benjamin lehman

Being taught through inspiration

Being taught through inspiration

A wonderful producer who I’ve worked with for years would often joke when we had to copy and paste items from one of our earlier projects into something we were currently working on, “If you’re gonna steal, steal from the greats!”

Now, before we get anything further into my reasoning here, I am just gonna say the following: Don’t steal, or infringe on someone else’s work and try to pass it off as your own. That’s just theft, and it’s pretty low. As a graphic designer of over 20 years, I’ve had numerous designs and concepts stolen from me and it’s a terrible feeling to see someone else benefiting from your hard work. As artists, our biggest billable asset is our ideas, innovation and process. So respect other artists’ work as you would like your own work to be respected.

With that out of the way, I do also believe that you can learn a lot by seeing how other people approach their craft. That is, at its very core, the essence of teaching. Recent generations of photographers have been inspired by people like Annie Leibovitz, Joe McNally and Jeremy Cowart, among others. Those photographers were, and still are, inspired by other photographers and so on and so forth. Being inspired by other artists is a beautiful thing and, as an artist, there is no higher compliment than having a contemporary seeing your work and being inspired by it. 

I keep a folder on my computer of things I find inspiring. It can be anything from a color study, to a well designed website, brochure, a photo, a poem; it can be anything that catches my eye and stirs some emotion inside of me. In the case of photography, it could be an image that someone else has taken that intrigues me – the way they took it, the lighting, the pose, the setting. Whatever it is, it’s something that has inspired me. 

I’ll also use these images as a challenge and a chance to learn. I’ll do my best to figure out what sort of visual trickery and craftsmanship went into the making of their photo and then I’ll set out to see if I can faithfully recreate what it is I think they’re doing. Such was the case for Post Malone’s Twitter profile picture seen here to the right. This photo was shot by Nabil and you can follow him on twitter here: https://twitter.com/nabildo.

I think it’s just a pretty awesome portrait. I like the simple, monotonistic color scheme, the pose, the shadows. Basically, the whole mood of this photo is pretty damn cool. Because of that, I decided I would do my best to try and recreate it armed with only my own working knowledge of cameras and studio lighting. 

The first, and most obvious, aspect of this photo is the orange tone throughout. That’s a no-brainer that we’ll need to add some colored gels to the lights in order to achieve the same effect, however we need to figure out what sort of lighting we want to use first. Looking at this portrait a little more I suspected that the photographer was using a beauty dish, positioned directly above and pointing straight down at the subject. This would give the same deep shadows in the eyes we see here in the photo. There doesn’t seem to be any bounce light, so we’ll just move forward on the assumption that one one light was used to light Post Malone.

We will need a second light, however, to light the backdrop. I have a neutral gray seamless in my studio and I suspect that’s the same setup Nabil used in his photo. So, I’ll just take my second light, attached a 7 inch reflector dish so the light doesn’t spill off of the background and hit the subject, and then lastly we’ll put a gel on that to give our gray background an orange tone. 

The gels I decided to use were one full cut of CTO on my main light and one theatrical orange gel on the background light. The theatrical orange gel is considerably more orange than the CTO gel. The reason for this choice is because skin tones are already warm-ish, so I don’t need to over drive the orange on our main light – just enough extra orange to kick the skin tones into the realm of our backdrop. The backdrop, which is gray under normal lighting conditions, does need a little more color oomph, so that’s where we use the theatrical orange gel to full effect. See the diagram to the right to see our final set up. 

The next step is lighting ratios. I think I got kinda lucky on this one. My camera and lights were still set to whatever they were set for at my last photoshoot was and, as it turned out, they were dialed in pretty well for our first test shot here. In the end, I just had to tweak the main light at tad to get it into the correct range. My camera was set to f/8, 1/125 shutter, 100 iso. The main light was putting out light at f/11 and the background light was f/5.6. So basically, the key light was +1 stop over camera and the background was -1 stop under. Easy-peasey!

And here’s our final image:

The Last 30 Days In Gear

The Last 30 Days In Gear

I don’t get asked a ton of questions about photography, but when I do they are most commonly things like which lens is the best, how much should I bid on a photography job, and which gear do you use the most? The first two questions are pretty subjective; my favorite lens and how much I charge for a particular job can very greatly from job to job based on the needs of that particular assignment. The last question of which gear do I use the most, however, I think is a really good indicator on which gear do I find most valuable across all of my jobs. As it turns out there is a handful of gear that I take with me on nearly every job that I do. I may not always end up using every piece of this equipment on every job, but I think of them as indispensable to the point where I am at a disadvantage if I don’t take them.

