Wednesday, July 7, 2021
You’ve probably already seen the thumbnail for this entry and have probably wondered if you are in the right place. The picture you saw was neither landscape nor decay, and wasn’t even rural in nature. You double checked to make sure that you were at www.gkiserphotography.com and confirmed that you were. Wondering what was going on, you clicked the link and here you are. I assure you, this is the right place, and I’m glad to see you again. I’m sure you have already figured out that this isn’t going to be a normal blog entry, but then again, you are probably used to that after a day of doing still life photography in the studio as well as doing some smoke photography shortly after that. I’ve been really pushing myself lately to experiment with other forms of photography just to see what I’m capable of.
My most recent venture has been to delve into some people photography which is something that might seem totally foreign to my skillset. It really kind of is and requires a lot different approach to the image than what I am used to. It is something that I have done periodically over the years at the prodding of my Photo Wench (aka Toni, my wife). She actually hired me to do family portraits for her and the kids before we started dating. It was the first time I had taken “professional” pictures of people and it was a big learning experience for me. After that, she roped me into doing some family portraits for folks that she worked with. I was actually starting to have a little bit of fun with it and found that I was learning more and more about how people photography worked. I was far from proficient with it, and what made things much worse was the way that I was handling the business aspect of it.
My idea for how to do things was to do a basic sitting fee for the shoot and then let the client choose what sizes of what pictures to get. I would then work out the pricing based on the print order. Yeah, that was cumbersome, but the worst part about it was that more than once I would send out the proofs from the shoot which were watermarked across the front for client review. I would hear nothing back from them about any orders, but would find them all over social media with the watermark still brightly visible across the face of the picture. Essentially, I was providing digital images for the price of a sitting fee which was pretty cheap. My editing time was never taken into consideration when setting the sitting fee so I lost a ton of time (money) from that approach. After the second time of this happening, I had had enough. I stopped doing people pictures and decided that if it moved or talked I would not put it in front of my camera. For years that worked out great and I never had any problems from my subjects because I had no expectations of them, and they had no expectations from me.
Fast forward a decade or more down the road and once again I had a request to do people pictures that I had a hard time saying no to. This time, it was Photo Wench, Jr, (aka my middle daughter Lexi) who was set to graduate ECU with a double degree in Spanish and Chemistry. I barely understood Chemistry in school, I can’t imagine learning it in another language….but that is another story. Anyway, she wanted some graduation pictures done and despite me telling her that I was a terrible choice for the gig, she insisted and said that she trusted that I would do a good job. Yeah, I know that real reason was I was a photographer that would work for free, but it did give me an opportunity to see what I could do with the assignment.
Toni and I set out to spend the day with her on campus at ECU at places that she had scoped out. I had my gear along with my single speedlite and reflector. These are two pieces of equipment that I really hadn’t used since I bought them back in 2013. Honestly, I didn’t even know how to work the flash and had to teach myself how it worked before going out to do the photo shoot. In addition to learning the flash, I had to teach myself auto focus.
Stop laughing at me!!!!!
Yes, I had no idea how to use auto focus because I had been manually focusing my camera for as long as I could remember. I knew enough to know that the auto focus would not pick the right area to focus on unless I told it where to focus. I figured out how to select the focus point and then set my camera up to back button focus which finally made sense to me after thinking about the process of getting the picture set up. To take a bit of the worry out of my head I moved the camera out of manual exposure mode which I was very familiar with and moved it into aperture priority which was a first for me. I ended up going through the whole day with the camera aperture set to f/2.8 which was wide open for the lenses that I was using. I watched the shutter speed and adjusted the ISO accordingly.
At the end of the day, I had a ton of pictures and really felt like I had blown the focus in every one of them. It was just not natural for me to run and gun like this while composing on the fly and getting focus locked so quickly. It was all a huge learning experience and by the end of the day I was exhausted. I spent the next day…like the full day editing pictures and ended up between 20 and 30 shots that I felt were really good. This was the second part of my learning experience for this shoot as I had never edited people pictures through Lightroom. There is a completely different way to do this editing process and I pretty much figured it out as I went along. The end results had me really stoked and I was happy that I had been roped into shoot even though I had been dreading it all the way up to the last frame captured.
