We here at Benjamin Lehman Photography absolutely adore Burt’s Bees so this just made a lot of a sense!
Product Photography is not just for the realm of large flash - Speed Lights can do the job just as well, here's how!
Product Photography with Speed Lights Part 1
Product Photography with Speed Lights Part 2 (Compositing)
How-To Photography: Anatomy of an Environmental Portrait – Warrior Beat
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:
- Canon 5D Mark II and III
- Alien Bees B800 Flash Head
- Einstein Flash Head (Read my review here)
- C-Stand with boom arm
- Standard 9 foot flash stand
- Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8
- 4ft strip box with grid
- Beauty Dish with Diffusion sock
- Vivitar 285HV flash with optical slave eye
- Cyber Commander wireless flash sync
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!
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.
Well, this project was a lot of fun! Benjamin Lehman photography was asked by LA Gear to create some conceptual marketing photos showcasing their amazing line of shoes. I couldn’t have had more more fun working on these and they have turned into some of the most enjoyable photos I’ve ever had the pleasure to take!
Chef and Food Artist
I love photographing interesting and fun people – it’s part of why I got into this line of work in the first place. Steve is just such a guy. He’s an accomplished chef and food carver. Yes, food carver. He takes everyday food items and turns them into work of art.
Sculpting with Food
As I started to set up for the shoot, Steve began to carve and assemble a gorgeous food sculpture. It was hard to keep focused on my tasks while he was working at his craft. It was way too tempting to just watch him as he worked.
You can see a diagram below of the setup used to create these shots.
Sometimes you just hope the stars align. It can be the talent; are they willing to go along with this crazy idea of mine? Sometimes it’s making the client understand the intricacies of the shot. Sometimes it’s something that’s completely out of your control like the weather.
Dealing with, and planning for weather as a photographer
Weather is the bane of all photographers. At best you can rely on the weather channel to give you the conditions that may exist in, oh, say 2 hours from now. For fairly small time frames, weather predictions are usually in the ball-park of what the reality will be. But, say the shoot is 5 days away, a week, 10 days or more! Well, then you’re stepping into some really iffy territory. Sure, you can probably be guaranteed that it’s not going to snow in the middle of July, but trying to predict puffy clouds against a clear sky at sunset a week from today? Yeah, not gonna happen – most likely. If you’re lucky everything will work out, and if you’re not, you are in for total re-think of how you have to approach your photo.
I’m not trying to get a pretty good photo, I am trying to get THE photo, the one that is in my head. During rainy seasons we’ll often set a primary day and then a back up day just in case the weather is not cooperating at all. This is sort of ‘best-case’ planning for avoiding ‘worst-case’ scenarios. Even then, if your back-up date approaches and the weather still isn’t in your corner, you have to be ready to prepared to make the best of what you’ve been given. Thankfully, bad weather doesn’t mean bad photos. As Moose Peterson says, some of the best photos are made in the worst weather. Even then, however, it’s not a good idea to drag your model into a tornado and just hope she keeps her face to the light as she’s being lifted into the air, on her way to meet the Great and Powerful Oz.
There are also times when a certain type of weather is a necessity in your photo. Your rain jacket product shoot might require a backdrop of storm clouds, or that magazine shoot you’re on depends on a sunny beach while you’re taking photos of surfers. In these cases you have 3 options.
- Take your photo in whatever weather you’re given and then make any needed changes in post.
- Head into the studio and just make the weather you need
- Pay a shaman to keep the bad-weather demons at bay
You wouldn’t be the first photographer who’s had to resort to any of the above options. Personally, in a pinch, I would opt for the studio option if all else fails. But, in my opinion, there’s no substitute for the real thing.
All of this came into play recently when I had a shoot scheduled, several weeks in advance, that called for snow. I wanted the whole sha-bang. Snow on the ground and snow falling from the sky. Why was falling snow important? Well, it would be nice to capture snow falling throughout the image, but more important, nothing beats the look of freshly fallen snow on the ground. So, with my desire for fresh snow firmly in place, so began the anxiety laced waiting game. You know the game, the one where you’re checking weather.com 5 times a day to see if your dreams will come true?
Luck was on my side. As the day approached the likely hood of snow kept increasing. On the day of the shoot snow was forecast to start falling at 4pm, exactly 1 hour before the scheduled shoot – Perfect! We packed up the gear and headed out. Our location was an area next to the Cuyahoga river, deep inside of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Less than 15 minutes from our arrival the snow began to fall, heavily. So heavily in fact we lost control of our car for a moment as it struggled to deal with the inch of fresh snow covering the small, windy road. We made it off of the road and into the parking lot without further issues.
