We've all read magazine articles about artists, business people, politicians and other individuals of importance. Those articles are often peppered with various photos of the subjects, some action shots, some candid behind-the-scenes style photos and some portrait style headshots. Those headshots, at least the good ones, generally have a few things in common.
First of all, the subject is looking at the camera, ideally right down the lens. Second, there is a least a hint of a smile. Third, the face is slightly off centre, the body facing the opposite side of the frame. Fourth, the light source is not straight from an on-camera flash, but rather angular in some way, ideally with a strong back light to create a rim around the subject and pull him out from the background. Finally, and importantly, the subject's closest eye has to be the point of sharpest focus and the background has to be at least a little out of focus.
These things are easy to accomplish with a bit of practice. The bad news is that to get the best results, you need to invest in the right equipment. Unlike in landscape photography in which even the most basic camera - in the right hands - can take breathtakingly awesome shots, to get good headshots, at a minimum you need the right kind of sensor and the right kind of lenses. The right kind of camera is one that has a large enough sensor to allow you to 1) get creative with your depth of field and 2) capture a reasonable dynamic range. The right lenses produce sharp images and allow you to shoot at very low f-stops like f/1.8 or f/2.
The following photo was shot at Katsuren Castle in Okinawa with a Canon cropped sensor camera using an f/1.8 50mm prime lens. Lighting was provided by the sun and my assistant holding a silver reflector. Note that this photo obeys all the rules stated above. In particular, look at the sharpness of the eyes and compare this to the softness of the background. This photo worked out perfectly. It's not the sort of result you could get on a point-and-shoot or even with the standard 18-55mm kit lens that comes with the camera.
The combination of a quality DSLR, a 50mm prime lens and a photographer who knows how to use them produced results that made this client very happy.
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Every pro photographer makes mistakes. If the job is important enough and the mistake is big enough, it could be the end of his career. Some kinds of mistakes are inexcusable for a pro, namely the kind that come from laziness or improper preparation. Others are so common they happen almost every day. One thing that separates amateurs from pros is the post-processing skill to salvage a good photo from a mistake - or a set of mistakes - that could could ruin a photo. To illustrate what I mean by "salvage," I'll explain how I processed a photo I snapped a little too hastily, realizing only afterwards that the settings on my camera were wrong.
The photo below was the first I took at a NekoMaru cat cafe in Okinawa. Having just walked in the door, I saw this adorable little guy laying on the floor. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I took out my camera (50mm portrait lens already attached), focused and pressed the button. Then I looked at the shot in the viewer and realized my white balance was off and that it was underexposed by two stops. Damn! On the bright side, the eyes were in perfect focus and the shot was well framed, meaning that it just might be salvageable.
The white balance issue was no concern at all since I was shooting in raw mode, meaning I could set the parameter in Lightroom. I set the white balance to fluorescent because the lights above me seemed strong, but after looking at the result, I knew I'd misgauged it, so I reset it to daylight. Of greater concern was the exposure. I was shooting at f/2.2 on my 50mm portrait lens and I thought I had the camera set to Aperture Priority mode. But that was not correct. I was in manual and the shutter speed was too fast to get a good exposure. Oops!
The solution was to go into Adobe Lightroom and boost the exposure by two stops. This worked. Since I'd been shooting on a low ISO, the noise level in the image was not too bad, so it didn't appear to grainy when adjusted. The result was good enough that I decided to further process the picture, ending with what you see below.
What other processing did I do? Besides all the usual tweaks to vibrance, saturation, HSL and the like, I used a radial filter over the cat's face set to effect the area outside the circle. I pulled the exposure of the background down just a bit to bring out the cat's face. Then I took a brush tool and sharpened the eyes very slightly. Finally, I added a very subtle post-crop vignette to help further push down the background. Notably, I did not apply software lens corrections, which would have brought of the brightness of the corners of the image (the opposite of what I wanted).
That's about it. The take home point is the everyone makes mistakes. This one was small and inconsequential. When it comes to fixing mistakes, remember two things: 1) shoot raw because it allows you a lot of options in post and 2) if your focus and framing are correct, you can often salvage an under-exposed image in post-processing. The same is not true for over-exposed digital images. Two stops above would have destroyed this one.
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One of the feelings I like portray in my photos is the passage of time. This can be accomplished in many ways, but I like to do it by shooting long exposures. This photo of a Matsuri (festival in Japanese) taken in Uruma City Okinawa is a two second exposure, just long enough to turn moving people into ghosts, while people who are stationary, are more or less frozen. Photos like this are hard to get because the composition is always in flux. You can aim the camera, but people are going to stand where they stand and walk where they walk. It takes patience, but the payoff is big when it all comes together.
What I love about this kind of photo is how the juxtaposition of static and dynamic elements conveys an association among the frozen people, separating them from crowd. When you go to a festival with friends, you walk through a sea of other people, but you barely notice them. In a sense, they are only half there. That's the feeling I intended to evoke with this photograph. How did I do?
On the technical side, the key is not to overexpose your highlights. Of course, in digital photography, you're always exposing for the highlights, but the trick here is to find the exposure that prevents halos from forming around the lights, while capturing enough detail in the shadows that you can raise the levels in post without too much noise. Other than manipulating all the basic settings and taking some lens flare out of the sky, this is not a heavily processed image. The magical contrast between moving and static people did all the work for me.
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My simple blog about the art and science of photography.