I guess the first thing I should start off with are the cameras and lenses themselves since, you can’t really do a photography job without both of these elements.

My two main cameras which go to every photography job are my 5D Mark II and my 5D Mark III. If you were doing professional photography you always, and I mean always, want two cameras with you at all times. If you’re in the field with one camera and it breaks for whatever reason you are, as they say, “shit out of luck.” The client isn’t going to take very kindly when you offer, “oops”, as an answer. So be prepared and take two cameras. If one of my 5Ds should fail, I have a Rebel and even an old 20D ready to jump in to add an extra layer of assurance. 

The second most important component is of course the lenses themselves. For this I travel with these three following lenses: 50 mm, 24-70 mm, 70-200 mm. The 24-70 and 70-200 are both 2.8, which means I have some flexibility in low-light situations where maybe my flash isn’t readily available. The 50 mm lens is 1.4 f-stop, which means it both has creamy bokeh and even more leverage in low light situations. I’m sure a lot of photographers would disagree with me, but if you have these three lenses in your camera bag I would argue you have 80 to 90% of your professional lens needs covered.

So now that we have the cameras in the lenses out of the way we can talk about all the little bits and pieces that really help your photographs stand out from the rest of the field. These are of course things like strobe lights, speed lights, studio lights, light stands, light modifiers, and all of the other in between pieces of gear.I consider myself a fairly light shooter by comparison to some other heavyweight professional photographers. By this I mean I rely on a fairly small package of gear to get my photos. Let’s begin with lights.

I use four speed lights, the 600 EX-RT from canon, two 430 EX IIs from Canon, and one 285 Vivitar with an optical slave eye attachment. Along with these speed lights I have 1 Einstein and Two Alienbees flash heads from Paul C. Buff (Let’s just call them PCB from here on out). To control these lights I have 5 Aputure Radio transmitters and one CyberSync Commander and CyberSync Slave for the PCB Lights. Everything else is triggered optically if needed. 

My collection of modifiers is something I am fairly fond of, but even with my vast array of light shapers, I really only a handful all of the time. The big 5 light shapers include a 7 foot shoot through umbrella with a detachable ‘softbox’ cover from PCB, a 36 inch Octabox from PCB, a 24 inch speed-lite softbox from Neewer (super cheap, super handy!), and a 22 beauty dish from PCB and 2 Reflector dishes, also from PCB. I have a ton more light modifiers, but these comprise a large portion of what I use on set regularly.

Finally, in my “other” category for gear used on set, I use 2 Avenger C-Stand Completes, 4 twelve foot straight stands, a Manfrotto tripod with ball mount head, one black flag, 1 tri-grip reflector, 2 three by five foot collapsible diffusion panels , a wide assortment of colored light gels, and a bunch of various fastening devices like clamps and gaffer’s tape

Let’s break that down into list form real quick

  • 5D Mark II
  • 5D Mark III
  • Canon f/1.4 50mm
  • Canon f/2.8 24-70mm
  • Sigma f/2.8 70-200mm
  • Manfrotto tripod & Ball-mount Head
  • Canon 600EX-RT
  • 2x Canon 430 EX II
  • Vivtar 285
  • Paul C. Buff Einstein
  • Alienbees B800
  • Alienbees B400
  • 5x Aputure Wireless Triggers
  • Paul C. Buff CyberSync Commander
  • Paul C. Buff CyberSync Slave
  • 7 Foot Shoot-through Umbrella with removable Reflective/Softbox Backing
  • 36 Inch Octabox
  • 24 Inch Speed-lite Softbox
  • 22 Inch Beauty Dish
  • 2 Reflector Dishes
  • 2x Avenger C-Stand Complete
  • 4x 12 Foot Straight Stands
  • C-Stand mountable Black Flag
  • Tri-grip Reflector
  • 2x 3×5 Foot collapsible Reflector/Diffuser
  • Assorted Colored Lighting Gels
  • Assorted Clamps
  • Gaffer’s Tape

Tada! Hey, trust me, that’s not an unmanageable amount of stuff. The cameras, lenses, radio triggers and speed-lites all fit into one carry-on-sized camera bag, and the larger flash heads and tripod all fit into a 4×1 foot rolling light bag. The stands and light modifiers do add a cumbersome element to moving around when on on location, but with one assistant it’s more than manageable. 

