20110205_Portraits_018

Portrait Setup at Curves

Almost two years ago, in February 2011, while taking a Lighting and Composition photography class in The University of Texas Informal Classes, one of our homework assignments was to take a portrait of someone. I was less than excited, as I wasn’t interested in photographing people, especially in a true portrait style. Since I hadn’t been interested in this type of photography, I hadn’t given any serious attention on how to go about doing it “properly”.

A couple of years earlier, I believe in the spring of 2008, while visiting my local camera store, Precision Camera, where I had purchased my first Digital SLR  camera, as I was leaving the store, I stopped to look at the books on display near the door. One in particular caught my attention. It was entitled “Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography” by Kirk Tuck.

When I got home, I eagerly started to read this book. Right after the Table of Contents, was an “About the Author” section. It started by saying “Kirk Tuck attended the University of Texas where he dabbled in electrical engineering and English literature before accepting a position as a specialist lecturer teaching photography in the University of Texas College of Fine Arts”.

I found that fascinating. I got my electrical engineering degree from the University of Texas, and I was very absorbed in my hobby of photography, so I wondered if I would ever meet this Kirk Tuck guy.

Anyway, his book was my very first introduction to any sort of lighting techniques for photography. He seemed to know what he was writing about, but as my first exposure to this subject, I didn’t quite grasp it all. Besides, Kirk was advocating using old Nikon flash units and operating them in manual mode, and I had a single Canon 580EX Speedlite at that time.

As a result, I ended up purchasing a very simple lighting kit for about $100 from B&H Photo that included two small light stands and a couple of small umbrellas. I also bought a new model Canon 580EX II Speedlite.

A couple of years later, I read a book entitled “The Moment It Clicks: Photography Secrets from One of the World’s Top Shooters” by Joe McNally. This was a fascinating book to me, as it described the “behind the scenes” stories of how he had captured the portraits of many famous celebrities. He wasn’t taking these portraits in a studio. He was going to where the celebrities were and taking their portraits on location wherever they were.

Joe included descriptions of the equipment that he used for the photos, but most of what he described was a foreign language to me. As I read through the book, I jotted down a rather lengthy list of strange lights (Elinchrom Rangers), stands (C-Stands), lighting modifiers such as reflectors, flags, softboxes, octobanks, etc. At the time, I was very impressed at how Joe made it sound to use all of this “portable” equipment.

Sometime after that, while photographing some of Barb’s Silpada Jewelry display cases, I dropped my older Canon 580EX Speedlite, and broke a switch that Precision Camera wanted $250 to repair. I simply replaced it with the newer 580EX II, to match my other Speedlite.

Back to February, 2011.

For my class assignment, I also remembered seeing somewhere that Scott Kelby recommended putting the subject (model) near a north-facing window for indirect lighting and then bringing a white bounce card in close to the opposite side of the model to fill in the shadows a bit. So I asked Barb to be my model, and I took her picture using the technique that Scott Kelby had described. To make it a bit more visually interesting, I positioned my tripod so that our fireplace was about 8 feet (a little less than 3 meters) behind her, and I had it lit, even though it wasn’t really cold outside.

I cropped the photo a little, and submitted it as my homework assignment. It is the photo shown above. I don’t remember why, but I also took one with her standing. I think it was to show off her new figure, after she (and I) had successfully shed a lot of unwanted weight.

As it turns out, a few months later, the Curves facility on Oak Knoll Rd. in northwest Austin where Barb had been working out had named her their very first “Member of the Month”. That was in recognition of her recent weight loss, which was achieved by working out at their facility and following their dietary guidelines. They asked if she had a picture of herself that they could put on their bulletin board to go along with the Member of the Month announcement. I printed the two photos above on letter size paper and that’s what they used for the display.

When the next month came around, and they had a announced their 2nd Member of the Month, they asked if that lady had a few photos of herself that they could use. I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but someone at Curves asked Barb if I would take the photos of the new Member of the Month.

I was “interested” but also terrified. I had never been asked to photograph anyone for money. My initial reaction was very hesitant. I was not a professional photographer! Photography was my hobby. Besides, in most of my photography up until this point, I waited patiently for as many people as possible to get out of the scene before I would take the picture…

After a week of discussing it with Barb, I finally agreed, but I wouldn’t do it for free. If they were willing to pay me for the on-the-job training, I would do it for $35 – and if they didn’t like the results they wouldn’t have to pay me anything.

I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to use Scott Kelby’s technique, and I would be using my two Canon 580EX Speedlites, and the couple of umbrellas on light stands that I had bought from B&H Photo a few years before.

As it turns out, it worked out just fine, and I had a lot of fun doing it, but I knew that I needed to learn how to do this better. I went to Amazon.com and searched for books that would explain more about the Canon 580EX II Speedlites than the Canon owner’s manual did.

I ended-up finding one specific book that significantly helped educate me in revising my technique and guiding me in acquiring a few more pieces of equipment and how to use it. That book was “Speedliter’s Handbook: Learning to Craft Light with Canon Speedlites” by Syl Arena.

