This past year was beyond pretty good to Tori Soper Photography. We (when I say we, I mean everyone that helps me make this possible including my trusted Assistant Whitney, my better half who keeps me caffeinated and of course Charlie Parker, my four-legged companion who is excellent company during the long hours of post-production) managed to stay consistently busy and completely out of trouble which is quite an endeavor. There were several larger projects for both new and returning clients that included everything from environmental portrait cover shoots and corporate lifestyle assignments along with a handful of larger conventions over at McCormick Place and I got back to doing some on-location product photography which admittedly I have missed doing.
As the year comes to a close it does get quiet and this brings with it a much appreciated breather and just enough time to consider the invaluable changes made over the past year and how I want to move into and position myself for the following year. A few key ingredients of this years’ successes evolved from both the actual photography itself as well as what goes on behind the scenes to make sure the phone keeps ringing and the inquiries keep coming.
It can be incredibly easy to fall into and rely on a formulaic approach for creating environmental and corporate portraits and of course it can work for all purposes, cash flow, client satisfaction, etc. but at some point the style needs to evolve. And I am at that point. I consider my work to be clean, approachable, somewhat still and almost classic but I would like to push it and experiment even more. We started doing this a few months back with more varied lighting and utilizing available light, incorporating candid portraits with the subjects looking off camera and shooting outdoors. I want to get those shots that make the viewer feel that they are seeing this person in the photo as they are, not as I want to present them.
One of the keys to approaching this is having the flexibility to shoot in whatever location we want with access to power not being an issue. I have done many a location scout searching for the best environments to set-up for our assignments and spend as much time looking for outlets as I do scouting the scene. But not anymore. I finally found a reliable solution to powering our equipment that does not weigh as much as a small child and packs more than enough power. These 3.5 lb battery packs from Photogenic have proven to be worth every penny and have completely opened up our options. Outdoors? No problem. Wasting time taping down cords with an excessive amount of gaffers tape? Not anymore. Now we have the mobility and the freedom to shoot anyone, anywhere.
And of course, there is the business end of things. The joy of my life that is e-mail blasts, marketing calls and postcard mailers that I have been outsourcing is all being brought back in-house as I love devoting my time to this. As the saying goes “half the money I spend on marketing is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” So, rather than outsourcing, I may as well give it a go on my own as I have a feeling I may very well know what I am doing at this point. The e-mail blasts, postcards and PDF portfolios have been given a refresh along with the website which will have several new images to show as of the new year. The list of potential clients that I believe my work is a solid match for is made and the schpeel is a-go. Now it’s time to get this all on the schedule so in most cases it’s just a matter of pressing send and making a run to the post office. The key here is make small blocks of time devoted to the rest: social media, blogging (which I kinda love) and the phone calls and attempt not to overwhelm myself by over-committing.
And finally, whether it is this coming year or 10 years down the line, the commitment that I will always carry along with me from year to year is the objective of never giving my clients a reason to worry and the promise to make my work consistently ambitious.
For a long time, researchers believed that there were only 6 expressions that everyone in the world could identify: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. But with over 42 muscles in the human face, the combinations are nearly limitless. Since photographs don’t contain any auditory or written communication, understanding and being able to read the subtleties is so important in portrait photography as these expressions are the main method of communicating our emotions to our audience.
The moments of real emotion can fly by so quickly, you really have to be patient, wait on them, make them happen, seek them out. But once they emerge, it’s essential to shoot frame after frame to capture that awesome instant.
Just as important, recognizing these emotions in others also helps us determine whether or not we are truly connecting with our subjects. When I am shooting, I am in the moment. Of course, I like to direct when it’s needed but the approach is gentle, expressions genuine and atmosphere relaxed. I think the good stuff comes organically and evolves when my subjects get comfortable with my camera and with me.
