Okay, I know, I know... you've probably heard all about these things in the past. Or you've watched any number of videos by photogs with their favourite things that they use every day and suggest that you need them too.
My list is the same, but different. Every item in my list gets used each and every time I shoot, whether in studio or on location. Some get used when photographing people and when shooting table-top or other still-life items. They are just that important. I'll post the details here and let you decide what appeals to you. Hopefully you get some value here, and maybe, just maybe, your life will be 1 to 3% more rewarding because of it.
Okay, so here goes.
Clamps come in many different sizes and strengths. I use two sizes, one about 3 inches and the other about 6.
They are invaluable for holding cards, fabric, cables, props and sometimes even clothing in position.
I use them to hold up my background cloth on to a horizontal pole. I use them to position tiny reflectors on tables for shooting product.
I even use one to hold a dark card over my monitor to keep glare off of the screen from the ceiling light. It's pretty ghetto, but much cheaper than a store-bought version. $8 vs $200.
Specifically, lighting gels that are mounted on lights in order to change the light colour or quantity.
They come in a myriad of different colours, and strength of colours. I bought a small pack that fits in a pocket, to mount on my speedlights this year. Amazing move on my part as it gives me more opportunity for creative results.
I also have large sheets that I can mount on larger lights or even cut down with scissors to fit specific lights more precisely.
If I want to control light without changing the colour, I can use neutral density filtering gels, or polarizing gels on the lights. The former reduces light reaching the subject, while the latter polarizes the light to help remove reflections from shiny surfaces. Specifically oil paintings. Used in conjunction with a circular polarizer on my lens, I have much needed control when photographing artwork.
I would highly recommend learning about gels and grab a set for your lights, at least to experiment with.
I have 5 stands that I use both here in studio, and while out in the big wild world. Since I only use speedlights currently, my stands are mostly light-weight stands that reach to about 6-7 feet.
I will use the stands to hold lights as I said, and a background kit in addition to holding cards or reflectors.
My biggest stand, which I grabbed this year, is a heavy-duty and fairly hefty beast that has a tilting extension arm. This give me the versatility to be able to put light up and over my subject when the need arises. This year I bought it to enable me to use a large softbox over top of motorcycles for a personal project I am involved with. I was lucky to be able to source this stand from an importer and saved almost 50% off of retail. The deals are out there if you take the time to look.
4. Gaffer Tape
When you see the credits at the end of a movie, you may notice a job title that is "Gaffer". It's this person who is responsible for controlling a large amount of the grip equipment for the lights etc. They always have rolls and rolls of gaffer tape on their belts and in their vehicles.
This tape is strong, sticky and really imperative for holding things when a clamp will not be suitable. The great part is that it doesn't leave a residue when being removed. It comes in different roll sizes and widths. I would suggest wrapping a few inches on your tripod leg just to have it available. It's great for controlling cables, positioning small objects on tables (mirrors, reflectors) and all sorts of other uses. The large rolls go for about $25 and will last at least a few years. Black is the standard as it doesn't reflect light, but blue and red come in handy too.
5. White and black card
On more than one occasion I have had to use a 18x24" white card (foamcore) to bounce light into my scene as it gave a more flattering light than a straight flash. I even used this technique for the cover of a magazine shoot a while ago.
Black cards are ideal for controlling light that is bouncing into your scene as they absorb light. They also can be great for blocking light from striking your lens and ruining the shot. In this case they are called a "flag".
I've also used cards to change the light by cutting random pockets or shapes in then and shining light through them in order to give variety to my background when a dull background needed spicing up.
So remember this, white cards bounce light and black ones block it. You can find them at Dollar stores, some office supply stores and they are really inexpensive. Buy a bunch.
Reflectors do exactly as the name implies. They reflect light.
These can be something simple such as a small white piece of paper, or a folding commercially made reflector that zips up into a pouch.
In fact your hand can be a reflector, as can a white shirt or a small hand mirror.
Ideally, a reflector is exactly what works for the job at hand.
Small objects sometimes need tiny mirrors to achieve the goal, large objects, such as cars, obviously need large reflectors in order to bounce light in a useful way.
Different colour of reflectors will give you different results. A purple reflector will produce a purple result on your subject. It's a fact that light takes on the colour of the object it hit. That's basically how we can perceive colour. If you wanted to show that a white egg is actually green, and you didn't have a green lighting gel, grab a green reflective card from the dollar store and shine a daylight balanced light on it. It will bounce onto the egg as a green light. You're welcome.
These simple items are always getting used in my work.
If you find value in this little bit of info, please consider sharing with your crew. Knowledge is power.
Having a comfortable and functional home studio can give you a leg up as a creative who needs space but can't justify spending money on rent.
Some of us are lucky enough to have an extra room in our home in which we could set up, even temporarily, a set of lights and a backgrounds stand. It doesn't have to be that big. In my case I work in a space which is no bigger than 6 by 10 feet. In this space I can photograph a single person quite comfortably and even set up a table for shooting small product and artwork. Both of which I have done.