Benjamin Lehman is a commercial photographer in the Canton, Akron, Cleveland and NorthEastern Ohio Area. 

Self Portrait with the Paul C. Buff Octabox

Self Portrait with the Paul C. Buff Octabox

A photographer’s cheapest model is, as they say, themselves. So I put my cheap model to work utilizing the new octabox I got from Paul C. Buff (detailed here).

List of gear:

  • 5d Mark II
  • Einstein Flash Head 
  • Octabox
  • C-Stand
  • Low-rent model (me)

Below are images of the final result of the shoot, as well as a diagram of the set up.

You can do some pretty awesome photos with just 1 light and a nice modifier!

Benjamin Lehman is a commercial photographer who works in San Francisco, Canton, Cleveland and North East Ohio. 

How-To Photography: Anatomy of an Environmental Portrait – Warrior Beat

How-To Photography: Anatomy of an Environmental Portrait – Warrior Beat

Environmental Portraiture

Also known as, “A face in a place”, is by far my favorite type of picture I am asked to take. The reasons are varied; I like dealing with interesting people, I enjoy traveling to new and different locations, and most importantly I like the opportunity to tell a story with my photos. 

As photographers, we usually go into a new project with a mental check-list, or to-do list, of what we want to accomplish. With environmental portraiture, the most important ‘to-do’ is the part regarding the story telling aspect of the photo I am about to take. The idea here is simple: Take a photo that tells the viewer something important about the subject. Nat Geo photographers are gods at doing this. Annie Leibovitz, someone I deeply admire, is another artist who just knocks her photos out of the story-telling-park every time. 

I used to think the story telling aspect would be hard part of the process, and it can be in some very special circumstances. However, with just a little practical self-control (i.e., just keepin’ it simple) you can turn the story telling phase into something that can happen quickly, easily, and enjoyably.

For my example here, I am going to use the guys over at Warrior Beat as my example. Warrior Beat is a non-profit organization that provides professionally facilitated drum circles to US Military Veterans who are suffering from either mental or physical disabilities. They do a lot of great work and are one of the few for-veteran organizations who use art in healing. (Disclaimer: I not only help and work with the boys and girls at Warrior Beat, but I also designed their logo and act as a co-founder.)

Most of the members of Warrior Beat are veterans themselves, having served over seas, fought in battles, and returned home with scars of their own. They are also an organization who’s public profile is rocketing faster than they expected due to the good, and unique, work that they do. 

When the time came that they needed some updated member photos, the challenge was set; how do we take portraits that will give viewers, (who may also be potential donors to their charity), an at-a-glance idea of who they are and what their message is?

The first step in environmental portraiture is the story.

Ok, so putting that to use here’s what we know about Warrior Beat’s story:

  • US military veteran based service
  • Many Warrior Beat members also have a military background
  • They use drums in a therapeutic setting

With these three simple, but important facts we can start to paint a picture for our photos. We want our story to hit as many of these bullet-points as possible. 

Next Step: Location

The next most important part of an environmental portrait? The environment, of course! So, what better place than a military museum? The MAPS Air Museum to be precise. 

A quick note on securing locations

A lot of locations will be happy to donate their time to worthy causes. A military-based museum will more than likely donate their space to you for photos when your subjects are also military vets. This applies to a lot of locations and situations. To repay the favor, offer to send them copies of the photos for use in their own social media, or print publication usage. Be sure to give them a social media thanks (with a link!). Those types of gestures go a long way into building a rapport with groups who may seek out your services later once they see how awesome your photos are!

We walked around the museum for about 20 minutes, trying to find a good location, and quickly realized our best bet was a Cobra helicopter sitting in front of a 2 story US flag. The Cobra helicopter was used in multiple branches of US military services, and the flag itself was just too good to pass up. It totally reads as military, as patriotic, as veteran; right off the bat we can check off two items on our story telling list.

The last item on our check list, tying our subjects in with their facilitated  drumming service to veterans, would be as simple as just having the Warrior Beat CEO hold up a drum for his portrait. 