Just a short time after getting done with Lexi’s shoot, I was approached by a coworker from the Police Department who had a daughter about to graduate High School. He wanted to get some senior pictures done for her and he thought of me. Well, when he asked I told him that at this point I was just dabbling in people pictures and wasn’t exactly a top tier photographer of those who walked and talked. I knew that he had contact with several other officers that specifically did people pictures, and one CSI that did as many living subjects as dead ones. With that knowledge, I gave him my one and only package deal which I had at the time. I had decided after Lexi’s shoot that I was going to change how I did business for simplicity on both sides of the transaction. I had a single price now for about an hour or so worth of shooting with at least 10 edited images. Instead of waiting for a print order to pop up and having to deal with that, I changed my format to a digital one. That was what I had done with Lexi which gave her web quality images that she could share on any social media platform, or use for any web based platform. I would also include full resolution images in two different formats which were suitable for making prints of. While I would be happy to do prints off of the files, the idea was to license the images to the client so that they could take them wherever they wanted to have prints done in whatever package combination they chose. This seems to be the way that portrait photographers are working these days and it really makes sense. I don’t think anyone is interested in wallet sized pictures, or 5×7″ pictures to go up on Granny’s mantle. Nope, everyone wants to be able to snapchat or twitter their pictures now and that works great for me.
I had given the client the rundown of how I did business and gave him my price. I figured that it would be too high and he would go with a more seasoned people photographer. Well, the next day he called back and said that he had talked it over with his wife and they were going to go with my bid. OK, that was a bit of a surprise and I wasn’t all that sure how it was going to go. I knew that the location was going to be somewhere with murals and we ended up deciding on downtown Greensboro which had some as well as other interesting elements to add to the photos. The only thing that I was reasonably comfortable with was that it was another outdoor shoot using natural light.
I was still much more comfortable using that natural light because I really didn’t understand much about flash photography except how to add a bit of fill light with the flash mounted to the hotshoe. By working outside, I would be able to harness my understanding of how the sun worked and I was comfortable with that. I knew that I could hit the focus point often enough on the fly after Lexi’s shoot so that was less of a concern this time around. My main concern was going to be setting up the shot and getting poses and the environment right. It is all about picking and choosing what to pay attention to at this stage of the educational game.
My plan worked quite well and I had a lot of fun doing the shoot with Toni at my side doing the people interaction which she was so good at. The shoot went as scheduled and I had more than enough to guarantee that I had at least 10 images that were going to be keepers. When we wrapped it up, I still wasn’t convinced that I had all the technical parts in order. I had pretty much shot it the same as I did with Lexi’s shoot in aperture priority mode, auto focus, and played with the ISO to keep my shutter speed fast enough. My hope was that I would have a similar hit rate between the two shoots but I wasn’t sure. I waited to receive payment until I knew that the pictures were going to turn out good and that the clients would be happy with them. It was just what I felt was the right thing to do until I gained a bit more confidence in what I was doing.
Well, I spent the entire day the following day doing image edits and once again having a lot of fun. I edited the images pretty much the same as I had Lexi’s with a few exceptions that I had learned from that earlier experience. My hit rate was on par with the earlier shoot but I noticed that my focus was getting better the more I practiced. I was still shooting wide open which made focus a very tedious part of the process because the depth of field is so slim at f/2.8. I honestly can’t imagine shooting with an f/1.2 lens which will have the depth of field about as wide as an eyelash is long. Regardless, I was making it work and the edits were coming along quite nicely as well. The process was faster than my first attempt because I had a workflow figured out which worked for me. In the end, the clients were satisfied with the pictures and wanted a few more which were processed a bit less than the ones that I had sent them. I complied and did a handful of other images with just some basic processing which they liked. I was paid and that was that because unless they just wanted to go through me for prints, they had everything that they needed at this point. This was definitely a much better way of doing business than what I had done years ago.
After that shoot, I started to seriously consider opening up the doors to doing people photography, but was a little hesitant to put it out there like that. What Toni and I came up with was to “unofficially” offer portrait services. By that, I mean that I would rely on word of mouth advertising while not putting anything of substance out there about this type of photography. I was getting a lot of positive feedback from folks at work through Toni as I had already left by this point. With Winter coming, I doubted that I would be doing much if any portrait shoots and fully expected things to pick back up in the Spring.
