Shooting Heads

I love shooting portraits or ‘head shots’. i REALLY love, love, love shooting portraits! I guess this is one reason why I love the work of Richard Avedon, especially his work from the 50’s. I think I’ve always loved to shoot ‘heads’ but it took me about 10-15 years to realize it. I think you get the message, right? Lol!

To me there is something very pure about shooting portraits in a studio environment. There is you, the camera and your subject. There is so little ‘in the way’ allowing you to access the the heart ‘n’ soul of whoever it is you’re shooting.

I’m not going to spend much time on technique in this weeks blog. You can find do much info out there that my additions would likely be repetitive and boring! Then again….

Whenever I’m shooting portraits I always start with the eyes and when I say that I mean that as I ‘construct’ a shot I’ll start with the eyes. I think this is influenced by my fashion background, but who knows….. Or cares! Lol.

When shooting ladies and if at all possible, I’ll try to book a makeup artist. It is rarely possible to do this however so I will work with my clients on what ‘look’ they a seeking. One great trick if you’ve not got access to a makeup artist (MUA) is to use the services of the wonderful staff at MAC stores and counters. If my clients expressed the desire for ‘something different’ I’ve sent them off to the MAC store/counter many times and the results have always been stellar! All you have to do is buy product and hand over a tip!

Lighting, well can I put this clearly as it is a very complex subject? Oh yeah, KEEP IT SIMPLE! The best light you can get is window light so if you’re in a persons home and its not Alaska in winter, use the window, maybe a reflector. In a studio, windows might be harder to find so I mostly use one light with a “beauty dish” in your classic ‘Rembrandt’ style and maybe a reflector for the unlit side, depending on how much light or shadow I want there. That should be all, remember that all this ‘stuff’ can be very frightening and intimidating to those not used to photography.

Want some physics? Remember something called “The Inverse Square Law”, does that sound complex? Well it’s simply this. Twice the distance, a quarter the light. Great for moderating the shadow side of your portrait, just move the reflector in and out. Also great for turning a white background into a perfect 18% grey card. That’s for another day perhaps!

So it’s time to blow ones own trumpet lol.


I won’t bore you with the whys and when’s but this shot was taken at a time when I had VERY limited lighting kit. Basically a single off-camera strobe, an old SB-80 (bought at Harrods in London actually) and a bunch of reflectors. Add to that the fact that this shot was taken out doors in Arizona in Fall, which as any Arizonans will tell, is like other people’s high summer! I hope you like the image, I do. Now I’ll tell how it was done.

First, look for any natural shade. There were trees in this courtyard so that was easy. I just had to position her under the trees and i also found that in certain spots I could get nature to provide a little hair lighting? All good so far. However there were massive shadows under her eyes and this is where my multi-reflector set up came into its own. Fortunately there was no wind however you can deal with that in two ways, firstly get an assistant to hold your reflectors or use sandbags on your light stands.

The setup I got used the strobe on a light stand (I had an adapter) positioned to point into a big 48″ gold/silver reflector. The strobe was on manual of course and set to about 1/2 power. This gave me a wonderful big, soft, gold-tinted light, not a nasty pointy strobe light! Finally I positioned a Lastolite Triflector just out of shot under her chin, wrapping it around the unlit side of her face more than the ‘lit’ side for some fill. Voila!

So today’s one and only top tip is, never feel constrained by a perceived lack of equipment, get your thinking process going and you can achieve great things!! 🙂

I have a few book selections for those who want to explore. Firstly Scott Kelby’s “Professional Portrait Retouching Techniques” and also from Scott, “Light It, Shoot It, Retouch It” (hey Scott, any chance of some kickbacks here for all the times I’m plugging your books lol). Next up is Kevin Ames book “The Art of Photographing Women”. Remember who 90+% of your clients are and who need to be kept happy? 🙂 Finally, “The Luminous Portrait” by Elizabeth Messina which has some great tips and ideas and a very contemporary take on all things portrait including a little on wedding portraiture.

Next week, I’ve finally completed my led lighting project, explanations and pictures!


Gear: What I Use & Why It’s Not Important! aka The Vision Thing!

Like all photographers every so often I get comments like “wow, that’s a great image, what camera did you use?”. Now like anyone I love the flattery but the question really bugs me!

