Portrait of Hostess at a Winery Tasting Room

Directing Your Models–A Photographer’s Guide

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

On a recent Saturday, my workshop students and I spent the morning photographing produce, vendors and street musicians at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market. I had found a vendor with an interesting face, nice display and a farm banner that hid their truck. I asked if I could photograph him and he looked at me for a moment and then said “Since you asked, yes”.

Give your subject something to do with their hands.

Give your subject something to do with their hands.

He immediately squared his shoulders, dropped his hands to his sides and stared at the camera. Where I had started with an animated vendor, I now had a ridged statue. This happens more often than not when I ask to photograph someone and it’s my job to turn them back into a living, breathing, engaged individual.

When photographing people, there is a check list in my head that I usually follow.

First, is the subject in the best light for a portrait?

Although this changes depending on what I want to say about the person or their job, I usually want diffused, horizontal light. Maybe I need to move them to a better location within their environment. Maybe they need to be turned slightly or moved only a foot. Don’t be shy about asking. This helps establish your authority on the shoot and their trust in you will quickly grow, especially if you explain why they will look better in the new position.

Find the best light within your set for a portrait.

Find the best light within your set for a portrait.

Second, and equally important, do they have any mannerisms I can use?

Do they use their hands when they talk? Do they smile easily? Is there something unique in their mannerisms that I can incorporate into the image?

Watch for small mannerisms

Watch for small mannerisms that you can use during posing.

Third, give your subject something to do with their hands.

Give them something to hold, something to move, something to pour. Make sure it is something they would normally do so it feels familiar. Give a subject something to do with their hands and they will visibly relax in front of your camera. It’s an easy fix.

Give your model something to hold.

Give your model something to hold. Be careful, of course, about what you give them.

Remember, photographing a model is a partnership between yourself and your subject. There has to be trust and respect and you only have 5 to 10 seconds to establish that trust. Show interest in the person and what they do. By showing interest in the individual, you encourage them to be themself, not just a photo target.

It sounds daunting, but each time you photograph a stranger, it becomes easier.

Some portraits are as much about the job they do as it is the individual.

Some portraits are as much about the job they do as it is the individual.

Get the technical stuff worked out before you approach your subject. Give your model a role to play. Become the director. Careful! You may start to enjoy this.

For more on photographing people, see our blog post  “The Shy Photographer’s Guide To Putting Subjects At Ease”


cheese fondue lit with window light

Window Light, An Amazingly Elegant Photography Light Source

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

Have you ever wished you could invent the perfect lighting system, one that generally gave you diffused light but could be adjusted to be more specular? A lighting system that provided directional, horizontal lighting that avoided the raccoon eyes of overcast days. A continuous source so you can see the results before you shoot and powerful enough to light an entire room and its contents. Oh, and let’s throw in cheap to buy and very light to carry. Perfect, right?

Alebrije in window light

A gold reflector bounces window light into the near side of a carved Mexican alebrije to control contrast and create a warm highlight.

We all have that lighting system available, of course. I use window lighting for a wide range of photographic subjects, but I have noticed in my classes that many students seem to ignore it. It’s a seemingly easy light source to use, but as in so many things in photography, mastering window light is quite another matter.

Cafe lit with window light

If windows are part of your composition, break them up as much as possible and don’t allow your camera to underexpose the interior, even though the light source is in the frame.

First, let’s define exactly what we are talking about here. Window light is any source of daylight that is horizontally directional and mostly diffused. This diffused daylight is often cool in temperature and does not have to pass through a real window. It would certainly be awkward carrying a window around all day. A large overhang of some sort outdoors will produce the same quality and direction of light as long as there is no direct sunlight intruding into our scene.

Window light also requires that we actually see how the light is impacting our subject, not how we expect it to look. This is one of the big hurdles in learning to be a photographer—actually seeing what is right in front of us.

pizza lit with window light

Pizza was photographed twenty feet from the window light source to emphasize the pizza texture with edgier light and balance the food exposure with the interior exposure.

This will lead to the realization that window light will change depending on where in a lit room we place our subject. Is there more than one window? Are there also artificial lights involved or will the paint color on the walls bias our color balance through bounce light. Do we want flat, even lighting or side lighting that creates dimension and brings up texture. Close to a window, the light is very soft and diffused. It becomes harsher, or more specular, as we move our subject farther from the light source. Do we have reflectors to modify contrast and shape the light? It’s getting a bit more complicated, isn’t it?

restaurant interior photographed with window light

A restaurant interior was photographed at a point where window light and the warm, incandescent light over the table and painting balanced perfectly.

