How I Got The Shot: Portrait Style

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Whenever I see “How I Got The Shot” articles, they are typically landscape or nature shots, or difficult lighting situations.  Rarely do you see a detailed account of the taking of a portrait image.  Maybe because for portrait shots, it’s often more about the connection between subject and photographer than the technicals, or maybe because it seems fairly straightforward.  That said, when I was first starting out in portrait photography, I spent many hours drooling over beautiful images I admired and wondering how they had been taken, and more importantly, how could I try to take something similar.

This article will not only discuss the technical accepts of the shot and the editing process, but also the interaction I had with the subject, which was key to this, and every shot I’ve ever taken.

Portrait Style

This beauty is Madeleine and these images are from her high school senior photo shoot taken last September.  I don’t often shoot this type of portrait. But, I say the same thing about weddings and dogs and yet I’ve photographed both in the last week, so maybe I should just face the fact that if you are lovely and ask me real nice, I’ll shoot just about anything.  Except food.  Food photography freaks me out.  Life is hard enough without having to make sure sesame seeds are all in the perfect place, or that there is just the right amount of shine on an edge of cheese.

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Madeline has studied dance on and off and had just started pointe dancing prior to this shoot, so incorporating her new pointe shoes into a few shots was something she wanted to try.

Technical stuff – gear

These images were shot at Boulder, Colorado’s Chautauqua Park in the rain, near sunset. I was likely wearing a black t-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops if you want to get the full visual, but I doubt that mattered much because 90% of the time I am wearing a black t-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops. Probably of more interest to you was the gear. I travel light and I’m not into fancy equipment (my money is better spent on quality flip-flops), so this was shot with my faithful Canon 5D and my workhorse/splurge Canon 50mm f/1.2L which rarely leaves my camera body.  I typically don’t use a lens hood, and didn’t here as I like a little flare.

The image below that I will detail was shot in Aperture priority mode (f/2.5). I could possibly wax poetic about my camera, the settings, and lighting and other technical components for a few more paragraphs but it is truly not necessary. Here, as with most portrait photography, the details of how this image came to be were driven by the subject matter: the location choice was her favorite park; the jump was something that she felt she could do and a way to incorporate the dance element that I felt was least awkward and most genuine; and the settings were dictated by the need to shoot towards the mountains.

An argument could be made that this isn’t a true portrait, unlike the image I’ve shown above. An argument could also be made that flip flips aren’t real shoes. But they get me from point A to point B, are extremely comfortable, and allow for me to continue my hatred of anything on my feet. A portrait is a documenting someone’s likeness. This is a picture of a 17 year old girl that does ballet, has a beautiful free spirit, and mountain living in her DNA. I can’t think of a better way to document her likeness.

The Process

Let’s start with the Straight Out Of Camera (SOOC) image

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Other than minor editing to her skirt, this is exactly what the world looked like in my camera. I shot this in RAW and converted it to jpg in Photoshop. My settings were not spot on, and there are flaws. The most glaringly obvious flaw, being that focus on the subject is soft at best.  I mean, really soft–clouds and fluffy bunny rabbits soft. There were other images in this sequence where the focus was much sharper. But in those, I didn’t care for arm placement, or light, or a hundred other picky details. I could have taken the sharpest one of the bunch and edited it to perfection, completely changing or correcting things, turning something unreal into reality. Some photographers would may do that, but I am not going to fight for either side of that battle today. This is a picture of a girl jumping in mid-air and if you are looking at that happening in real life, it’s not going to look sharp as a tack. This is an image worthy of being delivered to the client, soft focus or not.

Image clean up

The first thing I always do to an image during the editing process is clean it up if necessary. This park is always crowded, and waiting for random people to be out of the shot isn’t an option I like because the entire mood could change. I also don’t like to use Photoshop to drastically change anything (as mentioned earlier when I refused to do Photoshop Plastic Surgery on a sharper image), but here the lessor of two evils is just to remove the innocent bystanders from the image entirely in post-production. Beyond the hikers, there are a few other elements that are distracting including the trail markers, which only take away from her being in midair.

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Things to clean up in Photoshop

Warm up!