So I’m going to quickly run through the kit I have and then tell you why I have what I have. I’ve been ‘taking pictures’ for many years, MANY years so this is the distillation of all that trying, testing and experience.

I have used Nikon cameras for about 20 years, film and digital. I currently own a D2x, F100, D100, and D4 in no particular order! I have a Sigma 15mm, Sigma 20mm, Nikkor 28-70mm f2.8, Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 and Nikkor 85mm f1.8.

Lets start with the most unimportant part, but you’re thinking that it’s the most important part; the camera! If you have purchased a camera any time in the last 5-10 years you have a good camera! Period! Nikon, Canon and now thankfully Pentax AND Sony all produce great DSLR cameras! So that is taken care of, right?

So now the really important stuff. ‘kay, payin’ attention? The lenses or if you want to be a cool photographer guy, the glass!

Tip #1. My advice to any new photographer or anyone wanting to get serious or just wanting to take better pictures is “spend your money on your glass”. To give yourself the best chance of taking great images you need to have great flexibility and that means you need good, fast glass. f2.8 or faster means you can take shots in lower light than your f5.6 kit lens but crucially it means you can play in my favorite yard, selective focus.

It is magical when you have the ability to shoot a portrait with one eye in focus and one out of focus. You’ll start using worlds like bokeh with passion! Extra tip, bokeh is the fuzzy meaning word describing how an out of focus background looks e.g. that 85mm has great bokeh; sounds great at dinner parties btw)

I promised a “why” as to the kit I have so here goes. When I was buying lenses years ago and when I had the cropped sensor D100 and D2X I knew that eventually I would have a full frame camera, so I bought the best lenses I could afford.

Actually I bought the best lenses I couldn’t afford! It took a few years more than I thought but that leads us to the D4, which is a totally awesome camera by the way. You’ll find numerous reviews of it on the web so I’ll not bother adding my 2 cents. Now that investment in full frame good fast glass pays me back! My lenses now work the way they were supposed to. In particular my all time favorite, the 85mm f1.8. If you take portraits you HAVE to have either the f1.8 or f1.4 version of this lens. You just have to!

Tip #2, if you don’t have a fast 85mm BUY IT NOW! Get on eBay, auction a child, your wife, car, whatever but get this lens! See it’s all about perspective.

Tip #3 immediately follows, how many of you think that ’cause you have a cropped sensor camera, your 50mm lens is “just like a 75mm”? You’re wrong! What you’re seeing is just a crop of what you’d see with a 50mm lens. The perspective doesn’t change and when you’re shooting portraits perspective is everything! What you see when you shoot a headshot with a cropped sensor camera and a 50mm lens is a distorted view, in particular noses will look WAY too big! Shoot with a longer lens, even with a cropped sensor camera, and you’ll fix that perspective problem.

Tip #4, the really important one. It isn’t what you have, it’s the vision in your head! When you start to become a photographer, rather than someone taking pictures, you’ll realize a couple of things. Firstly, you’ll spend about 5% of your time actually taking pictures, next, you’ll spend the other 95% of your time THINKING about images.

When you start thinking about your images you’ll be starting to lose a focus on the technicals of your image making and begin to tell stories; you’ll be bonding more with your subjects and immediately your images will look so much better!

Back at the beginning of this post I talked about the question that bugged me. By now I think you can see why it bugs me! The camera DOESN’T matter, its your vision that matters more, then your lenses… the camera is WAY down the list of what matters!

So why do I have the latest Nikon, having spent this entire article telling you why the camera doesn’t matter. Well in certain situations the camera does matter BUT they are very specific. I love to shoot motor sports, I need a camera that can perform quickly, the D4 does, shooting up to 11 frames per second. When I’m panning on a Formula 1 car doing 150mph, I need that response.

High iso from the D4. Well I also shoot runway and those IDIOTS (LOL!) who design lighting for many runway shows (most notably NOT the really big events which are mostly, perfectly lit for photography) do not design it for the benefit of photographers. I will need to be shooting great looking images at iso settings of maybe 12,000! The D4 does that for me.

Finally, full frame! I want MY 85mm to BE an 85mm! You get that with full frame and fortunately now there are several cameras from Canon and Nikon which are reasonably priced and have full frame sensors!

So I know this column has bounced around a little but it was meant to get you thinking of the image, not the techy stuff! Get your vision firing and you won’t be so bothered about “camera envy” LOL!