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A Tale of Three Portraits (and Two Lights)

Posted by Tom Benedict on 23/02/2015

When you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Then when you add a screwdriver, you want to add a hacksaw, too, so you can cut slots in the tops of all your nails and use the screwdriver instead. Adding photography gear to the bag is a lot like getting another tool for the shop. Yeah, there’s always another way to do it, but you want to play with the new tool!

A couple of weeks ago the outreach coordinator at the place where I work mentioned an astronomy fashion blog she had run across. That put her in mind of a shirt I own, so she contacted the writers of the blog and asked if she could send them a picture. One thing led to another, and I wound up with my first portrait assignment: a fancy selfie of me and my shirt.

I wanted to wait for my backdrops to arrive before tackling the t-shirt shot, but I also didn’t want to waste anyone’s time once they arrived. So I went into work one weekend to try out a couple of lighting setups. I found one I figured would work for the t-shirt shot, but I also played with some more dramatic lighting.

The Forbes Shot

This was a cross between the classic Peter Norton crossed-arms and rolled-up shirtsleeves and any of a number of financial magazine covers I’ve seen over the years. Even as I was setting up the lighting I thought, “This is the Forbes shot!” It’s a 42″ shoot-through umbrella directly above my head and slightly forward, just out of frame, with a second light behind me with a stofen to provide hair light. The toughest part of this was figuring out how to attach a flash to the magazine rack at my back. Once that problem was solved, though, the whole thing came together well.

Later that day when I picked my kids up from the park my son said, “We’re using shadow magic and fire magic to make warriors in our game!” I replied, “I’m using light magic to make myself look cooler than I am in real life!” Neither of them believed me until I showed them this frame. “You’re right! That looks a lot cooler than you are in real life!” Which just goes to show that sometimes it’s better to keep your trap shut around your kids.

About a week later backdrops arrived, and I set up the t-shirt shot the following week. Our outreach coordinator wanted one of the posters from our wide field imager in the background, so I suspended a framed print from the ceiling with my black muslin backdrop behind it. The black frame on the poster and the black Dacron kite line I used to suspend it from the ceiling all made the later editing a snap.

Wallace and Gromit Teeth

The setup for this one is a little more straightforward. It’s a 42″ shoot-through 45 degrees camera left, aiming down, with a 42″ silver umbrella 45 degrees camera right, aiming down, to provide fill. I wish I’d had a second shoot-through for the fill, and a third light for hair light, but you use what you have. I’m not 100% happy with the lighting on my face, but the background worked out really well. Unfortunately I did this about twenty minutes before an all-staff meeting, so things were a little rushed. I  wish I’d taken more time to work out the lighting, but c’est la vie.

When I posted this to Flickr it occurred to me that my teeth look like the teeth in a Wallace & Gromit film. I’ve since been assured by a fellow photographer and KAPer that this really is what I look like.

A couple of days later I remembered I had a third portrait I needed to do. This time it wasn’t one of me (yay!) Rydra had been wanting a new avatar photo to use online. I’ve done a couple of them for her in the past, most using selective color on some part of the image. She wanted another selective color photo, this time showing off a piece of jewelry she made: an ear cuff. We talked through how she wanted the photo to look, then pulled out the gear.

Initially I set things up with a main and a hair light, but the ear cuff looked too muted. Since that was one of the major elements in the shot, it had to be better lit. With some misgivings I pulled the hair light and re-positioned it next to the camera with a stofen to pick up catch lights in the metal of the ear cuff without providing too much fill. That worked, and gave Rydra the shot she wanted. But I found myself wishing I had a third light to separate her hair from the background the way I did in the Forbes shot.

Rydra 2015-02-22
Post-processing was pretty straightforward. I pulled the red channel to use as the base B&W image. That washed out her mouth a little too much, so I used the green channel for just that part of the photo. Both of these layers were masked to let the color of the stone on the ear cuff show through. I had to bump the saturation a little to let the color of the stone really show, but it didn’t take much.

Rydra loved the new avatar picture, and put it into service the minute she got it. She’s usually super critical of any photos I make of her, so I took this as a win.

The more I use my new lighting gear, the more I like it. And no, not everything is a nail with a screwdriver slot cut in the head. But I think I need to add a third light so I can have a dedicated hair light when I need it. And maybe a fourth so I can gel a white background next time. Dammit! Where’s that hacksaw?!

– Tom

One Response to “A Tale of Three Portraits (and Two Lights)”

  1. lesmarti said

    Love this!

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