In this post we’re going to look at two very similar images of senior guys. Both images use the same background but in each image the subject is in a slightly different position. Both guys are in seated poses and both incorporate some artificial fill light. Let’s do this.
Anyone Can Do Normal – Give Your Clients Something Unique
You’ll see lots of outdoor images on this website with green grass and trees as the background. You know what? Anyone can create a decent senior portrait in front of beautiful natural scenery. And everyone does. It’s what’s expected. It’s tried and true. It’s normal.
Believe me, when you’re on senior number 198 for the summer you get damn sick of saying, “here, why don’t you lean against this tree.” You ache to try something different.
Look at these four images for example. All four are in different locations at the Plummer House gardens. Pretty much the same wouldn’t you say? Understand of course, that that’s okay. These are all images the clients ordered from – it’s what they wanted.
Give Them Something Unique . . . . . Or Not
I remember years ago reading about a successful photographer in California. I may not have the facts verbatim, but it was my understanding the guy had been a carpenter. He grew tired of hammering nails so he turned to photography.
He specialized. Good idea. Only very formal, in-studio portraits. He had one background. One. A large old master(s) painted canvas. You didn’t get to choose the background – he was the artist and this is what he’d chosen. If you wanted him to create your portrait this was your background.
In other words, based on the California photog’s success with one background, and based on the multitude of images in my files and on this website – of high school seniors in front of green grass and trees – the background isn’t what makes the difference.
I remember years ago attending a seminar at the studio of Gary and Pam Box in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Right there on Route 66. Gary showed us an image with a cool, non-descript, out of focus background. Just blobs of diffused color. The image was created in an alley behind the grocery store and he pointed to a yellowish spot in the background. “That right there,” he said, “that’s a dead chicken lying in the alley.”
Yeah, backgrounds don’t make that much difference.
All that said, variety does make a difference. You’re not going to sell lots of different images to a client if you only photograph them in front of green grass and trees. More than that you will become bored doing the same thing over and over again. And it’ll show in your work.
That’s why I love the urban portrait sessions – there are seemingly infinite options for backgrounds. You do have to exercise your creativity muscle, but that’s what this is all about right?
Look for the Small Things
Here’s a tip to help you find the coolest outdoor backgrounds. Remember the movie The Patriot with Mel Gibson? Colonial America and fighting the British. Anyway, Gibson’s character and his sons are setting up to ambush some British soldiers and he reminds the boys of what he taught them about shooting; “Aim small, miss small.”
When you’re outside searching for that perfect background, “aim small.” Don’t look at the big picture – look at the small picture. Find the one tree, the single pillar, the cool colorful doorway – that will add something unique to your image.
And, as if you need reminding if you’ve seen The Patriot and Braveheart – don’t piss off Mel Gibson!
So these two images. This spot is less than 200 feet down the alley from the back door of the studio. It’s a roll-up garage door that I assume enters a storage area at the back of this building.
I like the background because of its simplicity. Lots of people don’t like the all-white background in the studio but they do like simple backgrounds. Simple backgrounds – in a photograph – help to isolate your subject and draw the viewers eyes to the person – not the background. It’s one of the reasons black and white portraits are so powerful. The lack of color brings an intense concentration to the person in this image.
Eliminate Everything That Doesn’t Add to the Image
A little aside here. I haven’t entered a print competition in a long time. When I was really into competition, I’d go to the lab, mine was in Green Bay, WI – God’s country and Packerland all rolled into one – and work on my competition prints with the owner of the lab.
Competition prints are always mounted on a 16 x 20 board, but the actual print can be smaller. So the lab folks would make a 16 x 20 of the image and then we’d take it to the paper cutter and start trimming off everything that didn’t add to the image. Removing anything that didn’t have a positive impact on the final print.
Now, digital photography and Photoshop allow any photographer to easily crop their images after the fact. It is one of the very significant reasons imagery has improved so much since digital became mainstream.
The guy in the pinstripe shirt is obviously backed right up to the garage door and sitting on the concrete alley. I took extra care when cropping the image to make sure the lines of the door panels were level.
That said, I’ve done other images here where I tilted the camera hard to one side or the other so the door panel lines were angled – for effect. A hard tilt looks good – like it was on purpose. A little bit of tilt looks like a sloppy mistake.
The guy in the black t-shirt is sitting on a raised concrete sidewalk on the opposite side of the alley from the garage door. I had to back up into the parking lot and zoom to the longest focal length on the 70 to 200 lens so I would only get the garage door – and not the walls on either side – in the background.
The lens compression and wider aperture used on this image caused the background to go softly out of focus diminishing the hard edges of the door panels.
The Ambient Light
Looking at the light on his hair the pinstripe shirt image was taken on an overcast day at the 1:30 pm session – meaning it was about 2:45/3:00 when this image was created. It’s not a morning image because if it were – even if it was slightly overcast – the sun would be coming in hard from the east. There’d be a shadow from his body on the garage door behind him.
His back is to the west. My back – at the camera – is to the east. Based on the single catchlight in his eyes I had my off-camera flash on a light stand positioned to camera left – his right.
I switch back and forth between two different light modifiers on my outdoor flash. Sometimes I use a 30-inch Halo-mono – which is like a backward umbrella – the light shooting through what would normally be the reflective “top” of the umbrella. Other times I’ll use a Photoflex Lightdome Mini Q93 which is a 12” x 18” softbox.
Both of these images were using the Halo-mono. Notice how broad the light pattern is. I probably should have the light positioned farther to one side or the other to create more of a light ratio.
Notice too, on both images, the shadow line under their chins. A lower power setting on the flash would have diminished this telltale sign of added artificial light.
The black t-shirt image was taken at the 3:45 pm session and it was later in the summer, possibly even early fall as the sun is lower in the sky. Behind my back – across the river to the east about 100 yards away – is the County Courthouse building. It’s a six-story building constructed of orangey-beige brick. On a clear day the late afternoon sun hits the back of the courthouse and turns it into a huge – and I mean huge – reflective light source. That light – warmed by the time of day and the orangey-beige color of the brick – is bouncing back to my subject.
Considering the beautiful natural reflected light that was available could I have done without the added artificial fill? Certainly. But sometimes you get stuck in a rut. At the time I had a certain look I liked and it included fill-flash. Plus in this image, I toned down the ambient light by shooting at a faster shutter speed which darkened the background.
Pretty simple obviously. But just a couple things to keep in mind.
The striped shirt image – I like the fact that he’s straight into the camera. Unfortunately, that means, in this pose, that you look straight into his crotch. Typically straight into anything is less desirable than a slight angle – like the black t-shirt image.
The other thing to note is the position of their hands. On an image like this – half-length or closer – it will most often look best to have them hide their fingers. Having their hands back behind their forearms keeps the image simple – your eye isn’t distracted by ten little weiners.
Speaking of Fingers – Here’s a Middle Finger Story
A friend of my older brother – when they were kids – was wearing his older brother’s class ring on his middle finger. He was on a playground swing set and jumped up to the top crossbar and then fell off. The ring caught on a bolt and it ripped his middle finger clean off. From that day forward, in every team picture, he was ever in, he put that hand on his thigh with his fingers spread apart. Made it look like he was giving you the finger in reverse. What was anyone gonna say? Don’t do that?
So That’s a Wrap
Did you have a question? Anyone? Anyone? Buehler? If you do just CLICK HERE and ask – that’s what I’m here for. Have an awesome day.