Portraiture, and an amateur model

This is going to be one of my longest posts in a long, long time, so prepare yourself.

Yesterday I did one of my first proper portraiture shoots with a friend of mine, and I thought I’d go through the process with you and give an insight into how I created some of the photos from the shoot.

I’m quite new to portraiture, I’ve always wanted to get into it but it’s just never something I’ve had experience with – posing people isn’t particularly a talent of mine, so I can’t offer advice in that department as I realise I have a long way to go until I could even think of doing portrait shoots like this for a paying model. The model seen below was one of my close friends, so it was easy to work together as we already had good chemistry, but although she was the one who wanted to do the shoot, she was extremely anxious about it and wouldn’t stop laughing and shying away from the camera. My solution to this was to sit her on a sofa comfortably, and just chat together – casually integrating a photo or two into the mix so she’d start to feel comfortable with the shoot.

All of these photos were shot on a Canon 1D Mark IIN, which a 50mm F/1.8 (yes, the dirt cheap nifty fifty). I never used more than 2 speedlights, but sometimes had a reflector as well. And I only used my own sitting room for the shoot. Included in my sitting room was a sofa, a grey-ish wall, and a small section of wall above the fireplace that had this really classy black and silver wallpaper as seen at the very bottom of this post. Lets get into it then:

StuComerford_20140301_0514 StuComerford_20140301_0514-21/200, F/2, ISO 100, 50mm

The two photos above are the same photo, just processed differently. The bottom one isn’t quite black and white – it has a slight sepia tone to it to add a bit of warmth (it’s my preferred version of the photo I’d say).

Believe it or not, that’s not a natural light photo. It was actually quite a dull day out. I had one flash in the room behind the sofa, to illuminate the white curtains in the background, it also added a tiny bit of a hair light (or more of a sofa light in this situation). Then I had another speedlight with an umbrella very close to the model, on the left of the camera, which gave a very soft light to illuminate her face.

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You can see here how the light in the room behind the model worked to simulate a daylight feel. It was a Canon 580 EX I speedlight that I used, with the little built-in diffusion panel thing to give it a 14mm zoom. I pointed it at the white ceiling in the room and closed the curtains in front of it – it did exactly as I wanted it too. Shooting at F/2 also helped to have the whole background melt together into some lovely smooth bokeh.

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Moving on to a grey wall, I decided to go a bit artsy fartsy for a moment (for my own pleasure). So went for a portrait that was a lot more unconventional. This was lit with just one speedlight to camera left, with an umbrella to diffuse the light. This was just a shot I wanted to grab before she changed outfit. The model is sitting on a small coffee table about 2-3 feet away from the wall (the width of my sitting room made for this being a very cramped situation).

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This is just to give you an example of the table she’s sitting on, and how cramped the space was – this was as wide as I could get, I had moved her back to about 2 feet from the wall and I was leaning back as far as I could, still resulting in the tips of her fingers being cut off which really bothers me.
Another note about this photo – the shirt she’s wearing was a bit too big for her, and wasn’t flattering to her waist. So I had her open the bottom button and bunched up the back of it and tied it together with an elastic band, so it seemed to naturally pull in around her waist and open up on her hips, making it a more flattering shape. Again, this portrait was only lit with 1 speedlight and an umbrella, but I introduced a silver reflector on camera right so it wasn’t as in shadow as it was before.

StuComerford_20140301_06761/125, F/2, ISO 100, 50mm

This was lit with 2 speedlights, both with umbrellas on both camera right and camera left.

At this point, she was starting to get a bit more comfortable with the posing but she was still fairly uncomfortable and didn’t know how to position herself (I wasn’t that helpful either as I’m completely clueless about posing models). I came up with the idea of taking her scarf that she was wearing that morning on her way to meet me, and just have her wrap it around her next and play around with it however she wanted. I know that wearing a scarf helps me feel better when I’m a bit self-conscious so I thought it couldn’t do any harm – it ended up being the best decision of the shoot.

StuComerford_20140301_07061/125, F/2, ISO 100, 50mm

StuComerford_20140301_07261/200, F/2.2, ISO 100, 50mm

The scarf was working wonders for how comfortable she felt posing, as it gave her a prop to play with and made her feel like she wasn’t just there doing nothing. The introduction of the bow made no sense in colour as it was a strong red which went horribly with the blue scarf – but I knew that they could work reasonably well in black and white together.

StuComerford_20140301_08151/200, F/2.8, ISO 100, 50mm

And to finish off the shoot I wanted to utilise that bit of wallpaper above the fireplace. For this I had to get her to stand on a chair and slightly sit on mantelpiece.  It made leaning against the wall easier for her, but in a whole it was a bit of an awkward position – just try to remember that the camera sees things differently to how you see them! The positioning worked for this situation. It was lit with just 1 speedlight and an umbrella, camera right.

In terms of post processing for all of the photos, they were all done in Adobe Lightroom 5. Basic shadow adjustment and sharpening was the main thing that was done to all of them – I’d lift the shadows on all the photos by using the shadow slider and the tone curve mainly, a slight increase in contrast and some sharpening would do it for nearly all of the photos – with a small vignette here or there. No skin retouching was done to any of the photos, it’s too time consuming and I just don’t believe in it for most purposes.