When I first enter a window-lit room or an outdoor arcade with arches open to the ambient light, I sit for a few minutes and study people as they walk through the space. There is always a “sweet spot”, a location within the environment that gives me the perfect direction, the right amount of softness and perfect balance of light on my subject and my background.

Try it, but keep your eyes open. This is a subtle light source but a very powerful one as well. And you have got to love a light source that you don’t have to carry! I know I do.


Rule Of Thirds Composition

Mastering The Rule Of Thirds For Beautiful Compositions

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

When I first started to get serious about my photography, I would go out for a few days photographing landscapes and come home totally exhausted. Just the mental process of creating a balanced compositions with my 4×5 view camera would wear me out. It was tough!

sand dunes in thirds composition

sand dunes in thirds composition

I once heard Earnst Haas, a pioneer of color photography, say that his process for composition was moving everything until it feels right. After a few years shooting thousands of images, Ernst Haas’ approach to photographic composition made sense, but in the beginning–it didn’t help much. What did help was stumbling on something painters had used for centuries—the rule of thirds.

The theory goes like this. If you split your composition into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, your main subject should fall on one of those lines or the intersection of two lines. Simple. This keeps your primary subject out of the center of the frame, which is rather static, and produces a more dynamic balance to your composition. Admittedly, this is a loose framework for composing an image, but it really isn’t meant to be a ridged structure. Let’s look at some examples.

Rule of Thirds Composition in Portraits

Rule of Thirds Composition in Portraits

My students often turn in portraits with the subject’s face dead center in the frame. This is often referred to as “Sniper School” for obvious reasons and the portrait often feels a bit “dead”. Moving the model’s eyes to the upper third line creates a better balance to the image. We have moved the subject out of the center of the frame “until it feels right”.

cholla cactus in thirds composition

cholla cactus in thirds composition

Landscapes follow the same steps of moving things around, or moving the camera around, until the balance feels right. In this case the foreground brittlebush flowers in Joshua Tree National Park fill the bottom half, middle ground fills the middle third and background the upper third. Remember, this is a loose framework.

carver rule of thirds composition

carver rule of thirds composition

In the above example of a wood carver in Oaxaca, Mexico, the carver is placed on the right hand third and balanced with extra carvings on the left. In this case, I did actually move things around until it felt balanced. It creates a diagonal flow when the image is viewed.

joshua trees at sunset in thirds composition

joshua trees at sunset in thirds composition

Even a simple silhouette of joshua trees at dawn benefits from the rule of thirds. Two groups of joshua trees are positioned in the upper right intersection and the lower left intersection with mountains in the background giving me a visually heavy base to support all the branching . This produces a much more dynamic composition than placing them all at the same level.

And always keep in mind–this is just the start of learning how to compose powerful images. You will break this rule as often as you use it. Like all rules of composition, just keep “moving everything until it feels right”. Words to live by.


laelia orchid

The Challenge Of Creating Visual Impact In A Photo Essay

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

One of my favorite assignments, no matter the subject, is a photo essay. I love immersing myself in a subject and drilling down into it, exploring all the nooks and crannies. My curiosity and my love of photography intertwine in a joyous dance that is new to me every single time.

orchid collector checks a hybrid orchid in his shade house

orchid collector checks a hybrid orchid in his shade house

A photo essay is essentially a story told with minimal words and, hopefully, lots of photographs.

The trick is creating a diverse range of images that are all necessary to fully explain a subject or location. Whether it is a long-form essay, like a coffee table book, or a short-form essay, like a two page magazine article, the steps are the same—research, organize, shoot and edit.

laelia orchid is pollinated to create a new hybrid

laelia orchid is pollinated to create a new hybrid

Let’s use an essay I photographed recently on orchid collectors for Seasons Magazine as an example. I dabble in gardening and like most people, find orchids both beautiful and exotic, so it was a subject that I found fascinating. Santa Barbara is known for its commercial orchid greenhouses and the city also holds an International Orchid Show each year. The magazine asked that I tie those into the piece as well.

collector tends a cymbidium orchid

orchid collector tends a special cymbidium orchid

Research was going to be critical. Finding contacts at the greenhouses and orchid clubs, collectors that were willing to be photographed on location, schedules for orchid competitions and sales and sources for various types of orchids in full bloom had to be compiled.

prize winning cymbidium orchid

prize winning cymbidium orchid

For such a simple subject, this was going to be a complex project.