There was a new problem however. Remember all that snow I wished for? Well, there was so much snow falling that it caused a white out. Visibility was no more than just 20 feet or so – not so good for a photo that required a river-scape in the background. Hedging our bets we walked down the trails to our final location and began to set up our gear.
In any situation where you’re dealing with wet conditions (snow is, after all, just water) it’s important to take the safety of your gear into consideration. We took extra shoot-through umbrellas and used them as, well, umbrellas, shielding our flashes from the heavy snow. My cameras, a 5d mark II and mark III, are both weather proofed so as long as I took some simple precautions to keep them from being heavily soaked they would be fine.
By the time we finished our set up, the falling snow had slowed down to a workable level. We got the talent in place and started to snap away. Right away, we knew everything was working beautifully. The snow, the light, the location, the river – all of it was playing together just as I had seen it in my head for all of these weeks. It felt so great to have everything come together at the last moment and, pun alert, just click.
Not all shoots will work out this well. The weather is something you can’t predict with any degree of certainty, at least not 100%, so you have to plan ahead – sometimes weeks ahead. Be prepared to be flexible, and make sure your client understands they may need to be flexible too. If it’s a large budget shoot with a lot riding on the final frame, it’s worth taking the time to get it done right in the right conditions.
Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Advertising, Portrait and Wedding Photographer in the Canton, Northeast Ohio area.
A lot of effort goes into lighting your shots. Controlling the pattern of light is always important, but corralling color temperature and light source also fall high on that list of priorities. Mixing continuous light and strobe is easy enough, but not always desired. A flashes ability to choke out ambient light is one of the strengths of strobe photography – especially when the objective is to freeze motion. There are creative techniques, however, that meld both strobe and continuous light to achieve a mix of motion and stillness.
This application of showing motion can be used for all types of photos. Most often you’ll see this technique in sports photography – it’s always nice to show an athlete in motion, applying their craft. But there are many, non-sports related, uses for mixing flash and continuous light sources. You can use it to imply movement, giving your photo an almost ghostly quality. As the subject moves through your frame, they’ll leave an ethereal trail behind them, this trail is caused by the continuous lighting. At the end of their move they should be frozen in place by the strobe, giving them sharp definition.
The technique uses at least 2 lights (one continuous and one strobe as we’ve mentioned) but you can employ as many lights of each type as needed. Apart from the lighting, there’s some working you need to do behind the camera as well. The first change is fairly obvious – Your shutter speed has to be long enough to allow for capturing motion. Speeds of 1/250 or more are usually required to stop motion, so naturally turning the dial the other way will increase your chances of capturing the movement of your subject. You’ll need to play around with your shutter speed to see what works best for your scenario, but generally speaking a speed of 1/30 is a great place to start, and then dial up or down as needed.
The second piece of work you need to do happens behind the camera. You must switch your camera’s flash sync from 1st, to 2nd curtain (also known as rear curtain). What this does is fire your flash at the end of the exposure, where-as normal flash operation will trigger the flash at the start of an exposure. The reason for this change is aesthetic. 1st curtain flash will make your subject sharp at the start of your exposure, and any motion that happens after the flash will then be captured by the rest of the exposure. The end result is a sharp subject with motion blur moving forwards from the subject. Now, if you’re a fan of cartoons (which I am!) then you’ll know that motion blur should always move away from the subject, leaving a trail of where they have been. 2nd curtain flash does exactly this. With 2nd curtain enabled, the first part of your exposure captures the motion and then, right before the shutter closes, the flash fires, capturing the subject sharply in their end position, leaving a trail of where they’ve been behind them.
Both Canon and Nikon support 2nd curtain flash. To enable this you have to attach a canon (or Nikon if that’s your system) brand flash to your camera. From there you can either set 2nd curtain from your camera menu, or the flash menu – check your manuals because each model of flash and camera does it slightly differently.
There! Now you have 2nd curtain enabled on your on-camera flash! Oh, but wait, there’s a problem. Shooting flash from the camera is OK in a pinch, but for flattering light we know we have to get the flash off the camera. Okay, there we go, now that flash is on a stand and in a better position. But wait, now how to we get 2nd curtain to work? As soon as you take your flash off the camera it stops accepting 2nd curtain as a flash option. How do we work around this?
