Please welcome today’s guest writer and Olympus Visionary, Joe Edelman, to Steve’s Digicams. Joe graciously offered to share his tips for improving your portrait photography, and I, of course, said yes. If you’re interested in reading more about Joe’s gear, check out our reviews of the Olympus OM-D E-M1X and M.Zuiko F1.2 prime lenses. Here’s Joe:
I love to photograph people! As a portrait photographer, I am blessed with the opportunity to meet many fascinating people from all walks of life. While I love what I do, most portraits have boundaries – a set of rules. It is important to always know WHY my subject wants or needs the portrait to ensure the image I create will meet their needs. The answer to WHY dictates the things that I can and cannot do in the image.
Fashion portraits are a creative opportunity to break the rules and to make choices simply because they look cool or because I just feel like it! Even more importantly, fashion portraits give me an opportunity to collaborate with other creative people. Don’t ever forget that your subject is a very important part of the creative process. After all, we can’t make the picture without them. A willing subject who will work with your idea and bring their own creativity to the project helps to take your work to the next level.
New photographers often ask me what rules they have to follow to create a great fashion portrait. There are NO RULES! My sincere suggestion – experiment and fail. That’s right: FAIL! As a photographer, if you aren’t failing – you’re not learning. Failure is simply a part of the process.
Since we all like to avoid as much failure as possible, here are a few tips to get you started:
Make Small Changes with Big Impact
As with any portrait, it is best to work with a makeup artist. In order to have cool, creative makeup looks, you will need a talented artist to collaborate with. Unfortunately, for many beginner and intermediate photographers, a makeup artist is not in the budget. This doesn’t mean that you can’t shoot fashion portraits, it just means that you have to take a different creative approach. The easiest solution = PROPS and interesting OUTFITS.
Even with a simple pair of sunglasses, we can turn a basic portrait into a fashion portrait. I routinely shop the clearance sections at my local fabric store and the clearance aisle at Walmart and Target for inexpensive materials or outfits or hats that can help me create a shot. Amazon is also a great source for inexpensive props and costume pieces.
As you can see in the example below, we can take a simple high-key portrait shot and by pulling the model’s hair back into a ponytail and adding a simple pair of sunglasses, we can give the shot a fashion feel. Also, by going to a lower camera angle we can add drama.
This simple high-key portrait was turned into a fashion portrait by putting the model’s hair in a ponytail and adding glasses. Then for the third version, a lower camera angle was used to add more drama by looking up at the model. The white square in the sunglasses is the reflection of a 24 in. square softbox that was used to light the shot. Or we can simply add a hood and then change to a darker background and add a blue gel. The possibilities are almost endless.
Another high-key portrait where I added a top with a built-in hood (purchased on Amazon for 6 dollars). For the third version, I changed the background to black and used a background light with a blue gel to create the glow behind the subject.
Pay Attention to the Little Details
“Success in photography is in the details!” Messy hair with flyaways, harsh shadows, unflattering shiny skin, twisted straps, hair ties on a model’s wrist…these are all examples of a photographer not paying attention to the details and creating a sloppy image. Beauty images and fashion portraits that you see in magazines and advertisements are slick and clean and nothing is out of place.
Slow down. Examine your test shots carefully for things that are out of place.
Remember – once you push the button, you can’t blame the model or your makeup artist or the weather or the outfit…. Nobody made YOU push the button. Pay attention to the little details and your images will stand out from the crowd.
The simplicity of this shot requires that the makeup application is flawless and that there are no flyaways or stray hairs.
I love the idea of calm in the middle of chaos. A beautiful face surrounded by blowing hair or waving material makes for a dramatic and visually stunning image. There are a lot of ways to add motion to an image. Try using a fan to blow material, shutter drag (combining flash and ambient light and dragging your shutter) or having your subject flip their hair. Experiment!
Here, we placed a fan on the floor behind the model to blow the material up and forward to create a random and chaotic frame around the model.
A 20” x 30” white foam board (get them at a Dollar Store) is all that you need to blow the model’s hair up and away from her face. Fans are not the best way to do the blowing hair effect – they tend to be too powerful and create too much chaos in addition to making your model’s eyes tear up. The board does require an assistant, but you will have more control and it won’t cause your model to cry and mess up her makeup.
Don’t Be Afraid of Black & White
We live in a colorful world and I am definitely a fan of bright, bold colors, which is a great reason to shoot in black and white from time to time. A well-executed black and white image will stand out from the crowd and grab a viewer’s attention.
Even though we can create a black and white image with one click in today’s digital world, I still switch my color mode to black and white so that I see my preview in black and white in the viewfinder. This way I can see the actual grayscale and contrast range and I have confidence that it will make a striking black and white photo.
This is a simple one-light shot with the model placed about two feet in front of a white wall. The continuous light comes from a softbox on camera left so that it doesn’t cast a shadow behind her. A slow shutter speed allowed the ends of the hair to create motion as they were blown by the camera-left fan.
All of these tips work for natural light shooting as well. In fact, in natural settings, switching to black and white is sometimes the best solution when you find a great background and the color scheme doesn’t match your subject’s attire.
Work Your Shot
I always walk onto the set with an idea of how I want my finished shot to look. That idea is the catalyst that will lead me to the final shot that is even better than my imagination. Don’t be the photographer who shoots five or ten frames and then says “next!”
You aren’t that good. I am not that good. Nobody is that good!
It’s not like we are shooting film where every frame costs money. Explore, try things, experiment. Some of the changes may be simple like switching from a vertical composition to a horizontal one or trying a tighter crop. Some changes may involve adding or subtracting things from the shot. Maybe try black and white. Try different camera angles, different colored gels or backgrounds. The list goes on.
I always work my shot to find a version of my idea that surprises and excites. Then I know I have it. It’s not uncommon for me to shoot several hundred frames of any of my ideas before I get to the perfect shot.
All eight of these shots were done in a 15-minute time span during a stage demonstration for Olympus at the PhotoPlus Expo in New York. For gear, we used just two lights, a blue gel, some sparkly material, and a sun visor.
Bonus Tip: HAVE FUN!
If you aren’t having fun – what’s the point? And remember… Your BEST shot is your NEXT Shot!
This fiery look was created using the LIVE Composite mode on my Olympus OM-D E-M1X camera. Using multiple half-second exposures, I was able to expose the model with a flash and then paint streaks of light in the background and foreground using a handheld RGB light wand from Savage Universal.