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Understanding and Capturing Expressions

Understanding and Capturing Expressions

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.

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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.

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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

Corporate Photography for the Amata Offices in Chicago

Corporate Photography for the Amata Offices in Chicago

One of my favorite assignments over the past several weeks was for the Amata Offices of Chicago who needed corporate photography including head shots, several environmental portraits and a group photo.  Amata offers corporate office suites along with all the bells and whistles including meeting space & phone answering services which is especially helpful for companies that have managed to outgrow their home offices.

As a kudos to their clientele, they offered an open head shot session where people could stop in and get an awesome portrait for their LinkedIn and other social media profiles in a matter of minutes courtesy of Amata.

With the help of my Assistants Whitney and Conrad, we had the lighting set-up in no time and Beth and Anne from Amata ran the scheduling seamlessly with little wait time not to mention keeping their clients incredibly entertained while they waited for their session.  Here’s a few selects from the 50 corporate head shots we managed to complete in just a few hours.

After a quick break, it was on to part two.  8 environmental portraits and a group photo for the law offices of Birnbaum, Haddon, Gelfman & Arnoux who share the corporate suite with Amata.  This is most definitely a lot to take on in just an afternoon but we had strategically planned and scouted prior to the assignment and with two assistants, I knew we could nail it.  Granted, I may have forgotten to hydrate, needed to remind myself to breathe and felt like I was training for a marathon but the results were awesome.  Here’s a few selects:

This portrait of Jacalyn Birnbaum has turned out to be one of my new favorites.  Apparently, I am not the only one who has a collection of toys in the office to keep myself entertained.

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What you don’t see is that on the wall that is not pictured is that Jackie has a cabinet with each shelf dedicated to a particular theme associated with an animated character.  A few shelves are taken up by the villains: figurines of the Evil Queen from Snow White and Ursula, the sea witch from The Little Mermaid.  Below this, there is a full shelf dedicated to the heroic figures of Jiminy Cricket and Yoda.

No, Jackie does not strike me as someone who hits Comic-Con or hangs out at the Renaissance Faire, not ever.  Rather she uses her display to explain to her clients who are pursuing a divorce that the whole unfolding can seriously bring out the worst in all of us and her job is to act as the wise intermediary, the Yoda, the Jiminy Cricket, that can pull everything back to the center and add diplomacy to the process.  I so did not see that coming and absolutely love it!  Pretty sure Jackie was the true character that day!

And the grand finale…the group photo of the Birnbaum, Haddon, Gelfman & Arnoux law team for the article that will be appearing in Forbes.

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A big thanks to Beth Lestingi, Anne Huffman, Jackie Burnbaum and my buddies Whitney and Conrad for making this an incredibly productive and fun day!

Making Interesting Portraits Anywhere

Making Interesting Portraits Anywhere

Occasionally, I walk into an assignment to do an environmental portrait for a magazine or  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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

5 Things I Learned Not To Do By Doing Them

5 Things I Learned Not To Do By Doing Them

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.

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-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.

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-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.

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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.

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-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.

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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.

It’s All In The Details

It’s All In The Details

Crain’s Communications is a relatively large publisher with over 30 business and trade magazines under its’ brand, several of them which are based in Chicago.  As I have been putting much of my focus on corporate photography, I had been targeting two of their magazines for over a year in hopes of setting up a portfolio viewing but had not gotten very far on my own.  Shortly after I started up with the Agency Access’ Marketing Campaign Manager,  their telemarketing efforts paid off as they had gotten me appointments with both Crain’s Chicago Business as well as Business Insurance Magazine.

Both meetings went exceptionally well and I was awarded editorial photography assignments from each publication.  Specifically, Business Insurance was sending me off on a full-day shoot in Indianapolis to photograph their cover story for an ongoing feature highlighting the 2013 Risk Managers of the Year.

The scheduling was crucial as we needed to drive over 3 hours one-way, set-up our different scenarios including a group shot with of over 12 people, not break a sweat and get back to Chicago to process the files for approval.  With the help of the Photo Editors’ direction and my contacts in Indianapolis, we were able to nail down the timing, complete the required four shots and with time to spare, snuck in one more scenario for good measure.

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One of things that stuck with me that day was the formal cautioning I received from the Risk Managers’ Assistant prior to shooting, when she said our main subject was extremely formal, held her breath for a few seconds and seemed to be glaring at me.  I had given no indication that she could expect anything less than absolute professionalism so I could not help but think she was concerned that I look as if  I may have just gotten my license to drive though I am about to hit the big 4-0.

I took note of her advice and when speaking with Michael, the Risk Manager of focus, proceeded to let him know what I wanted to show through his portraits: Approachable Authority.  He immediately agreed, both relieved and confident in how I was coming at  the story, opening up just a little bit more as the day went on.

Chicago Editorial Photographer

Chicago Editorial Photographer

Finally, after completing our last shot, Michael asked me if we wouldn’t mind coming up to his office to do a “quick” portrait of him with the Capitol rotunda in the background. While I was with him in the office, he was completely appreciative, remarking on how easy we made this whole production appear and thanked me for my professionalism.  I am not entirely sure what he had been expecting but I was certainly relieved we gave him what he needed to feel comfortable.

Once the job was delivered, my Photo Editor and Creative Director were thrilled as was Michael and all of the staff at Simon Properties.

Whether it is just taking one more step in the marketing cycle, not just an e-mail or a postcard but reaching out though a phone call.  Or taking the time to not only listen but absorb what our subjects have to say as they will always tell us what they need to in order to be more engaged and open.   The whole process from seeking out this client to delivering the final product reinforces the idea that excelling truly  lies in the details.

The Benefits of Digital Post-Production

The Benefits of Digital Post-Production

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.

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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:

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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:

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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.