With that in mind, I was seriously considering making the move to mirrorless which had the eye-AF feature that would track the eyes of the subject to make focusing on portraits so much easier for me. It was the biggest draw to getting a new camera body that I have ever really had. I’ve always said that there was no need to upgrade equipment unless your current gear wasn’t doing something that you needed it to do. This was one of those times when that one feature would make a world of difference in my photography. The problem was, I was needing to wait for the “professional” mirrorless body to be released, or I was going to have to jump the Canon ship in favor of the Sony line.
Well, as all of this was coming to a head, COVID showed up and pretty much assured me that I wasn’t going to be getting any portrait shoots any time in the near future. With that aspect of my photography placed on the back burner, the need for a mirrorless system dwindled rather quickly and my focus (yeah, that was an accidental pun) drifted from portraiture back to my landscape and decay roots. I even upgraded to a higher resolution DSLR instead of going for the higher resolution mirrorless which saved me a ton of money and allowed me to keep my current lenses. Things were all back to normal for my photography and I pretty much stopped worrying about doing people pictures once again.
Things were clicking along just great for my photography and I was fully involved in print sales and doing workshops which was all part of the vision I had for my photography when I set out to make it my full time career. I really wasn’t giving much thought to doing people photography, but still had an interest in it to a point. I did like the editing techniques that were used with it and I liked the challenge of learning new things. I had been toying with the idea of doing a photo session with my Photo Wench, but had been reluctant to actually make it happen since she is very critical of herself and I didn’t both of us looking at her photographs in a critical manner. However, she got the nerve up to model for me one afternoon and we went out in the yard to get some pictures. It was the most stressful session I had done to date which was odd. There was no pressure from a client here and I didn’t need to produce images that were any sort of way. It should have been just a fun series of images, but I drained myself working through it all trying to create images that we both would like. I did see some areas that I needed improvement in and I looked at the whole session as a chance to see where I was weakest at. I was starting to miss the focus at the longer focal lengths which showed up as I was using the 70-200mm lens more for this shoot than any other. I was having a hard time communicating what I was wanting her to do in front of the camera which had been a known issue. This is where she had come in great with my other photoshoots since she would know what to say to get the subject in the right place for me to get the picture. It really was a team effort. With her out of the equation, I was a little lost…OK, I was a lot lost.
The pictures came out fair and I did learn a lot about using existing light in creative ways which was a really cool aspect of this shoot. I also realized just how tricky the focus gets with a long lens and a narrow depth of field. I wasn’t quite ready to take this show on the road just yet and that was valuable information. It was also a good thing that I hadn’t marketed myself as a people photographer. The word of mouth had undoubtedly died off after a year of nationwide lockdown and fear of the cooties.
Well, I might have spoken too soon as I got an email from an acquaintance from back in the days as an officer. She was looking for some professional pictures to be shot for a campaign that she was going to be undertaking in the near future. I battled with myself over how to reply to this one. I knew that I had some experience as a portrait photographer, but I also knew that I had some serious limitations in what I could accomplish both from skill levels as well as equipment levels. It was the first one that really bothered me as having the skills can overcome equipment shortcomings. I informed her that I was a natural light landscape and decay photographer and that I just dabbled in people pictures. That didn’t seem to scare her and she was only needing a couple of pictures for her campaign. I went ahead and agreed to help her out with this and told her my standard price. I offered to reduce it since she was just wanting a single photograph, but the caveat was she was located on the far side of Greensboro and it would take a good amount of driving to get out there to her. I offered to have her come out here, but it made more sense to have her in a place that she was comfortable and since I didn’t have a proper studio set up anyway, I wasn’t really going to be missing anything.
The plan was to do a pose outside and one inside. Knowing that I was going to be working inside, I knew that I was going to have to use a flash and it was going to be my primary light source and not just fill light or a catch light. This was going to be something that I was going to have to get proficient on rather quickly. I was also going to have to learn to use the flash off camera using a trigger in the hotshoe. Keep in mind I am not set up for any form of studio work at this point and I knew that I was going to need to mount the flash somehow. I decided to give up my tripod and shoot handheld which was my preferred method for people photography. That would allow me to repurpose my beefy tripod as a light stand for my speedlite. Yeah, it was an engineered solution, but it worked and gave me the flexibility on where to put the light. I spent about a week solid watching lighting videos and how to make use of a single light for a portrait. I had no light modifiers except for the 5-in-1 reflector which had a reflector panel as well as a diffuser panel. I learned how to use both of those with a single flash and figured that I could make it work quite nicely once I started to shoot indoors.