There is no Photoshop action or plug-in filter that can replicate the impressions and impact of a spontaneous laugh or the sparkle in the eyes that accompanies a true smile. You’ve got to be fully engaged in that moment and remember, “Don’t shoot what it looks like, shoot what it feels like.”-David Allen Harvey
Occasionally, I walk into an assignment to do an environmental portrait for a magazine or an editorial headshot for a corporation and it is like a kid walking into a candy store with an unlimited amount of cash in their pocket. There are so many backgrounds to work with that include beautiful architecture, funky angles, cool lighting and of course stunning artwork. Just a little something to add dimension and interest to the shot while at the same time being relevant to the subject I am photographing.
But then again, there are a handful of cases when I go in to do a portrait and there is little to nothing that catches my eye and most certainly would not capture the attention of the reader. Thankfully, my mother always inspired me to make something from nothing. I always thought she was being obsessively frugal when she was unimpressed by the strong cases I could make in support of hooking me up with the newest whatever was cool at the time novelty but apparently she wanted me to have a little fun with the best toy that would always be available to me: my imagination.
I owe her. Big time. Especially when I consider all of the places I have walked into that initially seem like they have close to nothing to offer that would serve as an interesting background. But from a professional photographer’s perspective, there is no such thing as uninteresting. So, in honor of my mom, here are a few tips on how I make a little something from nothing.
1.) Change the way You Look At It
We are consistently looking at our environment at eye-level and the subject of primary importance is typically centered in our focal range. Instead, change it up and shoot from different angles while keeping the subject off-center.
2.) Frame Using Foreground and Background
Using what is both in front of and behind the subject in super-soft focus helps to frame and direct the viewers attention to what is of primary importance in the shot. Especially using something relevant like a textbook for a portrait of a professor or student, even just a hint of it, adds more visual interest.
3.) Experiment with Different Lighting Modifiers
Available light can leave much to be desired so I like having the option of completely creating and controlling this. This is where you get the contrast, the little bling that creates dimension. But lighting alone, even when done well, sometimes needs a kicker and this is where I use gels and cookies to create a little something where there was nothing.
4.) Play around in Post
As a portrait Photographer, I do not like to take post-production too far as the end-product should accurately reflect what was done in-camera and match the style of the client whether that be a trade-magazine or corporation. However, playing around with vignetting, pushing the details in HDR or tweaking the curves for contrast are all fair game and these small enhancements can make a big difference and add to the visual style, content and interest of a portrait.
So, no matter the space we are working with, there are always interesting visual elements that can be added through composition, lighting and post-production that bring a little bit more bling to each shot. It just takes a little imagination. Thanks, Mom.
I was going through one of my portfolios yesterday and came across many of the mistakes that I repeatedly made just starting off. When I first decided I was going to make it in the business of professional photography, the best way for me to learn was by assisting established shooters, committing my equipment manuals to memory and shooting as much as possible. Now with the wealth of hints, cues and tips available online, I thought I would throw in my 2 cents and save a few beginners from making the same mistakes I did!
1. Shooting in JPG
I totally understand that professional photojournalists, with the need for quick turnaround, probably shoot primarily in JPG. But for a commercial photographer who has a little more time to play with, RAW is a must. When shooting in JPG, the camera applies it’s own sharpening, white balance, saturation and contrast which you have little to no control over. Shooting RAW on the other hand, allows the photographer to control all of these options in post-production on top of the fact that there is no image compression.
In addition to the basic principles you can play around with in Photoshop RAW, there are several other dialogue boxes behind this one that allow for adjustments like vignetting and spot-dusting for those of us who have a less than pristinely clean sensor.
-My confidant and assistant pal Whitney. Lugger of gear, comedian and fine human being.
2. Freaked Out by Flash
First, I completely tried to avoid it as I was using a camera with a built-in pop-up flash. The results were frightening: flat, harsh and typically over or under-exposed. But then I picked up a Canon off-camera flash and the heavens opened. There are so many cool things you can do with an external flash and the controls are very simple to use. Also, there are several modifiers and gels that you can pick-up that can create different affects like adding warmth to the photo. Even more fun if you want to get real serious is to use several speedlights simultaneously, say for your main light and then as a hair-light.
