The Importance of Self Portraits [Portrait]

One of the important things to keep in mind when working on lighting is the subject matter.  It's great to know how to light an action figure or even a mannequin but the reality is that with portraiture, you have a subject that's fairly unique.  Each person that gets in front of your camera should feel comfortable knowing that you have a good grasp on lighting a portrait.  

So here's the catch 22:  How do you demonstrate this?  If you can't get people in front of the lens you won't be able to work on the lighting which means you can't demonstrate to others that you are capable. 

Good friends are fantastic if they have the patience to work with you while you tweak and fiddle with the light, but ultimately you may find yourself (as I do) doing self portraits to try out new lighting techniques.  

To do self portraits you'll need to get yourself a remote trigger for the camera of some kind, be it a cheap wireless remote trigger or a full blown cable release (this limits your distance to the camera though). The process is actually simple: take a photo, check the image, make an adjustment, take another frame.  This can get tedious, so you have to have patience yourself.  Shooting self portraits is challenging, but by focusing on one element of the photo at a time, you can really start to put together something cool.  

The framing is my first step.  It can take a few minutes to get down, but having a stool or something to sit on that you can use as a starting point really helps.  I usually get the focus in the ball park at this point, but while framing it's not critical.

When the framing is down, I decide on how I want to light.  Will I use big light, small light, one light, two lights?  For me this is usually decided early on, as I would typically be testing a new light modifier or working on a new setup for a particular application.  Sometimes I'll try something and it won't work at all.  I then begin the exercise of adjusting it until it does.

The two photos above were shot with the same light modifier, but the second photo uses a reflector to the left of the frame and the softbox has a grid on it to control spill.  The grid also adds definition to the face, so I look a bit more weathered. It took some time to get the placement right for each of these images.

For example, in the photo below, I was trying a light setup with the main light high and pointed straight down, with three reflectors arranged to form a box. There's loads of fill light in this setup and it's great for a business headshot type of portrait.  

I'll sometimes get creative with lighting to make a fast fall off, or feather the softbox to create moody and dramatic shadows.  In the portrait below I was working on exactly that, with a grey backdrop.

And finally, for the lighting side, I will sometimes attempt to emulate lighting by the great masters, such as Yousef Karsh.  I still don't think I got the lighting right in this next photo, but I was attempting to do the harsh shadowed look that is so prevalent in Karsh's work.  I have a pretty edgy face, so getting the correct look with harsh shadows was a real challenge.

Once I have the lighting close, I begin to work on the focus, and the expression.  The camera is not focusing for each photo.  If I'm shooting at f/11, everything will be in focus, and in reality I'm not too concerned about nailing it.  If, however my goal is to shoot the portrait at f/2.8 or even f/1.8, I have to set the focus as closely as I can, running back and forth correcting it until it's very close.  I then bracket my shot; shoot, lean forward a bit, shoot, lean forward a bit more, shoot.

This is probably the most tedious part.  The results are worth it though, and if you spend the time working on light, focus and expression you can get a really cool portrait no matter where you are, be it a studio or against a blank wall in your home (like the two photos below).

Don't forget about the expression!

Now I have some photos that show people that I can use a light.  I didn't have to bore my friends either!

One final point to all this:  If you're like me and you will drag your significant other in front of the camera all the time, they will tire of it.  Self portraits are a way to keep them happy by not being in front of the camera, and by having some portraits of you for their desk at work.  Keep it simple: "Happy wife, Happy life".


More street photography with the iPhone and VSCO Cam [Street]

"The best camera is the one you have with you".  Truer words have never been spoken, and I have to say that I'm loving the combination of my iPhone and VSCO Cam for street photography.  The day I forgot to bring my camera with me over my lunch break was one of the first times I thought "Know what? I'll just use my iPhone.  I have this pretty cool app that I can process the photos with, so why not?"  Man, this works.

The thing that gets me the most is when I carry my phone no one pays any attention to me.  They don't know I'm taking their photo at all, and if they do, they certainly don't let on.  

I was in a forum recently and mentioned the incredible burst-mode in the iPhone, and was surprised by the response that "That's why iPhone photos have no soul". I call bullshit. 

The truth is that using some basic stealth shooting techniques and making use of the wide angle lens, I'm getting very soulful results, in my humblest of opinions anyway.

Do you suppose people would be as loose and expressive if they knew I was taking their photo?  

The honest truth is that I'm not sure that I would have access like this with a full size camera.  I don't think people would let me in.  When I walk past them, finger on the trigger, I smile, say hello, and then I'm on my way.  I haven't been intrusive at all, and the expressions I get back are honest rather than posed. 

As for the app, VSCO Cam is brilliant.

The basic app is free, available for both Apple and Android devices.  You can take photos through the app, but sadly it disables the volume control as a shutter button and doesn't support burst mode.  Because of this I stick to the iPhone's camera app then import the images to VSCO Cam for editing.