We got a date scheduled and I packed up my gear along with the Photo Wench and off we went. When we arrived, we unloaded everything which was two different camera bags, a large reflector bag and my tripod. We did the outside shoot first which was rough because there was really nothing to put behind her which worked for the theme that we were after. The lighting wasn’t great either, and to make matters worse, I was having focusing issues once again with the long lens. My shutter speed also was more problematic than I had thought because while the images looked sharp in the LCD, they were much softer than I would have liked due to camera shake. Not being all that happy with the setting we were shooting in, we moved inside the house for those shots. After all of the learning that I had been doing with lighting, I was all set to set the flash up as a diffused light source with the mounted flash shooting through the deflector. It was the best option for the lighting that I had available.
When we got inside I ran into a problem that I really hadn’t considered. She was having some renovations done to the interior of the house which limited our ability to get a shot set up. She had picked out an area in the foyer with a nice wooden partition that she wanted to use as a backdrop. There was a nice chair there as well which she wanted to use as a prop. OK, I can deal with that, but I had just about double the width of a hallway to set up in, and I was going to be shooting through an oversized doorway. To say that the area was cramped would be an understatement. However, since I am the professional here, I had to think quick and make due with what I had to work with. The room was dimly lit and was a dark wood tone from floor to ceiling. There would be no bounce light here at all. I still wanted to use my diffuser panel for the flash to avoid the harsh lighting on her face so I set the flash up on my admittedly jerry-rigged light stand and propped the diffuser up on a cabinet between the flash and the subject. I started to make some test shots with my 24-70mm lens which was set to around 40mm due to the distance I was from her. The test shots kept getting a really bad shadow opposite of the light because of the close proximity to the background and to the light source. I hated that harsh shadow so I had to figure out a way around that. I needed some sort of fill light, but I only had the one light. My only option was to ditch the diffuser and convert it back over to a reflector which Toni then had to hold to bounce the light back on the side of her face. In an ideal world, a white wall would have done this for me, but this was not ideal. I kept working with the power of the light and the aim of it so that I could get the softest light possible while still getting it to bounce back onto her face.
It took forever, but I finally got the formula down reasonably well. The entire time I was making an Amazon list in my head of things that I had to have in order to make this work. Of course, even with Prime, I wasn’t going to get these things delivered in an hour or less. One thing was plain to see though, I didn’t have the skill needed to overcome this lighting nightmare, and honestly wasn’t sure if equipment would solve it either. It was probably one of those worst case scenarios and here I was a newbie portrait photographer working through it. The picture you see above was the best from the series and I learned a lot from it. First and foremost, I learned that my shutter speeds outside had not been near quick enough to get tack sharp focus on the eyes. Working at 1/160th of a second inside with the flash I was getting consistently better focus and sharpness than I ever had outside. Second of all, I learned that by controlling the lighting, I could create wildly different styles for my pictures. Along that line, I learned that a single off camera flash wasn’t going to serve me well in the long term, nor was my limited collection of lighting modifiers. The third thing that I learned was that I needed room to get a satisfying result when it came to portraiture. I could work in close quarters, but it didn’t give me room for any lighting options at all. Finally, I realized that I could never rely on exiting scenery for backdrops and needed to be able to provide my own. In short, if I was going to proceed with portrait work, I was going to have to move out of the realm of the photographer’s starter kit and get something a little more serious.
