Overcoming challenges on location to produce awesome photos

Overcoming challenges on location to produce awesome photos

In a perfect world, every photographer would have an unlimited budget for equipment plus a whole gaggle of assistants to move lights around, measure distances and take meter readings. He’d also have permits to shoot anything from any location and a detail of police to hold cars and pedestrians back for as long as he needs. And he’d only ever work with super-experienced models who are so “perfect” in every way that they could literally be photographed from any angle under any light in any pose and still look amazing. And of course, these models would come with their own hair, makeup and wardrobe crew. And there would be no time constraints either.

And then there’s the real world, particularly the world of TFP, or Trade For Portfolio (‘P’ sometimes means prints), in which a lone photographer with a very limited gear set and no one to help him carry it meets a lone model who does her own hair and makeup and wears her own clothing. The model is often not experienced (to say nothing of the photographer), is physically imperfect like every real human being, and has a limited number of “sweet spot” angles from which she can be photographed and still look her best. Ditto with the way her face reacts to light when she smiles. 

And with these resources, the photographer/retoucher is expected to pull the rabbit out of the hat. Actually that’s not true. In the world of TFP shoots (at least here in Okinawa), expectations are rarely set high because they are meant to be about having fun and learning, which is awesome. But when I shoot, I don’t just want to “learn.” I want to make pictures that take people’s breath away. That means overcoming challenges, working with what I’ve got and doing the best I can with it. Often I succeed and sometimes, with the help of an amazing amateur model like Elizabeth Widow, I manage to knock it out of the park. 

I’m going to talk about the specific challenges I (or I should say we) faced on this shoot, but first, a bit about what the shoot was all about and what images we shot. Skip to the part about challenges if you just want to read about the technical stuff. 

Now I’ll discuss, what I did when I got to shoot a short and somewhat ample (but also breathtakingly beautiful) model near a busy roadway, from low angles, hand held, in the dark, during in the short intervals between torrential downpours. What follows is what Elizabeth and I produced together during a session that was, not incidentally, my first time out with my new (used) Canon 5D Mk4. 

Head and Shoulders Above the Crowd

I generally like to start with wide shots then flip lenses and get in closer. The problems was,, none of the wide shots were really working. Placing her in the right spot to make the best of the foreground and background meant standing her in the middle of the road. She was willing, but when the cops started giving us dirty looks we thought it best to give it a rest for a while. So, I changed lenses to the 85mm and set out to secure at least one “safe” image we could go home with. By ‘safe’ I mean one that’s not too daring or experimental. What we got was this simple but beautiful head and shoulders shot.

The short stature of the model was not a challenge here, since I could frame the background from any angle and still have it look good. I exposed the subject a bit dark, knowing that I needed to boost exposure in Lightroom to bring up the background (boosting shadows alone won’t always look right of you take them all the way to 100%). The lower exposure also helped bring some of the ambient color into the model’s face, so it’s not just the fairly cold flash. Shooting at 1/200sec fairly close, I wasn’t too worried about camera shake (more on that later). When I reviewed in post, it was darker than I wanted, but only by half a stop or so. The 5D Mk4’s shadow recovery is excellent, I’d even say better than expected, even at ISO 3200 (although not as good as the EOS R5, but I got the Mk4 for $1,500 used and I can use all my EF lenses with it, so I’m not complaining one bit).

Leading Lines for Leading Ladies

If there’s one thing I like to feature in a wide image it’s leading lines. The path lined with palm trees on both sides and lit with Christmas lights was absolutely perfect. ISO 3200 was enough to get a reading on it at f/2.8 and 1/200sec, but I knew I’d be battling camera shake, still on the 85mm lens and shooting from a good 25 ft away to get her all in. I really wanted to shoot on a tripod, but to get the angle I needed to keep her head above the visible horizon, I needed to get lower to the ground than the tripod would let me. I was also on a busy sidewalk and I didn’t want to leave the camera there on the tripod while I adjusted the light or approached the model to give instructions. I shot a series of these and was happy with the composition and lighting, but zooming in all the way on the viewscreen, I could see the image was not as clear as I’d have liked. But if you don’t insist on pixel peeping, this image goes the distance.

I was going to try to push her back a bit on the path and try to position her such that I could get the right angle while using a tripod (and shooting with a remote trigger using live mode to focus for perfect accuracy), but the rain put an end to my designs.