Photography Gear and Setup

For my gear I used the following:

The good news was, I didn’t have to light the ginormous flag. There was a bank of windows behind it that would take care of that issue for me. But, what that does mean is that, I now have to light my subjects to work with what’s coming through the windows. 

Luckily, with just 3 flashes and some basic know-how on lighting ratios, I was able to dial it in. Specifically, I used the Einstein and beauty dish as my main light for my subjects. I was shooting slight up at my subjects to give them a little more gravitas and presence within the photo frame. This meant I was able to bring the light down a little more than usual to help keep shadows to a minimum. I didn’t want to remove all the shadows, however, since I felt a little sharpness in the photos would help translate the perception that these guys have seen some sh*t, which they have, and have been changed by it, which they also have.

The second light, an alien bees b800, inside of a 4 foot strip light, acted both as a slight fill light as well as kicker light for the helicopter. I needed to brighten up the details of the Cobra, so I just turned the light little by little until I was able to get just the right ratio of light spilling between the copter and my subject.

The last light was a small Vivitar 285HV on the ground near me that just barely threw a little extra oomph at my subjects. Again, I wasn’t trying to eradicate the shadow, but I did want to fill in a little detail in the darker spots, like under their chins, to help define their faces a little better. 

I used my 70-200mm lens so I could compress the distances between subject and background. The idea here is to give my subject a greater sense of scale so he can compete better between the larger helicopter and flag in the background. 

Once the lighting is all dialed, (remember, we’re exposing for the natural light that’s coming in and hitting the flag), it’s time to take some photos and, hopefully, capture a story!

In conclusion

Crafting a story doesn’t have to be the hard part of environmental portraiture. Instead, use some very basic ques from your subject to help guide the narrative. Sometimes you need to go over board and spend a good deal of man-hours and money to handcraft the perfect story telling photo, but other times you can rely on more modest techniques to conquer the same problem.

Benjamin Lehman is a commercial photographer who works in the San Francisco, California, Canton, and North East Ohio areas. 

 

Me, on the floor. Here you can see how I’ve set up my lights, and my subject, in relation to the background. 

The final frame of our story telling, environmental portraiture. 

Wedding of Talon and Jordon Baker at Kingwood Center in Mansfield, Ohio.

I had the unique pleasure of photographing the wedding of Jordon and Talon Baker this last December at the gorgeous Kingwood Center in Mansfield, Ohio. What a beautiful couple and gorgeous location!

 

Benjamin Lehman is a commercial photographer in the Canton, Northeast Ohio, area. 

Selfless Elf 5K – Akron Canton Regional Foodbank

Akron Canton Regional Foodbank's 3rd Annual Selfless Elf 5K Run!

Akron Canton Regional Foodbank T-Shirt Promotion Photo

OMG! We had the best photoshoot ever recently with our friends at the Akron Canton Regional Foodbank. When they needed a promo pic for their new t-shirt and the designer who created it, we jumped at the chance! (See what we did there?)

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Jarrod & Ben

Cheap Gear: Light Modifiers from Neewer.

More great, cheap gear

Today’s cheap gear update is on two light modifiers from a company called Neewer. Neweer is a company similar to CowBoy Studios in that they make cheap, knock-off photography equipment. Because it’s cheap, not everything you buy from them is going to be worth it in the long run, but there are some gems hiding in their catalog that are worth picking up.

The first is a strip box with grid: NEEWER® Softbox with Grid Mount 35X160 cm / 13.8″ X 63″ Beehive for Flash, Speedlight (NOTE: The photo on the amazon page is very deceptive – It’s not a wide softbox, as depicted in the image, but rather a very long and narrow strip box.)

I bought this strip light so I could have a light weight solution for when I am using my speedlites. Again, you never know what you’re going to get for about $40 but I figured it was worth the gamble. As it turns out, it was. Actually, I have been pleasantly surprised by the build quality of this strip light. It’s built just about as solid as my much more expensive studio soft boxes and has a couple cool extra features that I wasn’t expecting. First, it has a secondary, interior light diffuser. Most cheap softboxes do NOT have an interior diffuser. Secondly, it has two little port holes that Velcro shut on either side of the strip light so you can reach in and apply things like gels to your light quickly without having to disassemble half of your rigging.