Well, hopefully that was helpful to some of you! As always, I’m open to questions about anything, just leave a comment on the post or get in touch with me on twitter: @StuartComerford

Visual Lexicon

Working on a new brief for college titled “Visual Lexicon” – the idea is to take images to fit under certain headings that are given to us. I’ll admit, my work on it so far hasn’t been particularly great – I’ve been very lazy with this assignment by leaving it to the last minute, but I’ve gotten a few images that I’m reasonably happy with. Here are a few of the images I took the other day while working on the project, along with their titles:

Movement

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Pattern

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Translucence

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Bray, Dublin

Remember when I said I’d blog more frequently? Yeah…that didn’t go so well, but here’s some new stuff for you!

I’m working on some college projects at the moment, some rather interesting ones actually, and I’m about to move into shooting analog (film) so there’ll be plenty of that on here in the next few months! As well as a lot of talk about my upcoming feature length film titled “The Kids Aren’t Alright” – more information about that can be found on its website: http://tkaa-movie.com/

Anyway, photographs! Here’s some recent ones from a shoot out in Bray, in Dublin. These were all shot on a Canon 50D, and Sigma 24-60mm F/2.8.

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Exploring my artistic side

I’ve created a new tab on my website called “Artistic Projects” – I’ve never been really open to the idea of exploring the more “artsy” side of photography, but as I’m in college studying photography now I thought I’d delve into a bit of project work. Building stories around particular themes, or just posting the college work I’ve done.

At the moment one of my assignments is up there, a Kitchen Still Life assignment we got about two weeks ago.

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As well as a personal project I did recently titled “Through the Fence” – which simply put, revolves around looking at/through a fence.

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It was a cool little project that developed while I was out on a photowalk recently, and I thought it was something quite special which I could develop into something bigger in the future!

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But for now, I’m going to keep things simple and just get stuff up on my site as frequently as possible, to get my inner artist to blossom into a beautiful– scratch that, that sounds pretty lame. I just want to take cool photos.

The full photo projects are available on my website, here: http://www.stuartcomerford.com/Artistic-Projects

My first “creative” photoshoot

I come up with a lot of ideas quite frequently, but usually they end up in the form of drawings as opposed to photographs. It was a very spur of the moment thing yesterday when I ended up turning this 2 month old idea into a photoshoot – I was spending the day with one of my closest friends, and she suddenly decided that she wanted to do a photoshoot with me.  So I let her flick through my idea book and she picked this one, needless to say I was quite happy with her choice.

This was a messy shoot, there was paint all over everything and I had absolutely nothing planned. We worked with the space in my back garden, it was convenient and saved us the time of travelling to find a location so suddenly. I set up 3 light stands and moved them around slightly throughout the shoot, as I wasn’t particularly sure what exactly I wanted out of the shoot. The set up was, 2 naked speedlights on either side of the model (raised up rather high), and one naked speedlight pointed at the back wall.

I shot them with a Canon 1D Mark IIN and a Canon 70-200mm F/2.8L. It took a while to get into shooting, nothing seemed to be working for me. But eventually I started getting results I liked.

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I can’t imagine doing this with anyone other than a very close friend, I had a particular way I wanted the paint to look on her face so I had to paint it on myself, it took about 20 minutes to get it basically right, then it had to be touched up every few shots to keep it looking reasonably fresh.

I wanted a particular gritty type of look, with the only real colour in the image coming from the tears (the paint on the face).

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I’m still really new to doing portraits, especially ones in this style – I’ll call them “non-conventional”. But I enjoyed it, and feel like I got some good images out of it.

Please head over to my facebook page to keep up to date with my work, especially since my first short film will be released in the next few days.

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Eliminating distractions when photographing concerts

In music photography, one of the biggest concerns (apart from lighting) is how nice the stage is.  When indoors, the stage is usually (but not always) lovely, it’s clean, has awesome lights and is sometimes customised for the band you’re photographing – depending on how big they are. But when you’re outdoors, stages generally tend to be nothing more than a small tent raised off the ground with people crammed closely around it, or a huge tent with scaffolding everywhere at a festival.

Well, the small tent situation is what many early stage music photographers get stuck with. It’s either this or a small dingy pub (I haven’t quite figured out how to make the most out of these situations yet). These events are generally the easiest to get access to as a beginner, which sucks, because no matter how hard you try you’ll never be able to get amazing looking photos to help you progress, show off your skills and gain access to bigger events. However, they are good learning grounds when it comes to watching your frame. You’ll have to work harder to keep unwanted objects out of your background/foreground because the stage honestly looks like someone just threw everything there. My first paid live gig was to photograph Kate Nash in a tiny, terrible pub here in Dublin. I hate every single photo I took that evening, and I hated the entire evening because of the god awful stage.