-Not a photo of mine as I no longer do this. Thanks you, World Wide Web.
3. Never Backing Up
Yes, one would think I would know better but it really was when I just started. I was upgrading to a new operating system and who knows what happened but I wiped out my external hard-drive with all of my work on it. Yep, gone. I ended up taking the drive in for a recovery and after a huge-investment and not even 50% of my work recovered, I vowed that would never happen again.
So, here is my recommendation. Back-up and back-up again. Whether it is photographs, documents or e-mails, if you are on a Mac, get yourself a 1TB external hard-drive and use Time Machine. I would bet that PC’s have a similar option as well. Second thing, back-up all of your files off-cite. Many of the online back-up servers have different options so you will have to look around to see what works best for you and your budget. Backblaze has worked great for me. I have it backing up my files whenever I import anything new to my desktop, it has an unlimited storage option and will also back-up external hard-drives which for me is a must.
4. Choosing the Wrong Gear
First, I was Nikkon. Then I went to Canon as they seemed to be running ahead of the curve as digital was just starting to take off.
Then, for a little while I had a studio so I was using these enormous power-packs that weigh 30 pounds a piece and the lights themselves are about 8 or 9 lbs. Now, with the studio days over and being on the move as a corporate and editorial photographer, i.e. location shooter, the weight of those packs (30 lbs x 3 packs plus light heads) was going to be the death of both myself and my assistants.
I have since moved to more mobile units called the Speedotron Force series which I absolutely love. They are compact, lighter, have fast recycle times and are as sturdy as my other system. Needless to say, I wish I had more foresight to consider what I might be doing down the line when I initially purchased the bulky power-packs and heads so if you know anyone looking for some studio lighting, have them jingle me.
But maybe even more important are the choices of lenses. Starting out, I was under the delusion that a 24-200 would do the trick for everything and I would not have to worry about changing lenses. But once you start getting into apertures, image-stabilization modes and optics, it soon becomes apparent that each lens serves a very different purpose. I use my wide angle for group shots and to bring funky angles and composition to an editorial photograph. The 70-200 L series is awesome for a shallow depth of field on corporate portraits and lifestyle photos. So, if you are really serious about creating awesome images, hold off on buying until you can buy the best glass that you need now as well as down the line.
-This is from way back in the day when I actually could lift my air cases.
5. Speeding Through It
I used to get super-nervous before every assignment, like can’t sleep, check to make sure I set the alarm 12 times kind of nervous. Surprisingly though, I could always keep my cool (and yes, I still do) on the job. Now, the anxiety has been replaced with planning and excitement thanks to experience. But way back when, I would rush myself through the process of shooting especially when I had an audience.
There are so many things to pay attention to in addition to F-stops and ISO’s. Even with my assistants who act as my “lookout”, I am still checking that the tie is straight for the corporate head shot, the lighting is dead-on for the editorial portrait and now when I am asked “can we just add something real quick?” I ask for the details before I just nod and submissively answer yes, just to make sure that not only can we do it but we can do it right.
When it comes down to it, the final product, whether it is a flower or a financial officer, reflects back on me. I always ask myself if there is anything else that I can do to make the images better in-camera. And if I know I have nailed the details, only then it is time to shoot away.
That’s my 2 cents, a humbling admission of guilt that I offer in hopes that the emerging photographers of tomorrow will avoid those same mistakes I made years ago.
I do love a challenge. One of the more frequent questions I am asked when showing my portfolio to a potential client, scheduling a corporate photography shoot and often while setting up my lighting is “how much time do you need?” The key is speed as the majority of the people I photograph have little time to spare for their portrait. It is also not uncommon to walk into an assignment having been told prior that we have a half-hour with the CEO and just as we are about to start, the sky has fallen and the apocalypse is around the corner. That precious half-hour can turn quickly into a matter of minutes and still we have to get it done. It is not unlike being in the driver’s seat and hearing “are we there yet, are we there yet?”