I ended up doing the portraits for the next 10 Curves Member of the Month. Some of those months had groups, or Members of the Month, which meant to me that I had to learn to photograph groups of 2, 6, and even 11 ladies in a group. I added more Speedlites, a few key modifier for shaping the light coming from those Speedlites, as well as a few larger umbrellas.

Evidently, during the year, several of the women who worked out at Curves (members that probably would never be chosen as the Member of the Month) had asked about the photos on the bulletin board – and about the photographer that had taken them.

In November 2011, this Curves facility was celebrating their 9th anniversary, and they were inviting a few local merchants to come and participate in their celebration. For some reason they asked if I would come in and take portraits.

I agreed, and I realized that if I was going to be charging a dozen or so people for taking their portraits, that legally I should also be collecting sales tax. On November 1, 2011 I went to the appropriate state government office and registered myself as an official photography business with The State of Texas. I also obtained two insurance policies; one for insuring my equipment, and another as small business general liability policy.

And so on November 16th, 2011, I photographed portraits of over a dozen individuals, couples, and families that had signed-up for a 20 minute time slot at the Curves anniversary event. During that day I took several very good portraits, and a few not-so-good portraits. I found that I really enjoyed engaging with the people that I was photographing, and that 20 minutes was really rushing things.

I let people sign-up for different levels of print package deals. No one purchased the deluxe package, a few bought the middle package, and the majority purchased the least expensive ($35) package.

During the next few weeks, I ended-up spending numerous hours retouching multiple poses of each person, and ended up printing one or two 8” x 10” photos, and multiple 6” x 4” photos of the numerous poses. I enjoyed the work, and learned a lot, but financially it didn’t make any sense. I earned more money in one day at my engineering job than I did for approximately 60 hours of effort in this endeavor.

Zoom ahead one year.

This November (2012), the same Curves facility was celebrating their 10th anniversary, and they asked me if I was interested in participating again this year. After thinking about it for over a week, I finally agreed, but said that I would need to do a few things differently this time. Randa, the owner, was quite agreeable.

And so it was, just a few weeks ago, on Election Day (Tuesday, November 6th), I took the day off of work so that I could take portraits of those who has signed up for 7 of the 25-minute time slots. The evening before, Barb and I went to Curves to look at the sign-up sheet, and I was pleased to see that 5 would be of individuals, 1 was going to be a mother & daughter couple, and one was going to be a mother and her two teenage children.

That was great news to me, as I find it much easier to set up my lighting equipment for individuals and couples. I decided to “go light” and use my Speedlites instead of my Einstein studio flash units.

Here is a crappy iPhone behind the scenes (BTS) that I took in the early afternoon, during a couple hours of time that no one had signed up for.

You can see that I had put up my whale gray muslin backdrop in front of a large window, and there was a lot of light coming in from the left side. The insides of the Curves facility are brightly lit with dozens of fluorescent lights. I was using small Canon Speedlites. All of these light sources emit different spectrum (color) of light.

Here is another photo that I took from further back using the same camera that was on top of the tripod in the previous photo.

I am going to attempt to describe some of the equipment that you see in the previous two photo, and how I used that equipment, in my next blog post. (There is a piece of exercise equipment in the foreground in the photo above that is not photography related.)

So how did it go?  I’ll let you judge that later. But in the meantime, here is a photo that I talked Barb through to take a photo of me later in the afternoon, as I was making sure that I had my lights adjusted how I wanted them, about an hour before the busy evening sessions were to begin.

I know, I know…. A gray shirt with a gray background isn’t very appealing, but I didn’t have any intention of having my own portrait taken when I got dressed that morning.

4 thoughts on “Portrait Setup at Curves”

  1. I love the gray shirt and background for the shot of you. The one of Barb at the top – love that.

    For the books, you have titles from the Best Of The Best. BTW if you don’t have Hot Shoe Diaries from McNally I recommend it. Lighting and stories, nothing better. I also have Sketching Light, and boy that is a volume, but also very worth of shelf space.

    You don’t need thousands in lighting gear to make a good image, you just need to know where to put what you’ve got.

    1. Libby, I don’t have Hot Shoe Diaries, but I do have Sketching Light. I’ve read up to page 105 before I got distracted with another book. I like Joe’s writing style. I also have Syl Arena’s new book “Lighting for Digital Photography – From Snapshots to Great Shots”, but I need to finish reading Light Science & Magic fist.

      I am still very much a newbie at lighting, but I am excited to be learning this vital aspect of photography!

  2. Greg,
    Good work! I remember the portrait from the class.
    You know that I have always said, “On this earth we only have one sun.
    Use one light effectively and you can do some great work.”
    Take care,
    Brian

    1. Brian, I am honored that you have stopped by my blog and left such a complimenting comment. I’ll not let it go to my head – I promise!
      I need to thank you for making that portrait assignment, as without it, I never would have given it any effort at all. Now, I don’t believe that I will ever shoot wedding, or portraits of high school seniors, or new borns, or pregnant women. But I do see myself shooting portraits of company executives some day. I think that what I am doing here at Curves will translate well toward that type of portrait work.

      Thanks again for stopping by and leaving your comment!

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