After getting all of the images finished up from this last shoot and delivered to the client, I started to put more time into researching things beyond single light portraits and started to look into multiple light setups. I considered getting monolights, but those are expensive and generally heavy. They are just what a dedicated people photographer would use and offers a greater deal of flexibility over what I was currently using. However, I was looking at a huge chunk of money to invest just in light and knew that the modifiers would be a better use of my money in the long run since I was doing this as a side gig more or less. I knew that I needed a softbox of some sort and could use an umbrella and a reflector. I wanted something that would work with my existing speedlite as well as a dedicated strobe at some point in the future. The more I researched, the more I found that the Photek Softlighter was the way to go because it incorporated a shoot through umbrella with a black skin to use as a reflector as well as having a diffuser cover to put over the opening for use as a softbox. It was a jack of all trades and master of none in a way, but it would give me a great deal of flexibility in my portrait shoots. I also desperately needed a stand for the light. In order to get a second light in the mix, I went for the slightly smaller Canon speedlite which would work as a slave along with its bigger brother which I already owned. I added another umbrella to that light as well as a stand for larger groups, or objects. Remembering my need for a backdrop, I added a large pop up backdrop which would flip between gray and a greenish black. My research had shown me how to make my 5-in-1 reflector work as a black or white background so I had that under control. I later added two Strobistrips which would give me roughly six feet of strip light from my flashes for another project that I intend on working on with Toni in the near future. I added another stand to hold either the backdrop or a reflector which would give me the ability to run a two light setup along with a reflector for fill light which could be used instead of my voice activated lighting aid (aka, the Photo Wench). It was a lot of equipment and ran me right around $1000 to get what I felt was a good compromise in quality and price. It was an investment for sure and one that would require me to do quite a number of portrait shoots to even break even on, but it was what I needed if I was going to even remotely claim to be able to do portraits. I couldn’t rely on only doing outside sessions, and I had found that even outside was going to benefit from having some controlled light included.
Time went by and my new gear started to come in bit by bit. I realized that I had all of this and was still not booking any portrait shoots, and still hadn’t even put it out there that I did this type of photography. I could advertise and start booking, but I wasn’t sure that I was ready for that just yet. I could start to look at past requests for portrait shoots, but I realized that those had dropped off years ago when I was adamant that I was not going to do people photography any more. Well, there was one exception to that. I had delivered three large prints to a former coworker in High Point right around the time that I had done my last portrait shoot and we had talked about her needing professional headshots for her new job. She had asked me to do it and I said that I could, but informed her of my limitations since I was fresh off a very hard session that shook my confidence. I offered alternatives for her with folks that we had both worked with in the past and left it at that. Now that I had some dedicated gear coming in, I reached back out to her and said that I was better set up to do portraits now and would be more willing to take it on. Like most folks, she wasn’t excited about having her pictures done and said that the administration hadn’t mentioned needing portraits again and she wasn’t going to bring it up. That worked for me, but she said that she would keep me in mind if they did mention it.
That was the subject line to an email that received from my client. When I opened it up she let me know that the headshots had been requested once again and she was going to need my services. OK, that meant that it was time to put my camera where my mouth was. I had learned a great deal since my last portrait shoot thanks to the University of YouTube. Don’t laugh, I’m betting you have graduated from that same school for something that you are interested in at some point. Anyway, I doubled down on my learning curve and really started to pay attention to how the lights were set up. As we were working out the details, I kept in mind my need for space since that was a big part of my failure before and said that I could come to her place to do the pictures, or she could come out to Purlear. I was hoping that she would come out here because I have this huge studio space in my office at home which would give me more than enough room to set up. She offered to come out to me and I jumped at that chance and had the added benefit of being able to set up and break everything down without taking her time.
The night before the shoot, I got everything set up downstairs which included the pop up backdrop to the requested gray side and a stool to sit on. I fitted the camera with the 70-200mm lens set to 135mm with the lens hood affixed to reduce glare. I added a bare flash as a kick light behind and to the right of the stool figuring that her best side was going to be her left side as that was the part side of her hair. On that left side, I set up the softbox light roughly 45 degrees from the stool. Anticipating some shadows on the right side of her face, I set up a stand for my 5-in-1 reflector on the white side as a bounce surface of the main light. I had the Photo Wench come down and sit in the stool so I could dial in a rough exposure of the lights to get the effect that I was after. I made some adjustments to the positions and got the power ratios dialed in. I was satisfied with the setup and left it as it was until the following day when my client arrived.
This was the best part of shooting here at the studio. When she got here, I was ready to get everything dialed in for her without needing roughly 30 minutes to get set up. We had talked about wardrobe and she ended up going with two different tops so that she would have options. I surprised myself because after getting about a half dozen images done as tests to get the lights dialed in, I told her it was time for the money shot. I made a quick joke about the fact that I was a decay photographer, got the smile and nailed the shot. When it popped up on my LCD I loved it. Toni was doubtful that it was that good first off and said that I should keep going. I took the camera over to her and she said that I had nailed it. I showed it to the client and she even said that we were done. Well, that was fast!