Well, there are several methods. If you’re using only two lights, one continuous, one strobe, then you can use a sync cable to stretch from your camera to the flash. This will restore communication between your camera and the flash and allow the flash to operate in 2nd curtain. Now, if you’re using several TTL enabled flashes wirelessly you might expect that you could set 2nd curtain operation on your master flash and then use that to communicate to your slave flashes. Sadly, this is not a reality. Canon has stated that 2nd curtain via master/slave communication is not possible, and therefore you can not use this method with an array of wireless speedlites. Bummer!
So, what if you need more than one light, or maybe you need a power output beefier than what your speedlite can produce. Well, I found a work around! Most studio strobes have an optical sensor that will fire the flash the moment it senses a flash from another strobe. So, what I’ve done is take my canon speedlite, using it as an on-camera flash I’ve set it to fire as 2nd curtain and then I bottom out it’s power to 1/128th power. At this power it’s not contributing light to my scene at all. Instead, all it’s doing is triggering my studio strobe at the end of the exposure.
There are other, more expensive options at your disposal too. Pocketwizards, and other transmitters, have their own options for allowing 2nd curtain functionality wirelessly. But, for the most part, the optical slave option works in most situations without any drawbacks.
Below is an example of 2nd curtain flash. For this example I am using a sync cable from camera to flash since I am only using two lights and I’m standing only feet from the subject. My direction to the subject was for her to turn her head as I pressed the shutter button with the anticipation that she’ll finish turning her head by the time the shutters closes and the flash fires. It will require a few takes to get the motion and timing right, but once you reach a working rhythm the photos will start coming in Fast and Furious™.
Another example of motion blur using the same technique. Here I asked the subject to look at the continuous light source for a 1 second before turning 180º and changing his pose. The flash fires at the end of the exposure to capture him in detail as he begins to play the sax while leaving a motion trail from his original position.
Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Advertising, Portrait, and Wedding Photographer in the NorthEast, Canton, Ohio area.
Modern DSLRs are amazing devices. Not long after the 5D Mark II introduced the ability to shoot high quality video, the film world took notice and started to use it as an essential piece of equipment in movie making. Not only are DSLRs small, and therefore easy to work with, they are also relatively cheap, and you get the picture quality afforded to you from using your DSLR lenses.
Long before I started taking pictures as a professional photographer, I was (and still am) a graphic designer. One of the many hats I get to wear when I am working for my design clients is that of a creative director. At times this means I am on set, working with a film crew, to make sure the design vision translates seamlessly to video.
I’ve gotten a lot of valuable experience behind the motion picture lens from my time on these types of projects. This has in turn given me a great perspective on how to use my DLSR’s video mode. And now, with everything digitally integrated between a myriad of programs, there’s not much you can’t do with the video you take with your DSLR.
Over the holidays we worked on a little project that called for some video, lighting, visual effects and compositing. I love these types of jobs because they are a great way to extend your artistic vision into several mediums. Below are a couple of stills showing the before and after of the raw footage and final, composited video.
Here is a small, 3 second clip.
Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Advertising, Wedding and Protrait Photographer in the Canton, Northeast Ohio region.
Shooting action shots, at night, with available light used to send photographers to the highest ledges – talking them down could be a tricky proposition. We all know that low-light and action photography don’t really go hand-in-hand.
Modern digital cameras have opened up the field for low-light shooting, but a lot of photographers are reticent to push their ISOs above 800, let alone 1600. The noise you have to deal with once you reach ISOs of 1600+ can make you feel like the picture won’t be worth it in the end. Labeling a noisy picture as worthless, I think, is a misnomer. Noisy pictures (we’re talking ISO noise here) are as good as any other picture you could possibly take given the circumstances of available light and the speed of the action in front of you. There’s never a reason not to resort to turnin’ the dial up into the thousands if that’s the only way you’re going to get the picture you need to take. Along with camera sensor improvements, there are wonderful new software tools that can reduce noise and turn a grainy picture silky smooth – ready for print.
Not to mention a little ‘grunge’ in your photo is a bit en vogue at the moment. Think of how many photos you’ve probably taken at 50 or 100 ISO that you later processed with a little film grain to boost its mood? A little noise is a good thing, and when it’s your only option, embrace it.
Below are a few photos I took at a stunt bike show. It was so dark out that the riders had to move some lights around so they could see their own ramp. Regardless of the low-light conditions I was still able to snag some moody and sharp images by balancing my shutter and ISO, (aperture was wide open, obviously). What about the noise? Well, you should be able to tell in the photos below that it wasn’t much of an issue.
One trick to remember is that ISO noise lives in the mid-tones and shadows. If you overexpose by a stop or 2 you’ll actually reduce overall noise, even if it means you’re actually dialing up the ISO a few more notches to achieve over exposure.