I will be the first to tell you that the camera type/model, equipment used are not what makes for great portraits.  The photographers eye, creativity and a stronghold understanding of basic theory giving control over what is captured will ultimately make that equipment shine.  Imagine handing off the most insanely fast stick shift race car to someone who can’t drive “stick” and see how fast his lap times are (or if he even completes a lap).  So, with that in mind, a pro photographer should be able to pick up just about any camera and with a 2-3 hour peruse of the user’s manual should be back in his element, right?  Maybe, but what he can’t prepare for are those subtleties that can throw you off a bit.  Even ergonomics play a role as professional photographers use their cameras so much, that the button positions are in their subconscious.  This was on my mind when I recently jumped ships with camera systems (Canon to Nikon), and incorporated some new lighting equipment/styles into my workflow as well.   I wanted to test all this stuff out in a “safe” environment, where I would have time to experiment. What I needed was a model both patient and easy to photograph, so I could smooth out the hiccups that could be embarrassing during one of my “not reshootable” sessions!  My friend Nia not only fit the above, but also has an incredible sense of style and has a creative background herself.  Add in that she has a beautifully exotic look & fantastic skin tone, and she was the obvious choice.

We went downtown and it was a very cold day.  It must have been a comical sight to see Nia- (this fashion queen)- wearing my ugly wool vintage army inspired coat over her petite dresses.    I had her following me for miles in her 10” heels.  (she has short woman’s syndrome- she mentioned “I’m 5’2.5” but it says 5’3” on my license”). She was a trooper though, and I never heard a whisper of a complaint (Race car driving, loud music and flying small planes has killed my high pitch hearing though)

In the photos below, I will share some of the theory and thought behind each of the captures.  Due to the nature of this session, no assistant was used, the images aren’t retouched and are pretty much raw files converted.

These first 4 images were shot under the Edison bridge.  Lights were gelled with a 1/8 ctb to correct for the higher wavelength of diffused sun to balance skin tone in the shadows.  I used the inverse  converging lines of the bridge to draw the viewer to Nias face.

This next set came out about as good as I could expect by myself.  The colors aren’t photoshopped.  Just good old technique and mixing the color temp of the lights to the warm tones of the night, and proper in camera kelvin settings created this stunning effect.  The goal in the first one was to take the beautiful warm tones of the sky and create a color but monochromatic effect by using the gold dress. In the others we used the aqua scarf to draw attention to her face, or the jacket to tie with the dock posts. Setting ambient to a base iso of 64, 1/100th sec and f 5ish, gave good separation of subject to background.  The one thing I would change would have been to take two photos for each capture.  One with an assistant “in frame” for lighting Nias’ face, and another without, in which I would remove the assistant post processing.  This would soften the light a bit and eliminate any hard shadows on her neck.


This next image (with my butterfly lighting pattern) must have been hysterical to watch.  I had to hold the camera with one hand and a strobe that was barn doored and held high overhead with the other.  For effect, I did it standing on one leg in a crouching tiger pose. (Nia looks unphased in this photo partly because she is into martial arts and sees it done properly all the time, and partly because she knows me well enough to be callous to my silly antics.)

My next “great idea” had Nia rock climbing on slippery mossy rocks in her high heels.  Of course, her hand is holding her head in this photo, thinking, “man what have I gotten myself into”. Even with that in mind, for reasons I’m not sure I can explain, this is my favorite photo of the session.  So much so, that I did a little retouching on this one.  I changed the rocks which were mossy green to the brown that they are now.  This is also one of those shots that highlights the muscle of the new Nikon as even though it was quite dark, I was able to bring out shadow detail that would not have been faintly possible with the old system.  As far as my vision for this image, the attempt was to have the  graduated orange to blue background to be symbiotic to  Nias warm skin to her blue shoes.  Black dress being a neutral.

By the time we got to the next spot, it was pretty dark, which allowed me to sample the low light performance of the new Nikon.  Goal was to center Nia between a set of uprights and use the rest for vanishing effect.  The evening blue light cast just enough tone on the metal to be complimentary to the dress.  Nia also had some blue tones added to her hair by her stylist, which seem to tie this look all together.

By the time we took these last photos, it was pitch black and and my creative juices were fully flowing.   Capturing this first image took the use of 3 lights.  One from slightly camera right,  one to her front and one from behind adding to a flare effect. For the first and second image,  I did use a filter in post processing to give the harsh textures “just enough” smoothness.  I am definitely no sports photographer and  I’m surprised Nia’s head didn’t fly off with the number of times I had her flinging her head before I nailed this shot!  The color theory here was to have the foreground wall blend with her skirt and her top tie in with the background.  We literally wheeled around a suitcase Nia had full of clothes, so getting these color ideas materialized was all the easier (told you she was a fashion queen!)

The last two were shot straight into the wall with a side light skimming over it to enhance the texture.  The attempt was an edgy urban look. Harshness of shadow was intentional, however if I had to do it again, I would have had an assistant scrim her face so I could light it from the short side to eliminate the hair shadow. A filter was used post capture to aid in the urban grunge look.

O.K. so those of you that know Nia, know how fun and smiley she is.  As you see in these photos, while in my testing mode, I managed to pretty much bore her to death.  But wait, I did git a slight grin with the tiger crouch thing!


Amongst what I hope to be weekly blogs, Stay tuned for others of experimental nature for test purposes. Providing she can spare the time (she runs a business with her husband, mother of two active kids, and a martial arts expert), Nia will be back.

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