That was the image that we took with the first outfit and then she went to change into her second outfit. I di a little bit of adjustments to the lights to get a bit softer look with the kick light and we went back into the groove. This time we were much looser and I tried for a bit different of a look for this next one. I had gone for a straight on shot of her face to fit with the aesthetic of the company after she showed me the collection of headshots which were on the website. They looked a bit static to me and while I stuck with that look through both outfits, I ended the session up with having her look over my right shoulder. I got her smiling and nailed the shot which was the second image of the second outfit that I loved. I had only shot about four more frames with the second outfit after getting the lights dialed back in and we looked them over and we agreed that it was the one with her looking off to the side which was the best one to go with.
I had less than 25 frames shot for two outfits and my client had decided on three images that she liked the best. One of these was a test shot where I was just using the kick light to get the highlights in the hair right. It was an artsy looking shot and I was happy to do a light edit on it and send it with her. I told her that I would have the images edited and emailed to her by the time she got home. Sure enough, I had them uploaded and emailed about 10 minutes before I heard from her saying that she was back home. She loved the pictures as did I.
What I learned from this session was that even with a budget studio setup I could do very high quality work finally. I was able to put the post processing techniques that I had learned starting with Lexi’s shoot years ago to use here in a more subtle way and I was able to do just minimal edits to the image to get it right. I learned a lot from my first portrait session using off camera lighting in such a difficult setting and I was forced to understand how light works in order to make that session successful. Now that I had the room and the complete control of the lighting, I was able to put everything I knew to use and I was able to come away with some technically strong images this time.
Most important though, and the part of the equation that I couldn’t learn in the YouTube University was the part where I got the smile and directed the client as to what I needed as the photographer. From the beginning I had been relying on Toni to be the Photo Wench as she was the resident expert in people photography (and still is). She was quick to come in and direct leaving me to do what I do best and press the shutter. The hitch with that was we operated on two different timeframes. She would get the look and then I would have to catch up and get the picture. She never really knew what I was needing to do in order to be ready to get the shot and I would miss it more than she planned. Since I went into this shoot figuring that she was going to be upstairs doing her schoolwork I had been planning on doing the necessary interactions that I should have been doing all along. She is still better at it than me, but I had to take that responsibility on because I knew how to time everything. I knew that I had to build the shot and get the focus locked before I built the expression. By the time the expression happened, I was ready to hit the button. In all of the previous times, I would be getting the shot set up while Toni was building the expression and I just hoped I got there before she did so I could capture the moment. I wasn’t nearly that fast more often than I was which was my fault.
This was the first portrait shoot I’ve done in all the time being a photographer when it all just came together for me. The technical, the creative, and the human aspects all jived together and the shoot took maybe 45 minutes with the outfit change. It was enjoyable from start to finish and it was the first time that I’ve been able to use the studio space here at the office for what I had actually intended for when we bought the house last year. Am I ready to hang my shingle as a portrait photographer…not necessarily. I still need more experience, but if today’s shoot is any indication, I can actually do this form of photography much better than I had thought I could.
I’ve got three package deals that I’ve figured out prices of now to replace my one size fits all pricing which I had been using before. The pricing is still being worked on, but the packages are pretty well put together now. I’m still dealing with mostly digital images for simplicity and only my top tier package will include a physical print. If you are interested in a session with me, I would love to discuss the options with you and see if I’m the right photographer for your needs. Since I am still working out the kinks, I will be more inclined to work with you on pricing at this point which is a bonus for you.
I do hope that you enjoyed this “kind-of trek”. I debated on doing a blog about it since it is not really in my normal wheelhouse. Typically I don’t talk about client shoots here in the blog, but since I have been getting a bit more serious about this aspect of photography I wanted to have something written down as a journal entry of sorts and something that I can refer back to in months or years to see how I really got rolling with people photography….if I actually do. At this point, I’m just looking for a bit more practice in different situations and I’ll go public with the service….or at least a bit more formal than just a blog entry.
Until next time….