This was not the first image we shot. People take time to warm up. If I had asked her right off the bat to leap as high as she could, without care as to who was watching or how she would do it, or what it would look – she wouldn’t have been comfortable enough to even try it. We started with some basic face-only shots, worked up to some dance poses in the shoes, and then found a spot where she felt comfortable enough to jump. Because of this, I didn’t have a lot of options for the exact frame. This was the flattest and least rocky area for the jump to be safe and successful.

Whenever I attempt an action portrait shot, I do several things the same when interacting with the subject: 

#1 – I always watch them the first time with my own eyeballs.  

I don’t even touch my camera. Not only do I need to see the entire view without the limits of a viewfinder, I need to earn their trust that I am interested in what they’re doing, with or without the picture. Then after encouragement, I make it clear that we may have to try this several times; she may not nail the jump, but then again I may not nail the shot, successful jump or not. To give you an idea, for the five jumps she did, I have 32 shots taken over the course of about 8 minutes.

#2 – this is typically the only time I break my rule of never letting a client see the image in the back of my camera.

For an action shot like this, I shoot until I have an image I like and then show my subject. It’s their action, their talent, their special trick. I have no idea how to leap in the air like this; I want to know that whatever they are doing is coming out as they envisioned it, or at least that they are happy with how it is likely to turn out. I, like most of the people who will view this, have no idea if this jump is technically correct in the world of pointe dance. That one ballet class I took in the first grade didn’t really cover much beyond how to stand straight in a tutu. However, in the moment I remember questioning even photographing this considering I didn’t know what to look for. In those moments, it’s best to realize that the only thing you should be looking for is a great image—you’re not always qualified to look for much else.

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After image clean up

Most important – subject’s comfort level!

Now that I have cleaned up the things that didn’t need to be there and adjusted my exposure a bit, I will tell you the most important technical piece of this image: none of it matters. It really doesn’t. Why? I’m glad you asked. Even if I had the fanciest equipment available, perfect light, sharp eyes, and sturdy flip-flops, there is no way I could have gotten this shot if Madeleine didn’t feel comfortable. Not only is she fairly new to pointe dancing, she is a teenage girl. The most important thing I brought to this shoot was an ability to make her feel comfortable, a ton of patience, and an honest desire for her to love these pictures.

Without those things, this image and every other one I shot that day, don’t happen. For me, portrait photography is 95% people skills and 5% equipment. Maybe even a little luck thrown in for good measure. But we still need to make it sing the tune it was meant to carry. Throw in a little sparkle.  Wave the magic wand a bit. Put a layer of frosting on this cake.  Everyone loves frosting–I don’t know if I could trust someone that doesn’t.

Final touches in Photoshop

I started with a manual adjustment in Photoshop with Levels, a quick sharpener with the oddly named Unsharp Mask (60% and 2.0 pixels is my go-to setting), and then removed a few stray raindrops that were showing on her dress.  I opted to leave the framing the way I shot it—I like the bit of shadow you see of her legs in the bottom left corner, and I like where she is in relationship to the mountains in the background.

Now for the fun part: I use a few actions to kick-up the color and clarity a notch on most of my images. I like Totally Rad and the Pioneer Woman’s actions quite a bit and over the years have managed to customize my favorites to exactly what I like, saving me a great deal of time. Here I have used a few actions to both sharpen the color and also warm it up a bit, to give a nod to the sun flare that was already there. In doing so, I lost a bit of my sky detail, but I don’t miss it. Here is the finished version of the image:

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And voila! It’s just that easy. Years of ballet lessons, a scheduled photo shoot, waiting out a rainstorm, getting to the perfect jump, and a bit of editing. Oh internet, I kid.

This is an image that I love. This is an image that my client loved. Will it end up in a magazine or be noticed by people beyond those that love Madeleine, and obviously anyone reading this? No. But it’s a shot that I am proud of. It’s a great example of the kind of portrait photography I like to do and a lovely addition to my portfolio. It happily hangs on a wall in my office, where it will stay as a reminder that not all beautiful and loved shots are technically perfect and portrait photography is a lot more than a camera and a pretty girl.

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