tell by the round catch lights in her eyes.) Some compact point and shoot cameras may not allow the flash to go off in a brightly lit scene, but I think on most cameras you have a control that will allow the flash to function. On the more expensive cameras you can also determine how much flash you use. If you are able to have this much control, you should turn your flash down so you have just enough to fill in the shadows and brighten the face (fill flash). Another advantage of shooting into the sun is that it creates beautiful highlights in the hair.

A safer option where your chances are best at getting a decent shot outdoors in bright sun, is to find a place that is in the shade, with subject and background in similar light, and then still use fill flash to make the face 'pop'. If you have a choice, the very best type of day to do outdoor people photography is on a light to moderately overcast day. Look at the ground where an object is creating a shadow. If it is a dark, hard shadow, it is a sunny day and bad light. If it is a dark, overcast day and there are no shadows, your photos will come out dull and flat. If it is an overcast day and there are soft, light shadows, the sky is acting like a big soft box (used in a photography studio), and you'll get beautiful portraits with soft shadows wrapping around the face giving form and definition.

Side note for those who want a bit more information: So far I've recommended using a flash outdoors for better photos when you must shoot in the middle of a sunny day. Now I'm going to contradict that a bit. Using a flash (if it is on the camera), is the last choice for me, whether outdoors or indoors. Straight on flash creates harsh, flat lighting, not soft light coming from the side that would add soft shadows and a more realistic 3-D effect. If you are lucky enough to shoot with a dedicated flash, one that you put on the hot shoe of your camera, there are a variety of little gizmos you can stick on the flash that will diffuse the light, and this helps a bit. The other option that works better is to use no flash, but instead use a reflector. This is flat piece of anything that is usually white or silver or gold. You can use a piece of poster board, or buy a nice reflector at a photo shop. You will need a second person who stands at an angle away from your subject and reflects the sun off the reflector and onto the subject's face. This creates beautiful, warm light and shadows, depending on where the person is standing. (I warned you this was probably more info than you wanted.)

Now let's move indoors. Let me say that most all indoor lighting is bad. Incandescent lights (bulbs) make your subject's skin look like they've eaten too many carrots, (orange), and fluorescent lights make him/her either look like he/she just walked out of a freezer (blue), or is heading to to bathroom to throw up (green). Usually it is dark enough indoors that you need a flash anyway, which will also help neutralize these color casts. Flash indoors has the problems I mentioned earlier- flat, unattractive lighting. (Actually as I look at this photo, this is not bad, but I do have a very nice flash and that makes a big difference.) Another problem with indoor flash is that it casts a shadow on whatever is behind the person, usually a wall. Often this distracts from the portrait. (If you were in a studio, the photographer would have numerous lights to eliminate this.) The best solution if you do not have a dedicated flash, is to make sure your subject stands far away from walls and other objects that are behind them.

If you are lucky enough to have a nice flash attachment, you can twist the flash head toward a nearby wall or the ceiling and "bounce" the flash back at your subject. This eliminates the shadows on the wall, and creates a softer portrait.

The best light of all is natural light, preferably from a north facing window. No flash, just beautiful soft shadows that mold her face and make her eyes pop. How bright the day is will determine how close to the window you would place your subject. First I had Michelle about 4 or 5 feet from the window. I took a few shots and checked the exposure and the light side of her face was too bright or blown out. I then had her move about 6-8 feet away, and this is what I got. I think for setting this up in about 10 seconds, it is a lovely portrait. (It certainly helps that I have a very beautiful and photogenic model!)

Just to end, I did a little (very little) Photoshop work. I cropped in so you focus on her face and eyes. I removed a few tiny blemishes and sharpened her eyes and softened her skin. Wow, this could be a glam shot!

To conclude, notice that in all the photos where I've pointed the flash directly at Michelle at close range, the color seems unnatural and the lighting is harsh. (If I were going to use any of these, I would work them over in Photoshop.) Also remember that sophisticated flash attachments will produce a better quality by far than a point and shoot camera's pop up flash. (And of course, professional studio lighting creates beautiful portraits, which I'm assuming none of us have!) The indoor shot where I've bounced the flash looks better, but in my opinion, the natural light, without any flash is the best by far. What do you think?

(Just a quick note on the portrait of the green tie man. He was in shade, but the building in the background was in sun and brighter than he was, so I used a small amount of fill flash to brighten his face so he was not overpowered by the background.)