Portrait Photography: My First Studio Shoot

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Tyler, our model for the day.

I decided it was time to update to a full SLR camera. My camera has been great for the past seven years. It had a full manual mode which gave a lot of creative control to me. It was also small and easy to take along on the motorcycle. The lens was fairly flexible for what it was ranging from wide angle for landscapes to tight macro work. The problem though is that pictures had a lot of grain, as a limited amount of light could get back to the sensor, and you were stuck with a fixed lens.

Since updating from the Canon G11 to the 5D I now have a camera that is more capable than my last one for different areas of photography. I’ve done a lot of landscape work and some macro photography. Portrait photography though is hard to come by. With landscape photography trees, mountains, and the sky are always there. Likewise with macro photography subjects are usually freely available. With people however first you need to find someone to photograph. Then you need to build trust with them that you will use their images in a manner suitable to the person being photographed.

Meetup is really a great platform. The idea is simple: a meetup organizer commits to creating a real community of people around himself using their platform. People can start whatever meetups the want: new moms, motorcycle riders, weight loss, religion, whatever. In most major cities people have a number of options to choose from. As one can imagine photography meet ups in the Bay Area abound. What surprised me is the number of opportunities available for portrait photography. When I saw one event that hosted a model that seemed cool I jumped on the opportunity.

I was totally green in this entire space. I’ve taken snapshots of people that never actual portrait photographs in the studio. The group could not have been better. The host was generous with his knowledge as well as the other group members. I asked a lot of questions to test their patience. 🙂 The host gave us a radio transceiver to put into the flash hot shoe that would communicate with the studio lighting equipment. He also told us what ISO, aperture and f-stop to use. All I had to do was aim the camera and press the shutter button.

The format was not what I expected. We had five sessions with the model. Each session was private and lasted about 2 to 3 minutes each. Having had most of my experience in landscape work it takes 2 to 3 minutes to compose one photograph at times. I felt rushed through the entire experience. There is a detail in his method however that I missed. I’ll get to that in a bit.
The biggest difference I felt in this session versus being out in the mountains is that in landscape photography you interact with the camera. In portrait photography you interact with the person and optionally the camera. I know that seem somewhat obvious but it didn’t set in for me until a couple of days later.

If you’re interested in this sort of work offer a few tips to frame your mind as a first timer shooting in the studio:

  • Get an SLR camera. You won’t be able to communicate with the studio lighting without one. Ensure that your camera type will work with the studio’s lighting systems.
  • Ask lots of questions. At first I thought most of the people there would be stingy with their knowledge as at some level were competitors but I found the group to be extremely open and willing to help the beginner. In this particular meetup we had the expertise of the studio owner but also a makeup artist and a number of fairly accomplished photographers. It was a wealth of knowledge from which to pull.
  • Spend some time thinking about what you want the model to do. This was the hardest part of the experience for me. It was difficult for me to tell him how to position himself for my photograph. The photographer needs to mention each and every detail such as put your arm here, turn your head this direction, straighten your back, etc. Next time I’ll be more assertive in working with the model. Being my first time I was way too timid in this department.
  • Take the camera out of the process. In landscape photography I spent a lot of time thinking about shutter speed, aperture, ISO to get the perfect photo. In a lot of ways you have all the time in the world or you can brute force the photographed by having the camera taken number of preset combinations. In portrait photography you abstract the camera. The host of the Meetup said if you don’t get the shot into the three minutes you won’t get it. I was so used to taking a photo, looking at it in the camera, and then taking the photo again using what I learned from this seeing the image in the camera. In the studio all the settings are fixed. I needed to trust my viewfinder and interact with the model, not the camera. Only having 2 to 3 minutes forced me to keep my eyes in the viewfinder constantly working with the model.
  • Slow down and give the model time to reset. I felt the temptation to use a rapidfire shooting method in the studio. The organizer called me out on it because it doesn’t give the model time to reset between photographs. The flashes were constantly going so he could never relax. Although I only had 2 to 3 minutes taking time to direct the model would have resulted in better photographs than just rapidfire shooting whatever position he chose to be in.
  • Understand the licensing terms of your images. With landscape photography generally it’s assumed you can use your images however you want. In portrait photography you always have to work out the usage details with the model your photographing. Some meetup groups give you a full release but others don’t. In this case the meetup cost me about $80 but I had a full release on the photos.
  • Cover all your basics. Ensure you have enough space on your memory card, your batteries have sufficient charge, and any other additional equipment is in order.

I really enjoyed the experience. I look forward to going to additional meetups to expand my portfolio.

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