026 - July 03, 2012 - Stuart Comerford

Maybe I’m just spoiled because I’ve never really been in too many terrible venues, but nobody wants to have to shoot in a terrible venue, unfortunately for some it’s unavoidable as they’re trying to assemble a music portfolio to gain press access to better gigs. Everybody wants to just take awesome looking photos. So what’s the best way to make something good out of a bad situation? Well, the other day I photographed Kodaline in the US Embassy here in Dublin, Ireland for the 4th of July celebration. It was a terrible tiny and cluttered stage and the best solution I could find was to shoot tight. I’m not a fan of “standard” focal lengths, I like to go extremely wide or extremely close when I don’t have a specific brief to stick to. I love shooting with telephoto lenses, I love the compression. I’d happily shoot a full body portrait at 200mm, 300mm, it’s just not always ideal.

When you’re in this situation where your surroundings is mostly one big distraction with scaffolding, stands, speakers etc then unless you have a very eventful crowd, shooting wide won’t work out very well. I unfortunately only had a 24-70mm with me on the day of the gig so this is as wide as I was able to go when I moved to the back of the crowd.

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The crowd was pretty poor, when there isn’t much life in the crowd just avoid photographing them. Nothing worse than a photo where somebody in the crowd is looking away from the stage. However, having an eye open for those rare occasions when a photo pops up in the crowd is always smart.

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But when you have a band like Kodaline on the stage, you don’t want to turn around with just photos of the crowd. So, how do you deal with the horrible stage? My main recommendation is to shoot as tight as possible – for me, it was 200mm @F/2.8 which worked a treat.

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However, you might not have an F/2.8 lens or you might not have a lens long enough to compress the background enough to minimise distractions. So you need to find a way to clean up your backgrounds/foregrounds. A handy tip for cleaning up your foreground is to use the crowd to block things by shooting between their shoulders for example.

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This method can be used to different extents, I only have a little bit of their heads in here as I actually shot quite close so didn’t have much to block out. But sometimes, don’t be afraid to just cut out all the distractions and shoot with as much empty space as possible when you find a clean part of the background.

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And remember, you only need one good shot to make it an acceptable shoot. If you can get one good shot from every shoot you do then you’ll be doing better than most people.

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Is gear important?

For making good photos? No. Unless you count your mind/eyes as pieces of gear (I do have to include my brain on a checklist of gear to bring with me for shoots as I frequently find myself making stupid, brainless decisions).

If you want to take good landscapes, portraits, street shots etc. – you can do that with anything. About 90% of photography doesn’t have any sort of gear restrictions, of course better gear can improve things but you can still create magnificent photos with anything that takes a picture. I love using Instagram for example, my phone is the one camera that I have on me all of the time so I’m always taking some photos on it and popping the best ones on my instagram. You see many people on Instagram taking brilliant photos with their phones (not everyone, but there are some great photographers on there). There’s always been a huge cult-like hatred for Instagram but regardless of the means used to take/create the photo, surely if it’s a well taken photo – it’s a well taken photo?

But depending on your chosen field of photography, gear can be of the utmost importance. Sports photography is extremely difficult to do well at with minimal gear. It can be done, you can get some good photos, but to replicate the best you need to have the best gear available – there’s no real way around it. Long lenses, fast bodies, rugged equipment. Then for wedding and music photography you need to have gear that can cope with extremely dark situations – fast aperture lenses and high ISO capable cameras don’t exactly come cheap.

There’s something that I’ve learned over the past year which has really shocked me. “Looking the part” seems to be quite important when it comes to getting hired. Flash a white lens here or there, and you’ll have people whispering “oh, he’s a professional”. Getting people to move out of your way is much easier when you have a big camera and lens. Not very many people took me seriously when I was at a stage where I had minimal gear, only when that started growing to more lenses, bigger gear, bigger bags did I start getting respect for what I did. I can still remember the very first time I brought two lenses on a shoot with me – I was photographing a band’s recording session and I could feel the atmosphere in the room get more serious as I took out the other lens. Now, it was only a 55-250mm lens for my Canon 500D (the day that shoot was done was my 16th birthday, I got that lens as a present from my Mam that morning, the only other lens I had was my kit lens), nothing majorly impressive about the lens but I felt like I was in charge, which was a first.

I say it a lot, but it’s true that we live in a society where nearly everyone considers themselves photographers (thanks a lot, hipster culture) so people naturally look for ways to distinguish the big dogs from the rest of the bunch. Sometimes flashing some fancy looking equipment is the easiest way to stand out – it’s quite a dirty tactic, especially if you then go and produce terrible images, in turn damaging the reputation of professional photography. Looking and acting the part will open doors, your ability will dictate whether or not those doors get slammed shut in your face. I sometimes wear my business card on a lanyard around my neck for 2 purposes, having my contact information easily accessible and showing that I’m a photographer, this is my job.

Go look on 500px and you’ll see that there is a plethora of unbelievable photos that are taken with near ancient equipment. If you want to take great photos then just go outside and start taking pictures with whatever camera you have, practice makes perfect. But unfortunately, in a culture where first impressions mean a lot, looking the part is the easiest way to break into the field. But don’t let that hold you back, I’m still chugging along, building my gear as I go and pushing to get media passes, great photos, and respect for what I do.

 

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