Beauty and the Bokeh

We were doing some great work together and Elizabeth was getting into the groove, so I didn’t want to just give up because of the rain. From under the overhang, the only background worth shooting was the building across the street, which was a good distance away. The problem was, there were lots of cars parked in the lot right behind where the model would have to stand, and remember, she’s only 5 ft tall. Still on the 85mm lens, I sat on the ground and, working from a low angle, framed her up against the lights on the building. I set up my flash with a large Neewer softbox, which I attached to the speed ring which held the flash. Placing this close to her face would bathe her features in a soft, diffuse light.

The key to making it work was placing it at the correct angle and bringing it as close to the camera as possible without it being in the shot. The challenge here was that when my model looked down, lines and dimples appeared on her lower face, particularly when she smiled. This shot was fairly intimate and it begged for a gentle smile rather than the rather cold “supermodel” expression that worked so well in the previous setup, so we tried different variations of head positions, camera angles and light positions until we nailed this. It was definitely worth the effort, since this is one of the best shots of the session, speaking both technically and artistically.

Singin’ in the Rain

We were happy with what we’d shot so far, but we wanted more images so we waited for the rain to stop, or at least slow a bit. Unfortunately, nature had other plans. We talked about our options and I looked around for something I could frame from under the overhang, but there was nothing great. However, if I were to stand just outside of the overhang, I could take a shot that would capture the stone pavement, the road and a lamp post. I imagined her hanging off a lamp post with the umbrella gamely resting on one shoulder as she smiled into the camera. I covered my flash with plastic, when back to the small diffuser and set up the stand as close to her as I could. Then I went under my umbrella and assumed the (shooting) position. As soon as I saw her lean from the post, I knew we had a winner. I took a few shots to get the flash right, then we nailed a series of shots with her in different poses as she hung off the light post. If I say so myself, we came up with awesomeness.

Coquette with an Umbrella

As if on cue, after we finished with our “Singing in the Rain” shot, the rain finally gave us a break. That was terrific news because I really wanted to try out an umbrella shot. My idea was to have the model looking over her shoulder at the camera with a bit of a “come hither” look. We tried all kinds of variations on the pose, some with the model looking at camera, some with her looking down, all with various degrees of a smile. I wanted a really gentle light on her face but because of the wind I couldn’t use the large diffuser, so I set the flash power a bit lower and tried to blend it with ambient light. When I set out to process the image, I felt it was a bit too dark. I was able to boost exposure and shadows separately without getting too much noise (except in the model’s deep black hair), and the lower exposure on her face let me blend her with the background nicely. The best part is that she doesn’t look like she was lit with a flash, which is often my goal (to make it look like a shot from a movie scene, rather than a fashion shoot). It almost looks like motivated like, as if the light is coming from the Christmas lights to the right of the frame. Almost. The catchlights in her eyes (very slightly enhanced in Photoshop) are the giveaway that a flash was involved.

This image is actually quite heavily edited, both in Lightroom and Photoshop. The light caught her dimples and smile lines in a way that wasn’t totally flattering, so I dodged, burned, painted and blended until I was happy. I’ll probably write another post just on the processing of this image in the future. It’s an interesting story in itself.

Queen of Confidence

Feeling confident about our successes, we decided to try to nail one last image. The model’s hair was getting a bit frizzy from the humidity and she didn’t have a brush with her, but who cares! We weren’t shooting for the cover of Vogue magazine, so there was no harm if the results came out a little less than perfect. In that spirit, I decided to try a bit of an experiment and cranked up the flash. It can be very hard to balance flash light with ambient light and I tend to like to underexpose when I’m shooting dark backgrounds so that I can bring up the exposure of the whole shot in post processing if I need to, which is generally a better option than just boosting the shadows because it looks more natural. But this time, I decided to shoot hot. I was risking overexposure, but I wanted the model to really pop in this shot, rather than blend like the shots before. Some would say the result is overexposed, but I’ve seen more than a few shots in the pages of fashion magazines which are as bright as this, and I like what the intense light does to the model’s face. Not only does it bring out her cheekbones, but the reflection of the light off the wet stones almost gives the light a clamshell effect (i.e. lit from above and directly below).

Besides Elizabeth’s sheer beauty, and of course the amazing setting and background, what I love the most about this photo is her super confident pose. She really nailed it on this one.

Challenges in this Session

Now that you’ve got some context (and seen some pretty pictures), let’s get into the technical stuff. I’ve identified a few of the specific challenges I faced in trying to get the best possible images from this shoot.