If I have an hour to set-up, I will use it. If I have 5 minutes to set-up, I will work it. It’s a matter of planning, anticipating and more than anything…intuition which comes from plenty of experience.
There is that added plus of keeping one’s cool as well. Personally, I am not a big fan of having my photograph taken which probably explains why I am happiest when behind the camera. But really, I empathize. When people are being photographed they are in the spotlight and not everyone is a fan of being the center of attention. It is super important to be chill, to be comforting, to be confident as my subjects’ will always reflect where I am at. Just like a party, when you meet that socially awkward guy that is hiding behind his Manhattan and a plate of sautéed shrimp with a chile cilantro rub (or if you are at a gathering with me…it’s more likely a Heineken and pigs in a blanket), he makes you a little nervous, right?
We all feed off of one another and dispositions, even if they are momentary, they are still contagious. In order to capture the real moments and make our clients not only act natural but feel natural, I consistently remind myself that that our subjects are not the only people featured in these portraits….we are in them, too.
Every aspect that goes into creating a dynamic image is imperative. As a professional photographer, the process begins with planning, conceptualization, understanding the intention of the project, connecting with the subject, composition, lighting and…I could go on.
Oftentimes it is argued in the photographic community that we tend to rely too heavily on post-production. The claim is that we ought to present the image as it was captured as opposed to manipulating the details. However, editing programs such as Lightroom and Photoshop were created using the same techniques that were once applied in film processing and print development. Dodging, burning, exposure and contrast adjustments allow the photographer to both control and promote their vision for that image.
As the majority of the work I do is for commercial and editorial projects, the post-processing stage is of critical importance. The changes may sometimes be minimal but the impact in making the photograph better than reality helps to create an emotional response that engages the audience. In order to take full control of all of the variables, most professional photographers, including myself, shoot in a RAW workflow where the greatest benefits include:
The highest level of quality -this format records all of the image data captured by the sensor. Unlike JPEGS where the information is compressed and interpreted by the camera settings, RAW files leave the photos “visual branding” up to the eye of the photographer.
Non-destructive editing – when making adjustments to a RAW file, the original data goes unaffected. JPEGS however, lessen in quality every time they are manipulated which is why they are referred to as “lossy” file formats.
Below is an example of the RAW dialogue box in Photoshop CS 6. Keep in mind, there are several more panels in this software that are not pictured here but provide additional enhancements such as lens corrections and sharpening.
Though I am not a huge fan of showing my out-of-camera- originals, this shot is a great example of the benefits of post-production. As you can see, there are plenty of options to play with here including white balance, contrast, exposure, highlights, shadows and my favorites: clarity which controls the contrast of the midtones in the image and vibrance which boosts saturation without affecting those colors that are already bright.
After playing with the sliders and processing the image, here is the result:
Note that the photo was cropped, the contrast adjusted to create deeper shadows, and the table in front of the subject was exposed to create more texture.
Now, when I took this photograph, I had an idea in mind: high contrast and over-exposed background highlights that would then essentially frame my subject. In order to finalize this, the rest of the editing was completed in Photoshop CS 6. Check it out:
In the final image above, I used a diffusion filter to overexpose the highlights. Also, the breaks in the frosted glass where you could see into the room behind it in the original photo were edited to remove the distractions. Finally, the image was also cropped and rotated slightly to remove the ceiling.
Although, I initially began with a properly exposed image, the colors and contrast were not as interesting as I had intended. Seeing beyond this and having an end result in mind, the benefits of post-production created a more dramatic and powerful photograph that corresponds with my vision for the image as well as with my clients’ overall view of what the end result should look like.