We can discuss technique, f-stops and lighting all day but in the end a portrait is still about the subject, the human element. Our job as photographers is to help the viewer connect with the subject, to tell his or her story.
Those were some of the thoughts that went through my mind going into this shoot of a grandfather and granddaughter (my dad and the little muppet). For a shot like this you want the light to get out of the way, or at least I do, I don’t want to notice the light first and the subject(s) second. The end result is a shot that I actually like quite a lot, it’s a shot that looks like it could have been taken by someone just walking into the room, seeing them sitting there and going click. However, you might notice that there’s a certain crispness to the scene that gives us a hint that there might be something more going on.
The fact is that there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye here, a few things of which were decided by the location and time constraint for the shoot. We were leaving to catch the train back home pretty soon so the shoot needed to happen now and I had already decided on the location (the sofa) the day before. First order of business was to move the table in front of the sofa – it didn’t add anything and just served to get in the way. I don’t remember where I got it from but there’s a quote somewhere to the effect that on location portraits is mostly about moving furniture – I can see how that’s true.
Secondly, and this is the part that was influenced by the time for the shoot, I needed to determine the ambient levels. Now, you might be wondering why I didn’t just shoot this with available light and here’s the explanation. The sun was coming in mostly from the window behind the sofa and, to a much lesser extent, a window just out of frame to camera right. That meant that the scene would be backlit and the window would be completely overblown, which wasn’t the look I was going for. So I set an exposure that kept the window bright but still retained some detail in the blinds covering it. That left most of the room almost black.
Time to light my subjects (and the room). Why not just turn on the lamp? …shoo, go away you, repent and only return after you’ve seen the light. As I was saying, time to light stuff. Unfortunately I couldn’t get my key light exactly where I wanted it, which was dead center above and in front of my subjects. The reason being that my VAL was too short. So instead the key light is coming in from above and slightly camera left. That’s also the reason the shot is cropped as it is, I had to avoid getting the VAL in frame. I do believe it would have looked even better if I could have gotten the sofa centered in the frame and the light centered on the subjects but there was nothing that could be done. This is also an old house so the ceiling is rather low. What you see in the final crop is pretty much as wide I could get on all sides without including stuff that shouldn’t be in the frame.
The light used for key was a LP160 in umbrella. The reason for an umbrella was that I needed the light to spread and light the whole room (that and the fact that it was all I had). There’s also some CTO on the flash, maybe 1/4, to warm things up a bit. This is a warm scene and I wanted the light to reflect that. So in addition to the CTO on the key light I used a trigrip with gold cover as fill light. It’s located on the floor just in front of the camera and has a LP160 firing into it. The resulting light doesn’t draw attention to itself but still provides warmth for the whole scene, makes sure there’s no harsh contrast and helps give things some shape. It’s not a masterpiece but it’s a snap I’m happy with.
Next time I’ll also try to remember to check my subject’s pants…