Okay, so let's say you don't have an extra room. Do you have a room in which you could shove furniture aside and make presentable for a couple of hours of shooting? Even if it means dragging a Laz-y-Boy out of the way and hiding the kids toys? When you need the room to get your pics done, you'll find a way. What I'm saying is that if you have any sort of clean space in which you can set up your equipment, that is the perfect space. Make it happen.
The best thing about it is that it is free and you don't have to travel to do it.
A word of advice, make sure that your subject has a private and clean space in which they can change clothes. Whether that is a spotless washroom, tidy bedroom or amazing walk-in closet. It doesn't matter, as long as it continues the image of clean and respectable and gives them absolute privacy. That's all that really matters.
You could go a step further and point out the extra hangers for their clothes, the unopened bottle of sparkling water, clean tissues, amazing makeup mirror (and lighting), clothing steamer (for wrinkles) and that sort of thing. All of these little extras can make your client/model feel all the more respected and valued. Expressing value is important when it comes to your brand and being able to charge decent rates for your work.
Portrait photography lighting, in its essence could be deemed successful if the person was shot completely in silhouette. Case in point, the portrait above of local painter, Paul Nabuurs was shot against a large window. No light illuminated him, but two flashes picked out features of his paintings. The window light backlit him, and helped to define his shape
People who know Paul, recognize him for his head shape and more specifically for his beard. (he has since moved into a much larger studio space)
Lighting techniques for illuminating a person, are so varied that entire books have been penned regarding them. Suffice it to say that you could try a different technique every week for your entire career and get a different result every time.
I for one am enamoured with the use of LED lights and motion as a way to bring about the feeling of spirit, energy, life. This image of Bruce in my tiny studio incorporates just that technique. We tried different types and speeds of motion with a second light (small flash) to pick out his neck tattoo each time. You will notice that even though his facial features are somewhat blurred, his tatt is relatively sharp. This is the action of the low-output flash with a tight cone mounted on it.
I use this technique quite often in my experimental work as I find it helps me express myself and my approach to recording people as they truly are. Living beings, not statues.
Further to that, being able to express that fact that my subjects are usually living (I hope), I sometimes feel the need to have them move during the exposure. Here, Samara humours me by rapidly flipping her head right to left and back again. A single flash hits the b/g while another flash with a purple gel shoots through an umbrella. Even more, I am holding an LED bulb over camera that is tinted with a mustard coloured gel. The resulting colour mix is beautiful, as you can see. The long exposure of 1/5th second gives me a bit of blur, while the flash freezes some of the image.
Experimenting with lighting is my way of metaphorically adding a new spice to the stew. Giving up and shooting like everybody else, is simply not an option. I encourage you to try it as well.
Send me a note and I'll share my list of resources for gels and lights.
Creating self portraits in your photography is not only healthy, but valuable as you learn to appreciate the experience from the other side of the camera.
One may be most comfortable as the shooter, but that tends to make a person complacent and less able to be understanding of what a portrait subject may be going through. Especially a subject who is rarely in front of the lens.
Self portraits give you the valuable gift of empathy.
I believe that every photographer who does people portraits should regularly spend time creating self portraits as part of their sensitivity training. I do it every month in my tiny studio. Luckily I can close and lock my door to keep the family out. Having repeated interruptions, whether shooting portraits or otherwise, is an annoying and stress inducing problem with having a home-based studio.
Self portraits can be achieved anywhere, really. Just look at all those folks doing "selfies" on the bus, next to a cliff, on a balcony (just inches from death). Making a studied and controlled self portrait is just one step further. It's a "serious selfie". One that matters. It may never see the light of day beyond your camera's LCD or your monitor, but that doesn't matter. You could of course, have your best examples printed and filed in a monthly labeled file folder. At the end of the year, pull them out and analyze and compare the images from month to month. Have you grown as a photographer? How did you change your lighting style or your angle of view? Maybe you will see that you tend to favour a high angle over a low approach to your subject.
Making notes of what you are doing is a way of keeping track and seeing first hand how you have grown as an artist. Hopefully you have grown. And that's the point of self portraits. Knowing what the experience is like for the sitter. Giving you a first hand appreciation of having a camera pointed at your face, having lights in your eyes, flashes popping every second or so.
One could also go one step further and have a seasoned pro make photos of you too. You could completely give into the situation and not have to think about the photographer's role. Become a true portrait subject. Take direction. Interact with the photographer, who is not yourself.
This approach is the ultimate in learning empathy for your portrait subjects.
I would highly advise every people photographer to indulge your curiosity and become the subject at least once a month if possible.
Nadav Kander, to me, is much more than your average Joe Blow photographer.
When I look at one of his portraits, I am first taken by the subject of the picture.
After this, I consider the technique of how this image was made.
Colours, textures, light treatment.
It all treats me to a visual celebration that is distinctly the work of this tall, soft spoken Israeli expat.
Nadav's work makes the viewer see the subject while appreciating the feelings that inevitably rise to the surface. The portraits are not about cameras and lenses, Photoshop or filters. These images are about emotion, life, feeling, place, origin, character. As he has indicated, his work is metaphorically like chocolate cake. With mustard. I agree.