A model who is short of stature

Working with a short model is not, in itself, a challenge. However, it can present challenges with respect to posing her against certain backgrounds. I like to keep model’s heads away from horizon lines, rows of lights, rooftops or anything other sort of distracting background. If you’re the kind of photographer who likes depth in the frame (i.e. lots of space behind the model), this generally means shooting from relatively low angles. With a short model, you’re often dealing with very low angles, sometimes lower than your tripod will go. If you’re shooting hand-held, you might even find yourself laying on the ground. This is not a problem for me, unless it’s raining and the ground is wet (which it was on this shoot).

A non-slender model

I should start off by saying that Elizabeth is by no means plus-sized. However, nor is she particularly slender in the way that comes to mind when one hears the word ‘model.’ This is not a judgement, just an observation of the kind serious photographers need to make when they set out to shoot their subjects in the most flattering ways they can. Sidestepping all the politics surrounding body image to the extent possible, it is a general principle of photographing humans (models or otherwise) that people generally don’t like it when they are made to look girthier than they are.

This means that the model should wear their clothes in a way that that accentuates their best features and hides their worst. They also need to be lit correctly and photographed from angles that do not exaggerate their size. But there is only so much a photographer can do.

In this case, working with a wonderful, patient and super-enthusiastic model who understood the importance of “working the shot” to make her real-world beauty come through in photos, we were able to keep trying new variations of poses and lighting until we got the dazzling images we both wanted.

An inexperienced model

Elizabeth had worked with a number of photographers in Okinawa, but not many of them were pros with extensive experience shooting models. I’m not a fashion photographer either and most of my paid work has been with families, which is really a very different kind of shooting. The times I have worked with models, I have found it refreshing that they are generally quite able to take direction and seem to intuitively understand what I want them to do. It’s a bit more work trying to get a less experienced model into just the right position, but Elizabeth’s super-positive disposition and desire to get the best possible result more than made up for her lack of “professional” modeling experience. And I should say, once she started to see the results after I showed her the images on the camera viewscreen, she too started to just understand what she needed to do.

Shooting at night while trying to expose the background

A combination of high ISO settings, low shutter speeds, and having to shoot with wide apertures makes for a bit of a tightrope walk. If the background is well lit, ISO speeds can come down, apertures can get narrower and shutter speeds can rise, all incrementally, but every bit helps. What I find works is to just accept that the background cannot be brought out to the exposure value it needs to be in camera. It’s a job for post-processing and you can expect to push the whole image by about a stop. With a camera that performs well in low light, this might be feasible, but the super-high resolution sensors on some cameras actually produce a lot of noise. That’s why 30MP is enough for me in low light.

The decision to make shooting is whether you want to shoot your model hot (i.e. brightly lit) and just bring up the background with the shadows slider in Lightroom, or shoot her a bit dark and boost the whole image. The look will be a bit different in the final image. If you want her to really pop, shoot hot. If you want her to blend (like in the umbrella shots or the first close up), shoot a bit dark.

Shooting hand-held

It is usually possible, even desirable, to shoot on a tripod when possible in order to avoid blurry images from camera shake especially at night when low-light conditions force photographers to set longer shutter speeds than they would like to. But it’s not always possible to use a tripod, particularly when the angle and distance you want puts your shooting position in the middle of a busy sidewalk. Some photographers say that it ruins the spontaneity, but that is not the issue when you’ve got strobes and you’re aiming for a precise composition.

If you’re shooting on long lenses to get good compression in the shot (i.e. bring the background closer to the model, like in the shot on the pathway). It is very hard to avoid camera shake. High Speed Sync is an option, but if your ISO is already set to 3200, you can’t really boost your shutter speed without increasing ISO to the point at which the image is too noisy to be useable, even on a camera that performs well in low light conditions. You have to decide just how sharp the image needs to be. In a professional situation where a lack of sharpness could ruin your reputation and lose you a lot of future business, it may be better to not even try for the shot.

In closing, remember that this wasn’t a “professional” shoot. I told Elizabeth I just wanted to try out my new camera before the pro gig I had the following weekend. Experimentation was what it was all about. That said, I wanted to be sure I had images I could blog about, she could post on Instagram and anywhere else she wanted, and that I could use in my advertising. I think we succeeded.

Paul Sean Grieve

I am a professional designer, photographer and author living and working in Okinawa, Japan.

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