16 Feb 2013

Introduction to lighting in photography - a workshop scenario

Today I had opportunity to organize and conduct a workshop about photography for the students of the Polish school in the Hague. It was a second workshop given for more or less the same group as the first one.
Since it was a continuation of main topic, which is "Basics of photography" I took the chance to explain the basics of lighting and some techniques used to play with light.
The workshop was divided in three parts: theoretical introduction, practical session, constructive critique and selection of the best photos.
While preparing the workshop I was thinking about a theme of the practical session; it should be interesting for the children, but on the other hand it should give the possibility of learning new aspects of photography. I decided to choose a "Profile photo" as a main topic of the workshop. Main motivation was driven by several aspects:
1. Taking a profile photo of a school mate is fun both for a photographer and a model being photographed
2. Seeing how the light falls on a face of a model is very inspirational and instructive
3. Taking a photo of a school mate implies working in pairs which gives everyone an opportunity to play both roles (a photographer and a model) and keep the session interactive.

Before the session some theoretical background was given in a form of a computer presentation and some simple experiments with a photo camera.
First of all several examples of the same scene lit by different light sources was presented. Just to show how powerful the light manipulation can be.
Then the dynamic range limitations of a digital camera were explained. The exercise was simple yet convincing. I let one of the students sit by the window (lit by the diffuse daylight), facing the rest of the class. I asked the rest to look at the student and describe what they see. They could recognize facial details of the student but also the details in the background (i.e. the view outside window). Then I took the picture of the scene, from the same viewpoint as the class. And yes, while the model was properly lit, background was heavily overexposed. After exposing for the background, I got the subject dark (every photographer knows it, but it was not obvious for most of the children).
One technical note here: to make quick illustrations I have used Lightroom in tethered mode, so the photos that I took were immediately visible on the screen.
The message at the end of exercise was twofold: first, it showed that even very good cameras cannot render the whole dynamic range as good as a combination of our brain and eyes. Second, it is possible to tweak camera settings (or manipulate light) to overcome the limitations.
Then an explanation of aperture, shutter and ISO was given. To simplify things I have made a schematic picture of a camera (showing lens, aperture, shutter, sensor) and explained how the light travels through the camera. Then I have shown effects of both settings by taking some images with varying shutter speeds and apertures.
Next I have introduced the term of exposure and explained that most of the cameras have the options to influence it even simpler than manipulating the aperture and/or shutter speed.
Then I have explained depth of field and how the aperture influences it.
After this introduction students were asked to look at their cameras and discover how to set the aperture or shutter speed (or exposure in general) in their cameras. When needed I helped them to find the settings.
Finally I have shown my own approach of taking a portrait photo. I emphasized the role of proper composition, role of light to make the subject the most dominant element of a photo. Finally I have shown how to use simple light modifiers like a reflector.

Thereafter students started to shoot the photos. Some of them went outside the class looking for the proper location. Apparently they had a lot of fun.

During the critique part we have looked together at the taken photos. I let the students talk about their photos and explain why they like the photo (and why not). I have also encouraged them to think about what they would do different in case they didn't like the photos.
At the end everyone was able to select at least one photo that was accepted by the photographed model as the profile photo.

3 Feb 2013

Organize a big portrait session - optimizing the flow

This post is a continuation of a series about shooting portraits for a school. I described briefly in one of previous articles about the general idea. In this post I am going to describe some human-related aspects of such session and give some tips on how to make it successful for the children, school staff and the photographer. To give you some context let me just summarize the challenge:

  • The session takes 3 to 4 hours
  • During this time 70 to 100 children gets photographed
  • Each child is photographed twice: one photo is in a full-length pose, one as a close-up (depending on the situation either upper half of or head and shoulders
  • Some children want to be photographed together with their brothers or sisters, school friends, etc.
  • Each group is photographed as a whole together with their mentor teacher.
In short, such a day is intense and the border between intense and chaotic is thin. But it is the responsibility of a photographer to deliver the photos, so he need to ensure that the workplace remains decent during the day and such session doesn't turn into chaos. Here's an approach I have developed over several years. I am not telling it is perfect, but it works quite well.
  1. Realize that you as a photographer are the director of the whole event. So think ahead about the possible scenarios and have a plan for different cases.
  2. Get in touch with school staff in advance. Ask about their schedule, try to fit the session into school's rhythm. Ask for the school schedule during the day of the session. Plan the order in which the groups will attend the session.
  3. Agree in advance how the teachers and parents will assist you. It is absolutely necessary to have help of the school staff or/and the parents. For a number of reasons: first, it is legally mandatory that teachers are present during any activity of a 'stranger'. Second, they are invaluable when guiding the group of children. They simply know how to do it efficiently. Third, children, especially the younger, feel more comfortable and safe when they have a trusted adult person close to them.
  4. Prepare all your gear before starting shooting. Be on a location on time, way before the planned start. Keep in mind that setting up the background, lights, test shooting cost time (in my case it takes 90 minutes, because I need to iron the background).
  5. After setting everything up look around and try to visualize how the children would walk (or rather run) on and around the setup. Then protect your most important parts! Put a chair, a table, anything that would stop the most active and enthusiast children from ruining into the arranged studio. I always stay in the front of setup, in the direction of the incoming group. As soon as I see them running I make some gestures to stop them and explain quickly how they should move and where to watch out. Then I keep them (together with a teacher) out of the actual scene, letting them stay or sit around the setup.
  6. Be decisive. Children get quickly excited but they get bored also very fast. So it is important to start shooting immediately - just start talking to children, ask who is going to be first (for 100% there always will be at least one), put them in the marked place on the scene, explain what you are going to do (2 photos) and shoot. One, control, two - ready. Next child. Everything should take no more than several minutes.
  7. Remember, you are a director. So when individual photos are ready, start to organize group photo. Depending on a group size decide about the number of rows, who will be in front, who in back (a rule of thumb is: smaller children in the front). 
  8. Once the group photo is ready guide the group out of the scene. Remember again about securing your gear and the setup.
  9. Control the setup in between the groups. Is the background still ok? Are all the lights operational? Do the assistants know how it works and how to proceed?
  10. Be flexible. Sometimes you need to spend a bit more time with a child; either he/she is shy or requires some more attention during posing (like children wearing glasses). In this situation communicate to a teacher or parents so they know what is going on.
  11. Ask the teacher or parent in case there is some intervention required during posing. Like fixing the hairs, clothing, etc. Again, it is about building the trust. Children trust their teachers and parents, not you. I always discuss this question in advance and ask assistants for help in such cases.
  12. Have a couple of jokes ready. Use them when a child or group needs to be cheered up.