Here's one of my favorite photographs from my 2017 rural China photo workshop. I thought it would be kind of fun to see how many tips I could give for this portrait. For those going on my 2019 China workshop with my friend Scott Kelby, you will be able to put these tips to good use. You may even meet this woman!
First, my 11 tips. After that, my friend Fernando Santos, who will be on the 2019 China workshop, offers three more tips.
1) Photograph at the subject's eye level. When you see eye-to-eye and shoot eye-to-eye, the person looking at your photograph can relate more to the subject than if you are photographing above or below eye level.
2) See the light. Notice the almost Rembrandt-style lighting (side light with a triangle of light under the eye on the shadow side of the subject's face). That did not happen by accident. I moved around the subject, and moved the woman and her loom into position to achieve that effect. So, the idea here is this: Make a picture, just don't take a picture.
3) Separate the subject from the background. See how the woman's face, the most important part of this photograph, is separated from the wooden wall background. Yes, the background was darker, but I darkened it a bit more in Photoshop using the Burn tool. My friend Fernando Santos would have created the same effect in Lightroom. Right, Fernando?
From Fernando: Absolutely Rick! You could use Lightroom adjustment brush and paint over the background to adjust the exposure. I would start by pushing the exposure all the way to the left, then set the feather to the maximum, adjust the flow to 10% or so, and slowly build the effect. You can press the letter O to turn the overlay on and off, so that you can see where you have painted. Finally you can pull the exposure a bit to the right in case you went too dark. Because Lightroom is non-destructive, if you’re not happy, you can always go back to where you were. 😊
4) Shoot at an angle. We see the world in three dimensions. Our cameras sees only in two. To add a sense of depth to this picture, I photographed at an angle.
5) Look for gesture. It's the position of this woman's hands that adds a sense of movement to the photograph. I took other shots, but in those shots her hands looked static. Gesture is important in all people photography.
6) Get it all in focus - if you want. For environmental portraits like this one, I used a wide-angle lens set at a small aperture - which offers good depth-of-field. For head-and-shoulder portraits, I usually do the opposite and use a longer lens at a wider aperture.
7) Watch the background. To add just a touch of light, and a bit of depth to the scene, we opened the door behind the subject to let in a little bit of light. Cover the light with your hand and see how it changes the photograph. Hey! You may like that version better. Photography, like all art, is subjective.
8) Don't be afraid to boost your ISO. I took this hand-held photograph in low light, where noise usually appears at high ISO settings. My ISO was 4000. Yes, I had a bit of noise in my photograph, but I reduced it in Adobe Camera RAW. I could have shot at a lower ISO if I had used a tripod, but I wanted mobility during the shoot. Plus, a tripod can be intimidating when photographing strangers. Of course, the faster the lens (the wider the maximum aperture) the lower the ISO at which you can shoot.
9) Envision the end result. The last thing you want to do when photographing a stranger is to overstay your welcome. If you plan your photograph in advance, you can move in and shoot fast. That is especially important when you are on a workshop with other photographers.
10) Be a show off. After you take a picture, show it to the person, and ask them if they would like a copy. In rural China, our guides Andy and Mia Beales know the villagers, and helped us share some of our photographs via email.
11) Get Close. The closer you are to a subject, the more intimate the photograph becomes. For environmental portraits like this one, try using a wide-angle lens for up-close-and-personal photographs.
• • • • •
And now it's Fernando's turn for some tips!
Make three or four different shots of the same scene. Shooting a scene with such an interesting subject is awesome, but you may want to shot it in 3 or 4 different ways, and I’m not talking different gestures. Make a great photograph of your subject using all the tips Rick gave you. Now make one other photograph with a wide lens, and get the subject into his environment. Show your viewers all the ambience around him/her to get the context. Make a third shot: details. Maybe you can do a close up of the hands at work, or a close up of the work itself. One last shot, depending on the action itself: maybe you want to use a slow shutter speed to give the sense of motion, speed, etc. You should practice different shutter speeds in advance so that you know if you will need 1/60s, 1/10s, 1 second, etc.
Warm up the scene. If your light source is not too warm, you may want to adjust your White Balance warming it. Most people look nicer with a warmer tone, and many interior scenes look better too. Some scenes call for a cooler white balance. Remember you can easily adjust most of the scene to your preference and then use the adjustment brush in Lightroom (or in Photoshop using ACR) and paint a warmer or cooler tone in just certain parts.
Master your gear easily. This is a long tip but can be very important in many situations. You need to know your gear. However, sometimes a scene requires very quick adjustments. Let’s say you wanted to photograph this same woman just like Rick did, but you also wanted a shot to show all the interior and you needed to go the HDR way and bracketing the scene. For example on my Canon 5D Mk IV, I would need to change the drive mode from “Single Shooting” to “High Speed Continuous.” Then I would need to go into Exposure bracketing and adjust to shoot for example 3 exposures: 1 underexposed, one correctly exposed, and one over exposed.
If you know your camera you can do this relatively fast, but there is a much better way. Plan in advance! Your camera probably has “Custom shooting mode.” My Canon has C1, C2, and C3. What I do it this: I setup my camera as I usually shoot. Most of the time I shoot in Av mode (aperture priority). Then I configure it for example for my HDR settings. I go into the menu, setup my HDR settings as “Custom Mode 1”. When I need to change fast, I just move the dial from Av to C1, I do my HDR shoot, then I revert back to Av. It is that easy. You don’t forget a setting and you change from one mode to the other really fast. Think how to use these Custom modes for other quick changes you may need. Again, plan in advance.
• • • • •
Thank you Fernando!
Learn more in my KelbyOne classes. Good fun. Good info!
Explore the light,
P.S. Here's a behind-the-scenes shot of me making the photograph. From this angle, the lighting sucks. The end-result image shows the importance of making a picture.