The app comes with some number (I've forgotten how many) basic presets that give you a starting point for your photos, and they look great, not hipstagram-ish.  You can edit lots of global settings like exposure, contrast, shadows and sharpness to name a few.

 I went and bought the rest of the presets that didn't come with the free version, and it only cost me $7.  Once you get your head around the editing tools and find the filters you like to use the best, image creation becomes effortless.  I've actually filled up my iPhone's hard drive already, and need to make some more room very soon.

If you would like to see more of this kind of work, feel free to visit my "Grid" at  This is a small collection of the photos that I take and share using my iPhone and the VSCO Cam app.

More updates coming soon!

Winter Blues and Photography Struggles [Street]

It gets cold outside this time of year.  It's not just the cold either, it's the precipitation, and the lack of subject matter.  Everything is grey, everyone's wrapped up and they don't really want to be bothered.

The worst part is that because of these conditions I haven't been shooting much.  It's very difficult to organize photo walks, outdoor shoots or even studio sessions due to weather conditions.  I certainly don't want to be putting anyone at risk because I want my shot.  It's not worth it.

I haven't been shooting as much as I'd like but I have been combating the winter blues by getting more involved in Karate.  It's a great way for me to unwind after a crappy day at work and feel good about myself.  With each lesson I'm learning more and getting great exercise.  The strange part is that since I started going I've put on 10 or 12 pounds, but I've no idea where it went.  I don't think my body shape has changed at all.  I'm certainly not fatter, because all my pants still fit me great.

Anyway, what I have shot in the last few weeks is a bit of iPhone street photography, found at  I also organized a photowalk last Sunday to get out and shake off the rust.  I wanted to give my new Sigma 50mm a test drive on the streets too.

I was even brave enough to ask for a portrait of Josh here, who was out having a smoke while his dog Sriracha (like the hot sauce) was getting some fresh air.

Though it was bitter cold, I managed to get some good shots, and my partner in crime, Chris Parent toughed the cold and got some really good stuff. Walking up near the library we came upon Jesse, who was feeding pigeons out of his hands.

We took a quick break at MacDonalds to warm up for a bit, and I managed to snap a quick shot of this gentleman with my 50mm.  I'm loving the shape of the bokeh, and the way it's rendered.

On the way back to the car we came across this poor fella hunkered down outside a cafe.  I felt pretty bad for him.  Hopefully his owner was quick inside the cafe and came out immediately after we left.

Overall it was a fairly productive day shooting, with lots of sights despite it being a bitter, frosty Sunday afternoon.  I'm hoping that with the longer days and spring thaw coming up I can get out and practice some more, and continue to improve.  In the meantime I will be shooting more studio stuff, so keep an eye out for that!

Rosy [Portrait]

I nearly ran out of time to get this shot.  Standing in front of about 80 Sackville Photo Club members, camera in hand, and doing my best to make an image was difficult, but very fun.

The setup is pretty simple: Softbox camera left and in front of Allie, feathered out to provide some nice, soft lighting, while the rear light is a bare flash camera right.  The simple setup is only half the story, because getting there was not without incident. 

I had 30 minutes to get this shot, and explain myself while I got there. While I shot, I had the photos coming up on the large projector behind me so that the  club could observe the changes in my setup as I went along. We explored an ambient solution (which was quickly ruled out), an on camera flash solution (the best option was bouncing the light off of a reflector above the camera, in my opinion), and finally an off-camera flash solution.

I deliberately made some mistakes along the way to help show the club what goes into the process of making one of these projects come together.  Allie was a superstar, she barely batted an eye when she saw how many people there were and performed expertly.  

I was using two flashes, and the softbox mounted flash was working great the entire time. No issues.  The rear light was intended to be a beauty dish for that nice wrapping quality of light, but the dish seemed to be blocking the light from ever reaching the sensor on the flash.  My radio trigger seemed to give up halfway through so I swapped it out.  Eventually, I just took the dish off, lowered the flash power and carried on.  

Given a little more time, we could probably have pushed the image further, with more rose petals, more roses or a different and more dynamic pose.  I also could have fine tuned the light a bit more, but for now I am pretty pleased with what we got under these conditions.  

Edit: Thank you Angie Burgess for sending along some action photos! I'm not sure how you timed it so that the light was going off, but well done!

Daily Photo: 24/10/2013 - Relax [Street]

Technical Information:
Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 24-70 f/2.8L
ISO400, f/5.6 1/2000s
Location: Halifax
Process: Apple Aperture for RAW processing and Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 for B+W Conversion

I thoroughly enjoy this image.  I love the repetition patterns in the two people laying down and the lamp posts in the background.  The feeling in the image really solidifies it for me though; I imagine the wonderful moment when you exhale after a long, deep breath and for some reason, all your stresses, issues and concerns seep out of you, and you are free.