The only tricky part is that you’ll need to buy a special bowens mount to get this thing to work with your speedlite. I bought the Neewer S-Type Bracket Holder with Bowens Mount for Speedlites. Again, I wasn’t expecting much, but in all honesty, this is a pretty bad ass mount. It has one feature that I think is really cool – the speedlite clamps into the mount, rather than cold shoeing in. That may sound silly, but trust me, it’s awesome. Because you clamp the head of your speedlite in, that means the base of your speedlite is free to rotate around and face any direction. If you use optical TTL like I do, then you’ll immediately recognize the benefit of being about to twist your speedlite’s sensor around to face you. For the record, I ordered 2 of these.

The last item is another softbox, the NEEWER® Softbox with Grid Bowens Mount 70X100 cm / 27.5″ X 39.4″ with grid. When I do two light setups (which I love doing) I like to have a striplight for dramatic lighting and a larger, equirectangular softbox for more traditional light coverage. Either one of these lights can play the part of either key or fill light, it’s just up to you to figure out what’s needed for your shot. At $40 for this softbox, there’s no reason to pass it up.

All told, if you buy these two soft boxes and two mounts, you’re looking at a total of $120 and that’s dirt cheap. Especially when you consider how good these products are for the price you’re paying – You’re photog friends with poor budgeting skills will have paid several hundreds, if not a thousand dollars, for similar set ups.

 

 

Old Favorites and Cheap Gear

Image from Canon's website

The f/4.0 has never done me wrong.
Image from Canon’s website

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know I am a die-hard fan of the Canon 70-200mm f/4.0. Why? Well, it’s image quality is superb and it’s dirt cheap by comparison. As for the f/4.0’s speed, it’s not that big of a deal if you’re shooting in the studio or using lights of any sort. Sure, it’s not the best action lens out there, an f/2.8 would be better suited for that, but even that’s debatable. If you look up “action shot” on flickr, you’ll quickly notice that almost none of the best photos are taken anywhere near f/2.8 – they are often in the realm f/8 and above. So, again, why spend more for an f/2.8 when you can probably do 99.5% of the photos you want to take at f/4?

Well the time has come for me to try something new. No, I am not going to relinquish my love for the f/4 and trade-up to the 2.8, but I did have an opportunity come in that will allow me to try a 70-200mm f/2.8 from LensRentals for a week. More specifically, the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM.

That’s a lot of abbreviations in that product name, but there is one in particular I am really interested in. The “OS”, which stands for Optical Stabilization. The reason for all this is because I’ll be spending a lot of time zoomed all the way out to 200mm and I’ll be hand holding the camera the whole time. I don’t plan to be shooting much at f/2.8, but since I’ll have the chance to do so, you can bet that I’ll do some comparison shots between the Sigma at 2.8 and my trusty Canon at 4.0. Be on the look out for that review!

Secondly, I promised a month or so ago to share some information about being a professional photographer with cheap gear. I’ve always argued that your camera will be the most expensive piece of gear that you’ll own, but does the rest of your gear need to be expensive too?

Well, here is a look at some purchases I’ve made over the past few months and a quick grade on their quality.

Product
(Name of Product)
BlackRapid RSD-1BB Double
Aputure Trigmaster Plus II
Neewer S-Type Flash Bracket
Leaper Multi-functional Canvas Camera Backpack
CowboyStudio Umbrella Mount Bracket with Swivel/Tilt Bracket
ePhoto H6704 Triple Hotshoe Mount
Fotodiox 5 Feetx7 Feet Collapsible Soft Diffuser
XCSource Complete Square Filter Kit
Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 Di LD Macro Zoom Lens
Price
(How Much it Costs)
$139
$60
$20
$60
$14
$29
$58
$24
$150
Grade
(Is it good?)
A+
A
B-
A-
A
B-
A+
B+
C+

And, uh, just disregard those buttons here at the bottom of the table – I am using a free table plug in and apparently, it has buttons.

The grades are based on one simple principle; Does the product work as I’d expect it to? As you can see, most of these ‘cheap’ alternatives are scoring a B or above, with a couple A+ grades in there. The one exception is the Tamron AF 70-300mm which I bought to use for some experimental photographs. For $150 bux, you get exactly what you’d expect. It’s a good lens for starters, and works pretty well in a very tight studio environment, but other than that it’s not a lens that should be anywhere on your Must Buy list.

 

Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Portrait and Advertising Photographer in the Canton, Northeast Ohio area.

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