In addition to contacts and permissions, research helped me put together a shoot list. This list is critical to making sure that coverage is as diverse, and thorough, as possible. And compiling a shoot list is not a static process as changes and additions are continuously made to the list as images are reviewed.

collector views images of micro orchids

collector views images of micro orchids on a Scanning Electron Microscope

While making appointments was stressful, shooting was a great experience. That is not to say that I could just go out and create beauty shots of orchids all day. Let’s face it, that would quickly put my audience asleep. The flowers are addictive, however, and I had to force myself to cover related subjects.

collector looking at a flower spike of micro orchids

collector looking at a flower spike of micro orchids

Growing and hybridizing orchids has a laboratory phase. Some collectors specialize in miniature orchids, so small that the individual flowers are hard to see without a magnifier. I found a collector that paints orchids. Subjects just popped up as I explored the unique world of orchid collectors.

orchid seedling are checked

orchid seedling are checked in a commercial greenhouse

Post-production also came into play as I created studio portraits of blooms against a white background in the greenhouses. Editing was on ongoing process and accurate captions were critical for the article’s text.

collector paints orchids

collector paints orchids using the Chinese brush painting technique

expensive paphiopedilum orchid

expensive paphiopedilum orchid

Although this sounds like a lot of work—well, it was. The magazine did a great job laying out the images, however, making it all worthwhile. Try it yourself. Pick a topic and spend a month or two researching and photographing a narrow subject or location. You’ll be amazed how it forces you to be a more thoughtful and sensitive photographer and how much fun it can be. Then find a publisher. Think big!

If you are already shooting photo essays and have a favorite subject, share it with the group in the Comments Section. Thanks.


Portrait of San Juan Pueblo Deer Dancers

How To Manipulate Depth Of Field For Spectacular Portraits

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

During my years as a photography instructor, I have seen many great location portraits produced by my students. Great expression, nice lighting—they should be beautiful portraits, except for one major problem. The foreground, subject and background are all sharp. The images are so busy that the subject is overwhelmed by the surrounding details. It’s difficult for the viewer to know whether the subject or the location is the most important part of the photograph.

I think of this as the point-and-shoot camera effect where everything is in sharp focus.

There are subjects where everything in the frame should be sharp, such as the portrait of a Victorian couple in front of a Victorian building below, but portraits usually benefit from a shallow depth of field. Depth of field is defined as the area in front of and behind the plane of focus that is acceptably sharp. Human vision can’t actually see shallow depth of field. It’s an optical effect.

Portrait of Victorian couple, Cape May, New Jersey

Portrait of Victorian couple, Cape May, New Jersey, 28mm lens, f8 aperture

Shallow depth of field, however, is one of the most powerful tools in photography for separating a subject from its background. By capturing a sharp subject and letting the background go soft, you are telling the viewer of your image what is most important and what is less important. It’s a relatively simply effect to achieve, but you must take control of your camera and get away from letting your camera make photo decisions for you.

Portrait of vendor at Farmers Market

Portrait of vendor selling strawberries and lettuce, Farmer’s Market, 70mm lens, f2.8 aperture

First, set your camera to full Manual or at least Aperture Priority. The aperture, or f-stop, controls depth of field by changing the size of the opening in your lens. High f-stops numbers, like f16 or f22, create a tiny opening and lots of depth of field. A small f-stop number, f2.8 or f4, creates a large opening, or aperture, producing very shallow depth of field.

I know. It would be nice if big aperture numbers created big openings and small aperture numbers created small openings, but it’s the reverse. Blame the optical engineers. Maybe the easiest way to remember this is small f-stop, or aperture, numbers give you the least depth of field and higher numbers give the greatest depth of field. Once you start using this technique, it will quickly become second nature.

Portrait of young woman

Portrait of young woman, 100mm lens, f2.8 aperture

The lens aperture setting is not the only way to produce shallow depth of field in a photograph, however. The longer the focal length of a lens, the easier it is to get a sharp subject with a soft background as seem in the featured image of Deer Dancers above. A short telephoto has traditionally been the preferred portrait lens partly because of this ability to produce a soft background. A longer telephoto will produce an even softer background, making it easy to separate your subject from the background clutter. A wide angle lens, on the other hand, makes it difficult to soften your background.