I look to his work when I want to feel something. His images are moments in time being presented for you to respond to in whatever way you deem to be appropriate at that moment. His portrait work celebrates not only the subject, but also the way in which the viewer responds, reacts.
He doesn't talk about technique, camera models, lens aberrations, post-processing. None of that matters in his work. His work is that of an artist, with a camera. He is an artist with a camera, creating work that means something.
I aspire to be able to create work that is stylistically and distinctly mine, but work that has the power to instigate thought in the viewer, just as his does. Those of us who are privileged to be aware of his work, will undoubtedly be impacted by it. I certainly am. Having learned of his work just last year, I have noticed a difference in my portrait work. A more cohesiveness and work that has a deeper meaning than those of simple portraits. From here, I can only grow. From here, I can become a true artist.
Are polarizers just for landscape pictures?
When I am out on a sunny day, shooting an interesting scene, I always have my polarizer and my ND (neutral density) filters packed in my kit.
Having these small filters gives me the opportunity to reproduce the image of what I am seeing, so accurately for the viewers that they feel like they were with me too.
Sure, much can be done in post-production, using the wonders of accurate modern software (just like one did in the darkroom), but for me, getting it perfect in camera is part of the process. It gives me the satisfaction that I've used the tools at hand to get a better image with minimal manipulation of those tiny little pixels.
Shooting landscapes that include water, bright snow, a colour-rich sky, can all be made better and more intense by using your polarizer. There are many instructional videos, books and blog posts that cover the how-to of polarizer use. So finding the best information can be a bit daunting, and sometimes completely incorrect. Tread lightly and be sure to consult worthy resources. For example, the makers of polarizers, or scientific studies that deal with them is probably the best bet. After that, I would consult the words of seasoned photographers who routinely use them.
Other than shooting landscapes, another great and sometimes essential use of these tools is when photographing paintings and other shiny artworks. The reason being is that some paintings, primarily oils, are finished with a varnish which preserves the paint and keeps the vitality of the colours strong and impressive. The varnish is highly reflective. This can be detrimental when trying to record the art using lights of any variety.
Attaching a circular polarizer on the camera lens, and adding polarizing sheets on the lights, will reduce or remove completely the glare that lights produce as it skims off the shiny varnished surface. By turning the polarizer while previewing the image in the camera, the photographer can see the glare being reduced. It would be important also to note that polarizers will absorb a portion of the light, and may also alter the colour slightly. Accommodations will have to be made with respect to these conditions.
In my work, I always use a Color Checker Passport to make sure my colour and exposure are accurate. Since each camera colour bias is unique, it is important to do this for each camera body you may use, and for each lighting condition. If you are shooting with LED lights, be sure to do a colour profile for your LED lights from month to month as bulbs change colour over time. The same goes for incandescent, fluorescent, flash etc. Each bulb has its own colour temperature. I would avoid mixing lights to photograph art because of this sort of thing.
While these filters can be expensive, if you are using them repeatedly and take care of them, it would be a worthy investment as it will save you time in post-production. A circular filter should average about $80 depending on size, and the sheets for lighting run about $70 for a 17x20 inch sheet. If you are shooting with flash, this is much more than required. You could cut pieces of polarizing film to fit your flashes, and sell the remainder to make a profit. I'll leave that up to you though. At the end of the day, quality polarizers make for better pictures and saved time.
Photographers in my opinion, who stop #experimenting and playing with lighting, subject matter and different approaches, will probably at some point feel stagnant and lacking motivation. From many sources I've heard that lack of creativity is a big problem amongst photographers who have been at it for a considerable time. The solution, or perhaps one solution, is to constantly be trying new things.
I like to grab a subject that I normally wouldn't be photographing and put it to the test. I think of a scenario or problem, and figure out a way to shoot the subject so that it stands out from how we would normally see it.
Picking the appropriate lighting, the angle, the background and all that sort of thing comes next. Usually after researching 30 to 100 images of this sort of subject matter, I will see a similarity amongst the images and how they were approached. From there, I will look at a potential opposite approach.
Take for example, this guitar pick. For the most part they (picks) are photographed with a broad open light while laying on a flat surface. The camera is either straight over head or at a 45 degree angle. There are no props, no styling, not colour influence or creative lighting. The shots are boring and repetitive.
In my approach I wanted the pick to be revered and respected. So I put it on a pedestal and lit it in a dramatic fashion. I also dropped the camera down low, to show the pick as something unique and worthy of notice. The goal is to set the image apart from the status quo and make people stop and appreciate it. After all, for a commercial picture, isn't that the ultimate goal? To be noticed?
The point of the project is to use your brain and all your experience in a different way. Doing so will keep you from falling into a creative rut, and will ultimately serve you well in all of your photography work.
Don't be afraid to dedicate some time to stretching your creative brain cells. They need exercise just as much as your belly. I know mine does.
So have at it. Go find a subject that you wouldn't normally work with and build a scenario that forces you to use different skills, equipment, approaches etc. Make images just for yourself. It will always benefit you in the end.
Photo-Artist working a personal vision.
For those of us interested in better marketing techniques, get this book.