Portrait of young Hispanic woman with flowers

Portrait of young Hispanic woman with flowers, 300mm lens, f2.8 aperture

 

One other technique for achieving shallow depth of field is moving the camera closer to your subject. It gets a little techie here. This is all about the relationship between camera to subject distance and camera to background distance. As you move the camera closer to your subject, the relative difference between subject distance and background distance becomes greater, producing a softer background. Check out this Depth Of Field Calculator, at http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html, to see the effects of f-stop, focal length and subject distance on depth of field. Change the lens focal length and f-stop to see how depth of field changes.

Portrait of traditional powwow dancer

Portrait of traditional powwow dancer, 200mm lens, f2.8 aperture

If you are like me, all of this technical stuff gives you the shivers, but it’s all good to know. As a working professional, I tend to walk around with my lens aperture “wide open” or set for shallow depth of field. I shoot many subjects, from people to sports and even food, with a shallow depth of field. I need a reason to “stop down” my aperture and create great depth of field. When you have to tell a story with each image, shallow depth of field makes it easy to show viewers what is the most important subject in an image and what is secondary—usually the background. This approach keeps things simple and takes control of this powerful tool away from the camera. Your camera is, after all, just a computer with a lens hanging off it. The best camera is the one inside your head. Control depth of field and rule your world—photographically speaking.

For more on posing subjects for portraits, see our earlier post “Shy Photographer’s Guide To Putting People At Ease”.


portrait of apple farmer

The Shy Photographer’s Guide To Putting Subjects At Ease

Have you ever found yourself putting on a long lens to photograph someone because you were too shy to approach them? Even if you brace up your courage and ask to photograph a stranger, how do you pose them? How do you put them at ease? How do you bring out their personality in an image? The answer is–it’s tough.

After years of photographing people on location for various magazines, I have found there are essentially 5 steps to the process of putting a model at ease in front of a camera.

portrait of a confident young woman on a bicycle

portrait of a confident young woman on a bicycle

Step 1: Discard the notion that you are the shooter and your subject is the target. Rather, start thinking about a portrait as a partnership or relationship between you and your subject. It’s a dialog. You only have thirty seconds or so to establish the necessary trust between the two of you. Show interest in what they do. Be respectful, but also curious. Get them talking about themselves and be a good listener. Get their focus off your lens and on to you.

portrait of wildlife rescuer and young opossums

portrait of wildlife rescuer and young opossums

Step 2: Have them hold something. People visibly relax in front of a camera if you give them something to do with their hands. There was a reason you asked to photograph this person. Give them a prop to hold that gives the viewer more info on what the person does or how they live.

portrait of a baker holding bread

portrait of a baker holding bread

Step 3: Ask how they would like to be photographed. I know, this is your photo, but don’t forget the partnership. Admittedly, sometimes their suggestions are not going to work well for your image, but sometimes the subject comes up with a brilliant idea. In any case, you will need to try all their suggestions just to maintain the trust you have established with them. This is a step many photographers skip, but the collaboration can sometimes produce a much stronger image.

portrait of a barista checking roasted coffee beans

portrait of a barista checking roasted coffee beans

Step 4: Compliment your model. Don’t go overboard on this and sound like a caricature of a fashion photographer. Just pick out something about them to compliment. Everyone likes a compliment. If they still seem a little stiff—harass them. I have found that kidding a subject about their mannerisms or attitude can loosen up some people much more effectively than a compliment. As a photographer, you need to “read” people quickly and be flexible in your approach.

portrait of restaurant hostess

portrait of restaurant hostess

Step 5: HAVE FUN! Before you start the shoot, work out the lighting, posing, depth of field and lens focal length in your head so you can concentrate on the relationship while shooting. If you worry about the technical stuff while you are shooting, the model will pick up on that tension. If both you and the model are having fun, it will show in the final images. As a bonus, I have walked away from shoots with strangers carrying all kinds of gifts, from cupcakes, bread, fresh eggs and chanterelle mushrooms to wine and even cookbooks. If it’s not fun, you are doing it all wrong.

portrait of young woman behind counter of cupcakes

portrait of young woman behind counter of cupcakes

Apply each of these steps to your next location portrait session and watch how your subject relaxes and develops the confidence to let their character peak out. It’s well worth the effort and you can finally move away from that nagging feeling that you are stealing someone’s portrait with a long lens ambush.